Movie Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz
A Movie by Faith Granger
A friend sent me an email with a link to a movie trailer and told me to check it out. Normally I pass on such requests, but I had caught up on my assignments and this fellow was a respected hot rodder. As I played the trailer I found myself more than just caught up in the story line; I became lost in reverie. Great movies will do that to people. The mood simply takes you by surprise and you are remembering a time when you were young, foolish and searching for answers. I looked at four trailers and each one had a liveliness to it that reminded me of American Graffiti at its best. I searched the website and found an email address and wrote to the director, Faith Granger, to find out if this was going to be another attempt at the ‘great American novel’ or just a hot rod movie. The answer to that quest was as interesting as the movie that eventually came out of the mind and soul of an incredible young lady. I think I know who Faith is by now, and then I am surprised to find out that she has many sides. Her accent seemed to be French, but she supposedly was raised in Lebanon. She is as true a hot rodder as you will find and the movie that she created comes from the depths of her soul. Faith is the director, actress, producer, promoter, cinematographer, bottle washer, investor and whatever else was needed on the movie; Deuce of Spades. She has boundless energy, drive, persistence and dedication to making this movie. Faith is also stubborn and opinionated and when she makes up her mind there is no one who can sway her from her goal. The movie took years to make and except for a few small donations, the funding came from her employment and those who believed in her. Everyone who worked on the movie put aside their financial interests and volunteers flocked to help her. Months went by and we despaired seeing the completion of the film. Faith emailed many of her newfound friends in the hot rodding world, including me, and we all did what we could. Slowly she overcame problems plaguing production and found indoor and outdoor areas where she could film; with no budget and delays as actors and cameramen left to take paying jobs elsewhere.
The list of credits is huge for an independent movie. The fun part is to see how many people we can identify. In a strange sort of way the weakness of the film is its very strength and that is the actors and actresses who had very little training, but carried their bit parts well. The non-professional actors did exceptionally well. Dan Warner as an SCTA inspector at El Mirage spoke his lines as if there were no cameras on him. Gene Winfield played himself in the film with the same passion and caring that he does in real life. A special cameo role was played by Bill Hines. Some of the actors seemed a bit out of character or read their lines in an awkward manner, but this was to be expected when the cast was so large. Real life hot rodders, custom car builders, mechanics and those in the business can be seen in the film. Young traditional hot rodders were intermixed with graybeards who ran at the dry lakes or on the streets back in the 1950’s. The main actors have all had some experience on stage and screen. This movie could be their break into serious roles in bigger productions. Here are some of the names that you may see rise to stardom some day; Timothy Luke, Alexandra Holder, Jordan Warren, Kyle Clifford, Gary Miller Youst, Carol Lynn Campbell, Kristen Findley, Jane Evans, Alana Stites, Nathan Ramirez and Jack Currenton. Faith Granger produced and directed Deuce of Spades, acted, created the music, directed the photography and wrote the script. There was no rating for the movie, but I would say that it should be PG-13. I reviewed the movie with my wife and my niece, who was thirteen, and watched their reactions carefully. I expected the movie to affect my wife and I more than a teenager, but her eyes were riveted on the actors from start to finish. My feeling is that this movie is destined to become a cult classic for years to come by young people, especially those in the traditional hot rodding, rockabilly culture. Deuce of Spades is filmed in English with subtitles in Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch. The length is 128 minutes long, but it felt shorter than that. The pacing was slow at times, but it isn’t that distracting. The action sequences were very interesting and interspersed throughout the film.
Normally I watch a movie just once and write my review. This time I watched the movie twice and intend to see it again. Deuce of Spades did not go into the theatres, but went right into DVD sales. This was due to the decision of the filmmaker to control her production. Faith felt that she needed to develop her own distribution system first and then approach the film industry to see what deals can be made. Movies made today are often formulaic in nature. A producer finds a good script, investors, directors and well-known cast and then the producer spends just as much money in promoting the movie as in making the film. He hopes to make at least as much money in a theatre run as he spent on the movie, with the profit coming from overseas viewing, DVD sales and merchandising. If a film grosses as much as the producer spent then the buzz in the industry is that the film is a winner. Independent movies do make money and buck the trend and I believe that Deuce of Spades will be one of these successful indies. A hot rod movie can be successful, but usually as a potboiler or B movie. Hollywood produced dozens of hot rod B movies in the 1950’s; the plot being rebel boy doesn’t listen to grown-ups, falls in love with the unattainable girl and learns the hard way. A few Elvis movies had some beautiful hot rods and race cars in them, but the motivation for seeing a Presley movie was the singing and beautiful girls. Hot rods and custom cars were eye candy in many movies over the years, but it was the seminal (original and trendsetting) movie American Graffiti that launched the movie careers of many actors, especially Harrison Ford. This was a coming of age movie for the late 1960’s and ‘70’s, hardly the prototypical age that we all remember as being rooted in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. I suppose every decade has their rebels and their hot rodders, but most of us ached for that special film that focuses on the cars and the men and women who loved and cherished these cars during the Golden Age of Hot Rodding.
Deuce of Spades is that movie. It is a lush, photographic record of the times we all remember. It is a bold canvas with photography and action that are simply beautiful. You won’t find Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp or Cameron Diaz in this film. It isn’t polished and the acting is sometimes raw, but it is beautiful nonetheless. In fact the acting fits the film like a tight glove. Yes, it’s rather raw, but so is the era and more than that; it’s real. Granger knows this period well. How did she do it? This black haired, pretty, heavily accented woman from Europe and the Middle East; how does she understand us better than we understand ourselves. The plot is tried and true for hot rodding; bad boy meets good girl. The heroine, if indeed she is one, falls hard for the bad boy hot rodder, who is truly good and noble, if a bit flawed. The hero, or anti-hero if you please, has fate and adults lined up against him. The two star-crossed lovers struggle to change their destiny only to find that hot rodders have to pay the price for their rebelliousness. We’ve all been there and we feel the angst and the pain. We know what’s coming, but we hope against hope that these two will be able to escape the despair that awaits them. Oh, it is so believable and Granger changes the plot just enough to escape being type-cast as a predictable writer or director. Sometimes I think that Granger is telling us a story that we have read or witnessed time after time. The challenge, the attempt at escaping the race before it is too late, the friends that trap you into doing the very thing that you know will destroy your life. Then comes the betrayal, when those very friends and lovers turn their back on you and you have to carry that heavy cross on your back as you crawl and walk towards your Golgotha. The hero is Johnny Callaway and he plays some heavy roles here. Granger as scriptwriter and director drags out the pathos and inner demons that our hero, Johnny, would just as soon leave buried. Betty is Johnny’s love interest and Granger cast her beautifully. She has that virginal, pure inner soul, with alabaster skin and ruby red lips that we all dreamed of when we were that age. When she lacks the courage and betrays her love, we know the fate that awaits both of them.
Art and Sandy are also wonderfully cast as the friends who prop up Johnny and Betty. These are weak people, who need each other and when forced apart by their tragic miscalculations of impetuous youth, show their frailty as people. Another friend of Johnny’s is Tom, who flees his friend in his darkest hour. The character of Peggy is well scripted. She is a villainess in the classic sense, but with the edges smoothed and a vulnerability that is delicious to watch. Her actions are deliberate and they destroy Betty and Johnny. Yet we can’t help feeling sorry for Peggy as she schemes her way into Johnny’s heart and bed. Again and again she tries to supplant Betty and fails. Peggy is a truly marvelous character that I wish Faith Granger had given more space for character development. I can see a sequel here with Peggy’s character expanded and enlarged. The young hot rodders, male and female, are scattered to the far corners of the land, both in miles and in their souls. The fragility of their characters belies the bravado that they once displayed to each other. Tragedy and the horror of their actions shrive them with a remorsefulness that is almost unbearable to watch. Then Granger enters as the narrator and messiah, who painstakingly puts the clues and story together for us to understand. She reaches out, as if drawn by a power that will not let her character go free until she has rescued those fallen people and set their souls free. The ending breaks the heart of the stoniest among us; rescues us from our pasts as well. Tragedy turns to redemption just the way that we always wanted it to be for us as well. All the pain of the past that Johnny carries on his shoulders for us is whisked away. Maybe the ending is too pat and too positive, but we no longer care. He has suffered enough for himself and for everyone else. We want his suffering to end; we demand that his suffering end. For hot rodders everywhere, it is time that we put aside the pain and the remorse and forgive not only these young people, but ourselves as well.
Deuce of Spades is a powerful movie. It is hard to categorize it. Yes, it is a period piece, straight out of the 1950’s and very accurately done. You won’t find a coke bottle, lipstick or clothing that is not perfectly matched to the time. But Deuce of Spades has many elements, all meshing into one grand epic. Granger has to have had a love affair with Hollywood. Her directing style is part Hitchcock and part Welles. Orson, especially, would be very proud of her. The filming and mood are as period perfect as are the props. I thought for a moment that I was watching A Touch of Evil or The Third Man. Some people may feel that the camera lingers too long on the burning cigarette on the floor or the clouds drifting by in the sky. This movie is so beautifully filmed that it is a smorgasbord to visually enjoy. The wide open vistas in the desert are perhaps the best I have ever seen. The hot rods are simply humming with that flathead power that just can’t be duplicated by any other sound. The music fits the haunting loneliness that pervades the souls of the characters. It’s obvious that even though the budget was minimal at best, that Granger worked on every little detail until it was perfect. Deuce of Spades has that film noir feel to it at times; a reworking of that wonderful French film, Breathless, that was remade for Richard Gere. Deuce of Spades is also so close to those Medieval passion plays and tragedies where the star-crossed lovers are never able to find peace and normalcy. The hero and heroine can only find sorrow and grief, torn apart and left to drift in a world of what could have been. It is the Arthurian tale of tragic love retold in our hot rod world. Nobody has done it better than Faith Granger and her band of nomadic actors.
I went into this knowing that so many have failed before and expecting, at best, a typical B movie. What we have here is a movie that has more than exceeded our expectations. I can’t say that it is quite a masterpiece, but find me a movie of this wide a genre that is better. Maybe those old Bogart film noir movies are better, but they didn’t have those killer cars in them like Deuce of Spades has. There are a few violent scenes, but compared to today’s movies, those over 13 should have no trouble with them. The love scenes are very tastefully done and there is no gratuitous nudity. I wouldn’t call this movie a chick flick by any stretch of the word, though my wife and niece never wavered in their interest in the movie. Deuce of Spades easily attracts both men and women. Granger, as a director, understands men just as well as women. She draws out performances that cross the gender barrier. Usually it is so obvious when the men are working shirtless that the intention is to draw the female audience into the action, but in the movie such scenes were so artfully done that I couldn’t envision doing the scene in any other way. Likewise, most movies seem to force nudity into scenes where it is awkward. We know why Hollywood does this, but the nudity and sex scenes seem out of place. In Deuce of Spades there is no nudity in the sex scenes, no body parts showing, and the action is brief, but so well done that our imaginations take over. Granger showed that her strength was as a director. At first her acting seemed so restrained that it was almost rigidly so, but then I realized that she was deliberately muting her presence in the movie as a contrast to the other actors. She was an observer, a narrator and a guide and it would have been easy for her to try and steal the show for herself. Her talent lay in her ability to let the action focus on the other actors. I paid $20 for this movie in order to review it, which I don’t normally do. It was money well spent. It is a classic and I will watch it again and again. Even with the occasional flaws in this movie, I was very impressed and rate this film a 7 ¾ sparkplugs out of a perfect 8. I think you will love this movie.
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