The Film (5/5)
John Daniels stars as Black Baron, a pimp after my own heart. He’s a player who looks out for his ladies – he never lays a hand on ‘em (unless they ask him to – and they do) puts money aside for their futures, and won’t turn a girl out if he’s not sure she can handle the life (going so far as to give a runaway bus fare back home after winning her freedom in a game of nine ball with a rival pimp). His heavy rep makes him L.A.’s Primo Procurer – but it also earns him dangerous enemies in “The Mob” (who look, for the most part, like a bunch of beefy dads) the bulls (one of whom is a particularly sleazy pig played by the inimitably sleazy Carpenter vet George “Buck” Flower), and a Player Hater rival. Against a string of violent attacks, Baron finds it tougher to hold things down – and juggle his secret life as a suburban husband and father.
Meanwhile, a windfall opportunity presents itself – one which forces Los Angeles’s most hard-assed hustler to play the white man’s white collar game – as the forces amassed against him try to take his empire apart once and for all.
In Vinegar Syndrome’s recently-shot video introduction for the film, Director Matt Cimber explains that making a criminal the hero of his tale was a hard sell – but Super Fly (1972), The Mack (1973) and Willie Dynamite (1974) pre-date his film, and all of them celebrate the criminal as a folk hero – add Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar (1973) and Rudy Ray Moore’s The Human Tornado (1976) to the mix, and you’ve got a brace of films that play in the Candy Tangerine Man’s sandbox – and almost every one of them is superior to Cimber’s movie on some level.
There are plenty of moments where it seems like the film could differentiate itself from the pack, but it has a hard time negotiating them. For example – while there is some handheld camerawork that lends a bit of energy to certain moments, too often the film is shot in flat, stagey fashion (perhaps betraying Cimber’s roots in the theater), and so it does little to distinguish itself from its peers in that regard. The securities theft sub-plot could have spoken to the nature of the white man’s criminality were it not so perfunctorily played, a late-game revelation regarding one of the Baron’s associates could have been a dramatic gut punch were it conveyed with more effort (which I suppose shouldn’t denigrate in any way the effective performances in the moment), and there are actually some pretty hilarious comic book-style flourishes that would have made the film absolutely amazing had they been a part of the picture’s DNA rather than just a few moments of “holy shit” hilarity. Additionally, the film often cuts away from its most vile, violent moments, sparing the more timid audiences – but also betraying audiences steeped in the exploitation tradition. Even a well-employed cut-away would be more effective than really fakey orange stage blood artfully-applied with a medium-bristle paint brush.
The film’s greatest missed opportunity is in its depiction of the Baron’s double life. An audience member might wonder what the hell the Baron’s up to when he pulls his gaudy Rolls to the side of a barren stretch of road and begins to strip to his boxers – but in true Blaxploitation fashion, the film’s theme song tells us the entire plot – which means it gives away the fact that Black Baron lives a suburban double life long before we reach that point in the narrative. We get only the hint of culture clash, and none of the dramatic payoff that might naturally emerge from that development. It doesn’t help that Daniels (who later took the lead in another minor blaxsploitation classic, Black Shampoo) plays both sides of the swap with the same bemused “what is this shit” half-smile.
On top of all that, does Baron just leave his immaculate machine gun-outfitted Rolls Royce on the side of a dirt road for the weekend? As the most straight-arrow guy you’ll ever meet – even I couldn’t guarantee I wouldn’t try to steal that thing in the blink of an eye if I saw it just baking in the sun.
You might think I’m asking a lot from a low-budget production, but Cimber himself explains that the Black Baron was based on a procurer he’d befriended in real life who was completely street-savvy, but was also an investment maestro who’d learned to put his gains to work for him playing the stock market. Cimber claims that The Candy Tangerine Man was an attempt at making the (incredibly valid) point that slick, smart young African-Americans are cheated by the system when they’re not afforded an education. He laments that there’s no reason a smart, resourceful young black man couldn’t be a member of the executive class were he not entirely denied the chance to aspire to that sort of life. Cimber had lofty ambitions that, in this case, did not translate to the screen.
So what does The Candy Tangerine Man do right? How has it earned its enduring reputation?
In the end, aside from a bit of wild comedy, the film feels a lot like it’s being lived at street level. There’s a degree of low-rent, seedy authenticity to the clubs and the crummy little apartments the hookers are holed up in. The opening credits say that the film features “The Actual ‘Hookers’ and ‘Blades’ of the Sunset Strip in Hollywood” – and it really does feel that way. These people look any combination of road-hard, battle-hardened, and comfortably numb, and in that way it feels like the best music of the “gangsta rap” era – it as if you’re getting the word directly from the street. When you watch a film like The Nice Guys (which I totally adored) try to recreate the seedier side of Los Angeles during the 1970s, it winds up looking and feeling just a bit too “Hollywood” when it’s put up against something real. Despite its faults, The Candy Tangerine Man is real.
Lady Cocoa aka Pop Goes the Weasel
Lola Falana orbited the Rat Pack, was “mentored” by Sammy Davis Jr., and was a perpetual guest of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. She was also a beloved act in Las Vegas for ages. When Sammy was still hooking up with her, he approached Cimber about building a movie around the singer (Cimber claims in his commentary that Davis enjoyed The Candy Tangerine Man), and thus, Lady Cocoa was born.
The story is simultaneously thin, convoluted, and kind of illogical – imprisoned Cocoa gets out of the joint for ONE DAY (you don’t ask for a commuted sentence, Lola? What gives) for promising to finally sing about her criminal boyfriend, and proceeds to go on a revenge ramp-
Not really. I was thinking about how cool it would be for Foxy Falana to slip the cops and hunt down the man who wronged her, but what we wind up with is Falana paired with a straight black cop (the likeable Gene Washington) who feels like babysitting a witness is beneath him.
And it’s babysitting in the literal sense, as Falana’s Cocoa is a spoiled little weirdo, ping-ponging between petulant and seductive and grateful and spiteful – I can’t imagine an audience not wanting her to fall off of something tall, but I thought she was a ball of oddball charm; a kind of manic pixie dream girl who exists not to fix some man’s life, but to fix her own – and that means coming to terms with the fact that, when your boyfriend sends NFL legend Mean Joe Greene to try and murder you when he thinks you’ve turned States, he’s probably not worth toughing it out in the pen for.
Soon Cocoa and her boy toy in blue are beset on all sides by killers and crooked cops, and there’s a car chase that got a laugh out of me because I thought it was a pretty cool thing to try on a budget as low as Cimber must have had. Lady Cocoa was a surprisingly upbeat bit of work, and worth checking out if you go in for the Candy Tangerine Man.
It’s tough to grade material in this condition. Cimber mentions that the elements for his films are long gone due to lab liquidation, so this is what we’re left with. As always, VinSyn did the very best they could with what they were given, but there’s really obvious damage to both prints. Scratches, splices, sprocket/perf damage, and discoloration are rife – but there is the notion that this adds to the explo feel we all love. While some reels are worse than others, there are plenty of times during both features where things do clean up nicely, especially during Lady Cocoa. Regardless of the damage to the print, images are consistently sharp and devoid of tampering. The grain structure feels absolutely organic here. Short of the kind of multi-million dollar restoration efforts afforded the classics of Old Hollywood, we’ll never see The Candy Tangerine Man look better than this. Audio comes in clear on a DTS-HD mono track, so no issues there.
We get a brief intro to Candy Tangerine Man from director Cimber, and a commentary on Lady Cocoa – and that’s it. There’s nothing in the way of trailers or any other extras.
The release is dual-format, so you get a DVD version of the films, as well – in case you need a coaster.
And while they’re not “extras” in the strictest sense, both features are subtitled, which is always a very welcome development – especially when it’s said that doing so is oftentimes costly.
It may have read as though I was really down on The Candy Tangerine Man, but the film is by no means fruitless viewing. I understand and respect its place in blaxsploitation history, and if you respect that history, this is a film you have to see. Lady Cocoa was a cute diversion built around a winsome leading lady, and Vinegar Syndrome did a fine job handling both films for this release.