Friday, March 23, 2012

TOD IS DEAD: "The Spikes Gang" (1974)


Yeah, I suppose it's too late to talk about spoilers after giving this entry a title like "TOD IS DEAD". I'll not give away the whole story, but I will tell you upfront that Charlie Martin Smith's character Tod does end up deceased before the Wild West drama "The Spikes Gang" reaches its conclusion. But his character's name is also the German word for dead, a clearly intentional choice by the filmmakers, considering all the deathly foreshadowing scattered throughout the movie. Whether it's a Mexican guy on a street corner waving a skeleton doll at the protagonists shouting "Muerte! Muerte!" or the dark pearls of wisdom offered by experienced outlaw Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), references to death are everywhere in this film.

I don't want to give the impression it's a totally depressing movie, because its not. CMS shares a few lighthearted moments here and there with his fellow actors. "The Culpepper Cattle Co." co-star Gary Grimes and "American Graffiti" co-star Ron Howard are cast with CMS again, playing three young men who have grown up together living a life lacking in adventure... until the fateful day they met Spikes. From what I've read, the filmshoot in Spain allowed opportunities for the young trio of actors to have fun behind the scenes too, including taking a trip together by train to Paris after the shoot had wrapped.

Wandering through an empty field, young friends Will (Grimes), Les (Howard), and Tod (CMS) stumble across the bleeding body of Harry Spikes (Marvin). Initially they assume he is dead, until he startles them by grabbing one of them by the leg. "Help me, boys," he rasps through parched lips. "Save me... hide me."

The guys fret for a minute, fearing involvement will get them in trouble, but being good and well-meaning young men they decide they have to help. Together, they carry Spikes to Will's family's barn, carrying him up into the rafters and laying him behind the bundles of hay. As the other two clean and dress his wounds, Tod hands him a cup of water. Aw, what sweet guys.

After dark, they sneak back out to the barn to pay Spike a visit with some rabbit stew. The boys are entranced by Spike's talk of a life more exciting than anything they have ever known in their young, inexperienced lives. The grateful outlaw, wanted in several states, shakes their hands and tells them: "I owe you. Anytime. Any place. Anywhere." Will gives Spikes a horse from the family stable and the 3 of them watch the fugitive ride off into the night.

After Will's dad seriously beats him for "losing" the horse, he decides to run away. He takes off on another horse, stopping by both of his friends' bedroom windows to whisper tender goodbyes: first Les, then Tod (who seems especially crushed by the prospect of losing a lifelong friend). Of course, Will doesn't get far before Tod and Les ride up beside him, eager to share a life of adventure and danger with him. With some hootin' 'n' hollerin', the trio ride away from their homes for the first time in their lives.

But it's not fun or glamorous out there. They run out of food and money really fast, and end up breaking into a church to eat and drink the communion wine and wafers. Despite his hunger, Tod doesn't join the other two in their act of sacrilege. It's becoming clear sensitive & gentle Tod isn't cut out for this harder lifestyle.

Soon, Tod's strongly held Christian values are put to the test. When they resort to making a try at robbing a bank, like their hero Spikes, you just know it's not going to go well. In the course of the robbery, a gun ends up in Tod's hands. The poor guy really shouldn't have been put in such a position. Because when it all goes awry, the trigger is pulled and Tod becomes a murderer.

The trio flee the scene of the crime, crossing the border into Mexico. Tod, devastated by what he has done, cries out in anguish: "I never killed nothin' in my whole life. I never even killed a rabbit! It doesn't matter [that it's an accident]! He's dead! To God and all of God's world, forever!"  Aw, poor guy. I remember the first time I watched "The Spikes Gang", I was rather annoyed with Charlie's character, thinking he was just a foolish little fuck-up. But watching again, I feel a lot more sympathy for doomed Tod.

Wracked with guilt, haunted by nightmares, poor Tod sinks into despair. The bad luck continues as the boys get more desperate. A few more unfortunate missteps finally land them in jail. Oh, crap!

They rot in a cell for weeks, Tod suffering worst of all, having more nightmares and stuff. I kind of wish the other two would cuddle up to him and comfort him, but they don't. They leave him alone: cold, shivering, and crying. Things finally start looking up when they happen to look out the window one day... and who do they see? Harry Spikes! He hears them shouting from their cell window and wanders over. It's time to repay the debt he owes them, and he springs them from jail, taking them under his wing.

First things first: get these grimy boys cleaned up. It's straight to the bath house for a soak in the tub. While Spikes talks with the boys about their unlucky recent past and their uncertain future, I take a moment to note that what I am watching is more-or-less Charlie's first nude scene.

I must point out: it is a very limited degree of flesh. All you see is from the chest up. I am sure he is covered up with some fleshtone bathing suit under the waters. But this scene is pretty much the first time he is showing some skin on camera. My problem? Charlie is still so darn young at this point in his career. How old would he be in this movie... 20? Plus I get the feeling his character is meant to be even younger.

Yeah, take a look here: where's the body hair? True, CMS has a little bit around his nipples and a smattering in his armpits, a light dusting across the forearms... but that's it. He needed to ripen a little more, as far as I'm concerned. But that's OK. CMS will be showing off more in later films, when he is older and much hotter than he is able to be here.

It's kind of interesting that the bathtub scene was used in the film's promotion, presumably to entice teenage girls with Gary Grimes in his possible nakedness. But what young lady (or young gentleman, for that matter) would be able to say no to Charlie's sweet smile?

One thing that makes me smile is when they all realise Tod is blind as a bat. I smile because this requires them pay a visit to an optometrist and slap a pair of glasses on Charlie's face! Yay, Charlie looks better already. If he got some facial hair going, I would have been even happier. But he stays baby faced to the end. 

There's another nearly-nude scene later on in the film that had me hitting the pause button and going frame-by-frame. Spikes is taking a skinny-dipping break, floating in a lake, cigar in his mouth, when the boys pounce into frame for some wet horseplay, Wait a second... is that CMS's naked left buttock?

I took a closer look, and I concluded that the motion blur hides the fact he's wearing fleshtone shorts. When Spikes was floating in the water at the start of the scene, he was definitely wearing shorts. The rest of the scene moves too quickly, the motion frequently blurry, to tell if any of them are really naked or not... But who knows? CMS demonstrates later in his career he isn't afraid to shuck off his clothes if the role requires it. How fearless!

After grooming and training the boys as his new gang, Spikes plans to have them assist in a more planned-out bank robbery. I think they all realize sweet good-natured Tod should be kept out of harm's way, deciding to have him serve as look-out and watch their getaway horses instead of holding a gun and helping in the bank.

But there's more bad luck a-plenty, and inevitably Tod is mortally wounded. His death takes days to arrive, and when it does Will and Les are devastated. Aw... Poor Tod. Rest in peace, fella.

I still don't think "The Spikes Gang" is one of CMS's best films, but I do have more of an appreciation for it now. I admitted before that I'm not a huge fan of westerns, so I have my personal bias crippling my judgement. Another sincere perfomance from CMS helps considerably. Director Richard Fleischer had delivered more impressive movies before helming this one ("20,000 Leagues Under The Sea"(1954), "Fantastic Voyage"(1966), "Tora! Tora! Tora!"(1970), "Soylent, Green"(1973)) but I would admit this is better than some of the stuff he worked on after ("Amityville 3-D"(1983), "Red Sonja"(1985)).  I actually haven't seen the film Fleischer directed after this one, the controversial slave-era drama "Mandingo" (1975), so I'm not sure how it stacks up against the others. One of these days, I'll have to find out.

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