Jerry Jameson: The Accidental Auteurist

Jerry Jameson forged an extraordinary reputation as an editorial consultant on hundreds of episodes of some of the most enduring TV series of the 1960’s (The Andy Griffith Show, I Spy, Gomer Pyle: USMC, My World and Welcome To It, Mod Squad, That Girl) and some not so enduring (The Guns of Will Sonnett, Good Morning World, Accidental Family, Rango). He made the jump to feature film directing with the savage 1971 thriller Brute Corps. It was a logical progression. The accumulated skills of editing and production supervision were a perfect fit for the 70’s boom in independently (aka low budget) produced theatrical projects and network TV movies. Still directing top TV shows and feature film up until 2015 (at age 81) without much of a break in those near-50 years, Jameson has proven to be a reliable, intelligently thrifty and adventurous production force (sometimes directing up to four to seven projects a year). Like his contemporaries, directors-for-hire like Jerrold Freeman, Marvin Chomsky, John Llewellyn Moxey, Earl Bellamy, Boris Sagal and Joseph Sargent, to list only a few, Jameson would alternate between made-for-TV features and the occasional theatrical effort. These directors never missed a job and were super skilled and intelligent with more on their minds than the expected no-questions-asked payday. Personal identity streamed from their work; they just couldn’t help themselves. What I am most interested in here is “figuring out” Jameson on his own terms, through his work. I’m not as interested in that a good deal of his work has been denigrated and dismissed over the years.

I grew up on made-for-TV films and, as a child, gave them as much interest and emotional investment as any theatrical film of the time.  Many of these films, I realized, were my best chance of being exposed to the adult world and all of its confusing, frightening, traumatic inevitability without parental accompaniment. I didn’t know about or ever felt inclined to criticize or judge films when I was a kid. I just watched stuff. All of it. And, as time marched forward, it turned out that Jameson’s name kept popping up as director on some of the films that jarred or provoked me the most. True, the formula (especially in Jameson’s case) was mainly obvious, crass and cynical – meaning: most of these productions were lower tier, micro budget 74 minute rip-offs of popular theatrical films currently busting box-office records (“disaster” films were a Jameson specialty) – however, what I find surprising is how consistent and connected Jameson’s productions are, both stylistically and thematically, for the bulk of his career – especially in his first decade as a director of feature-length dramatic films (1971-1980).  It’s one thing for a director-for-hire to professionally tackle the task he’s paid to accomplish, on budget and on schedule. And, to somehow, despite the extremely restrictive creative environment, meager funds and potentially tread-worn subject matter, to actually carve out a relatively personal signature that separates (not necessarily elevates) Jameson from the rest of the equally estimable pack. For me, the films of Jerry Jameson are succulent fruit ripe for the picking – satisfying, complex, bold and frequently confrontational IN YOUR FACE entertainment.

So let’s take a few moments to skim through Jerry Jameson’s early directorial work and thumbnail some of the indelible strands that connect them.

Here goes:

  • First off, Jameson’s features are all intensely melodramatic. Soap operas were tremendously popular in the 1970’s. Their melodramatic aspects were injected into network made-for TV films, perhaps to insure that the housewives who poured over those soaps during the daytime while doing housework would be similarly attracted to the offerings in the evening for the same reasons while the periphery of the stories attracted the rest of the family for their purely genre elements. That way, there’s something for everyone (and a broader scope of consumer for the commercial airtime buying network sponsor).
  • The films are all pretty perversely plotted and populated by equally perverse characters.
  • Jameson embraces locale as an extension of the drama(s) and characters in each individual story. Yes, we’re talking Anthony Mann-level psycho-topographic concerns here. Many times, Jameson starts visually examining the region each story deals with immediately during the title sequences, leaving room to build up to that area’s harsh treachery to the characters once the meat of the story is underway.
  • Though Jameson had been given the chance to direct in more than a few genres, he secured a position of being the go-to talent for any desperately in-demand disaster-movie-du-jour rip-off. Because of this aspect of his pedigree, he scored a gig directing Airport ’77, the 3rd film in the franchise that kicked off the entire disaster movie trend. Ultimately, this also led to him being handed the helm of the anti-disaster movie Raise the Titanic.
  • Jameson often used the same cast and crew over and over again: actors like Paul Carr, Michael Pataki, John Forsythe, Charles Macaulay; as well as cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti who started out as camera operator on Jameson’s debut Brute Corps and reappeared to lens 7 – count ‘em – 7 feature films (both theatrical and Made-for-TV) between 1974/1975 alone! They continued to work together many times more over the next few decades as well. Leonetti was a perfect match for Jameson – he was a rugged, hands on DP with an equally budget minded approach to creating production value and atmosphere in as minimal, calculated visual strokes as possible. Extremely wide-angle lenses are frequently used to ratchet up the claustrophobia, tension and intimacy. Bold use of tracking shots, zooms and low angles (the tracking/zoom shots obviously in place to knock off as many script pages in one shot as possible, but the shape of it – the wide, low angles and movements really stand out against much of the intentionally anonymous-looking competing programs of the era.) The key word for the creative collaboration between Jameson and Leonetti: ambition – pure and simple.
  • Dramatically, Jameson’s films thrive on DILEMMA – a chain reaction from slow burn to pure combustion. Melodrama, soap opera, violent spectacle – the majority of his films from this era are split between natural/man-made disasters and tales of hunting humans with the occasional drama (The Lives of Jenny Dolan) or western (The Invasion of Johnson County which got a 4 year jump ahead of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) or classic adaptation (Call of the Wild) – none of which deviate from Jameson’s stylistic or thematic “formula”.
  • His films can be shockingly cruel and violent – ghoulish, even – yet also, as optimistic as they are grim.
  • Jameson is a strong actor’s director who frequently allows his cast to breathe in their roles with deep faith of silence and beats and pantomime alongside the intermittent crucial character monologue.
  • His themes and motifs are apparent in nearly every (if not every) feature he has ever made: sex, sexuality (dysfunctional/healthy/deviant with liberal spatterings of homosexuality, bi-sexuality, repressed homosexuality), sexual insecurity, duplicity, conflicts of interest, conflicted conscience, parent/child relationships, dysfunctional families, marriage/infidelity, job integrity, governmental corruption, sadism, sexual dominance (in the workplace and through rape, murder, terror), class/sexual/social divisions, politicians stifling the media’s function to tell the public the “truth”, survival against all odds, mortality, nature/the elements/the wilderness, sacrifice for the common good, men who act like little boys/little girls who act like grown women,  good work ethic and integrity, conflicted male heroes with beards.

At this point, if I’m blind-watching a movie on TV and I start to see any of the above, I can pretty much guess that it belongs to Jerry Jameson. If you are someone who leaves TV Land or Me-TV running in the background, it’s a nifty game to play. There’s always a Jameson making the retro-TV programming rounds.

Recommendations? Heheh… well yeah:

BRUTE CORPS (1971) – sleaze classic featuring a group of emotionally, sexually, psychologically stunted mercenaries who get easily derailed by an attractive hippie girl who they decide to terrorize, torture and rape. All the Jameson earmarks are here showcasing uninhibited performances by the late great Michael Pataki, Paul Carr, Alex Rocco and Charles Macaulay. I’m not going to go all IMDB crazy here – just safe to say these four gentlemen carved quite a niche for themselves with all-out iconic performances in exploitation and made-for-TV movies in the 1970’s. This film is a powerful introduction to their collective abilities.

 

 

THE DIRT GANG (1972) – outrageous follow-up to Brute Corps with Carr, Pataki and Macaulay all reunited as a deeply depraved motorcycle gang (they drive dirt bikes…) that terrorize a film crew shooting a western in a desert ghost town. Carr is genius as the bi-sexual, one-eyed gang leader (complete with sparkly gold eye patch). I love how all the little character intimacies are developed and dovetail and trickle down to the insane climax. Not your average “fuck the establishment” biker movie. Without giving too much away, I’d safely call this a cross between Born Losers and The Last Movie.

 

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HEATWAVE (1974) – This marks Jameson’s first made-for-TV feature as well as his first “disaster” movie. Couple Ben Murphy and pregnant Bonnie Bedelia head to the mountains hoping to escape an unending heat wave. Instead of cooler temperatures and cooler tempers, they walk into a breakdown of societal code. The film is intense, especially as Bedelia goes prematurely into labor and the race is on to find people who are compassionate, sympathetic and would sacrifice their own comfort for another’s survival. Rather deliriously, it doesn’t really use the heatwave or the mountain location in a superfluous way – it’s a rigged mousetrap exacerbating every emotional and physical endurance known to mankind. In other words, it’s just as nuts as his first two features. As will be the norm for Jameson, his film is well cast and sensitively performed – especially the glorious David Huddleston as a snaky, morally suspicious opportunist who befriends the couple and continuously refuses to help them in their fight for survival in a world basically turned upside down on a searing grill. The film’s cinematographer, Enzo Martinelli, shoots in a vigorous yet intimate style, never distracted from any immediate dilemma that befalls the characters. His use of wide-angle close-ups put you perilously near to the actors sluicing sweat and his natural source lighting really pulls you tight to the believability factor built up by the fine group of moistened actors. Jameson’s comet-impact disaster film A Fire in the Sky (1978) is a good thematic companion to this since it expounds and elucidates on many of Heatwave’s emotional, psychological and philosophical concerns. It’s also quite grim and horrifying. Like I said at the outset: something for everybody.

 

HeatwaveHeatwave (1974)

 

THE ELEVATOR (1974) – another disaster film (sort of) and a precursor of the M. Night Shyamalan-storied Devil (2010) – a group of people, all harboring secrets and lies, get stuck in an elevator together during the middle of an ill-fated robbery. Everyone alternately goes either batshit bonkers and/or thoughtful, sensitive and helpful. Roddy MacDowall and Myrna Loy stand tall in this – both are gifted superb “moments” by the script and director – especially Loy, whose matter-of-fact revelation at the film’s climax really stopped my heart.

 

The-ElevatorThe Elevator (1974)

 

THE BAT PEOPLE (1974) – an early Jameson masterpiece of unhinged homosexual panic figuring prominently next to other films of such ambiguous metaphorical subtext like I Married A Monster From Outer Space, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, Ang Lee’s The Hulk and (of all things) Michael Ritchie’s satirical black comedy, Smile. A couple, on a delayed honeymoon, go on a cave tour, get lost and the husband is immediately bitten by a bat. One major repercussion of this is that the husband (a scientist who studies bats) believes he is turning into a bat monster, while his wife and doctors think he’s merely undergoing a bad reaction to his rabies treatment. This guy seriously goes off the rails killing women left and right and abandoning his wife EVERY SINGLE TIME THEY ARE IN A BED TOGETHER. Cinematographer Matt Leonetti really excels in wrapping this film in velvety darkness allowing the classic man-into-monster movie plot to do it’s illogical thang while the subtext, if taken into account, becomes more and more logical. Add a seriously skeevie local enforcement official played by Jameson regular Michael Pataki, a good-guy turn by Paul Carr, and a truly bizarre climax that forces the wife to rethink exactly what compromises may be necessary to make sure this marriage works. Some reviewers attacked the film for not being graphically violent enough and for not showing the bat creature enough (it’s an early Stan Winston creation and I’ve always thought what’s there works just fine). Some attacked the film for not even featuring the plural “Bat People” mentioned in the film’s title – but watch the climax carefully – perhaps that is not really the case. No reason this film should be as smart as it is. I honestly love it.

 

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HURRICANE and TERROR ON THE 40th FLOOR (both 1974) – two very quick made-for-TV disaster movies (no doubt influenced by the release of both Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, respectively) that are overflowing with Jameson-isms. Disaster is again the catalyst for more social and sexual politics among disparate character types competing for survival. Both are especially memorable for some seriously traumatic sequences but Hurricane has a nice performance by Gomer Pyle’s Sarge, Frank Sutton (Jameson, remember, was editorial supervisor on that show), When I was a kid, Sutton’s character actually made me so sad that I cried and had nightmares. The actor died shortly after completing the role. While revisiting Hurricane, I discovered two interesting stock-footage related items – Jameson uses a shitload of hurricane stock footage in this film (probably to pull down the need to actually direct those scenes from scratch which wouldn’t have the budget to approximate realism and still provide time to direct the other 5 projects Jameson had lined up for production in 1974). The first bit I noticed was that one of the pieces of hurricane footage was a shot of the SS Minnow getting tossed in rough waters from the title sequence of Gilligan’s Island – the second bit is more bizarre and unintentionally meta: during a particularly prolonged montage of hurricane stock footage there appears a shot of a cow standing in the middle of a storm-swept road in silhouette – the same exact shot used 20+ years later by Gus Van Sant in his (not quite) shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Bizarre.  In any case, both Hurricane and Terror are typically labyrinthine Jameson discussions of his favorite themes – crammed into an impressively concise 74 minute running time. The wonderful Superdome (premiered as a network pre-amble to 1978’s Super Bowl) and A Fire in the Sky (also 1978) repeat and underline many of the philosophical, moral questions that now appear to solidify the director’s entire reason for being. Both are extremely downbeat, traumatic and off the wall.

 

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THE SECRET NIGHT CALLER and THE DEADLY TOWER (both 1975) are not only two of Jameson’s strongest films, but definitely are also two classic, groundbreaking TV movies of the decade. Night Caller stars Robert Reed as a sexually frustrated and dysfunctional obscene phone caller and his ultimate battle for sanity. Reed is brilliant as a man whose entire identity is destroyed by a life of disappointment, lies and professional/personal isolation. It makes a GREAT double with the subtextually similar Bat People, though Night Caller’s resolution is also ambiguous, it is far more optimistic. Equally as harrowing is The Deadly Tower, Jameson’s telling of ex-marine Charles Whitman’s transformation into psychopathic sniper atop Austin’s Texas University tower in 1966 and the Mexican-American police officer who let heroism take over professional ambition in order to put an end to Whitman’s murderous rage. Everything that is Jameson is once again upfront and center – Leonetti and Jameson’s patented wide, low angle tracking shots, characters crushed, first by a crushing tonnage of psychological and philosophical malfunction then by the dilemma itself, sacrifice in the face of looming mortality, family issues… etc. Jameson has always had a great knack for casting against type and bringing forward aspects of an actor’s ability that were either underused or dismissed due to previous career stereotyping. This is no better displayed than by Jameson’s trust in Kurt Russell as Whitman. Russell had made a name for himself in a brief series of kid-friendly live-action comedies for Walt Disney (The Barefoot Executive, Now You See Him Now You Don’t, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Superdad) and Tower catapulted Russell into more complex, mature roles. (The same career pivot occurred with Robert Reed’s against grain casting in Night Caller, which was an attempt to break free from the stereotypical casting prison Reed found himself in after 5 years on The Brady Bunch.) This was a shocking contrast for “family film” audiences at the time, but Russell is simply phenomenal. The supporting cast is equally honorable (Richard Yniguez and Ned Beatty are extremely powerful with characterizations minimally defined, yet filled out in three dimensions by these attentive, logical performances. In addition, we also get Jameson regulars John Forsythe and Paul Carr). Probably because of the jangling subject matter, the graphic nature of the violence, the shocking casting of Kurt Rusell, Matt Leonetti’s symbiotic creative relationship with the director and Jameson’s habitual need to explore the same concerns in new environments, The Deadly Tower resonates for me like no other film in Jameson’s career, before or since.

 

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The last two I will mention, AIRPORT ’77 (1977) and RAISE THE TITANIC (1980) are two of Jameson’s final high profile theatrical releases. Both continue his dissection of great moral questions in the face of imminent death. And both are insanely plotted and full of spirit, philosophical insight and disturbing tragedy. AIRPORT ’77 needs to be seen for no other reason than the casting of Jack Lemmon, James Stewart and Christopher Lee (not to mention Jameson regulars Michael Pataki, Charles Macaulay, Arlene Golonka and M. Emmet Walsh)!!! Both these films have suffered accusations of tedium and “failure” – something I didn’t have time to notice since I was too busy being impressed by Jameson’s textual and stylistic drapery. Funny how these movies have unfortunate “bad movie” legacies attached to them, yet all I see are complexities and commitment to personal expression within the conceptual and budgetary boundaries of completely impersonal commercial material. I still marvel at how Jameson got away with this for so long! I would love to talk with him, just to hear how his input to each script measured. Both these films MUST be seen on the big screen. Despite perhaps a superficial banality inherent in the ‘70’s disaster film sub-genre; in these films, though, I predominantly see two big budget, epic Jameson explorations of human nature and inhuman nature in collision.

An estimable career primed for re-evaluation… if it’s possible for modern viewers to moderate their need to condescend and label anything overly dated, melodramatic and marginal from the 70’s as camp indulgence. For a lifetime working on some pretty frugal, superficially generic projects, Jerry Jameson has managed an auteur’s signature every time.

RAISE THE TITANIC and AIRPORT ’77 screen Friday and Saturday, March 10th and 11th in 35mm at the New Beverly with THE BAT PEOPLE joining them at midnight on Saturday, the 11th.  EXTREMELY RARE screening, folks! Mangia!

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