The term “development hell” is one often casually bandied about in film comment circles when talking about the difficult, labyrinthine journey a movie can often take when making it from the first typed words of a screenplay through to its actual production and eventual release. Development hell, however, can mean much, much more than just delays for a filmmaker.
It can mean movie projects worked on for years can completely collapse, and also that a promising career can be sent hurtling horribly and irrevocably off the rails. There are way too many fascinating directors out there (many of them celebrated in this very column) with only a few credits to their name, and it’s usually got nothing to do with laziness or a change in career direction. Many directors can soak up huge slabs of their creative career sweating and bleeding over films that never come to fruition; that is often why there are such yawning gaps on their IMDB career pages. All of this, of course, brings us to George Armitage, a wonderful filmmaker whose seven films since 1971 would, in a perfect world, be multiplied by at least three.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1942, George Armitage moved to Beverly Hills in 1956, when his eyes were quickly opened to rock’n’roll, street racing, and youth culture, which would eventually help grease the rails for his entry into the film world proper. After studying political science and economics at UCLA, Armitage considered a career in real estate, but instead detoured with a job in the mail room of major movie studio 20th Century Fox. Within a year, however, the savvy and tenacious Armitage had climbed the ladder up to a position as an associate producer on the popular 1960s television series Peyton Place, while also writing and pitching on various other shows.
It was at 20th Century Fox that Armitage met legendary independent producer Roger Corman, who was there filming his blood-soaked gangster flick The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. A friendship was formed and after Corman failed to raise finance for Armitage’s screenplay for a subversive semi-animated film, he asked the already veteran TV player to pen the script for what would ultimately become the 1970 youth rebellion cult flick Gas-s-s-s – or – It Became Necessary To Destroy The World In Order To Save It, in which a gas is released upon the planet which kills anyone over the age of 25.
After appearing as an actor in Corman’s 1974 WW1 actioner Von Richthofen And Brown, Armitage fronted the producer/director and asked him if he could direct a film. With the departure of Corman proteges Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, Corman needed directors, and he handballed Armitage the opportunity to write and helm another entry in his sex-and-violence cycle of “nurse” movies. Armitage hit all of the sub-genre’s crunch points on 1971’s Private Duty Nurses, which followed three beautiful care-givers as they deal with all manner of mayhem in the hospital where they work. Shot on time and on budget in just fifteen days, the sex-filled film bubbles with social comment, and made Armitage an instant favourite of Corman’s. Though the film remains largely forgotten (like most of Corman’s “nurse” movies), it shows Armitage as a young filmmaker unafraid to really rip into his subject matter.
He did that again with 1972’s Hit Man, on which Armitage was tapped to adapt the British novel Jack’s Return Home, which he had not been told had already been made into the Michael Caine-starring Brit masterpiece Get Carter. Armitage shifted the action to LA’s African-American community, and when the financial backers wouldn’t meet leading man Bernie Casey’s request to direct, Armitage agreed to take the reins, inviting much improvisation and input from his African-American cast and crew. Tough, gritty and blazingly of its era, 1972’s Hit Man is a key sideline artefact of the Blaxploitation genre exemplified by the likes of Shaft and Superfly. “Growing up in a racially mixed neighbourhood, like I did in Baldwin Hills, I knew a little bit about the culture, but the actors brought so much in terms of dialogue and honesty,” Armitage told Film Comment of Hit Man.
After penning another Blaxploitation sideliner in 1975’s Darktown Strutters, Armitage wrote and directed the absolutely scorching Vigilante Force, a no-holds-barred actioner in which Jan-Michael Vincent brings in his older brother Kris Kristofferson – a hardened Vietnam vet – to help clean up the booming crime problem in their small hometown. In one of his best and most out-of-character performances, Kristofferson proves, however, to be a complete psycho, and ends up taking over the town himself, leading to a full-tilt shoot ‘em up showdown between the two very different brothers. Manic and uncompromising, Vigilante Force is a truly stunning potboiler, featuring a host of in-your-face sequences, including a slew of violent fights and one of the most callous and upsetting murders in 1970s cinema.
Armitage wrote and directed the 1979 television movie Hot Rod (in which Gregg Henry’s drag racer butts heads with a small town sheriff), and then spent ten years trapped in development hell before emerging triumphantly with 1990’s Miami Blues, one of the best – but most under-celebrated – crime films of the decade. Based on the book by crime legend Charles Willeford, the Jonathan Demme-produced cracker stars a never-better Alec Baldwin as a charming, reckless grifter who steals the badge and gun of a veteran cop (the brilliant Fred Ward) and goes on a bizarre crime spree with a none-too-bright hooker (the also utterly brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh) in tow. Uproariously funny and perfectly timed, this ingenious tonal tightrope walk is the perfect showcase for Armitage’s incredible intelligence and dexterity as a director. Now largely forgotten, Miami Blues should be rightly heralded as a truly top-tier crime comedy caper flick.
Seven long years lapsed until Armitage delivered another blackly comic crime mini-classic with 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank. Starring John Cusack (who also co-writes, and was then at the height of his profoundly hip comic powers) as a professional assassin who attends his high school reunion while on a hit, the film was Armitage’s first film as solely a director, though he claims that he did much uncredited script work on the movie. Wonderfully cast (Cusack is great in the lead, and receives crackling support from Minnie Driver and a host of comic firebrands like Alan Arkin, Dan Aykroyd, Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria and the scene stealing Joan Cusack) and very, very funny, Grosse Pointe Blank is another 1990s black comedy desperately deserving of much more praise.
Armitage’s misfortunes in the film industry are best summed up in his disappointing 2004 effort, The Big Bounce. The film, however, is not really George Armitage’s at all. A tepid adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Armitage’s vision for this sunny tale of a small-time con artist in Hawaii (played by Owen Wilson) was considerably darker, and stuck much truer to Leonard’s tough talking source material. When the studio leaned on the director to deliver a softer PG-13 rated film instead of the grittier R-rated one that he’d intended, Armitage promptly removed himself from the project. “I said: ‘Look, I’m not going to oversee the destruction of my own movie, there’s no way. If you go to a PG-13, you’re going to eliminate Elmore Leonard from this movie.’ The language, there’s some incredible love scenes…but the decision was made. They felt that they had to do that, so I said goodbye,” the director told Film Comment. “I left the picture after my second cut. We’d already had two very, very good previews. I don’t think I’ve even looked at the release print. I do have a cut of my own on DVD. It isn’t absolutely complete, but I think it could have been a far, far better film.”
Well, that’s certainly a film that we’d like to see! Though he apparently has a few productions in development, George Armitage (per a 2015 interview with Film Comment) has largely been working as a script doctor (“I’m able to help people who think their picture should be made for $30 million but have only $25 million, I show them how to do that”) since the creative and box office failure of The Big Bounce. If anyone deserves much, much better than that, it’s the truly unsung George Armitage. In a perfect world, this imaginative, highly original master of tonal shift and dark comedy would be making a film every year…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.