The Sadist (1963)
Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White (1988) is a special film. Movies I grew up watching have burrowed deep into my subconscious and although some of them haven’t stood the test of time, Lady in White remains a hauntingly beautiful piece of art. I despise most remakes and wouldn’t dare to suggest that fate for Lady, but in a perfect world, the film would be remade with the exact same cast but utilize state-of-the-art special effects that were unavailable to its ambitious writer/director at the time. It’s the only element that weakens an otherwise rich and emotionally wrenching experience. One would think LaLoggia had a long career ahead of him, but despite a few false starts here and there, Lady in White remains his second to last film. If the belief that everyone has at least one good story in them is true, then this was LaLoggia’s one good story. But what about one good performance? What if a legendarily bad actor who had no business anywhere near a film camera somehow pulled it together to get one solid piece of acting in the can? In Wild Guitar (1962), there are problems galore, but the movie could at least be a passable watch if not for its rotten leading man, Arch Hall Jr.. He was no actor, nor did he want to be, and yet in 1963’s The Sadist, he came closest to giving a real star turn. It’s rough and patchy at times, but it’s the strongest work he ever did on screen.
Writer/Director James Landis is an odd figure of 1960’s cinema. His filmography ends in the late 60’s, he has no Wikipedia page, and thanks to having famous namesakes, he’s difficult to research. Primarily a writer first, he’d make the transition to directing in the early 60’s and hook up with the Fairway International Pictures crew, headed by Arch Hall Sr. and most significantly Ray Dennis Steckler. Although he worked with these hucksters and made films like The Nasty Rabbit (1964) and Deadwood ‘76 (1965), it also feels as though he held his writing at arm's length. Certainly, The Sadist is by far the best film the company ever produced.
There had been plenty of movies revolving around criminals in love and on the run, but this one has the distinction of being the first to be loosely based on the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The vastly superior and much more famous Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994) would leave Landis’ film in the dustbin of history. Like Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), The Sadist explored the way the fractured mind of an all-American boy lashes out at society.
We open with an odd narration provided by Arch Hall Sr. while the menacing eyes of his pride and joy Arch Hall Jr., playing Charlie Tibbs (not exactly subtle about the inspiration) stare at the camera. A quick zoom in and we have our opening credits. Hall’s eyes dart back and forth, adding an unintentional comic effect that’s unnecessary. It would have been much stronger if he’d simply stared at the audience, unblinking. This is indicative of the difficulty in judging Hall’s performance. There are parts where he’s fantastic, utterly convincing as a psychotic killer. There are other scenes in which he plays Tibbs as a cackling, over-the-top carnival freak, adopting a hunched duck walk and a squinty-eyed stink face.
Before we meet Tibbs and his girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning, in a near-mute performance of devilish glee and childish giggles), the lambs must be brought to the slaughter. Ed (the handsome but plain Richard Alden), Doris (Helen Hovey, Hall Jr.’s cousin and looking very much like another infamous figure, Patricia Hearst), and Carl (Don Russell, the film’s production manager and a regular assistant director on other Fairway Pictures) are on their way to a baseball game but have car trouble. They stop by an eerily quiet junkyard and things immediately feel off. No one comes out to greet them and there doesn’t seem to be another soul for miles. It’s a great location for a thriller. There’s some expository dialogue to give them some character and reveal their profession as teachers. Carl’s dialogue is particularly on-the-nose, so you know he’s not long for this world. Ed knows a thing or two about cars and concludes that they need a fuel pump. While he searches the junker cars, Carl discovers a half-eaten meal but no one in the house. The clues start to pile up that something is very wrong and Landis is very clever here, trapping the trio before they even know they’re in danger.
A wide shot of the three working on the car is interrupted when a Colt .45 revolver rises up into frame. Doris screams and Charlie and Judy are revealed, the camera at a low angle and pushing in. We find out later that Charlie and Judy are infamous killers who have left a trail of bodies from here to Arizona in their wake. Hall’s voice takes some time getting used to and some less-patient viewers may not even be willing to forgive it. I hadn’t seen this film for quite some time and was struck by how phony it sounded. It has to be accepted or else the movie falls apart. It’s believed that Hall based his voice off of Richard Widmark’s Oscar-nominated role in Kiss of Death (1947), but he’s no Richard Widmark.
At times, it feels as though The Sadist is not the original title. It’s as if Landis had another title in mind, someone came up with The Sadist as a more exploitative name, so there are a few lines sprinkled here and there to justify the title. To be clear, Charlie Tibbs is a cruel motherfucker. Carl is the eldest and most genteel of the trio and Charlie pistol whips him quite brutally, in a scene shot from behind a cracked car window. Helen literally asks, “Do you enjoy seeing others in pain?” and calls him an animal. He allows her to get some water for Carl, ominously stalking her with a knife, and then he goes in for the metaphorical kill. He turns her words against her and she desperately tries to reason with him. Against a tree, he holds a knife to her throat and then shoves her down to the ground. In a scene of genuine depravity and impressive rage-acting by Hall, he pushes Helen’s face into the dirt, telling her to eat it. Hall’s quieter moments are not particularly impressive, but he has flashes of brilliance in the scenes where his anger boils over. He practically molests her by tearing off part of her dress and copping a feel. For a film from the early 60’s, it’s a very dark scene. The camera work here is impressive as well, but we’ll get to why that is a little later.
They’ve robbed the group and Judy enjoys pouring out all of the goodies they’ve collected from their various victims. Charlie wants Ed to finish fixing the car so he and Judy can escape but Ed won’t stop trying to convince Tibbs to let them go. Losing his patience and enjoying his titular sadism, he first does a little ‘target practice’ by shooting around the hostages (with live bullets, no less) then telling Carl to get down on his knees. In the film’s most shocking moment, following a gorgeous two-shot of Charlie and Judy, he shoots Carl point blank with absolutely no remorse.
The movie’s runtime is 91 minutes and takes place entirely in the junkyard. Landis’ script plays out in real time and it’s impressive that he’s able present twists and turns that don’t feel like filler. Doris is horrified and also ashamed of Ed’s lack of heroism by letting Carl die. She has a change of heart moments later and remarks, “I’d die running before getting on my knees like that.” What makes Charlie Tibbs such a deadly adversary is his surprising intelligence. Tibbs seems to relish executing a teacher and these scenes show the young taking revenge on the ‘establishment.’ Ed tries to get Charlie talking about how many people he’s killed so he can figure out how many more bullets are in the gun. Tibbs plays along, then reveals he knew all along that Ed was “counting bullets.” The cold, matter-of-fact way he describes slitting the throat of one of the many goodhearted people who have crossed his path and ended up dead is stunningly nihilistic.
All throughout this ordeal, these “kids,” because they are in fact, teenagers, giggle and cuddle, enjoying the sight of these adult figures squirming. Salvation rears its head for one brief moment when a pair of bike cops arrive to help themselves to a couple of Cokes. Tibbs shuts Ed in a trunk and Judy holds Doris down but she lets out a scream, alerting the cops. Tibbs is too quick and dispatches the police, upping the body count. Now they’ve gained more weapons and the remaining couple see no way out of their predicament. Judy even gives Doris a very realistic slap for trying to escape. Her lack of dialogue and childish demeanor conceal a genuine nasty streak. There’s an unnecessary bit where the police radio describes the couple’s crimes in the form of an APB just to let the audience know who they are, but Ed had already guessed this earlier.
Given 15 minutes to live, Ed comes up with a plan to fix the car and lure Tibbs in front of the vehicle, giving Doris a chance to drive into him. When the car is first turned on, we hear the baseball game they were on their way to attend. Memories of Carl start to flood back as his lifeless body bakes under the hot sun. Once again, Ed underestimates how formidable a villain Tibbs is. Thinking he’s some dumb kid, Ed doesn’t think Charlie knows how an engine works, but he knows Ed is plotting something and points out the proper way to prime the fuel pump. This is excellent writing as it refuses to let our heroes off the hook. Desperate, Ed goes for the simplest solution: blast gasoline right in Tibbs’ face.
The final chase begins. Blinded, Tibbs fires wildly and hears the first audible line from Judy: “Charlie!!” He stumbles over and discovers Judy’s body. He screams and goes after the fleeing Doris and Ed. Doris discovers the bodies of the junkyard’s owner and wife in a nightmarish scene but makes it out of the junkyard while Ed grabs a pipe, trying to find a way to bash Charlie’s brains in. There’s some amazing camera work as the characters are reflected in the side mirrors of the dilapidated cars. In the second most shocking scene of the film, Ed is cornered by Charlie. Making a last-ditch effort, Ed rushes Charlie and for a moment you think he’s going to tackle him. In fact, you know he’s going to tackle him because he’s the hero. Right? Just inches away, Tibbs gets off two shots and Ed goes down. Charlie continues to fire at Ed’s body until he’s out of bullets in a display of petty vengeance. He jumps in the car and heads off to catch Doris.
At this point, I think Charlie should cut his losses and drive away. Yes, Judy is dead and he wants revenge, but it really doesn’t matter if Doris survives or not. The police know who he is and he’s remained a step ahead this entire time. Still, armed with a knife, he goes after her on foot when the car gets stuck. She reaches the ruin of a farm house and there’s a nice piece of staging where he sees her behind the wall, the camera pans down, then back up, but now he’s disappeared. She runs again and he falls into a pit of rattlesnakes. It’s not the greatest twist, but seeing his last moment on Earth be one of absolute terror is somewhat satisfying. The car’s radio continues to report the game as Doris makes her way back to the junkyard.
The presence of Arch Hall Jr. is very much a detriment to the film if you’re familiar with his work, but if you remain patient, his performance becomes much more bearable as the film progresses. The rest of the cast is also adequate. Marilyn Manning, an Eegah! veteran, is very natural and acquits herself well despite having no dialogue. Helen Hovey’s performance is a bit shrill and there are only a handful of solid moments. She’s a good screamer but a better actress would have elevated this role. Richard Alden is very good as a stereotypically average guy pushed to the brink and Don Russell’s death scene is desperately bleak.
The last 30 minutes are very intense thanks to the relentlessly inventive camera work. Credited as ‘William Zsigmond’ and working as a feature director of photography for the first time, Vilmos Zsigmond lends a dynamic quality and professionalism to the entire film that would continue to serve him well with his award-winning work on Blow Out, The Deer Hunter, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, the under-seen Scarecrow, and many more. The editing, by Fairway’s regular editor Anthony M. Lanza, is also very tight with no cutting errors at all. The sound is well-done, too. It’s a professional film done on a very tight budget. The great director Joe Dante is a fan of the film and owns the best 35mm print of the film, which is often the one used to create DVDs for distribution. Many of the other films made by this group would suffer from multiple technical errors but here, everything works. James Landis may be forgotten, but he did that rare thing. He took a group that predominantly did shoddy work and helped them do the best work of their brief careers.