Worthy free flicks starring (among others) Jeff Bridges, Charles Bronson, and Bela Lugosi.
Knightriders (Photo: United Artists)
(Prime Cuts is a regular column that suggests worthy movies presently available for Amazon Prime subscribers to watch for free.)
THE DEATH KISS (1932). Three of the stars of the 1931 horror classic Dracula — David Manners (Jonathan Harker), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) and Bela Lugosi (Drac, natch) — popped up the following year in this nifty little B flick that not only functions as a murder-mystery but also doubles as a peek behind the scenes at a small-scale movie studio. At the fictional Tonart Studios (filming was actually done on the lot of the Poverty Row outfit Tiffany Pictures), leading man Myles Brent (former silent film star Edmund Burns in an uncredited bit) has been murdered, and the suspects are plentiful. The detectives on the case (John Wray and Wade Boteler) believe that the killer is movie star — and Myles’ ex-wife — Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames), since all evidence conveniently points in her direction. But her boyfriend, studio screenwriter Franklyn Drew (Manners), refuses to believe that, so he conducts his own investigation. Was it the studio head (Alexander Carr)? The publicity manager (Lugosi)? The director (Van Sloan)? Or is the hopelessly inept studio security guard (Vince Barnett) pulling a Keyser Söze? The answer isn’t as obvious as it initially appears, and it’s fun to watch Drew repeatedly uncover clues to the growing exasperation — but also appreciation — of the bumbling coppers. The few instances of color-tinted items — the yellow from a flashlight, the red from a firing revolver — in this black-and-white flick are a nice added touch.
FAT CITY (1972). Tully (Stacy Keach) is 29 yet looks look like he’s about to hit 40. Regardless, he’s already a has-been, a former boxer whose career inside the ring didn’t exactly go as desired. But he’s constantly promising himself that he’ll get back in shape; in the meantime, he’s happy to send a greenhorn scrapper, a kid named Ernie (Jeff Bridges), to see his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) in the chance that Ernie can make something of himself while donning a pair of gloves. If this sounds like the stuff that underdog dreams are made of — a Rocky before its time — forget it. With Leonard Gardner adapting his own book and John Huston sitting in the director’s chair, Fat City adheres closer to real life than reel life, painting a portrait of a downtrodden existence not only among the have-nots but also among the never-will-haves. Set in Stockton, California, the picture follows Tully as he seeks to make ends meet (breaking his back picking walnuts is nice work when he can get it), all while talking about his comeback. It’ll never happen, scoffs his perpetually soused friend/lover/roommate/bar buddy Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a declaration that only serves to irk him. Tyrrell earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, but I was most impressed by the performance from Colasanto (later “Coach” on TV’s Cheers) as the gruff yet empathic manager who bends over backward in an effort to accommodate others.
INSTANT FAMILY (2018). There’s instant gratification to be found with Instant Family, an earnest film whose generosity of spirit enables it to smooth over the rough patches. Director Sean Anders, generally the helmer of cinematic rotgut (That’s My Boy, Horrible Bosses 2), decided to base this film on his own experiences, and it’s this personal touch that doubtless allows it to break free from the shackles of mediocrity. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star as Pete and Ellie Wagner, a workaholic couple who decide that they should adopt a foster kid not only as a humanitarian gesture but also since it would make them feel good about themselves. They settle on a surly teenager named Lizzy (Isabel Moner), only to learn that she comes with two younger siblings, the overly sensitive Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and the hyperactive Lita (Julianna Gamiz). Suddenly saddled with three children and ill-equipped to handle the youngsters’ moods and demands, Pete and Ellie are soon wondering if they made a mistake in agreeing to serve as foster parents. Instant Family contains its share of awkward interludes and dubious decisions — the nitwit grandmother played by Julie Hagerty seems to have emerged fully formed from a discarded script for a subpar TV sitcom — but the emotional content is on point and, as a result, the overall enterprise works as a satisfying seriocomedy.
A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956). Aside from the ludicrous 1993 Sharon Stone vehicle Sliver, novelist Ira Levin had enviable success when it came to Hollywood adapting his novels, with 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives (the 1975 version, obviously, not the 2004 dud) and 1978’s The Boys from Brazil all proving to be hits. Long before these efforts, though, there was A Kiss Before Dying, a silky-smooth adaptation of Levin’s first novel. Robert Wagner is best known for his heroic roles — particularly on TV shows like Hart to Hart and Switch — but in this early effort he’s cast as Bud Corliss, a college kid who’s only interested in becoming rich by any means necessary. He figures his way to the big time is through his girlfriend Dorie (Joanne Woodward in only her second big-screen appearance), the daughter of a filthy-rich industrialist (George Macready). But once Dorie becomes pregnant, Bud realizes that she’ll be disinherited by her dad, so he begins to plot her demise. A handful of deaths pepper the picture, but the first one is the most shocking, and it leads to a deepening of the plot as Dorie’s tutor (Jeffrey Hunter) and her sister (Virginia Leith) also become involved in Bud’s sinister activities. A Kiss Before Dying was poorly remade in 1991, with Matt Dillon in the Wagner role and Sean Young playing both sisters.
KNIGHTRIDERS (1981). Arguably the most atypical picture in the George Romero filmography, Knightriders finds the Night of the Living Dead writer-director taking a break from zombies and other terrors to create an often melodic, often melancholy picture that provides a green Ed Harris with his first leading film role. Harris plays Billy, who serves as the king of a traveling medieval group (think Renaissance Festival) where the participants all ride motorcycles instead of horses. Billy stubbornly lives by an old-fashioned code, even when it goes against the best interests of the group he created; his tight grip has caused some griping in the ranks, particularly from Morgan (Tom Savini), who wouldn’t mind wearing the crown himself. For support, Billy can count on his queen, Linet (Amy Ingersoll), and the Lancelot-like Alan (Gary Lahti); for advice, he turns to his mentor Merlin (Brother Blue, the renowned storyteller-pastor in his only film appearance). Already thin on story, a protracted 145-minute running time guarantees that the movie will overdose on cycle stunts, charged-up jousts, and honorable speeches from Billy — a trim of a half-hour would certainly have helped. Still, the angle is unique enough to make this worth a viewing, and it’s nice to see top makeup artist Savini given such a sizable role. That’s Mr. and Mrs. Stephen King as the obnoxious patron and his wife during the early tournament scenes.
THE MECHANIC (1972). Charles Bronson became an unlikely superstar during the 1970s, landing on Quigley’s annual Top 10 Money-Making Stars Poll for four consecutive years (1973-1976) and ruling the box office with the likes of Death Wish, Breakout and Breakheart Pass. The Mechanic was one of his signature pieces from the era, a tough and chilly drama about a seasoned assassin who treats each of his hits as its own work of art. Refusing to simply wing any of his assignments, Arthur Bishop (Bronson) instead studies photos, stakes out targets, and all but storyboards his modes of murder (generally made to look like accidents). After he’s tasked with exterminating an old acquaintance (Keenan Wynn), he ends up taking the man’s brash son (Jan-Michael Vincent) under his wing, teaching him everything there is to know about the killing game. The script by the accomplished Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini, Seconds) isn’t quite deep enough to allow this to qualify as either a penetrating character study or an existential morality tale, although director Michael Winner provides it with an appropriate air of sobriety. The stuntwork is impressive, the vehicular chases deliver the goods, and that twist ending is killer. This is far preferable to the feeble 2011 remake starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster in the Bronson and Vincent roles.