This week on TCM Underground: Death Force (1978) and Clay Pigeon (1971)


If you’ve grown tired of all the repeats here at TCM Underground lately, oh brother have we got something very special for you this week!


The Philippine islands have long been a destination of choice for Hollywood-based filmmakers looking for affordable exotica. Francis Ford Coppola faked the Vietnam War there in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) but the republic has a rich and long-standing film history of its own. Filipino filmmakers were weaving cinematic tales of faith and magic as early as 1912 and before the onset of World War II (and the subsequent, devastating invasion and occupation by Japanese forces) the Philippines was home to several vigorous and competitive film studios. Though the country’s film output was halted during the Second World War, business resumed with the Allied victory in 1945. The following year, Manila’s Premiere Productions was founded by Ciriaco Santiago, whose son Cirio would not only inherit the studio but go on to produce and/or direct over a hundred features, forging beneficial alliances along the way with such American cult heroes as Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and Quentin Tarantino.


When Corman shifted production of Jack Hill’s seminal “women-in-prison” picture THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) from the jungles of Puerto Rico to the Filipino back country, a viable market was identified and a pipeline opened that was aimed directly into the heart of American exploitation. Having directed a number of films in the Philippine and Tagalog languages, Cirio Santiago made his English language debut with a clutch of programmers cobbled together to satisfy aficionados of black action movies, kung fu fight flicks, women-in-prison movies, and assorted exploitable entertainments. FLY ME (1973), SAVAGE!, TNT JACKSON (1974), and EBONY, IVORY, AND JADE (1975) were all exhilarating cinematic slumgullions made for Corman’s New World Pictures and Lawrence Woolner’s Dimension Pictures; despite a wide-ranging assortment of storylines, the formula rarely strayed past American leading players, local supporting talent, a bit of nudity, a dash of violence, and something blowing up.


Santiago’s DEATH FORCE (1978) came somewhat late in the exploitation game, at a point by which the primacy of the drive-in and grindhouse was beginning to wane but with new avenues opening for speculation, expansion and growth. Reuniting with his SAVAGE! leading man James Inglehart and working from a script by Howard R. Cohen (who had written the 1972 Corman-produced roller derby drama THE UNHOLY ROLLERS), DEATH FORCE tells the tale of Doug Russell (Inglehart), a Vietnam veteran turned gold smuggler who is betrayed and left for dead by his partners (Leon Isaac Kennedy and Carmen Argenziano) and dumped into the sea; washing ashore an uncharted island in Southeast Asian, nursed back to health and given a Zen focus (and a samurai sword) by an aging Japanese soldier (Joe Mari Avellana) still fighting the Second World War, Russell heads for Los Angeles to settle accounts and reunite with his wife (Jayne Kennedy) and the son he never knew.


DEATH FORCE is rich in plot points that feel borrowed from other movies: the revenge angle of John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967), the East versus West rapprochement of Boorman’s HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968), the killer-in-training montage from Giulio Petroni’s DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1966) and Burt Kennedy’s HANNIE CAULDER (1972), the Mafia rub-outs from Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER, a HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) attack in a barber shop, and an ending that may or may not have been cribbed from Mike Hodges’ GET CARTER (1971) – though both Emilio Miraglia’s ASSASSINATION (1967) and Robert Sparr’s MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (1969) beat Hodges to the punch with that particular twist-in-the-tail. Avellana’s unorthodox training rituals also serve as an effective pencil sketch for the whole of John Avildsen’s THE KARATE KID (1984).


Yet despite its arguable derivativeness, DEATH FORCE is very much its own wild animal, with Inglehart a surprisingly nuanced lead for such downmarket material and Leon Isaac Kennedy (soon to rebrand himself as a leading man) and Carmen Argenziano (one of the more outspoken of the hunted radicals of Peter Watkins’ PUNISHMENT PARK [1971]) relishing their villainous turns as salt-and-pepper partners in crime. A former Miss Ohio, Jayne Kennedy went straight from DEATH FORCE to a prominent slot as a replacement for sportscaster Phyllis George on the CBS pre-game TV program THE NFL TODAY.


An atypically lengthy exploitation actioner weighing in nearly two hours, DEATH FORCE was cut down to 96 minutes for the home video market, where it appeared on a number of VHS labels over the years under a number of alternate titles – among them VENGEANCE IS MIND, THE FORCE, and FIGHTING MAD. (With an inbound Doug Russell clearing customs at LAX while openly carrying samurai swords KILL BILL-style, the film was also known in a number of former markets as BLACK SAMURAI.) In most of these cuts, the whiplash tragedy of DEATH FORCE’s final frames is conspicuous in its absence, supplanted by a freeze frame tableau that permits a victorious Russell to be reunited with his wife and toddler offspring (Inglehart’s real life son, James Monroe Inglehart, now a Tony Award-winning Broadway actor/singer). For many years, that truncated edit was the only version available, a situation remedied (for film purists, at least, if not for incurable romantics) by the release within the last few years of the complete film by the niche market DVD house Vinegar Films.


For a very brief interlude in Hollywood, between the demise of the old studio system and the rise of such “New Hollywood” auteurs as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, and Steven Spielberg, Tom Stern was the independent filmmaking equivalent of a one man band. His shot at playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers mooted by a shoulder injury and his acting career (mostly TV work, apart from bits in THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD) overshadowed by his marriage to up-and-coming starlet Samantha Eggar, Stern took the proactive step of writing and producing a movie as a vehicle for himself. Shot on the cheap and given the full court press by American International Pictures at the height of the craze for biker flicks, HELLS ANGELS ’69 (1969) proved sufficiently successful for Stern to plan a more ambitious follow-up. For CLAY PIGEON (1971), Stern cast himself as a wary Vietnam vet who becomes ensnared in federal bid to ankle the international heroin trade and lined up a supporting cast of Hollywood names – Telly Savalas, Robert Vaughn, John Marley, Jeff Corey, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, and Ivan Dixon. Things were looking good through pre-production but just three weeks before the start of principal photography, Stern’s European funding disappeared, leaving him roughly half a million in the lurch. Kicking off undeterred with $200,000 of his own money, with his Hollywood hirelings agreeing to deferred salaries, and with the sale of shares to friends in the business, Stern secured a distribution deal from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Though Metro gave the film a good, solid push into the cinemas in September of 1971, CLAY PIGEON proved to be a box office nonstarter and was swiftly remaindered to the bottom half of drive-in double bills with Stuart Hagman’s BELIEVE IN ME (1971), Paul Magwood’s CHANDLER (1971), Blake Edwards THE CAREY TREATMENT (1972), and a 1972 re-release of John Avildsen’s JOE (1970). Sticking to character roles on TV series such as MANNIX, POLICE STORY, DALLAS, and THE FALL GUY, Stern later retired to San Diego and produced Zalman King’s existential surfer drama IN GOD’S HANDS (1998).

1 Response This week on TCM Underground: Death Force (1978) and Clay Pigeon (1971)
Posted By ziggy : May 12, 2016 11:19 pm

are BOTH these TCM premieres?

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