MARK L. LESTER WEEK
Over the past 40 years, Mark L. Lester has produced and directed some of the most freewheelin' car chases, explosive action set pieces and flat-out sensational genre films to emerge from Hollywood. In 1992, he formed American World Pictures, of which he remains president and CEO to this day. On the occasion of his 65th birthday this Saturday, the Pink Smoke will be dedicating the week to a series of articles - each by a different writer - covering different films from Lester's four decades of blood, bullets - lots of bullets - and outrageous bombast. Today we hit the road with...
John Cribbs on BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW
"You mean you didn't set out to start no revolution?"
"No, I just hit the road, that's all, and the country just kind of rose up and smacked me upside the face."
Naked Wonder Woman.
That's foremost on everybody's mind when Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw comes up in conversation, and why not? The character of Woman Woman was created by noted psychologist/polygraphist/polygamist William Moulton Marston to be the submissive, tethered, objectified heroine he and his fellow bondage fetishists had been deprived of all those years while non-kinky comic readers were flaunting their Scrooge McDuck's. Geek purists may protest, but the original warrior-princess was created to be ogled by gross old men. It's only reasonable that children of the late 70's should have their minds (and possibly testicles) blown by the very promise of Lynda Carter outside her golden bustier and starred spanky pants - bulletproof braclets optional - if even for one scene of side boob split into two different parts of the movie. It pre-dated the novelty of a naked Jesse Spano or a naked Joey Potter: the wholesomeness of a bright TV personality from our youth besmirched by the callous sin of celluloid.
Of course, the concept of the female half of a bank robbing duo disrobing had already been utilized in the semi-iconic opening of Bonnie and Clyde, when would-be car thief Warren Beatty grins at the sight of Faye Dunaway barely covered by the strategically-framed screen door. Bobbie Jo borrows liberally from Arthur Penn's revolutionary yarn, including among other things a five-member gang of social outcasts who come together after stealing a car pursued by a vengeful lawman and his posse, guards and civilians alike brought down during their bloody bank robberies, an accidental betrayal of the group by one of their own, a pivotal scene where the lead female misses her mother and asks to be taken home (even the windswept trees in the background of this scene is reminiscent of Penn's staging of the same) and the final ballet of bullets that brings their amateur criminal career to a violent end. Even the names Lyle Wheeler and Bobbie Jo Baker evoke Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker without much stretch of the imagination, while the rocky desert hills and long stretches of unremarkable New Mexican road recall the sharp peaks and overwheming emptiness of the South Dakota badlands* in Terence Malick's 1973 killer-couple-on-the-run classic (the script is by Vernon Zimmerman, who co-wrote the road movie Deadhead Miles with Malick.) Most glaring and unconvincing is a recreation of the "squeal like a pig" moment from Deliverance. The film came out in 1976, too late for the wave of fatalistic "freedom of the road" movies that included Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, The Getaway and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry but still in time to cash in on the craze. Even the film's centerpiece 1970 Ford Mustang feels like a rambling reminder of the more famous '68 GT 390 from Bullitt. Hence the common dismissal of Mark L. Lester's movie as a bastardization of parts from better films, "plus naked Wonder Woman."
The model of taking elements from established movies and repackaging them for the midnight crowd was a signature of American International Pictures, the James H. Nicholson/Samuel Z. Arkoff company that produced Roger Corman's classic B-movies and distributed Bobbie Jo. Lester adapted that method - hell, he'd even adapt the name when he christened his own company American World Pictures in the early 90's - and, like famous alumni of the the Roger Corman Film School, invigorated the recycled material with his own over-the-top approach. Specifically, the freewheelin' excess of the exploitation film. Godard championed the essential quality of motion and emotion in cinema with the supposition that all you need for a movie is "a girl and a gun." Lester's appropriation of that dogma would be "All you need for a movie is a girl in tight jeans and low-cut top and an ample supply of machine guns." He's a enthusiastic student of the ARKOFF formula (Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory**, Fantasy and Forncation), that famous law of exploitation that insists everything be taken one level higher. So if Bonnie and Clyde were packing tommy guns, Bobbie Jo and Lyle are given M-16s. If it had three car chases, Lester would have ten and make sure most if not all of them ended with a crash and burn (even when an explosion made absolutely no sense.) Anything to give the audience the impression of the action blasting out of the screen and through their windshields (the movie played in the states on a double bill with Cronenberg's first movie Shivers, then marketed as They Came From Within.) It would define the director's career: the outlandish bank robbery, perpetrated not by entering armed and exiting with the loot but by driving a pick-up through the front of the bank and hitching the safe to the tailgate, was an early extreme later replicated by John Matrix driving a bulldozer through the front of the gun store to gain access to its arsenal and 'gear up' for his Commando mission (Lester's characters hate doors.)
Like the similarly boy-named Charlie McGee, Bobbie Jo spends the majority of the movie on the lam from ridiculously resourceful government agencies with her adopted family; she too ends up the only surviving member. Bonnie and Clyde's captured and humiliated Frank Hamer may have held a grudge and set up a merciless ambush for the outlaw duo, but Truck Stop Women vet Gene Drew's Sheriff Hicks has to get his cruiser flipped over to ignite his vengeful quest to bring down the gang; he may even end up killing as many civilians as the the robbers. In one scene, Hicks takes the crooks not exiting their hotel after a single verbal warning as "resisting arrest" and orders his deputies to volley into the room, killing a man and two women mid-threesome with a porno on the tv ("It was the lord's will. They's sinners," he instantly justifies.) Hicks and his crew aren't just an early version of the youth-mistrusting "grown ups" from the Class of- movies: they're also a precursor to Scott Glenn's death squad of L.A. cops in Extreme Justice, whose victim-to-criminal kill ratio usually comes up even when they're not outright allowing innocent people to be assaulted before moving in on the perps. As for Lynda Carter, she's another in the tradition of Lester's grindhouse heroines and a clear improvement over the "indoor movie" starlets: the drive-in crowd would clearly rather see her impressive bankables than the scrawny Dunaway.
But it's not all car chases, skin scenes and gratuitious gunplay. When you think of the romantic bank robber dramas from this era, even the best of them - Altman's Thieves Like Us and Milius' Dillinger - were themselves remakes of great films that the New Hollywood directors improved upon even while paying homage to. And like those films, Bobbie Jo has an unmistakable fondness for the tradition of the road movie. This is largely evident in Lester's love of locations shooting, which sets up great scenes such as the framing of Lyle and Bobbie Jo at the Abo Pueblo ruins, where the abundance of open sky is slowly overwhelmed by the towering structure as the camera pans across the two figures falling for one another: their union, unawares to them, is already being threatened by imprisonment. And it may be obvious, but you can never go wrong with a "sex scene cuts to guns being fired during target practice the next morning" transition. A great sequence that plays out like a scene from a classical western but has its own distintive style is the lonesome death of Joe Grant, a gas station jockey who recognizes Lyle and challenges him to an old-fashioned quick draw. As Lyle of course proves the fastest, Grant, played by character actor Virgil Frye,*** is eviscerated by a single bullet and crumbles to the ground in devastating slow motion, his face a mixture of excruciating pain and child-like contentment at being plugged by his favorite modern outlaw. It's here that the Barry De Vorzon**** score really kicks in (and makes up for the overplaying of Bobby Bare's kind of unbearable country song "Those City Lights.") It's the kind of moment that could only be captured by a camera rather than written about as a scene in a novel. Weirdly though, Zimmerman's script even has literary references, Lyle's titular handle "The Outlaw" bringing to mind Flannery O'Connor's road-traveling criminal The Misfit. Although he might not be as casually homicidal as O'Connor's creation, Lyle is often shirtless: a constant reminder of The Misfit's first appearance (the rest of the gang also get in the spirit and oblige by frequently removing their tops.) Most tellingly, and to season the O'Connor connection with a little drive-in kink, character actor Jesse Vint's Slick Callahan playfully muses "A hard man is good to find!"
Marjoe Gortner, who plays Lyle, was himself something of a Flannery O'Connor character, infamous for his young adventures as the "Miracle Child," the "World's Youngest Ordained Minister," a pint-sized evangelist presiding over faith healings like Lucette Carmody in The Violent Bear It Away. Lester gets good use out of Gortner's preacher persona, transplanting his championing the power of faith to Lyle's passion for outlaw life. Experiencing a particularly intense trip on 'shrooms distributed by a naked Native American, he reacts like a revivalist whose body is seized by the almighty power, except the vision he relates isn't of the holy spirit but of a desperado outnumbered and outgunned by law dogs. He even describes pulling the trigger of gun as "just like prayin!" In one scene, he presides over the funeral for their first to fall and eulogizes her holding not a Bible but the true crime classic Bloodletters and Badmen and quoting not Psalms but the famous words of the surviving Dalton Brother after the gang's ill-fated two bank hold-up Coffeyville Raid***** ("I wanted to get killed in one hell-firing minute of smokin' action!") With the full support of his "congregation" he announces over the grave that they'll be moving on to robbing banks. It's believable that Bobbie Jo would hang on his every word and fall for his gentlemanly charm, like when he asks her to pull up a chair for an elderly bank customer who's about to faint; earlier in the film, he showed genuine concern after pulling over to make sure a traffic cop he ran off the road wasn't seriously hurt (he also leaves $100 after mowing down Joe Grant, hoping it will help fund "a decent funeral.") He's not entirely scrupulous - he cheats at pinball - but he does have a moral center, and preaches to a violent-prone cronie "The difference between self defense and deliberately killing someone in front of a witness is the difference between good and evil, you dummy!" (funny that he includes the "in front of a witness" part.) He doesn't have a beef with society and there's no scene of dust farmers tearfully lamenting the loss of their foreclosed home that so motivated Warren Beatty's Clyde to take up arms: Lyle's a real rebel without a cause, a thrill seeker who only turns his love of Billy the Kid into a philosophy when pushed by the intolerant law from petty, practical joke crimes to full-scale bank raids.
One benefit of being a B-movie knock-off of a well-established subgenre is that there's no need to delve too deeply into character motivation. When Bobbie Jo gets into Lyle's car and tells him to drive, the audience just knows she's a restless romantic who's had enough of small town life (fittingly, he spots her at her job at the drive-thru.) We don't question her abrupt decision any more than the reason Lyle misappropriated said Mustang from a pushy leather salesman (another great character actor, James Gammon.) This is what these kind of characters do, and by eliminating any serious motive to their actions Lester can focus on them doing more of what we want to see them do: speeding away from cop cars, tripping nude in a canyon stream, shooting their way out of ambushes and hauling off the bank's money (which none of them seem to need; there might not be a shot of a single dollar in the entire film.) For her part, Carter can focus on looking pretty: I'm convinced that one shot where she has one strand of long hair caught in her mouth was arranged on purpose by the actress or the director. Sometimes her looks distract from the character of Bobbie Jo - rather than be the tough low-cut jeans rebel Claudia Jennings was in Truck Stop Women or even the undeniably motivated albeit psychotic independent woman a'la Yancy Butler in The Ex, she's more like Taryn Manning: a groupie. Still, she never looks more beautiful than the very end of the movie, after all her friends are dead, when she spits into the sheriff's face and calls him a "bast-pig!" such is her inability to vocalize the exact words to vent her hatred, thus supporting John Waters' suggestion that everyone looks better under arrest. The fact that she's absent during the final shoot-out (it has a vague feeling of "Linda couldn't make it to set that day to film her death scene and therefore survived") robs the film of a conventional dramatic ending but makes the whole thing feel a little more authentic, and sets up a potential sequel should Lester and Carter choose to team up once again.
Carter gets great support from her back-up female cast, especially the great bespectacled Belinda Balaski (who, next to Bonnie Bedelia, still has the most fun-to-say name of any actress) as nerdy hippy Essie Beaumont. Balaski co-starred with Gortner in the drive-in classic Food of the Gods, also released by AIP the same year. Co-producer Merrie Lynn Ross is servicable as stripper-turned-getaway driver Pearl Baker (she'd later be credited as executive producer on Class of 1984, in which she played Perry King's pregnant, victimized wife) although she doesn't have much to do. Her best contribution to the movie is to be mowed down by the posse's gunfire as she picks up a weapon for the first time: her outlaw life ends the minute it begins. There's another cute scene where Pearl and Bobbie Jo see a newspaper headlining their exploits and giggle over it like schoolgirls. Pearl also has a charmingly innocent response to Lyle's plan to head down to Mexico: "That sounds great: I'd love a taco right now." Jesse Vint, a sort of B-movie Harry Dean Stanton,****** doesn't get the pay-off that his sleazy, trigger happy stripclub manager Slim Callahan deserves based on his early scenes of casual sadism but is always interesting to look at and gets his own amusing lines in, like when he responds to Balaski's plea that they surrender to the cops with a dismissive "That plan sucks."
Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw never sets out to be anything. It's not the game-changing, counter-culture classic that Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider proved to be, but that's key to its charm. Like its title hero, who references his book on western outlaws as inspration for his crime spree, the movie borrows from the look and plots of previous films but adds the glorious excess of the drive-in movie and even manages to sneak in some pretty interesting and original twists on the old formula. Lester never gave up that drive-in spirit. Like Lyle, who fancies himself a cowboy, wears a gunbelt and idolizes Billy the Kid, Lester loves action cinema and managed to marry the sensibilities of the exploitation filmmaking to the lyrical road movies that were being made at the time. Lynda Carter's breasts are an undeniable draw, but Carter in the backseat of a speeding getaway car with a hot machine gun in her lap excitedly inquiring of her bank-robbing beau whether she indeed "made 'em dance" is just as much reason to count Bobbie Jo among the best of the backyard box office era.
* Actually Colorado.
** In other words, "notable dialogue and speeches."
*** Father of Soleil Moon Frye, who like Gorter ended up with a bit part in Walter Hill's Wild Bill - the last significant film appearance for both men. Frye also appeared in The Missouri Breaks and Victor Salva's Nature of the Beast. (Also for Doctor Who fans: this character is not to be confused with fetching, mini-skirt wearing Third Doctor companion Jo Grant.)
**** Whose credits include Milius' Dillinger, Hard Times and The Warriors for Walter Hill, The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist III for William Peter Blatty, John Flynn's Rolling Thunder and Night of the Creeps.
***** Just to keep up my obsessive attention to connections between Marjoe Gortner and Matthew McConaughey: in Reign of Fire, McConaughey's character claims to be from Coffeyville and even relates the story of the Dalton Gang, which is even weirder considering how odd and out of context that kind of character background is coming up in a movie about a dragon armageddon.
****** Apparently Dennis Hopper was supposed to play this part, but showed up three days after production had started to check in and find out when shooting was slated to begin. It was not a good time for Dennis Hopper.
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