Friday, May 16, 2008
RIP John Phillip Law
Who is that masked man? Many years before I could answer that question, I remember my parents taking me to see The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, when I was about eight years old. I thrilled to the Ray Harryhausen creatures, of course (it was the only one of his pictures I saw first-run on the big screen) but liked the Sinbad, too. Law, who died yesterday at age 70, followed me around as I pursued my cinematic education, turning up in grade A to Z movies.
Not perhaps the most facile actor, the Hollywood-born Law was rather perfectly cast as a granite-hard TV executive named Robin Stone in the 1971 film of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, accompanied by Dionne Warwick's title tune. (Catch it on cable; it's good camp.) After a charming co-starring debut as a seductive Soviet The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Law was cast in prestige pictures that weren't, notably Otto Preminger's back-to-back disasters Hurry Sundown and Skidoo; The Sergeant, as a love interest for a hysterically conflicted Rod Steiger; and Dennis Hopper's ill-starred The Last Movie (1971). A spaghetti Western, Death Rides a Horse with Lee Van Cleef, is held in some esteem. He had his best luck in fantasy films, amidst settings and situations that offset his handsome stolidity: the swashbuckling Sinbad was one, the blind angel Pygar, rescuing Jane Fonda in 1968's Barbarella, another.
His signature role was as the masked anti-hero (pictured) in that same year's Danger: Diabolik, a comic book fantasia wittily and stylishly directed by Mario Bava. The DVD, in which Law talks about the film with Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas, is good fun, and has as a bonus a Beastie Boys video made in homage to the devilish character. Seeing it at New York's Film Forum, with a large and appreciative audience, was a terrific experience, and thanks in no small part to Law's straight-ahead performance it holds its own against bigger-budgeted, but less imaginative, competition in the adaptations arena.
Sinbad was his last major role as part of the Hollywood food chain, and he worked mostly overseas on a variety of features, which more determined buffs than I have tracked down. [He was a popular guest at movie conventions, with an enthusiastic attitude toward a blown-sideways-through-celluloid career.] I do recall him checkmating Burt Lancaster and Ingrid Thulin at the close of 1977's The Cassandra Crossing, a favorite B-grade disaster film from the Carlo Ponti/Sophia Loren cheese factory. It was a nice treat to see him in the trippy movie-within-the-movie of Roman Coppola's CQ (2001), which has a Diabolik/Barbarella backbeat. He looked as if he had been preserved in amber, deep, deep down in Diabolik's lair.