VINTAGE VIOLENCE: SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965) AND LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (1976)

August 2, 2011

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A baboon and Santa Claus are witnesses to man’s descent into savagery. In Sands of the Kalahari (1965, out on DVD today from Olive Films), a charter plane crashes in the African desert, and its passengers battle each other (and some observant simians) for survival. Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, a recent Raro Video DVD release)  finds a couple of pretty boy Dirty Harries gunning down suspects before they have time to commit crimes. Poor Old St. Nick can only grin and bear these assaults on individual freedom. Both films display the brutalizing depths wisecracking civilized types can descend to when they feel above or outside the law.

After the international success of Zulu (1964), director Cy Endfield and actor/producer Stanley Baker reunited in South Africa for Sands of the Kalahari. Endfield, born in Scranton, PA,  had been working in the UK for over a decade after being declared a former Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I discussed his second-to-last Hollywood film, the inflammatory noir The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me), back in February. He used a variety of pseudonyms in the years after he was put on the blacklist, since British producers still wanted U.S. distribution.

Endfield (credited as Charles de la Tour) first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956), a family drama adapted from the novel by Janet McNeill. They hit it off, and returned with Hell Drivers (where Endfield used his real name for the first time), a taut trucking adventure that established the fatalistic tone of their future collaborations. They continued to elaborate their interest in self-destruction in the thrillers Sea Fury (1958)and Jet Storm (1959) before hitting it big on Zulu.

Like Jet Storm (set on a plane in which a grief-stricken passenger (Richard Attenborough) intends to blow himself up) and ZuluSands of the Kalahari contends with a small group grappling with the prospect of  imminent death. The story was adapted by Endfield from William Mulvihill’s novel of the same name. When a commercial flight is canceled at a Johannesburg airport, a few of the international travelers charter their own plane out: there is the fadingly charismatic pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport); the unfailingly logical, and vaguely Eastern European Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel); ex-German soldier and monkey lover Grimmelman (Harry Andrews); professional British lady Grace Munkton (Susannah York); functioning alcoholic Bain (Stanley Baker); and the immediately shirtless big-game hunter O’Brien (Stuart Whitman).

The plane runs into a swarm of locusts and crashes into the dunes of the Kalahari desert. After the junky jet explodes, the group is stranded in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth, with sharp-toothed monkeys monitoring their every move. O’Brien sheds his shirt and takes over, and slowly goes mad Heart of Darkness style, growing obsessed with the absolute power he can maintain in this exotic outpost of humanity. Ms. Munkton swoons over his rippling pectorals, but the other passengers aren’t so impressed, and get picked off one by one. What O’Brien ultimately wants is to dominate nature itself, and when humanity fails to pose a challenge, he opts to wage a war against the baboons.

Endfield takes full advantage of the Panavision frame, using the early urban sequences for centered compositions filled with background action, while the desert sections are unbalanced and emptied out. The opening is in medium-shot, while the desert sequences are in long-shot. As the enormity of their situation dawns upon his characters, Endfield pulls further away. It is a nasty little picture, attuned to the brutality of the scenario more than others of its ilk, including the (quite good) Five Came Back (1939, dir. John Farrow), Desperate Search (1950, dir. Joseph H. Lewis), and Flight of the Phoenix (1965, dir. Robert Aldrich). Endfield said, “The only way to do it was to show the essentialism of survival, which was impossible given censorship rules. Otherwise it seems like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” (from Brian Neve’s career spanning interview).

I shudder to think what an uncensored Sands of the Kalahari would look like, because this is pretty raw material. In one queasy sequence, the remaining men club a wounded impala to death with stones, as Endfield frames them in rare close-up with maniacal grimaces on their faces. In another, O’Brien guns down baboons from their mountainside dwellings, and their corpses fall to the ground like a mealy potatoes.

The main conflict is between O’Brien’s hyper-macho Darwinism and the other men’s reluctant egalitarianism. There is no true competitor, as the Doctor is a coward, the German resorts to the violence he disdains, and Bain is brave but a bit of a dolt. Endfield clearly agrees with the milquetoasts, but is fascinated by O’Brien’s animality. Shunning escape, he chooses to live alone in the desert, growing a patchy beard and awaiting the showdown with the primates whose homeland he has invaded. This final battle is gruesome and short, and in the end Endfield pulls away in his longest long shot, until O’Brien is just another dot on the landscape. Nature, as ever, is unperturbed.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man does not exhibit that kind of formal control, but its tilt-a-whirl frenzy holds its own insane appeal. Directed by Italian exploitation specialist Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), it’s a near plot-less exercise in gonzo action sequences. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – who also sings the Dylan-esque theme song) are model-handsome cops spearheading a special operations force in Rome. These two grinning sociopaths gleefully snap necks of suspects who survive their chases, and resort to torture for small bits of information. They are the exploitation version of Dirty Harry, who at least had motivation for his sundering of the law. These two are simply insane, although they go about it in an amiable cop show manner, as if CSI: Miami’s David Caruso just started choking out schlubs in the interrogation room.

Without characterization or narrative to speak of, the juice here is in the location shooting of the action scenes, which deliver wildly dangerous stunts on the streets of Rome, often shot without permits. The stunner is the opening motorcycle chase, an epic jaunt through the Via del Corso that weaves through traffic, crashes through cafes, thunders on top of cars, and scares an old blind man. Interspersing camera mounted cycle shots with the death-defying stunt-riders, it’s a full kinesthetic assault that matches its other model, The French Connection (1971), for white-knuckle realism. When the action scenes end, it’s just another campy exploitation movie, but when the cameraman hits the ground running once more, it’s wise to start paying attention.

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