Somewhere in Movieland, there’s some kind of radar that tracks film directors. Blipping prominently on the screen would be the likes of Ford, Welles, Capra, Hawks, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Tarantino, Scorsese and Lean.
There’d also be filmmakers who barely register, no matter how sensitive the tracking device is. One such man behind the camera who turned in terrific work on a regular basis but hardly made a blip was John Flynn.
Even the name is forgettable. A recent conversation with a friend—about the 1973 Robert Duvall film The Outfit—led me to ask myself: Who directed that? As I pushed aside the cobwebs of my mind, I recalled it was John Flynn, which prompted me to do some further investigation. Damn, this guy made some terrific genre films, though his most people—movie buffs included—would be hard-pressed to name them.
A Chicago native who grew up in Hermosa Beach, California, Flynn served in the Coast Guard and attended UCLA for journalism. He hooked up with director Robert Wise, with whom he worked as an apprentice on Odds Against Tomorrow, and as script consultant on West Side Story. He directed the second unit for several films, including the Elvis Presley boxing vehicle Kid Galahad, the romantic drama Two for the Seesaw, the war epic The Great Escape, and the all-star farce What a Way to Go!, before graduating to helming his first feature.
It was, in fact, Wise that Flynn credited with helping him start his career. Wise enlisted Flynn to direct 1968’s The Sergeant, which the veteran director produced. Set in 1952, the film centers on an American sergeant (Rod Steiger) stationed in France who is attracted to a recently-arrived soldier (John Phillip Law), and insinuates himself the subordinate’s life with tragic results. The film is now looked upon as a seminal example of how homosexuality was depicted in movies, but it failed to make an impression on audiences despite its controversial nature and Steiger’s strong performance as the tortured lead character.
Flynn didn’t fare much better with the non-reception greeting The Jerusalem File, a 1972 drama with Bruce Davison as an American college student in Israel getting caught up in politics after the Six Day Arab-Israeli War.
The Outfit (1973) changed Flynn’s career trajectory, at least in the eyes of the critics, if not the public. In this tightly-wound, often explosive noir, which Flynn expertly adapted from a “Parker” story by Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark), Robert Duvall played an ex-con who learns his brother has been gunned down while he was in prison. It seems that a crime syndicate believed the sibling robbed a bank under their control. Duvall, hot off of The Godfather, teamed with craggy former partner Joe Don Baker for a direct confrontation with the mobsters, led by the sinister Robert Ryan (in one of his last roles).
Westlake himself called The Outfit the best film adaptation of his fiction, which would include Point Blank, Payback, The Split and others just in the Parker series alone. It’s certainly clear why the film is a success, from Flynn’s no-nonsense direction and clipped dialogue, to ace cinematography by Bruce Surtees of dusty, depressed California locales (prominently Bakersfield), to a terrific cast that also includes Karen Black and several veterans of classic film noirs (Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook, Jr., Marie Windsor, Jane Greer).
Duvall and Baker, the heroes of the piece, are not very likable; another troubling element of the film is how the women are treated. Black, as Duvall’s girlfriend, gets slapped around and often comes off as a whining pain-in-the-neck; a debuting Joanna Cassidy, playing Ryan’s trophy wife, basically gets berated and ordered around by her older husband throughout the film.
Revenge was also the name of the game in Rolling Thunder, his alarmingly violent drama based on Paul Schrader’s screenplay (reworked by Fort Apache: The Bronx’s Heywood Gould). The 1977 effort centers on an Air Force flyer (William Devane) who returns to his hometown after spending years in a POW camp, to find his wife remarried and his son unaware of who he is. He’s targeted by a group of vicious thugs out for his compensation pay, who torture him—leaving him with a life-altering disability—and kill his wife and son. Snapping, Devane goes on a rampage, recruiting ex-POW pal Tommy Lee Jones to bring vigilante justice to the perps.
No easy viewing, Rolling Thunder, recently issued in an extras-packed Blu-ray release (and already available on DVD), had a rough ride to neighborhood screens. Its release history was marked by a studio (Fox) abandoning it, a marketing screening that drew walk-outs and nearly a unanimous negative reaction from the audience, mixed response from critics (“In sum, it neither rolls nor thunders,” commented Variety) and, finally, a lackluster theatrical run by way of low-budget specialist American International Pictures.
Still, the movie packs a punch, offering both a serious examination of the plight of returning war veterans, as well as the exploitation elements of an ultra-violent grindhouse outing—including a hand-eaten-by-garbage-disposal scene. Similarities to Taxi Driver, another Schrader script, are obviously not coincidental.
Among those who have sung the film’s primal praises were Gene Siskel and Quentin Tarantino, who listed it as one of his favorite films of all time and named his exploitation-oriented releasing company after it.
Flynn stuck with vengeance for the theme his next effort as well: 1980’s Defiance, in which no-nonsense merchant seaman Jan-Michael Vincent takes on a marauding gang wreaking havoc on the residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
After a brief sojourn into TV for Marilyn: The Untold Story (based on Norman Mailer’s book with Catherine Hicks as Monroe), Flynn helmed the 1983 change of pace drama Touched, with Robert Hays and Kathleen Beller as mental patients in love at the Jersey shore.
Then it was back to crime films again for the director, this time with one of his most well-liked pictures. 1987’s Best Seller, based on a script by B movie maestro Larry Cohen (It’s Alive), tells the story of an assassin (James Woods) who decides to go public with a book, and hires a Joseph Wambaugh-like cop-turned-writer (Brian Dennehy) to pen his life story.
Of course, the very public venture brings Woods’s enemies out of the woodwork, causing danger for both men and gripping suspense, with a large dose of chemistry between the lead actors for the audience to enjoy. The film was mildly successful in theaters, but garnered a large following on cable and on home video.
Best Seller won Flynn more fans among the big guys in Hollywood, as he got assignments for back-to-back action star vehicles. He guided Sylvester Stallone behind bars in 1989’s Lock Up, a solid prison yarn with Sly facing off against ornery jailbirds and nasty supervisor Donald Sutherland (as “Warden Drumgoole”).
Reviews ran from decent (“A hard-boiled version of Rocky, with enough anti-Balboa brutality to keep our interest”) to not-so-decent (“Lock Up is made in the same, simplistic vein as most other Sylvester Stallone pics – putting him, the blue-collar protagonist, against the odds over which he ultimately prevails”).
Flynn went from Sly to Steven by going behind the camera for Out for Justice (1991), Steven Seagal’s third lead go-round as a martial arts action hero. Here, Seagal plays an Italian cop from Brooklyn who is on the trail of William Forsythe, a drug-fueled thug who killed his partner. In revenge mode with ponytail flopping, Seagal goes all medieval on those local hoods that don’t cooperate in tracking down Forsythe. Of particular note is a scene set in a butcher shop, where Seagal uses a meat cleaver and a Genoa salami to inflict pain on the bad guys.
“Out for Justice harbors an incredibly simple vengeance plot loaded with enough macho sadism to satiate the action genre’s bloodthirsty fans,” reported Variety. Meanwhile, Richard Harrington, in The Washington Post opined: “This is Old Jack City, a place where better actors and directors have taken us frequently in the last year. This particular trip seems unnecessary.”
The film was a solid success. At this time, Flynn began alternating feature films with cable projects, although it was tough to tell one from the other. Brainscan (1994), a feature shot in Quebec, with a post-Terminator II Edward Furlong as a horror movie-obsessed kid who kills people after playing a diabolical video game, pretty much went straight to video. A similar fate befell Protection (2001), another film made in Canada, in which gangster Stephen Baldwin is taken into protective custody after squealing on his criminal associates. He and his family try to make a new life for themselves under new identities, but his past keeps getting in the way of peace.
As for cable, Flynn directed Nails (1992), with Dennis Hopper as a roguish cop taking down a batch of creeps responsible for killing his partner; Scam (1993), boasting Lorraine Bracco and Christopher Walken as scam artists trying to fleece a crime kingpin of his valuable computer files; and Absence of the Good (1999), a moody suspenser that reunited the director with Baldwin again, this time playing a Salt Lake City detective, despondent over the death of his young son, who is trying to track down a serial killer.
Sadly, Flynn passed away in his sleep in 2007 at the age of 75. Did he have more movies in him? It’s tough to say, but if he did, it’s likely they’d be straightforward crime sagas with fine acting, unobtrusive direction, nifty plot twists and realistic characters who do some low-down things.
Read a few more articles about great movie directors.