Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Choppers (Rushmore Productions/Fairway International, shot 1959, released 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Choppers, a movie I’d just downloaded from mainly because it, like Teenagers from Outer Space, was featured in the most recent issue of Filmfax magazine — this one via an interview with its star, Arch Hall, Jr., who by sheer coincidence (not!) also happened to be the son of its writer and producer, Arch Hall, Sr. The younger Hall was an aspiring rock musician who had had a single, “Konga Joe” b/w “Monkey in My Hatband,” released on the Signature label (best known for their 1940’s jazz releases with people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Anita O’Day) on a deal set up with, of all people, Steve Allen — who had the reputation of being someone who hated rock ’n’ roll (he’d do satirical readings of rock lyrics like “Be-Bop-a-Lula”) even though he’d had Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis on his TV shows.

Hall, Sr. was an owner of business real estate and a contractor when, in 1959, he decided to take a run at the movie business and make a film to showcase the talents of his son. Hall, Sr. wrote the script for the film (taking credit under his own name — in their later films he would frequently disguise his writing and/or acting contributions under pseudonyms like “Nicholas Merriweather” and “William Watters”) and hired a director who, if not exactly one of the great auteurs of cinema history, at least had a solid reputation. His name was Leigh Jason and he’d been a contract director at RKO in the 1930’s, making movies like That Girl from Paris with Lily Pons and Gene Raymond and The Mad Miss Manton with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda (the idea of those illustrious people being just one degree of separation from Arch Hall, Jr. boggles the mind!), which may help explain why The Choppers, for all its cheapness and clunky writing, is at least a professionally made film, decently if not creatively edited and with especially well-staged action scenes.

The opening is still pretty remarkable: Arch Hall, Jr. plays Jack “Cruiser” Bryan, leader of a five-person teenage gang which specializes in looking for cars that are stranded on lonely, remote roads, coming by in a chicken delivery truck (complete with live chickens just to make the cover more believable) and looting the parked cars for just about everything they can salvage from it, from the obvious stuff like hubcaps and radios to wheels, exhaust pipes, seats, hoods and trunk lids, and whatever else they can carry away in the stash area between the two racks of chicken cages in their truck. Bryan, a bored rich kid whose father is dead (killed in World War II, we later find out) and whose mother almost never sees him — neglectful parents feature in the origin story of just about every movie juvenile delinquent in the 1950’s — leads the gang from his elaborate hot rod (a famous vehicle owned by real-life hot rodder Bill Roland and featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine), often communicating with them in quasi-military language on one of those horribly inconvenient shoebox-sized devices that were as close as 1950’s technology could get to cell phones, while the other four gang members — “Torch” Lester (Robert Padget), Tony “The Snooper” Panilli (Mickey Hoyle, t/n Burr Middleton), Flip Johnson (Roye Baker, t/n Rex Holman) and Ben Shore (Chuck Boggs) — work from the chicken truck and do the actual “chopping.” (Most gangs who do this sort of thing have enclosed spaces where they take cars they’ve stolen and dismantle them for parts in a more leisurely fashion, but Hall, Sr.’s script lets us know that the “choppers” in this film are in it as much for the thrills as the money.)

They sell the parts to a particularly slimy auto-salvage dealer named Moose McGill (Bruno VeSota), who has an assistant, Cowboy Boggs (Britt Wood), an obnoxious fellow who plays guitar and sings (badly — I guess there had to be someone in the cast to make Arch Hall, Jr. sound like a great musician by comparison), and wields a shotgun with which he threatens to blow away the teenagers his boss is dealing with. Needless to say, Arch Hall, Sr. also plays a role in the film — he’s Joe Bradford, a radio reporter who begins the film with a voice-over narration (so closely duplicating the clipped tones of Jack Webb on the famous introduction to Dragnet it’s a real surprise when he says “I’m a reporter” instead of “I’m a cop”) — probably on the principle Orson Welles articulated when asked if he had some deep auteur-ish reason why he had acted in virtually all the films he directed, and Welles replied, “No, it’s just that if I play a part myself, that’s one less actor I have to pay.”

The Choppers lasts for about 65 minutes — about all the running time its slender plot can sustain — and it cuts back and forth between the choppers themselves and the rather stupid cops who are after them (one of the actors playing a cop even says “far and few between” when he means “few and far between”) who finally overwhelm them with firepower just when Moose and Cowboy have turned against them because they’re afraid they’ll get busted if they continue to deal with this flamboyant gang who even go so far as to lift the hubcaps and radio from a cop car whose drivers are having lunch at the same burger joint the choppers themselves frequent. Rex Holman is easily the best-looking guy in the film — though he seems oddly preppie-ish to be mixed in with this bunch — and Robert Padget is easily the best actor among the choppers, though there’s also a quite remarkable performance by heroine Marianne Gaba, who plays Liz, one of the cops’ girlfriends who in one unforgettable scene ties her shirt around her midriff and drops into seductive mode in order to get close enough to the choppers to learn Jack Bryan’s address.

The Choppers isn’t a particularly good movie — it’s not even a low-budget sleeper on the level of Teenagers from Outer Space — but it’s a decent enough film even though one keeps getting the impression that there’s a much better movie trapped inside this one struggling to get out, and I particularly liked the chilling conceit of Bryan getting his girlfriend de jour unwittingly involved in his crimes by taking her along on what proves to be the climactic scene in which he’s chased, and eventually cornered, by the police. Arch Hall, Jr. was still relatively young and cute — within just a few years he’d still be young but his face would harden and his mouth form a perpetual sneer that gave him a weird appearance (like he was being butt-fucked with an oil drill, as I put it in my notes on one of the Halls’ other movies), while his duck’s-ass hairdo would achieve such odd proportions it would look as if his own ass had somehow migrated to the top of his head. His chest had already achieved the sort of hairless pudginess it had in his later films (though at least he had nice nipples), but one of the pleasant surprises in this film is the quality of his music-making.

No, he would never have become a giant of white rock ’n’ roll, but the songs he sings here (especially “Konga Joe” and the one piece he’s shown singing “live,” a laid-back jam called “Up the Creek” he does solo with his gang-mates as his audience) are clever and appealing rock novelties for the time. Apparently Arch Hall, Jr. was listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland and other Black artists that weren’t exactly the usual stuff of white would-be rockers’ playlists in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and he recently returned to playing (he had quit music and acting in the 1970’s to become an airline pilot, written a novel based on those experiences and retired in the early 2000’s) and recorded a CD called Wild Guitar with rockabilly/blues revivalist Deke Dickerson that might be worth seeking out.

The Choppers was made under the studio label “Rushmore Productions,” with a little picture of the four faces on Mount Rushmore as their logo, though quickly Arch Hall, Sr. would change that to “Fairway International Pictures” and release The Choppers under that label on a double bill with his second film with his son, Eegah, the modern-caveman non-epic for which he upped the budget to film in color and used 7’ 2” actor Richard Kiel (future James Bond villain “Jaws”) in the lead role. Apparently Hall, Sr. had to sit on this movie for two years because none of the distributors he tried to sell it to would offer him enough to cover its production costs. “Nobody would give him any sort of distribution deal on it unless he would just give it away to them,” Hall, Jr. recalled in his Filmfax interview. “After going so deep into hock to finance it, he was in no shape to do that. That’s when he discovered the real crooked side of the motion picture business. … He learned he and the other independent producers were at the mercy of the system, forced to deal with crooks. He, of course, tried to fight it, but it was an almost impossible thing to deal with, much less change.” Hall, Sr. wasn’t able to release The Choppers under any circumstances in which he could hope even to make his production money back, much less turn a profit, until he made Eegah and could strike a more favorable distribution deal by being able to offer both films as a double feature.