I'LL NEVER FORGET WHATISNAME:
A TRIBUTE TO CHARACTER ACTORS
WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? (1979)
I was interested in screening Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo as the "late" Hingle title for this article, but ultimately decided on this interesting adaptation of Mark Medoff's play directed by Milton Katselas, most famous for being the key Scientology recruiter to the Hollywood acting community since 1965 (his thetans returned to Lord Xenu last year). Hingle's role in this one is exemplary of his late career appearances: he plays Lyle Striker, proprietor of a diner/gas station/motel called Benton's Cafe in a small New Mexican town circa 1968. The kind of friendly, over-eager small town serviceman who invites hotel guests to watch Mission: Impossible with him on TV, nametag proudly displayed under a dark blue bowtie, Lyle is the film's most tragic figure. Left leaning on a cane after a mild stroke (which happened one morning, "just after breakfast"), his easy-going and helpful demeanor puts him at the mercy of the other characters' mean-spirited cynicism. "Service is the name of the game," he offers repeatedly with a smile, a slogan that by the end of the movie turns out to symbolize a guile and intelligence beneath his inane exterior. He also listens to Andy Williams (bam, second encore!)
It's arguable that Angel, Benton's chubby waitress played with a complete lack of self-consciousness by Stephanie Faracy, is bit more pathetic than Lyle. She's the epitome of small town naivety and sweetness, chirping brightly at new customers and letting anything she can't engage on the simplest level soar clearly above her head. She's had a lifelong, unreciprocated crush on the title character, Stephen "Red" Ryder, a sulking dweeb who dresses and acts like a rebel without a cause to try and separate himself from what he sees as the banal, dead-end town. Her good-natured earnestness makes her the easiest victim for Teddy, a psychotic Vietnam vet who holds the patrons of Benton's Cafe hostage while taking each of them apart with relentless psychological warfare. Seeing her defenseless against his verbal attacks is deeply upsetting, especially since it brings her hopeless pining for Ryder out in the open.
Personally, however, I think Lyle might be just a little sadder: for one thing, he's clearly in love with Angel! Maybe not in love, but as an old cripple with nothing else in his life she represents the possibility of affable companionship. Because he'd never actually dare make a move on her, Lyle comes off as somewhat lecherous but completely harmless. The saddest moment of the film is when he tells Angel she's got something in her eye and moves in close to her. He tries to make it a moment, but the second she reacts he backs off. "What was it?" she asks, and he smiles sadly. "...Alligator." Later the look on his face when forced at gunpoint to dance with her is heartbreaking.
Marjoe Gortner (former celebrity Pentacostal revivalist and the bad guy in American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt) plays Teddy like a gonzo game show host, forcing the ugly reality of each hostage from behind the curtain in a twisted pre-Haneke funny game. If Matthew McConaughey ever saw this movie he'd be horrified by his resemblance not only to Gortner and their similar accents but to how Gorner uses his laid-back good old boy persona to grate beneath the skin of his victims and draw out their base fears and personal demons. The second half of the film switches from Altman-esque multi-character subplots to the single location of the diner under Teddy's control, and it's a big credit to Gortner and the other actors that it never seems uncomfortably stagy. It's one of those rare one-shot performances that makes you wonder why the actor didn't go on to bigger things, but convinces you that it's probably better that he had this one character made all the more believable by Gortner's anonymity. [there's actually a really fascinating documentary about Gortner called Marjoe. I believe it even won the Academy Award for best doc (but don't let that kill your interest) - christopher]
Hingle handles moments between the action inside the diner where Lyle is gently trying to turn Teddy's hesitant yet armed accomplice Cheryl (Candy Clark) against him with carefully-drawn out suspense. Speaking to her kindly and not attempting to manhandle the gun away from her, he perfectly embodies both Lyle's paternal nature and inherent inaction to anything: the hostage situation, saving his friends, his entire life up to this point. I think in Red Ryder more than any of the other films, Hingle's presence offers a richness to what could have been a throwaway character to the benefit of the overall film. He also met his second wife, Julie Wright, while filming the movie. So that worked out pretty good for him.
TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO (1977)
Well just by coincidence I happened to be browsing a used DVD shop recently and found a copy of this movie for a dollar. I never would have recognized the title if not for this article, so I thought what the hell, extra write-up. How many character actors can boast that they inspired someone to purchase a cheesy TV movie from the 70's about a town overrun by killer spiders? I'm guessing six, maybe seven tops.
In the first scene, Tom Atkins and Howard Hesseman are transporting 3,200 lbs. of Ecuadorian coffee beans into the States on a DC-3. Just before takeoff they're hassled by federales for tax on the coffee, but luckily there's no tarantula tax since seemingly hundreds of the creepy crawlies have stowed away on the plane. After a convoluted series of events (the plane hits a storm and crashes and townspeople come together to try and save the passengers but the plane explodes - why couldn't the plane just land so the spiders could sneak off? Why the big production?) the unfortunate community where the cargo came down finds itself beset by the tiny fanged beasties.
Although the plot is identical to Arachnopohobia, it's clearly modeled after Jaws. Instead of keeping the beaches open for business, the greedy town fat cat is concerned about the spiders holding up the orange production. There's a child casualty, in this case the dumbest kid in movie history (he's been informed that the spiders are deadly yet attempts to pick one up with his hand for no apparent reason.) And the hero shoves an air tank into the mama tarantula's mouth, quips "Smile you son of a bitch!" and shoots the tank, causing it to explode.
Well, the last part doesn't actually happen. In fact, the main characters come up with a seemingly intelligent if excruciatingly boring-to-watch climatic solution to stereo the buzzing of predatory wasps into the orange factory, thus causing the poisonous arachnids to freeze up. They then go about eliminating the eight-legged fiends one at a time by dropping them into vats of alcohol. While that's technically more satisfying than the Snakes on a Plane solution of "let's just go where there are no snakes," it's not exactly a rousing finale.
Hingle plays the most ethical character, the town doctor who strives to save the victims (it's a one-bite one-kill scenario) and becomes the first person to put two and two together and expose the spider threat. He starts out with an "I'm not even supposed to be here today!" attitude - he's covering for the regular physician but quickly steps up to the plate and warns people of the real threat. Shockingly, it's not his most demanding role but he approaches it with the same level of professionalism as any of his meatier movie parts, even though his character disappears by the end of the movies second act. A graceless exit...how appropriate for a character actor!
I'm not sure if appearing in this did anything for his career, but some of the spiders probably went on to crawl on Alfred Molina's back in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
After relentless technical difficulties (please send hate mail to SJ Namo industries at firstname.lastname@example.org. seriously. tell them they are a bunch of assholes and banana-heads), The Pink Smoke is back in business. Look for new articles all this week...
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