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Retro Review: DOG DAY (1984)

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DOG DAY
(France - 1984; US release 1985)

Directed by Yves Boisset. Written by Jean Herman, Michel Audiard, Dominique Roulet, Serge Korber and Yves Boisset. Cast: Lee Marvin, Miou-Miou, Jean Carmet, Victor Lanoux, Tina Louise, Henri Guybet, Pierre Clementi, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, David Bennent, Bernadette Lafont, Grace De Capitani, Muni, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Juliette Mills, Julian Bukowski, Jean-Roger Milo, Joseph Momo. (Unrated, 99 mins)

I'm pretty sure that Lightning Video VHS box with the art you see to the left was in every video store in America in the 1980s. I picked it up and looked at it approximately 85,000 times during those long gone days of old, but only now have I finally gotten around to the utterly deranged DOG DAY. And shame on me for neglecting this bonkers French gem that's long been a public domain mainstay on discount store DVD racks or in any number of low-quality "50 Action Hits!" sets, and is available in a shitty, cropped print on Amazon, but is just out in a restored and properly 2.35:1-framed Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead). This is one of those weird movies that hasn't exactly been hard to find but has spent decades stealthily flying under the radar, and if there's any cult that's formed around this jaw-dropper, then they've successfully kept it to themselves. Based on a novel by Jean Vautrin (the literary pen name of FAREWELL, FRIEND/HONOR AMONG THIEVES director Jean Herman), and directed and co-written by journeyman Yves Boisset (THE FRENCH CONSPIRACY, THE PURPLE TAXI), DOG DAY is what might happen if you took the kind of Sebastian Japrisot-styled French crime thriller that Charles Bronson made in the early '70s (RIDER ON THE RAIN, COLD SWEAT, SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR, etc) and put it in the hands of Tobe Hooper circa THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or Wes Craven around the time of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. The end result in some ways resembles a French SONNY BOY but with a classier pedigree, and with its effective, Italian-sounding electronic score by Francis Lai (an Oscar-winner for his work on LOVE STORY), it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn DOG DAY into either a Fabrizio De Angelis actioner from the period or even an outright horror movie (I'm willing to bet that FRONTIER(S) director Xavier Gens is a fan). But it's very often darkly funny since you spend much of the time staring in incredulous dismay at the freakshow unfolding before your eyes, echoing the reaction of a fugitive American criminal played by the legendary Lee Marvin in one of his last films, and easily the weirdest one of his career.







Marvin was plagued with health problems over his few remaining years following DOG DAY, and he already doesn't look very good here. He seems tired and is sweating profusely throughout--the French title was CANICULE, meaning "heat wave," and it was shot during the unusually hot summer of 1983, which probably didn't do the actor any favors--though it's strangely fitting for his portrayal of Jimmy Cobb, an American gangster pulling off "one last job" in France. He's introduced prepping for an imminent armored car heist in Orleans and instructing his girlfriend Naomi Blue (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Tina Louise) to wait for him at a nearby hotel. With the kind of brutal, unflinching, misanthropic nastiness generally reserved for an Italian poliziotteschi directed by Umberto Lenzi, DOG DAY gets off to a rip-roaring shocker of a start with Marvin hoisting a bazooka to blow open the armored car, but something's already off: the police are there waiting for him, and in the ensuing shootout, numerous cops and many innocent bystanders--including children from a school that's letting out at the same time--are blown away with the help of some enthusiastically splattery squib work. Cobb manages to get away to the far rural outskirts of the city, where he comes upon a vast farm property in the middle of nowhere. With helicopters swarming the area, Cobb buries the loot--estimated to be in the vicinity of $1 million--in the field and takes refuge in a barn. He doesn't manage to go unnoticed for long, and when he's discovered, he finds himself at the mercy of a freakishly dysfunctional family of psychos and perverts and soon wishes he'd simply surrendered and turned himself in.


The only remotely normal one in the bunch is Jessica (Miou-Miou of Bertrand Blier's GOING PLACES), the abused wife of loathsome, brutish farm owner Horace (Victor Lanoux), the kind of charmer who clears everyone out of the kitchen immediately after breakfast so he can bend her over the table for a rough, degrading quickie. It was Jessica's father's property that she inherited, but when her first husband died and left her a widow with an infant son, she reluctantly married the repulsive Horace out of financial desperation ("He wasn't always like this," she tells Cobb at one point, and he doesn't believe it either). Horace quickly took over the farm and moved in his entire extended trash-ass family, including, among others, his dotty mother Gusta (Muni);' his prostitute daughter Lily (Grace De Capitani), who works at the brothel in town; his dim-witted older brother Socrate (Jean Carmet); and his nymphomaniac sister Segolene (Bernadette Lafont), who sexually propositions everyone--including her brothers, who affectionately call her "Slut"--and is having a torrid fling with black handyman Doudou Cadillac (Joseph Momo), which leads to no shortage of racist comments from Horace, who spends his free time disguising himself as a scarecrow and spying on a pair of nude female sunbathers who have taken up residence in his wheat field (he also tries to force them into a threesome at one point). There's also Jessica's young son Chim (THE TIN DRUM's David Bennent), a duplicitous little shit who's first seen getting a bare-assed whipping from Horace. Chim idolizes American gangsters, calls himself "Aniello Dellacroce," and refers to Cobb as "Al Capone" after he silently observes him burying the loot. He promptly digs it up and stashes most of it in the back of Doudou Cadillac's Cadillac, keeping some for himself to go live it up at the whorehouse, slapping some cash in the cleavage of the madam and declaring "I want to learn about life!" As in THE TIN DRUM, the short-statured Bennent was able to play much younger than his actual age (he was 17 in DOG DAY, and passing for maybe seven or eight), allowing the filmmakers to get away with some questionable things that essentially made him the highbrow version of BURIAL GROUND's Peter Bark.





Cobb spends most of his time at the farm bewildered by the lunacy happening around him, whether it's the actions of the gross Horace, who announces his intention to keep all of Cobb's money once he finds out where it is, or finding an unexpected superfan in Chim, or nearly being raped by an incredibly horny Segolene (every Lee Marvin fan needs to see him being aggressively straddled by a topless Lafont, who shoves his face in between her breasts while screaming "Fuck me hard! Suck my tits!"), or getting an unlikely partner-in-crime in Jessica. She pragmatically sees Cobb as her ticket out, offering to help him escape if he kills Horace. But with the police closing in--they've even stationed dumb cop Marceau (Henri Guybet) at the farm to keep lookout, only to have Horace and Socrate get him drunk while Segolene throws a screaming tantrum when her brothers won't let her have sex with him--along with some lowlife townies led by Snake (Pierre Clementi), who overhear a drunk Chim shooting his mouth off at the brothel about Cobb and the money, Cobb sees no alternative other than to send Jessica to the city to meet with the still-waiting Naomi while he stays behind and kills everyone. But he's still unaware that the money isn't where he left it thanks to Chim. DOG DAY doesn't quite succeed at sustaining its accelerated level of balls-out insanity all the way through to the end, and it more or less settles into a conventional "fugitive on the run/hostage scenario" crime thriller in the home stretch. But what a ride it is up to that point! Despite its '80s video store ubiquity and its many years in the public domain, the delightfully tawdry and thoroughly batshit DOG DAY remains one of Marvin's least-seen and least-discussed films, and that needs to change. It never received an American theatrical release, instead going straight to video in 1985, the same year Marvin starred in the TV-movie sequel THE DIRTY DOZEN: THE NEXT MISSION. His final screen appearance came a year later, co-starring with Chuck Norris in the 1986 Cannon favorite THE DELTA FORCE. He died of a heart attack in 1987.



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