The Wild Racers (1968)

Roger Corman loved making deals to get the movies on the screens.

In a deal similar to the one Corman made with Ron Howard years later for Grand Theft Auto, Corman agreed that if John Ireland starred in The Fast and the Furious (1954), the then down-and-out actor could direct the picture. So when Corman decided set designer Daniel Heller (for all of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe features, especially 1960’s House of Usher and 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum) was ready for another picture, another deal was struck.

By that point, Heller had a solid relationship with Corman and already directed his first film, the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and the biker flick Devil’s Angels (1967; with John Cassavetes). When Corman conceived the idea of Heller directing a racing flick centered around the European Grand Prix circuit, Heller pulled out his ace-in-the-hole: If Corman would finance Paddy (1970), Heller’s pet project adaptation of Irishman Lee Dunne’s raunchy sex-comedy Good-bye to the Hill, he’d undertake — for a Corman A.I.P production — the ambitious shoot that shot across six countries in less than six weeks.

That’s what’s awesome about Corman: he always took care of those who were loyal and dependable workers.

Then Heller returned the favor to (loves!) Mimsy Farmer.

Farmer transitioned from a career of bit roles on ’60s TV series into the forgotten drive-in fodder that was Hot Rods to Hell (1967; for MGM), Riot on Sunset Strip (1967; for A.I.P), and the aforementioned Devil’s Angels. With her career going nowhere fast, she soon took a job in a Canadian hospital. Then Heller gave her a call to star in The Wild Racers (alongside a young Talia Shire, aka then Coppola, sister of Francis Ford, in her feature film debut; she was another Corman crew member given a shot to live her dream). Farmer jumped at the chance to go to Europe for free and be able to visit her brother in London.

The Wild Racers ended up re-ignited her flagging career — now solely based in Europe — with respected directors Barbet Schroder (best known in the states for the later Barfly and Single White Female) casting her in the drug-drama More (1969) and Eriprando Visconti (of the oft ripped off, 1976 kidnap drama La orca) casting her in his Russian war drama Strogoff (1970). Readers of the B&S About Movies variety infatuated with all things giallo came to know Farmer for her work in Argento’s Four Files on Grey Velvet, along with The Perfume of the Lady in Black and Autopsy.

Yep. There’s nothing like the Corman touch to get careers rolling.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Fabian (Forte) who was never able to parlay his eleven-song run of Billboard Top 100 hits into a career that rose to the Euro-respect of Mimsy Farmer — or Talia Shire, who made it to the Golden Globes and the Oscars as result of her work in 1976’s Rocky.

True, Fabian was under contract with 20th Century Fox, but he never became “a star,” thanks to the quickly forgotten drek he was cast in, like Hound Dog Man (1959) — which was a virtual rewrite of Fox’s Elvis vehicle, Love Me Tender (1956). And there’s no argument that High Time and North to Alaska are minor entries in the Bing Crosby and John Wayne cannons (even my dad, a huge Duke fan, said North to Alaska, sucked). Then Fabian was with Paramount — to co-star with another teen idol, Tommy Sands — in more junk, this time, it was Love in a Goldfish Bowl (1961). Then with Columbia, it was the forgotten beach drama Ride the Wild Surf (1964).

It wasn’t Fabian’s fault. He’s an affable, naturally-skilled actor. It’s that the studios kept casting him in junk. Yeah, sure Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and The Longest Day (1962) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda were well-made box-office hits — but who remembers those films as “classics” all these years later?

By that point, Fabian was down to picking up the occasional guest-star roles in ’60s TV series. Then Roger Corman came-a-callin’ and cast Fabian in his first film for A.I.P., which was the stock car racing drama Fireball 500 (1966) with Corman’s “Beach Party” stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; then they hit the stock car track a second time in Thunder Alley (1967), and wrapped-up their pre-Fast and the Furious “trilogy” with The Wild Racers.

When Fabian’s seven-film contract with A.I.P. ended — and as with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen (and later, Tom Cruise and Paul Walker) before him — working on Corman’s flicks ignited his love of racing — which ended with a 1978 accident during a Mojave Desert stock car race. After that, critics may say that Fabian floundered, but we love him in Soul Hustler (1976), the trashy-insane Disco Fever, and the cheap-but-loveable slasher Kiss Daddy Goodbye (1981).

I know. I know. Another review where it’s off-the-rails with trivia — and little plot. But seriously: when did any of these forgotten drive-in potboilers have much of a plot in the first place — an wasn’t a ripped from another film in the second place?

Fabian is Jo Jo Quillico, an American stock car racer who’s career is on the skids (sorry) after causing a fatal accident. So he flees to Europe. There — and in a plot swiped from just about every film noir-cum-mobster movie about a pug boxer — Jo Jo is hired by a racing tycoon to be “take a dive” driver, so as to make the team’s more experienced driver look good. But Jo Jo’s ambitions get the best of him and he proves he’s a better driver that the guy he’s hired to take dives for. (Again: name a boxing movie.) Then, as Sam, B&S Movies’ editor-in-chief would say: “romance ensues amid the asphalt and rubber.”

Joe Dante and Quentin Tarantino have said The Wild Racers is an avante-garde, Antonioni-esque art film with little dialog, lots of voice overs, and a quick series of shots that last no more than twenty seconds. Truth be told, for an A.I.P. flick, this Fabian-starrer is a well-shot film (the best of his three Corman race romps), considering it was shot guerilla-style without permits (thus Corman and Heller stole their own film-stock racing footage, which lends to its arty, documentary vibe). In the end, these fast and furious proceedings hold their own against the bigger studio race car flicks helmed by James Caan (Red Line 7000), James Garner (Grand Prix; 1966), Steve McQueen (1971; Le Mans), and Paul Newman (Winning; 1970). And it’s a hell of lot better than those process-shot stinkers Viva Las Vegas (1964), Spinout (1966), and Speedway (1968) starring Elvis as a singing race car driver.

If Fabian had been given an actual shot to be in an Michelangelo Antonioni film: Could you see Fabian in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Passenger (1975)? I can. It’s like the studios used Fabian like a pug actor — to take dives — to make other actors look good.

And he did makes other actors look good because Fabian was a damn good actor himself.

You can watch The Wild Racers on You Tube.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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