DirectorSidney J. Furie
Release Date(s)1970-1978 (July 26, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures/Columbia Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
Directed by Sidney J. Furie is a five-movie set of the Canadian filmmaker’s work, all from the 1970s: The Lawyer, Little Fauss and Big Halsy (both 1970), Hit! (1973), Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1975), and The Boys in Company C (1978). This is one of the most extras-packed boxed sets I’ve yet encountered, all attractively packaged. Each film gets its own disc and case, the box is sturdy and artfully designed, and there’s a full-color booklet.
It seems almost obscene to complain there are too many extra features, but that seem the trend with many such releases. Sheila Levine, for instance, has two commentary tracks, an interview, and three—count ‘em, three—video essays plus a trailer, and that’s not counting the booklet. Not only do such extras ask the viewer to spend five to six hours per film just on the supplements, there’s a fair amount of repetition and tangential material clogging up the works as well. I suspect many Blu-ray buyers would be happier with one commentary track and one concise 20-minute featurette per film boiling everything down and rolling all of it into a single manageable evening. Here, at times, I felt like I was researching a PhD dissertation on the director rather than casually learning more about some interesting films.
Furie (born 1933), at 90, may have the longest still-active career of any director of English-language features, Furie debuting more than 65 years ago in 1958 and with at least one film currently in post-production. Clint Eastwood, by way of comparison, has been directing for mere 52 years.
Furie’s filmography, to say the least, is geographically and aesthetically varied and highly erratic. In Canada, England, Hollywood and elsewhere, he worked in every conceivable genre, from ultra-cheap horror movies to big-budget studio films to direct-to-DVD titles. He’s best known for the great spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965), the first of three pictures starring Michael Caine; Lady Sings the Blues (1972), the Oscar-nominated biopic of Billie Holliday starring Diana Ross; and Iron Eagle (1986), the sleeper hit action film that inspired three sequels, two directed by Furie. He also made more than his fair share of critical flops and/or commercial disasters, including Gable and Lombard (1976), and he was the original director on the notorious remake of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond.
Imprint’s Region-Free boxed set, produced with Furie’s cooperation, seems determined to reappraise the filmmaker’s output. I hadn’t seen three of the five titles (and the other two decades ago) and none are especially well-regarded, yet they’re all interesting to varying degrees and several have outstanding qualities. The biggest impression watching these titles one after another, chronologically, is how well Furie casts his films, how often he uses non-stars in leading roles that pay off, and makes excellent use of supporting players (sometimes day players getting a bump up in status) often casting against type. Hit!, Sheila Levine, and The Boys in Company C are particularly strong in this regard.
Though the television market has been choking with legal dramas since the 1990s, back in 1970 audiences had little familiarity with lawyers and felony trial procedures beyond the (fun but) improbable trials of TV’s Perry Mason. By the standards of the time, The Lawyer was a far more authentic look into the professional life of an attorney. Though not really substantial like, say, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), it’s intriguingly offbeat and has many appealing qualities.
Harvard-educated Italian-American lawyer Tony Petrocelli (Barry Newman) practices in the American Southwest, assisted by his devoted wife, Ruth (Diana Muldaur), and private investigator, Charlie O’Keefe (Ken Swofford). Petrocelli is asked to represent a wealthy doctor, Jack Harrison (Robert Colbert), accused of murdering his pregnant wife. The screenplay by Furie and Harold Buchman is patterned after many aspects of the controversial Sam Sheppard case.
Young and ambitious Petrocelli realizes the case could be his ticket into the Big Time, but the cards are stacked against him. Though the evidence against Harrison is entirely circumstantial, the local media labels him a killer while the police, represented by bigoted Sgt. Moran (Warren Kemmerling), decline to investigate other potential suspects. Harrison’s story, that he fell asleep on the sofa during an after-dinner get-together with friends, heard noises in the bedroom upstairs, and saw a “shape” hovering over his wife’s body before being knocked unconscious seems dubious. There’s no sign of forced entry, and a ransacked den looks staged.
Furie wisely shot the film for not much more than the average cost of a made-for-TV feature. There are no established movie stars in the film, just good actors that, up to this point, worked primarily on the stage or in TV. Barry Newman, for instance, had extensive Broadway credits but only intermittently did films or television. Second-billed Harold Gould, playing prosecuting attorney Eric Scott, had done a lot of film and television, but almost always small, often unbilled parts. He gets more screentime in The Lawyer than probably his previous ten parts combined. The Lawyer helped both of their careers. Gould became a leading character actor in ‘70s films like The Sting and Silent Movie, and in plum TV guest shots like his recurring character on Soap. Indeed, he was rarely without work until his death in 2010.
Newman followed The Lawyer with Vanishing Point (1971), a substantial hit and, like Gould, worked steadily right up until his death earlier this year at 92. Shortly before his death Newman reunited with Furie and Muldaur for the feature Finding Hannah, completed but not yet released. He looked and sounded great right up until the end.
Though not based on famous lawyer Daniel Petrocelli (who didn’t become famous until the 1990s), The Lawyer did serve as the basis for the not-bad TV series Petrocelli (1974-76), which also starred Barry Newman but with Susan Howard playing his wife and Albert Salmi playing the investigator. The film and TV series have similar attributes and shortcomings.
On the plus side, Newman is very appealing in the leading role, as is the loving (and obviously very sexually active) relationship between Petrocelli and his wife, a quality the TV series develops better than the film. The series is shot like every other ‘70s show, where Furie shoots the Hell out of The Lawyer, with unusual camera angles and very modern fast cutting, which at times is a distraction. Visually, The Lawyer has more in common with Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) than the Petrocelli TV series.
Less successful are attempts at color, running gags carried over ad nauseum on the TV show. Petrocelli’s adversaries and others constantly mispronounce his name and he politely corrects their mistake, again and again. Furie also thought it amusing in having Petrocelli drive like a maniac (perhaps to speed up the film’s pacing) and illegally park everywhere, but that just makes him seem reckless and entitled. The TV series toned down the reckless driving but retained his bad parking habits.
Another unusual quality of the film retained for the TV show was in presenting alternate realities: flashbacks of the murder that may or not be truthful, told by the murder suspect, witnesses, or theorized by investigators. It didn’t work in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) nor does it work here; movie language insists flashbacks must present an honest (movie) reality, though this is less of an issue in The Lawyer than the TV show.
The Lawyer is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format, sourcing a 4K scan of the original camera negative. The image is excellent throughout, with sharp detail and good color and contrast. The audio—as with all the films in this set—is LPCM 2.0 mono with optional English subtitles and impressive for what it is.
Extras include an audio commentary track by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer and director Paul Lynch, with audio excerpts from an interview with Furie; Newman’s Law, a video interview with star Barry Newman; Lawyer’s Wives and Lost Loves, audio excerpts from two interviews with actress Diana Muldaur and footage from the set of Finding Hannah; Clear Lines of Sight: Sidney J. Furie at Paramount, a video essay by Kremer; Angles of Elevation, an appreciation (via Zoom) by director Joe Dante; and a trailer.
Film/Program Grade: B
Little Fauss and Big Halsy is a very dated and unappealing character study about motorbike racers in the American Southwest. I was reminded of the greatly underrated TV series Stoney Burke, set in the thick of the not-dissimilar rodeo circuit. That series starred Jack Lord as an aspiring bronc rider, a man of incorruptible character. The show was also an early showcase for Warren Oates as Stoney’s bullshitting, self-serving, lazy, and dishonest boyhood friend Ves Painter. In Little Faus and Big Halsy, Robert Redford’s “hero” has all the characteristics not of Stoney Burke, but of Ves Painter.
Halsy Knox (Redford) is a disgraced dirt bike rider, banned from the sport, who still attends races to pick up loose women (he spends at least 40% of the film’s running time shirtless), con spectators into buying him drinks, and to steal their belongings when they’re not looking. Young racer Little Fauss (Michael J. Pollard) recognizes Halsy’s gregariousness as well as his venal qualities, but is nevertheless fascinated by this unsavory character who lives by his wits and unrelenting chutzpah. After Fauss breaks his leg in a race—an accident Halsy likely deliberately caused—Halsy suggests a partnership whereby he’d race under Fauss’s name and racing license, with Fauss acting as his mechanic. Fauss’s parents, Seally (Noah Beery, Jr.) and Mom (Lucille Benson)—see Halsy as bad influence but aimless Fauss agrees to the deal. The arrangement becomes strained after the arrival of Rita Nebraska (Lauren Hutton), a mentally unbalanced young woman who ran away from home. Fauss is attracted to her, Halsy just wants to screw her, “like any other whore.” Eventually the film just stops, ending abruptly with a freeze frame with none of these relationships particularly resolved.
One of Redford’s few ‘70s flops, Little Fauss and Big Halsy offers recognizable, toxic characters and relationships, but no real insight into what motivates such characters or drives these doomed pairings. Part of what makes the film so unappetizing is that Redford’s Halsy’s is borderline pathological—he literally is incapable of empathy and completely self-absorbed. Redford scored big playing cocky, flip and/or irreverent self-serving characters in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Downhill Racer, but here I just wanted to deck the guy. In Butch Cassidy, Redford got away with the arguably tasteless opening rape scene with Katherine Ross that turns out to be sexual role-playing. Here, though, Redford’s Halsy is positively loathsome toward all women. He not only disposes them like Kleenex, abandoning them in early morning getaways, but steals their belongings in the process, everything he can carry. Did 1970 audiences find this funny? It sure doesn’t play well now.
Michael J. Pollard is much more interesting, for once eschewing his demented elf-type screen persona, playing a relatively normal human being. Fauss’s interest in Halsy is ambiguous; some describe it as hero worship but Fauss clearly recognizes Halsy’s down-the-line failings as a human being. However, the script unwisely positions him as gradually adopting, indeed, all but becoming a Mini-Me Halsy in the film’s final act, an about-face of the character that makes no sense and is unpleasant.
In 2.35:1 Panavision from a 2K scan of the original negative, Little Fauss and Big Halsy doesn’t look quite as good as The Lawyer but still good generally. Supplements here include a commentary track by Furie and Kremer; four new video featurettes—That Old Oklahoma Know-How (Part 1), an interview with producer Gray Frederickson; Godfathers and Grand Marshals: An Open Conversation with producer Albert S. Ruddy; Panning the Furious Scans: A Visual Archaeology of the Man Who Wouldn’t Be Cropped; and The World Starring Halsy Knox: Sidney J. Furie – The Actor’s Director. Larry Karaszewski hosts a Trailers from Hell segment while a trailer and Furie’s Director’s Guild of Canada Lifetime Achievement Award speech from 2010 round the extras on this disc.
Film/Program Grade: C
Hit! is much more entertaining than it has any right to. At 134 minutes it’s criminally overlong, the story is preposterous with gaping plot holes, and the story is derivative, drawing especially from The French Connection in both style and content.
And, yet, it’s intoxicating in other ways. As with The Lawyer and, to a lesser extent, Little Fauss and Big Halsy, Furie uses non-star talent well and in interesting, sometimes offbeat ways. For instance, who’d expect to see Sid Melton, longtime comedy relief in ultra-low budget Lippert movies and TV sitcoms (Melton late of Green Acres), in a touching, dramatic role? Billy Dee Williams stars with support from Richard Pryor, but the film is in no way a blaxploitation picture; refreshingly, in this instance, the hero just happens to be a charismatic black man.
Like French Connection, Hit! intercuts two storylines, contrasting the hedonistic, indulgent lifestyles of nine wealthy French heroin drug kingpins in sunny Marseille with the ghetto areas of Washington D.C., where black teenager Jeannie (actress-writer Tina Andrews) overdoses on heroin injected by her boyfriend. Federal agent Nick Allen (Billy Dee Williams) is outraged; he viciously beats the dealer but realizes Jeanne’s real killers are the suppliers in France. Nick’s boss (Norman Burton, virtually repeating his Felix Leiter role from Diamonds Are Forever) tries to talk Nick into taking a vacation, but it’s clear to everyone he’s going after the French cartel. Concerned Nick’s action will cause an international incident, they dispatch two assassins (Zooey Hall and Todd Martin) after him.
Meanwhile, Nick assembles a team that eventually meet up in a ghost town in rural British Columbia. They are: police detective Dutch Schiller (Warren J. Kemmerling, returning from The Lawyer), frustrated that all the dealers he nabs get off on technicalities; heroin-addicted prostitute Sherry (Gwen Welles); Barry Strong (actor and songwriter Paul Hampton), a former sniper; Mike Wilmer (Richard Pryor), a Navy veteran and engineer whose wife was raped and murdered by a junkie; and an elderly couple Ida and Herman (Janet Brandt and Sid Melton) with a mysterious past in clandestine operations whose son died after years of drug addiction. This improbable group has to dodge the (presumably) CIA assassins before making their way to France.
(This Furie set would have been more complete had it included his previous film, Lady Sings the Blues, 1972. Williams, Pryor, Hampton, and Melton all appear in that one, too.)
All of these actors are used well. Again, like The French Connection, there’s little emphasis on expository dialogue; much of it, particularly Pryor’s scenes and the interplay between the two assassins, seems improvised around general concepts, giving it a realistic ambiance like the conversations between Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in The French Connection. Unlike that film, however, there’s no one with the charisma of Fernando Rey on the French side; the Frenchman and women here are total dullards. Furie and the script quickly make the point that they’re all decadent bastards: a Mr. Creosote-type glutton (“The bouillabaisse isn’t as good as last year...”) and a Dietrich-like lesbian with a taste for fashion models, for instance. The film spends way too much time with these uninteresting, uncharismatic characters in footage that goes on and on; Furie easily could have lost three-fourths of these scenes and the film would have been better.
This is also the kind of film in which an intricately planned series of hits occurring across Marseilles more or less simultaneously is based on innumerable assumptions about exactly where the targets will be and what they’ll be doing at these exact moments—and that Nick’s team—hardly all fluent French-speakers—will have no difficulty with the language, especially if anything goes wrong. Yet, it still somehow works. The picture is structured like a classic heist film, in which some unconsidered minor detail always goes wrong, and most or all of the thieves are caught or killed. This by itself adds an unexpected measure of suspense. Plus, I really didn’t want to see Sid Melton killed.
Superbly photographed in Panavision by Peter Hannen, visually Furie slows down the pacing of his cutting and eschews the weird angles, seemingly deferring to Hannen’s artful compositions.
Hit! is presented in 2.35:1 Panavision via an excellent 2K scan of the original camera negative. The polished cinematography really looks great throughout. Extras include a commentary by Furie and Kremer; Hit Up the Black Gable, an audio interview with Billy Dee Williams; Part 2 of the Gray Frederickson interview; The Work, a new video interview with actor Paul Hampton (he even sings!); and Flesh & Furie: The Space Between Us, a video essay by Howard S. Berger and David Nicholson-Fajardo. A trailer and radio ad rounds out the extras here.
Film/Program Grade: B+
Though based on a same-named novel, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York suggests a Curtis Harrington horror movie with, say, Shelley Winters, and would have benefited from a title change. The film, in fact a thoughtful character study, got mixed-to-negative reviews it didn’t deserve. Jeannie Berlin (daughter of Elaine May) stars as Sheila, frumpy and very Jewish girl from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania looking for love in New York City.
Soon after moving into an apartment she shares with attractive aspiring actress Kate (Rebecca Dianna Smith) at a nightclub Sheila meets smooth-talking bachelor doctor Sam Stoneman (Roy Scheider) who talks her into bed for the first good sex she’s ever experienced. But when she expresses romantic feelings for him he bolts. Later, he coincidentally begins dating Kate, Sheila’s roommate, even though Sam clearly also has feelings for Sheila, all of which crushes the shy young woman’s feelings though outwardly she remains ambivalent, fooling no one. She gets a job at a company that produces children’s records and has a promising future there, but eventually decides to move back to Pennsylvania with her parents (Sid Melton and Janet Brandt from Hit!, a nice touch), working as a teacher at an elementary school. Unhappy, she decides to move back to New York to try to win Sam back.
Overlength is again a problem—Sheila Levine could lose 10 minutes or so—but the film is unjustly maligned and mostly sweet and touching. Moreover, Jeanne Berlin is positively outstanding. Oddly enough, she reminds this reviewer of Robert Mitchum in the sense that Mitchum, at his best, outwardly doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything when, in fact, he’s one of the most expressive, if subtle of actors. Likewise, Berlin hardly moves a facial muscle for long stretches, yet the audience can read every conflicting, pained emotion. Roy Scheider, playing a more conventional, circumspect lover, is nearly as good, subtly suave and smooth but who in a long monologue near the end reveals vulnerabilities rarely seen in the actor. Both are Oscar-worthy performances.
Berlin’s breakthrough work was in her mother’s film of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), for which Berlin was nominated for an Academy Award. She followed it with the little-seen Why (1973) followed by Sheila Levine and an episode of Columbo. She didn’t appear on TV or in films again until 1990, though she’s worked steadily since, albeit in supporting roles, as recently as Spielberg’s The Fablemans and several episodes of Succession. Based on her work here, that’s she not nearly as prominent an actress as she deserves to be is a real shame.
The screenplay, by Kenny Solms and Gail Parent, based on Parent’s novel, is good, not great. It works best in understanding the complicated emotions of someone who recognizes she’s shy, awkward, and basically unattractive but clueless about how to overcome these obstacles. She yearns for a man to love her for the gentle and empathetic person she is, and the talented individual that’s slowly emerging. At the record company, the owner recognizes Sheila’s talent, nurturing it and promoting her to typist-producer. Sam recognizes Sheila’s warm heart buried behind her frumpy wardrobe and comical awkwardness, but they’re obviously on different levels in the looks department. (Scheider was also nearly 20 years older than Berlin, though this isn’t apparent in the film.)
Again filmed in Panavision, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York sources a 4K scan of the original negative. Also again, the transfer is impressive, though too much of the film is in dark, almost claustrophobic apartments with relatively few exteriors, nearly suggesting an adaptation of a play rather than a novel. Extras include two audio commentary tracks, the first with Furie and Kremer, the second by Samm Deighn. Besides a trailer, there are four video featurettes: The Film That Died and Lived, featuring DP Donald M. Morgan; Why Can’t I Be Doris Day? Sheila Levine from Page to Screen, a video essay by film historian Bill Ackerman; Sidney J. Furie is Alive and Dreaming of New York, a video essay by filmmaker Scout Tafoya; A Little Uncomfortable: Furie’s 1970s Politics, a video essay by critic/filmmaker David Cairns. A trailer is also included.
Film/Program Grade: A-
The Boys in Company C is a Vietnam story that predates The Deer Hunter by ten months and Apocalypse Now by more than a year. I remember being pretty impressed when it was new while recognizing its minor flaws, flaws that mainly have to do with its limited budget. While all the other Furie titles in this set are Paramount releases, this was mainly financed by Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong film company famous for its Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies, and released in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures. Good Times Films, S.A. was also involved, a company apparently unrelated to the budget video label Goodtimes.
The film raises eyebrows today for its many striking similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s later Full Metal Jacket (1987). Like that film it follows U.S. Marine recruits from their arrival for basic training, their dehumanizing buzzcuts, and harsh, profanity-filled exercises under unforgiving drill sergeants, one of whom in both films is memorably played by R. Lee Ermey. And, like Kubrick’s film, The Boys in Company C is narrated by a young writer.
Both are ensemble pieces. Furie’s film has five main characters: black drug dealer Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw), who hardens up to become their sometimes reckless de facto leader as a Platoon Guide; draft-dodging hippie Dave Bisbee (Craig Wasson); naïve Texan Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens), who becomes addicted to painkillers; Brooklyn wise guy Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck), and journal writer from Kansas Alvin Foster (James Canning). In Vietnam the young men experience dirt-cheap but VD-prone prostitution, are unnerved by a large shipment of body bags (which Bisbee first thinks are sleeping bags) are continually put into harm’s way by incompetent officers, etc. Sent on a dangerous mission taking supplies to an army outpost, they’re hit by enemy snipers; two men in their unit are killed and others serious injured, at which time they discover the “vital supplies” their moving consist of luxury meats, wicker chairs, and other amenities in celebration of an officer’s birthday.
It’s uncertain but not unreasonable to assume Kubrick probably saw The Boys in Company C, and that he decided he could build upon its many good qualities while avoiding its deficiencies. Visually the films couldn’t be more different, but there are definite similarities. Ermey, for instance, shares screentime with another, almost equally effective drill sergeant (Santos Morales?); Kubrick’s refinement of the same basic character is much darker and harrowing. In Furie’s film, the five main characters watch other recruits get their hair buzz-cut, Furie focusing on their uneasy reactions, whereas Kubrick has his men outwardly unreactive—in a state of shock, while the soundtrack plays Johnny Wright performing Tom T. Hall’s Hello Vietnam.
In short, Kubrick’s film is meticulously stylized, molded into a singularly Kubrickian work, while Furie was probably scrambling to keep his film on schedule and budget. It’s not a cheap film: the military hardware and scale of things is pretty big at times. Kubrick famously recreated Vietnam entirely in London while Boys was shot entirely in the Philippines. This allows for wider, authentic angles showing off landscapes and the like, but the lower budget and faster schedule presents its own set of problems. During the basic training, for instance, the main actors in the foreground are fully dedicated to their roles, but background extras, some Filipino, not so much; they can be glimpsed smiling and laughing at Ermey and Morales chewing everyone out with their vile profanity.
Nevertheless, Furie once again impresses with his casting. Stan Shaw is especially good in what, essentially, is the biggest part. Most of the cast would quickly move up: Wasson on films like Ghost Story (1981) and Body Double (1984), Andrew Stevens on 10 to Midnight and lots of television, etc. They may not have had the extensive, pre-production training Kubrick put his cast through, but they’re similarly dedicated to their parts and just as believable.
A note of trivia about the cast. The blonde briefly glimpsed saying goodbye to Wasson’s character through a car window is Peggy Neal, the formerly Japan-based gaijin model who appeared in a number of cult films there, most famously The X from Outer Space (1967).
Again in Panavision, The Boys in Company C looks slightly less impressive than the other titles, its elements just a tad faded, though the cinematography is deliberately going for a softer, less finely-focused look. Extras include two commentary tracks, one by Kremer and producer Andre Morgan, the second featuring actor Andrew Stevens; Scenefinder General: Sidney J. Furie Directs the Boys in Company C, with Kremer, Furie, and Morgan discussing the production; Forever Fazio, with actor Michael Lembeck; Soldiers, Cowboys, and Mavericks with actor Stan Shaw; A Song for Private Bisbee, with actor Craig Wasson; Full Metal Furie: Stanley Kubrick and The Boys in Company C, a trailer, and a teaser trailer for Fire Up the Carousel, Kremer’s forthcoming documentary on Furie. Here especially is a good example of how viewers might have been better served with all this material edited into a single, concise featurette.
Film/Program Grade: A-
The 58-page booklet features essays on Furie by Brad Stevens, Anthony Francis, and Matthew Asprey Gear.
Directed by Sidney J. Furie is one of the year’s best boxed sets, notable for several films overdue for rediscovery and reassessment, and its gobs and gobs of extra features. Not to be missed.
- Stuart Galbraith IV