Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You

Subtitled The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s, Charles Taylor's new book contains sharply-written essays on fourteen "B" classics from what he calls "the third--and, to date, last--great period in American movies." I'll just say upfront that any book that praises Walter Hill's under-appreciated Depressive-era drama Hard Times is going to get a good review from me.

In his introduction to these films, Taylor points out that, unlike the blockbusters that dominate today's screens, these 1970s pictures captured the "small towns, gas stations, and two-lane highways" (e.g., Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop) and the "seamy views of American cities" (e.g., Prime Cut, Hickey & Boggs). There's a genuine grittiness in these pictures, almost as if one can feel the grain on the film stock.

Lee Marvin in Prime Cut.
Taylor's best essays focus on movies featuring two of the most iconic stars of their era: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. In Prime Cut (1972), Marvin plays a Chicago mobster sent to the Midwest to settle a debt. The joke, notes Taylor, is that a "big-city mob enforcer is in much more danger in the Kansas City heartland than any Kansan would be in Chicago." The film's real villain is a slaughterhouse owner named "Mary Ann" (Gene Hackman), who sells women and makes sausage out of his enemies. Yet, these atrocities are performed against a backdrop of "county fairs...amber waves of grain, (and) white clapboard houses in the beautiful countryside." Prime Cut is not an easy film to watch, but Taylor makes a convincing case that it's a film true to its convictions and characters.

Bronson in Hard Times.
In Hard Times (1975), Charles Bronson plays a Depression-era drifter in New Orleans who earns money by participating in bareknuckle fights arranged by small-time hustler James Coburn. Taylor not only recognizes Hard Times as a quietly efficient "beautifully directed film," he also sings the praises of the underrated Charles Bronson. He notes: "Throughout his film career, Bronson was most at home in the realm of the stoic and the taciturn. But at least until the success of Death Wish trapped him in one vigilante role after another, he possessed an instinctive sense of how the camera magnifies gestures and changes of expression."

It's these insights that make Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You a quick, absorbing read. Some of the other films reviewed include: Foxy Brown and Coffy (a Pam Grier double-feature!), American Hot Wax, Ulzana's Raid, Winter Kills, and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s is 199 pages and contains no photos. It was published by Bloomsbury USA, which provided a courtesy copy for this review.


  1. Prime Cut's a dead-pan parody of American competition from the guy who directed Bad News Bears and The Candidate. A gangster film with no Italians.

  2. With the exception of Coffy, I have seen every movie that is mentioned in this review, and would pick any of them as better than any movie I've seen released in the last two years(although The Founder and The Nice Guys would fit-----they both seem like 70's movies). I'm astounded that Hard Times isn't better well known. It's easily in my top ten of the 70's list.

  3. I seen everyone of these films except for Hard Times which I will have to hunt down. The 70's is arguably my favorite decade with The 1950's close behind.

  4. You sold me! Even though I'm not familiar with the films mentioned in this review, it sounds like there is much to be learned about film in general from this book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  5. Definitely little known "B" films...most of those titles eluded me. But it's nice to see critics take the time to write essays about the unsung films of the 1970s, and if they are well-written then, of course, they'll introduce more people to the films themselves.

  6. This sounds like a fun book to peruse. I used to love going to the drive-in. And I always enjoyed watching Pam Grier!