THE MANIPULATOR [a.k.a. B.J. Lang Presents] (1971).
Here's a lost curio from the acid-inspired days of indie filmmaking. A tripped out vision of insanity featuring a tour de farce performance by Mickey Rooney. It's also an amazing achievement, which quickly destroys any preconceptions you might walk in with... Almost the entire film is set in a warehouse chocked with hallucinatory backdrops, old movie props, scrap sculptures, and cobwebs. And Rooney (who's in nearly every scene) stars as B.J. Lang, a crazed old man who believes he's the greatest director of all time in the midst of planning his next epic -- while in actuality he's just a deluded has-been stumbling through an abandoned building. Looking particularly haggard and sporting a scraggly beard, Rooney gives a brave, over-the-top performance consisting of stream of consciousness monologues and acting that transcends the boundaries of camp. It's one of the ultimate psycho performances of all time, and Rooney's jolly persona only adds a more deranged touch to the brew, especially when we discover B.J. isn't just a menace to himself. You see, he's keeping a young woman (EASY RIDER's Luana Anders) captive in his warehouse, and keeps referring to her as "Carlotta", his personal starlet. Tied to a wheelchair and pleading for food ("I'm hungry, Mr. Lang," she begs repeatedly, until he finally spoons her some baby food), Rooney torments Carlotta and forces her to act out scenes for his "camera"; while Mickey dances, screams, emotes, practices death scenes, wears rouge and lipstick, and spends the second half of the flick with a fake Cyrano nose... Essentially, it's a two-character work (except for a five-minute stumble-thru by Keenan Wynn as a wino) -- a theatre piece that's been adrenalized by wild editing, hyper-kinetic photography, strobelights, freeze frames, and every imaginable camera trick in the book. Directed by first-timer Harold "Yabo" Yablonsky (who later scripted Ernest Pintoff's martial arts mess JAGUAR LIVES! and the Sly Stallone World War II soccer drama VICTORY, as well as helming the 1977 musical-documentary feature WILLIE NELSON'S 4TH OF JULY PICNIC), it's a slim concept (think SUNSET BOULEVARD meets THE COLLECTOR) mutated into a hallucinogenic, comic nightmare in which the fantasy world of filmmaking takes its toll and reality takes a backseat to illusion. Foremost there's Rooney, who (hard to believe) is unforgettable -- whether he's playing a broken, pathetic man reminiscing about the past, or chasing Luana past hanging sides of beef (?) with a rapier. After 90 minutes of its dizzying pace, you feel like you're on the verge of madness too. Overbearing, pretentious and brilliant, this is one film that bares repeated viewing. [Note: In a 1970 Baltimore Sun interview, Rooney mentioned the recently-lensed B.J. LANG PRESENTS: "I've been in a lot of stinky pictures and some that were not so bad, but this is the best picture I ever made." Meanwhile, Yablonsky was so in love with this whole wacky concept that he returned to it 15 years later by turning B.J. LANG PRESENTS into a theatrical stageplay and directing a low-rent Los Angeles production of it in December 1986. The reviews were not kind.]
© 1991 by Steven Puchalski.