Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cleopatra Jones

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Cleopatra Jones (WB, 1973) – Director: Jack Starrett. Writers: Max Julien (story and s/p), Sheldon Keller (s/p). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Shelley Winters, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Dan Frazer, Bill McKinney, Stafford Morgan, Michael Warren, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Esther Rolle, Keith Hamilton, Jay Montgomery, Arnold Dover, Teddy Wilson, George Reynolds, & Angela Elayne Gibbs. Color, 89 minutes, PG.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (WB, Shaw Brothers, 1975) – Director: Charles Bail. Writers: William Tennant (s/p), Max Julien (characters). Cast: Tamara Dobson, Stella Stevens, Ni Tien, Norman Fell, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta, Shen Chan, Christopher Hunt, Chen Chi Lin, Locke Hua Liu, Eddy Donno, Bobby Canavarro, Mui Kwok Sing, John Cheung, & Kung-Wu Huang. Color, 94 minutes, PG.

When it first exploded onto movie screens in the early ‘70s, Blaxploitation was a Man’s World. Characters such as Shaft, Superfly and Slaughter ruled, fighting crime, corruption and The Man. Women, for their part, were relegated to the background, playing casual girlfriends, dope fiends, hookers, and victims working for the Mob, The Man, and/or the White Power structure.

Suddenly, along came Pam Grier and the playing field changed. Grier, who cut her teeth in the exploitation genre with films like The Big Doll HouseWomen in Cages, The Big Bird Cage, and Black Mama, White Mama, starred in the low-budget breakout hit Coffy from American International. Made for $500,000, it cleared more than $2 million in during its first run. Grier was a heroine for the times. A marvelously stacked 5’8”, she possessed a magnificent pair of knockers that she wasn’t afraid to display on the screen. She wasn’t much of an actress at the time, but then she didn’t have to be; she was a presence. With time she developed into a fine actress. Those who don’t believe me should take a gander at her work in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to both Pam and Blaxploitation, Jackie Brown.

One month to the day after Coffy made its debut (June 13, 1973), along came Cleopatra Jones, made by Warner Brothers. The screenplay was written by actor/writer Max Julien (The Mack), who was also responsible for the story. Julien’s original idea was to star his then-girlfriend, Vonetta McGee, but the studio nixed her in the part. A search was undertaken with the help of Julien, and Tamara Dobson, a 6’2” Vogue model, who had a few minor film credits, was chosen. While she wasn’t quite Pam Grier (Who is?), her statuesque frame led to the film’s tag line: “6 foot 2 inches of dynamite.”

Not taking any chances, the studio brought in veteran TV writer Sheldon Keller (The Dick Van Dyke ShowM*A*S*H) to lighten the tone of the script. Jack Strrett (Slaughter) was brought in to direct.

The plot of the film is simple; in fact, all the main lines are laid out in the first few minutes, and except for the addition of a few minor characters, it doesn’t deviate from that straight line. It begins as the film opens. Special Agent to the President Cleopatra Jones steps off a plane somewhere in Turkey. (She works undercover for the U.S. government aside from her regular gig as a supermodel.) Turkish army officials are there to meet her. They have located a huge field of opium poppies, which at Cleo’s signal, is put to the torch. Cut back to Los Angeles and we discover that LA drug lord Mommy (Winters) owns the poppy field, and is she mad when she gets the news. After a minute or so of chewing the scenery, Mommy gets an idea. She’ll phone her “boys” in the LAPD to raid the B&S House, which Cleo’s boyfriend, Reuben (Casey) runs as a halfway house for recovering addicts.

When Cleo hears what Mommy’s done, she sets out for LA, and the rest of the film will be a battle between Cleo and Mommy and her minions. Both have allies on the police force and both have outside forces they can call upon for help. In Cleo’s case it’s a couple of karate ass-kicking brothers named Matthew (Popwell) and Melvin (Kenyatta) Johnson. They are the sons of a friend of Cleo’s, Mrs. Johnson (Rolle), who runs an eatery in the old neighborhood with a dice game going in the back. She also has an ally named Andy (Warren), a championship dirt-bike racer whose appearance at a bike meet gives Cleo a chance to show off her superior biking skills. Director Starrett is employing a sledgehammer approach to let the audience know exactly how cool Cleopatra Jones is.

In Mommy’s case, she has the dubious assistance of local pusher Doodlebug Simkins (Fargas), and his toadies, a pair of comic henchmen named Pickle (Wilson) and Plug (Reynolds), along with a white butler named Mattingly (Mattingly). Doodlebug, however, is also plotting to overthrow Mommy and become the main pusher.

The plot unravels in multiple shootouts, standoffs, and car chases, with Cleo slowly closing in on Mommy until the final confrontation at an auto junkyard, where she finally disposes of Mommy by knocking her into a car compactor. She and her allies collect the members of Mommy’s gang and throw them into a garbage truck (how’s that for symbolism) for delivery to the police.

In most cases with films such as this, characters are secondary to plot. Here, it’s reversed. This is a big cartoon strip of a movie, and is clearly filmed with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Cleo is clearly the distaff version of James Bond. She carries a card (embossed, yet) declaring her to be a Special Agent to the President, but that’s all the details we’re going to receive. As Bond drove an Aston-Martin, Cleo drives a Corvette with the license plate “CLEO 1,” in case the bad guys should ever lose her. Not that any of this matters, because the heels can’t catch up to her anyway, though they don’t give up trying. Car chases are an essential part of action films, and this one has one great big chase after Cleo disembarks at the L.A. airport. After a shootout in the baggage claim area, Cleo escapes and tolls down the road in her custom ’73 Corvette with the minions in hot pursuit, as they speed through the streets of L.A., down into the riverbed, and back again. In the end, Cleo has no trouble shaking them and killing off a few while she’s at it.

If it should come to a shootout, Cleo is fully prepared, as she has an arsenal hidden inside the door panels of her ‘Vette. And should it come down to one on one, never fear, for Cleo is an expert in karate. This girl has it all, including the ability to change into different stunning outfits almost at will, each of which magnificently displays her statuesque 6’2” figure. As Cleo strolls down the street, men of every race and age cannot help be bedazzled by her beauty.

A super hero such as Cleopatra Jones needs an equally super villain, and Cleo has one in the aforementioned Mommy. Shelly Winters plays Mommy with all the enthusiasm of a seasoned ham, chewing each piece of scenery and making the most of every line of dialogue. Winters is experienced enough – and smart enough – to realize that a super hero such as Cleo needs an over-the-top villain to play against, otherwise the film rapidly loses its momentum and sense of fun. We can laugh and sneer at her performance, but if she doesn’t lay it on thick, the film will become boring. And Mommy is one of Shelley’s great hysterical performances, screeching displeasure when one of her inept henchmen screws up, punching one out and taking a bullwhip to another. She is also the anti-Cleopatra, modeling a wardrobe of absolutely hideous clothing (plus an assortment of fright wigs to wear in almost every scene).

But there’s another way in which Shelly is the anti-Cleopatra, and that is in the role of sexuality. Cleo is heterosexual, while Mommy is an aggressive lesbian. Cleo’s male helpers are all strong and competent, while Mommy’s male henchmen are weak and inept. The only male around Mommy who’s even somewhat on the ball is Doodlebug, and he’s plotting to whack her and take over the business. During the course of the film, there’s a running gag of sorts where Mommy loses it after her boys screw up. At this point, one of her female helpers comes in to offer Mommy a soothing brandy or something equally nice. As she accepts it, she turns to the young lady and says, “Oh, Eve (or Annie, or Ursula, yada, yada, yada), you’re the only one around here who understands Mommy.” As the woman leaves, Mommy gives her a big squeeze of the butt.

The other males Cleo and Mommy must deal with are the police, most of whom are seen as corrupt. One in particular is a nasty piece of work named Purdy (McKinney), who leads the raid on Reuben’s halfway house. Bill McKinney made a good living playing despicable country villains in such films as DeliveranceCannonball Run, and Junior Bonner. Here he has a Southern accent, rather odd for an L.A. patrolman, but it gets the point across. His loathing of blacks is shown during the raid on the halfway house when he attempts to shoot one of the recovering addicts in the back. When questioned by Cleo as to who was responsible for the raid, he replies, “I wouldn’t lift a finger to help you or any of your kind.” There is a later scene where Cleo’s crew has him under observation, and we see him going into a porno theater. The only cops Cleo can trust are Captain Crawford (Frazer), and his aide, Sergeant Kert (Morgan), and she learns at the end that she can’t trust Morgan, as he turns out to be Mommy’s source of information.

In B action films, the supporting heels disappear as we get close to the end. Before one of Mommy’s henchmen, Snake (Joy), gets his, he pleads with Cleo not to “rip his doubleknits” before she trashes his suit. Doodlebug also gets his at the hands of Mommy. After he meets a particularly gruesome end, Mommy dispatches her goons to silence his girlfriend, Tiffany (Sykes), who survives the hit. It’s up to Cleo to find her before Mommy’s goons do.

The climax occurs in an auto junkyard (fitting when one thinks about it). Cleo is trapped in a car rusher, but her crew rescues her in the nick of time. The final showdown sees Cleo chasing Mommy to the top of a magnetic crane, from which Cleo hurls Mommy down to her death, while Cleo’s crew mops up the henchmen, throwing them into the back of a garbage truck as the police conveniently show up. As Reuben and the crew celebrate their victory, Cleo departs the scene. She has important work to do in stemming the flow of drugs into the community.

In spite of its outrageousness – or because of it – Cleopatra Jones is an enjoyable film. Screenwriters Max Julien and Sheldon Keller, along with director Jack Starrett have stocked the film with a solid assortment of incidental characters, each of which has a distinct personality and is given some good dialogue. Although beholden to the formula for these sorts of films, they manage to inject some humor and a few nice plot twists along the way. While the film shows the harsh conditions found in the ghetto, it also gives us a united community where the members help and support one another.

As Jones, Dobson cuts a fine figure, and Starrett makes the most of her obvious physical assets to get the character over. It is said to be the first Blaxploitation film to employ martial arts as part of its promotion. (Yvonne D. Sims, Women of Blaxploitation, McFarland & Company, 2006). Aimed at the action movie audience, its identification of its heroine with James Bond has been noted by several critics. While Jones is presented as very feminine, the film also emphasizes her talent at traditional male endeavors such as driving and combat, where she is seen as the equal of, if not superior to, the men. Radio ads proclaimed, "She handles a car like she handles a gun, she handles a gun like she handles a man, and she handles a man like Cleopatra!"

While Jones is fighting it out with Mommy and her henchmen, she still enjoys a loving relationship with Reuben, who is portrayed as a strong male character, sensitive enough to care for his halfway house denizens, and tough enough to actively help Cleo in her fight.

Another way the film differs from other Blaxploitation films with female leads is the absence of nude scenes. According to Sims, Dobson refused to do nude scenes in order to separate herself from the “hypersexuality” of the other black heroines. During a love scene with Reuben, the two share a long, intimate kiss rather than passionately making love, emphasizing love and intimacy rather than lust.

Dobson handles the role of Cleopatra Jones well. She’s convincing in the fight scenes and handles her other scenes well, displaying a decent acting range. She lack the presence of a Pam Grier, but director Starrett’s ingenious use of the supporting cast more than compensates. As her lover, Reuben Masters, Casey also turns in a decent performance. For his part as Doodlebug, Fargas is not too far removed from his recurring role as “Huggy Bear” in the TV series Starsky & Hutch. His main attributes are his obvious untrustworthiness and an ability to chew scenery with the best of them. And what can we say about Shelley Winters? Without her exaggerated performance this film would be a lot less entertaining.

Starrett’s direction is fine. He was well-regarded in the field of B action movies, known as a director smart enough to let the actors do their thing while keeping his interference to a minimum. He also acted upon occasion, with his most famous part being that of Gabby Johnson in Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles.

The soundtrack by jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson sounds like something out of a TV-urban-cop show. It proved to be popular with audiences, selling in excess of 500,000 copies. The film itself was a box office success. It grossed more than $100,000 during its first week and climbed to $400,000 by its fifth week. All in all, it made over $3,250,000 for the studio.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold was released in 1975 to poor reviews and sparse box office. The attendance was blamed on everything from poor reviews to the decline of the blaxploitation genre, but the real cause was that the film just wasn’t that entertaining.

Dobson reprises her role as Cleo. This time around, Matthew and Melvin Johnson are taken captive in Hong Kong while working undercover for the U.S. government. Cleo learns that they have been captured by a powerful drug lord known as the Dragon Lady (Stevens) and sets out for Hong Kong to free them and bring the Dragon Lady to justice. Supervisory agent Stanley Nagel (Fell) meets her at the airport and explains the lay of the land. He also arranges for private detective Mi Ling Fong (Tanny) to accompany her.

As with the original, this is a odd combination of black empowerment and martial arts, with homophobia thrown in for good measure, as the Dragon Lady, like Mommy, is an aggressive lesbian. It all climaxes in the Dragon Lady’s casino/headquarters with her in a one-on-one showdown with Cleo while Fong and her allies clean up the Dragon Lady’s henchmen, while the Johnson Brothers are rescued and join in the fun.  Afterward Nagel reveals to Cleo that Mi Ling is actually an undercover government agent who, along with her crew, was assigned to help Cleo take down the nefarious Dragon Lady.

While the film contains the usual one-liners and comedy, the frequent wardrobe changes by the star, and plenty of action, it fails because of the failure of Stevens to play the role over-the-top. Her rather muted performance takes away from the film’s outrageousness, making it into another run-of-the mill B actioner. The poor box office also scuttled plans to turn the film into a TV series. 

Dobson returned to modeling, living in New York City until the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis necessitated a return to her native Baltimore and the care of her family. She passed away at the young age of 59 on October 2, 2006. He character, though, continued on in popular culture, being honored in Mike Myers’s 2002 spy spoof, Austin Powers in Goldmember, in which Beyonce Knowles co-starred as undercover FBI agent Foxxy Cleopatra.

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