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Monday, August 25, 2014

Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)

Story by Stephen Manes and Tom Mankiewicz; Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Peter Yates

Bill Cosby:  Mother
Raquel Welch:  Jugs
Harvey Keitel:  Anthony "Speed" Malatesta
Allen Garfield:  Harry Fishbine
Bruce Davison:  Leroy Watkins
And Larry Hagman as Murdoch

Man, I don't think this one could have been made at any other point than the mid-Seventies. The American movie industry follows trends, and I'd say there were two specific movies one could peg as this film's fossil ancestors:  M*A*S*H (dark medical comedy about people trying to save lives in an uncaring world) and Easy Rider (in which the protagonist refuses to sell out and join square society). Right around the time this movie was made the youth audience and the counterculture were driving Hollywood's business decisions, and that would change pretty drastically over the next couple of years as Jaws and Star Wars showed just how much money could be made by throwing A budgets and talent at B movies. The ripple effect from those two blockbusters hasn't really faded away forty years later--this summer alone the big releases were based on comics (X-Men and some Marvel C-listers), a Godzilla movie, a Hercules flick, and two different Michael Bay-produced feature adaptations of toy lines from the late 1980s. Yes, there are still small independent original movies being made, but they don't play in theaters for very long and they don't tend to get released in smaller markets. Which makes Mother, Jugs and Speed an example of the kind of movie they just don't make any more. And that's a real shame.

The film starts with a paunchy, jowly middle-aged man directly addressing the camera. He talks about how horrible the economy is and how society views the sick and the old as worthless, but to the employees of the F + B Ambulance company they're worth cold hard American cash. A camera pan shows that he's also addressing the F + B drivers, shifting the viewer's attention from the man giving the speech to the men listening to it. The white-coated employees sitting on a ratty old couch in the cavernous garage are paying varying but low levels of attention to the boss's speech, which is interrupted by siren blasts from one ambulance. An object lesson in what PG could mean in 1976 shows up as Harry Fishbine yells "Goddamn it, Mother!" at the man working on the siren and the speech eventually wraps up. By the way, Fishbine has the worst pants I've seen outside of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things in this scene. I'm not sure if horizontal zigzag stripes were ever popular in the Decade that Taste Forgot or if Fishbine's supposed to look ridiculous even by the nearly nonexistent standards of the time. I'm guessing the filmmakers want him to look like a shmuck, though.

Fishbine is the owner and boss of this tiny Los Angeles private ambulance company; I'm shaky on exactly how they collect fees but they charge $42.50 plus half a buck per mile to transport injured people to hospitals. Even four decades ago forty bucks wasn't all that much money, so part of Fishbine's speech stresses the need to be the first wagon to the scene of an accident once they get a call. Their rivals at the Unity Ambulance Company cover some of the same territory and are a similarly fly-by-night operation. And since they're on such a shoestring budget, F + B can't afford the best and the brightest as their employees; they're stuck with whoever has an EMT certification and can't find a job somewhere better.

The first time we see anyone from F + B on the job it's Murdoch, an incredibly creepy man who uses his job as a way to get his hands on women. He tries giving a pelvic exam to a professional wrestler with a broken leg in the back of the ambulance and immediately shows the general caliber of Fishbine's employees. Bill Cosby as "Mother", in a performance I genuinely did not expect him to have in him, is far and away the best driver and EMT that Fishbine could have hoped for. His first scene in action is carting away a dead heroin addict sprawled out in his jockey shorts in a dingy pit of an apartment. A character that I presume is his girlfriend just wants the body taken away and is prepared to pay the $42.50 up front, but Mother gently breaks the news to her that until a doctor or someone from the LA fire department officially declares the OD victim to be dead he can't legally move the body to his ambulance. The woman displays more regret over finding out that there's going to be consequences with the law than she is over the dead man less than ten feet from her. And it's apparent from the way Mother deals with her quickly and gently that he's seen this happen many, many, many times before.

But he's still got enough of his soul left uncorroded that he's treating the other addict as a human being rather than just an inconvenience in doing his job. He gets called away from that body removal to go to another one where an alcoholic woman died mid-bender at a tavern; he throws the policeman who called F + B a five dollar kickback for getting the job and grumbles that he's not used to paying more than three for this sort of thing. He and his assistant Leroy return to the first apartment and cart away the overdosed man, poaching the body back from the Unity drivers who got there while they were attending to the dead alcoholic (and showing that he outsmarted the heroin-addicted woman by hiding the case with the lethal needle and drugs in it after she tried stashing it somewhere else). Leroy has kept himself busy outside the apartment letting the air out of two of the Unity ambulance's tires while Mother's been talking to the cops, the Unity crew and the junkie so even if the police were likely to let the Unity crew take the body away and collect the fee they wouldn't be able to. The whole movie has that weird semi-tragic tone, with one-lung ambulance companies using dirty tricks and kickbacks in order to outmaneuver each other for jobs like carting away dead alcoholics.

The next vignette involves a middle-aged black woman who falls and breaks her hip at a card game; she has the bad luck to get Murdoch as the primary EMT. He's not strong enough to lift her onto the board (or her and the board onto the stretcher); he needs help from two of the other women at the card game just to get her on the stretcher and the stairway in the apartment building is so narrow that getting her down to the ground floor is a struggle. The second EMT breaks through the rotten stairs in the apartment building and poor Helen, strapped to a gurney with a broken hip, takes a ride down two and a half flights of stairs and a hill in San Francisco before smacking into a car headfirst and coming to a stop. (Her friend at the card game:  "I think you just blew that $42.50, baby." Yeah, that's a safer bet than anything that was likely to happen playing poker.) Just to put one more layer on the day's shitcake, the second EMT gets bitten by a rat while stuck waist-deep in the stairwell and Murdoch isn't strong enough to pull him out of there either. They wind up having to call a completely different ambulance to get themselves out of there.

We return to another F + B crew and Mother criticizing Leroy for smoking pot on duty because it's illegal and because it makes you look stupid. He tries to convince him that drinking (and driving) is much better, and sips from a beer while having a one-sided conversation with his co-pilot about the hazards of marijuana. Again, this movie was rated PG. I can't imagine that a movie made in the current decade would let even an antihero drive drunk while running an ambulance. In this same scene, Mother guns the engine, lights and sirens while charging a group of nuns trying to cross the street--Leroy warns him that the nuns have complained to Fishbine repeatedly and that he's going to go to Hell when he dies for teasing them every time he drives by and sees them. Mother replies--seriously, as far as I can tell--that they love it when he scares the hell out of them because they don't have any kind of sexual outlet and this is the closest they'll ever get.

The next morning at the F + B offices, Murdoch tries to get Jugs to go to a Cat Stevens concert with him and is just as successful as you'd think at that. She tells him that her name is actually Jennifer and when he switches to that she says the answer is still no. Mother comes in and calls her Jugs, but she doesn't mind--possibly because he's a weirdo to everyone and because his "harassment" is more a sign of mutual fondness than actually trying to get into her pants. Fishbine chews Mother out for bothering the nuns the previous night ("They eat it up, Harry, believe me.") and gives his boss and the ambulance-chasing lawyer in the office a great deal of shit before going out on his rounds. And outside waiting to see the boss is Anthony Malatesta, a young police officer who drove an ambulance in Vietnam for three years. Fishbine praises the fine young men who fought in the war and runs down the hippies who protested it back in the States while Malatesta says he hated being there and thought the war was stupid and immoral. The blowhard backs down--sort of--on the war conversation. Malatesta also says that he's on suspension from the LAPD because he's suspected of selling cocaine to children; of course he says he didn't do it because nobody would admit to that but Fishbine pretty transparently doesn't buy it. The boss man hires him on the spot and assigns Malatesta to Murdoch's ambulance, since the other EMT that would be working with him is in the hospital with a broken leg and rabies. One gets the feeling that all the other drivers for F + B were also the first warm bodies that walked in when a position was open.

Malatesta winds up going on a regular trip to bring an old sick man to a hospital--according to Murdoch's astonishingly callous and wrong-headed running commentary he's worth a great deal of money to F + B because of the dozen or so times every month that he needs emergency treatment for whatever it is that he's got. Mr. Klein dies in the back of the ambulance during Murdoch's speech, and during the rest of the shift the unfortunate new guy has to listen to Murdoch's casual misogyny and horrifically inflated sense of self worth. Malatesta also declines to join in on that night's betting pool; throwing in a fiver lets you pick a number, and if the F + B crews bring that many dead bodies in by midnight you get the pot.

Back at the station he goes for one of those walk-on-the-city-streets-at-night-while-a-ballad-plays scenes and tries to figure out just what the hell he's doing on this job; Mother sneaked a look at his paperwork earlier and told everyone that he sold speed to kids (resulting in his nickname; Malatesta is the third person in the titular trio). He happens to walk by a bar where Jennifer is drinking alone and goes in to strike up a conversation with her. There's actually something of a spark when they talk somewhere other than work and we learn that Speed took the job because he isn't getting paid while he's on suspension and isn't qualified to do anything else. Their conversation gets interrupted by Murdoch showing up and saying they have a Code Three at the university; I'm pretty sure that ambulance drivers and their friends get used to conversations getting cut off by the job.

The Code Three turns out to be a drug overdose at a dorm room; the young woman is fading quickly after taking a handful of Seconal. Murdoch lets Speed drive to the hospital after being a jerk about wanting to have the wheel on the way to the university. It turns out he really just wanted some quality time alone in the back of the ambulance with an attractive college student too zoned out to know what he's doing. Speed figures out what's up early enough to prevent a rape and Murdoch manages to act like he's the victim when Speed stops the ambulance and hauls him out.

Mother and Leroy stop for some street meat at Barney's burger shack (located next to a McDonalds; Mother's authenticity is shown by rejecting the mass-produced garbage food for a hand-prepared meal of garbage food). He bullshits Leroy into paying for his dinner and they have a heart-to-heart interrupted by a call to get a dope addict in for voluntary psychiatric committal. Leroy wonders if he's ever going to make anything for himself carting bodies for Harry Fishbine while Mother tells him that there's an unprecedented amount of freedom working for F + B that he considers a tradeoff for the low pay and series of microaggressions and degradations that comprise every working day. Fishbine calls them over the ambulance radio and screams at them to get moving to pick up the dope addict.

One of those aggressions shows up when Leroy knocks on the door--there's no doctor waiting with the addict, like they were told would be, but there is Toni Basil with a shotgun robbing the EMTs for either morphine or Demerol. She knows what she wants, at least. Leroy finds out that honesty isn't all that great a policy when he tells the addict that the ambulance doesn't have any of the stuff she wants because they can't legally have it in the rig and he takes both barrels to the chest. Mother pulls a revolver out of the ambulance and fires a warning shot at the jonesing addict, who reloads the shotgun, misses Mother and hears the police sirens closing in. She takes the direct way out of the film, which I again note with some amazement was rated PG.

The LA County sheriffs show up (including the officer that told Mother about the dead alcoholic from earlier in the film), and a young by-the-book deputy says that when the slug from the addict's door frame is matched to Mother's gun he'll lose his ambulance drivers' license. The older cop immediately says the bullet is the biggest piece of buckshot he's ever seen and shuts the investigation down; I'm sure he figured Mother is in a bad enough place as things are. Mother, for his part, takes Leroy's body to the morgue himself as a way to salve his conscience--he told the other man to talk to the "doctor" at the addict's house while he got the gurney out of the back of the rig. On his way back to the F + B garage, he passes by the nuns without scaring the heck out of them, and as they cross the road in front of his ambulance the viewer can tell they're actually worried about him because he's not acting like a lunatic. It's strangely touching.

Murdoch is scooping up the dead pool money when Mother comes back in; it's midnight and he picked 8 as his number. One of the drivers who plans to go on to med school points out that Leroy makes nine dead bodies and that nobody picked nine. Murdoch says that Leroy doesn't count, which is exactly the wrong thing to say in Mother's presence at that precise moment in time.

I didn't know I always needed to see a movie where Bill Cosby throws a two-fisted beatdown on Larry Hagman until I watched this movie. And now that you know that exists I bet you're going to watch it too. In the aftermath of the fight and Leroy's death, everyone gets shuffled around a bit. Speed gets assigned to Mother's rig (over Mother's protests, and it's the one time in the film Fishbine doesn't let him do what he wants to do). And at the same time Jennifer's come in with her own EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license--solving the mystery of what she did with her nights after work. None of the speculation from her coworkers was even remotely on target for that, naturally.

Fishbine is desperate for drivers and doesn't need any more stress; Jennifer has already proven herself to be an invaluable member of the F + B team answering the phones and running dispatch. So of course he refuses outright to upgrade her to EMT and driver--and the scenes where he gripes about women are some of the most contemporary-sounding dialogue in the film, I'm sad to say. Jennifer drives off in an ambulance in a fit of pique; it turns out Speed was in the back lying on the gurney reading up on the state requirements for the job. Jennifer turns on the lights and sirens in order to fully experience the ambulance driving lifestyle and gets an unwelcome offer of help from a pair of police officers who see her driving alone and want to help out. Unfortunately she didn't have a destination in mind and needs to find a person in need of medical attention very quickly or she's looking at the loss of her EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license at the very least. A call back to the office is no help (Mrs. Fishbine refuses to believe that there are any phony patients that F + B uses in order to scam money from Los Angeles county) and Jennifer continues to drive on in the hope that something will turn up. She manages to escape the police "helping" her long enough to pull into an alley and some quick thinking from Speed means that 1) she doesn't get arrested and 2) we see Harvey Keitel in his underwear before Raquel Welch. The start of a workplace romance blossoms (and we get to see the ambulance parked by the beach alongside all the other romantic couples' cars).

The next day, Mother and Speed are out doing their rounds when the ambulance radio picks up a Unity call--Mother's bone-deep deviousness is revealed once again as the F + B rig speeds to (and over) a golf course to pick up a concussed golfer. At least one of the golfers is a doctor, and his inexpert treatment of the man who got smacked in the head with a line drive sends him into shock. Mother berates the doctor and improvises a way to keep the accident victim's head immobilized on the stretcher, but the Unity ambulance shows up (and that company's drivers show just as much care for the greens as Mother did, of course). The doctors ("Christ, it's Wednesday. You must all be doctors.") are useless and need to be yelled at before they can help treat the stricken man as he goes into a seizure; Albert the Unity driver helps stabilize him--both the F + B and Unity crews know that they're there to help the guy, and besides, nobody gets paid if he dies on the scene. And while Albert, Mother and Speed are busy saving a life the second crewman from Unity is letting the air out of two of Mother's tires. Turnabout is fair play, but it's also irritating as hell when you have it happen to you.

Back at the office, Fishbine harangues Jennifer about when she plans to return to the switchboard since he has no plans to let her drive a rig. She says she talked to the crooked lawyer from the first act and that if Fishbine won't let her drive, she'll sue him and bankrupt the company--although it doesn't look like that would be much of a change for F + B. Mother thinks that she should be allowed to drive and recommends that Speed be partnered with her. Fishbine says she needs training and Mother is the best person in the county for that, though Mother doesn't want any women in his ambulance unless they're in the back on the gurney. The logistics are eventually worked out where all three of the title characters are in the ambulance so that Jennifer and Speed get a crash course in emergency medical care and Mother isn't driving alone, which is illegal. He's also pretty sulky about having to have three people in his ambulance, but he's got a good point about running out of room for the patient.

The trio's first emergency call is a doughy older man who caught his junk in his zipper. Mother takes great delight in telling Jennifer she's the one who has to get him unstuck, but also makes the extremely valid point that an EMT doesn't get to pick and choose which people they're going to treat. Then we get one more "how in the hell was this rated PG" moment where Mother visits a sleazy massage parlor to get a backrub with a pair of vibrators and give the working girls shots of vitamin B. The third act plot points all pile together here--while they're waiting outside the Institute for Sexual Awareness, Jennifer and Speed make small talk and Jennifer sees that Speed has a telegram in his shirt pocket. He's been reinstated by the LAPD and hasn't decided whether or not to go back. Then a call comes in that a woman at a supermarket is going into labor and the duo decides to let Mother continue getting his backrub and take care of it themselves.

Jennifer knows the closest hospital to the supermarket, but she doesn't know that they aren't equipped to deliver a child in their emergency room; they put her back in the ambulance and speed off to the county hospital. Before they can get there, the woman delivers her child. Something goes wrong and she hemorrhages to death in the back of the rig; she speaks Spanish so Speed and Jennifer can't even talk to her as they try to treat her and fail. And it's down to Mother to show why he's the best EMT in the county--he tells Jennifer, truthfully, that there's nothing anyone could have done with the equipment in the back of that ambulance to save the woman's life. If Speed drove an ambulance for the army for three years in a war zone he can't be a stranger to death (even if he isn't expecting it in the civilian world), but it's a completely new and devastating experience for Jennifer to deal with. And it's obviously a lesson that Mother had to learn on his own, but giving the benefit of his experience to the newest driver is the only gift he can give. And she decides to stick with the job, so it worked.

And finally we get to the big city council meeting that's been teased through the movie--where we find out whether Unity or F + B are going to get their contract renewed and be allowed to continue serving Los Angeles County. Plenty of trash talk and mutual disparagement of both firms takes place, and then the councilman lowers the boom--neither company is capable of serving the area so neither one will get the contract, which means both of them are going to go under. The head of Unity proposes a merger so that both companies can survive and the clearly unprepared city official says that should work after a probationary period to make sure that the new ambulance company can actually do the work. The meeting is interrupted when an emergency call comes in at a familiar-sounding address. It's the headquarters for F + B; Murdoch is there drunk out of his mind, marinating in self-pity and waving a revolver around. He threatens to kill Mrs. Fishbine and even takes a shot at her, but misses from less than five feet away.

The police who show up happen to be the sheriff and deputy that have been at the fringes of the story for the whole dang movie; either they're the bottom feeders of the LA County sheriff's department or they're just stationed near the F + B headquarters. Walker (the EMT who got a broken leg, rat bites and rabies) somehow manages to light the office on fire while attempting to enjoy a cigar. Everything gets confused and noisy, Speed gets shot in the shoulder and Murdoch winds up with Mother dead in his sights but out of bullets. And then the deputy shoots him in the back, just after the audience learns that he's no longer a threat. A dozen and a half SWAT officers surround the perimeter just after they might have been needed. They trudge back to their deployment van sullenly and drive off.

Time--at least a little of it--passes. The Fishbine + Unity Ambulance Company is trying to make a go of it; Mother and Jennifer are in one rig. Speed is back as a detective and the head of Unity and Fishbine plow through the paperwork--and Harry's making a good-faith effort to be nice (even offering to make coffee for his new partner). And showing that he's got his groove back, Mother takes the opportunity to scare the crap out of some perfectly innocent nuns again. Roll credits over the same song that played over the opening. The beat goes on.

Hollywood films in the blockbuster era are all about winners. Rocky Balboa went from being someone proud just to go the distance in his first movie to singlehandedly winning the Cold War in the fourth one. With studios trying to make huge returns on huge expenses there isn't really room for stories about desperate blue-collar people just trying not to lose. The movie's also tonally all over the place, sometimes within a single scene. But I enjoy that aspect of the film. I think it reflects what an EMT's job would have to be like. Some times you're cleaning up after a traffic accident and some times you're helping someone get unglued from a vase. The film's a little slice-of-bottom-feeding life drama, with all the characters shifting allegiance when trying to needle each other and with Mother acting as a sarcastic weirdo to everyone. They don't make 'em like this any more, even if there's an audience for films that don't fit into a neat little category (and this film was successful enough that a pilot was shot; ABC showed it as a special but it never went to series). Despite the wall-to-wall sexism--the element that will make viewers in 2014 shake their heads sadly, over and over, it's got plenty of merit. You could do a lot worse, even if the employees of the ambulance companies probably can't.

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