Arizona Son: The Cardone Files — A Row of Crows (1991)

In the first instalment of a very special series, Dave explores the work of indie maverick J.S. Cardone in conjunction with the man himself.

Writing in The Guardian about J.S. Cardone’s blood-soaked vampire flick The Forsaken (2001), Andrew Pulver concluded that:

“Cardone is so concerned with recording the dusty Arizona landscape and picturesque motel America that has been chosen as the movie’s seemingly arbitrary backdrop, that its narrative and character become an increasingly perfunctory add-on.” [1]

Wayward critique aside, there’s a degree of irony to be found in describing Arizona as an ‘arbitrary backdrop’, as a decade prior to The Forsaken launching in an impressive fifteen-hundred cinemas across America, Cardone had spent a few months hunkered down in Yuma and was about to release the first chapter in his Arizona crime trilogy.

Much like Pittsburgh defines the bulk of George A. Romero’s legacy, or Baltimore epitomises the quirks of John Waters, The Grand Canyon State is central to appreciating the work of Joe Cardone. He has a home in the mountains to the north, while it’s the barren humidity of the southern region that acts as a canvas for the filmmaker, with cities like Somerton and San Luis providing the ideal setting for his finely crafted tales of murder and deception.  

Born in Pasadena, it was a college romance in the ‘60s that first led Cardone to the south; a romance that’s lasted to this very day.

“I was not from the Southwest,” explains Cardone. “However, my wife Carol is. She was raised in Yuma, Arizona. I went down there a few times when I was getting to know her, and I fell in love with that desolate landscape. It sat there, and it stuck in the back of my mind for quite some time.”

When the acclaimed playwright Lonne Elder took Cardone under his wing in the ‘70s, one of the most pertinent pieces of advice he imparted was the following:

“To be a successful screenwriter, you have to identify what you like, and then you have to understand why you like it.”

For this, it was just a case of Cardone regressing back to a childhood that was defined by Nightmare Alley (1947), A Touch of Evil (1958), and the directorial guile of Ida Lupino.

“Contrary to Hollywood ‘A’ films, the ‘B’ picture allowed you to tell a very gritty story. A basic plot and real characters that weren’t designed by Hollywood screenwriters – of which I am one [laughs], but you understand where I’m going with this. There was a lot more freedom in that type of film, and they were so attractive to me as a kid. Given a choice, back in my day, it was a double-feature, and I always enjoyed the second feature more. That type of story always intrigued me, and once I’d found my way into that desolate desert landscape, it seemed like a perfect place to drop in any kind of characters and develop a narrative from that. There was nothing that could get in your way.”

Life in America’s sixth largest state didn’t start so subtly. In the wake of The Slayer (1982), Cardone’s censor-baiting debut, Golan-Globus bankrolled his life-affirming sophomore picture Thunder Alley (1985), which made good use of a vibrant Tucson. After a brief dalliance with Charles Band [2], Cardone returned to the land of his creative inspiration for A ROW OF CROWS (1991), which is arguably the peak of a career that contains a relentless number of highs.

“Full Moon came about because Charlie approached me to do a rewrite on Puppet Master (1989),” recalls the filmmaker. “That was a lot of fun because Jim Gianopolus, the former head of Paramount Home Video, was running that show and distributing all of Charlie’s films. It was great for people like Stuart Gordon and I. Anyway, I got a phone call out of the blue from Steve Gollin at Propaganda Films, and he said he’d read a script of mine called A Row of Crows and he really liked it and wanted to make it. I was elated. I was with ICM at the time, and they weren’t doing anything with it. They didn’t see it as a possible studio film. But yeah, that was how the whole gambit of what you call the ‘Arizona Crime Trilogy’ began. I stayed with it because I really did have fun.”

Kyle Shipp (John Beck) isn’t so much a loose cannon as more of an old gun. He’s a local lawman who has his own methods, and he’s content in cutting the occasional corner. Sheriff Elmer Waters (Tony Frank) is keen to nip this in the bud, so he pulls in the young and ambitious Paul McGraw (Steven Bauer) out of Phoenix to “observe and make recommendations”. Shipp recoils at the prospect of being tailed by a pen-pusher, but when the freshly mutilated body of a woman who’d been considered dead for sixteen years is discovered, this grizzled officer finds himself knee-deep in small town secrets, and he may well need all the help he can get.

Subtlety doesn’t gain much traction within the pages of The Schlock Pit – especially during a decade where everything was hotwired to be bigger, brasher and bolder – but it’s the art of nuance that characterizes A Row of Crows. Remember, this was five years prior to John Sayles’ elegiac masterpiece, Lone Star (1996), which would be hailed for its “unhurried conversations and artful flashbacks” as it weaved a similar tale of long-buried skeletons in a town down south. Cardone’s film, though, is a slightly different beast – and one that’s overdue a broad critical ovation.

By the turn of the millennium, the imposing frame of John Beck was a staple in Jim Wynorski flicks like Militia (2000), Crash Point Zero (2001), and Project Viper (2002); in contrast, A Row of Crows sees his Kyle Shipp at the peak of a lengthy career. A widower who has a history with the town pathologist (a brilliant Katharine Ross – “If I didn’t drink, I couldn’t do this job”), Shipp is softly spoken yet carries an air of reserved authority. He’s perhaps Cardone’s most sympathetic cop, gentler than Scott Glenn’s portrayal of John Cain in Shadowhunter (1993), and the antithesis of J.T Walsh’s nefarious Lt. Quinn from Black Day Blue Night (1995). Shipp teeters on mythic protector at times too, with Sheriff Waters complaining how “he thinks he’s Wyatt Earp. He doesn’t follow any rules because he never learned any.”

If casting had an opportunity to stumble, then it’s with the wide-eyed McGraw – but it’s a role the charismatic Bauer balances with ease. The perfect eye candy for Shipp’s single mom daughter, Elise (Mia Sara), he retains a bookish quality while spouting “it’s totally against procedure” at every available occasion. He’s the conscience of the picture, fighting a losing battle against the wily determination of his superior, yet he’s prudent enough to accept why.

Michael Cardone assumes the role of cinematographer following a second unit apprenticeship on Shadowzone (1990) and such like, and it’s clear to see why he got the nod from his brother. The vistas in the opening credits alone are beautiful, capturing the elegant and unique landscape of Arizona, set to a pitch perfect, harmonica-laden and Americana-tinged score by Robert Folks.

“Michael wasn’t trapped or limited,” adds his big brother. “He certainly understood the visual aspect of what I wanted. There’s no kidding around it; whether you like my films or not, I do believe they’re absolutely unique.”

Premiering at Worldfest in Houston, Texas in April 1991 where it won Cardone the prestigious Gold Award, A Row of Crows came to American rental stores via Fox Home Video in July under the new name, ‘A Climate for Killing’, with artwork that promised something that it certainly was not. Thankfully, the CIC Video release in the U.K. retained the film’s original title and gave it a sleeve that dispensed with the promise of an erotic thriller.

[1] Film Reviews: The Forsaken by Andrew Pulver, 7th September 2001.
[2] Cardone penned Crash and Burn (1990) and Shadowzone for Full Moon. For the former, he was originally slated to direct but didn’t; for the latter, he did direct. As for why he didn’t call the shots on Crash and Burn, he hinted to author William Wilson in an unpublished excerpt of It Came from the Video Aisle! that one experience on a Full Moon set was enough: “Charlie was a nightmare. We did something we’d never done before or since on Shadowzone: Full Moon had not paid its lab bills and other vendors along with some crew, so we withheld the negative during production.”
[3] Lone Star Review, the A.V. Club.

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