Running in place: The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970)

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By Scott Ross

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Until quite recently, what I knew of The Liberation of L.B. Jones was limited to a few basic facts: Of its being William Wyler’s final movie as a director; of its starring one of my favorite actors, the late Roscoe Lee Browne; of its financial failure; and of its dealing, in some way, with what is prettily called “race relations” in the South of the late ‘60s. Thanks to a kind friend, I have finally seen the picture, and it left me deeply depressed.

No, scratch that: Depressed, and angry. This is due, not to any particular failings on Wyler’s part, or those of his screenwriters, Stirling Silliphant and Jesse Hill Ford, on the latter of whose novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones—a better title—the movie was based. I was instead disheartened by the action. Not because I found it unrealistic or clichéd but because I found it all too real. I am angry in part because I had been led, by capsule reviews, to think the picture was well-meaning but inert, and infuriated as well (if only in retrospect) by the movie’s negligible box office at the time of its release. But mostly, I am both angry and depressed because what this movie, now 45 years old, depicts is not simply, or merely, America Then. Remove the period clothing and music, and the casual use, in public as well as private, of the word “nigger,” and what The Liberation of L.B. Jones depicts is America Now.

America Then, in this story, is the South, and the country generally, in which a distinguished black man, a pillar, as they used to say, of his community (or, more to the point of this story, a “credit to his race”) can be cold-bloodedly murdered in the dark of night and his body mutilated, the crime covered up and the assassin, a white police officer, not only free but never charged or in any way acknowledged. America Now is the nation in which a black man or woman of any sort and condition can be gunned down by a cop or a private citizen, even in front of witnesses, be posthumously smeared by the press and blamed for his or her own murder, the crime “investigated,” and the killer never charged.

Do you begin to understand the reasons for my rage?

America Now is America Then, Redux. And with a vengeance.

Lynching, in case you hadn’t noticed, is back. And expressing the unthinkable, the racially insupportable, has re-emerged as a game any number can, and does, play, often in screeching decibels, every day since January of 2008. Barack Obama is hated, not merely for the unforgivable sin of being a Democrat and winning the White House, twice—standard practice on the Right since at least the advent of Bill Clinton—in itself appalling to people who believe they have the right to perpetuate, by whatever means, a Permanent Republican Majority. No, this man has the temerity to not merely be the leader of the other party: He also has the unmitigated gall to be a Negro! (That he is also half white is largely ignored, although one can imagine the mere contemplation of that hideous act of miscegenation committed by his parents also informs the mouth-foaming rage of the GOP, dominated as it is now by the bigots and ignoramuses of the so-called “Tea Party,” an electorate that did not, significantly, exist prior to Obama’s inauguration.) Even those of us who despair of Obama’s corporatist leanings, his war-mongering and his serial lack of spine feel compelled to defend him, more often than not, and despite our discontent, if only because the voices on the other side are so often and so stridently, hideously, bare-facedly those of unregenerate racists, freed now (at last! at last!) from the need to be polite, or covert, in their prejudices. One can be forgiven, in 2015, from wondering whether the 1960s and ‘70s ever even happened. I’ve begun to wonder if we dreamed the entire era.

While racism is never entirely dead, certainly I never thought I’d see a return to such overt ugliness on a day-to-day basis, in my lifetime. The Presidency of Barack Obama has in some weird way allowed what had to be kept either silent, or behind firmly closed doors, to re-emerge into the sunlight. One has the feeling that all too many white, Christian, Americans have been silently steaming for years and years, forced by law and politesse to swallow their fury at being unable to voice their xenophobia, and that all it took to overcome their reticence at expressing their contempt for everyone else—all that “political correctness” that frowned on their being able to call a spade a nigger—was the election to the Presidency by a man of color.

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Willie Joe Worth (Anthony Zerbe) confronts L.B. (Rocoe Lee Browne) in the latter’s kitchen.

The dilemma that faces L.B. Jones, in the unassailable person of the great Roscoe Lee Browne, is whether a man may stand up and be a man without being lynched. In a key moment, he recalls seeing a black picketer threatened by a white mob and running, to the jeering accompaniment of “Run, nigger, run!” Surely someone, someday, must refuse to run, and not be lynched. At the emotional climax of the movie, L.B. makes the conscious decision, remembering that taunt, to stop running… and discovers the fatal truth that reason does not prevail. His crime—his willingness, in divorcing his unfaithful wife (an act his racist white lawyer refers to as his “liberation”) to publicly air her prolonged affair with a white policeman—simply cannot be countenanced. What is done to L.B. is so revolting even the white cop (Anthony Zerbe) is sickened, and resolves to turn himself in. He is saved from this foolishness by L.B.’s own attorney (Lee J. Cobb), a prominent man haunted by his youthful affair with a young black woman. He is haunted, not by the affair itself, which he freely admits to, but by the, for him, unconscionable fact that he had begun to see her as a person.

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L.B with his retainer, the loyal Benny (Fayard Nicholas) and the vengeance-driven Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto).

That there is some retribution, directed at Zerbe’s partner (Arch Johnson) via the intervention of Yaphet Kotto’s Sonny Boy, and that it, like L.B.’s murder, goes unpunished, provides, if not comfort, at least a modicum of dramatic satisfaction. But it cannot mitigate the horror, particularly in the ironic light of Sonny Boy’s own, earlier, decision to bury the past. The  present, however, is not so forgiving. That the movie begins and ends with Kotto’s unreadable face, is telling.

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William Wyler on the set. Center: Roscoe Lee Browne; right, Lee J. Cobb.

Wyler’s direction of The Liberation of L.B. Jones was, at the time, considered half-hearted, even cold. The failure to appreciate the craft, honed over 45 years, with which he approached this incendiary material, is also telling. In a cruel sort of irony, Silliphant, the co-scenarist of this picture, was also the screenwriter of the much more popular, lauded, and awarded, In the Heat of the Night (1967).It takes nothing away from that robust time-capsule entertainment to note that The Liberation of L.B. Jones does not end with the racist toting LB’s suitcase like an unconscious Redcap, the crime neatly tied up and the rifts, if not mended, at least sufficiently patched. In this picture of America Then, there is no comfort. And in that way, too, the movie all too clearly reflects America Now.

liberation_of_lb_jones_poster_02Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

American Sniper ’67: “Targets”(1968)

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By Scott Ross

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Remembered chiefly, if at all, as one of the last appearances of Boris Karloff, and the writing and directing debut of Peter Bogdanovich, Targets (which, wile made for just under $130,000 earned no money to speak of on its nervous Paramount release) is one of those movies—Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s Avanti! is a good example of the type—whose reputations have slowly grown more burnished but which deserve to soar far, far higher.

The circumstances that led to the movie were hardly propitious: Karloff owed Roger Corman two days’ work; Corman wanted to give Bogdanovich (who had served as A.D. on The Wild Angels) a chance to direct, and made the offer of $125,000 to the young tyro contingent on the actor’s time and the use of 20 minutes from the Corman/Karloff 1963 collaboration The Terror. Bogdanovich, who was fascinated by the 1966 Charles Whitman University of Texas murder spree, eventually hit on the notion of weaving a Whitman-like scenario with that of an aging horror star’s decision to retire from a business to which he feels increasingly irrelevant. Bogdanovich concocted the story in the collaboration of his then wife Polly Platt, and—in an act of exceptional largesse—was essentially given a re-write of the screenplay by Sam Fuller, who refused credit on the grounds that the movie would cease to belong to the filmmaker if Fuller’s name became associated with it. Shot in late 1967 in 23 days—of which five were set aside for Karloff’s scenes—and with a combination of extraordinary economy, remarkable intelligence, and startlingly creative style, the resulting movie was (on the recommendation of Robert Evans) eventually picked up for distribution by Paramount. Unfortunately, the 1968 murders of Marin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy spooked the studio, which unceremoniously dumped Targets on the market, where, despite extremely good press, it languished. It did lead, indirectly, to Bogdanovich receiving an offer from Bert Schneider and BBS for a follow-up, which the filmmaker delivered three years later in PB’s adaptation of the Larry McMurtry novel The Last Picture Show.

All of this is, in a sense, by the way. One need know nothing about the movie’s background to appreciate its keen perception about what was in the late-‘60s American air. Targets carries with in a sense of mounting dread that quite literally explodes in its young anti-hero’s sniping of the L.A. Freeway and a local drive-in theatre where, in a coincidence that both stretches credulity and fulfills Aristotle’s unities, Karloff’s Byron Orlok is to make a personal appearance—his last public hurrah before drifting gracefully into retirement. In a scene that strongly recalls Orson Welles’ recitation of the parable of the scorpion and the frog in Mr. Arkadin, Orlok relates the Somerset Maugham version of the fable “Appointment in Samarra” for a clueless disc-jockey (effectively limned by Sandy Barron in a truly awful wig) but, despite Bogdanovich’s penchant for drawing on his obsession with American movies, nothing else in Targets remotely resembles the work of anyone else. The direction, beautifully abetted by László Kovács’ effective deep-focus cinematography, is astonishingly assured; cool, documentarian in its observation, crisply and intelligently edited by the filmmaker, PB’s work on this movie gives the lie to those who claimed, a few years later, that he was capable only of hommage and imitation. It was never a fair assessment, and on the evidence of Targets, is patently absurd. It was chic to knock Bogdanovich as much because of his success as his predilection for the work of Ford, Hawks, Welles and Fuller and, unfortunately, his arrogance in the face of success contributed to the glee at his eventual, perhaps inevitable, downfall as any particular quality—or lack of it—in his pictures.

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Karloff and Bogdanovich watch a televised airing of the 1931 prison drama “The Criminal Code,” featuring Karloff’s first important performance. Amusingly, PB’s drunken “Sammy Michaels” keeps shushing his star as he attempts to speak over the Howard Hawks soundtrack.

Because his direction does not call attention to itself in overt, ostentatious ways, it’s possible to miss just how ballsy some of Bogdanovich’s work in Targets really is. This is especially notable in a long, sustained sequence, done in a single set-up, in the home of the serial killer on the night before his emotionally detached acts of madness. Tim O’Kelly’s Bobby Thompson lives, with his wife, in the home of his parents, a stifling suburban purgatory of whites and blues as oppressively hideous as the world of warm earth-tones Orlok floats in and with which the filmmaker subtly contrasts it. Dad (James Brown) is an undemonstrative martinet whom Bobby always calls “Sir,” Mom (Mary Jackson) a quiet, complacent nag and wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) a pretty, vacuous nonentity. This is not to suggest they deserve what happens, and Bobby’s own smiling, outward pleasantness allows no one into whatever secrets roil in the brain beneath his neat, boy-next-door haircut. Bogdanovich begins the sequence with Bobby wandering into the living room where the family sits, enraptured by the bleating inanities of Joey Bishop and Regis Philbin; follows as the elder Thompsons go off to bed and as Bobby and Ilene drift into their bedroom for a softly desultory, plaintively non-communicative talk while she prepares for her night-shift with Pacific Bell; and concludes as Bobby walks back into the den where he sits, bathed once more in the blue phosphor-dot narcotic of the tube and enveloped in his own, unreadable thoughts before moving outside to his car, where he selects a pistol from the terrifying mobile arsenal carried in the trunk. It’s a strikingly sustained piece of filmmaking, and acting, but, while it is a virtuoso gamble marred only by the subtle edit Bogdanovich was forced to interject near the end (and which is only noticeable if one knows it’s there) it is never grandiose. It does not call attention to itself, as even the most celebrated such sequences—including those in Welles’ own work—routinely do. It contains a wealth of detail, and portent, its sense of futility and of the unknowable as chilling as they are heartbreaking.

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American Gothic, ca. 1967: The Thompsons at dinner.

Similarly, the guerilla-style sequences on the Freeway (where Bogdanovich, like every other filmmaker of the time, was denied permission to film) are astonishing in their fulsomeness and detail. There is, inevitably, a certain sense of cinematic déjà vu in Bobby’s choice of elevation for his immersion into sharp-shooting; those high, white Chevron tanks instantly recall the quite literally inflammatory climax of White Heat and Cagney’s Cody Jarrett shouting, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” But Bobby is no shouter; his trigger finger, and that sharp intake of breath he habitually engages in just before a shot, speak far more effectively, and volubly, than his mild voice ever could. If one wished to, one might argue vociferously with the fact that Targets never attempts to explicate this amiable young madman’s actions. Yet his daily existence—and, perhaps, that photo of him in full military regalia on the wall of his home—suggest that such easy, didactic psychoanalysis would be beside the point, if not indeed facile, or even slightly obscene. I would argue that it is in this avoidance of any neat anatomizing of Bobby Thompson’s madness that Bogdanovich succeeds better than nearly anyone else of his time in depicting an America falling apart at the seams; the style of filmmaking feels, despite the 45 years that separate our time from this movie’s, eerily contemporary, and prescient. Had Targets been released, say, in 1973, it might have been hailed for its lack of exploitation, its aesthetic barrenness and its excoriating depiction of literally senseless violence. (The movie’s “R” rating now seems not merely harsh, but an ironic joke; you’ll see more blood and gore on an average evening’s half-hour of network mayhem than in the entire 90 minutes of Target’s running time.)

O’Kelly is so exceptional an actor as Bobby that one is left stunned at his inability to parlay his terrifyingly normal performance into a career. (He was, briefly, Dano on Hawaii 5-0 before being replaced by James McArthur.) Slim, boyishly attractive in a bland, All-American way, thrifty with his effects, and remarkably graceful of movement, O’Kelly could have been Gidget’s boyfriend, or the young married professional on the other side of your backyard fence. His very non-threatening demeanor is, in context, terrifying in its ingratiating normality. This, you feel as you watch, is where mass murderers come from; not the streets, or the world of gangland, or in the form of scruffy, shifty-eyed crazies mumbling to themselves as they pass you on the sidewalk, but the abstract ticky-tacky of affluent stratification. His smiling comment, when he is finally handcuffed by the police: “Hardly ever missed, did I?”

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The banality of evil: Tim O’Kelly’s Bobby Thompson, who chews compulsively throughout the movie, enjoys a sandwich and a Pepsi prior to shooting at drivers on the L.A. Freeway.

Bogdanovich is quite good in his own role, as Orlok’s young writer-director Sammy Michaels (the name itself is a tribute to Fuller.) Despite his self-deprecating remarks about his own performance, he gives a nicely-judged portrayal, especially in his believable drunkenness in Karloff’s bungalow the night before Bobby’s spree. When he sighs, “All the good movies have been made,” it’s hard to disagree with his assessment, even as this movie is belying that statement. The attractive Nancy Hsueh gives a good account of Orlok’s exasperated secretary, and there is nice support from Arthur Peterson and Monte Landis as contemporary studio types. Karloff, of course, is everything you could ask: Gentle yet edgy, eloquently bitter, witty, and exhausted. His confrontation with Bobby at the climax has a hypnotic inevitability about it, even as his action, and its consequence, is in its way as shocking as the acts of murders Bobby commits.

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Bobby’s mobile arsenal; perhaps the movie’s single most chilling “reveal.”

A word of praise has to be extended to Bogdanovich for serving as his own, un-credited editor, and to Verna Fields, Targets’ sound editor, for the exceptional work she did layering onto the movie’s soundtrack all the sounds of the external world excluded when the filmmakers shot so much of it silent. There is a Wellesian fullness to her work here, and you’d never guess, unless you knew, that the rich, expressive panoply of street noises, highway clamor, alternately tinny and reverberant drive-in movie speaker replication and high-powered rifle shots would, but for Fields’ artistry, not have otherwise existed.

Like Roddy McDowall’s Peter Vincent in Fright Night 20 years later, Orlok knows his time has passed, that he has become a living anachronism. “Oh, Sammy,” he sighs. “What’s the use? Mr. Boogey Man, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.” Or did, once. Now he’s “high camp.” He goes on: “My kind of horror isn’t horror anymore… No one’s afraid of a painted monster.” No, the monsters of 1967—the monsters now—were, and are, seldom outré. Our rough beasts do not reside in castles, or lumber out of swamps, or slouch toward Bethlehem. They walk among us, mowing the grass on Saturday morning, wearing what looks and feels and smells like human skin, pretending to be our neighbors.

In a moment of quite understandable ennui as his limousine is ferried to the drive-in, Orlok gazes forlornly out the window at the depressingly commercial streets of L.A. and murmurs, “Gosh, what an ugly town this has become.” He had no idea how much worse it would become, locally and nationwide. The horror was only in its infant stage.

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Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross