Pliers, Pussies & the Enduring Class of John Vernon

In the flat blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, baddie John Vernon prickles at the insinuation that playing an exploitation villain is beneath him.

“Lots of famous people have done exploitation movies,” he tells the hero before listing the likes of Shelley Winters and Angie Dickinson.

OK, mate, fair point, but I doubt you derived much satisfaction from appearing in such boring, inept shite as 1984’s models-getting-raped-in-a-South-American-hellhole, Jungle Warriors.

Surely such a talented actor (who could boast one of the most beautiful voices in cinematic history) belonged in stuff that at least had a bit of class? After all, this Canadian treasure appeared in some of the 70s’ best flicks, even if they never led to any kind of reliable groove. Indeed, an odd failure to capitalize on a massive commercial hit or a cult classic was a recurring feature of his early career.

However, 1978’s Animal House proved a watershed moment. From then on his ability to pop up in quality stuff or snag a starring role grew noticeably weaker. The days of working with legendary directors like John Boorman and Don Siegel were over, resulting in a Herbie sequel, the aforementioned Jungle Warriors, and a lot of Canadian movies that even the internet struggles to find any trace of.

Vernon died in 2005, the previous twenty-five years having coughed up little of artistic worth. You might’ve enjoyed him playing a dyspeptic cop turned into a ventriloquist’s dummy in the one-joke Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but I didn’t.

Did Dirty Harry’s mayor deserve better?

Point Blank (1967)

Vernon got off to a pretty good start in this well-regarded Lee Marvin vehicle with its great cast and groovy sixties vibe. It delivers on the action while its dream-like narrative is open to interpretation.

Vernon plays Marvin’s partner in crime, the treacherous Mal Reese. From his frantic introduction at a crowded party in which he punches Walker (Marvin) in the face, we just know this is a portrait of a drowning man. “I’m your friend, Walker,” he cries. “I can’t make it on my own. Trust me! Trust me! Trust me!”

Reese is incompetent, sweaty and greedy, a real snake in the grass who deserves his memorable and thoroughly undignified death. Even when it appears he’s regained some control, we sense things won’t stay that way for long.

Look at his scene with Chris (the ravishing Angie Dickinson). Reese is living in a heavily guarded penthouse apartment after using the money he stole from Walker to firstly pay off and then get back in with The Organization. He’s craved Chris for years and when she finally swings by (at Walker’s behest) he tries to play it cool.

“Well, Cinderella, I was beginning to think you’d never come for your shoe,” he says, but Vernon has got such a firm grasp of the character that there’s a furtive, mildly desperate whiff to his actions. This is a man who snatches at things. When he unbuttons her top and she embraces him, the look on his face suggests a man who can never really enjoy anything good because he believes it will soon be taken away.

As it happens, he’s right.

Dirty Harry (1971)

Chatting with Dirty Harry about a naked man, a fleeing female, a butcher’s knife and a hard-on?

Yeah, I think we can safely call that a career highlight.

Vernon plays the by-the-book Mayor of San Francisco forced to deal with a mad, ransom-demanding sniper called Scorpio. We’re not sure if this elected official is an ass-coverer, a genuinely decent man that doesn’t want one more body to turn up, or someone understandably scared that a loose cannon like Callaghan is about to launch into another scorched earth policy.

Whatever the case, we do know they’re not on the same page. The pair plays off each other nicely, especially the bit where the mayor asks Callaghan what he’s been doing about catching the killer.

“Well,” Callaghan replies, “for the past three-quarters of an hour I’ve been sitting on my ass in your outer office.”

The mayor takes the jab on the chin, probably well-used to hotheads and the need for diplomacy. “There’s a madman loose. I’ve asked you what’s being done. Fair enough?”

It almost sounds like they might be able to work together. However, by their second meeting, there are no anecdotes about nudey, would-be rapists, all tentative understanding has evaporated, and the mayor’s reduced to bawling orders at that arch provocateur Callaghan like everyone else.

Vernon only features in two scenes, but provides solid support in this hugely influential classic. Sadly Magnum Force was mayor-free while for some reason he didn’t get to reprise his role in The Enforcer.

Charley Varrick (1973)

Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry follow up is rated PG, but that doesn’t prevent it from being among the best crime movies of the 70s.

The opening half-hour, in which a small-town bank robbery goes awry, is marvelous. The pace never flags, aided by a memorable cast making the most of an inventive script.

Vernon again offers terrific support in his role as Maynard Boyle, the president of the Mob-controlled bank. He’s a smart man and knows that when nearly eight-hundred grand gets pinched no stone will be left unturned in its recovery.

In particular, he shines while laying bare the facts of Mafia thinking to Harold (Woodrow Parfrey), the unfortunate bank manager who had a gun pointed at his head and ‘allowed’ the robbers to get away with the loot.

Perched on a fencepost next to a field of grazing cows to ensure no one can electronically listen, Boyle tells Harold that the robbery looks ‘damned peculiar’ to their bosses.

Harold, however, underlines his innocence before revealing his pride in restoring the bank and how much he loves the town.

“I believe you, Harold,” Boyle says, adopting a fatherly tone despite being the much younger man. “I only hope they do when the time comes. We might as well face it, they’re gonna ask questions. For instance, we’ve been keeping various sums of money in the bank from time to time, but the one time we really load up bang! this little horseshit bank a million miles from nowhere gets hit.”

Harold truthfully says it’s a coincidence, but Boyle replies the Mob don’t believe in such a thing and that he needs to flee abroad otherwise: “They’re going to make you tell where the money is. You know what kind of people they are. They’ll strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”

Vernon delivers this blunt line perfectly, its effect making Harold’s face crumple. Indeed, this chillingly understated, four-minute scene is so superbly executed it’s no surprise Harold returns to the desk of his beloved bank and puts a gun in his mouth.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

If you ever want to see the antithesis to scenery chewing, catch Vernon’s mournful, reined in performance here.

This is a somber man who’s somehow held onto his humanity despite witnessing an inordinate amount of death and destruction fighting on the wrong side in the Civil War.

He’s tired, though, and just wants the carnage to end. Turning in his guns, swearing allegiance to the United States and going home seems to be the only option left, but his attempt to make a clean break with the horror of his past merely results in his former comrades-in-arms being cut down with a Yankee Gatling gun.

Worse, it makes an enemy out of the deeply embittered Josey Wales, who wrongly believes he’s behind the slaughter. Forced by the government to hunt the renegade Wales, he has to keep wading through blood while hoping the pursuit doesn’t cost him his life.

Vernon barely does a goddamned thing in this brilliant western, only getting off his horse twice. It’s a performance of great economy, but his honor, sadness and bone deep weariness are all communicated through his eyes and that wonderfully rich voice. A melancholy knowledge imbues his every move, perfectly captured when he muses on what he’ll do if he ever meets Wales again. “I think I’ll try to tell him the war’s over,” he says.

The Uncanny (1977)

Every so often you have to wonder how the bloody hell some movies not only get green lit but actually attract talent. There’s no better example than this stinker, which should’ve never been any more than an idea in some fool’s damaged brain. It’s a horror anthology about killer kitty-cats, a movie so lame that apparently half the feline cast petitioned the producers in a bid to have their names removed from the credits.

Peter Cushing is tasked with linking these three furry tales by playing a frazzled writer visiting his publisher’s home to insist satanic pussies are controlling mankind. Despite being repeatedly frightened by the publisher’s fluffy white cat, he manages to hand over a bag stuffed with damning substantiation.

“It’s evidence from all over the world that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that cats have been exploiting the human race for centuries,” he blathers. “We think we’re the masters and they’re merely pets, but we’re wrong. They’re the masters.”

Two episodes of intensely stupid feline devilry play out before Vernon turns up as a Hollywood executive in the last segment. He’s overseeing a troubled production in which lead actor Donald Pleasence murders his cat-loving wife on set for real. Later Vernon attempts to talk to the back of a strangely motionless Pleasence, only to get no reply. “What’s the matter?” Vernon says. “Cat got your tongue?” And yes, the camera does then switch to the recently avenged moggy feasting upon Pleasence’s torn out tongue.

Vernon’s most telling contribution here (and perhaps in the entire flick) is the one where he sits on a step with his head in his hands.

Animal House (1978)

There’s a point in Dirty Harry where the infuriated mayor bawls at the departing inspector’s back: “And that’s a direct order, Callaghan!”

You know Callaghan’s going to ignore him, but Vernon’s exasperation at dealing with one rebellious cop is nothing next to the aggro he gets in Animal House trying to bring a bunch of misbehaving students into line.

Here he plays Dean Wormer, a man who would give anything to finally be shot of the Deltas. At the start of the 1962 semester, he’s already scheming to revoke their charter, fed up with their dismal academic performance and endless pranks.

“Every Halloween the trees are filled with underwear, every spring the toilets… explode,” he says.

When informed Delta is already on probation, he thinks about it and comes up with what he believes is a winning solution. “Then from this moment they’re on double secret probation.”

Such a great line underlines why Animal House ticks along so nicely. Dean Wormer is an educated, highly qualified man in a position of power and influence, but he’s using it to employ ‘double secret probation’ against a bunch of fun-loving kids, thus revealing he’s every bit as juvenile. How can you not laugh?

Animal House succeeds on many levels, particularly the way it mixes its crude, politically incorrect bits with the subtle and deadpan. Just look at the brief scene where the dean is sitting at his desk doing paperwork when a stray golf ball crashes through the window and breaks a jug of water. Vernon’s resigned reaction is superb, the perfect illustration of what he has to endure on a daily basis.

Later he meets the mayor in his office to discuss the upcoming homecoming parade, not even bothering to offer an explanation for the dead horse lying hooves upright behind the sofa. Why would he? It’s just the Deltas up to their old tricks.

Vernon spends the movie in a state of barely suppressed rage, his performance stopping a fraction short of steam escaping from his ears. Throughout this box office smash his excellent timing and nuanced delivery demonstrate a pronounced gift for comedy. I’ll simply never tire of him quietly giving news of a 0.2 grade point average to one student with the damning assessment: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Curtains (1983)

“All’s fair in love… and auditions,” one of the victims says in this awkward, vaguely satirical, Canadian meta-slasher that has somehow acquired a small cult following. Vernon plays a prestigious film director. He invites a bunch of pretty actresses to his mansion, all of whom crave to be in his next movie. He might be a killer, a sexual predator or a bit of a pretentious twat.

Whatever the case, Vernon doesn’t put in much effort, his performance more glacial than restrained. Curtains is a mess that can’t decide whether it wants to be arty, classy or sleazy so it looks good and is nicely directed but we still get horror tropes like a masked killer and a creepy doll, as well as a severed female head in a toilet (which leads Vernon to seduce its hysterical discoverer).

Nice.

Chained Heat (1983)

Gotta be said, Chained Heat is a great title. It’s punchy, yet kind of subtle, and manages to promise a whole load of exploitative treats.

And does it deliver?

Well, let’s just say a cigar-smoking Vernon is introduced relaxing in a hot tub. Oh, hang on, there’s a bit more. He’s the prison warden, the hot tub is in his gloriously well-appointed office, and he’s holding a video camera to record a beautiful inmate’s striptease. Once she’s fully nude, he says: “Now come on in.”

I think I love John Vernon.

And I might just love Chained Heat, too. It’s jam-packed with all the WIP clich├ęs you could ever want, such as racial strife between the ‘niggers’ and ‘chalk-faced whores’, drug addiction, catfights, rampant corruption and lesbian trysts. Rapist officers (and female colleagues who get turned on by watching) are present and correct while the overhead mic is so frequently in shot I’m surprised it’s not grabbed and used as an impromptu dildo by this pack of sex-hungry vixens.

And, of course, there’s a group shower scene so graphic I couldn’t help recalling that teenage boy from Porky’s perving through a hole in the wall before triumphantly declaring: “I’ve never seen so much wool. You could knit a sweater.”

Christ, I didn’t even mention a ladyboy’s humiliation, a fishing gaff through the throat, and ‘prison virgin’ Linda Blair (and her 80s hair) wandering through this cinematic travesty like a slightly depressed poodle.

Vernon’s so far above this squalid stuff it’s funny and yet here he is right at its epicenter. It’s a juicy part that allows him to show lots of sides to a wildly implausible but very engaging character. One minute he’s forlornly muttering to his caged canary, the next he’s firing rifle bullets at brawling inmates. It’s true he’s the only one in the entire cast capable of that little thing called acting, but even if thespian standards were higher he’d still stand out in the way he adds just the right amount of gravitas, humor and sheer drunken viciousness.

And remember, don’t call him warden. Call him Fellini.

Chained Heat was followed by the equally reprehensible (but recommended) Savage Streets, another non-Oscar winner that reunited him with a crossbow-wielding, less poodly Linda Blair.

After enjoying his fruitcake performances in both these brutal exploitation flicks, perhaps John Vernon was right all along to defend appearing in them. It’s just a shame they provided the last memorable moments of a career spanning more than thirty-five years.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.