Shoots From The Hip, Hip When He Shoots (Michael Ritchie)

The 1970’s in American cinema is quite rightly regarded as a decade of great creativity. Directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick & others, who had initially worked within the limitations of studio control, matured & flourished as they enjoyed greater independence. They inspired & were joined by the younger “movie brats” Coppola, Cimino, Lucas, Spielberg & Scorsese. It’s a list, a long one, I’ve not mentioned some of my & your favourites & I’m about to add Michael Ritchie. merited by an impressive run of films which still provoke & entertain & are always welcome when they come around on the TV.

 

Image result for downhill racer movie michael ritchieAfter Harvard Ritchie served his directorial apprenticeship on successful shows like “Dr Kildare”, “The Big Valley” & a single episode of “The Man From UNCLE”.  He directed 11 installments of “Run For Your Life”, a series starring Ben Gazzara created by the same crew who made “The Fugitive” (now that sounds good). His debut feature film, “Downhill Racer” (1969), hit cinemas just two weeks after “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” had become the current rage, the highest grossing film of the year & made Robert Redford a major star. In “Downhill Racer” Redford is matched with Gene Hackman, not yet as recognisable as he was to become, who had made a big impression in 1967’s “Bonnie & Clyde”

 

The film is a sharp, succinct commentary on competition & success set in the world of Alpine skiing. Redford’s Olympic hopeful is talented, narcissistic & arrogant, he clashes with the pragmatic, angry (you’ve seen Gene act) coach Hackman. The spare semi-documentary feel, Ritchie hired Ken Loach’s cinematographer & sound man, & the excellently shot race scenes made “Downhill Racer” a pretty good sports movie (it’s not really about sport) & a distinctive, well-received debut for Ritchie. His next two films, released in 1972, featured the same actors.

 

 

Image result for prime cut movieFirst up was “Prime Cut” which matched Lee Marvin (Devlin),  a hitman with a heart, against Hackman (Mary Ann), a slaughterhouse owner with a sideline in slavery. Devlin is sent  to the Kansas prairies by the Chicago Mob after Mary Ann had made mincemeat & then sausages of the previous man for the job. This bootleg butchery is shown in Ritchie’s stylish opening sequence. “Prime Cut” is an amoral, violent, entertaining action film. Marvin is a man with a mission, not to be distracted by Hackman’s moustache-twirling bad guy or young orphan Poppy (Sissy Spacek). There’s a nod to Hitchcock with a combine harvester chase through a cornfield. Spoiler alert…the people get away, a car gets killed.

 

The Midwest mayhem of “Prime Cut” has fine performances from its two stars, memorable set pieces & pulpy dialogue. 1972 was a big year for crime thrillers. There’s a built-to-last solidity about “The Godfather”, “The Getaway” & “Deliverance”. Michael Ritchie’s other film from that year effectively caught the mood of the times & can be considered one of the beat films of a very good year.

 

Robert Redford was 32 when he appeared in “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” (1969), a breakthrough role. He managed his position as a new Hollywood star very cannily & in 1972 starred in 3 films where he turned up, looked handsome & displayed his acting chops. “The Hot Rock” is a clever heist movie, the one about the mountain man “Jeremiah Johnson” was a big hit. He was very involved in the production of “The Candidate”, his second hook up with Michael Ritchie, as cynical as a political movie needed to be in 1972, the year that Richard Nixon was re-elected President by a landslide.

 

 

Image result for the candidate movieSo, Bill McKay (Redford) an idealistic lawyer, son of a former Democratic governor, runs for the US Senate. The deal is that he can’t win so he can speak his mind. McKay is telegenic & a moderation of his message brings an upswing in the polls. In fact the less he says the more likely an upset becomes. Redford hits the spot as the bemused McKay (vote once, vote twice) at the mercy of a pair of jaundiced political pros played by the outstanding Peter Boyle & Allen Garfield. The script by Jeremy Larner, a former speechwriter for Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. These days we know that all politicians are lower than whale shit. TV series like “The Thick of It”, “Veep” & “House of Cards” entertain while confirming that an absence of conscience is a political asset. “The Candidate” hit the bullseye with its points about media influence on the election process, reducing debate to non-sequitur soundbites, encouraging, with the complicity of those chasing votes, the generic rather than the specific. “The Candidate” did this in 1972…it was a warning.

 

Related image Ritchie’s position as a leading cinematic satirist was consolidated with “Smile” (1975), a faux documentary about a teenage beauty pageant, another riff on the failure of American success. It may seem an easy target now but this dark, very funny film, with an  ensemble cast lead by Bruce Dern, retains an affection & consideration for the participants alongside the mockery & cynicism. Satire was quite the thing in 1975, post-Watergate, pre-Bicentennial. Altman’s “Nashville” & Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” may have had bigger budgets & more starpower but “Smile” catches the signs of the times just as well as these higher profile movies.

 

 

Image result for tatum o'neal bad news bearsI keep telling the young folk that they should watch the films of the great comedy actor Walter Matthau but he never played a Superhero so they don’t bother. “Whiplash Willie Gingrich (“The Fortune Cookie”), Oscar Madison (“The Odd Couple”) & Walter Burns (“The Front Page”) are wonderful characters, all lugubrious & anti-social (you’d like him), all in association with Jack Lemmon. I’m not forgetting “Charlie Varrick”. In 1975 Matthau traded insults, written by Neil Simon, with George Burns in “The Sunshine Boys” & was nominated for an Academy award. For his next film he hooked up with Michael Ritchie & it was time to meet Morris Buttermaker.

 

“The Bad News Bears” (1976) is not just a likeable film, it’s absolutely lovable. Buttermaker, an alcoholic former minor league pitcher is hired to coach a Little League baseball team made up of the incompetent kids the others won’t play with. They lose their first game 26-0. He recruits his ex-girlfriend’s daughter (Tatum O’Neal), the best pitcher in town, & the local teenage hoodlum (Jackie Earle Haley, last seen as the villain in “The Tick”). Of course things can only get better & the Bears make the championship game. They don’t win but valuable lessons are learned. So far, so Disney. Did I mention the alcoholism or “the amusement value of hearing little kids cuss like Marines” (Time)?

 

Image result for bad news bearsIn Michael Ritchie’s capable hands “The Bad News Bears” skewers the notion of competition, fair play & success in American society & it’s as funny as heck. Matthau’s hangdog cynicism is magnificent. Tatum O’Neal had won a Best Actress for her only other film & here, demanding Buttermaker pays for ballet lessons in return for playing, a young girl approaching adolescence, you can see why. The group of outsider kids are beautifully played & portrayed. Everyone has a different favourite, Tanner, short-tempered & an imaginative vocabulary, Ahmad, a Black Muslim Hank Aaron fan, the shy, “booger-eating moron” Timmy, the two non-English speaking Mexican brothers & there’s more. It’s not the greatest film ever made but it’s probably the best one about kids’ sport. Man, if ever a movie is going to raise your mood it’s this one. Here’s the ending…

 

 

That’s a pretty good run of film form, “The Bad News Bears” was a box office success & Michael Ritchie was surely set for the big movies. His contemporaries were being given stupid amounts of money, enough to bankrupt studios, to realise their visions.  Ritchie went on to direct films that you’ve seen & that I like but it never really happened for him. I’m not sure why, maybe I’ll have worked it out before I get to do Part Two of this thing.

 

 

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Looking For Sugar (Soul July 1969)

After 6 weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B chart Marvin Gaye’s “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” was replaced by yet another #1 hit from the Tamla Motown stable. Junior Walker & the All Stars were the most old-school at the Detroit label, Walker’s raspy saxophone & throaty vocal interjections backed by that driving R&B beat always hit the spot. The rough edges were smoothed a little for “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)” & the group had their biggest hit since 1965’s “Shotgun”. The Top 10 was packed with great artists, James Brown, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder. Climbing up to #10 was something new by someone new, another hit out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

 

 

Image result for candi staton i'd rather be an old man's sweetheartAs a teenager Candi Staton toured & recorded with her sister in the Jewell Gospel Trio. Married with four children, it was 1968 before she was ready to begin her solo career. Singer Clarence Carter, well established in Muscle Shoals & who was to become her second husband, introduced Candi to FAME. The studio pulled out all the Funky stops & a run of R&B hits, many written by Carter & George Jackson, earned her the title of “The First Lady of Southern Soul”. “I’d Rather Be An Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than A Young Man’s Fool)” absolutely fizzes along & Candi could slow it down too. I definitely prefer her version of “Stand By Your Man” to Tammy Wynette’s original.

 

Related imageCandi moved to Warner Brothers in 1974. She stayed with producer Rick Hall for another LP before hooking up with Dave Crawford. Out of these sessions came “Young Hearts Run Free”, a #1 R&B hit, #2 in the UK, an enduring Disco smash. 1976 was the year that all my friends seemed to be getting married, the DJ spins “Young Hearts…”, everyone’s out on the floor & these are the good times. The Bee Gees’ “Nights On Broadway” returned Ms Staton to the UK Top 10 the following year. In 1991 she was back when a remix by the Source of “You Got The Love”, a great lost track, became a party anthem. Whether it was Soul, Disco, Gospel or Dance music, Candi’s strong recognisable vocals always delivered.

 

 

Image result for honey cone while you're out looking for sugarRising to #41 is another debut release, this time on a brand new label. By 1968 Pop’s greatest writing/production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland, had become dissatisfied with their position at Tamla Motown records. Responsible for over 20 #1 hits & countless other chart entries there’s not a chance that they saw all the royalties that they were due. The trio got themselves an office in downtown Detroit, converted a movie theatre into a studio & started Hot Wax records. The Honey Cone, a female trio, were the first act signed to the label & “While You’re Out Looking For Sugar” their first record. As you see from the above disc there’s no mention of H-D-H. Ongoing litigation, particularly with Jobete, Motown’s publishing company, meant that sole production credit was given to A&R man Ron Dunbar who shared the writing with “Edith Wayne”, an adopted pseudonym. No-one was fooled, take a listen to the track, that’s how a Holland-Dozier-Holland song goes.

 

 

Image result for honey coneHoney Cone, Carolyn Willis, Shelly Clark & Edna Wright, were brought to the Motor City from Los Angeles where Shelly had been an Ikette & Edna had sung with her sister Darlene Love, a favourite of Phil Spector. The record buying public took some time to become accustomed to this urgent, energetic sound that wasn’t Diana Ross & the Supremes, “While You’re Out…”, “Girls It Ain’t Easy”, “Take Me With You” & the Funktastic “When Will It End” all should have been bigger hits. It was “Want Ads” that finally sold a million in 1971 & succeeding records followed it into the Billboard Pop Top 30. Their star was on the wane by 1973 when Holland-Dozier-Holland proved to be better record men than label executives & Hot Wax folded due to financial problems. That was it for Honey Cone which was a pity as they were not only well-liked but were a worthy part of the American girl group lineage.

 

 

This is where I love being the boss of this thing. The chart was crammed with great songs worthy of our consideration but at #45 was a single by one of my all-time favourite vocalists. So, my final selection for July has to be Howard Tate.

 

Image result for howard tate these are the thingsTate, born in Georgia, raised in Philadelphia, sang Gospel then R&B with Garnett Mimms. His friend brought Howard along to writer/producer Jerry Ragovoy & between 1966-68 the pair created a blend of Tate’s emotional Bluesy lamentations with a sophisticated Uptown New York Soul that was as good as it gets. Jerry liked a touch of drama in his arrangements, with Howard a lighter touch allowed a great singer to shine, never more so than with “Get It While You Can”, the title track of the one LP they made together & a song that has been equalled but rarely bettered. “These Are the Things That Make Me Know You’re Gone” was recorded, without Ragovoy, for Lloyd Price’s Turntable label. (Lloyd had major hits in the 1950’s with songs that you’ve heard of. That’s his photo on the above disc, well it was his company!) The LP “Howard Tate’s Reaction” is not as strong as his previous output but Howard sings the all heck out of the songs & there are not too many of his records about.

 

By the late-70’s Howard had quit the music business & got a real job. A family tragedy led to addiction & homelessness. He was back on the right track when in 2001 a disc jockey discovered him & encouraged him to return to performing. That wonderful voice had endured & there was an acclaimed new LP made with his old producer. Other records followed, the old ones were re-released & the renewal of interest allowed Tate to sing for a new international audience. Plenty of artists, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder & others have covered his songs but, as Soul fans know, there ain’t nothing like the real thing & Howard Tate is certainly that.