Friday, April 29, 2016

Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) review


Marjoe Gortner (Lyle Wheeler), Lynda Carter (Bobbie Jo), Belinda Balaski (Essie), Jesse Vint (Slick Callahan), Merrie Lynn Ross (Pearl Baker), Gerrit Graham (Magic Ray), Gene Drew (Sheriff Hicks), Virgil Frye (Joe Grant)

Directed by Mark L. Lester

The Short Version: A modern day exploitation western whose major claim to fame is the nude scenes of one of the most beautiful women in the world, a literal Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. Director Lester imbues his movie with a striking amount of thematic relevance visualizing society's obsession with criminality; and the toxic allure of those who wish to attain some level of fame at any cost. A low budget, free-wheelin' version of BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), Bobbie Jo and her outlaw trudge along--like any other young, rambunctious couple in love--backed by a country soundtrack (a repetitive, croonin' tune by Bobby Bare) and enhanced by those signature, thunderously bombastic gunfire sound effects of the 1970s.

Bobbie Jo works at a burger joint and dreams of becoming a country singer till she meets Lyle--an all-smiles, curly-haired, young rebel drivin' a fast (and stolen) car. Hittin' the road with Lyle and her friend Essie, Bobbie Jo's stripper sister and her unhinged lover tag along for the ride. It isn't long before their free-wheelin' good time turns into a crime spree of robbery and murder that ends in tragedy and bloody shootouts. 

Most Drive-in movies barely had enough resources to get by, requiring many filmmakers to not only cut corners, but up the ante on sensationalism to keep audiences distracted from lapses in things like continuity, logic, and budget. Prior to his cult crime-road movie, Mark L. Lester had some experience in this area with independent efforts like STEEL ARENA (1973) and TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974).

An AIP pickup, BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW efficiently mimics the greatest escapist trash produced by AIP or Roger Corman during the wild and woolly 1970s; only it's not as consistently slick, and suffers from sloppy editing.

There's nothing sloppy about the film's sensationalist qualities, though! There's plentiful action, funny lines, beautiful women, bloody shootouts, ample nudity and subtextual content for a film whose narrative didn't require any. The exploitational prospects aside, it's the underlying themes that elevate Lester's movie above others in this genre in spite of its budgetary and technical deficiencies.

One of the most fascinating things about BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW is how it presents some of its characters as if they're living in the Wild West but with all the modern accouterments of 1976. It's obvious the filmmakers are channeling BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), but have opted for a cowboy context to insert them. The film could easily be a western with its youthful, delusional band of hooligans going from one robbery to the next while the sheriff, his posse, and karma breathes down their necks.

Punctuated with moments of violence, BOBBIE JO is mostly light in tone till the last 20 minutes or so. Prior to its downbeat finale, these earlier instances of seriousness are laced with black humor. One such sequence finds our buffoonish sheriff Hicks (shades of Sheriff Justice in the following years SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT [1977]) thinking he's got Lyle and crew cornered at a sleazy motel. Unfortunately, he and his boys in blue unleash lead on the wrong room--putting to rest the participants in a menage a trois. When he's not the butt of jokes, Sheriff Hicks has his own running gag--repeatedly asking for "Ya'll to give yourselves up nice and peaceful like", only to open fire every time. One of the deputies is future director, Chuck Russell (1988s THE BLOB; see insert).

Vernon Zimmerman, the man who wrote and directed UNHOLY ROLLERS (1972) and FADE TO BLACK (1980), has written a fascinating script that's rendered frustrating--and even a little cartoonish--by plot holes (where did they get the bus and machine guns?) and peculiar editing choices. Where it shines is in how it depicts society's infatuation with villainy and mass murderers. Instead of turning Lyle Wheeler into a Mansonesque killer he's a caricature of Old West outlaws. Lyle is the perennial bad boy and innocent Bobbie Jo is attracted to his smooth-talkin' ways that win her over, despite lying to her more than once.

Arguably the best sequence in the entire movie is the gun duel between Lyle and a gas station attendant played by Virgil Frye (REVENGE OF THE NINJA). Ever since the opening Wild West show duel, Lyle's trigger finger has been itchin' to do it for real. With the law catchin' up to'em, Lyle has made the full transformation into the outlaw he admires. This next-to-the-last-stand is indicative of Lyle's complexity while shining a light on just how crazy, how totally out of touch segments of society had/has become. For the purposes of the cinematic world, this gun duel is extremely well shot and edited.

Lyle's extreme reverence for Billy the Kid and others like The Dalton Gang contains honorable qualities not present in the gunmen he idolizes. He's not the sort to shoot a man in the back. On the other hand, Slick Callahan, the man who is partially responsible for Lyle committing his first murder, is closer to Billy's personality than Lyle is--although the gunfighting skills are clearly in Lyle's favor. Both men complement each others twisted mindset. Lyle is the brains of the operation and Slick is the muscle.

Another impressive, symbolic moment is a single shot of Bobbie Jo staring at a guitar hanging in a music store window. The only thing between her and the guitar are the bars on the outside. She grips the bars tightly as her eyes adore the instrument--ardently determined to one day be on a stage playing to an audience. Unfortunately, that day will never come. The image of the bars foreshadows both her future and an unfulfilled dream just out of reach--separating her from the guitar--the object of her desire before Lyle enters her life.

A good chunk of the film's success can be attributed to its great cast; a highlight of this rough-hewn, yet highly entertaining example of Hixploitation heaven.

Marjoe Gortner is as energetic as always, playing 'the outlaw' with a peculiar blend of principled psychopathy. Obsessed with the Wild West and its plethora of gunfighters, he sees himself as Billy the Kid cuz "he didn't take no shit from nobody". Marjoe's Lyle Wheeler could've been written as a duplicitous character, preying on the weaknesses of those who follow him; but instead, there's a likability to him--maybe even a bit of victim of circumstance. His thievin' ways soon escalate into robbery and murder with the assist of Slick (Jesse Vint stealing some scenes of his own), Lyle's unstable partner in crime. Unlike Slick, Wheeler is a multi-faceted character whom the filmmakers never allow us to hate. Gortner, a former evangelist, basically played the same character, but with an increased dosage of turpitude, in WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? (1979).

BOBBIE JO has a bit of a reputation in the annals of Drive-in cinema. Most of the notoriety surrounds its lead actress--for being the only time you'll see Lynda Carter naked from the waist up. Playing Bobbie Jo Baker, the naivety of the character suits Carter's then inexperience as an actor. Bobbie Jo is innocence personified, but there's a level of impurity aching to bust out. With dreams to be a country and western singer, Bobbie Jo ends up tradin' in her guitar for an M-16 when she meets wild card Lyle Wheeler. By the end of the movie, the only singin' she'll be doin' is behind bars. She does fine till her cringeworthy line reading in the final scene which may have been the inspiration for Lynda Day George's memorable utterance of "BASTARD!" in J.P. Simon's PIECES (1982).

Lynda Carter had already starred in her WONDER WOMAN pilot for CBS just prior to making BOBBIE JO in late 1975. There was no assurance the series would get picked up so she did this movie in the interim in case a TV career didn't pan out. Not long after, Ms. Carter disowned the film, presumably embarrassed or regretful of having done the nudity and appearing in an overly violent movie.

Unlike Bobbie Jo, Carter did become an accomplished singer and dancer with numerous TV Variety Specials and Vegas shows. One of the most stunningly gorgeous women to ever grace this great Earth, her participation in this movie is one of its saving graces. Carter's nude scenes are minor in comparison to her natural grace and hypnotic beauty.

Elsewhere, Belinda Balaski's bespectacled Essie makes a memorable third-wheel (and later, after Pearl and Slick join, fifth-wheel) tag-along who is the one true innocent among the band; co-producer Merrie Lynn Ross is, like Carter, gorgeous to look at as Bobbie Jo's stripper sister; Jesse Vint gives Gortner a run for his money as the wild card Slick Callahan; and Gerrit Graham is the leader of some sort of makeshift communal hamlet.

Compared with other, similar Drive-in style car chasin', shoot'em ups, BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW (1976) lacks finesse but makes up for it in other areas. Performances are mostly strong and everything you expect from an exploitation movie is here; including such bonuses as analogous social mores and the breathtaking beauty of Lynda Carter that could turn grit into gold. With a suitable road movie score by Barry De Vorzon (DILLINGER [1973], ROLLING THUNDER [1977], THE WARRIORS [1979]), some laugh-out-loud comedic moments, you can't help but go along for the rough and tumble ride with this outlaw band.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber Bluray. Specs and Extras: 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1; Audio commentary with director Mark L. Lester; interviews with Belinda Balaski, Merrie Lynn Ross and director Mark L. Lester; original trailer; running time: 1:27:49. 
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