Tim Buckley and Jean Renoir meet Beau Bridges in 1971’s ‘The Christian Licorice Store’

After The Monkees TV series ended, 33-year-old director James Frawley went to work on his very first motion picture. The Criterion-worthy Christian Licorice Store stars Beau Bridges as floppy hair, bushy-browed, tennis superstar Franklin Cane and follows the ups and downs of his turbulent Hollywood lifestyle. Inspired by the great French New Wave and Italian neorealists of the late 1950s and 1960s, the film sadly never reached an audience and was shelved by Cinema Center Films just after a few screenings in Boston and Greenwich Village in 1971.

Director James Frawley spoke with me over the phone from his retirement home just outside Palm Springs this week and we discussed the rarely seen film that is still near and dear to his heart. “I came to L.A. first as an actor in an improvisational group called The Premise which was Buck Henry, Ted Flicker, George Segal, and Joan Darling. So the introduction to directing was very improvisational one in which we had a great camera, great writers, terrific young guys, and I had two years of apprenticeship directing with The Monkees. So when I went to make The Christian Licorice Store we took a very improvisational approach to it.”

The story follows Beau Bridges success in the professional tennis world: competing for prize money, entertaining the press, and fielding endorsement offers by day. By night he attends superficial Hollywood parties where he meets love interest, photographer and socialite Cynthia Viestrom (played by Swedish actress and future James Bond girl Maud Adams). For the party scenes, Frawley called on favors from several friends to come in and play themselves as party goers. “The party is full of show business celebrities, producers, writers, psychiatrists, and different characters from Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. I pretty much just improvised the scene and then put it together in the editing room. But it really catches the flavor, I think very much of L.A. Everybody kind of agreed to do it, I looked at the list last night and it’s amazing, I mean Mike Medavoy for chrissakes, Howard Hesseman who’s a friend of mine that was in the second party, George Kirgo, Robert Kaufman, a lot of really amazing people. And it was fun, we did it in one night.” Director Monte Hellman of Two-Lane Blacktop and future Barney Miller creator Ted Flicker also make an appearance.

The Christian Licorice Store makes fun of the superficial showbiz side of Hollywood, while also painting a beautiful portrait of the city using incredible locations from William Pereira‘s LACMA and Theme Building, Johnie’s Coffee Shop, and up the Pacific Coast Highway to the scenic views of Soledad Canyon and Morro Rock. To add to the realism, Frawley used urban, guerrilla filmmaking to capture real L.A. pedestrians walking down the street, driving around, and going about their everyday business. “You put a camera out on a street and just shoot some stuff and just intercut it with the scenes just to get the flavor of L.A.” Then there are nighttime scenes in the film that perfectly capture the strange emptiness of the city after dark. “I love their kind of romantic ballet in the cars coming down the hill from the party. It was kind of a very romantic feeling I had about Los Angeles and, being a New Yorker, you know, the light, the romance, the sexuality. I love the architecture, I mean La La Land, the recent movie, is very much like that in terms of its appreciation of L.A.”

Frawley tells screenwriter Floyd Mutrix’s story using a very unconventional, avant-garde approach. “I’m a film buff and I grew up with European movies. I loved Godard, 400 Blows, Breathless, Fellini, all of the Italian realists. That was my education and my influence because it does have a very European feeling to it.” The director and screenwriter make many bold decisions, such as opening the film with the dramatic ending scene of the film, a gull-winged Mercedes-Benz wiping out in a tunnel alongside the PCH. Frawley accomplished this with a delicate style of filmmaking that does not spoil the entire movie. “I wanted to frame the film in a way so that you had a sense of foreboding that kind of holds over this whole movie. There’s kind of a sadness to the picture too, a sense of things are not going to turn out well here.” In yet another bold move, the opening credits don’t appear until nearly twelve minutes into the picture and are contained in the movie-within-the-movie when the party-goers are summoned to the screening room of the swanky, modern house.

It certainly helps to make a European influenced film in Hollywood when you have the approval and participation of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Executive producer Michael Laughlin was then married to the French movie star Leslie Caron, who knew Jean Renoir‘s family in France. They asked him if he would agree to make a cameo appearance in The Christian Licorice Store and surprisingly, he said yes… it would end up being the final feature film Renoir was ever involved in before his passing.

“There’s a lot of things I love about the movie, and there are some things that feel awkward because it’s a first film, but the presence of Jean Renoir in the movie is unbelievable. If the movie existed only for Jean Renoir it would be enough for me. A lot of this movie was about people saying yes when we asked them, ‘Would you do this?’ Because a lot of it was favors, and Jean Renoir was a favor, and he’s like Picasso, one of the great men of all time and a great filmmaker. And so we were allowed to be in his house for an afternoon, and again this is totally improvised. As we drove up the hill to his house and drove down afterward, you see those shots, and he talked about film, and he talked about Beau and Maud, and what he did so brilliantly, he talked about how attractive they were to one another in real life. He said, ‘You two could be lovers in real life’ which was wonderful because he acknowledged the fact that we were making a movie.”

More after the jump…

Posted by Doug Jones
09:50 am
The Big Ugly: Larry Peerce’s ‘The Incident’

It can just take one night to rattle and bone-break one’s entire perspective. It’s an intense if not outright harrowing thought, that your whole life could be upheaved into pure rubble in just a few hours. This is exactly what happens to a subway car full of people in the extremely underrated 1967 film, The Incident. Based on a 1963 DuPont Show of the Week movie, entitled Ride with Terror, The Incident is a cult film that has mysteriously languished, despite having an all star cast, a terrific soundtrack and being taut from the opening frame right down to the end credits.

Despite all of this, it remains unreleased on DVD and Blu Ray, with only a long out of print VHS and Laserdisc release, not to mention the occasional TV airing, to its credit. So why is a film this stellar still semi-obscure? Other than the lack of creative justice that has plagued the arts since the dawn of man, a lot of it could have something to do with the unrelenting grittiness that permeates the screen. This film reeks of the sweaty seediness of a warm New York evening in the late ‘60’s, with our two main anti-heroes, Joe (Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen), heading towards Times Square after an evening of pool playing and low rent thuggery. The stark black and white cinematography, courtesy of Gerald Hirschfield, who went on to work on Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, gives the film a documentary meets violent pulp novel feel. Everything looks beautiful in the ugliest of ways. In fact, the beauty of The Incident is its complete surrender to the ugliness of the human condition.

All of this is conveyed with our cast of characters, most of whom rank very high on the dysfunctional scale. There’s a working class married couple with child, trying to get to their home in Flushing, with the husband (played by Ed McMahon, in his best role ever, and yes, that includes his turn as a pimp in Slaughter’s Big Rip Off) constantly bitching about money and how he doesn’t want any more kids. Continuing the couple theme, there’s a young pair on a date, with the amorous mook badgering his pretty and hesitant date (a young and unrecognizable Donna Mills) into basically putting out. He’s borderline rapey and she ends up being insecure enough to put up with this horny bastard. (Note to our readers: remember that being alone is always preferable to being in the company of assholes. Always.) There’s another married couple, this time an older, Jewish one, made up of Sam (the legendary Jack Gilford) and Bertha (the equally legendary Thelma Ritter) Beckerman, who are constantly bickering over whether or not their son is a good boy or no-good-nik. Then there’s Harry (Mike Kellin) and Muriel (Jan Sterling) Purvis, a schoolteacher and his status hungry ice queen wife. Our last married couple to board is a young, attractive African American pair, including Joan (Ruby Dee), a peaceful activist and social worker and her boneheaded and overly aggressive husband, Arnold (Brock Peters), who tries to pick a fight with the ticket taker before getting on the subway.

The last pair is two young soldiers, Philip Carmatti (Robert Bannard) and our catalyst hailing from Oklahoma, Felix Teflinger (Beau Bridges). In addition to our pairs and families, there is also a recovering alcoholic trying to get his life back on track, a wino passed out on the subway and a lonely, repressed gay man. All of these people are about to have their lives changed forever when Joe and Artie get on board, making their grand entrance by being as loud and obnoxious as possible.

But what initially seems like two drunken clowns quickly turns sinister, when Joe and Artie start to systematically go to each person and break them down psychologically. They start off messing with the bum, threatening to give him a hot foot, when our recovering alcoholic, Douglas (Gary Merrill) steps in, making himself a target, leaving Joe to retort, “Is he a friend of yours, Mister?” It’s all downhill from there, with the two standouts being the scene where Joe sidles up next to Donna Mills and starts asking her date, ‘Hey Mack, what’s she like in the sack?” The guy, Tony (Victor Arnold), once full of dumb testosterone bravado, is now nervous and shaky, weakly defending her, stating that “she’s a good girl.” Musante, not missing one inch of a beat, eyes him up and down, asking, “If she’s a good girl, what’s she doing with youuuuu?” This culminates with Joe toying with her hair, while she looks frightened and her pussy boyfriend looks away, leading to the line, “Well honey, if you change your mind, look me up. Name’s Joe Ferrone. I’ll know what to do with you. I’LL KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOU.” This leaves Artie to respond, all wide eyed and brimming with sarcasm, “Woaaaah Joe!,” resulting with both of them laughing as another relationship is obliterated in the wake.

The second one and arguably the most harrowing is Joe’s confrontation with Arnold, whom up to that point, has been enjoying the ugly spectacle, almost drooling with the possibility of violence, while his poor wife looks on, horrified. When he engages Joe, saying “I’m with you guys,” the look on Musante’s face can only be described as shark like, with his dark eyes black and pinpoint predatory. You know this is not going to be pretty and indeed when Joe tells him that, “I wouldn’t be friends with you if you were the last man… want to know why? Cause I don’t like black.” It only gets worse from there with Arnold being internally ripped into two, especially once Artie starts harassing Joan, with her crying and pleading with her husband that it’s not worth it. The interesting thing is that it never gets directly physical. In fact, up until the very end, Joe and Artie are never overtly violent. Sure, they are not opposed to using their body language and borderline touching (slight shoving, small grabs, etc), but the biggest damage done is more emotional and mental.

The whole dynamic between Joe and Artie is very fascinating, bringing to mind another villainous and predatory pair from fiction, Dracula and Renfield. Musante is sinister and handsome, roaming around in a pair of stylish and wrinkled dress slacks, matching suit jacket and his dress shirt completely unbuttoned throughout the whole movie. Even though his character is one savvy sociopath, he is charismatic to the extent that you can’t take your eyes off of him anytime he is on screen. Artie, played perfectly by a very young Martin Sheen in his feature film debut, is manic eyed and following Joe’s lead like a crazed magnet. He might not be eating flies but he is the sidekick to Joe in every way. They both are looking for sick thrills, with the difference being that Artie, at his core, is goony while Joe is truly dangerous because he is intellectually on the ball. It is telling that when Felix finally gets fed up enough to actually take a stand, resulting with him beating the crap out of Joe, Artie doesn’t know what to do. It’s almost like he is frozen without his master. Of course, that leaves him with a slightly better excuse than the rest of the car, whom all just sit there, slack-jawed and powerless. As Felix slumps down, bleeding as his buddy finally goes over to check on him, there is the tangible disappointment in his eyes. With Felix, it was not necessarily Joe or Artie themselves that changed him for the worse, but the fact that a car full of people were too apathetic and weak to stand up for their fellow human. Losing faith is painful enough but when it is humanity itself that has let you down, there is no full recovery for that. Some scars never totally heal.

The Incident is one of the most perfect and certainly most cynical, bordering on nihilistic movies ever. The film is unwavering in its mirror to society, revealing the many cracks, pockmarks and bruises within the human condition. It also begs the question of not only why isn’t this film better known and out with a spiffy Criterion-type release, but why isn’t Tony Musante a bigger name? Because that man is absolute dynamite.


Posted by Heather Drain
10:24 pm