Vintage Cable Box: “Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Extreme Cinema! “Go Ahead, Make My Day!”

Clinton “Clint” Eastwood Jr. (born May 31, 1930) is an American actor, filmmaker, musician, and political figure. After earning success in the Western TV series Rawhide, he rose to international fame with his role as the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of spaghetti Westerns during the 1960s, and as antihero cop Harry Callahan in the five Dirty Harry films throughout the 1970s and 1980s, which is what we’re going to talk about tonight.

I was thinking about how fortunate we are, and how lazy we are because of Blu Ray, because of 1080p or more, we have ultra 4k or higher, I’m told. This is why we don’t go to the movies anymore. We don’t rush out to see a movie anymore, because we’ve turned our living rooms into little movie theaters where we don’t have to be disturbed; that’s incredible to me. Remember how we were talking about the Gladiator transfer? About how it probably looked superior to when the movie came out? This Dirty Harry transfer – it’s not that I don’t think it was superior, I wouldn’t know, but I told you it looked “faithful” to the original movie, I suspect. I like that they didn’t try to bring up the brightness. Cinema was dark back in the day, it was dark and detailed, and I was hoping they didn’t have like a millenial do the transfer, screaming, “It’s too dark! Bring it up!” They stayed faithful to the original release. Good transfer.

This is where we introduce “Dirty” Harry Callahan; December 23rd (a Christmas movie), 1971 – directed by Don Siegel. Harry and Rita Fink created the character with John Milius, Dean Riesner, Terrence Malick, Clint Eastwood, and Joe Heims, and all of those writers contributed to the script.

Magnum Force was released two years later, Christmas Day of 1973, the first sequel to Dirty Harry. This is the first Dirty Harry movie I saw. I saw it a few weeks before Sudden Impact, which was about to premiere on cable television. I remember thinking it was one of the coolest movies I had ever seen up to that point. I really liked it. It was really well-made and I think superior to Dirty Harry, although I asked Bronwyn, and she said she preferred Dirty Harry of the first two movies. This is about a group of rookie motorcycle cops who serve as a vigilante death squad serving under Hal Holbrook.

The Enforcer, directed by James Fargo, written by Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner, came out December 22, 1976 – another Christmas movie, that’s threee movies in a row released around Christmas – does the Dirty Harry franchise strike as something festive? “Kids! Another Dirty Harry movies, let’s put a .44 Magnum on the tree this year!” So here we have an SLA-Patty Hearst-type group of revolutionaries. I messed up when I was watching the movie with Bronwyn, because I got it into my head Patty Duke was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army – Patty and her twin, can you imagine that? A hot dog makes her lose control. So, you have this psycho in the group, just a crazy-ass killing machine guy in the group, and they kill Harry’s partner, played by John Mitchum, who was in the first two movies. He dies, so Harry gets a new partner, played by Tyne Daly.

1983’s Sudden Impact, released on December 9th, was directed and produced by Clint Eastwood; the only Dirty Harry entry officially directed by Eastwood, though it’s rumored he helped direct Magnum Force because he had creative differences with Ted Post, and he might’ve assisted Buddy Van Horn directing The Dead Pool, but Van Horn was Clint’s good friend and works on every film Clint makes. This is still my personal favorite of the five. Mostly because we’re looking at the movie, the plot unfolding from the eyes of our heroine, who is really the bad guy when you think about it, right?

The Dead Pool came out in 1988, July 13th. I think there must’ve been issues with the production because I remember seeing trailers for the movie when I still living in Philadelphia, we moved up to New York City in February of 1988; perhaps they were gearing up for a Christmas, 1987 release (all of these Dirty Harry movies are Christmas movies) and they had issues in post-production, or it could’ve been related to issues with Eastwood’s former lover, Sondra Locke. Maybe Ratboy bankrupted Malpaso, who knows? The running time is 91 minutes, so I think some re-editing was done as well.

Written by David Lawler and Andrew La Ganke.
“Love Theme from Extreme Cinema” composed and performed by Alex Saltz.
Introduction written by Bronwyn Knox.
Narrator, “The Voice”: Valerie Sachs.
Artwork by Bronwyn Knox.
Head Title Washer: Ben Lauter.

Running Time: 1:35:13

Here’s a good overview of the Blu-Ray box set.

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100th Vintage Cable Box! Screwballs, 1983

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“We must!  We must!  We must develop our bust!  The bigger, the better!  The tighter the sweater!  The boys depends on us!”

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Screwballs, 1983 (Linda Shayne), Millennium

If I’m not mistaken, the original plan of my Vintage Cable Box series was to start with the quintessential teen sex comedy, Porky’s. Wes Craven’s passing the day before I started this enormous collection of essays forced me to put out Swamp Thing in tribute to a filmmaker I deeply respected. Screwballs heralds from this vast apocalyptic teenage wasteland of sex comedies, but with comparatively less respect and made with a lot less “sophistication.” If there is one item of ’80s movies I’ve always found curious, it was the retro-’50s look, feel, and sound, and Screwballs, which seems to be a period comedy of that time, has plenty of that attitude (perhaps because the filmmakers grew up in that time).

We’re privy to several “case files” of teenagers (dirty little boys) who got caught in comprising situations and are then forced into detention.  One kid (“kid” is stretching it because they all look like they’re in their late twenties) tries to play doctor with a bunch of girls in the infirmary.  Another kid is caught masturbating in the toilet.  Another kid likes to look up the cheerleaders’ skirts.  It’s not like we get a quasi-Breakfast Club set-up.  They’re a bunch of wankers and they seriously belong in detention, but the name of their high school is called Taft & Adams (or T & A for short, heh) so you can’t be too hard on them.

Taft & Adams is an institute of torture for young men.  The girls are gorgeous.  They have big  breasts, long legs, and short skirts.  They all speak in increasingly suggestive tones and double, triple, and quadruple entendre (if there are such things).  The four boys placed in detention (for fi-fi-fi-five days, according to a stuttering secretary) all share one common character trait: they want to get laid, and their object of desire is allegedly the most beautiful girl in the school, Purity Bush.  Is that her Christian name?

Screwballs is a series of embarrassing sexual episodes (with only the narrative thread of Purity Bush connecting anything together) ranging from the creepy upskirt surveys to girls thrusting asses in our faces to throbbing male erections under desks.  It is similar to Porky’s but with less care or consideration for their characters.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between a fight breaking out at a drive-in and the Pam Grier movie the kids are watching: The Arena, which depects a gladiator revolt.  The movie is surprisingly tame.  I don’t even think we see our first bare breasts until 40 minutes in – what a rip-off!  Anyway, if I understand the story correctly, the whole mad affair revolves around a strip bowling tournament.  Really?  Bowling and teen sex?

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After the “competition” (which results in another embarrassing sexual misadventure involving a bowling ball and a penis – you figure it out), we finish up what passes for a teen sex comedy with a trip to the local titty bar (uh-huh!) and a slow-motion shot of Purity Bush diving into a hot sausage with a knife and fork. We do finally get to see her boobs, but they’re not that great. Yep. That’s pretty much it. Now you don’t have to see the movie. You’re welcome!

Wow! According to calculations, this is my 100th official entry for Vintage Cable Box. It’s been a long, strange, crazy trip hasn’t it? Again, you’re welcome!

Sourced from the original 1984 Warner Bros “clamshell” VHS release. The movie continued to receive different format releases, and is available in Beta, DVD, and Blu Ray formats. As far as I can determine, it only received a laserdisc release in Hong Kong. The poorly-worded, bizarrely-constructed accompanying essay only perfunctorily addresses the narrative, and takes up a paragraph praising Roger Corman (through his later connection with writer Jim Wynorski). As far as I can tell, Corman had nothing to do with the making of Screwballs. The writer of the essay calls the four male leads the “Screwballs” – “Even in their quieter moments like during study hall or while relaxing, you’ll have to see to believe how the Screwballs manage to bring a new and incredible meaning to the expression “Gross me out!”

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.