Wild Seed (1965)
This week’s TCM Underground write-up features two Michael Parks movies, back-to-back and are, perhaps not coincidentally, his first and second features after a long stint with television. Wild Seed is his first, and he stars in the role that was clearly intended for a Marlon Brando type. According to Wikipedia, Brando (the real Brando, not just a Marlon Brando type) was intended for the lead role, but was deemed to old. I’m not sure how seriously he was considered though, given that his father produced it and, at this point, Brando was already 40, at least.
Whatever may or may not have been intended for Wild Seed, I can say that Michael Parks acquits himself well as the character known only as “Fargo.” No first name, no last name, just Fargo… sort of like the male Madonna of the mid-sixties. His full name is revealed later, but until then he’s our enigmatic badboy, with a set of rules known only to himself.
Daphne (Celia Kaye) is a teenage runaway, looking for her real father that she never knew. She flees her adopted parents’ home in New York city and hits the road out to Los Angeles. In the film’s opening scenes, she is almost raped by a seemingly nice and normal man, and she flees from the car, leaving a lot of her things in his possession, now gone. It is then that she crosses paths with Fargo, the leather jacket-wearing, cigarette-smoking, seemingly amoral young man who, at first, is manipulating the naive young girl out of the $40-something she has in her wallet. As the two travel along together, braving the trek across America by rail and on foot, confronting cops and hobos alike, they both see something in each other that the other person doesn’t have. Fargo hardens Daphne and Daphne softens him.
And, sure as the sun sets in the evening, the two kids fall in love.
I usually love these kinds of teenage melodramas specifically because of how over-the-top they always are. In these kinds of movies, someone is usually going to die, or something overwrought is going to happen. Or, as movies of this type usually do, as I was discussing in the movie about halfway through with my girlfriend, she said, “Movies like this usually punish the woman for daring to live life on her own terms or, even worse, have sex before marriage.”
Wild Seed, though, subverts your expectations. I was expecting a much stupider, louder, angrier movie (like something from Showtime’s “Rebel Highway” series). Instead, what I got was a soft, sensitive portrait of two people who learned to battle some of their demons, where the journey they went on was actually beneficial for the both of them. At the end, when they say their goodbyes to the lives they once knew, they have no money, they have no jobs, they have no idea of what the hell they’re going to do, but somehow, despite myself, I had a good feeling about their futures. Perhaps that wasn’t the movie’s intent–hell, I don’t know whether it really was or not–but that’s how I came away from it: With hope. You don’t do a thing like Celia did by pulling a sick man twice her size out of a train, save his life, stay by his side for hours and hours on end and not learn something.
The cinematography, care of the legendary Conrad Hall, is a secret weapon to the film’s success. It is, as always, gorgeous to look at, but it really helps sell the viewer the reality of Wild Seed. The city streets look disgusting, crowded and uninviting. The train yards are gritty and polluted. The whole world looks like a nightmare, except for our two leads, who look beautiful and bathed in natural and artificial light alike. And Conrad Hall really knows how to light smoke to make a cigarette look like the most glamorous thing in the world.
The script was written by TV veteran Lester Pine, with a story by Ike Jones, who I just learned with the first African American to graduate from the UCLA Film School and was the secret husband of actress Inger Stevens. Wild Seed was directed by Brian G. Hutton, director of such films as Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes.
Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965)
This week’s second feature also starring Michael Parks, released the same year as Wild Seed, was the less good Bus Riley’s Back in Town.
And when I say “less good” I mean “not good.” It just wasn’t very good. I think a better alternate title for Bus Riley’s Back in Town would have been Everyone Wants to Fuck Bus Riley. Michael Parks plays the titular Bus, back home from the Navy, and he moves back home to his mom’s house, to make something of himself and get a good job. And he makes it very clear that he definitely doesn’t want to get back with his now-married ex-girlfriend, Laurel (Ann-Margret).
So, pretty much right away he gets back with his now-married ex-girlfriend, Laurel. He lands a skeevy job as a door-to-door salesman, deciding being an auto mechanic was beneath him and after an assured position as a mortician ends up having certain sexual strings attached. He fucks a woman doing this gig and is on the verge of giving a pity fuck to another woman, an alcoholic, when her daughter interrupts them. That alcoholic woman falls asleep drunk with a cigarette later on, burns to death, and then he makes out with the daughter–who, I should mention, is his younger sister’s best friend.
And there’s also some really, really, really uncomfortable shit going on between Bus and his young sister Gertie (Kim Darby, who’s almost as annoying here as she is in True Grit). I think it’s supposed to be wholesome, like brother-sister bonding, but Jesus fucking Christ. It was… not portrayed well. The young girl has lust in her eyes and Bus just sort “aw, shucks” his way through it.
Bus is portrayed as being a very, very moral person. Very upstanding. His dad was a raging alcoholic so he doesn’t touch liquor. He has many long heart-to-hearts with people he comes into contact with, dropping little pearls of wisdom, and the movie makes it a point to portray him as a person who’s pretty well devoid of flaws… he doesn’t change much when the movie wraps up. The thing is, though, he’s kind of terrible. For god’s sake, how old is his sister’s friend supposed to be? Thirteen? Fourteen? And he never makes good on anything to, like, improve her life or anything except for telling her some trite life lesson like, “You gotta forgive everybody.” Okay?
Bus Riley’s Back in Town would have worked if it’d had a consistent tone. Is it a wacky comedy? Is it a searing melodrama? Is it a character study about someone who makes peace with themselves? It tries to be all three and at some points these conflicting scenes run one after the other, so a young girl is sobbing her eyes out to Bus, and in the very next shot some hot jazz is playing while Ann-Margret is trying to seduce him.
Everything going on between Bus and Laurel was the best stuff in the movie. That should have been the film’s focus. It was a movie about a dysfunctional sexual relationship, almost like a prototype of the film The Graduate, someone back home after a long time away, trying to find comfort in a sexual tryst that doesn’t do any good for his soul, just distracting himself from the pain he feels inside. That all works. The problem is that it’s surrounded by a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t work, like his salesman job selling a bizarre cleaning product modeled after nuclear weaponry. It might have been funnier in another movie, but here it just seems like an invasion from another movie.
Bus Riley’s Back in Town was written by Pulitzer Prize winner and playwright William Inge, under the name of Walter Gage, unhappy with the final result of the film which seemed to betray his script. With a cast like this, including supporting players like David Carradine and Larry Storch, it seems like Bus Riley is just a missed opportunity. There are just a lot of ideas floating around with no real cohesion. I feel like a sinner saying this, but it might be a good candidate for a remake.
Next Week: Next week I’m very excited about a pair of woman-directed 1987 flicks, Dudes and Border Radio, directed by Penelope Spheeris and Allison Anders, respectively.