Wild Guitar (1962)

At times the marriage between the Arch Halls and Ray Dennis Steckler seems to have been a bit rocky. This movie may rank as Ray’s most `coherent,’ (or least experimental) because of the heavy hand of Arch Sr. as producer, or because of Steckler’s insecurity, or Arch Jr.’s need for more guidance, or some combination of all three. Arch Jr.’s frustration shows through in certain scenes, such as the one in which he plays opposite the criminal `lemon grove kids’ and seems to be asking `what, am I supposed to direct this thing myself?’ It’s too bad, because everyone here does some of their best work, but never in unison with what anyone else is doing.

Arch Jr. never wanted to be in show biz – that was his dad’s idea. It turned out that, while he didn’t sing or write music especially well, he actually did have a talent for acting (as proven in `the Sadist’), but the roles his dad lined up for him were a poor school for a young actor. `Wild Guitar’ may have been one of his best opportunities – he plays a young kid who winds up manipulated into being a star by a devious producer played by: his dad! One of the reasons this movie manages to ring true in spite of its campiness and naivete (and typical Steckler ad-libbing) is because Arch Jr. as Bud is truly playing himself. The fact that the world in which he moves is bizarre and unreal just makes the real part of the story – Arch himself – seem that much more compelling.

Ray Dennis Steckler, who later went on to direct such classics of surrealism as `Rat Fink a Boo Boo’ and `The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Died and Became Mixed-Up Zombies’ was obviously kept on a leash for this film, but not so much that he didn’t manage to sap it of the kind of drive-in sensibility that characterized `Eegah’ and `The Choppers.’ He plays a typically Steckleresque character in `Steak:’ a psychopathic thug employed by the villainous producer who only eats Steak. Steckler sneers so much in this film his face must’ve hurt at the end of each shooting day. I’m still not sure whether Harvey Keitel’s character in `Mean Streets’ was consciously imitating him with the `match trick’ or not, but Steckler did it first. Other Steckler influences include the above-mentioned criminals, whose grasp of English and crime are equally weak, the extended Carolyn Brandt dance-sequence and the leggy `Daisy,’ brought in by Steak to help Bud forget his girl troubles.

Less easy to place is the responsibility for the quite convincingly sweet (and noticeably cross-eyed) love-interest, Vickie Wills, portrayed by the obscure Nancy Czar. Nancy must have been an Olympic skater, because the main `love scene’ of the movie is an extended skating sequence, with Arch Jr. hobbling helplessly along as Nancy literally skates circles around him. Nancy never worked for Steckler again, but was in the painful `What’s Up Front’ with Arch Sr., so may have been a friend of the Halls. I think the young couple manages more chemistry than we see in any other Arch Hall film, with the possible exception of the demented `Sadist’ and his gal.

`Wild Guitar’ is a must-see for fans of classic low-budget `naïve cinema.’ While it never plumbs the incoherent depths of Steckler’s later work, nor soars to the heights of the best films of the period, it manages to hold interest, to entertain, and at times to surprise with its fresh and honest approach to filmmaking. It manages to flip back and forth from startlingly `bad’ to rather `good’ and doesn’t make the mistake of laughing at its audience when it should be laughing at itself. On the whole, a very enjoyable film – for the right people.