March 18, 2014
Joe Don Baker is introduced in Mongo’s Back in Town getting off a bus in San Pedro, a scar still pulsing on his left temple. In Lifeguard, Rick (Sam Elliott) strolls in a tight white t-shirt and shades to his perch on a Santa Monica Bay beach. Each is an act of refusal. The hitman Mongo is intent on destroying himself and his hometown, while the thirty-something Rick has rejected bourgeois career building in favor of life as a beach bum. Mongo’s Back in Town is a hard-boiled noir made for TV, first broadcast on CBS in 1971 (now available on DVD). Lifeguard is a relaxed Paramount character study that moves with the sunburnt sloth one feels after a long day at the beach, and is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. Though they exist in vastly different genres, both aim for a kind of stasis, one in which its people prefer to watch than move.
Mongo’s Back in Town was adapted from a novel by E. Richard Johnson, a convicted murderer and armed robber who spent most of his life in Minnesota State Prison. He won the 1968 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut novel Silver Street, and Mongo was his equally well-received follow up. He wrote seven books in four years of imprisonment before escaping, succumbing to drug addiction, and getting recaptured. The terse teleplay by Herman Miller (Coogan’s Bluff) feels very faithful to Johnson’s book in its bleak and withholding nature. The basic story is straightforward but willfully opaque in its details. Mongo is called home by his estranged brother Mike (Charles Cioffi) to knock off one of his rivals. The reasons are murky, cloaked in brief, diversionary bits of dialogue. The film reveals its intentions with its opening sequence, six minutes of wordless action that introduces the characters.
Joe Don Baker arrives in town with nothing, not even an overcoat to protect him from the sheets of rain. He smashes the cheap knick knacks being sold by a blind peddler. The camera then follows the peddler, who enters a rundown strip club. As the floor is scrubbed by a little person in the extreme foreground, the peddler whispers a message to Mike that we cannot hear. Mike then climbs the staircase into his upstairs apartment. Upon opening the door to his bedroom, a deck of cards set up like dominos tumble down in a line to his wife Angel’s (Anne Francis) feet. It’s a willfully strange sequence, one portraying the city as a network of criminality laid down at the feet of Angel. Whether this sequence was orchestrated by director Marvin J. Chomsky, DP Archie R. Dalzell or producer Bob Banner, it’s an effectively disorienting way to set up the knotty plot to come.
The countervailing forces are the investigating detectives, played with exhausted Kojakery by Telly Savalas and a callow Martin Sheen (sporting the same pompadour as in Badlands (’73). Lieutenant Tolstad (Savalas) is burnt out from working this scummy precinct, represented in exteriors of dive bars, peep shows and strip clubs. He seems as nihilistic as Mongo, who flicks lit matches at his brother and picks up runaway coal miner’s daughter Vikki (Sally Field) at a diner, only to cruelly play with her emotions. In the triangulated climax, Vikki is torn between these two used up men, her face tensed up, staring at the phone booth that could call Tolstad, and at the club doors that Mongo is about to bust out of. In the end, like all of the characters in this strange, bitter little film, she chooses apathy. Fate decides for her, as it did for E. Richard Johnson.
Lifeguard is an altogether more optimistic enterprise, based on the summers screenwriter Ron Koslow spent at southern California beaches. Rick (Sam Elliott) is an aging well-tanned lothario, closing in on a decade-long career as a lifeguard. While all his old friends have become salesman of insurance or luxury cars, he still spends his days at the beach and his nights with stewardesses. He has successfully avoided the responsibilities and stresses of adult life, content with staring at the ocean instead of his bank account. His apartment is a bachelor pad par excellence, festooned with surf posters and shag carpet, while he spends his free time on the highway in his Corvette Stingray. His parents fret about when he will settle down and stop wasting his life. An old friend offers him a job at his Porsche dealership, while he meets his old flame Cathy (Anne Archer) at the high school reunion, at which he’s embarrassed to admit his profession hasn’t changed since graduation.
In an interview archived at the Director’s Guild of America, Petrie bemoaned the marketing of Lifeguard, the poster depicting big bosomed bimbos flanking a caricature of Elliott, as if it were another Porky’s. It was a modest success, netting $505,000 in profits, though it did not launch Elliott’s career as a leading man, deserving though he was. Disregard the bad taste marketing and the schmaltzy score, as Lifeguard is an understated and wise film about the rejection of adulthood. Director Daniel Petrie lets the story develop its own shaggy tempo, and elicits a grounded, engaging performance from Elliott. He exudes a bodily calm, his gestures an extension of his surfer-Buddhist ethos.
Cathy is a recent divorcee and bourgeois striver, eager to envelop him in luxury goods. The other woman in his life is Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a 17-year-old girl and fellow outcast, eager to escape her bickering parents and live on the beach with Rick. She is a vision of the youth and freedom he cherishes, though he realizes it is only an image. He can only achieve the lifestyle he seeks in solitude. So he ends where he began, aging alone at his lifeguard post, scanning the ocean for signs of life and death.