The Thing With Two Heads (1972)
If there was one film I had to watch this year, the Thing With Two Heads was it. Truly dedicated readers will recognize that I had actually included the drive-in radio ad for Thing… in last year’s mix tape. Spend a year listening to “Rosey” Grier say, “And I could tell he’s a bigot” a thousand times, and you’ll quickly be converted. Even if the film wasn’t any good, it had at least one excellent line. And it stars Ray Milland!
Milland plays Maxwell Kirshner, the world’s preeminent transplant specialist. Was the world’s preeminent transplant specialist, as he’s now wheelchair bound with a crippling case of arthritis, along with a terminal case of chest cancer. Driven by a desperate desire to keep his genius alive, Kirshner performs his masterstroke: a complete head transplant.
Kirshner is also a unrepentant racist.
Grafting the head of an ape onto the body of an existing ape, giving them a month to acclimate to each other, then amputating the body’s original head. Excited over the success, Kirshner sends out a bulletin through all the prisons: donate your body to science for a month, and die knowing the last thing you did benefitted the human race.
Enter “Rosey” Grier, as Jack Moss, an inmate on death row who takes Kirshner’s deal at the last moment to buy his girlfriend more time to prove he’s innocent. Naturally, no one on Kirshner’s crack staff of doctors feels it prudent to warn either Jack, or Kirshner himself, that Mr. Moss is black. You might chalk such an oversight up to a flawed script. Though I prefer to think that Kirshner’s doctors knew what would happen, and chose to go against the intolerant doctor’s wishes on purpose.
For the plain and simple fact that they knew, knew, that such a transgression would allow the Thing With Two Heads to transcend its Awful Dr. Orlof lineage, and become the greatest episode of CHiPS never filmed. The doctors rationalize that he had no other volunteers, was in a terminal coma, had only one day left on life support, blah blah blah. All excuses, and both parties know it. This would be their last chance to take revenge on the overbearing prick, and they took it!
The chase scene is the Thing…’s highpoint. Kirshner and Jack kidnap Dr. Williams (Don Marshall) (Kirshner’s only black staff member, as he was hired by phone interview, and summarily dismissed when Kirshner found out the truth.), and get chased by the cops through the Hollywood Hills.
All the ’70s car chase standards are met. Cop leaning out the window to shoot out tires? Check. Wah-wah funk soundtrack backing the action? Check. A helicopter that aids the search, carrying a cop with a sniper rifle? Check. Dr. Williams, Kirshner, and Jack hopping a ride on a dirt bike to escape pursuit? CHECK!!!
And just when you thought the film couldn’t go any further over the top, a squad car takes to the race track! If all that hasn’t convinced you of this film’s cinematic importance, maybe I should mention that many of the humorous car crashes that would grace the Smokey and the Bandit franchise got their test runs here. If you loved Interstate ’76 back in the day, you’ll love this movie.
Not to mention when it gets racy! Jack/Kirshner visit Jack’s girlfriend, Lila (Chelsea Brown), to hide out. Jack wants some loving, but Lila will have none of it while Kirshner’s head still adorns Jack’s shoulder. So Jack offers to compromise with the old, “we’ll just throw a bag over his head!” joke.
Rosey Grier really deserved an Oscar for this role. His portrayal of the helpless Jack, after Max has taken control of the body, is brilliant. Doing a more convincing job at selling the idea of two brains controlling one body then most Hollywood “actors” do when they’re only trying to sell one character.
Lila convincing Dr. Williams of Jack’s innocence, the film ends with the amputation of Kirshner’s head. Lila, Jack, and Williams leave singing “Oh Happy Day,” while Kirshner’s head is left lying on the operation table, crying for “a new body.”