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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Film Review: CITIZEN'S BAND a.k.a. HANDLE WITH CARE (1977)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 75

CITIZEN'S BAND (a.k.a. HANDLE WITH CARE) (1977 Paramount) Starring Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Charles Napier, Roberts Blossom, Bruce McGill, Ann Wedgeworth, Alix Elias, Marcia Rodd.  Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Interstate trucker Napier (handle: Chrome Angel) has an accident while hauling cattle during a rainstorm in rural Nebraska.  His S.O.S. is answered by LeMat (handle: Spider), a local CB repairman and R.E.A.C.T. volunteer on a crusade to prevent FCC violations.  LeMat's pet peeve is frivolous use of Channel 9 (by rule reserved for emergencies like Napier's) but his do-gooding isn't limited to public causes.  He also buffers tension between his brother McGill (handle: Blood) and their aging father Blossom (handle: Papa Thermodyne) who lives with LeMat but for his cherished air time.

LeMat also learns that his former flame Clark (handle: Electra) is one of those violators he's after, and also that she is now romantically interested in McGill.  Meanwhile Napier is convalescing with prostitute Elias (handle: Hot Coffee) when he learns that he has a triangle of his own to resolve: his two wives Rodd (handle: Portland Angel) and Wedgeworth (handle: Dallas Angel) have met and they're both headed to the Cornhusker State.

HANDLE WITH CARE marked Demme's move to Paramount after three exploitation films for Roger Corman's New World.  The studio chose to misleadingly market this low-key, quirky ensemble comedy-drama as a redneck drive-in flick to cash in on the CB craze, complete with change in title to CITIZEN'S BAND.  In the year of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, this deceptive approach led to predictably disappointing box office. 

Far from a trucksploitation good ol' boy film, and really not "about" the (alternate) title fad either, HANDLE WITH CARE belongs to a different but still distinctly '70's subgenre.  Slice-of-life recognition humor with interweaving plots populated by familiar faces rather than big name stars, with the characters and stories coming together in the final act.  Every filmmaker from Altman (NASHVILLE) to Schlesinger (HONKY TONK FREEWAY) seemingly tried one, but Demme perfected it right away with help from the wry screenplay by Paul Brickman (RISKY BUSINESS).  More than a study of Citizen's Band enthusiasts, HANDLE WITH CARE explores the use of the public airwaves as escape mechanism by those whose lives could use some spicing up.

They say things on the CB they'd never dream of saying face to face, enjoying the anonymity of their handles the same way many hide behind screen names on the internet today.  Several characters figuratively have alter egos, becoming completely different people on their mics.  Out of stater Napier goes a step further than the Great Plains locals: with the assistance of his constant travel he literally leads a double life.  If HANDLE WITH CARE was remade today, the trucker would probably blame his bigamy on sex addiction and tearfully beg for forgiveness, but refreshingly the filmmakers leave all judgements up to the audience and the ladies in Napier's life.

Subtle but constant evidence abounds indicating the stronghold that CB radio has on everyone's life. Napier's accident is caused when he is distracted by a risque conversation, Blossom (almost mute away from the mic) is so engrossed in chatter that he's oblivious to his near nakedness outside, LeMat destroys private property in the name of protecting regulations, and it is routine for CB'ers to drive to the outskirts of town to converse privately.

Prototypical character actor Napier gives perhaps the film's finest performance in arguably the meatiest role of his career.  Already a Russ Meyer regular, Napier became a Demme regular, appearing in ten of the director's films, including PHILADELPHIA, SOMETHING WILD and MELVIN AND HOWARD.  In the latter Napier was joined by HANDLE WITH CARE castmate LeMat, who played the put-upon everyman to perfection in both collaborations with Demme and was rewarded with a Golden Globe for the 1980 sleeper.

HANDLE WITH CARE was sadly denied that kind of recognition, and faded from view along with the Citizen's Band radio while its makers went on to bigger and better things, but it is a genial, amusing and consistently perceptive 1970's gem.

So...why isn't this on DVD yet?

The CB theme dated the film fairly quickly, and Paramount's initial marketing campaign was misleading, with alternate title CITIZEN'S BAND meant to cash in on the then-current craze.  The alternate titles and lack of box office names didn't help the film's visibility.  Also, Paramount is known for dropping the ball on even its popular titles from this period (Exhibit A: LITTLE DARLINGS).

Why it should be on DVD:

Truly undeserving of its obscurity, HANDLE WITH CARE is a real find in Demme's canon, boasting a strong ensemble cast of well-known yet underappreciated character actors, with Napier, Blossom, Elias and LeMat all making strong contributions.

Netflix Instant may have lost a ton of films from Starz last month, but the opportunity to see otherwise rarely seen unsung classics like HANDLE WITH CARE (Netflix has it under the CITIZEN'S BAND title) is why I kept my streaming.  Well worth your queue spot.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Oh, this is definitely one that should be released to DVD -- I can't even remember the last time I watched it except it was when the USA Network still had programming other than endless Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns. It's a marvelous film, from the early part of Demme's oeuvre when his movies were quirky, personal and entertaining (I always call this the pre-Silence of the Lambs period) as hell. When the late Roberts Blossom passed on, this was the first movie that came to mind. Fantastic review, and if I had Netflix I'd revisit it in a New York minute.

Atlantic Sound Disco's Bognor Regis West Sussex Mobile DJ said...

I am in the Uk, and i have been trying to get this film on any format for years, it simply isnt available here, I too wish it was on DVD, it seems strange it isnt transferred but we will keep watching for it on Amazon.

Madman UK CB'er

Billy said...

It appears to be available for rent on You Tube for $2.99