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DVD_MOCKUP

Hmm.  This is an odd one.

What we have for your consideration today falls very much under the header of a Something Weird 2-fer: a quirky subgenre vein of forgotten film Vinegar Syndrome hasn’t really tapped since the excellent early double feature The Lonely Sex / Anatomy of a Psycho.

This time around, though, we’re not quite playing in the same ballpark.  In place of oddball JD films cum noir epics, we get a pairing of one Year of the Yahooesque political commentary done in that cheesy 60’s American TV style and a fascinatingly grim no-budget curio of a gangster picture notable for its retroactive stunt casting.

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First up comes 1964’s The Candidate, featuring perpetual trash queen Mamie Van Doren (of Navy Vs. the Night Monsters and Las Vegas Hillbillys, looking quite Joanna Lumley-as-Patsy Stone here) and Ted Knight, sadly this time without Jm J. Bullock in tow to salvage or excuse Knight’s sub-Harvey Korman presence in the production.

Despite the miscasting of these two boobs in the leading roles, the film isn’t a complete loss – Van Doren is certainly at her peak, looking the best she ever would and acting about as slutty as she always was…just a bit more direct about it, if you can believe that.  Check out that ear biting and tongue action at about the 17 minute mark, and you’ll get the general idea.  If it wasn’t Van Doren we were talking about here, it would be quite surprising for the time period…

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Knight is…well, the same as he ever is, really.  The direction…or at least the storyboarding and lighting, are superlative, and we’ll touch on that in due course.  But the film itself…well…

You also get uptight Brit export June Wilkinson, who in real life seems to have been anything but, and who did far more entertaining drive in and sexploitation films than this in her career.  She really doesn’t add much to the proceedings, and in the grand scheme of things, you almost have to wonder why she’s even present in the film – it’s really Van Doren and Mason’s show (hang in there).

The film is more or less shot from the point of view of a closed room Senate Committee investigation, with the entire proceedings limited to a small investigative panel, plaintiffs Van Doren and Wilkinson, bailiff, DA and Van Doren’s lawyer (who looks and bears the fashion sense of Phyllis Diller!  Yeah, I want her on my side in court…).  That’s it – no witnesses, no audience, nothing.  Talk about low budget…

They’re reviewing her involvement with high level political candidate Ted Knight and his campaign manager Buddy Barker (the aforementioned and incredibly goofy Major Nelson type Eric Mason, who’s a bit hard to stomach as a player), and this provides both framing story and continual interruption of the proceedings throughout.

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In the end, while the committee seems to be investigating Knight’s campaign, it’s actually Mason who’s effectively on trial here, and it’s his story that the picture revolves around.  He knocks up a squeeze he meets at a party and forces her to get a backstreet abortion.  He sleeps with Van Doren (a lot).  He tries to convince Knight not to marry Wilkinson, who turns out to have a stag film past (making this discovery at the committee inquest causes the smitten Knight to have a heart attack on the spot).  Van Doren comes to comfort Mason, calls him a “cheap imitation of a human being” and the film ends.

No, there’s really not a hell of a lot going on here, nor any grand subtext – The Candidate endeavors to be something far grander than what it actually delivers.

The goofy brass driven score and sub-I Dream of Jeannie overblown acting styles of never-was actors like Knight, Wilkinson and Van Doren are too effusive, bombastic and in your face for the shadow lit Samuel Fulleresque style director Robert Angus (and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, of Night of the Hunter fame) seem to be shooting for.

Moreover, the omnipresent comedy feel suits the well shot, quite deliberately storyboarded visuals even less so – its obvious both director and DP are well above both material and cast, so one is forced to question why they chose to effectively slum it here.

The soundtrack is far too obvious, the acting too blustery for a thoughtful production, the names too “big” for a low budget sleeper.  It’s not all that exploitative, nor incredibly profound…but an interesting if somewhat uncomfortable oddity that falls somewhere between the cracks.

Honestly, unless you’ve got a big thing for early 60’s blondes, outside a brief but amusing twist party populated by old folks and a guy in a werewolf mask, there’s not all that much to recommend The Candidate – this would very much be the third feature or “also featuring” on a Something Weird DVD.

In other words, the film is the sort of curiosity that hangs mainly on the names involved and the fact that they did something slightly off kilter or a bit more salacious than what they’d later become known for.

It’s not all that bad, but certainly nothing to write home about.  And when it comes down to the nitty gritty, the somewhat damning fact of the matter is simply this: unless you’re hanging the entire affair on the strength of its visuals alone, Herschell Gordon Lewis handled very similar material in a far superior fashion.

So on to the second feature, Johnny Gunman from 1957.

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“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the tune he hears…however measured or far away.”

Starring quite an unusual leading man (Martin E. Brooks, better known as Rudy Wells from The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman series) and perennial TV bit player Woodrow Parfey, this is the only film ever directed by Art Ford, best remembered as host of the short lived New York Jazz Party show.

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“Angie used to say I was like a wild animal…like a tiger.”
“I feel so sorry for you, Johnny.  Because you are like a tiger, you’re brave, and you’re strong…but you’re not free, you’re trapped.  When a wild animal is trapped, it can’t be happy.”

With zero dollars in the kitty and overly bright 50’s TV lighting throughout, Johnny Gunman is just too cheap to fall under the usual noir umbrella – sort of, in a way, but nah, not quite.

That said, the film’s vintage gives it far more weight and authenticity than a mid 60s offering like The Candidate could ever possibly provide – it’s very much of its time, and practically a JD film (albeit one starring a guy very obviously in his 40’s, without a gang or stiff parental authority figures to rebel against).

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There’s a fairly slim, practically stagebound plot revolving around some internecene wrangling over who will take over as mob boss – Brooks (who turns out to be one hell of an actor – who knew?) or some William Bendix type with a punch perm (Parfey).  There’s smoky jazz club sequences, Edward Hopper style late night diner cum coffeehouses, a mirrored bar nightclub, rooftops and pavement and kids dancing in the streets.

It’s practically theater, but clearly shot on city streets and locations – a pure guerilla, zero dollar masterpiece.  Even the Lonely Sex wasn’t quite this good, and that had a timely and relevant message to offer – this one ain’t saying a damn thing.

What Ford’s film defines itself by is pure atmosphere and feel, jazz on film, in fact.  If it wasn’t so tightly scripted and well paced, I’d think it was completely improvised, it taps right into that zeitgeist.  With this profound a comprehension of what makes true art, is it really any surprise Ford came from the jazz scene?  The only shocker is that he didn’t have any more films in him…and that’s also the shame of it.

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Despite not having someone on the level of Stanley Cortez to light and block the thing, supposedly being filmed over the course of a single night (!) and being saddled with a crappy and rather generic title, Johnny Gunman just feels more right – while still neither fish nor fowl, this almost-noir, semi-JD small cast, limited setting NYC quickie should have been the “A” feature, not the bottom half.

Notably, Vinegar Syndrome appears to have realized this, by providing a reversible cover, each side giving prominence to the other film – because seeing The Candidate on the shelf would likely leave the collector scratching their heads and wondering why it’s even there.  And to toss this gem out for its rather sorry co-feature would be a damn shame.

There’s no failed attempt at comedy to kill it this time around, and Brooks acts circles around the schlubs strutting and fretting campily all over Cortez and Angus’ staging in The Candidate.

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Though Johnny Gunman was shot at likely a tenth the budget and an even smaller percentage of the time of The Candidate, this blows the top billed film out of the running like a nuclear bomb dropped on a clogged toilet.  All they needed was a plunger to drive the other feature from the viewers’ collective memories – a picture of this caliber obliterates any trace of the former entirely.

I highly recommend Johnny Gunman and…was there anything else on this disc?

Well, if there was, forget it, I’m sure it wasn’t worth discussing.

If you dig 50’s JD film, or your view of film noir is sufficiently expansive to accomodate an unusual if highly worthy outlier like Johnny Gunman, you really don’t want to pass on this one – rather iffy co-feature be damned.

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