Monday, May 25, 2020

Neglected Gem Double Bill: Slither (1973) and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

James Caan and Peter Boyle in Slither (1973)

When those of us who lived through the great renaissance of American movies – that magical era that was roughly bounded by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at one end and Taxi Driver (1976) at the other – look back fondly on it, it’s not just the masterpieces that come to mind. After all, The Godfather I and II and The Conversation, The Wild Bunch, Cabaret, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville are as much in the DNA of American pictures as Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard or The Manchurian Candidate. What made the era unique, particularly the first half of the seventies, was the off-kilter, off-the-cuff sensibility that made going to movies, including many small ones that never really caught on and have been buried by the passing decades, a continually surprising and inspiriting experience. Many of these films seemed in the process of unspooling while you watched. You didn’t know where they were going to take you, because tones shifted and both the scripts and the direction seemed to have been set up like tiny fireworks displays showcasing the quirky, unpredictable talents of character actors, some of whom, flying in the face of Hollywood tradition, had become or were becoming stars.

Two movies that embody these qualities are the road comedies Slither, from 1973, written by W.D. Richter and directed by Howard Zieff, and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, from 1975, written by John Kaye and directed by Dick Richards. (Both are available on Prime and they would make an ideal double bill.) Road comedies, of course, by definition embrace the unexpected (whatever happens to lie ahead) and the open-ended. In a good road comedy, the spirit of improvisation and adaptability and the democratic impulse have prepared the characters to look at the rest of their lives as an unmapped journey and the people they’ll meet as unknown quantities, too complicated for easy judgments.

Both Slither and Rafferty have random narrative premises. In Slither Dick Kanipsia (James Caan), a high-school football star who wound up serving time for car theft, takes a bus ride home with his prison pal Harry Moss (the peerless jowly sad sack Richard B. Shull) because they’ve both just been released and Dick has nowhere else to be. But as soon as they arrive at Harry’s someone starts shooting at him. (Someone with a long-time grudge, evidently – Richter never bothers to tell us who it is.) Mortally wounded, Harry sends his friend into the storm cellar before blowing the house to kingdom come, but first he imparts the secret info that if Dick wants to land in a tub of butter for the rest of his life, he should seek some dude named Barry Fenaka in another town. So Dick sets out to find his fortune, and along the way he gets hooked up with a low-rent bandleader (Peter Boyle) and his wife (Louise Lasser) – who, it turns out, was two years behind Dick in high school and had a big crush on him – and a trigger-happy hippie named Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman) who lives on her impulses. She’s like a Loony Tunes character come to life, with a bonus attribute: knockout sexiness. As this quartet gets closer to what they assume will be the cash prize to top all cash prizes, they take on pursuers, a pair of massive gray vans that would be completely sinister if they didn’t bear the logo of a summer camp.

Alan Arkin (right) and Mackenzie Phillips in Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975).

In Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins Alan Arkin plays Rafferty, a Marine gunnery sergeant who retires after his twenty-year stint and takes a job he loathes at the motor vehicles bureau in Los Angeles, taking driver’s license applicants out for their road tests. On his lunch break in a park, a Frisbee sails his way and he winds up offering its owners, a lanky young aspiring singer named Mac (Kellerman again) and her gay teen companion, who calls herself Frisbee (Mackenzie Phillips), a ride. But as soon as they get on the road Frisbee points a gun at his head and demands he drive them to New Orleans. (That’s one way in which the movie recalls The Sugarland Express, Steven Spielberg’s big-screen debut, which came out the previous year. Slither has a few notes in common with Sugarland too.) This movie’s plot has an even looser weave than Slither, which at least sticks to its nutty fortune-hunting idea. Long before Rafferty and the girls make it to New Orleans they’ve stopped being a pair of kidnappers and their victim and become an unlikely – yet utterly plausible – trio. Rafferty and Mac become casual lovers – more casual in her mind, it turns out, than in his – and he manages to win over Frisbee, who assumes that most people she meets, especially adults, must be assholes.

Rafferty is amiably rickety; it appears to be held together with spit and the personalities of its cast, including Alex Rocco and Harry Dean Stanton in supporting roles, Earl W. Smith as a country singer who’s a great physical match for Kellerman (she gets up at a honky-tonk and sings with his band), and the jazz legend Louis Prima in an earlier club number. (Charlie Martin Smith appears as a young soldier who picks up Frisbee after his fiancée dumps him. At first it’s a kick to see these two, who broke through in roles in American Graffiti two years earlier, in another movie together, but Smith’s character is a bad mistake that threatens to sour the last section of the picture – and it’s no insult to say the actor is badly miscast in it.) But John Kaye’s script is very canny, and Richards has the good sense to go with it. This was the second of seven movies Richards made over a decade and a half, and the only good one. Slither only feels catch-as-catch-can. It’s elegantly assembled: Zieff is a talented director (his next release was Hearts of the West, a real sweetheart of a movie) and his collaborators here are the great cinematographer László Kovacs and the veteran editor David Bretherton, who had cut Cabaret the year before.

Caan made Slither right after The Godfather, and I don’t think he was ever as un-self-conscious again as in these two pictures. You really buy him as a guy who left his glory days behind him on a high school football team; he still walks with an outsize physical confidence, leading with his shoulders, his ass bouncing in the air. He and Kellerman are an oddly endearing opposites match; he runs away from her when she robs a diner and he’s dismayed when their paths cross again, but we’re not – we were just waiting for her to pop up out of the ether. (Alex Rocco shows up in this movie, too; so does the indispensable Allen Garfield, who succumbed to COVID-19 in early April.) Kellerman has the weirdest diction: she always sounds like she just stepped out of an elocution class. But she’s so lithe and gaunt that you accept the strange way she talks as if she were a visitor from another planet. And that cooled-out sensuality can hypnotize you. In Rafferty she gets to play scenes with Alan Arkin, an actor’s actor, and with Mackenzie Phillips, whose face gives away all the secrets Frisbee’s two-fisted toughness is trying so hard to conceal.

W.D. Richter went on to write the script for Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and for All Night Long, a one-of-a-kind romantic comedy that starred Gene Hackman opposite Barbra Streisand; he also wrote Brubaker, which furnished show-off roles for an ensemble of gifted character actors but was almost definitely tampered with in production. (The arc of the title character, a liberal prison warden played by Robert Redford, got lost en route.) I’ve always thought of Richter as the screenwriter that got away; his sensibility is as distinctive as Robert Towne’s or Preston Sturges’s. No one else could have dreamed up the personalities that people his best movies, and no one else has quite the same highballing, ricocheting humor. He’s one of my seventies Hollywood heroes.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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