Monday, February 1, 2016

“North Dallas Forty” (1979) Dir- Ted Kotcheff

What I Remember:

Yes, it’s almost Superbowl 50 time. Panthers/Broncos. Cam/Peyton. As usual, my Sunday night gig will not allow me to watch the game, as I play to an empty room for the 23rd straight year. Oh boo-hoo, you say. Tons of musicians would LOVE to have a steady Sunday night gig for 23 years. True, but it really would have been nice to have seen the Elway helicopter, the Titans’ near TD, and many other great moments, especially any one that entails the Patriots losing. 
I also missed some of the best Game 7’s of the World Series. Sigh.

Oh yeah…this film. I remember seeing it in the theater. We grew up a football family in New York City. Both sides of my divorced family were involved with the pro franchises, my Dad’s with the Jets and my Mom’s with the Giants. We had season tickets to both teams, and I know the game extremely well for someone who has never played it. 

I also got a chance to meet a lot of the players, in particular the Giants of the ’60’s, because they came to my step-father’s restaurant, “Kenny’s Steak Pub” on Sunday nights after the home games. I was a pre-teen. I did not have a steady Sunday night gig yet. 

Yes the Giants loved their steaks, but I think they were there to do a LOT of self-medicating in the form of alcohol. Even as a child, I knew this was not the clean-cut all-american portrait we were being fed of pro athletes at the time. These guys were tough, funny, loud, angry and often in a lot of pain. God knows what they were like as the hours went on and the liquor flowed. By then I was home trying to cram 3 days of homework into 2 hours.

That image of NFL athletes I saw firsthand had not really been shared on film, with the exception of “Semi-Tough” from a few years before “North Dallas Forty”. The great Dan Jenkins, who wrote “Semi-Tough” (a superb comedy) helped lift the curtain that hid the wilder side of these guys. In my memory, “North Dallas Forty”, based on a best-seller by ex-pro Peter Gent, tore the curtain down. 

The movie featured some very memorable performances, by Nolte, of course, along with singer Mac Davis as a Don Meredith type, and G.D. Spradlin,  playing a head coach in the mold of Tom Landry. It was funny, moving, frustrating, and above all iconoclastic, as the anti gung-ho element ran smack dab into the old school military mindset. 

After re-watching: 

“Hell, Poot, we’re all whores. Might as well be the best!” Seth Maxwell to Phil Elliott


Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is a Pro football receiver nearing the end of his career. He is good friends with his quarterback, Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), and both spend the time between games struggling with various injuries, womanizing and drinking. Maxwell is a star, so he gets away with it. Elliott is more of a role player, and because of his attitude not only is his starting job in jeopardy, but so is his career.


Football is a very violent game. People get hurt. A lot. Like ALL the time. And they play hurt. Sometimes they hurt their heads. Then they get concussions. Then Will Smith becomes an African doctor. Then he yells at NFL officials. Then he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar because everyone in Hollywood is a racist. Wait, I’m really confused. I’ve been locked in my house for 4 straight days thanks to a massive blizzard. Hold on, let me take a shot of whiskey.

Let’s start again. NOW I feel like a writer. Or a pro football player. 

Honestly, this film is a bit confused as to what it is trying to say. The main conflict seems to be that the coach feels that Elliott doesn’t have enough selflessness for the team, as in “there’s no “I” in team”. And it’s true. At one crucial point in a game, he silently mouths “drop it” when his replacement is trying for a touchdown reception. At the same time, he risks his health consistently in order to play. He takes the cortisone shots, pops the pills, shows up incredibly early for taping and conditioning. 
So he is selfish or he isn’t? 

Elliott complains that it’s a business, not a game, which of course is true. But if he was truly the cynic he purports to be, then that wouldn’t bother him. At one point, Maxwell chides him for not playing “the game, and I don’t just mean the game of football”. All he really has to do is act all gung-ho, make believe that he cares, and all will be well. It’s obvious that he is a talented receiver. It’s also obvious that he can’t bullshit.

I read the book after seeing the movie back then, and I remember thinking that the book was a lot more like a fictionalized version of Jim Bouton’s classic “Ball Four”. Gent was trying to show the wild side of football, the violence, the insanity, the hypocrisy, the drugs and alcohol. He was also trying to show how none of this affected his desire to succeed. 

This film, on the other hand, seems to be a bit more preachy. It says, “Be aware that when you are rooting for a player to get knocked out of the game, that these are REAL PEOPLE whose livelihoods depend on this.” It also says, “These are animals who live a brutal existence and have the intellect of a grizzly bear”. Now you know why I am confused. It’s not the cabin fever, it’s this damn movie! 

So if there is a point, it’s something like this: The owners and coaches want the players to put team first, even at the sacrifice of their own careers. But in truth, the players need to look after themselves, because they can be jettisoned at any time. The players that are most successful are the ones that serve that duality best, by lying, cheating and above all, winning!


Canadian director Ted Kotcheff got his big break with a film called “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”, a film based on Mordechai Richler’s coming of age book about a young Canadian Jew. Duddy was the first big role for Richard Dreyfuss after his breakthrough in “American Graffiti”. Kotcheff made a name for himself with “Kravitz”, then followed up with two not very memorable comedies, “Fun With Dick and Jane”, and “Who is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe”, both starring George Segal. 

To say that his next feature, “North Dallas Forty” was a departure from his earlier material would be an understatement. Now that I know that Kotcheff is Canadian, it makes an early scene in the film have a bit more punch. Dabney Coleman plays the owner’s brother, Emmett. He is in the process of showing Elliott this year’s first round draft pick’s contract (why they’ve had the draft before the season ends, I can’t tell you), and he takes great pleasure in informing Phil that the pick is a receiver. Then Emmett says, “Well that means that next year you’ll be….well you don’t know how to speak Canadian, do you?” Then he snickers. The CFL was considered to be purgatory for an NFL player on the downside of his career.

Despite the fact that Canadians just don’t get our American game of football, Kotcheff does get some things right. The locker room prep for the big game is a wonderful pastiche of images, conversations and camera angles. Guys sleeping on top of lockers, passed out in their lockers, taking craps, yelling at each other, psyching each other up, praying. It’s chaos, and it’s a place we will never ever be, unless we play in the NFL. I believe that it is probably pretty accurate to the era, since Gent was a player, and there are a few players in the cast, including Oakland Raiders defensive lineman John Matuszak (aka “the Tooz"). Nowadays locker rooms are these country club, spacious oases of calm. Or at least that’s how they look when the cameras go in. 

The film opens with a wonderful cross-cutting segment, showing Phil trying to get out of bed, his apartment littered with empty beer cans and pill bottles. He is dealing with the pain from injuries incurred during yesterday’s game. As he grabs his shoulder, you get a cut to a flashback of him getting thrown to the ground on that shoulder in the game. You see his nose bleeding and cut to him getting forearmed in the face by a tackler. It is very well done.

The score is very dated sounding, lots of ’70’s wah-wah guitars and disco grooves. Speaking of dated, the film actually ends on a freeze frame!  How very ’70’s. After those hilarious endings to the “Police Squad” TV shows, I can’t ever watch a freeze frame ending without cracking up. Remember, at the end of a show they’d say something funny, and then; freeze frame!, and the theme music would come up while the credits rolled. Only the shot was still live, so they’d be trying to hold their poses. In one of the endings, coffee keeps pouring….all over the counter and floor while they hold the pose. Hilarious!


As I said earlier, Nolte, Davis and Spradlin are all very solid and believable. Nolte does his grunting deal, and has a couple of well delivered monologues, particularly at the end. The writing is a hot mess, though; I’m not really sure what point he’s trying to make. He rambles on about his “ability” being the only important thing, but we have determined that that is not true. So the punch of that final delivery is muted by the audience’s confusion as to his point. In any case, he is doing his best with the material. 
But his body….not an NFL body, even back then. Not even close. There is a great scene in the weight room-- everybody is pumping iron, while Phil sits at a weight machine smoking a cigarette, so that’s supposed to show how little he cares about being in shape. 

Nor is Mac Davis in any kind of football shape. That being said, he was probably the discovery of this movie. Known for being a kind of Texas version of James Taylor at the time, he got his start as a songwriter, having penned one of Elvis’ best songs, “A Little Less Conversation”. He had a TV variety show for a couple of seasons, and then was brilliantly cast as Maxwell, a blatant satire of Don Meredith. He is funny, obscene and just great. His acting career did not go very far, however. 

Spradlin does a great job, but basically is in a one-note role. One of his best scenes comes when he is looking at his computer, and you think he is reading stats. He just shakes his head, never looking at Phil. Then suddenly he says, “That’s it. It’s your attitude!” He is so completely humorless, duplicitous and manipulative. 

The rest of the cast includes Bo Svenson, who is very believable as Joe Bob, an incredibly violent and infantile offensive lineman. Charles Durning has a sizable role as a strident assistant coach, and he is amazing at being both comic and loathsome at the same time. 
As for the Tooz….well, he is fine until he has a big important monologue after The Bulls lose the big game. While he is chewing out Durning, his anger comes through well enough, but his delivery is horribly amateurish, pausing between lines like he’s trying to remember what’s next. It’s awkward as hell. 

The weakest roles and performances are for and by the two women, especially Dayle Haddon as Phil’s love interest Charlotte. Haddon has that late ’70’s look: super perm, black hair, blue eyes. She is striking all right, but she can’t act. She was an SI swimsuit model, and, like Kotcheff, is from Montreal. Great pains were taken to have everyone who is from Texas sound like they are Texans: Nolte, Davis, Spradlin and Coleman are all pitch perfect. Haddon, on the other hand, sounds like she is from Ohio. Charlotte is a huge role in the book… there is an entire sub-plot with her ex-husband stalking and eventually killing her. This film is already overloaded and confused enough, and with Haddon’s obvious shortcomings, probably a good idea to not go there.

The other woman, Joanne, played by Savannah Smith Boucher, sounds a little more like what you’d expect (she is from Louisiana) but that doesn’t matter when you are just a bad actress. 
Lynn Stalmaster- what the hell were you thinking?


Man , this movie is dated. You would think that with all the news out there about athletes sacrificing their bodies for the game (think of Matt Harvey and Steven Strassburg), and suicides from post-concussion syndrome, that so much of this would still feel fresh and pertinent. But all of the trappings: film style, score, editing—they make the thing feel like you are watching a bad made for TV movie. What would have helped this become a classic?
  1. A clearer message
  2. Better roles for and performances by the women
  3. An American director with a sports film background like Ron Shelton or Michael Ritchie. 

On First Look: ✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭