Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Dion Brothers

Cinematic Wiseacre Duos, Part 5
There are cult movies, and there are bona-fide cult movies. Ones even the most discerning film geeks of a certain age forgot/never knew about.  Movies with a tiny but very loyal fan base.   Movies that take effort to catch, that you have to dig for if you don't luck upon a cable showing or are blessed with a revival theater's showcase. No one would argue that David Lynch's ERASERHEAD is a a cult film, by any possible definition, but it's fairly well known and able to be screened without too much trouble. 1974's THE DION BROTHERS, also known as THE GRAVY TRAIN, is all but nonexistent, with reports that the 35mm prints that have survived are faded and worn. Is there an acceptable master sitting in a vault, a salt mine somewhere? If the studio knows about it, do they care? How much demand can there be for an old, obscure buddy comedy drama that defies description?

In the case of DION BROTHERS, you indeed should narrow your description to "small cult".  They're out there. I've read postings. Fans who remember the film's original release under the GRAVY TRAIN title, which was changed because many viewers thought the movie was about dog food! Favorable recollections of a caustic yet effective fable of  the American Dream gone sour, yet again. A movie you might label under "Action", which it does have plenty of, but is so much more complex. With Terrence Malick as co-screenwriter, you might expect something, else. More thoughtful. Malick was also the original director before Jack Starrett replaced him.

Calvin (Stacy Keach) and Rut (Frederic Forrest) are the Dion brothers, none too bright and both toiling at dead end factory gigs. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly for this movie as Calvin rants on the assembly line about the mundanity of his work: "I didn't stick out the last year of high school for this shit!" he yells before tearing off his shirt and finishing with  "I could be Kirk Fucking Douglas!"

Calvin has fallen in with a disparate group of thieves in Washington D.C. who plan to stick up an armored car. Calvin convinces his cronies that his brother is the perfect addition to the team, what with his skills with dynamite and all. Rut gets his own big scene as he quits his job, smashing the windows of the boss' office. Another score for the proletariat? Er, Joe American?  The promise of a six-figure take from the heist is just too tempting, and will finance Calvin's dream of opening a seafood restaurant. The exotic kind that serves whale.

The job, masterminded by the shifty Tony (Barry Primus), is a success. But soon the brothers and muscular cohort Rex (Denny Miller) learn they've been double crossed by their partners when the police show up. Through dumb luck and a little ingenuity, the siblings escape and swear vengeance. On the perilous journey toward the inevitable showdown, the Dions will pose as policemen, rob some guys who might be politicians, harass Tony's spurned girlfriend (Margot Kidder), and threaten people with live lobsters and even an electric razor before a rather unusual climax.  Oh, there's the expected shootout, but it occurs in an abandoned building that is being demolished by a wrecking ball. That ball comes crashing through at just the wrong moments.

THE DION BROTHERS is a real find. A very knowing examination of machismo run rampant, of greed, of entitlement, of misplaced identity. The boys had been fed the promise of milk and honey and the hard work ethic to facilitate it for so long they are dumfounded when they fail at every turn. Sure, they're criminals, but in their eyes they are little different from the white collar jackals in D.C. or on Wall Street. So where's their slice?

My favorite scene is one of the quieter ones, when the brothers happen upon some cash and splurge at a fancy restaurant, the sort that has a different waiter for each course. The interplay between Calvin and Rut and the wait staff is a small gem, a ballet of comedy and sociology.  The film is punctuated with several great comedy bits. The dialogue is far from the typical buddy film banter, including Rut's final line. The appearance of the "chicken man" near the end, another of  the movie's many eccentric touches, had me aching with laughter. Not just because he's inherently funny, but that he would have a coop in a crumbling building.  Also, the corrupt physician (Paul Dooley) offering Tony "Two percent and some prescription pads" for his cut of the heist. 

Starrett is probably best known for his acting role in BLAZING SADDLES but has directed several fun "B" movies like CLEOPATRA JONES. THE DION BROTHERS is more ambitious, with an astute screenplay that is both ahead of most exploitation films and typical of them. Many 70s drive-in flicks offered much commentary between scenes of sex and mayhem.  DION BROTHERS was one of several "buddy movies" released in '74, and while the oddball humor is similar to other pictures like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN,  this pic is a bird in a class by itself. Too bad we can't view a proper print. I had to content myself with a (uncut) copy dubbed from a cable channel. But it's worth the effort, crappy film quality and all, to see.
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