Saturday, December 16, 2017

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Great Texas Dynamite Chase

Michael Pressman’s debut film is one of the most good-natured and endearing exploitation flicks I’ve ever seen. Except for the frequent nudity and the fact that it proceeds from the argument that robbing banks is generally a good idea, it’s as wholesome a slice of 70s drive-in fare as I’ve come across. Seriously: there’s no real violence, there’s no rape, the female protagonists are never significantly in peril, nothing graphic or visceral happens, and there isn’t a bleak/cynical denouement.

I tells ya, folks, I had to double-check the movie’s credentials just to make sure it belonged in the Winter of Discontent stable. Fortunately, it ticked three crucial boxes – cops ‘n’ robbers, C&W on the soundtrack, Claudia Jennings in a lead role – and the Agitation of the Mind arbiter of bad taste (i.e. me) was satisfied that it is quite definitely a hick shitkicker movie.

So here we are.

‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ begins not so much in media res as absent its first act. Candy Morgan (Jennings) has broken out of jail, rendezvous’d with her sister Pam (Tara Strohmeier) and, as the opening credits play out, some scheme they’ve concocted to raise funds to prevent the foreclosure of their father’s farm comes to nothing and Candy, advising Pam to make her own way home, pulls off a risky heist at a local bank using only two sticks of dynamite, one with a nerve-rackingly short fuse.

Let’s pause here for a couple of observations. One: I love the name Candy Morgan, it’s like a nymphet/pirate combo. In an alternative universe, there’d be a late-night pay-per-view spin off with a title like ‘The Wicked Life and Fast Times of Candy Morgan’. Two: Strohmeier gets a pretty high billing in the credits and it strikes me that an early draft of the script might have had Candy and her accomplice as sisters until somebody realised that’d put the kibosh on the free-spirited love scenes with their eventual hostage-turned-willing-accomplice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Just prior to Candy’s intercession at the bank (‘The Heists and Times of Candy Morgan’: that’d be a good alternative title for the sadly-non-existent spin-off), the film shifts perspective to introduce our other anti-heroine, Ellie-Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) and holy moley, where the hell has Jocelyn Jones been all my movie-going life? (The answer, courtesy of a rather anti-climatic couple of minutes on IMDb, is: not in much else, actually. Although ‘Tourist Trap’ – also starring Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts – might be finding its way onto the Winter of Discontent’s roster pretty soon.) Jones is some kind of awesome, shimmering through the movie with the incandescent allure of every girl next door ever if every girl next also had a hint of every devil women ever bemoaned by every bluesman ever. If you get what I mean. Priest/stained-glass-window/roundhouse-kick, that kind of thing.

I SAID Ellie-Jo Turner is introduced in a vignette where she’s late for work owing to the combined ministrations of some anonymous stud muffin in her bed and a malfunctioning alarm clock. I feel for the girl; I hate it when that happens. She shows up and is promptly chewed out, in the non-cunnilingus sense of the word, by her boss. Her job? Bank teller. At the same bank that Candy’s about to rob? Surely not! Well, actually, yes. And you know what? Dickens threw out bigger coincidences so fuck ‘Dombey and Son’.

But I digress.

Ellie-Jo gets sacked seconds before Candy holds up the joint, and has a high old time flipping off her former boss by assisting Candy in emptying the registers. Candy’s haul safeguards her dad’s farm, her family declare how proud her they are, and before you know it she’s winding her way out of the county via the back roads, the better to evade recapture as an escaped prisoner.

Let’s pause again for a second. We’re about ten minutes into the movie at this point. The plot so far has been “hot chick breaks out of prison and pulls off bank heist to prevent foreclosure on family property”. This, for most writers and directors, would be enough for a film entire. Let’s face it, the first ten minutes of ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is basically ‘Hell and High Water’ if Chris Pine had an hourglass figure and wore hotpants. One would logically expect everything that follows to build on this fast-paced explosions-and-exposition opener.

But no.

What Candy was inside for (‘Candy Morgan: Jail Bird Queen’ – seriously, why didn’t anyone commission a series?) is never stated or even mentioned again. Her family? They depart the production here and similarly pass into the collective amnesia of the creative team. One would assume that the local law enforcement types would equate Candy’s escape from prison, the robbery of a bank close to the old Morgan homestead, and the sudden, unprecedented and in-cash payment of her family’s entire mortgage arrears and arrive at a certain conclusion.

One would then expect the cops to go sniffing around the old Morgan place, and from there commence their pursuit of Candy. Y’know, the movie having “chase” in its title and all.

Granted, the police officers on display in this movie are the kind of intellectually-challenged individuals who, by comparison, give Mr Bean the combined IQ of a think-tank compromised of Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse and Stephen Hawking. But still!

So, with every bit of business scrupulously established in the opening scenes tossed out of the window – except, of course, the bit involving Ellie-Jo – how then does ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ develop? Well, it has the now unemployed Ellie-Jo blowing off her loser boyfriend, in the non-fellatio sense of the word, and hitching out of town just as Candy makes her departure. And whaddaya reckon happens next? Damn tootin’: bank robber and former bank teller breeze through Texas pulling off robberies and blowing up the odd cop car. Oh, and they dally with a coupla fellas en route. Including some bland dude in a cowboy hat who starts off as their hostage before throwing himself enthusiastically into their lifestyle having given a whole three and a half seconds to thinking it over.

And that – after the backstory-packed first ten minutes – is pretty much the entirety of the subsequent eighty. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, a movie in which there’s one car chase of any significance and one foot chase (occupying a combined two and a half minutes of screen time), follows the ‘Big Bad Mama’ and ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of structure and narrative, which is to say that it unspools a sequence of loosely connected vignettes – gasp as Candy and Ellie-Jo get tooled up! guffaw as they humiliate a nitwit deputy! drool as they behave licentiously in an upmarket hotel – and doesn’t pause for long enough to bother about coherence.

Pressman makes a few weird flirtations with a more serious approach, particularly in the last twenty minutes or so. The media play up the pair as killers when they aren’t; a secondary character is dispatched in blunt fashion (the film’s only fatality); and the finale seems for a moment to point towards a Bonnie and Clyde style last stand. But then he doesn’t so much pull back from these decisions as run in the opposite direction as far and fast as he can. Which isn’t to say that this wasn’t a good move – ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, and you arrive at the final act wanting a big dumb audience-pleasing send off – but it’s curious that the film makes so many hints at such tonally different possibilities yet ultimately does nothing with them.

Still, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ offers so much to enjoy that this quibble hardly matters. Jennings sashays through what, next to Desiree in ‘Gator Bait’, is her signature role. Jones walks away with at least a dozen scenes, coquettishly glancing back over her shoulder to dare you to do something about it. The lowbrow comedy is balanced effectively with the actionful stuff. Production design and cinematography emphasise an evocative sense of place. The pace is commendable. I’ve noted in many a Winter of Discontent review that the cardinal sin of an exploitation movie is to be boring. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is never boring. It’s too full of hot chicks and hijinks to even know what the word “boring” means. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation cinema a good name.

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