Thursday, April 21, 2016

#2,075. The Hostage (1967)

Directed By: Russell S. Doughten Jr.

Starring: Don Kelly, Harry Dean Stanton, John Carradine

Tag line: "An Outrageous Kidnapping ... and a town is gripped with FEAR!"

Trivia: Shot in 1965, this movie received a limited release in 1967 and a general release in 1968

Directed by Russell S. Doughten, Jr. (whose previous claim to fame was producing the ‘50s sci-fi classic The Blob), 1967’s The Hostage is a slick little drama / thriller that’s bolstered by a handful of strong performances. 

The Cleaves family is moving out of their small Des Moines apartment into a new house. As Steve Cleaves (Ron Hagerthy) and his wife Carol (Jenifer Lea) try to finish up the packing, their young son Davey (Danny Martins) plays outside, where, after chatting briefly with a passing vagrant (John Carradine), he climbs into the back of the moving truck and lies down. Unfortunately, the movers, Bull (Don Kelly) and Eddie (Harry Dean Stanton), don’t realize he’s there, and after filling up the truck with the family’s belongings, they close the doors and hit the open road. 

But before making their way to the Cleaves’ new house, Bull and Eddie have one small, personal errand to run: the disposal of a dead body! See, Bull gets a bit mean when he’s drunk, and the night before, after knocking back a few, he killed a man during a heated argument. It isn’t until they’re burying the remains that they realize Davey has seen everything, and despite the protests of Eddie, Bull decides that, in order to keep their secret, Davey will most likely have to die.

A quick glimpse of his profile page on the Internet Movie Database revealed that Danny Martins, who portrayed young Davey in The Hostage, never appeared in another film. After seeing the movie, you’ll understand why; in a role that demanded a bit more, Danny relied solely on cuteness to carry him through (he does cry a few times, but in most scenes, the boy looks like a deer in the headlights). It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the cast is solid. As Davey’s parents, Ron Hagerthy and Jenifer Lea do a fine job conveying the fear that goes hand-in-hand with not knowing what’s happened to your child (Lea is especially good, going from worried to near hysterical as the hours tick away). Veteran actor John Carradine is entertaining as Otis Lovelace, the old bum who, after being seen talking to Davey, becomes the focal point of a missing persons investigation (nosey neighbor Miss Mabrey, played by Ann Doren, tells Mr. and Mrs. Cleaves that she saw Danny with Otis just before he disappeared, leading them to assume he kidnapped the boy). Not knowing he’s a wanted man, Otis goes about his business, walking the streets of Des Moines, begging for cash from passers-by, and visiting a church center (where he’s intimidated by a rather ominous-looking portrait of Christ). In a movie filled with tension and suspense, Carradine provides just the right dose of lighthearted comic relief.

When not centering on the search for Davey in Des Moines, The Hostage follows Bull and Eddie (and, of course, Davey) on the road, and it’s here where the film’s true strengths shine through. Harry Dean Stanton, who in later years would wow audiences in movies like Alien, Repo Man, and Paris, Texas, plays Eddie, the meek sidekick that allows his friend / business associate to walk all over him. Feeling sorry for Davey, Eddie promises to do what he can to help the boy, but we realize early on that he doesn’t have what it takes to stand up to a guy like Bull.

As always, Stanton is superb, but it’s Don Kelly as the ornery, occasionally dangerous Bull who commands the screen in this particular movie. From the opening scene, when we watch him commit the murder he’ll conceal later on, Bull is an out-of-control egotist, shouting insults at Eddie and flirting openly with Mrs. Cleaves (later on, he’ll tell Eddie that she “wanted” him). And that’s when he’s sober; once drunk, Bull is even worse, and like Eddie (and Davey), we fear him. More than a villain in this film, Bull is a damn monster, and Kelly does a near-flawless job of making us hate his character (alas, the actor would die right after making this movie, and before it was released).

A gripping, dynamic thriller and a sometimes moving family drama, The Hostage is one of the many cinematic well-kept secrets floating around out there, a low-budget movie you’ve probably never heard of that, in the end, will surprise the hell out of you.

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