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Austin Chronicle Video Reviews

By Jerry Renshaw

MARCH 13, 2000: 

The Boston Strangler

D: Richard Fleischer (1968); with Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman.

Mr. Majestyk

D: Richard Fleischer (1974); with Charles Bronson, Linda Cristal, Al Lettieri, Paul Koslo.

Mandingo, Fantastic Voyage, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Dr. Dolittle, Soylent Green, Red Sonja -- all familiar titles to modern moviegoers, and all in completely different genres. The man responsible for those films was director Richard Fleischer. The son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer, Richard Fleischer cut his teeth in Hollywood helming such airtight, economical film noirs as Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin. In time, the director pulled in assignments such as the excellent Compulsion (about the Sacco and Vanzetti case) and the aforementioned films. He's a director whose time has yet to come; though his varied film output defies pinning down a distinctive "Fleischer style," there's plenty to like over the course of his career. Directors like him were the bread and butter of Hollywood for decades.

In the early Sixties, 13 women allowed Albert De Salvo into their Boston homes only to be strangled by him. Even after panic had taken over the city and women were taking every precaution to avoid becoming his victims, the Boston Strangler continued to finesse his way into houses and apartments and do his grisly work. Fleischer's film takes a cold, detached approach to the story, adhering strictly to the facts (even the police's abortive attempt to bring in noted psychic Peter Hurkos) and portraying the murders in a set of chilling set-pieces. Fonda and Kennedy play Bottomley and DiNatale, the detectives who eventually brought De Salvo to ground through good police work and gut hunches; Curtis has hardly been better as the nondescript, everyman murderer. However, what could have been a routine police procedure is enlivened by some inventive direction on Richard Fleischer's part. A number of scenes use split-screen effects, and Fleischer plays with the structure of the film's flashbacks for the interrogation scenes. When family-man De Salvo describes working on his daughter's dollhouse on a certain day, the avuncular Bottomley looks over his shoulder as he fiddles with the toy in his recollection. De Salvo recalls driving around aimlessly on the day of JFK's assassination; Bottomley rides in the back seat of the Chevrolet with him, asking more questions the whole time. What could be an annoying gimmick in the hands of another director instead fits perfectly with the film's sober mood.

Screenwriter Edward Anhalt (Panic in the Streets, The Young Lions, Becket) did a fine job of probing the pathologies behind De Salvo's murder spree, as well as bringing a great deal of humanity to detectives Bottomley and DiNatale. This is a gritty, criminally underrated, true-crime drama, with innovations in editing and structure that would do well to be included in today's thrillers.

In Mr. Majestyk, Vince Majestyk (Bronson) absolutely has to get his watermelon crop in, come hell or high water, and nothing in the world is going to stop him. One day, Bobby Kopas (Koslo) shows up on the farm and attempts to force Majestyk to use his crew of winos rather than the hand-picked migrant labor that he employed. Instead, Majestyk takes the outclassed punk's shotgun away from him like a father taking away a misbehaving child's toy and sends him on his way with some sore testicles. Kopas swears out an assault complaint on Majestyk, and soon the melon grower finds himself in the county lockup. In jail, he meets hitman Renda (Lettieri), and the two regard each other with hostility and suspicion. In a segment worthy of action director John Frankenheimer, Renda's pals try to break him out of a prison bus in a street shootout. Instead, Majestyk commandeers the bus and drives off with Renda, with the intention of using him as a pawn to get the charges dropped on himself -- so he can get his melon crop in, of course. The situation turns over several times before the movie's conclusion, a spectacular chase scene that plays like a vintage commercial for Ford trucks as Majestyk's Old Yeller pickup goes flying, with him in the back clutching a 12-gauge and holding on for dear life. Mr. Majestyk's script was written by none other than Elmore Leonard himself, and the rhythms of his hard-bitten prose are clear throughout. As expected with a Leonard story, there are plenty of plot flip-flops and more than a little tongue-in-cheek humor (the stony Bronson even gets a few of the good lines). Lettieri was a large, ugly, intimidating man (recognizable from Peckinpah's The Getaway), a perfect bit of casting as the ruthless goon Renda. However, despite his size and bearing, Renda still received a royal ass-whupping or two from Majestyk. Koslo, on the other hand, made a career of playing exactly the type of wormy character that he portrayed in this movie -- tough-talking snotnoses with Jell-O for spines. A word of warning: Vegetarians and those with sensitive temperaments may be disturbed by the machine-gun slaughter of hundreds of defenseless watermelons in one of the movie's more sublime scenes. It's not great stuff, but in the same vein as Prime Cut, Mr. Majestyk is a fast-moving Seventies action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously and isn't above a blithely ridiculous plot device or two.


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