LIVE A LITTLE, STEAL A LOT (MURPH THE SURF)
Color, 1977, 88m
Directed by Eddie Romero
Starring Robert Conrad, Don Stroud, Felton Perry, John Ashley, Nancy Conrad
Color, 1975, 101m.
Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky
Starring Robert Conrad, Don Stroud, Donna Mills, Robyn Millan, Paul Stewart, Morgan Paull, Burt Young
Inception Media Group (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
LIVE A LITTLE, STEAL A LOT (MURPH THE SURF)
Legendary for driving TV censors into fits with his wardrobe choices on the classic show The Wild Wild West, Robert Conrad isn't really known as a movie star. Granted, his occasional big screen career had a few highlights, most notably his turn as John Dillinger in the Roger Corman favorite The Lady in Red, but a few years earlier he also appeared in a pair of exotic action films designed to fall somewhere between the family-friendly violence of James Bond and the sadistic excesses of Dirty Harry. Both became regular TV and VHS mainstays, though in the DVD age they became far more difficult to see until this double feature release.
First up is 1977's bloody, foul-mouthed Sudden Death, one of the many, many exploitation films churned out in the Philippines from director Eddie Romero. In fact, this turned out to be the last stab at a big international production for Romero, who also gave the world The Twilight People, Savage Sisters, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, and many others, before settling back into local filmmaking. Things start off with a bang as an afternoon barbecue for a couple and their two young sons turns bloody in a hail of bullets. The father, an American businessman named Nielson, manages to survive and is approached by a sleazy, moustached agent (Ashley, weirdly dubbed) who offers to take care of the situation. Instead Nielson goes off to mercenary buddy Duke Smith (Conrad), who prefers to lounge around in a hammock by the beach with his lady friend but changes his mind when Nielson gets blown to bits. Back in business, Duke teams up with his friend Wyatt (RoboCop's Perry) and manages to beat up and intimidate enough people to trace the criminal ring to a foundation in Texas run by ruthless businessmen trying to drain the region dry. However, these unscrupulous millionaires get wind of Duke's snooping and fly in a Dominic Digaldo (Stroud), a smirking assassin in a white suit with a personal grudge against Duke.
Grimy, brutal, and wildly entertaining, Sudden Death is prime '70s drive-in trash in the best sense. The opening scene is astonishing enough, complete with a couple of tykes getting riddled with bullets next to the family pool, but the surprises just keep on coming. A few highlights: shootings, stabbings, beatings, a German child molester with a gun-toting Filipino boy toy named Alfred, and dialogue like "You want poppy?" "You mean pussy, lady, and I wouldn't touch it with your husband's thang!" Of course, the real highlight here is seeing Conrad paired up with the scene-stealing Stroud, whom he first appeared with in the 1971 made-for-TV movie D.A.: Conspiracy to Kill. A fun screen presence from films like Bloody Mama, Death Weekend, and Coogan's Bluff (before he went on to look baffled as a priest opposite Rod Steiger in The Amityville Horror), Stroud enters the film well past the halfway point but gives it a huge injection of energy, strutting around in the highest hat you've ever seen and duking it out with Conrad in an ice plant for the lively (and surprisingly gory) finale. There's even a sick twist ending, too.
Released two years earlier but included second in this set is Live a Little, Steal a Lot, a retitling of the fact-based caper film Murph the Surf. Conrad and Stroud team up again under much more amicable circumstances along with director Marvin Chomsky, another Wild Wild West alum. Made by American International Pictures but strangely absent from their catalog after a few years in circulation, it's based on the antics of the daring robbery team of Allan Kuhn (Conrad) and Jack Murphy (Stroud), who managed to pull off one of the biggest heists in American history when they swiped the Star of India and other jewels from the J.P. Morgan collection in the American Museum of Natural History. The good-natured Murphy also hits it off with blonde beach girl Ginny (Mills), and though the actual job goes off successfully, they find their troubles are just beginning.
A sunny, often humorous caper film, this is much lighter fare than the first feature and even sports a PG rating, though bear in mind that's from the MPAA of the '70s when you could still get some profanity and nudity in there without sending sensitive parents into a frenzy. Along with TV regular Mills, keep an eye out in the cast for a pre-Rocky Burt Young as one of the cops, and the slick cinematography was handled by Michel Hugo in between his work on Bug and The Manitou. (No, really!) There's also a wonderfully moody, funky music score by Phillip Lambro, which became something of a soundtrack cult favorite in the early '00s. Interestingly, the real Murphy served as a consultant on the film and even went on to become a real-life minister working with inmates!
As mentioned earlier, both films appeared as low-profile VHS releases but have been very difficult to see since, with Murph the Surf getting a handful of very mediocre import DVDs from Sweden and Spain and a really terrible 2003 American gray market edition. The actual print used here has the original title (it's only referred to as Live a Little, Steal a Lot on the packaging), and though imperfect, it's much better than what we've had to put up with in the past. Now, time to get a little technical... Both films are presented in anamorphic widescreen at 1.85:1 and spread out to just under 8GB of the dual-layered DVD, so there's enough breathing room for the pair. Both are interlaced, so be sure to force deinterlacing on these if you can; otherwise you'll probably see a little frame jumping when the camera pans or zooms. The compositions on both look correct throughout, and overall Sudden Death seems to be in slightly better shape; the audio on Murph the Surf, while again an improvement, isn't the most dynamic and has a couple of brief flare ups of audio distortion (including a fleeting but strange one in the opening scene). It's definitely nice to have both of these often overlooked slices of '70s action and crime back in circulation, and for Conrad fans this should be a no brainer.