The name Roger Corman does not immediately strike an elevated chord among cinéastes. It should. In a career beginning in the mid-1950s as director-producer of microbudget drive-in movies and extending into today, Corman, now 85, is perhaps the most exemplary example of a one-man band in the history of American independent film.
Because Hollywood in the '50s and '60s was essentially a closed shop to emerging filmmaking talent, and because Corman kept his payrolls painfully low, he was able to start up the careers of a dizzying roster of filmmakers who might otherwise never have set foot inside Hollywood's precincts. A sample list includes Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert De Niro, Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, and William Shatner. As a distributor, he was also responsible for bringing out films by directors like Federico Fellini ("Amarcord") and Ingmar Bergman ("Cries and Whispers") when the major studios were wary. (Bergman was said to have relished the idea of his movies playing in drive-ins.)
Alex Stapleton's documentary "Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel" has an archival, cobbled-together quality not unlike some of Corman's own productions. Some of the interviews with and about Corman reach back many decades, contrasting with wayward footage of Corman on the set of 2010's "Dinoshark" or being honored that same year with a lifetime achievement Oscar. Some of the interviewee omissions are glaring. I would like to have heard from Coppola or Cameron or Towne, for example.
But there's plenty of fascinating movie lore on display here from those who did participate (or from archival footage). Scorsese, who directed his second feature film, "Boxcar Bertha," a kind of hillbilly knock-off of "Bonnie and Clyde," for Corman's company in 1972, recounts an anecdote I always thought was apocryphal: As a follow-up to "Boxcar Bertha," Scorsese presented Corman with the script for "Mean Streets," which he offered to finance if Scorsese would make one change – instead of being about Italian-Americans, make it about blacks. (This was at the height of the blaxploitation movie craze.) Scorsese, after mulling it over, politely declined.
Corman's astonishing output of hundreds of movies, with such titles as "Monster From the Ocean Floor," "It Conquered the World," "Viking Women and the Sea Serpent," "She Gods of Shark Reef," and "The Wild Angels," included the occasional film with enduring merit. A standout of his '60s Edgar Allan Poe series was "The Tomb of Ligeia," written by Towne. "The Intruder," just about the only Corman-directed movie that didn't fit the usual exploitation template, starred Shatner in a powerful Southern civil rights drama. (It was Corman's only financial flop. Had it succeeded, his career might have taken a different course.) Besides the 1960 "Little Shop of Horrors," one of the favorite Corman movies not excerpted in this documentary, is "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes," a spooky little gem starring Ray Milland as a scientist who can see through things and Don Rickles, in a chilling cameo, as a carny huckster.
Corman acknowledges in the film that his way of making movies took a hit when "Jaws" and "Star Wars" came out. "I saw 'Star Wars,' " he says, "and I thought this a threat to me. The major studios are doing for a million dollars what we are doing for a hundred thousand. It will be very difficult for us to compete."
He was right. But Corman, even now, sticks to his formula, even if the films he produces (he no longer directs) are only straight-to-video jobs like "Dinoshark."
The funniest thing about Corman – it's a joke he's in on – is the disparity between the movies he makes and the precise, polite, almost scholarly demeanor he projects. Scorsese summed it up: "You expect to see a Lee J. Cobb-type smoking a cigar and pounding the desk." No doubt if Corman smoked cigars, they would be stogies and not premium blend. Grade: B (Rated R for some violent images, nudity, and language.)