Rat Fink

Director: James Landis
Schuyler Haden, Hal Bokar, Judy Hughes, Warrene Ott

It seems to get anywhere in life takes a great deal of effort, save for death - you are able to sit back and do absolutely nothing at all for you to reach that goal, though it may take longer than you might think. Anyway, you can probably think back on your life and recall all the many different major goals you managed to reach, though with each and every goal you probably had to work extremely hard to get there. When you were learning to walk as a toddler, you probably along the way embarrassed yourself just as much as if you were to fall down on your butt. Then later when you started school, as you were learning essential skills of life, there were times when people would ask you, "What's the matter - can't you count/spell?" before you felt reasonably comfortable with putting those skills to practice. But possibly the goal that you considered an endgame before you even started to make serious plans to eventually plan and succeed at reaching it is a career. I can tell you that my career path was crazy for a number of years. I had a number of jobs at first, jobs that at their best only lasted a few years. And some of those jobs weren't very prestigious; at my lowest point, I was working at used book stores or thrift stores. But I didn't give up - somehow in the back of my mind, I knew that if I worked hard and never gave up, someday I would land a great job. Over the next years I had several jobs, but each one became more prestigious than the previous one. The experience I got from my hard work at those past jobs eventually got me my present job, which would be a dream job for some. Yes, I would much prefer to be a full-time (and richly paid) movie critic, but at the same time I know that I have a job that many people would kill for, so I am quite satisfied.

Though my movie criticism may just be a hobby I do when I am not working at the job where I get a salary, through it I have not only learned a lot of neat things about movies, I have also learned from these movies (and literature about movies) that I was probably very lucky not to try my hand in the world of showbiz. I'm not just taking about the motion picture industry, but in other showbiz roles where you would in one way or another be considered an entertainer for the masses. Why do I feel that way despite my great love of one particular side of showbiz? Well, I have seen and heard a great deal that show you've got to work really hard in that industry. Just to enter the industry, you face a great deal of competition from other star-struck individuals, and you somehow have to rise prominently out of the pack. And even then, getting any showbiz role isn't a sure thing - having really good luck seems to play a part too, since many talented people never get far in the industry. As well, you might have to do some things against your morals if you want to step up on the showbiz ladder. Would you be willing to go for the "casting couch" angle if it were offered to you? (Since I know movie executives are all hot women in their 20s, I'd say YES!) All kidding aside, if you somehow manage to prove yourself and become popular with the public, your hard work has not ended. In fact, you'd have to work a lot harder. You may have to spend an ungodly amount of time in a studio to get product done. You might be exposed to illegal narcotics. You'd have to struggle to keep your finances and expenses in check. You would also have to be very careful of your image to the public, since there's little chance that you'd get a reasonable amount of privacy.

The question that inevitably comes up is: What would you be willing to do to keep your showbiz career flourishing so you won't find yourself abandoned by the showbiz industry? I'm not sure how far I would go, except I'd try desperately to keep obeying laws and keeping up a good appearance. Rat FinkBut there are definitely those who would go a lot further to keep their showbiz position, enough that there have been movies about characters with that cold determination. One such movie was the 1966 camp classic The Oscar, where actor Stephen Boyd played a Hollywood actor named Frank "Frankie" Fane. In the course of the movie, Frank did so many outrageous and unethical things to get to be a superstar - and to keep that role - that I (and many others) had to just laugh at what utter gall and dirty-dealing came from this guy. The ending where he got his comeuppance was the cherry on the cake. But a year before The Oscar, the movie Rat Fink was released, and while it wasn't about a big-time actor - instead a big-time musician - it promised to be another exercise in showing that some people will do anything for fame and to keep it. Actually, since this earlier movie was a low-budget independent production, my enthusiasm at first wasn't extremely big. But research I did uncovered the news was that after its release to theaters, it was completely lost for over fifty years before someone stumbled upon a sole surviving print. My interest was piqued, so I decided to sit down and watch it. Who knows, I thought, it might have some amusing features. But almost right from the start of the movie, I started to become more and more interested in what I was seeing. Then just before the twenty-minute mark, something happened in the movie that had me think, "HOLY COW! I've GOT to tell my readers about this movie!"

What, you may be asking, happened in the movie at that moment? Well, before I tell you, I will admit that no other moment in Rat Fink had my jaw drop as much as that particular moment... but there were a number of those moments that got very close to the impact of that big scene. Also, I feel I need to first illustrate what happens in the movie before that big moment so you can get a better feel of the movie. Don't worry, it won't take long to get to that big moment, and it will be worth the short wait. Trust me. Let me get into the movie now...

Rat Fink starts by introducing us to its main character, Lonnie Price (Schuyler Hayden, also the movie's producer), a drifter of sorts walking down the train tracks somewhere in the American southwest, eventually hopping into an empty boxcar of a passing train. Instantly there is a quite bleak feeling, continuing as the opening credits are displayed. The credits song (Lonnie's Theme) is effectively somber and low, and the black and white photography is extremely striking and makes us feel the desolation and isolation. No surprise from that photography, because it's done by a pre-fame Vilmos Zsigmond (The Sadist), who went on to be a cinematographer major Hollywood studio productions, winning an Oscar for his cinematography for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The credits also list James Landis, who directed the previously mentioned extremely effective movie The Sadist, as both the screenwriter and the director. Now you may understand why already my interest was going up. When the train stops, Lonnie gets off, and is chased by the railroad police in a short but very effective burst of action with the combination of Zsigmond's and Landis' respective camera skills. Lonnie gets away, and wanders into the countryside until he comes across the isolated house of one Mrs. Dunkirk (Eve Brenner). Lonnie asks her for directions, but Dunkirk sees a wound on his back, and she smiles greatly when subsequently offering Lonnie a bandage, while Lonnie has an even bigger smile when he accepts her offer. Inside, after a now shirtless Lonnie is patched up and offered a meal, Lonnie makes his move. "You know, traveling alone can be mighty lonely...", and starts pawing his hostess, who only puts up a very weak resistance for a few seconds before... dissolving to the next scene where Lonnie is in her bed and she in a robe. During breakfast, the ga-ga Mrs. Dunkirk tells Lonnie, "I'll make myself really pretty!" and goes to the bathroom to do so. But when she comes back to the kitchen, not only is Lonnie no longer around, her emptied purse is on the table. She cries, and we get the first of many clues that Lonnie may not be the nicest of guys.

(Wait, don't go away! I'm almost at that aforementioned big jaw-dropping moment! Keep reading!)

We cut then to sometime later, and now Lonnie has made his way to Hollywood. Lonnie is walking the streets when he passes the local civic auditorium. There are some girls who are crowded around and admiring the cool parked automobile of one Tommy Loomis, a rock star who is performing inside. Lonnie enters the auditorium. As he watches Tommy Loomis on stage performing to the enthralled teenybopper audience, a strange look gets on Lonnie's face, and here and many subsequent times before the ending of the movie, he looks remarkably like a young cousin of another Tommy - Tommy Lee Jones. As he watches, he passes by one Paul Finlay (Hal Bokar, The Wild Angels), and from his dialogue with the auditorium's manager, we learn Finlay is the manager of Tommy Loomis. While Lonnie stays silent, we see on his face that he gets an idea. Later, when the show is over, Tommy Loomis exits the auditorium, fighting off loads of screaming and squealing female teenagers wanting an autograph and much more. Tommy manages to break through the immense crowd and enters his car. Before he can start the engine, he says out loud with confusion, "It smells like gasoline," and then...

...Lonnie, mixed in the big and heavy crowd around Tommy's car, quickly lights a match and throws it into Tommy's car's interior.

What happens next can be paraphrased from a quote from another famous rock musician: Goodness gracious, great ball of fire! The car interior lights up with huge flames, and Tommy is caught in them. He starts screaming with pain, but somehow manages to get out of the car and run around the parking lot while engulfed in flames, while the very close by mass of teenyboppers continue screaming (though now for another reason.) After a lot more screaming and running around while on fire, the flames burning him are finally extinguished. Tommy is still alive, but by those visible burn marks, he is certainly in no shape to play another engagement any time soon. Lonnie looks on all this while being silent and stone-faced.

Now, do you see why Rat Fink already is a keeper? Do yourself a favor now and stop reading this review, and watch the movie immediately to see that scene and the additional surprising delights that the movie will subsequently offer.

...What's that? Some of you aren't willing yet to buy a copy of this movie right now? You need extra convincing? Very well, let me now list a number of moments that subsequently follow the literal critical roasting that Tommy got:

  • After later that evening hearing on the radio that Tommy will never sing again, Lonnie exacts the rest of his complex scheme to be the next big rock star. What does he do? Well, he walks into a pawn shop to buy an acoustic guitar... then walks straight to Paul Finlay's office and asks Finlay's secretary if he can see Finlay. Yeah, that it. Well, the secretary asks if he has an appointment, but Lonnie spouts some bullcrap to the secretary that Finlay once promised he would listen to Lonnie if Lonnie came to Hollywood. The secretary is instantly convinced enough, and lets Lonnie into Finlay's office. Finlay, upon talking to the lying Lonnie, states that he knows he never met Lonnie... but what the hell, apparently, since Tommy is obviously no longer a viable meal ticket to Finlay. "All right," he says to Lonnie, "let's see what you can do." But before Lonnie can show the unremarkably unsavvy Finlay what musical talents he has... we cut to the next scene.
  • But Lonnie's musical talents apparently were good, since Finlay takes him on, and immediately records his first single My Soul Runs Naked. It's a typical sixties syrupy ballad, but it's not bad for what it is, and actor Haden does have the pipes for singing. It doesn't take long in the subsequent montage for Lonnie's single to hit #39 on the chart, one position ahead of Jan and Dean's New Girl In School. After some more montaging, the single climbs to #24, one position ahead of Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve. I'm not sure what the repeated use of Lonnie being ahead of Jan and Dean means, but it's got to mean something, I think. Also, I wonder how Jan and Dean would have reacted in real life to the news that a sociopath bested the two of them on the top 40 chart for at least two weeks.
  • Lonnie continues to gain publicity and fortune. He decides to celebrate by throwing a party at his pad. "No dogs!" he orders a party organizing friend that we haven't met or heard of before. At the party, while everyone is dancing, Lonnie (in the same room) is lying on the floor and making out with Miss Iceland 1962. Finlay comes in with his young wife Vera (Warrene Ott). Lonnie asks Vera for a slow dance, and while they are dancing, he starts to in a very crude way to put the moves on the understandably repulsed Vera while Finlay is just a few feet away. Well, it is kind of loud at the party...
  • As Lonnie's fame continues to grow, he starts to get a little resentful towards his manager Finlay. That might be because Finlay's charges for his services fifty percent of everything Lonnie earns. "I'm not complaining," says Finlay when he confirms to Lonnie that he's somehow not a millionaire by now. (BTW, my research revealed that artist managers usually don't charge more than twenty percent of what one of their clients make.)
  • Lonnie, still resentful of Finlay's money sucking, gets drunk one night while Finlay is out of town, and drives to Finlay's home, where Finlay's wife Vera is. Already wary of him, it doesn't take long for Lonnie to seriously p*ss her off. "You have an awfully fat ego!" she shouts, then soon after yells, "I'll give you just five minutes to get out of my house!" Huh? Her house isn't that big! Anyway, she storms upstairs to her bedroom, and in short notice Lonnie follows her there. Naturally she's more upset now, but in even shorter notice, Lonnie throws her on the bed, and we are then treated to a short montage of close-ups of Vera's hands and her agonized face. Yes, Lonnie rapes his manager's wife! Curiously, afterwards, her clothes don't seem the least torn or dishevled, and the only thing not intact on Lonnie is his partially loosened tie and the top button on his shirt (which he's wearing under his crisp and unwrinkled jacket) being undone. Regardless, Vera is so upset that she charges Lonnie with a knife in her hand, but Lonnie wrestles with her and pushes her down the stairs, which kills her. Well, as they allude to in the world of rock and roll, it can be a steep downwards staircase to hell for some participants.
  • Oh, in case you are wondering... in the next scene, Lonnie is at a different location sometime later with Finlay, who is (somewhat) stunned by the death of his wife. No word, however, if her death is being handled as a homicide by the police or not. In fact, after this scene, Vera is never mentioned in any way again!
  • Earlier in the movie, there was a short subplot about Lonnie meeting with a young teenybopper named Betty (Judy Hughes), whom he subsequently invited to her home to swim with him in his pool... and do something else after the movie suddenly cuts to the next scene when Lonnie is starting to remove her bathing suit. While having a break while shooting a movie at a studio, Lonnie finds Betty in his dressing room. How did she get by security? For that matter, how did she know not only the particular movie studio lot where Lonnie was working, but the exact soundstage on the lot? Anyway, you can guess what Betty tells Lonnie... that being she's annoyed by the high membership fee of being a member of the national Lonnie Price Fan Club. Just kidding, but actually, she did pay a big price for being such a fan of Lonnie: "I'm going to have a baby!" she cries. (Wow, this movie not only has "regular" rape, but statutory rape too! Something for everyone!) Lonnie tries a variation of the old and usually reliable, "If you did it with me, you must have done it with other guys," routine, though when you think about it deeply, that routine backfires on the guy because it has him basically admit that he is just interested in sleeping with women who sleep with many guys! Getting back to the movie, Lonnie is foiled when Betty tells him that he is the only man she's ever slept with. Lonnie thinks fast and tells Betty that he'll take care of it for her. What does he do? Well...
  • ...what Lonnie does is send Betty to the neighborhood veterinarian. After all, when your golden retriever get pregnant after a romp with the local stray dog, you can get rid of the unborn puppies that way, right? As it turns out, the veterinarian's office has a room to provide abortions for female humans, which is right against a very narrow hallway where there are dozens of cages of dogs, owls, monkeys, and other animals making a very loud ruckus. Not very sanitary... but hey, scientists say that pets can reduce a person's blood pressure and stress. When Betty is taken in the room to be prepped, she is told twice to take her clothes off, which unnerves her. Hey, Betty, you had no problems earlier taking off your clothes for Lonnie! In fact, the abortionist's assistant impatiently snaps at Better that, "You girls are all alike. You're never bashful about having your affairs, just when you come here." Customer service isn't what it used to be. A few seconds later, the chief abortionist walks into the abortion room... carrying a dog. From Betty's reaction to that sight, it seems that the idea of using a dog as a tool for abortion (and/or a device to get rid of any sign of the bloody aftermath) really freaks her out, and she gets out of there like a bat out of hell. Catching and consoling her, now Lonnie has to think of some other way to get out of his potentially damaging predicament. Again, what does he do? Well...

...well, wait a minute. I think I have really illustrated by now why Rat Fink is a bonafide A+ and four star classic drive-in movie that not only really deserves your immediate attention, but also more than deserves a big cult as well. Also, I really don't want to tell everything about it so that you'll then have no interest in seeking out a way to watch it. Though I have written a lot of words about this movie to make you want to watch it, I think by now that you know a movie like this can be summed up by just one word - superfantasticamazing. As I kind of said years ago about the movie The Sweeper, I have done my duty to not only watch this movie, but to tell about it to all of my readers. So do your duty to watch it, and then subsequently, with great enthusiasm, tell your friends about it, so a mighty oak can grow from this presently little neglected seed.

(Posted July 23, 2022)

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See also: Malbu High, The Sadist, Your Three Minutes Are Up