ADAMSONMANIA! Part 5: On The Soul Cinema Side

One of the coolest and most progressive aspects of International-Independent Pictures was their willingness to work with all sorts of talent.  Anyone from a novice actor to a veteran considered “over the hill” by mainstream Hollywood could get employment in an Al Adamson film. Along similar lines, they also often hired black actors and built entire pictures around them, continuing to do so when the rest of Hollywood had cooled off the blaxploitation genre. 

This installment of Adamsonmania looks at a sextet of Adamson films highlighting his willingness to create films for the black market. It covers a diverse range of films, from straight blaxploitation to blaxploitation/kung fu crossovers to a few classic Adamson “patch-up” flicks. All are available in Severin’s excellent Al Adamson: The Masterpiece Collection blu-ray box set. Background info for these capsule reviews is derived from The Flesh And Blood Files, the excellent liner notes booklet by Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes included in the box set.

Mean Mother: Adamson’s inaugural entry into blaxploitation is actually a Spanish crime flick in disguise. Adamson made one of his patch-up jobs here by reworking Run For Your Life, a film from Leon Klimovsky (better known for his Paul Naschy horror flicks) about a Vietnam War deserter who gets mixed up in the diamond trade and kidnapping. Adamson added new scenes about another deserter, played by soul singer Dobie Gray, and how his path intersects with the star of the other film. It’s interesting to note that Adamson actually hired Dennis Safren, the lead from Run For Your Life, to return for some of the new scenes. The story is a murky mess and Safren’s hairstyle doesn’t match in the new footage but the new scenes are more entertaining than the main film, adding some blaxploitation intrigue, fisticuffs and a dash of sex. Gray doesn’t always look comfortable here – it was his only feature – but the always fun Marilyn Joi also appears in the new scenes and Adamson craftily exploits every inch of her buxom frame.

The Dynamite Brothers: Adamson takes one from column A and another from column B in this martial arts/blaxploitation mash-up.  It starts in a Defiant Ones vein with a Chinese prisoner (Alan Tang) and a black prisoner (Timothy Brown) escaping the cops while handcuffed but intriguingly has the two immediately recognize they are united against white corruption as Tang searches for his brother and Brown aids a local vice boss friend targeted by competition. Like a lot of Adamson films, this could have been a little tighter but it benefits from likeable leads, frequent action, a script that’s interested in all its characters and slicker than usual production values. Also, you get James Hong as a colorful baddie and Aldo Ray in an interesting role as a crooked cop having second thoughts. The use of a real Hong Kong fight choreographer gives this some of the best action in an Adamson flick.

Black Heat: Brown returns for this film, which represents one of Adamson and Sam Sherman’s most clever distribution schemes. They made a movie with two different opening reels, one that could appeal to the sexploitation market (Girl’s Hotel) and this version, which was aimed at the blaxploitation market – both films are otherwise the same. In this version, Brown plays a cop who turns a vengeful eye towards a local crime operation mixed up in gun smuggling when they kill his partner. It’s a little slow to get started but builds in intensity as it goes along, portraying a convincing low-end side of crime and gambling complete with some shockingly casual violence. Adamson’s wife Regina Carrol pops up as a lounge singer and, best of all, Russ Tamblyn plays the meanest/sleaziest of the crooks, walking off with every scene he’s in. A sequence where he brutalizes and kills a gambler to make a point is one of the strongest scenes in an Adamson flick.

Black Samurai: This was adapted from one of a string of well-regarded pulp novels by Marc Olden but the film is its own crazy, tonally wild thing. Jim Kelly toplines as a secret agent working for D.R.A.G.O.N.: his mission is to take out a notorious criminal called the Warlock (Bill Roy) and his array of sleazy cohorts. In typical Adamson style, it covers a lot of bases – blaxploitation, kung fu, even some sub-James Bond spy action – all on the usual dimestore budget. It’s too chintzy and silly to live up to the reputation of the novels that inspired it but delivers a whole batch of eccentric, goofball flourishes that make in entertaining in its own demented way: Kelly fights everything from midgets to a vulture, Roy is one of the more amusingly wimpy villains you’ll ever see and there’s all kinds of weird dubbed screams and trash-talk in the fight finale.

Death Dimension: Adamson teamed up with Kelly for another film. Though this isn’t a sequel to Black Samurai in the technical sense, it feels just like one as it once again sends Kelly (a cop this time) undercover to stop a kingpin who has acquired a bomb that can freeze people. This one has a cast that’s impressive for an Adamson film – George Lazenby is Kelly’s boss, Harold ‘Oddjob’ Sakata is the kingpin and Ray also returns – but it seems like all the money was spent on them so the rest of the action plays out wood-paneled suburban family dens and the usual permit-free urban/countryside Adamson flick locations.  Like Black Samurai, it has weird flourishes a-plenty: torture by snapping turtle, a Bruce Lee imitator named “Myron Bruce Lee”, a random visit to famous brothel The Mustang Ranch and Sakata hilariously dubbed by a campy-as-hell James Hong.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: This is the most infamous of Adamson’s patch-jobs and the most shocking entry in his filmography.  Aiming to cash in on the success of Roots, not to mention Mandingo, they took an acclaimed German version of the titular novel, cut it by nearly two-thirds and added a batch of new scenes that are awkwardly matched in that Adamson tradition but bursting at the seams with shocking content.  Respectful and tasteful scenes from the German film, which include a great performance from Herbert Lom as Simon Legree, are now buttressed by a group of Adamson regulars adding subplots that include explicit interracial sex, rape (both heterosexual and homosexual) and torture with scalding hot oil. The result is staggeringly tasteless but the see-saw effect between the classy source material and the sleazeball new material can have a hypnotic effect if you are of the grindhouse persuasion.

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