Movie review: ‘Brass Target’

bt_other.jpgWhen I come across a film that I can’t find on demand or through the cable services, I turn to eBay. My most recent acquisition is “Brass Target” from 1978. Here’s an interesting post-World War II flick with a lot of flaws, one overblown role and an ending so weak you can’t believe the rest of “Brass Target” was so good. It’s a murder and murder-to-come mystery that is interesting, but unfortunately manages to come up short. However, and best of all, “Brass Target” has John Cassavetes with the spotlighted character and he does his usual outstanding work in this one. In the end, “Brass Target” is mostly on-target, but it totally misses it at the climax and denouement. You won’t easily find “Brass Target,” but you’ll mostly enjoy it if you do.

‘Brass Target’
(1978; 111 minutes; rated PG; directed by John Hough and starring John Cassavetes, Sophia Loren, Max von Sydow and George Kennedy)

CASSAVETES MAKES THE MOVIE

I’ve always liked John Cassavetes’ acting and I’ve always thought that “Tempest” with his wife Gena Rowlands was his best effort, although it wasn’t one of his three Oscar nominations. However, Cassavetes is exceptionally effective in the post-World War II thriller “Brass Target” in which a fictional story puts Gen. George Patton in a killer’s crosshairs.

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While there is one bigger name than Cassavetes (that would be Sophia Loren) and he works with other tremendously talented actors (Max von Sydow and Patrick McGoohan), he is the focal point of “Brass Target” and gives what I see as a near-Oscar nomination-worthy effort as “Maj. Joe De Luca.”

Brass Target” is a story that starts with the robbery of a cache of gold that is taken by killing dozens of U.S. soldiers in a train hijacking. Enter both Patton, played by George Kennedy, and, a little bit later, by Cassavetes, who was the architect of a similar hijacking during the war. Patton gets a wind under his sails in looking to solve the gold robbery, but the movie goes on to focus more on Cassavetes and others working on the case, too.

The story comes from premise that mysterious cabal of behind-the-scenes military officers were responsible for the robbery and intend to keep it unsolved by having Patton assassinated. After that, the story spins out in a neat telling through a nice screenplay adapted from a novel “The Algonquin Project” by Frederick Nolan.

Now, let’s take a look at this impressive cast and its, well, uneven work …

  • Cassavetes is totally smooth in his role, but I was most impressed with how world-weary he could make his character. Actually, it would be World War-weary! He does more in this film than many actors in a career. From dealing with assorted shady characters from former spies to a mob boss in prison, Cassavetes knew how to act and he becomes his character. His Oscar nominations were for directing “A Woman Under the Influence,” directing “Faces” and his best-known acting effort as a psycho in WWII’s “The Dirty Dozen.” Sadly, he died young(ish) at 59 in 1989 of cirrhosis of the liver.
  • An Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one), Loren is simply nothing more than window dressing in “Brass Target” as “Mara.” Her character doesn’t have much depth and the little acting she does is only good when she’s on-screen with Cassavetes. However, he does project a total amount of class amid a bunch of questionable characters. In the end, I guess the just thought they needed a “name” for “Brass Target” and she took the check. Loren was the first Best Actress winner of an Oscar for a foreign film with “La ciociara,” which premiered in 1960 and Loren won at the 1962 Oscars. Her nomination was for “Matrimonio all’italiana” from three years later. Loren, who will turn 85 in September 2019, was in “Arabesque” with Gregory Peck and her final two acting credits were a TV movie in 2010 and a short in 2014.
  • The underrated McGoohan was a two-time Primetime Emmy winner as a villain on TV’s “Columbo” – 15 years apart from 1975 and 1990. Here, he’s “Col. Mike McCauley” and is a semi-friend of Cassavetes and is in the plot up to his neck. McGoohan, like Cassavetes, just oozes his character and his studied insouciance hides his character’s nasty streak. Some of you readers will remember him better (as Howard Hughes must have) in “Ice Station Zebra” and he’s most remembered for TV’s “The Prisoner” and was the warden in Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz.” McGoohan died at 80 in 2009.
  • An Oscar winner (not for this one), Kennedy is the weak link in the primary cast. He did Patton a little too overblown, but he was hampered by poor lines written for his character. His scenes are contrived and Kennedy looks as if he’s forcing the character in compensation for the bad dialogue. Kennedy won his statue for the classic “Cool Hand Luke” in support of Paul Newman and he got a Golden Globe nomination for “Airport.” He was also in “The Dirty Dozen” with Cassavetes and was in the memorable “Naked Gun” comedy franchise. A versatile, prolific actor with 184 credits over a career spanning seven decades beginning in 1959, Kennedy died at 91 in 2016.
  • A two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one), von Sydow plays “Shelley Martin Webber” and he’s the smooth, assured assassin. Von Sydow had done an “elegant” killer three years before in “Three Days of the Condor” – click here for my review – but couldn’t capture the same intensity here. Still, even an adequate effort from von Sydow is better than most do in a career. After “Condor,” I liked him best in the sensational HBO movie “Citizen X” about a serial killer in Russia during the Soviet years (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Pelle erobreren” from 2011 and 1987 respectively and was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work in the legendary horror classic “The Exorcist.”
  • An Oscar nominee and four-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Vaughn is at his smooth best here. He plays the bad guy you get to see most, although he does little in real bad things until a shoot-out at the end. His character was a bit scandalous at the time, since his character was a homosexual. Vaughn had an unmistakable presence on camera and while you won’t find a flaw in his work here, the character could have been better presented in the screenplay. Vaughn was nominated for an Oscar and Globe for “The Young Philadelphians” with Paul Newman and nominated for Globes for the original “The Magnificent Seven” and two times for his signature and most-recognizable work on TV’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” He died at 83 in 2016 of leukemia.
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Davison plays “Col. Robert Dawson.” I’m singling out Davison because he projects his character so well: He’s a young colonel who, when the going gets tough, is one solid soldier. WWII brought many young men high rank and Davison does a great job here. He was nominated for “Longtime Companion” and has been “Sen. Kelly” in the “X-Men” franchise; on most major TV shows for two decades; and, in an absolutely prolific career of 263 acting credits, has 16 in pre- or post-production on the original posting of this review. His first acting credit was in “Last Summer” from 1969.
  • A Primetime Emmy winner and four-time nominee, Herrmann showed his versatility by being Vaughn’s lover (no sexual scenes) as well as being skittish about the whole Patton plot. None of his work here is special and is more TVish than anything. Herrmann was never leading actor material, but he knew his craft and was as solid a supporting player as you could ever find. He won his Emmy for “The Practice” (he was in only 10 episodes) and was nominated twice each for “ Elsewhere” and “Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years.” I liked him best as the chief vampire in “The Lost Boys” (click here for my review). Herrmann died at 71 in 2014 of brain cancer.

Unfortunately, it is the end of the film that lets you down. Right on through the shooting of Patton (which is really the subject of conspiracy theories to this day – he actually died of injuries suffered in a car crash and that’s where “Brass Target” gets its details from), the film, while not perfect, is solid. The ending though is just plain ludicrous and not worthy of the effort to that point. It’s almost as if the screenwriter needed to end it and didn’t bother to care.

**SPOILER ALERT **

At the climax, Cassavetes goes to von Sydow’s home in the Alps and finds the weapon that was used to kill Patton. In real life, no professional assassin would have kept the weapon around … much less in his attic! Then, Cassavetes puts and end to the story by … well, watch the film yourself. You’ve probably already figured it out. It is a film totally unworthy of the uninspired ending. It must have been Hollywood brass with their notorious lack of intelligence and creativity that demanded such a predictable and stereotypical ending.

Director John Hough does an adequate job here, but the bulk of his career has been on TV and BT looks a bit like a TV today, although that could just be because of production values of the 1970s. Hough did the interesting “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” car chase film with Peter Fonda, Vic Morrow and Adam Roarke and also directed “Escape to Witch Mountain.”

Brass Target” was the 46th ranked film at U.S. theaters in 1978 with $5.01 million in ticket sales, according to IMDb.com. The No. 1 film was the instant musical classic “Grease” with $159.9 million (click here for my review) and No. 2 was “Superman” with $134.2 million. Here are the other films from 1978 that I’ve reviewed for my blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Interestingly, Kennedy served in the infantry under Patton during World War II and his bravery won him two Bronze Stars. Now that’s a great accomplishment for any solider, much less one who would go on to an acclaimed acting career!
  • Both of Cassavetes’ Oscar nominations as director were for work directing the wonderfully talented Rowlands, who herself is a two-time Oscar nominee. The couple was married from 1954 until his death in 1989 and had three children together.
  • Three of the cast – Cassavetes, Vaughn and McGoohan – played murderers caught by TV’s star detective “Columbo.”
  • The Oscar wins and nominations totals for the film include two winners and four nominees (all detailed earlier in this review).
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Many of the extras were U.S. Army personnel from the 66th Military Intelligence Group who were serving in Munich, West Germany at the time of the filming. Most of the soldiers on the train at the beginning are active duty MP’s who took leave to go on location in the Black Forest to make money as extras.” PS: I left the incorrect apostrophe since it is a direct quote – the apostrophe is incorrect as it should be MPs.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2019.
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