This on-going series takes a look at some of the most obscure works by cinema's acknowledged geniuses, the films that even fanatics have over-looked. For instance: if you love Ingmar Bergman, you've seen Persona, you've probably even seen Sawdust and Tinsel – but have you seen his sophomore effort Det regnar på vår kärlek? Focusing on films not readily available on VHS or DVD with English-language subtitles, it's an attempt to dig deep into the filmographies of cinema's greats and explore the rarest of rarities.
george armitage, 1972
I was planning on recognizing the 35th anniversary of Black History Month with a piece about my favorite Blaxploitation movies. I've avoided something like that in the past for the same reason I never write about kung fu films, revenge movies, heist flicks, westerns or the Hong Kong school of heroic bloodshed: since the year 1992 they've all been co-opted by Quentin Tarantino. But after his embarrassing attempt to bring the war movie under his umbrella of pop cultural usurpations with Inglorious Basterds (sic), I decided that everything is fair game again: the other popular subgenres had made a "great escape" from the idiot savant of cinema's movie jail (also, Scott Sanders and Michael Jai White's Black Dynamite felt like a "we're stealing it back" crotch shot to the man who cut White's scene out of the Kill Bill movies.) Still, I wasn't happy with a list of Blaxploitation favorites, of which there are plenty already in existence all over the internet, and a different piece about the role of white writers and directors in contrast to black writers and directors in the early 70's exploitation circut (largely centered on Larry Cohen and Ralph Bakshi* versus Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles) turned into a rambling pontification that didn't really go anywhere. But somewhere along the line the whole "white filmmaker getting in on the funky purple pimp hat movement" angle brought me to an early work by a writer-director I've long admired, even though I've never really known too much about him.
There's nothing mysterious about George Armitage, but his complete lack of prestige has always perplexed me. I spent a better part of the 90's wondering how the hell Miami Blues didn't open to the same kind of enthusiastic reception or at least develop the same reverential reputation as, say, Pulp Fiction. When his followup film Grosse Pointe Blank was released seven years later, it drew mixed reactions from critics and fell into the iniquitous late 90's pit of "Tarantino imitations" just because it featured comedic hit men and a soundtrack made up of popular songs. And after 2004's depressing flop The Big Bounce, he seemed to belong to the "two masterpiece" club of filmmakers from that era: American directors who debuted with an impressive first effort and kept the hit streak going with a worthy-if-not-flatout-superior sophomore film only to produce nothing nearly as good for the remainder of their careers (current members include such vastly different directors as Carl Franklin, Neil Labute, Wes Anderson and Todd Haynes**.) I couldn't quite figure out why Armitage's track record had faltered so abruptly, or why I would consider him one of my favorite modern filmmakers largely based on a single movie, but in my mind his name has long stood for a filmmaker who went from head-scratching obscurity to disappointing missed opportunist in a seemingly short amount of time.
What I didn't realize in the midst of all this categorizing of Armitage as a "90's director" is that his career actually began in the late 60's when he was hired by Roger Corman to write the legendary shlockster's penultimate directorial effort Gas-s-s-s, or How It Became Necessary to Destory the World in Order to Save It***, a post-apocalyptic parable about a gas that kills everybody in the world over 25 years old. After that Corman let Armitage direct his own script for Private Duty Nurses (1971) but replaced him with Jonathan Kaplan to helm the sequel Night Call Nurses (1972). From there, Armitage seems to have forged a partnership with Roger's brother Gene Corman (who would go on to release a pair of 1973 Jim Brown classics, The Slams and I Escaped from Devil's Island, although his crowning achievement would be to produce The Big Red One for Sam Fuller.) Gene produced Armitage's next two turns behind the camera, 1972's Hit Man and 1976's Vigilante Force, as well as his screenplay for Darktown Strutters aka Get Down and Boogie!, filmed in 1975 by veteran serial and TV director William Witney. In 1979 Armitage directed a TV movie called Hot Rod starring Gregg Henry, then dropped off the map Terrance Malick-style for 11 years, to return with what I had long considered his first film, a phenomenal adaptation of Charles Willeford's Hoke Moseley novel Miami Blues.
The 90's ushered in a minor wave of arty, high quality films taken from the pages of crime novelists like Walter Moseley (Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress), Elmore Leonard (Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty, Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Soderbergh's Out of Sight), Scott Smith (Raimi's A Simple Plan) and Willeford (Robinson Devor's The Woman Chaser.) The Leonard adaptations especially were notable for their colorfully comic criminals whose eccentric search for happiness is marred by the reality of their profession, usually punctuated by a sudden turn of uncomfortable violence amidst the goofiness (De Niro's fatal shooting of Bridget Fonda in Brown, Steve Zahn's unwilling participation in the home invasion in Out of Sight.) But Armitage's movie came first. It shook up the old cop-hunting-crook hard-boiled formula with hilarious character study to create a tone beyond quirkiness. A lot of credit for the movie's unique pitch has been given to Jonathan Demme, who produced Blues (as well as Devil in a Blue Dress.) That's understandable, but while I can see the inspiration Armitage found in scenes like the gas station knock-off in Something Wild and the fast food gunfight from Married to the Mob (as well as that movie's sun-tanned crooks and presence of a rough/clueless Alec Baldwin), the development of the film is singular to the its director. For example, Demme - who must have known Armitage from the Corman days - has in the past had difficulty creating memorable leading male characters, but Baldwin's Freddy Frenger Jr. is one of the funniest and most tragic anti-heroes in film history. He's a man in constant, child-like awe of everything around him, from the view outside the plane in his first appearance as he descends into Miami to Jennifer Jason's Leigh naked back - he sees these things and wants them and he takes them. But as he expresses in the film/book's most profound line, he doesn't know why he wants them; he takes them because he can, through a sense of puerile entitlement as if to say "we're all meant to want these things in life, but only obtain them from following the rules." Well, Freddy doesn't follow the rules; he has the outlaw mentality of H.I. McDunnough, but it comes out in short bursts of seemingly psychotic fits of casual violence that I can only think to describe as a "sorta Falling Down-ish rampaging." His is a lawlessness based entirely on his own boastful delusions and unfounded confidence that he can "skip to the happy ending." The tragedy is that he hurts everyone around him, a walking disaster who comes in and out of reality just long enough to do something destructive.
Armitage's characters are pre-established criminals with acute identity crises who try to find a place for themselves in the weird world they've been thrown into. It makes sense that his list of 11 favorite films submitted to the 2002 BFI Sight and Sound poll would include such character-out-of-his-comfort-zone films as The Boy with Green Hair, Local Hero and Sullivan's Travels: the philosophical questions burning in his protagonists' minds seems to be "How did I get here?" and "What the fuck is this place?" Throughout Miami Blues you're constantly wondering if Freddy really wants a house and a little wife or, more likely, that he's winging it until whatever it is - a cop, a truck, a machete - comes around the corner. By the time he's started to mimic the generic police terms Moseley had used on him earlier, Freddy has lapsed into a different personality all together. And of course nothing causes more self-reflection and panic to change one's life as a high school reunion like the one in Armitage's "second" film Grosse Pointe Blank, attended by an assassin whose constant claim to clients who find themselves on the business end of his weapon is "It's not me!" Martin Blank's investigation into whether reconciling with the girl he left alone on the prom floor 10 years ago is the key to future happiness is at first as self-defeating and improvised as Freddy running around Miami playing policeman; rival hit man Grocer is his own Sgt. Hoke Moseley, a man whose very presence reminds Blank of why he doesn't fit in with the rest of society who nevertheless is essentially the same man, working outside the law, a man who knows how to recognize criminality and use it to his own advantage. Somehow it makes a killer relatable: even when he shoots an unarmed man pleading for his life, you kind of see where he's coming from.
Nicolas Ray always said the working title of each of his films was "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," which would be perfect for any of Armitage's movies, even the horribly disappointing The Big Bounce. Owen Wilson's perennial down-and-out beach bum Jack Ryan finds himself being threatened or played by all the shady characters on the island who have everything on their mind but his peaceful nonchalant approach to existence. Unfortunately the character's relaxed attitude goes too far, to the point that we're left with a hero who does literally nothing to move the plot forward. Bounce is the worst example of an over-expensive Hollywood "hang out" movie, in which an attractive cast of name stars chill in a glamorous locale following a very loose storyline, usually revolving around a comic caper (a classic example being John Huston's Beat the Devil, a more recent batch the Ocean's 11 series), but the criminal motivations in the film are so vaguely referenced as to be completely nonsensical. It leans towards the quirkier aspects of Grosse Pointe Blank by trying to sell the audience on a mustachioed Charlie Sheen, Gary Sinise with bad hair and Vinnie Jones in a neck brace plus useless cameos by cool cred celebs Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton, all of which are negated by a performance by Sara Foster that is so bland, charmless and dismissible it makes Monica Potter seem like Julia Roberts. The chemistry between the two stars is dead, the heist plot is at the same time simplistic and overly complicated, and Armitage makes the mistake of using the Isley Brothers song "It's Your Thing," featured prominently in the best of all Leonard adaptations, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight - not that it's a bad choice, given that Jack Ryan is certainly a man who does what he "wanna do" (technically Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick Up are also in the running, but none capture that "Elmore Leonard" feeling as unquantifiably as Out of Sight.) Most importantly though, Jack and other characters are largely successful in living life outside of normal society with very few personal compromises - what's interesting about that?
I don't know if the universal critical and commercial failure of The Big Bounce has put Armitage out of commission. It's been seven years, but then there were seven years between Grosse Pointe and his last film. Like I said, I know next to nothing about the man himself except that his name makes him sound like a Civil War general. I could locate only one publicity photo of him anywhere on the internet. I don't even want to go into speculation as to how he got involved in co-writing the Brian Dennehy-starring Last of the Finest and made-for-tv Jay Leno-David Letterman late night war docudrama The Late Shift. What I'm most curious about is how Demme must have known that Armitage was the man for the job when he passed the Miami Blues novel off to him after Fred Ward brought it to Demme's attention (and who knows whether there's an additional Corman connection to Armitage's choice of adapting Willeford, whose sole movie experience up to that point was to write the script for the 1974 adaptation of his novel Cockfighter for Corman, which the producer purchased the rights to based on the title alone; he would later re-release the movie under the titles Born to Kill, Gamblin' Man and Wild Drifter.) I'm just damn curious what it was in Armitage's earlier films that made Demme think of him.
Which brings me to Hit Man. The opening credits claim that the script is an adaptation of the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, a book that had come out of a series of British crimes, most specifically the "one-armed bandit murder" of Angus Sibbet which involved the Krays and first brought the notion of organized crime to the North (it was sort of their own St Valentine's Day Massacre, with fewer casualties) and the novel served as the source for Mike Hodge's classic 1971 film Get Carter. I may not know much about George Armitage, but I know a lot about Get Carter. I've watched my Michael Caine-autographed dvd enough to be able to quote long passages of dialogue and instantly conjure Roy Budd's score in my brain. Hit Man, a California-set Blaxploitation rehash of the same story, was released in '72, which means it came out the year after Hodges' movie. I've never read Lewis' novel, so I'm not sure if both movies are the closest adaptations ever produced, or if Armitage actually just based his film on Get Carter and cited the book as his source material. Because these two movies are very, very similar: not "shot for shot" as some descriptions I've read, but close enough for it to be "scene for scene," if a bit jumbled in order. It's somewhat frustrating because it's hard to access Hit Man as an early George Armitage movie due to its incredible similarity to Get Carter. Imagine a favorite film of yours, one that you know like the back of your hand, being remade barely a year later with an almost entirely black cast. (Oh wait - that's what Neil Labute** ** did with Death in a Funeral last year...except I'm pretty sure the original is nobody's favorite movie that they know really really well...I could be wrong, it's a big world.) But maybe, I thought as I settled in to view Hit Man, I can use that to my advantage. Maybe I can apply my knowledge of Get Carter to better understand George Armitage?
Besides, it's not really too weird that Hit Man cut and pasted the story of Get Carter. Because Blaxploitation put the "B" back in B-movie, it shared with earlier cheapo Hollywood efforts an unabashed tendency to swipe entire plots from films that had come before. Hence, Cool Breeze (1972) borrowed liberally from The Asphalt Jungle, Abby (1974) from The Exorcist, the imaginatively-titled Black Shampoo (1976), churned out one year after the hit Hal Ashby-Warren Beatty-Robert Towne movie. And then there's Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973) and The Blunchblack of Blotre Blame (the closest to an actual third part of that trilogy would be the Bernie Casey-starring Dr. Black, Mr. Hype from 1976.) There's even Black Throat, a black actor version of...well, you get the idea. Still, it's so strange to see the plot of Get Carter "urbanified," with lines like "Kiss my ass, funky faggot" and "You two for a nickel, jive time, freak time whore" thrown in. There are a couple white extras in party scenes or at the airport, but for the most part there are just three white actors with lines to verify that this isn't some Even Dwarfs Started Small-type alternative reality where white folks don't exist.
The star is Bernie Casey, known to my generation as the pledge president of Lambda Lambda Lambda and as the teacher who informed Bill and Ted that Caesar was in fact not "a salad dressing dude." Before those prestigious parts, he was famous for being a record-breaking track and field college athlete who played six seasons as a wide receiver for the 49ers, ultimately joining the ranks of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Roy Jefferson as the latest NFL vet to join the pantheon of hard heroes in Blaxploitation movies, which he later honored by appearing as retired asskicker John Slade in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). The leading lady is none other than "Pamela" Grier, who had already starred in Corman's Phillipines-shot Cage Trilogy but had yet to make a name for herself as the title heroines of Coffy and Foxy Brown (her character has the indignant line "I read for a damn good part in Shaft!") The rest of the cast is made up of underappreciated members of the Blaxploitation hall of fame: Rudy Challenger (Detroit 9000, Sheba Baby), Christopher Joy (The Slams, Cleopatra Jones), Roger E. Mosley (The Mack, Drum, Big Time, and Gordon Parks' Leadbelly, in which he starred as Huddie Ledbetter) and Marilyn Joi (Black Samson, Black Gauntlet, Black Stewardesses, Black Samurai.) Most memorable among them is Sam Laws (Cool Breeze, Sweet Jesus Preacherman, Truck Turner) as used-car dealer Sherwood Epps, who can't get through one take of a car commercial*** ** without saying "motherfucker," and Lisa Moore (Slaughter's Big Rip Off) as Laural Garfoot, proprietress of the "sleeps two but parties four" hotel room where Casey stays. Laws, Joy and Mosley later ended up in Darktown Strutters, but the only cast carryover for Armitage as director is one of the film's few white actors: Paul Gleason, who appeared in all of Armitage's first three movies (Private Duty Nurses, Hit Man and Vigilante Force) and returned as Sgt. Frank Lackley in the memorable Miami Blues scene to beat up poor Hoke Moseley when he's been led to believe the toothless Hoke is cutting in on his action.
* I hadn't even realized up until then that Jack Hill, maker of twin Pam Grier classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, was the Gordon Parks of white guys. Also it's worth mentioning that another reason that article was jettisoned was my inner turmoil over whether to place Richard Fleischer's Mandingo within the realm of "Blaxploitation" (also how much people would understand references to Louis CK's Pootie Tang.)
** Just want to point out that with Haynes I'm referring to his feature films that were actually released, Poison and Safe. I know there are things to like (even love) about Far from Heaven and I'm Not There, but at the end of the day they're just not on the same level. Maybe it's not fair to group him with these folks based on that and his two brilliant short films, but I can't help compare everything he does now to those amazing first features. And Wes Anderson fans, don't be confused, I'm not a fan of anything he's done since Rushmore: again, there are moments in Tenenbaums and even Darjeeling Limited to admire, but I consider them disappointments at best (although Tenenbaums may be due for a Second Chance, we'll see.)
*** I checked to make sure I had enough "s"es in the title of Gas-s-s-s, something I had already done for this article when I made a since-deleted reference to Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I always wonder how anal people are about using the correct number of "s"es in that title - I have noticed a lot of people leave out the additional "a." And while I've got you here I might as well mention that this was the penultimate directorial effort of Corman's from his active period; I'm not counting his "comeback" movie Frankenstein Unbound from 1990. Nobody should count that movie for any reason.
** ** Keeping this all connected, Labute's name has been tied an adaptation of Willeford's novel The Burnt Orange Heresy. It's no longer listed on his imdb page, so maybe the project fell through (which is just as well.)
*** ** I'm convinced that the commercial director in this scene was a cameo by Armitage, but he's not listed on the credits.
Hit Man opens just like Miami Blues, with its lead character arriving at the airport. Luckily for them, there no Hare Krishnas to harass Bernie Casey's gigantic Tyrone Tackett or try to stick a flower in the lapel of his sharp burgundy suit. Like Grosse Pointe Blank, it's a reluctant homecoming for Tackett, and like Freddy Frenger and Martin Blank it's instantly obvious how bizarrely out of place he is. Mike Hodges opens his film with a kind of useless prologue to establish Carter with his syndicate buddies before launching into the memorable train travel opening credits sequence set to Roy Budd's classic score, but Armitage clearly wants to drop his anti-heroes right into the fish tank they'll be swimming around in. All Hodges' first scene sets up is that Jack is seemingly contemptuous of and equally despised by his own colleagues back home: there's no difference between his attitude or level of apprehension in the city and in the small town he gladly left behind and is forced to return to. The setting of Armitage's later movies are specific to his main character: only under the seedy sunshine of Miami could a man like Freddy Frenger run around playing fake cop, or in the slacker paradise of O'ahu could Jack Ryan so effortlessly become involved in and get himself out of shady, convoluted criminal ventures. And for Martin Blank, returning home is a way of pinpointing how far from his former life he's come - his secretary tells him "I just find it amusing that you CAME from somewhere." So while he's set himself up as an Oakland big shot, Tackett is just another colorfully dressed pimp on the garish streets of Los Angeles.
Not even counting the prominently-featured Watts Tower Arts Center, the locations Armitage chose to represent his portrait of underground L.A. are pretty fascinating, especially when compared to (here we go) their counterparts in Get Carter. Although several of the settings are the same (funeral home, empty building under construction, self-running industrial complex absurdly placed by the beach), others are notably different. I always wondered why so many different factions would fight for dominion over Carter's gross little Northern steeltown, but Armitage's vast urban sprawl is so weirdly exotic the appeal is more understandable. Not surprisingly, Hit Man is a more light-hearted affair altogether, although it hits the same comedic and dramatic beats as the Hodges film (more on that in a minute.) As such, Armitage seems to pick locations to create an overall brighter tone, so instead of a high stakes poker game, the hero walks in on the gang boss playing handball on a racquetball court built into the center of his mansion (and actually agrees to suit up in white tennis t-shirt and shorts for some one-on-one!) Rather than a cheerless Brighton-esque seaside carnival that looked like maybe two rides actually functioned, the ambush set up by a junkie takes place at an African-themed animal sanctuary with lions and tigers roaming around. The one change of location that's even grimier than Carter's is the first meeting with the chauffeur, which is moved from a classy horse racing stadium to a dank dog fighting arena where the audience enjoys a pit bull bout that I'd be shocked to hear wasn't definitely real. [Insert obligatory Michael Vick joke here.] Whether it was staged or not (and I can't imagine how it wasn't, any more than I'd be able to tell you how they "faked" the matches in Cockfighter), the change of venue is a big improvement over the horse track. Since pornography comes into play in both movies, it's the one thing that makes Hit Man's tone temporarily more squalid and uncomfortable than anything in Carter.*
But for the most part Armitage keeps things light, demonstrating an early preference for black comedy. I don't mean "black" comedy, like the Friday movies or Soul Plane, although the ghetto talk and fancy pimp outfits play their part in some of the movie's more outrageous moments (Casey's costume changes are almost magical, the way they occur between scenes when plot-wise there would have been no opportunity for his character to change; it happens enough that I'm sure it's not a continuity error.) Carter's sense of foreboding is maintained in Hit Man, but up until the big reveal of why Tackett's brother was killed the humor outweighs the gloom. Casey's performance for the first part of the film is slightly goofy, including a drunk scene where he slurs his speech like a dopey cartoon character (the New York Times critic at the time complained about this scene, stating that the dialogue was incomprehensible - I don't think it was meant to be.) It's an odd contradiction to his otherwise badass behavior, but it's no goofier than the behavior of the bad guys: when Tackett shoots at a tailing car, the target is chiefly upset that he almost shot his derby. His supporting cast of friends are almost all comic relief, particularly the foul-mouthed Sherwood, who Tackett leaves for the bad guys to beat up. In Carter this same character, played by Alun Armstrong, is last seen pathetically cursing Jack's name and whining about his girlfriend leaving him due to his now disfigured face; not only is the Hit Man version being pampered by a sexy broad as he recuperates from his ambush, after a few choice words with Tackett those cats part on good terms - Sherwood even laughs at Tackett's joke as he leaves! There are even excerpts of dialogue that sound more like slapstick than sexy thriller, like when Tackett shows up at a house of one of the gang bosses claiming to be a neighbor there to complain about the noise:
Gang Boss: "What's this about noise?"
Tackett: "It was loud."
Gang Boss: "Where are you from?"
Tackett: "Oakland. (beat) I said it was loud."
Casey and Armitage were clearly not interested in creating the darkest character in cinematic history like Caine and Hodges (while watching the movie I kept thinking about the chauffeur's sarcastic references to Carter's "sense of humor.") It's the differences Armitage uses to make Tackett more likable, or at least less of a soulless killer than Carter, that define his take on the same material. Tackett is more reverent towards religion, waiting for a priest to pass by before calling a woman in the pew beside him a bitch. He's more resourceful: Carter's way of getting into the gangster's mansion is particularly uninventive - basically he runs from bodyguards and hides behind a door - whereas Casey pulls a gun on the chauffeur ("Pull over, Good Humor Man") and steals his uniform so he can drive the limo right onto the grounds. Both characters display a similar disregard for discretion when it comes to talking dirty to a woman on the phone, but only Tackett brings out the inappropriate sex talk within earshot of a minor (he even manages to charm the kid with his lurid description of his lady's "brown titties.") In terms of wit the two are pretty equally matched: instead of insulting the chauffeur by comparing his eyes to "piss holes in the snow," Tackett goes the racial route by looking at man's uniform and snidely stating "white suits you" (funny that both are white-based insults tho.) But Casey is obviously much more physically intimidating than Caine, which he proves by showing up the crime boss in their handball match and demonstrates simply by being a tall, muscular beast of a man. In Get Carter you can understand why people would underestimate a not-quite-in-shape Michael Caine's brute strength, but Bernie dwarfs everybody in movie by at least a foot.
Most notably though, Tackett seems to have legitimately cared for his brother. Searching around their childhood home, he reflects nostalgically over a double barrel shotgun with their initials engraved on the handle and openly cries at the sight of the corpse laying in the casket at the church (these scenes also verify that the dead man is his actual brother, a blood relative as opposed to a close friend, which is good to emphasize since Tackett calls everyone "brother," even guys he hates.) This is notable for an Armitage hero, who are usually such perpetual loners that no trace of family is ever mentioned,** with one notable exception. When he returns to Grosse Pointe, Martin Blank visits his Alzheimers-wracked mother for the first time in ten years but she doesn't recognize him, saying "You're a handsome man...what's your name?" (he repeats this to himself in the mirror reflectively later on, just before heading to the reunion and the Big Decisions he has to make about his future.) Blank's past has been erased: his house is gone, his mother doesn't know him - he's become less human in a way, and Tackett is no different. He seems so tragically affected by his brother's death (a good line unique to this movie: "Police say your brother drowned in alcohol BEFORE he hit the water") that it doesn't feel like a plot mechanism. Revenge for a slain brother not only carries over from Carter: it's such a reliable subplot of Blaxploitation films - Black Gunn (1972), T.N.T. Jackson (1974), Bucktown (1975), not to mention the sister hospitalized after a contaminated heroin injection in Coffy (1973) and the murdered parents in Slaughter (1972) - that they referenced it as a gag in both I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and Black Dynamite (it's basically the equivalent of the murdered sensei in kung fu movies, or the partner gunned down with only two days left until retirement.) Not that I'm accusing Get Carter of using the revenge angle for the sake of getting things moving, the death just means something different to Jack Carter. Even though we never meet his brother, Carter is haunted by him: he was the good man Jack could never be. Avenging the murder has less to do with keeping face than making a belated attempt to make up for his own past sins - it's just not as convincing when Tackett paraphrases Carter by proclaiming "I'm the freak in the family!" Carter's colorless garments suggest a dirty chalk-gray moral ambiguity; Tackett's vibrant duds are as loud a statement of personal justification as the assorted Hawaiian shirts of Freddy Frenger and Jack Ryan.
There's also Carter's significant guilt over the likelihood that he's the actual father of his "niece" Doreen, something that never comes up with Tackett's big fro'd niece Rochelle in Hit Man. And since the discovery of the niece's appearance in the porno movie - the reason Carter/Tackett's brother threatened to expose the gangsters and gets killed - serves as the turning point in both movies, that lack of biological attachment means Armitage has to up the ante to further vindicate Tackett's ensuing vengeance, which he does by having the chauffer shoot Rochelle in the head to keep her quiet (Doreen lives in Carter.) This happens immediately after Tackett's viewing of the film, which Armitage moves from the tiny flat where Carter goes through a torrent of agonizing emotions in front of the images projected on the wall in front of him to a packed adult theater. Thus Tackett experiences the revelation in a much more humiliating venue, with porn patrons gawking and jeering at the screen as his drugged (stated explicitly in Hit Man, not so much in Carter) niece staggers onto the set of the stag film and spreads her legs. Even though Armitage puts Rochelle's scene on as soon as Tackett enters the theater and takes away the kind of transition Carter has when he realizes what he's seeing (again this might just suffer from comparison to the original), Casey's reaction carries just as much an emotional wallop and determined intensity, with the added effect of the light from the projector flickering off his fro. It's a moment as jarring as Freddy's disastrous pawn shop heist near the end of Miami Blues or Martin's messy fight to the death with Benny "The Jet" Urquidez in front of his old locker in Grosse Pointe Blank and, like those scenes, the tone of the entire film changes after that moment. In Carter things start nasty and just get nastier, but the bad times hit like a hurricane at this point in Armitage's movie...
...albeit framed in a more justified revenge scenario. First there's the hit on Rochelle, pretty senseless on the villains' part considering the stag film still exists as evidence against them, and then there's the less severe methods Tackett employs to get his bloody satisfaction. He doesn't bother with the hooker who got Rochelle involved with the pornographers and back-stabbed him - the fate of the Carter template was a grisly stripping-at-gunpoint and forced overdose. That act verifies once and for all that Jack Carter is a cold and brutal killer, as we already suspected from his blank stare after goons drop his car in the channel along with the girl he's locked in a car trunk. For me that look is the most iconic moment in Get Carter: it makes you wonder not only if this guy has any kind of conscious whatsoever, but what he had in store for the defenseless girl had she not been conveniently dispatched in such a horrible fashion. Tackett is somewhat more complicit in the death of Pam Grier's surrogate character Gozelda, but it's pretty spectacular: he takes her out of the car trunk and leaves her in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seems, until it becomes obvious that Grier's in the middle of the animal sanctuary, and she was spared the drowning only to - no shit - get eaten by a lion! (The attack itself looks almost as real as the dog fight, I honestly don't know how they did it without losing a stuntwoman.) So once again, the anti-hero doesn't technically kill this unarmed female captive although he puts her in a position to be drowned/eaten; the Grier incarnation of this character is herself a little less innocent in her involvement of getting the niece into the porno, having told Tackett that she helped drug her up and "slap her around a little" for her performance. The sinister crooks of Carter's steeltown blend into the charcoal background they're so unrepentantly amoral, and Carter may be dishing out vengeance but he's still among their ranks. Tackett tears the flashy denizens of underground L.A. out of their fancy swimming pools and opulent mansions to bring them down to the level they're pretending to be above - they don't deserve to look as stylish as him, and we believe it because he is so unquestionably set apart (even if a rival gangster asks "How many 16 year olds have YOU pulled?") So Carter's revenge is rapturous and rampant while Tackett's at least targets the ones whose hands are unquestionably dirty.
Which isn't to say it isn't more destructive. For the big finale, Tackett and the gang boss plot to kill each other by doing the exact opposite of their counterparts in Get Carter. Carter frames the boss by leaving the OD'd body of the street walker in his yard (I never really understood how the boss could be held legally accountable for that, but whatever) without realizing the boss has already sent a goon to get Carter. Armitage has his boss send a crooked cop (Paul Gleason) to sniper Tackett and Tackett misleads the gang of the rival crook he's already killed to think the gang boss was responsible, resulting in a bloodbath back at the mansion.*** This is a hugely significant plot change, because it directly sets up Armitage's hero finishing the movie. The climax plays out the same as Carter, with Tackett ridding the world of the chauffeur who killed his brother after a long chase during which his victim shouts at him: "You're diggin it man, huh? You got the taste of blood animal, huh? FUCKING ANIMAL! ANIMAL!" But as Tackett walks away satisfied and the sniper sets him in his crosshairs, a bulletin comes over the would-be assassin's squad car radio detailing the death of the crime boss who hired him. So...he lets Tackett go! Just figures it doesn't matter now I guess. It would be interesting to find out if this ending is in keeping with the novel (and since Lewis wrote two sequels with Carter I'm guessing he survives in the book somehow.) In what I thought was a nice touch by Armitage, instead of throwing the double-barreled shotgun in the sea like Carter (who doesn't complete the motion since the non-impeded sniper's bullet gets to him before he can chuck the weapon), Tackett tosses his brother's ashes. For Carter, it was all about a wave of hellacious destruction that's finally reached its conclusion; he no longer requires his implement of death. For Tackett, it was always about settling the score for the sake of his murdered brother, so the gesture is another change made to make the character more likable, one that's good-natured as well as cathartic (although he might have removed the ashes from the box before tossing into the water - people typically scatter ashes as opposed to just tossing the container away...but don't let me tell you your business, Tackett. I will point out that it's also funny he DIDN'T toss the shotgun, since it had earlier been established that it was his brother's and he had an attachment to it - to Carter it's just some gun he swiped from his landlady.) Jack Carter was too morally corrupt and, plainly, too evil to leave alive in the world. But Tyrone Tackett is just a guy who took care of business: he's not going to cause more meaningless harm like a Jack Carter or a Freddy Frenger would had they survived. This is a fitting end for him, the Martin Blank happy ending rather than the Freddy Frender tragic one (even though I think it would have been better if the guy had aimed for Tackett's head only to have the bullet pass through his giant fro, but oh well.)
Something has to be said about how goddamn gorgeous Pam Grier is in this movie. She's never looked better, and she's not a big fan of clothes. Every woman who opens her mouth to speak in Hit Man is, to varying lengths of time and camera distance, naked in the movie. But since Hit Man is, by nature, an exploitation film, its treatment of women comes off as far less misogynist than Carter. The second big scene after the airport mirrors Miami Blues' second big scene after the airport: the "hero" intimidating a naked hooker who expected a quick business transaction and ended up with more than she bargained for. I've talked to people who don't like the representation of Jennifer Jason Leigh's "Miss Not-So-Bright" hooker in Miami Blues, but I think she's a brilliant creation by both Armitage and Leigh: she's not really an idiot, she's just an optimist. Grier's character is an opportunist who loves being let into the porno movie for free, and right up to the point where things are about to go very bad for her she's trying to talk Tackett into introducing her to his influential boss back home. She never really sees him for anything but a mark; Leigh's Susan Waggoner is so genuinely good-natured in her view of the world she still throws Hoke the frisbee after he's gunned down the man she loves.
Hit Man was shot by Andrew Davis, future director of Above the Law, Under Siege and The Fugitive (he also shot Armitage's 1979 TV movie Hot Rod), the film looks pretty decent with a few stand-out shots and a few that felt like "close enough, print it" budget takes. The music's by H.B. Barnum, most famous in the film community as a member of the doo-wop group The Robins aka The Coasters: his song "Since I First Met You" popped up on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.**** He's no Roy Budd, but the required elements of a good Blaxploitation score are all there, from the heavy bass to the rachet playing a big part in the percussion section. There's an opening credits theme song ("Hit Man, Hit Man - whatchu gonna do 'bout the situation?") although I preferred "Youngblood," the theme song of the seditious porno movie.
As with Miami Blues, Armitage wrote the adaptation and did a good job organizing the complicated set up. I love Get Carter, but a major criticism I've always had is that character relationships are a little confusing - there are 3 crime bosses, it's hard to sort out which thugs are working for whom, and it doesn't help that the one active female character works for two of the three bosses. I'm not sure if it's because I came into Hit Man understanding who everyone was supposed to be, but the layout seemed to be structured much better. A lot of dialogue came verbatim from Hodges' movie - "You're lucky, they kill too," "Just because he turned me onto you doesn't mean you can do the same thing," "Who pulled her? - while the more slang-y exchanges are clearly exclusive to Armitage's script: "He's my uncle." "Oh, your Uncle Tom?" My belief that he referred directly to the original film seems validated in two specific moments: the ticking of a pendulum to intensify the phone sex (substituting for a clock in Carter) and the scene where Tackett arrives at the house as the gangster's daughter's party is breaking up which is almost a mirror image of the first film. His direction is competent and resourceful, and he tends to frame most of the dialogue in two-shots in contrast to Carter's aggressive close-ups, probably due to practical film conservation but also because Armitage just likes to have his characters sharing the space they're in. But the most telling indication that this is a work by the man who'd go on to direct Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank is his handling of the lead character. Tackett fits in well with Armitage's men of action, quick to violence but never out of spite or a sense of vengeance against their victims. In fact, they've retrogressed from Tackett's skilled yet morally questionable killer to Baldwin's casual, almost accidental but unrepentant murderer to Cusack's noble assassin to Wilson's peaceful slacker whose only violent act is to swing a bat defensively at a giant Vinnie Jones who's about to attack him.
What does Armitage think of this movie now? It has zero reputation, even within the Blaxploitation canon. The only way I came upon it was the double-temptation of "early George Armitage" and "all-black Get Carter," and I can't imagine Bernie Casey has a strong enough fan base for a well-publicized re-release. And even if Miami Blues has recently enjoyed some long overdue re-evaluation, unless Armitage comes out with another film I can't imagine his reputation gaining power all on its own. I guess Hit Man will remain a curio for Get Carter and Blaxploitation fans, or a hidden gem for folks who appreciate a young nude Pam Grier, but it definitely made me curious enough to seek out the director's other pre-Blues efforts and dream of the day he'll bring the other three of Willeford's spectacular Hoke Moseley novels to the screen.
~ 2011 ~
* My bootleg dvd of Hit Man shuts down at exactly the same moment during the dog fight every time, as if too disgusted by it to continue playing the movie (I have to flip to the following chapter and scan back to the part right after the moment where it freezes up to watch the rest of it.)
** You're thinking, what about Joan Cusack as Martin Blank's sister in Grosse Pointe Blank? Joan Cusack is John Cusack's sister, but in the film she's his character's secretary. Don't worry, I usually misremember it the exact same way.
*** Upon review, I realized the hooker does receive her comeuppance via machine gunning while in a hot tub at the party. But Tackett doesn't kill her himself, which is still important to point out.
**** He must have had some connection to Corman as well, since the song also appeared in three Corman remakes from 1994, Uli Edel's Confessions of Sorority Girls, Allan Arkush's Shake Rattle & Roll! and Joe Dante's Runaway Daughters.