The Good, The Bad, and the Screwy

Hail the Conquering Hero: written and directed by Preston Sturges; starring Eddie Bracken (Woodrow Truesmith), Ella Raines (Libby), Raymond Walburn (Mayor Noble), William Demarest (Sgt. Heppelfinger) and Franklin Pangborn (Committee Chairman) (1944): Writer-director Preston Sturges had a run of movies during World War Two that may be unparalleled for quantity and quality among Hollywood comedy directors. Six years, about a dozen movies, and then a tremendous drop-off in quality — but what a six years!

I’d rank Hail the Conquering Hero right up with Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story in Sturges’ brief but mighty All-Star run. Eddie Bracken plays a young man with a war hero father from WWI whom he never met and a reputation to live up to. But his hay fever gets him kicked out of the Marine Corps.

Ashamed, Bracken tells his mother he’s in the Marines anyway and hides out in San Diego for a year, until his kind act of buying a bunch of moneyless Marines drinks and food at a bar sets off a chain of events that leads his entire town to believe he’s a war hero. And then a bunch of people decide to run him against the venial Mayor they already have.

Bracken is good as a kid who’s pushed by events into worse and worse situations, and Sturges’s crack team of character actors — William Demarest as a sergeant who fought alongside Bracken’s father chief among them — are terrific as well. There’s a moral at the end, a surprisingly pointed one that probably wouldn’t make it into a Hollywood movie today. Throughout, the performances and the dialogue sparkle. Highly recommended.

Robocop 2: written by Frank Miller and Walon Green, based on characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; directed by Irvin Kershner; starring Peter Weller (Robocop/Alec Murphy), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Belinda Bauer (Dr. Juliette Faxx), Tom Noonan (Cain), Galyn Gorg (Angie), Gabriel Damon (Hob), and Dan O’Herlihy (The Old Man) (1990): There’s 25 minutes of good-to-great in Robocop 2 and about 75 minutes ranging from bad to embarrassingly racist, sexist, or just plain awful.

The movie features some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture. It’s truly astounding. Belinda Bauer and Galyn Gorg (!) are especially terrible as a mad scientist and a drug lord’s main squeeze, but there’s lots of other bad thespianism as well. The writing is intermittently dreadful, and the tone is so jarringly all over the place that the movie sometimes seems to have been made by three different groups. One group loves satire, another loves action, and the third keeps intruding with bits of mawkish sentimentality in inappropriate places.

But some of the satire is pretty good, especially that of corporate mores. Old Detroit is bankrupt! And its mayor is an unbelieveably awful Stepin Fetchit African-American who, in one of those mawkish moments, suddenly gives a rousing speech about community values before lapsing back into eye-popping a-scaredness. Ameliorating the racism is the basic fact that pretty much everyone in Robocop 2 is scum with the exception of most of the cops and a couple of other people. Otherwise, though, why Robocop bothers saving anyone is a question best left unasked.

Also, the movie looks like it was filmed on videotape for long stretches. It’s hard to believe that the director is Irvin Kershner, beloved director of The Empire Strikes Back, the best-looking of all the Star Wars films when it comes to cinematography. This film looks awful. It makes the intentionally cruddy looking They Live look like The Godfather by comparison.

The stop-motion stuff, though, is a lot of fun, and the design of Robocop 2, who is actually the antagonist as well as the title, is pretty keen. The two Robocops have a lengthy, enjoyable superhero battle that will probably cause you to wonder why the police don’t make their armor out of whatever Robocop 2’s wearing. He’s nigh-indestructible! I love stop-motion cyborgs punching each other! The battle is awesome!

Throughout, Peter Weller does his best to imbue Robocop with some semblance of character, much of it through body language rather than dialogue or facial movements (after all, with the helmet on, only Weller’s mouth is visible). He’s a trooper. As bad as much of it is, it’s still better than about 75% of the CGI-heavy superhero movies released with increasing frequency and decreasing effect (and affect) today. Not really recommended, but I’ll probably watch it again someday.

Beat the Devil: written by Truman Capote and John Huston, based on the novel by James Helvick; starring Humphrey Bogart (Billy Dannreuther), Gina Lollobrigida (Maria Dannreuther), Jennifer Jones (Mrs. Gwendolen Chelm), Edward Underdown (Harry Chelm), Robert Morley (Peterson) and Peter Lorre (Julius O’Hara) (1953): Oddball cult favourite that parodies movies like director John Huston’s own The Maltese Falcon. Apparently, few realized it was a parody at the time, so its purposeful aimlessness seemed instead like accidental plotlessness.

The whole thing features a gang of criminals looking to acquire mining rights for uranium in Africa through a certain amount of skullduggery and offscreen murder. They’ve retained scoundrel Bogart to help secure these rights once they reach Africa. But when the film begins, they’re stuck in Italy waiting for their ship’s engine to be repaired. An impoverished Brit pretending to be landed gentry attracts Bogart’s eye, as does his wife. And Bogart’s wife has eyes for the Brit.

And then…well, the plot-oriented parody pretty much centres on the fact that things remain completely stalled for the first hour of this 90-minute movie. And then they stall again on the cruise to Africa. And then the movie finishes in a rush.

One’s enjoyment of Beat the Devil will pretty much depend on how enjoyable one finds the actors (including long-time Bogart co-star Peter Lorre as a fugitive Nazi who’s adopted an Irish last name) and the dialogue, and, finally, how much one appreciates the structural parody of movies focused upon the acquisition of an object or piece of land by competing groups of crooks. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’d ever watch it again. Recommended.

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