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Wild in the Streets (Blu-ray Review)

6 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Shelley Winters, Christopher Jones, Diane Varsi, Hal Holbrook.

For all of you who’ve pledged never to miss any counter-culture movie that top-bills Shelley Winters, AIP’s Wild in the Streets is probably the place to start — albeit for reasons which (then and now) have less to do with story-execution finesse than the fact that this time capsule was actually made. Released in a presidential election year nearly half-a-century ago, Streets opened a week before the assassination of Robert Kennedy — just after the Memorial Day before the fall that would see Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace running against each other for chief exec. Arguably as much to the point, Ronald Reagan had by this time been governor of California for about a year-and-a-half, enough time for any screenwriter’s mind (here it was Robert Thom’s) to ferment.

Given the flux of celebrity politicians we’ve had since Reagan made such career cross-pollination seem either exotic or an outrage, the movie is possibly more interesting now than it was at the time — though it’s also true that this yarn about a rock star who becomes a California senator on his way to the presidency was a bona fide mid-level hit when it opened. After years of having its classier releases (like, say, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe series) still consigned to drive-ins or premieres in small neighborhood theaters, American International was spending a little more money and expanding its choice of subjects in an attempt to land bookings in major venues. In my town, the first time I can recall this happening was with AIP’s biker mini-smash The Wild Angels in 1966, which ended up playing a downtown movie palace in my hometown (named, in fact, the Palace). I saw it first-run there the same weekend I managed to catch MGM’s The Singing Nun (then 2 years old) for the first time, a combo natural high if ever there was one. (And why was I even bothering to see the latter? Post-Graduate Katharine Ross lust.)

Streets’ male lead is Christopher Jones, who was the James Dean wannabe of 1968 — just as Michael Parks had been the JDW of 1965 in what was then seeming like a cottage industry. Humbly born to blowsy mama Winters and predictably dominated papa Bert Freed, Jones’s reinvented “Max Frost” character finds himself heading a rock band that includes Richard Pryor (in his second big-screen role) as its drummer and Hollywood exile Diane Varsi as its live-in groupie with long hair apparently scotch-taped to her breasts. In keeping with the youth culture of the day, Jones/Frost has a Dylan-esque aversion to anyone under the age of 30, though the figure will be eventually revised downward as the story unreels. Though not overly enthusiastic about it, he hires on to tout the fortunes of a shallow California senatorial candidate (Hal Holbrook) who’d like to lower the voting age to 18, which at the time was seen as a moderately radical concept. Eventually, Max determines that a political life might be the way for his own career to progress, which among other things inspires him to get a senior senator played by Ed Begley Sr. to drop acid (talk about a sweet bird of youth).

Critic/historian Danny Peary hates this movie for the justifiable reason that it cheapens and misunderstands the political youth movement of the day, which, at its best, was way too savvy to fall for anyone as pandering as the office-holding jokers seen here. Yet oddly, in our current Trump-ian universe, the picture now seems mildly fascinating and not un-prescient in an out-of-its time way — or, at least it does on paper because the follow-through here isn’t exactly deft. Wikipedia claims that Streets was shot in just 15 days, which by the looks of skimpy crowd scenes and an overall dearth of polish seems like a credible claim (the dribbly color by Pathe won’t conjure up memories of any Powell-Pressburger pigmentary glories, either). This isn’t a story anyone would want to see slicked up, but a little more craft might have given it more punch. The director here was Barry Shearer, who, in fairness, later did one of my favorite urban toughies of its era (Across 110th Street). His rather, uh, prolific TV credits included “The Donna Reed Show,” “The Arthur Murray Dance Party,” gigs with Ernie Kovacs, Jonathan Winters and Eddie Fisher (now, there’s a ringer), Undercover With the KKK starring (lest we forget) Don Meredith, and the provocatively titled Don Rickles: Buy This Tape, You Hockey Puck.

By 1968, Winters had won the second of her two supporting Oscars, which thrust her career into that murky area between lead stardom and that character-actor treadmill where your filmography is all over the place. I always had mixed feelings about her, though my affection naturally increased when, at a D.C dinner whose invitation I was forced by circumstances to turn down, she removed her pantyhose in a Georgetown restaurant in front of two of my best friends. Even by Winters’ frequent standards, her role here is very strange: comically broad until one jarringly tragic incident fairly early on (out of keeping with anything else in the film) knocks her out of the movie’s entire midsection until she shows up again in the late going. Almost as disorienting is watching the screen return of featured player Varsi, an actress whose disdain for Hollywood had instigated the bolting from her contract at 20th Century-Fox in the late ’50s after four high-profile pictures (and a supporting Oscar nomination for her Peyton Place debut). Varsi’s industry disdain was such that emcee Bob Hope even made a crack about her in one late ’50s Oscarcast, and one wonders why acting opposite the likes of Gary Cooper and Orson Welles put her off, while doing the same with Christopher Jones and Streets minor player Larry Bishop (Joey’s son) didn’t. But time marches on, and Varsi had a host of emotional and physical health woes that might have tipped the balance.

Oh, well … this is one fecund casting mix all around. We get showboat lawyer Melvin Belli as himself (though less flamboyant than he’d be in Gimme Shelter a couple years later); journalist and James Mason ex Pamela Mason (looking almost like a dead ringer for the twilight Marilyn Maxwell); show biz journalist Army Archerd; the not very chewy bubble gum idol Bobby Sherman; Walter Winchell in his final screen appearance; and even Dick Clark to Tell Us What It All Means. (A year later, a Clark-in-wire-rims would co-star with Varsi in AIP’s Killers Three.) Married Brill Building royalty Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote the songs, and the soundtrack album sold well; I had forgotten that the one song here that many halfway remember — "The Shape of Things To Come" (by, as it was billed, “Max Frost”). "Shape" made it to No. 22 on Billboard before its inclusion many years later on one of the Rhino CD box sets of Nuggets. To be sure, AIP didn’t reap any subsidiary benefits like this from its budget-busting production of De Sade the following year.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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