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New World Evel

OMEGA MAN (1971)

Is Charlton Heston God? That's for government experts to decide, but there can be no doubt he is the Chosen One, personally selected by the Almighty - meaning of course Cecil B. DeMille.

Mr. DeMille (1881-1959) was the cinema ultra-man who launched the Heston star-vehicle by casting him as Brad the circus boss in 1952's Best Picture-winner, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Not bad for starters, but the master producer/ director envisioned his new protégé in a more ambitious role, especially for a 30 year-old from the north Michigan woods. DeMille was talking about Mr. Pentateuch himself, Old Moses, Moses the Prophet, Moses the Lawgiver, Moses the man who said: "Now kill every male dependent, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man, but spare for yourselves every woman among them who has not had intercourse." And things like that.

A stroke of genius, as it turned out, because "The Ten Commandments" (1956) gave America exactly what she required: an Old Testament full of heroes who looked like youthful Hollywood movie stars, and indisputable visual confirmation, via photo optical effects, of the existence of God the Father.

And so, after a prelude of TV Shakespeare and a couple mediocre movies, a young actor flashed to world fame as the High Priest of the Atomic Orthodoxy in the greatest, most righteous movie spectacle of the century. For Heston the lesson was simple. As long as he was at the center of Hollywood, History, Religion and Western Civilization, everything was aces.

Then came the cold winds of change. The fifteen year disconnect between 1956 and 1971 was an abyss more dire than Snake River Canyon. The time-warp of the '60s was enough to give the old guard a serious case of whiplash. Nostalgia for the imperial glory days of the '50s ran high, yet a guy like Heston was at the same time eager to show he was plenty "with it" enough to make the scene in these free-wheeling new times of rebellion and unfettered sexuality.

That's where "The Omega Man" comes in, a shabby but contagiously playable B-rate sci-fi passion play set in a futuristic "1975" Los Angeles defumigated by the Apocalypse. All you have to do is imagine Moses fast-forwards past the New Testament and crash-lands in the Book of Revelation as illustrated by the staff of EC Comics.

The first thing to keep in mind is that in 1970, Heston staggered into the final frames of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" to detonate the Mutant Doomsday Device. Narrator Paul Frees (well known for his voicing of Boris Badenov on "Rocky & Bullwinkle") assured us, in closing, that this big 20th Century Fox finish extinguished all life, man or ape, from the planet permanently.

So maybe it's telling that it was Charlton Heston himself who dreamed up the now-classic "Heston nukes the world" gag. With his usual appetite for over-doing things, Mr. DeMille's Technicolor prophet had metastasized into the ultimate suicide bomber. So how does a leading ham of middle age with a penchant for apocalyptic over-kill follow up a stunt like that one?

How about this: with no explanation, we get Moses Ben-Hur Taylor piloting a red Ford convertible through the eerily empty streets of downtown Los Angeles, his trademark hawk's beak and comic-book jaw accented with chic aviator shades. For a while we join the solitary driver's revery, a kind of L.A. Blues instrumentally induced by the dreamy strings of make-out classic "A Summer Place."

That's when Motor-Moses pulls the Ford to a halt, leans over the windshield, grits his teeth and uncorks a burst of machine-gun fire at a second-story window. Then, satisfied he has eliminated the disturbing figure from the cover of Black Sabbath's debut album, Chuck slips back behind the wheel to continue his cool-cat joyride. Yep, he's cruising the interzone like a lone wolf, drive-by style, and mowing down anything that moves.

At this point the audience at the Egyptian breaks into spontaneous applause. This is Heston's L.A - and he's crossing the border again, "Touch of Evil"-style, in a scenario 100% simpatico with the last 30 years of garish, glorious Mexican TV.

Some have noted that D.P. Russell Metty lowered the frame rate when he shot Action Charlie whipping out his automatic. They say the unintentionally goofy results (echoing the Keystone Cops and Benny Hill) are a "first warning" telegraphing the film's stylistic deficiencies at large. But let's be fair: even though Sam Peckinpah had been tinkering with slowing down violent action, it wasn't until "The Six Million Dollar Man" hit the air in '73 that it was universally conceded that slow-motion makes heroic action look ultra-cool and inhumanly fast and powerful, whereas undercranking just makes it look cheesy and ridiculous.

There's no time to focus on that, because Heston's self-satisfied swagger suddenly cracks when he imagines the sound of "phones ringing" all around him on a deserted downtown corner carefully decorated with significant debris. Peculiar how after the Big One, giant piles of loose, unyellowed newspaper toss about for years on the streets.

"There is no phone ringing, damn it!" Heston yells to himself. Got that? He's not only stylish, tough and lightning quick on the draw, he's also borderline nuts, a character note that gets abandoned in the picture quickly after he starts getting laid.

That's when the sight of the sinking sun spurs Heston out of his panic attack - better get home, the zombies come out at night! He kicks his persecution complex into gear and pilots a freshly boosted set of wheels back to his townhouse bunker, the site of many of the most unforgettably, compellingly ridiculous scenes of leading man sci-fi narcissism in late-night TV history.

And the action starts no sooner than Heston gets his ride inside his remote activated garage door. Faster than you can say, "Man, does that ever look like the back lot at Burbank," a crew of hideously pale zombies in black cowling (looking a hell of a lot like the generic slashers in Wes Craven's "Scream") attack our planet's Last Jefe Blanco.

After some truly substandard stunt-fighting complete with the ol' "man on fire" gag, a useful flashback montage lets us know there's been a terrible plague, and the earth is toast thanks to the "Sino-Russian War" and its "bacilli-carrying missiles."

Without today's modern miracle of missile defense, the deadly virus is of course unleashed into the atmosphere, killing everybody except those lucky few who are turned into a cult of sunlight-allergic albino acid-casualties. This exposition includes abundant zoom shots of unbilled actors sitting slack-jawed and gazing vacantly outward to let us know they've died a sudden, bowel-evacuating death. Truly the SAG card is a cruel mistress.

As for Heston, he is U.S. Army scientist Col. Neville, who manages to inject himself with the only existing dose of experimental antivirus, then holes up in an urban brownstone to fend off the mutants who want to kill him because he hasn't renounced his allegiance to cars and guns. In other words, because he's the bona fide Charlton Heston in a world gone to hell, damn it!

Because of their inexplicable Unabomber ideology, the mutants pester Neville with medieval weapons such as torches and catapults, while he keeps an arsenal of assault rifles stacked in his home, just like the real McCoy atop his Mulholland fortress. Neville believes he's the only normal about, so he spends his days soliloquizing shirtless to a bust of Caesar, looting department stores, and losing his grip by imagining he still has a social life.

But Neville is not really the last man on Earth at all, just the Last Man on Earth in a Polyester Jumpsuit. For this fashion crime, as well as his fealty to Detroit iron - he's a "creature of the wheel," a line sampled by cartoon-metal monsters White Zombie - Neville earns the enmity of those white-wash extras in the druid outfits, an unhappy "Family" of murderous revolutionaries tastefully cooked up by Warner Brothers to cash in on the notoriety of the Manson trial in L.A. only months earlier. With their dark sunglasses, the Family folks also bring to mind an undead offshoot of the Blues Brothers.

The counter-assault on Manson Family-values is a one-man show, until Neville hooks up with a bunch of feral teenagers, including a young-turk doctor (Paul Koslo), who idolizes him and can quote his medical-journal articles verbatim. Tragic double-crosses ensue - echoes of the feeble-minded disciples of the one true Christ. Neville fights, loses his Omega Man virginity with a hot downtown mama, suffers torture, fights, suffers some more, fights some more, and finally dies a heroic martyr. Roll credits.

"A Warner Brothers-Seven Arts Release, A Kinney Leisure Service." How's that? Affordable footwear AND heavily armed, inter-racial, post-apocalyptic wango tango? Bring on the leisure suit, Buster Brown.

Director Boris Sagal (father of TV's Peg Bundy, Katey Sagal) helmed episodes of nearly every '60s and '70s TV mystery, cop, or spy show-including "Naked City," "Peter Gunn," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "Ironside," "Columbo," and "McCloud"-but in spite of his creds from Harvard Law and the Yale Drama School, he's no C.B. DeMille. Unfortunately, he ain't no Richard Fleischer or Franklin Schaffner either, two ringers who led Heston's other, technically excellent sci-fi triumphs. Still, of Sagal's eight films as director, "The Omega Man" is the most memorable by far. And for good reason: while attempting a parable on society's decay, the movie inadvertently mounts a far more entertaining cautionary tale on the subject of virulent career rot.

As it happens, the real stylist of this film is composer Ron Grainer, who turns in a score that inadvertently outperforms the production it supports - from misty and nostalgic motifs to ear-poppingly psychotronic breakdowns to martyrdom by Gothic organ, all converging on a rousing main theme of fuzzed-out, jazzed up Omega Funk. Video nerds will surely hail the Grainer touch on loan from those time-travellers and paranoics of British television, "Doctor Who" and "The Prisoner."

The script is based on the 1954 sci-fi novel I Am Legend, by "Twilight Zone" all-star Richard Matheson, but skips its source's dimestore philosophizing in favor of some wonderfully performed deadpan rants from Anthony Zerbe as evil smoothie Matthias.

"One creature, caught. Caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark, alone, outnumbered hundreds to one - nothing to live for but his memories, nothing to live with but his gadgets, his cars, his guns, his gimmicks." Never mind Neville on his balcony with the infra-red scope, it's the villain who's eerily on target in this picture.

Then there's Zerbe's angry-brother henchman Zachary, a role that earned Lincoln Kilpatrick a well-deserved studio paycheck. Yet Kilpatrick's Panther-black rhetoric about Neville's "honky paradise" earns him only a rebuke from the Number One Bad Man. "Forget the old ways," purrs Matthias, who also appears in flashbacks as a sleazy TV network news anchor.

Yes, it's true, the film poses the eternal question of classical philosophy: what would happen if Peter Jennings were the victim of a "bacilli-carrying missile"? The correct answer is that the beloved anchorman would mutate into a charismatic fascist, using his oratory talents to cast a spell on his fellow mutants, about half of whom happen to be black. This is not to speculate that the film's makeup team was part of a conspiracy to humiliate young black actors by dousing them in what appears to be pastry flour.

For his part, when he's not gunning down extras or sweating over his test tubes, Neville leads the fantasy life of a swinging Flower-Power bachelor: rocketing a sports car through the showroom window, cranking up the hi-fi at his pad, kicking back at the picture palace to ape utopian dialogue from the "Woodstock" concert movie, shoplifting from the department store, and shagging the one available woman on the planet, who - perhaps dreading this dramatic necessity - disguises herself as a store mannequin to avoid being spotted.

What kind of a film have we found ourselves in, when the acid-nightmare vision of Heston solo quoting Woodstock's trippy-hippy dialogue ("What kind of world is it where you have to be afraid to smile at someone?") is merely a prelude to his stilted romance with Afro-sporting superfox Rosalind Cash? We'll let her answer that question for herself- as she famously quipped on the set: "It's a spooky feeling to screw Moses."

And so it came to pass, in tangling with Cash, Heston joined the fraternity of leading man squares who bed down black chicks to demonstrate how "with it" they are - Eastwood notched the mahogany headboard in '75 with "The Eiger Sanction," while William Shatner led the brigade with his breakthrough kiss of Nichelle Nichols on "Star Trek" several years earlier (bigots in TV Land could take comfort - the captain and communications officer were compelled to make out by perverted aliens). Bear in mind all three gringos lagged behind Richard Roundtree's almighty
John Shaft in the love-master department, but Chuck still maintains bragging rights thanks to catapulting his virility beyond all racial and ethnic boundaries and into untested species, namely his unparalleled lip-lock with Kim Hunter in ape-face, which was basically Moses quitting God's team to get it on in the name of Darwin.

Meanwhile back in Omega-land, try to keep a straight face as Heston jogs into view doused in stage sweat and sporting a K-mart tracksuit, staggers to a halt, checks his watch, and claims that he's just run a 3-minute, 50-second mile. This observer will accept the existence of a mutant plague and a race of fascist Black Sabbath humanoids led by Anthony Zerbe, but Chuck Heston running the world record in the mile? Surely a guaranteed spit-take for any American of sound mind over the age of four.

It's a small complaint, especially since the film's action scenes make it clear that while Heston's character appears in nearly every shot, the actor himself is often nowhere to be seen. Instead, in every sequence of stunt driving or hand-to-hand combat, Heston is replaced by a stunt double who could possibly pass for Lee Majors, but only if the camera were moved back about 30 feet.

At the breaking point of the laws of continuity, Heston and Cash rush headlong from the living dead into the "motorcycle chase sequence" - he sports a safari jacket, and she rides behind him on the bike, wearing a brown-leather jumpsuit, arms wrapped around his waist. By rights this should be a pulse-poundingly emblematic Omega moment. But for a long series of cuts, the talent retire to their trailers, replaced by a distinctly non-Heston stunt cyclist in a safari jacket, carrying a leather-clad dummy topped by an Afro wig strapped to his back. Truly there is no end to the indignities of this depopulated society.

Finally, who could doubt but that it was Heston himself who suggested the film's closing image? After saving the planet by synthesizing the antidote from his own life-giving super-blood, Neville - speared to death by the godless ingrate hippy metal-heads - falls dead into a park fountain in a Jesus Christ-pose. The post-production crew thoughtfully solarizes this shot after a final freeze frame, driving home the point for those unbelievers who may've dozed off into their popcorn.

Perennial American Cinematheque tribute-fiend Heston beat his usual sycophants to the punch when the Egyptian screened the film in 2000, grabbing the mic to announce: "I think the crucifixion imagery at the end of this film is just marvelous, don't you?" Cue the warm applause for one of the most flagrantly self-righteous resolutions in Heston movie history.

When one viewer inquired about the significance of the Heston sci-fi paranoid style, the response was typically modest: "I hesitate to say I saved the world, but I can handle it if you can." Laughter, warm applause and, from at least one salaryman of the Five-O bullpen, dueling rolled eyeballs.

Still, to give Moses Ben-Hur Taylor his due, with Apes, Omega and Soylent Green, a single actor had interlocked the Holy Trinity of the prophetic sci-fi actioner. Unfortunately this makes him the patron saint of revolting hackwork like "Stargate" and "Battlefield Earth," a crime for which he should rightfully hang. But his brazen appeals to pop spirituality qualify him instead for cinematic beatification. What other actor would dare? And - honestly - what other actor could put it over? John Travolta's failure to sport a toga in a single one of his film appearances disqualifies him from consideration.

Is Charlton Heston God? Not exactly, but like his fellow Hollywood holograms Ronald Reagan and John Wayne, he is an incarnation of the American Era, its dogmas and appetites.

This much we do know. Heston is a charmer and a stand-up guy, a doting father and faithful husband, a guy obsessed with his Scottish blood pride, and a macho workhorse whose autobiography "In The Arena" also reveals a bit of a stage queen and mama's boy. Like Brando, he values the Bard of Avon above all others. "Hollywood's best imitation Jew" (by William Wyler's measure) counts Olivier, Orson Welles and Vanessa Redgrave among his friends and well-wishers. A capable actor, he may fall short of Kirk Douglas as Ultimate Cinema Champion and Paul Newman as a Humanist. But his leap of faith from the Golden Age of the Hollywood epic to the outer limits of dystopian science fiction makes Mr. DeMille's Chosen One a marvel in his own right.

When all is said and done, truly Charlton Heston, The Omega Man, can be counted as a Founding Father of the Psychotronic Hall of Fame.

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