Tuesday, June 7, 2011

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Defiance / Patty Hearst

Defiance (1980) is an early Jerry Bruckheimer production, back when he was interested in making gritty crime films like American Gigolo (1980) and Thief (1981). Unfortunately, Defiance was given a limited released where it promptly bombed at the box office and failed to connect with a mainstream audience, relegating it to late night cable television. MGM has recently resurrected the film and finally given it a DVD release with the Movies On Demand program.

Tom “Tommy” Gamble (Jan Michael Vincent) is a tough merchant seaman who finds himself suspended with a six-month stay in New York City until he can get another job at sea. Broke and bummed at having to spend all this time in a city he can’t stand the sight of, he walks the dirty streets to the strains of “Bad Times” by Gerard McMahon (one of seven he wrote and performed for the film), which tries to capture the blue collar aesthetic of Bruce Springsteen but to a funk beat. He’s closer to Eddie and the Cruisers (1983) than Springsteen, however. A bartender that Tommy knows hooks him up with an apartment to crash in and it has all the slummy allure of a cesspool.

He spends his spare time (of which he has plenty) learning Spanish in the hopes of getting a ship bound for Panama. Despite his best efforts to keep to himself, Tommy befriends his chatty neighbor upstairs, Marsha Bernstein (Theresa Saldana), his noisy next-door neighbor Carmine (Danny Aiello), Abe (Art Carney), the savvy local shopkeeper, and a snotty-nosed street urchin (Fernando Lopez). This cozy collection of ethnic stereotypes are being harassed by a street gang populated by rejects who didn’t make the cut in The Warriors (1979) and led by the silent but deadly Angel Cruz (Rudy Ramos). Even though Tommy makes it clear that he wants to be left alone, the gang roughs him up (they take his art supplies!) and terrorizes the neighborhood (for kicks they throw bottles and cans at a street cleaning vehicle and disrupt a bingo game which is pretty innocuous on the deviant scale) until the merchant seaman reaches his breaking point and opens up a can of whoop-ass on these punks.

Defiance is the kind of urban revenge film that Cannon Films would have made in the 1980’s, probably starring Charles Bronson, complete with a xenophobic view of the big city. Instead we get Jan Michael Vincent, fresh from his iconic role in the Big Wednesday (1978). With his lean, chiseled features, he is well cast as the decent man who is pushed too close to the edge. As envisioned by the actor, Tommy is a tough guy but underneath is a real softy as the charm of the tenants in his building – in particular, Marsha and the kid – eventually break through his gruff exterior. Danny Aiello appears in an early role as a genial local bringing his own unique brand of charm to the role as only he can. Art Carney is slumming it as a stereotypical storeowner. Look closely and you’ll see Tony Sirico (Paulie from The Sopranos) in an early role and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi from The Godfather) in small but memorable roles as respectable members of the neighborhood.

Director John Flynn orchestrates everything with his trademark no frills style that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Hill Street Blues. It is the kind of meat and potatoes filmmaking that is ideally suited for Defiance. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the story is going to end but that’s neither here nor there. The purpose of this film is to tell a simple yet entertaining story.

Coming off the commercial and critical failure that was Light of Day (1987), Paul Schrader went on to direct Patty Hearst (1988), a low budget docudrama about the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974. Based on her 1982 autobiography Every Secret Thing, the film is a gritty account of how the SLA attempted to brainwash the newspaper heiress and force her to rob a bank and become a revolutionary. The film made its debut at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival but was given a very modest release and pretty much dropped off of everyone’s radar soon afterwards. It has finally been given a Region 1 DVD release thanks to the MGM MOD program, which restores the original aspect ratio and features a fine transfer.

Schrader wastes no time in showing the Hearst kidnapping and in doing so doesn’t spend much time establishing who she is or letting us get to know her, which makes it a little hard, initially, to empathize with her plight. He proceeds to show the relentless indoctrination the SLA did on Hearst – keeping her in a closet, opening the door occasionally to spout chunks of their radical left-wing manifesto. The tag-team of sensory deprivation and being force-fed SLA dogma wears down her defenses. Schrader shoots these scenes in shadowy rooms with distorted lenses and skewed shots accompanied by creepy, atmospheric music that evokes the claustrophobic feeling of a horror film.

Natasha Richardson does a good job of conveying the gradual breaking down of Hearst’s mental state to the point where she would be receptive to the SLA’s propaganda. The actress not only looks physically haggard but you can see it in her eyes – that glazed look of desperation. Richardson also captures the pampered softness of a woman born with a silver spoon in the mouth – the granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. If we didn’t sympathize with her early on then we do while watching her get brainwashed. This innocent, young woman is bullied and treated like a prisoner of war. They get her to the point where she wants to join their cause and has no problem regurgitating their beliefs. In addition to Richardson, Schrader assembled an interesting cast of character actors to play SLA members: Ving Rhames as their militant leader, William Forsythe as a guy who wishes he was black and also Dana Delany and Frances Fisher.

With the rise of domestic terrorism in the last ten years, Patty Hearst remains eerily relevant. By the end of the film she goes from being programmed by the SLA to being programmed by doctors, lawyers and medical experts. For a low budget film, Schrader gives it a slick, cinematic look. The locations are sparse with no pretty details, just stark by design. This is contrasted with stylish lighting and color schemes. The film’s focus is on Hearst and the insular world of the SLA, which makes sense as the outside world’s reaction to what happened is well-documented. This is Hearst’s story told mostly from her perspective. Is she merely a spoiled rich brat or brainwashed revolutionary? Patty Hearst makes a case for both and leaves it up to the viewer to make up their own mind.



  1. I definitely want to check out Schrader's PATTY HEARST film. Thanks for the spotlight on these two.

  2. Been wanting to check out DEFIANCE for a while, being a rabid Flynn fan and all. Love that 'meat and potatoes' gritty street gang stuff, even when (especially when?) it gets a little loopy (Golan & Globus).
    I got the region 2 DVD of PATTY HEARST a few years back and really enjoyed it; I'm glad to see it's available here now, too. Schrader certainly enjoys devising three-dimensional portraits of the conflict inside his pariahs, and William Forsythe is great, too!
    Another great writeup!

  3. le0pard13:

    Yeah, I don't know why I hadn't checked out this film earlier as it does show up on cable every so often but I really got caught up in the dramatic story. Fascinating stuff.

    Sean Gill:

    As you know, I share your fascination with Flynn's work and that was definitely the impetus to get DEFIANCE, which was OK but certainly not up to the greatness of THE OUTFIT or BEST SELLER.

    You are right on the money re: Schrader. I've always really appreciated many of directorial effots and this one was very good. Shame it didn't get a decent run upon its initial release. And what can you say about Forsythe? He always brings so much to the table and was a delight to watch every time he came on-screen.

  4. DEFIANCE is one I long wanted to see because of my love for John Flynn's best films, Jan-Michael Vincent, '70s NY-set gang pics, and the great one-sheet artwork. I finally saw it a little over a year ago via DVD-R I made from a cable broadcast. After a great set-up...merchant seaman who loathes NYC stranded in the big city, this one really dips too much into tv-land for me. Awful Gerard McMahon songs, an annoying kid, and one of those ridiculous multi-racial, too old street gangs that we also see a few years later in Lustig's VIGILANTE. The MOD with Jan-Michael Vincent to seek out is WHITE LINE FEVER...unfortunately, the DVD is 4x3 letterbox instead of 16x9, however.

  5. Ned Merrill:

    I had much the same reaction to this film as you did. Eagerly anticipated, started off strong but then descended into mediocrity. What a bummer.