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September 13, 2011

The Exterminator

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James Glickenhaus - 1980
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

That they don't make films like they use to can certainly be applied to The Exterminator. The film is another example of the kind of productions made on relatively modest budgets that were all but extinct when Hollywood films became competitors for opening weekend grosses playing on several multiplex screens around the U.S., and eventually the world, at the same time. What is also more of a present day anomaly is seeing movies about working guys that is neither condescending to the men or their work.

I think that it's the attitude that James Glickenhaus has towards his main characters that made The Exterminator a popular, if not critical success. It was that the sense of recognition that some of the people on the screen had daily lives not too different from those in the audience. In his commentary, Glickenhaus talks about how his film was playing to full houses in two New York City theaters, the Lyric on 42nd Street, and the National Theater. I've been two both theaters, and could imagine people whooping it up when Robert Ginty takes on the various bad guys. The National was a first run theater that mostly showed action movies on what I believe was the biggest screen in town, which would make the several explosions quite overwhelming. Sure, the film is a revenge fantasy, but this was a film made mostly for people who saw life as an everyday struggle just to get by, with a hero who could just as well have been a beer drinking buddy.

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The film immediately jumps into the action with a scene in Viet-Nam. Robert Ginty and Steve James are both prisoners of the Viet Cong. James is able to undo his ties and overpower one of the soldiers. Ginty gets shot but is saved by James, pulled onto a helicopter. Cut to New York City where the two are working at different parts of a food distribution center. Ginty catches some young thugs breaking into one of the storage rooms where they're stealing cases of Rheingold beer. But it's James, who's the one who kicks ass here. The thugs, a bunch of young white guys who are part of a gang called the Ghetto Ghouls, later catch James alone, beating him up and leaving him paralyzed. Ginty finds the gang's hideout, killing a couple of the members. One of the Ghouls remarks of James that he is, "just a nigger". Ginty's priceless response is, "That nigger was my best friend, motherfucker!".

I don't believe that Glickenhaus intended The Exterminator to be understood on a literal level. His version of New York City melds parts of the Bronx with Brooklyn. Likewise, the Ghetto Ghouls party in a room decorated with posters of Che Guevara and Angela Davis, low level career criminals who might not necessarily be capable of articulating a political position other than being grabbing images and iconography that would be considered anti-social and/or anti-establishment. Later, when detective Christopher George checks out Ginty's apartment, he notices a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's The Condemned of Altona. Glickenhaus briefly discusses why the book is used. While there are no philosophic discussions in The Exterminator, on its very visceral level, it also is about personal and public responsibility, and the uses of violence as means to an end. The use of the book also serves to indicate that Ginty's character is a person of some education and intelligence who works at a meat packing plant maybe more by circumstance than by choice. In The Exterminator, almost everyone is working for someone else. The difference between the good guys and the bad guys is one of choices made, knowing that there is little to control when financial or political power are always in the hands of someone else.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 13, 2011 05:57 AM


+1 on that. Thanks for posting!

Posted by: Film at September 13, 2011 03:25 PM