THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

The Ninth Configuration

1980, USA

Starring: Stacy Keach (Col. Vincent Kane), Scott Wilson (Capt. Billy Cutshaw), Jason Miller (Lt. Frankie Reno), Neville Brand (Maj. Marvin Groper), Moses Gunn (Maj. Nammack), Joe Spinell (Lt. Spinell)

Director: William Peter Blatty

Viewed: Streaming

Transfer Quality: Excellent

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This is one of the strangest and most unsettling films I’ve seen in a long time, and it totally caught me off guard…I mean with Keach in the lead I was hardly expecting anything cerebral, and the awesome poster art suggested some kind of sci-fi, action/adventure, horror crossover. It wasn’t until the opening credits were rolling that I realized this was written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist. Quick pause and a Google search later and I understood that Blatty imagined the novel this was based off of, Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, to be the sequel to The Exorcist.

Admittedly, l spent the first 10 minutes of this with mallet in hand just waiting to ring the gong and be done with it, but The Ninth Configuration really grew on me, proving itself to be extremely interesting and unpredictable. In many ways the movie reminded me of other deep and quirky self-aware black comedies…like Catch 22 or Dr. Strangelove.

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The film opens with Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a military psychiatrist, arriving at an army mental facility located in an old castle in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the inmates seem to be there for legitimate reasons, but it’s hinted at that some might just be taking the piss out of the establishment to get a pass on service. Kane is there to sort this all out, however, we soon learn that his method to remedy their ills is to indulge the inmates’ every whim.

As Kane interacts with the patients, he gravitates toward troubled astronaut Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson). Though not explicitly mentioned in the film, it turns out that Cutshaw is the connection to The Exorcist, as it was his brief encounter with Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) in full possession mode that drove him to the existential meltdown that caused him to abort his space mission and landed him in the castle of chaos. Through the interplay of Kane’s cool and certain insistence on a higher power and Cutshaw’s utter nihilism, the film becomes a thought experiment testing the limitations of each notion.

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I was quite blown away by all of the performances in the film, with the standouts being the duo of Jason Miller (The Exorcist) as Lt. Frankie Reno and his sidekick Lt. Spinell (of course, played by Joe Spinell of Godfather and Maniac fame) who spend the film working on a production of Hamlet for dogs. Apparently Spinell hounded (no pun intended) Blatty so much that he created a character for him in the screenplay that didn’t exist in the original novel. But it’s Keach who gives the performance of a lifetime here, sometimes seeming to channel HAL 9000 in his calm unwavering reactions to the exploits of the inmates, but harnessing a palpable and jarring rage in the bar fight scene.

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My only real critique of the film is that it should have been about 30 seconds shorter. For me, the trite reveal in the final scene sacrificed all of the heavy lifting that Blatty did throughout this pretty masterfully directed debut for the simplicity of a Hallmark card ending.

I’ll try to forget that last few seconds ever happened.

(DC)

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Nate Wilson: NW  Devon Cahill: DC  Matt Average: MA

THE FIFTH DAY OF PEACE (1970)

The Fifth Day of Peace

1970, Italy

Starring:  Franco Nero (Bruno Grauber), Richard Johnson (Capt. John Miller), Helmuth Schneider (Col. von Bleicher), Bud Spencer (Jelineck)

Director: Giuliano Montaldo

Music: Ennio Morricone

Viewed:  Streaming

Transfer Quality: Horrible, VHS to digital

A transfer so bad only Franco Nero could save it? That was my only hope when I turned on this miserably low-quality VHS to digital conversion. I’m already not a big fan of war movies, well at least not poorly transferred bad ones. Of course, I love Catch-22, Apocalypse Now, Where Eagles Dare, etc. …but cropped for TV war schlock is a tough sell. I can sit through the lowest budget paper plate UFO sci-fi flick or 5th generation VHS copy of a ketchup splatter slasher and still feel like I’ve used my time productively, but bad war movies I cannot abide. Case in in point? …see my Combat Shock review, haha. Anyway, Nero’s involvement practically required me to check this one out, but honestly I wasn’t expecting to get more than 10 minutes in before switching flicks.

To my surprise—horrendous transfer aside—this turned out to be a pretty brilliant take on the war film genre that hooked me in from start to finish. Sure, there are a few vertigo inducing nighttime scenes that the VHS to digital conversion renders absolutely unwatchable, but those only kept me constantly wondering how great it would be to experience a clean 35mm print screening of this.

The film opens at the end of WWII in a Dutch concentration camp converted to house German POWs by Canadian Allies led by Captain Miller (Richard Johnson). If that weren’t ironic enough, the whole story takes place after the combat has ended. I mean, it’s a war movie with no war. Only the participants’ vestigial tension remains as they struggle to make sense of their roles in what happened and what will happen next. What’s revealed in the end is not only a commentary on the futility of war, but also on futility of the human condition: man’s eternal struggle between freedom and control.

We find Captain Miller, already ambivalent about his return to civilian life and the loss of status that will entail, simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by Nazi top officer Col. von Bleicher, masterfully portrayed by Helmut Schneider. Col. von Bleicher is obsessed with maintaining military order and continues to discipline his troops as though the stukas were still wreaking havoc over Poland. Captain Miller desperately wants to claim the moral high ground of the Allies, but is ultimately torn as he struggles to fill his role as commander and to control the camp. In contrast, we have Nero’s character, Bruno Grauber, and his fellow deserter Corp. Reiner Schultz (Larry Aubrey). Two deserters who, despite almost starving to death on their journey, enjoy a relatively blissful few days as kitchen assistants in the camp before their cover is blown and they are dragged into the POW barracks with their countrymen. The Colonel, of course, wants them executed and made an example of. Grauber, having tasted freedom, struggles to expose the absurdity of the troops still playing war as his and Schultz’s lives dangle in the balance.

Of course, Nero steals the show with his classic everyman, pushed to the brink by the injustice of it all ranting and pontificating. But, effectively, he spends most of the film relegated off screen or yelling something or other from his solitary confinement cell while the Captain and the Colonel decide his fate. In the end it’s the battle of wits between the two commanders that really drives the narrative. So meta!

Top-notch Morricone soundtrack and great performance by Bud Spencer as the kitchen supervisor, Jelineck, really rounded out the package here. Check this out!

(DC)

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