“North Dallas Forty” (1979) dir. Ted Kotcheff

Ted Kotcheff is one of the most underrated directors of the past several decades.  He doesn’t have a particular recognizable style like Martin Scorsese or a Robert Altman.  Oftentimes, he makes a mediocre or bad film for every good film he does.  But Kotcheff has made some damn good movies.  And a VERY diverse list of good films: “Wake in Fright,” “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” the original “First Blood,” “Uncommon Valor” (the FIRST … and BEST … of the Vietnam POW rescue films), “Weekend at Bernie’s” and his best film, “North Dallas Forty.”

“North Dallas Forty” is based on a novel written by former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent and is thought to be a thinly-disguised version of events from when he was on the team.  Because many of the players are grossly immature, the film is often very raunchy and funny. This scene between Nick Nolte’s wide receiver Phil Elliott and Mac Davis’s quarterback Seth Maxwell (allegedly based on former Cowboy Don Meredith) is probably the best example of this.  However, the language is very rough and not safe for work:

But the film is also incredibly sad.  The film shows how much pain the players endure, oftentimes inflicting permanent damage on themselves to stay in the game and taking narcotics (with the encouragement of the heartless coaches and management) to push past the pain to keep playing.

Nolte arguably gives his finest performance as an aging player whose increasing use of painkillers to stay competitive is taking a serious toll on his body.  The opening scene (which I can’t find on YouTube) where Elliott struggles to get out of bed is particularly harrowing to watch.  Also terrific is Davis, G.D. Spradlin as the cold-blooded coach B.A. Strother  (patterned on Cowboys coach Tom Landry), Charles Durning as the heartless Coach Johnson, Bo Svenson as the dim-witted and tough Joe Bob Priddy, and former Oakland Raider John Matuszak as O.W. Shadduck.  Shadduck actually has one of the best scenes in the film where he gets into a verbal and physical altercation with Coach Johnson after a particularly rough game.  Some very rough language here, but a damn good scene:

An excellent, almost sadly forgotten masterpiece from the 1970s and one of the best sports movies ever made.

“Wake in Fright” (1971) dir. Ted Kotcheff

One of the best, most brutal, and weirdest Australian films ever made is getting a major American reissue via Alamo Drafthouse Films.  “Wake in Fright” was thought to be a lost film, but a negative in great shape was found a few years ago and the film was restored.  This is the Australian “Deliverance”.    Director Ted Kotcheff later went on to direct “North Dallas Forty” (arguably, the best American football film ever made) and the original “First Blood” (a great film, especially when you forget the moronic blockbuster “Rambo” sequel).

As Martin Scorsese said, “WAKE IN FRIGHT is a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time. I’m excited that WAKE IN FRIGHT has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.”