Dennis Hopper's long-lost Aussie western is finally on DVD
You can't really make an argument for Philippe Mora as a great filmmaker, but I might be able to make the argument that he's not a terrible filmmaker. If I was only judging films like his "Howling" sequels or "Communion" or "Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills," it would be easy to dismiss him completely. But there have been some bright spots on his filmography like the early documentary, "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" or this movie, "Mad Dog Morgan," which has never been released properly in the US until now.
My interest in this film was piqued when it was featured in "Not Quite Hollywood," that amazing documentary about the Australian exploitation industry. In particular, they highlight a fire stunt in the film that almost killed Grant Page, one of the legendary Aussie stuntmen, and they talk about Dennis Hopper's legendary bad behavior while shooting the film. I can understand that... Hopper is one of those great '70s bad boys who left a swath of wild stories everywhere he went, and when you've got footage of a Grant Page stunt going wrong, you show it. But it didn't really make a case for the film itself, and unil now, there's been no way for us to judge it ourselves.
Troma's in the middle of releasing a line of catalog titles they're calling "Tromasterpieces," and the result is we're seeing films like "Combat Shock" and "The Last Horror Film" and this one, films that have been sitting on a shelf forever, and I'm glad for the opportunity. In this case, the film is worth releasing, worth rediscovering. It's not great, but it's got a lot to recommend it, and it may well represent the best thing Mora's ever done as a filmmaker.
Daniel Morgan was an Irish immigrant, drawn to Australia during the gold rush in the mid-1800s. He had a taste for liquor and opium and Chinese whores, and he had little patience for the innate racism towards Chinese workers in the country. When he came up empty on the search for gold, he decided to become a highway robber instead, and promptly got himself tossed in prison. His prison experience was brutal and by the time he was released, he was ready to run wild, furious at the system.
Hopper's Irish accent may be a bit rough, but he's got the outlaw sensibility down cold, and he brings an urgency to the role that I can't imagine anyone faking. The film is edited in a herky-jerky rhythm that suggest that they used every single bit of footage they could use. It ends up working for the movie, though. Everything moves forward with this same surging energy, like it can't wait to get to the horrible details. The ominpresent David Gulpilil, who seems to have been in every movie every made about Australia, plays an accomplice of Morgan's, and he makes an interesting foil for Hopper, hovering at the edge of frame like he's afraid this crazy LA sonofabitch might attack him at any moment.
The story itself is sort of familiar, the rise and inevitable fall of an outlaw, but the ruthless way Mora tells the story set against the breathtaking beauty of Australia makes even the most brutal moments somehow palatable, and the new transfer by Troma finally presents the film in an uncut, anamorphic transfer that preserves the film and which should make it possible for people to finally see how good it is. There's also a second disc with a full-length documentary and tons of extras that any Aussie exploitation fan should enjoy.
I've been reading today, after I decided to write this piece, that Dennis Hopper is hovering on "death's door." Lots of breathless drama, but I have no idea what the truth is. I do know this... Hopper has made some classics, and he's also been in movies that I consider among the worst ever. He's given performances no one can touch, and he's been absolutely dead weight in other films. He helped create the indie film scene with the massive success of "Easy Rider," and I love when I spot him in some other '50s film I didn't realize he'd done. His career is a fascinating series of peaks and valleys, but there's no doubt... he is a real-deal Hollywood legend, and when he goes, there will never be another like him. Special thanks to Troma for getting this one back into circulation.
Now when can I have my BluRays of "Colors" and "Blue Velvet"?
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