• Cold Turkey

    Released by: Olive Films
    Release date: May 29, 2018
    Directed by: Norman Lear
    Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Pippa Scott, Bob Newhart, Tom Poston, Bernard Hughes, Edward Everett Horton, Graham Jarvis, Vincent Gardenia, Jean Stapleton, Paul Benedict, M. Emmett Walsh
    Year: 1971
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    Executives at the Valiant Tobacco Company hatch a scheme to paint Big Tobacco as an altruistic industry in the minds of the American public. Their plan is to offer $25 million tax free to any U.S. town that stops smoking “Cold Turkey” for thirty consecutive days. In truth, though, they’re counting on their product being so horribly addictive that, assuming they get an entire town to quit in the first place, the participants won’t abstain long enough to collect the prize.

    Thanks to the superhuman efforts of Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke), the populace of economically depressed Eagle Creek, Iowa (population: 4,006) accepts Valiant’s challenge. Evil advertising executive Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart) shows up and slinks around the town, doing what he can to make certain that the reward is never collected. Alleged hilarity ensures.

    Cold Turkey was obviously put together before writer/producer/director Norman Lear had fully formed the neoliberal sensibility that infused his mostly brilliant TV work (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Maude, The Jeffersons, and close to 20 other series). The film wants to be a dark satire, but it’s too weighed down with dumb, dull, Mad Magazine-esque humor: broad, obvious, and devoid of wit. A certain famous network newscaster, for instance, is lampooned as “Walter Chronic.” Other ‘60s/’70s journalistic celebrities given the “zany name” treatment include Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (“David Chetley”), Hugh Downs (“Hugh Upson”), and Paul Harvey (“Paul Hardly”). For what it’s worth, Weird Al would have done a better, smarter job of it.

    The townspeople fare no better—Eagle Rock’s residents aren’t shitkickers so much as caricatures of shitkickers. Their ranks include a civic group that presages today’s Tea Party, a surgeon who can’t perform his job without firing up a smoke to relax, and a feisty old woman whom we know is feisty because every fifth word out of her mouth is “bullshit.” This all might have somehow worked had Lear shown an understanding of the difference between a concept and a plot, but that didn’t happen this time out. The result is an hour-and-forty-some-minutes of rambling crap, wrapped up with an ending both implausible and needlessly sour.

    Above all, Cold Turkey is an unforgivable waste of acting talent. Dick Van Dyke nearly, but not quite, sparks some humor as a minister who takes up smoking so he can quit in solidarity with his flock, then wears out his long-suffering wife, Natalie (Pippa Scott), by replacing nicotine with frequent nookie. Sadly, he joins about half the film’s performers in being miscast. The worst example is the use of dry, lovable Bob Newhart as Merwin Wren. As noted above, Wren is supposed to be evil. Newhart simply isn’t, and watching him try to be is embarrassing.

    The movie was completed in 1969 but put on the shelf due to MGM’s quite valid concerns about its quality. It opened at last in ’71 to surprisingly decent reviews and made the then-equivalent of about $35 million.

    Composer/performer Randy Newman, fresh off his first album, provided much of the film’s soundtrack music, and it is believed by those who document such things to be the first American film to contain an audible fart (the only, um, dialogue--if talking out one's ass can be considered dialogue--given to the Edward Everett Horton character, an ancient, mute, wheelchair-bound tobacco tycoon). If true, that toot would predate Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles’ infamous campfire scene by 3 to 5 years (depending on which year you want to assign to Lear’s film).


    Olive brings Cold Turkey to Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition. The film is presented in its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 on a BD25, locked to Region A. The transfer is so-so, with a moderate amount of detail in facial closeups but with most of the film looking only slightly better than a standard DVD. Some reviewers have complained about the dirt, debris, and speckling, but those add to rather than detract from the filmic look; regardless, the original elements used for the presentation leave something to be desired. For the most part, the image is soft (not waxy, thankfully; an overapplication of DNR does not appear to be the problem), and colors appear healthy but not vibrant. It’s doubtful the film was ever intended to look surreal in its color usage (this is, after all, a film shot in the late ‘60s and not released until the early ‘70s)--no doubt realism was the aim--but reds, blues, and greens could be stronger.

    The sound is considerably better. Presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, there is no hiss, dropout, pops or crackles, or anything else one associates with a poor sound presentation. Dialogue is clear, and sound effects are strong. There’s surprising depth, and the balance is solid. For people with hearing impairments or who simply like to ‘read’ their films, optional English subtitles are provided. Strangely, they don’t appear to have been given a solid check against the actual dialogue, as there is more than the usual variance between the two.

    There are no extras.

    The Final Word:

    Cold Turkey is a turkey of a film, and the Blu presentation fares only marginally better. A decent transfer from middling elements and a serious lack of extras should relegate it to a cheaper price and the dump bin (if those still existed anywhere but Walmart) in fairly quick order.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2019.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!