Friday, September 30, 2016

Cult Movie Theatre: The Hidden (1988)

MacLachlan as Agent Gallagher.
(Spoiler alert!)
After a man robs a bank in broad daylight, he smiles at the security camera and shoots several people. He then climbs into his stolen Ferrari, cranks up some rock 'n' roll, and evades the police after a high-speed chase. Detective Tom Beck's investigation turns up little useful information. Neighbors describe Jack DeVries, L.A.'s latest notorious criminal, as a "nice, quiet man--a real gentleman."

Fortunately, Beck (Michael Nouri) gets some unexpected help when Seattle FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) turns up and claims he's been pursuing DeVries. There's something odd about Gallagher, who confides to Beck that DeVries killed his partner (which causes the detective to naturally wonder why the FBI left Gallagher on the case). However, there's no denying that Gallagher knows his man--assuming that the criminal really is a man.

Nouri and MacLachlan.
The Hidden is one of the many buddy action films that appeared in the 1980s following the success of 48 HRS. As you may have surmised, the twist here is that one of the cops is an alien and he's pursuing a criminal of his own species. The second twist is that--with an obvious nod to John Carpenter's The Thing--the extraterrestrial criminal uses human bodies as hosts. Its ability to move from one human to another obviously makes tracking it difficult. (Adding to the complexity, the creature can only be killed by a special weapon when traveling between human hosts!)

Claudia Christian as the alien in one of
its many "hosts."
An unexpected sense of humor underlies The Hidden and elevates it from similar sci-fi action fare. The alien criminal has a penchant for guns and sport cars, particularly red Ferraris. It also enjoys grooving to loud rock music, which accounts for the film's lengthy soundtrack featuring songs by groups like The Truth, Hunters & Collectors, and Concrete Blonde (who scored a Top 20 hit with "Joey" in 1990).

However, the success of any "buddy film" depends on the actors playing the buddies. Nouri does a nice job playing the dedicated cop who's still a family man (Beck actually calls his wife when he's late for dinner). MacLachlan channels the offbeat personality that served him well in earlier efforts like Blue Velvet (1987) and later ones such as the 1990-91 Twin Peaks TV series. In fact. it's easy to recognize Special Agent Gallagher as a forerunner to Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. MacLachlan and Nouri play off each effectively and their dogged pursuit of their adversary keeps The Hidden from becoming too broad.

The Hidden was a modest boxoffice hit, but proved to be a popular video rental. As a result, a so-so sequel, The Hidden II, appeared in 1993. It starred Kate Hodge as Beck's daughter. Horror fans may remember her from the amusing 1990-91 cult TV series She-Wolf of London (aka Love and Curses).

Monday, September 26, 2016

Seven Things to Know About Glenn Ford

1. Glenn Ford was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford in Sainte-Christine-d'Auvergne, Quebec, Canada. He became a naturalized U. S. citizen in 1939. His father was a railroad executive; Ford played a railroad engineer in Fritz Lang's classic film noir Human Desire (1954).

2. Ford was a registered Democrat for much of his life and supported John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. However, he later became a Republican and campaigned for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.

3. Glenn Ford enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1941. The following year, he volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He never saw any combat duty during World War II and received a medical discharge in 1944 for ulcers. He returned to the Armed Service one last time when he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1958. He served until his retirement as a Captain in 1977.

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.
4. Ford once said that he became a star when he slapped Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). The two, who shared a visible on-screen chemistry, starred in four other films together: The Lady in Question, The Money Trap, Affair in Trinidad, and The Loves of Carmen. In Peter Ford's biography of his father, he quotes Glenn as saying: "You couldn't help but fall in love with Rita. She was such a lovely person, but so miserable. I lent a sympathetic ear, and she trusted me because she knew I cared for her and wouldn't let anyone hurt her."

Ford in Navy uniform.
5. In Quigley Publishing Company's annual poll of movie theater owners, Glenn Ford was ranked among the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood in 1956, 1958, and 1959. He was ranked at #1 in 1958. He appeared in four films that year: The Sheepman, Cowboy, Imitation General, and Torpedo Run.

6. Ford was married four times. His longest marriage (1943-59) was to Broadway and film musical star Eleanor Powell. They had one child, Peter, who dabbled in acting (appearing as a regular with his Dad in the 1971-72 TV series Cade's County) and later wrote the 2011 biography Glenn Ford: A Life.

7. Glenn Ford was never nominated for an Oscar. I doubt if he cared. He once famously said: "I've never played anyone but myself on screen."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Plague Dogs: An Unrelenting Tale of Lost Hope

The Tod, Rowf, and Snitter.
I knew it was a mistake to watch The Plague Dogs earlier this week when my wife was at choir practice. I had originally seen this emotionally wrenching film in the 1980s, so I remembered that it was not an animated film aimed at children. I also vaguely recalled that the ending was downbeat. However, I misjudged the extent to which The Plague Dogs would touch me--leaving me a weepy mess of a man after 95 minutes of lost hope.

The story opens in an animal research facility as two scientists watch a dog nearly drown in a tank of water. The purpose of their experiment, which has been repeated multiple times on the same animal, is to determine how long the canine can survive before dying. The dog, an old Lab mix named Rowf, is returned to his cage after the experiment. When he regains consciousness, his friend Snitter, a Fox Terrier, informs Rowf that his cage door has been left unlocked. Rowf and Snitter explore the dark halls of the research facility--which is filled with dogs, monkeys, rabbits, and rats--and eventually escape through the incinerator.

Life on the outside isn't what they imagined. Snitter talks fondly of his earlier life with his master, who died in a car accident while saving Snitter. They just need to find a new master, he tells Rowf. But the gray-muzzled Lab mix distrusts people based on his experiences with the "whitecoats" (the scientists). He doesn't understand people and how they could do such awful things to him ("Why do they do it? I'm not a bad dog.").

Rowf in the background and Tod.
Unprepared to provide for themselves Rowf and Snitter meet The Tod, a crafty fox who teaches survival skills in return for a portion of any sheep killed by Rowf. Snitter likes The Tod, but the cynical Rowf distrusts the fox, too. Still, the trio share a fleeting moment of contentment, marred only by Snitter's health problems stemming from experimental brain surgery ("My head is all on fire!"). Eventually, hunters--fueled by a fake story about the dogs carrying bubonic plague--close in on the trio.

The Plague Dogs is based on Richard Adams' 1977 novel of the same name. Adams had earlier written the acclaimed bestseller Watership Down, a modern fable about a warren of rabbits that was turned into a surprise 1978 boxoffice hit. Martin Rosen, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Watership Down, performed the same duties for The Plague Dogs.

A fine example of Rosen's direction.
However, despite mostly good reviews (e.g., Janet Maslin praised the animation more than the plot), The Plague Dogs flopped at the boxoffice, It's not hard to see why. Though the animation is colorful and life-like and the characters convincing, a cloud of despair hangs about the film. Ironically, Adams' book had an upbeat ending which was added on his publisher's insistence. The film jettisons that ending for what Adams originally conceived--an ambiguous conclusion that has Rowf and Snitter swimming in the fog toward an island that may or may not exist.

John Hurt provides the voice for Snitter.
The voice cast, comprised of British veterans, is excellent. John Hurt perfectly captures Snitter's optimism. Christopher Benjamin, whose many roles include loud Sir Hugh Bodrugan on the original Poldark, voices Rowf. And James Bolam, whom we're recently watched in the detective series New Tricks, speaks in a Geordie (Northern England) dialect as The Tod.

Although most current prints of The Plague Dogs run 95 minutes, the original film was 103 minutes. Several scenes deemed too bloody for American audiences were trimmed. The longer film is available on video only in Australia. Incidentally, the closing gospel song was written and performed by Alan Price, who provided the splendid tunes for the 1973 cult classic O Lucky Man.

The Plague Dogs is a potent film about cruelty and deception. It's a good movie with an important message and I do recommend it. However, as a dog lover, it's not a movie I want to watch again for a long time.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Ipcress File: "Now, listen to me...."

One of the best "anti-Bond" spy films made in the wake of Goldfinger was--ironically--made by the team that made the Bond movies. The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, with music by John Barry, sets designed by Ken Adam, and editing courtesy of Peter Hunt. Yet, where the 007 pictures feature action-packed chases accompanied by pulse-pounding music, The Ipcress File is a moody affair set among the drabbest buildings in London and with a subdued (but memorable) score by Barry. 

Michael Caine stars as Harry Palmer, an Army sergeant detailed to a Ministry of Defence counter-espionage unit. Palmer's file describes him as "insubordinate, insolent, a tricker, with perhaps criminal tendencies." In regard to the "criminal" label, Palmer's superior, Colonel Ross, recruited him from an army brig. However, Palmer is far from a two-bit hoodlum. He is an intelligent man with a taste for gourmet food, an ear for classical music, and an eye for the ladies.

Palmer undergoes brainwashing.
In the film's opening, Colonel Ross informs Palmer that he's being transferred to another department to help investigate the "Brain Drain." Seventeen scientists have disappeared, including one that resurfaces but who can remember nothing about his research. Palmer's investigation uncovers one small clue: a fragment of an audio tape filled with strange sounds and labeled "IPCRESS." 

If The Ipcress File were a Hitchcock movie, then the mysterious audio tape would be the film's "MacGuffin." It's what propels the plot, even though it's not really that interesting once we learn its purpose. In fact, the plot just serves as a framework for the characters, their interactions, and an inside look at the "real world" of spying. The Ipcress File convinces us that spying isn't about fast cars, gadgets, and globe-hopping secret agents. It's about digging through files, conducting mundane surveillance, following suspects, and misleading people. 

The hero is nameless in the novels.
The beauty of The Ipcress File is that it makes this glimpse into the world of mundane espionage engrossing from start to finish. Most of the credit belongs to Len Deighton, who wrote the original novel, and Michael Caine. Although Caine made a solid impression in 1964's Zulu, it's The Ipcress File that propelled him to stardom. He's perfectly cast as the cynical, reluctant, bespectacled Cockney spy who still has a lot to learn about his new occupation.

Jean (Sue Lloyd) in Harry's apartment.
Producer Saltzman surrounds the young Caine with a a well-cast team of veteran performers. Guy Doleman, who plays Ross, appeared later in Thunderball and as one of the No. 2's in The Prisoner. Nigel Green, as Palmer's new superior, starred with Caine in Zulu and played an older Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Gordon Jackson, as a fellow agent, would later achieve fame as the butler Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs. The talented Sue Lloyd has a small, but effective role as an icy colleague who may have mixed loyalties. 

Sidney J. Furie's direction has been the source of much discussion among the film's fans. Furie's penchant for bizarre camera angles caused clashes with the traditional Saltzman during the production. I can see what Furie wanted to achieve--by having his camera peer through nooks and crannies, he essentially allowed the viewer to spy upon the spies. However, like Saltzman, I found some of his shots and framing too distracting.

Michael Caine returned as Harry Palmer in two theatrical sequels. Funeral in Berlin (directed by Goldfinger's Guy Hamilton) is as good as, if not better than, The Ipcress File. Unfortunately, the next film in the series, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), is a disaster with typically over-the-top direction from Ken Russell and a comic book villain played by Karl Malden. After a three-decade break, Caine returned as Harry Palmer in two made-for-cable features: Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996). Guy Doleman, Oscar Homolka, and Sue Lloyd appear in some of the sequels.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Remembering the "Laredo" TV Series

Stars Brand, Brown, and Smith.
In contrast to the popular cowboy ballad "The Streets of Laredo," the streets depicted in this 1965-67 TV Western were pretty lively thanks to a trio of boisterous Texas Rangers. The series, which currently airs on GetTV, starred Neville Brand as gruff Reese Bennett, Peter Brown as the refined Chad Cooper, and William Smith as the muscular Joe Riley. Television veteran Philip Carey played their put-upon boss Captain Parmalee.

The original series pilot aired in 1965 as the last episode of the third season of The Virginian. In "We've Lost a Train," Trampas (Doug McClure) travels through Laredo to pick a bull in Mexico for Judge Garth. Along the way, he runs afoul of Reese, Chad, and Joe--but winds up helping them retrieve stolen money from a train. As often happens with pilots, the characters here differ slightly from the ones in the eventual Laredo series. Reese is less comical and Chad isn't the ladies man that he would become.

Brown, Doug McClure, Brand, and Smith on The Virginian.
The teleplay was written by Western scribe Borden Chase, who penned film classics such as Winchester '73 (1950), The Bend of the River (1952), and Man Without a Star (1955). Universal Studios padded the pilot with footage from another Virginian episode ("Ride a Dark Trail") and released it in Europe as a theatrical film called Backtrack.

The Laredo TV series debuted on NBC in September 1965. Its time slot, Thursday from 8:30 to 9:30, pitted it against some tough competition: Bewitched on ABC and My Three Sons on CBS. Still, Laredo found an audience with its easygoing mix of action and humor. The latter often involved Reese being manipulated by his colleagues. In various episodes, Chad and Joe convince Reese to get into a ring with a lively bull, go undercover to catch villainous French officers, and take over as "acting captain" when Parmalee is away.

The second season of Laredo added Dutch actor Robert Wolders, who joined the cast as rookie Ranger Erik Hunter. According to some sources, the rationale for a fourth Ranger was to lighten Brand's workload. Erik was a bit of dandy and surpassed Chad as the best-dressed Texas Ranger on television. In real life, Wolders married classic movie actress Merle Oberon in 1975--she was 25 years older than him--for the last four years of her life. He later lived with Audrey Hepburn for the last decade of her life.

Neville Brand as Reese Bennett.
Still, Laredo owes its success to the Gunga Din camaraderie of the three actors that played the original Rangers. Each of them brought something different to the show. Neville Brand was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. He carved an acting career as a tough guy in movies like D.O.A. (the villain's description of Brand's henchman: "He's not happy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood.").  In his autobiography, Bruce Dern said of Neville Brand:   "(He was) the baddest guy I ever met in the business."

Peter Brown as Chad Cooper.
Peter Brown came to Laredo as a TV Western veteran. He played young deputy Johnny McKay to John Russell's marshal on four seasons of the half-hour series Lawman (1958-62). The show was one of the many Westerns produced by Warner Bros. at the time (others included Cheyenne, Maverick, and Sugarfoot). Between Lawman and Laredo, Brown starred opposite actresses Hayley Mills (Summer Magic), Ann-Margret (Kitten With a Whip), and Barbara Eden (Ride the Wild Surf). In the last film, he played a blonde surfer--apparently, the producers were concerned that the good-looking Brown would distract female viewers from the film's dark-haired star...Fabian.

William Smith as Joe Riley.
The least known of the three Laredo stars was William Smith, a former child actor, arm wrestler, and bodybuilder. Ironically, he was probably the most successful Laredo star after the series' cancellation, guest starring in over 90 television shows. On the silver screen, he often portrayed villains such as the motorcycle gang leader in 1971's Chrome and Hot Leather (which also featured Peter Brown). One of Smith's most memorable roles was as Clint Eastwood's bare-knuckle fight opponent in Any Which Way You Can (1980). It's interesting to note that Smith had a brief bare-knuckle bout against Mike Mazurki in the season one Laredo episode "Pride of the Rangers."

Carey as the put-upon Parmalee.
Finally, no review of Laredo would be complete without mentioning Phillip Carey, whose Captain Parmalee tried, to no avail, to keep Reese, Chad, and Joe in line. Carey made his film debut in the early 1950s and appeared in movies like Mister Roberts and Calamity Jane before entering television. Prior to playing Parmalee, he starred in the TV series Tales of the Bengal Lancers (1956-57) and in the title role in Philip Marlowe (1959-60). In 1979, long after Laredo, he made his debut on the daytime television drama One Life to Live, in which he portrayed Texas tycoon Asa Buchanan for the next 28 years.

NBC cancelled Laredo in 1967 after two seasons and 56 episodes. The network's decision to move the series to Friday nights at 10 P.M. likely contributed to the show's early demise. It still holds up nicely, a refreshing change from the traditional 1960s Westerns--although there are still plenty of shoot-outs and daring rescues. Laredo airs weekdays at 10:45 AM Eastern Time on GetTV.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (September 2016)

Ann Blyth and Bette Davis.
You know how this works: Given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Robert Wagner, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, and Karen Black.

2. The TV series Bewitched and the 1968 movie The Planet of the Apes.

3. Saboteur and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

4. Rex Ingram and Burl Ives.

5. The Fred Astaire film Top Hat and The Bullwinkle Show TV series.

6. Gene Kelly and Esther Williams.

7. Ingrid Bergman and Miriam Hopkins.

8. Johnny Weissmuller and Sonja Henie (another easy one!).

9. Kurt Russell and Don Johnson.

10. Raymond Massey and Dennis Weaver.

11. Ann Blyth and Bette Davis.

12. The political drama The Best Man and the Jerry Lewis comedy Visit to a Small Planet.

13. The Island at the Top of the World and Pinocchio (besides the fact that both were made by Disney).

14. The Beatles and David Hedison.

15. Vivien Leigh and Noel Neill.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Love Fights Hate in "The Night of the Hunter"

In addition to a gallery of memorable performances, actor Charles Laughton’s cinematic legacy includes one fling with directing—but oh what a fling it is! The Night of the Hunter is a haunting, poetic film that explores themes ranging from the battle between good and evil to the propensity of Nature to protect the innocent. The film also provides Robert Mitchum with his best role as Harry Powell, evil incarnate disguised as a preacher (what makes the character even more chilling is that Harry believes he has a special relationship with the Almighty).

Harry's hand of hate.
The film’s opening is pure Hitchcock, with a group of frolicking kids discovering a corpse in a cellar. In the next scene, we see Harry Powell driving down the countryside, talking to himself about the “six…twelve widows” he has murdered. When Harry is arrested—for car theft—he becomes the cell mate of Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Harper stole $10,000 and accidentally killed a man. However, before he was arrested, he disposed of the money with his two children, John (who’s about 11) and his younger sister Pearl. Harper makes his children swear to never divulge the hidden location of the money, not even to their mother (“You’ve got common sense; she ain’t.”).

Harry confronts young John.
The lure of $10,000 (a lot of money during the Depression) appeals greatly to Harry. Upon his release from prison, he looks up the pretty young widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters). But young John (Billy Chapin) takes an instant dislike to the new preacher wooing the mother; it’s as if only the innocence of childhood can recognize the true nature of evil. John tries to protect his family, but when tragedy strikes, he and Pearl flee with Harry in pursuit.

The Night of the Hunter is a virtual textbook on filmmaking, with sound and image blended effortlessly to create mood. Harry’s entrances in the film are accompanied by a jarring, foreboding piece of music. Even more disturbing is when we hear Harry before we see him. In one scene, his singing filters into the children’s bedroom as he waits patiently outside the front gate (almost like a predator lurking for its prey).

Laughton’s striking use of shadows and silhouettes recall the Expressionistic German films of the 1920s (e.g., The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I suspect much of the credit for the brilliant lighting belongs to cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a skilled craftsman who labored in routine films except for this one and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

One of Stanley Cortez's haunting images.

Billy Chapin with Lillian Gish.
As Harry Powell, Mitchum gives the performance of a lifetime. With “love” tattooed on one hand and “hate” on the other, he describes the struggle between them in one of the famous scenes in film history. To complement Mitchum’s performance, Lillian Gish brings quiet strength to her role as his eventual adversary. Just as the animals watch over the children as they drift down the river in a boat, Gish’s Mrs. Cooper guards the children (almost as if she personifies Mother Nature). At one point in the film, she even says: “I’m a strong tree with many branches for many birds.”

Since Charles Laughton never directed another picture, it’s hard to gauge how much of Night of the Hunter was his vision. Screenwriter James Agee, already a renowned film critic, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But for all their talent, neither Agee, Cortez, nor Mitchum made another movie to rival this one. So either it was sheer luck that all the talents gelled so wonderfully on The Night of the Hunter or Laughton provided the guidance to make it work. I tend to believe the credit belongs to Mr. Laughton.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Mission: Impossible - "The Town" (S2 E21)

Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) stops at a gas station in the small California town of Woodfield. The radiator in Jim's big blue convertible is overheating, so he heads toward a nearby drugstore while the gas station attendant tends to his car. As he's chatting with the pleasant girl behind the soda fountain, a young couple walks in and asks for a prescription.

On the way out of the drugstore, the woman trips and a gun emitting blue smoke dumps of a bag. After everyone gets safely out of the drugstore, Jim tries to quietly leave town--but he's detained. 







The sheriff takes Jim to a town meeting presided over by Doc (Will Geer), the local physician. This is no ordinary town meeting, though, as it turns out that the residents of Woodfield are all spies. Jim learns that the young couple have been sent on an assassination mission to Los Angeles.



In Doc's office, he administers a dose of curare to Jim to replicate the symptoms of a stroke. Doc's intent is to gradually increase the dosage until Jim dies. Meanwhile, Rollin, who has been waiting for Jim at a lodge, goes looking for his friend. He arrives in Woodfield--much to everyone's surprise--and sees Jim's car.


Doc tells Rollin that Jim has had a series of strokes and can't be moved. Rollin senses something is amiss and confirms it when he realizes Jim is trying to communicate with him by blinking his eyelids. Rollin calls "Mrs. Phelps" and tells her the bad news about Jim. He recommends she get someone to drive her to Woodfield. He also asks who will take care of "Little Willie" while she's gone. 

Cinnamon (Barbara Bain) and Barney (Greg Morris) arrive in Woodfield first, followed by Willie (Peter Lupus) in the guise of a truck driver. Willie fakes an arm injury to get into Doc's office. Rollin knocks out Doc while...





Cinnamon drugs the nurse. Using Morse code, Jim tells his IMF team about the plan to kill a foreign scientist at a convention in L.A. Rollin hatches a plan to stop it and prevent Woodfield residents from further espionage and assassinations. 



What would a Mission" Impossible episode be without a cool Rollin Hand disguise? Thus, Rollin and Cinnamon use materials in the medical office to make a mask of Doc's face. But will Rollin be able to pull off the deception? Can the young assassins in L.A. be stopped in time? And how will the IMF team escape from a town in which everyone will try to kill them?

Broadcast in 1968, this is one of the best--and one of the most different--episodes of Mission: Impossible. It may have been the first to omit the traditional prologue in which Mr. Phelps or Mr. Briggs receive their mission from a tape that self-destructs in five seconds. Instead, this episode's opening scenes could be right out of Thornton Wilder's Our Town with the small town gas station, the cute soda fountain girl, and the young photogenic couple. But, in a matter of minutes, this slice of Americana is turned upside town when we learn this is a town of spies.

Veteran TV director Michael O' Herlihy (brother of actor Dan O' Herlihy) uses the most cant angles this side of Batman to portray a state of unease until Rollin's arrival. Writer Sy Salkowitz injects some wonderfully dark humor, especially with a scene in which town residents are trained how to drown someone and make it look like an accident (be sure to break a finger so it will appear as if the victim tried to break his fall in the tub).

Finally, if you're going to cast someone as a kindly small town doctor who is actually a spy ring leader, you can't do better than Will Geer (after all, he was Grandpa Walton!). 

A first-rate episode from start to finish, "The Town" is further evidence that Mission: Impossible was one of the best television series of the 1960s and 1970s.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Competition: Will Love Capture the Biggest Prize?

When we first meet Paul Dietrich, the driven pianist has placed a disappointing third in a minor Midwestern competition. Despite his proud father's support, Paul (Richard Dreyfuss) considers ditching his concert pianist dream for a job in the Chicago public school system. However, when he earns an invite to the prestigious Arabella Hillman Competition--the "Super Bowl" of his field--he decides to go for it one last time.

Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving in The Competition.
Paul encounters nothing but distractions when he arrives for the event in San Francisco. His mother finally reveals what Paul already knew, but refused to acknowledge. His father, who is still working to support his unemployed son, faces serious health issues. The competition is also unexpectedly delayed when the teacher of a young Russian pianist defects to the U.S.

The most significant distraction, though, is the presence of Heidi Joan Schoonover (Amy Irving). The talented and pretty pianist has harbored "an itch" for Paul since they met two years earlier. Paul tries to ignore her...but the attraction is definitely mutual.

I've been in the mood to revisit The Competition (1980) ever since I saw Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey (1988) last year. Thus, I was delighted when it appeared on cable recently. I think one's appreciation for the film hinges on the two leads and the lengthy musical passages.

Heidi plays a Prokofiev composition.
As in several of her early movies (e.g., The Fury, Yentl), Amy Irving exudes a winning mix of vulnerability and strength. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it's a testament to Irving's ability to find depths in her character even   when--as in The Competition--the script hasn't fleshed them out fully. Initially, Heidi seems unfocused as she copes with Paul's inconsistent attitude toward her. Yet, when it comes time to play in the competition, she takes charge and unleashes her passion and precision on the keyboard. We gradually realize that, despite Paul's outward appearance of control, that Heidi is by far the stronger of the two--both emotionally and in terms of talent.

Paul conducts the orchestra in one of
the film's best scenes.
Richard Dreyfuss faces more of an acting challenge, if only because Paul is at times downright unlikable and obnoxious. It's fortunate that Dreyfuss can counter his on-screen abrasiveness with an inner endearing quality that peaks through now and then. It has saved him in numerous portrayals of obsessive characters in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Goodbye Girl (1977), and, most notably, Once Around (1991) in which he pushes the limits with his brash, overbearing salesman.

For some viewers, though, The Competition is all about the music. Lalo Schifrin, the composer who gave us the Mission: Impossible theme, does a remarkable job of condensing the classical works of Chopin, Brahms, and Beethoven. He also adds a memorable love theme (though I'm not especially fond of the lyrics sung over the closing credits). The song earned Schifrin and lyricist Will Jennings an Oscar nomination. (The film also received a nomination for editing.)

The Competition is not altogether successful in its attempt to combine romance with a portrait of an obsessive artist. Yet, if it misses the mark occasionally (I would have nixed the Russian defector subplot), it still holds one's attention with the performances, the music, and the lovingly-filmed San Francisco locales. One still wishes, though, that the whole movie could have been as good as the climatic scene between Heidi and Paul, in which the latter confesses with stark honesty that he never thought she could play better than him.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Different Kinds of Heroes: "A Distant Trumpet" and "Four Feathers"

A Distant Trumpet (1964). I recognize that Troy Donahue's thespian skills were limited. Yet, in the right role--such as one of the naive lovers in A Summer Place--he performed more than satisfactorily. As I've noted before, Warner Bros. didn't do Troy any favors by typecasting him as a wholesome, contemporary good guy. Yet, when he got the rare change-of-pace role, he didn't always succeed. He was creepily effective as a subtle psycho in My Blood Runs Cold, but he seems totally out of place in the Raoul Walsh Western A Distant Trumpet. Is it just me or does a Troy Donahue-Raoul Walsh film sound like an oxymoron?
A lobby card with Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette.
Donahue plays Lieutenant Matthew Hazard, a recent West Point graduate, who has been sent to Fort Delivery in the Arizona Territory. The local Apaches, led by a their charismatic leader War Eagle, have "jumped" the reservation and threaten to start war with the Cavalry. The young officer finds the military installation manned by sloppy troops. He soon whips them into shape. He also makes an instant connection with pretty Kitty Mainwarring (Suzanne Pleshette). Unfortunately, she is married to another officer and--to everyone's surprise--Matt's Eastern girlfriend Laura (Diane McBain) shows up at the fort.

I was looking forward to Suzanne and Diane engaging in a good old catfight over Troy. Alas, everyone remains stiff and proper. That leads to the major problem with A Distant Trumpet: It takes itself too seriously. With this cast, Walsh (directing his final film) should have thrown in the towel, injected some humor, and concentrated on producing an entertaining film. Instead, he gives us a poor man's Broken Arrow without the script and actors that gave that 1950 classic emotional heft.

A Distant Trumpet is not a total waste of time. Max Steiner delivers another convincing score and Claude Akins makes a strong impression in a small role as a "businessman" running a mobile brothel.

John Clements and June Duprez.
The Four Feathers (1939). The best adaptation of A.E. Mason's grand old adventure novel remains the 1939 version directed by Zoltan Korda. Set mostly in Sudan in 1895, Four Feathers balances several impressive action sequences with an appealing tale of personal courage.

We first meet the film's protagonist, Harry Faversham, as a young boy surrounded by military traditions and old soldiers who recount their exaggerated exploits. Harry has no taste for the Army, however--even though he grows up to become a British officer. When he learns of his regiment's deployment to fight the Mahdist Sudanese, Harry resigns his commission. His three closest friends, all fellow officers, perceive his decision as an act of cowardice. They each send him a white feather attached to their calling cards. When Harry turns to his fiancee for support, she offers none. Knowing that she must think him a coward, too, he plucks a white feather from her fan--hence, the the four feathers of the title.

I find it interesting that Harry's fiancee and friends are so quick to brand him a coward when it's clear that he has never embraced the military life. I almost wish that he had stood his ground and rejected the urge to prove his courage. Of course, that would have been a very different film indeed. Four Feathers is first and foremost an impressively crafted, exciting tale of derring-do in the tradition of Beau Geste and Gunga Din. It differs from those pictures in that it's more of a star vehicle than an ensemble piece.

That star is John Clements, whose performance as Harry Faversham was one of only 30 acting credits for the silver screen. He spent most of his career on the British stage, as a performer, a producer, and a playwright. His work in the theatre earned him a knighthood in 1968. It's a shame he didn't make more movies as a leading man. He's quite convincing as Faversham, conveying his character's inner turmoil, resilience, and ingenuity.

There have been numerous other versions of The Four Feathers. Richard Arlen and William Powell starred in a 1929 silent version. Storm Over the Nile (1955) was a B-movie version with a young Laurence Harvey (though Anthony Steel played Faversham). Beau Bridges played the lead in a decent 1978 made-for-TV adaptation. The worst version to date has to be the ludicrous 2002 Four Feathers with Heath Ledger as Harry and a horribly miscast Kate Hudson.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Project X: A Bit of Mission: Impossible, a Pinch of Forbidden Planet, and a Dash of Jonny Quest

Chris George as Hagan Arnold.
One of William Castle's final films as a director, the seldom-shown Project X is a science fiction film brimming with innovative ideas--perhaps too many.

Set in 2118, it has a team of scientists trying to retrieve a forgotten secret from deep inside the mind of government agent Hagan Arnold (Christopher George). As a safety precaution prior to taking on an important mission, Arnold was injected with a drug that would erase his memory if tortured by the enemy (extreme pain activates it). The problem is that, shortly before he lost his memory, Arnold reported that Sino-Asia had developed a weapon that would destroy "the West" in fourteen days. But only Arnold knows what the weapon is and it's locked away in the bowels of his brain!

Greta Baldwin in the "kinery"--where
they turn milk into pills.
To stimulate him into remembering, the scientists provide Hagan with a "matrix"--a false identity complete with memories. They place him in an "anxious environment" by making him a bank robber in the 1960s hiding out with his cronies at an isolated house in the country. Every night, they affix electrodes to his brain and "watch" his subconscious memories, trying to gain information. Meanwhile, there's a mysterious man (Monte Markham) in the woods who's spying on Hagan and a pretty blonde at the nearby "kinery" that quickly befriends the amnesiac spy.

I originally saw Project X on network TV in the early 1970s. My memories of it turned out to be a little false as well. I recalled solely the portion of the plot in which the scientists create the fictional world for Hagan--a trick employed effectively in multiple episodes of TV's Mission: Impossible as well as the excellent James Garner outing 36 Hours (1964). But, as it progresses, Project X takes several unusual turns, even unleashing a sort of id monster reminiscent of Forbidden Project near the climax. Best of all, the "secret weapon"--when revealed--turns to be a diabolically ingenious one.

A Hanna-Barbera scene.
Unfortunately, a protracted running time, a low budget, and an overabundance of bright ideas keep Project X from standing alongside superior late 1960s sci fi efforts like The Power and The Forbin Project. Certainly, director William Castle deserves kudos for taking an out-of-the-box approach to keeping the production costs reasonable. He employed animation studio Hanna-Barbera to design some of the sequences visualizing Hagan's memories. Thus, in lieu of using miniature models to represent an underwater prison, we get an animated sequence. Sometimes, this works amazingly well and other times...well...it looks like a scene out of Jonny Quest (which it was in one sequence).

Henry Jones admires a brain.
The screenplay was adapted from two novels by Leslie P. Davies: The Artificial Man (1965) and Psychogeist (1966). Another Davies novel, The Alien (1968), served as the basis for the 1972 thriller The Groundstar Conspiracy, which also features a central character with amnesia.

I haven't read Davies' books, but hope his plots are tighter than Project X. Honestly, I can't imagine that any security team would be as inept as the one that guards Hagan. First, they don't re-route the telephone, thereby allowing a potential enemy agent to call Hagan--twice. Then, they let Hagan wander off from the house on his own and interact with a contemporary woman (which should have destroyed the illusion of the 1960s). These are mistakes that the IMF would never make!

Still, despite its flaws, Project X remains a sporadically interesting sci fi feature. And, as mentioned earlier, the enemy's plan to destroy Western Civilization is a decidedly clever one.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Republicans vs. Democrats in a Disney Musical?

Walter Brennan as Grandpa Bower.
You could call it the Mary Poppins Syndrome. That's the "disease" that convinced Walt Disney Studios that it could harvest box office gold with lavish, lengthy family musicals. The result was a trio of flops: The Happiest Millionaire (1967); The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968); Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), the most blatantly Poppinsesque. None of these ambitious endeavors have improved with age, though I know a handful of fans who champion Millionaire and Broomsticks. Perhaps, someone will come to the defense of the film we're reviewing today.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (hence referred to as Family Band) starts out well enough with an introduction to the Bower family, which consists of Calvin, Katie, their nine children, and Calvin's father. Grandpa (Walter Brennan) wants to get the musical family to St. Louis to perform at the Democratic Convention in 1888. In fact, he has even written a song about President Grover Cleveland ("Let's Put It Over with Grover"). 

Lesley Ann sings about love.
Meanwhile, the eldest daughter, Alice (Lesley Ann Warren) is preparing to meet her pen pal boyfriend Joe (John Davidson). Joe is a stout Republican, so he and Grandpa butt heads almost immediately when they meet. Joe sings a rousing song about Dakota (which still awaits statehood) and pretty soon the whole family is moving there. Other than a desire to be near their daughter, I couldn't fathom why Calvin and Katie would want to move their brood.

Once in Dakota, it's a battle royale between the town's Republicans and Democrats--with Alice caught in the middle between Grandpa and Joe. There are more forgettable songs and, after what seems like a very long time, the plot climaxes with the town's residents learning the outcome of the election between Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. (It's actually a fascinating piece of political history, since Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the election because Harrison had more electoral votes. Moreover, Cleveland later became the only U.S. president to return to office for a second term after a defeat.) 

John Davidson at age 27.
I'm not sure why the Disney Studios thought a musical built around politics and a bland romance between two young adults would appeal to children. Brothers Richard and Robert Sherman composed some unforgettable songs during their tenure at Disney. However, their score for Family Band may very well be their worst. The only highlights are a decent solo number by Lesley Ann Warren ("The Happiest Girl Alive") and a pleasant duet between John Davidson and her ("Bout Time"). This was the second teaming of the two, following The Happiest Millionaire.

Janet Blair and Buddy Ebsen.
Walter Brennan, who excelled in supporting roles during his long career, gets thrust into the lead role and struggles to carry the film. Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair are sadly wasted. If the latter's name doesn't sound familiar, then check out her excellent performance in the creepy 1962 witchcraft classic Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn). She also once played Peter Pan in a local theatre production with Vincent Price as Captain Hook (would have loved to have seen that!).

According to some sources, the original cut of Family Band was 156 minutes. It was edited to 110 minutes for its theatrical release. Songs by Buddy Ebsen and Janet Blair were left on the cutting room floor.

Goldie with John Davidson.
It's interesting to note that Family Band co-stars Kurt Russell as one of the Bower kids and Goldie Jeanne Hawn (as she was billed) as another girl romanced by Davidson. Sixteen years later, Russell and Hawn reconnected when they starred in Swing Shift. They have been together ever since and have a son named Wyatt.

Finally, in July 2015, I interviewed Pamelyn Ferdin--who played little Laura Bower. I should have asked her about Family Band, but instead I focused on her more notable roles in the Peanuts specials (as Lucy), the Clint Eastwood Western The Beguiled (1971), and on the original Star Trek TV series.