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'Escapes' is all that and more on the adventurous life of Hampton Fancher

'Escapes' is all that and more on the adventurous life of Hampton Fancher
Michael Almereyda's "Escapes." (Grasshopper Film)

"Escapes" is as unconventional as its subject, demonstrating the charming things that can happen when a life in no way ordinary gets documented by a filmmaker most unusual.

The director in question is Michael Almereyda, a stalwart of the independent world whose credits include dramatic features like the fine "Experimenter" and Ethan Hawke's Manhattan-based contemporary "Hamlet" as well as the documentary "William Eggleston in the Real World."

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The subject of this documentary, Hampton Fancher, is more elusive and less well known, though he shouldn't be. As an actor and screenwriter he's been unexpectedly central to popular culture though he habitually lives just outside the spotlight. Almereyda, who is a friend, wants to change that.

As an actor, Fancher has been a guest star in dozens of TV shows, including 1960s perennials such as "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Perry Mason" and "Death Valley Days." And as a screenwriter he was instrumental in creating "Blade Runner" and has a credit as well in the forthcoming "Blade Runner 2049."

More to the point where "Escapes" is concerned, constructed as it is around a series of on-camera interviews, Fancher is also a world-class raconteur, a mesmerizing talker whose anecdotes thrive on voice, detail, misdirection and an ability to hold our interest whether the narrative is going anywhere or not.

The stories themselves often involve actresses who've been central to Fancher's life, including Teri Garr, Sue Lyon and Barbara Hershey. These stories would be seductive in and of themselves, but the way Almereyda has chosen to present them makes them special.

The director's idea, similar to the one that animated Bill Morrison in the wonderful "Dawson City: Frozen Time," is to play Fancher's voice behind scenes selected from all those TV appearances.

These sequences, always visually interesting in and of themselves, often provide ironic counterpoint to the story Fancher is telling. When he talks of a period when he struggled as an actor, for instance, we see a clip of him in a western, struggling to stay on his horse as it ambles across the desert.

After opening with a rambling anecdote about his relationship with Garr, a tale that gets us used to Fancher's rococo verbal style, "Escapes" backtracks to give us the man's back story, using still photos and type on screen to fill us in on his unusual pre-Hollywood life.

Fancher, we're told, is a Los Angeles native who flunked the third grade twice. Interested in dance from an early age — he helped his strip-tease-artist older sister choreograph her routines — he ran away from home at age 16, changed his name to Mario Montejo and went to Barcelona to study flamenco dancing before marrying a psychiatric nurse five years his senior when he was 18.

Fancher's career began in 1958 when he was spotted on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue and cast in the grade-Z horror item "The Brain Eaters." Things could only go uphill from there.

Many of Fancher's anecdotes involve the women in his life. Some are celebrated, like "Lolita's" Sue Lyon, his second wife, whom he tried to interest in reading Jean-Paul Sartre. "We were young and enthralled with each other," he says, adding, "We didn't have anything in common."

Also talked about a lot is Brian Kelly, the actor and friend who starred with celebrity dolphin Flipper in both television and feature film incarnations.

Perhaps "Escapes'" best story, however, involves a woman whose real name we never find out, a godforsaken trip to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to promote a terrible feature, and a great kicker of an ending.

Though he didn't suspect it at the time, Fancher's most significant film project was the original "Blade Runner," and his stories of his encounters with mercurial science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and how he came to write numerous drafts of the film are candid, informative and delightful. As is this singular film.

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"Escapes"

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles

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