Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Endangered List (Case File #5)

In the summer of 1999 I interviewed cult movie actress Marlene Clark for Fangoria magazine, and this is when I first heard about a movie she had starred in called STOP (1970). Along with THE LEARNING TREE in 1969 and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM in 1970, STOP was one of the first three major studio productions to be directed by an African-American filmmaker. Unfortunately, STOP was given an X rating by the MPAA and shelved by its studio, Warner Brothers. The film's cinematographer, Owen Roizman, would go on to receive an Oscar nomination a year later for THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and another four nominations over the next 23 years. STOP was never released.

The writer-director of STOP was Bill Gunn, a playwright, novelist and screenwriter who wrote THE LANDLORD (1970) and THE ANGEL LEVINE (1970) and would later make the enigmatic African-American horror film GANJA AND HESS (1973), also starring Clark (she appears briefly in THE LANDLORD as well). In 1990, one year after Gunn's death, the Whitney Museum of Art screened a 35mm print of STOP during its New American Film & Video series. That was the first-ever public screening of STOP -- and also the last. The film has remained unseen for the past 18 years.

In 1999 there was no entry for STOP on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) -- and little or no info related to the film anyplace else on the 'net -- but I did find Lawrence Cohn's review in Daily Variety from the one Whitney screening. A few days later I went to the Whitney's library (the woman at the reference desk gave me a strange look when she saw "Fangoria" listed as my employer on the sign-in sheet), copied all of the film's credits out of the series program they had in their archives, and posted the information on the IMDb that same night. It's now nine years later and I don't think any more information has been added to the entry. Although STOP has turned up on a few grey market video dealers' "want lists" in the past few years, the possibility of a DVD release has never been addressed during the Home Theater Forum's occasional live online chats with reps from Warner Brothers Entertainment.

The b&w photo of Marlene Clark in the bikini and sunglasses is an official studio still with press info on the back, so Warners did come close to releasing STOP at one point. I'll post more info related to the movie as I find it...or it finds me.


Edward Bell (Michael)
Linda Marsh (Lee)
Richard Dow (Richard)
Marlene Clark (Marlene)
John Hoffmeister (John)
Anna Marie Aries (Ellen)
Benito Alvarez (Yacht Steward)
Nydia Caro (Girl in the Nightclub)
Charlie Gibbs (Man in the Cemetery)
Vicky Hernandez (The Whore)
Miki Jaeger (Mrs. Dome)
Michael Peters (Mr. Dome)
Angel Rigau (The Butler)

Written & Directed by Bill Gunn
Produced by Paul M. Heller
Cinematography: Owen Roizman
Music: Fred Myrow
Editor: Sam Ornstein
Script Supervisor: Felix Ramirez
Set Designer: Nina
Consultant Art Director: Gene Callahan
Sound Recordist: Paul Jaeger
Fashion Stylist: Georganne Aldrich

Filmed in Puerto Rico
MPAA rating: X
Running time: 89 minutes

The following was taken from Adam Film World (Vol. 2, No. 8 - October 1970, p. 80-89)

Once Negro actor Bill Gunn said, "When a good part for a Negro actor does come along, they always offer it to Sidney Poitier. If he turns it down, they rewrite it for a white actor."

Well, we've come a long way, baby, since 1964 when he made this beef. And especially the irrepressible Gunn – because shunted aside from film acting, he wrote a novel, All the Rest Have Died, and Delacorte Press published it. He played on Broadway in TAKE A GIANT STEP and finally had a featured part in the Hollywood film of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Then Bill Gunn wrote two movies that went before filmland cameras: THE ANGEL LEVINE and THE LANDLORD. If you can't play in them, baby, make them join YOU!

Above: Bill Gunn (standing) directs Linda Marsh and Edward Bell

Now Warner Bros. is releasing Bill Gunn's "total" picture STOP! – he wrote the original story, scripted it, cast it, directed it and co-produced it. That's film making!

There's mysticism in Bill Gunn's first film and elements of violence that go with the deep, dark tropical currents swirling around the overheated Caribbeans.

A man (John Hoffmeister) has a passion for his wife Ellen (Anna Aires), but he shoots her dead. Why? Richard (Richard Dow) and Michael (Edward Bell) get a passion for each other. Then Richard holds a pistol to Michael's head. Why? A mystery broods over the colorful, foliated footage of STOP!

Linda Marsh as Lee has a special thing for Michael – she smokes a joint she puts between his toes. Taking a drag or kissing his feet – is she sole-kissing?

The killer-husband (Hoffmeister) hangs it out nude in his lush suburban villa. He meets the two other couples Lee and Michael and Richard and – now the new character, the exotic black woman Marlene, brought to "throbbing screen life" by exotic actress Marlene Clark.

A new dimension enters the American film with the interrelations of Richard and Marlene, Richard and Michael, Michael and Marlene, Lee and Marlene…

Linda Marsh also has come a long way, baby, since she made her declaration of independence from the sex and nudity revolution only a year ago.

She said then, "Most young Hollywood actresses will do anything to get the right part – trade their charms, pose in the nude. But I can't separate my body from my mind. Cheesecake is a promotion device to get men to undress a girl optically. What I want is for people to accept all of me, the entire personality, not Linda Marsh from the neck down. Any other way, I don't want it."

Of course, in STOP! we get Linda's acting personality as well as her entire person.

The producer of STOP! Paul M. Heller also has made a sashay from the prizewinning smash indie film that made him famous (and flush) – DAVID AND LISA. That was a sensitive study of friendship-love between disturbed adolescents, and Heller wanted to follow with a film of homosexuality. That was a bit premature (before STAIRCASE and THE BOYS IN THE BAND) but it may be back off the shelf now!

The following was taken from Knight (Vol. 8, No. 6 - October 1970, p.68-73)

Mysticism, sexuality, violence, and the teeming technicolored tropics are the basic ingredients in Bill Gunn's new Warner Bros. release, STOP! Basically the film is a study of social and sexual intercourse among a strange group of people who converge to do their things upon a lush Puerto Rican villa inhabited by a murderer. Black author-actor-playwright-director Gunn exercised total control of the project -- the second attempt of Warners to give a black artist complete artistic freedom. (The first was THE LEARNING TREE, Gordon Parks' autobiog film about growing up black in Kansas.) STOP! would seem to be less concerned with autobiographical realities than with Kafkaesque truths and the Pinteresque mystery approach to the sex-love-hate-cruelty dynamics of human behavior.

Below: Daily Variety review by Lawrence Cohn (July 4, 1990 - p. 26)


New York  A Warner Bros. presentation of a Paul M. Heller production.  Produced by Heller.  Written and directed by Bill Gunn.  Camera (Duart color), Owen Roizman; editor, Sam Ornstein; music, Fred Myrow; guitar solos, Ry Cooder; sound, Paul Jaeger; consultant art director, Gene Callahan; set design, Nina; assistant director, Alan Hopkins.  Reviewed at Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y., June 30, 1990. MPAA Rating: X. Running time: 92 MIN.
Lee Berger....................................................Linda Marsh
Michael Berger.................................................Edward Bell
Marlene Matheson...........................................Marlene Clark
Richard Matheson.............................................Richard Dow
John.......................................................John Hoffmeister
Ellen......................................................Anne Marie Aries
Whore.....................................................Vicky Hernandez
Mr. Dome....................................................Michael Peters
Mrs. Dome......................................................Miki Jaeger
Also with: Nydia Caro, Angel Rigau, Benito Alvarez, Charlie Gibbs.

     “Stop” is an ambitious but unsuccessful dissection of empty people in an arid marriage. X-rated feature was permanently shelved by Warner Bros. in 1970 and is reviewed here for the record.

     It’s easy to see why WB rejected this uncommercial effort. Obscure narrative is tedious to the point of an audience almost sharing the suicidal tendencies of the unsympathetic protagonists. Film nonetheless has several sharp scenes and would be of retrospective interest to European film fest programmers.

     Writer-director Bill Gunn, who died last year, made a noteworthy breakthrough here as a black helmer not restricted to a black-themed picture. (Only Sidney Poitier’s “Hanky Panky” vehicle for Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner, Michael Schultz’ “Sgt. Pepper’s” or Asian American director Wayne Wang’s nonethnic “Slamdance” since have escaped that sort of typecasting.)

     Opening scene, reminiscent of the classic breakfast sequence in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” establishes a whitebread, yuppie couple Edward Bell (a writer-translator) and Linda Marsh already at the end of their tether, barely able to talk to each other without sarcasm. They fly to San Juan, Puerto Rico to take up residence at an inherited mansion, Bell’s brother having just murdered his wife and committed suicide.

     With Bell haunted by nightmarish fantasy-memories of that incident (he obviously wasn’t present but imagines the details), film immediately suggests potential as a gothic horror pic, like Gunn’s well-regarded next feature “Ganja and Hess.” Since film’s structure and subplot suggest WB’s Stanley Kubrick adaptation of “The Shining” a decade hence (writer in a remote mansion going crazy), that’s a missed opportunity.

     Instead, “Stop” disintegrates into a series of ‘60s semi-obligatory lyrical interludes. Always artfully photographed, these sequences of sex, brooding or just wandering are dullsville.

     Final half of the picture degenerates into the then-hot topic of spouse swapping (e.g., “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” “All the Loving Couples”) when old pal Richard Dow (named Richard Matheson in the script as an apparent in-joke) pops up with his beautiful black wife Marlene Clark.

    Sex scenes are rather tame (no full nudity), but a homosexual tryst plus strong language probably earned the X tag. Low point here is a gauche dinner party scene using a Screw Magazine story on masturbation as a starting point for a vulgar dissection.

     Gunn’s best footage is a stark confrontation between Marsh and a Puerto Rican prostitute (Vicky Hernandez in pic’s best performance) after she catches Bell in bed with the working girl. Another setpiece has camera mounted overhead in the bedroom from a God-like point-of-view to record a take of Bell and Marsh screaming at each other and almost coming to blows. It lasts a couple minutes but is too shrill to be effective.

     Heroine Marsh, who looks somewhat like Gayle Hunnicutt and Barbara Harris, played Ophelia to Richard Burton’s “Hamlet” in WB’s 1964 Electronovision feature, but has little characterization to chew on here. Bell is a blank. When the two are locked together in a “No Exit” finale, the viewer still doesn’t know what makes them tick.

     Gunn reportedly was unhappy with the studio’s final version of the film. A cryptic penultimate scene and heavy use of voiceover exposition indicate some postproduction second thoughts.

     For a color-blind feature, it is perhaps not surprising that the one black role, played by Marlene Clark (later to star in “Ganja and Hess”), is presented as merely an exotic, erotic cipher rather than given an independent voice.

    Pic notably represents the first feature for Owen Roizman, soon to lense William Friedkin’s landmark “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Roizman’s compositions are unusual as is Fred Myrow’s eclectic musical score, featuring guitarwork by Ry Cooder. - Lor.


Anonymous said...

Where Can one get a copy of Stop?

Anonymous said...

Its gonna be showing @ BAM in NYC this Sunday for free.

Anonymous said...

It sucks when studios shelve material.

Anonymous said...

Reportedly, Warner Archive does want to release this, but has been stymied by some sort of confusion over the rights.

Anonymous said...

Warner Bros told me why Bill Gunn's "STOP!" is in limbo:

"The reason we cannot release the film is that we have no documentation regarding the music in the film as to what it is, who are the artists performing, were publishing licenses acquired or not, etc.

This is mostly in relationship to street music heard in the distant background of the film during interior scenes.
Unfortunately, company files that would normally cover such information are nowhere to be found."

Lc. said...

Biding my time waiting for this movie to finally get another screening ...