Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Joel Grey's Best Performance Isn't in "Cabaret"

Judging from its title, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was intended to be the first of a film series. Heaven knows, there was no shortage of source novels. The film was based on The Destroyer novels written by several authors, most notably original creators Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Since the duo penned Created, the Destroyer in 1971, there have been over 150 Destroyer novels published...and yes, they're still being produced today.

Remo's literary origin introduces the character as a New Jersey cop, who was framed for murder, convicted, and then "rescued" from the electric chair by a shadowy organization called CURE. He is listed as officially dead and given a new identity.
In Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, police officer Sam Makin (Fred Ward) survives a dockside encounter with three violent youths only to have his squad car plowed into the East River by a mysterious man in a truck. He awakens in a hospital and discovers he has a new face and a new identity as Remo Williams.

Fred Ward as Remo.
He learns that he has been recruited (against his will) to become an agent for a secret government agency dedicated to eliminating major criminals and which answers directly to the President. Remo starts his training under an unassuming Korean martial arts master named Chiun. His first mission requires him to take down a corrupt arms manufacturer who has been selling defective weapons to the U.S. Army.

Yes...this is Joel Grey as Chiun.
The highlights of Remo Williams are the training sequences with Chiun, played brilliantly by an unrecognizable Joel Grey. The actor is so convincing as the elderly Korean master that, although I knew Grey was in the movie, I didn't realize he was Chiun for the longest time. Make-up artist Carl Fullerton received an Oscar nomination for his work. However, Grey deserves most of the credit for embodying his character so completely, from the voice to his body movements to the smallest gestures. Of course, he gets a host of great lines as he berates his pupil Remo. Here are a few of my favorites:

"You move like a pregnant yak."

"The trained mind does not need a watch. Watches are a confidence trick invented by the Swiss."

(Assessing Remo) "He's very slow. His reflexes are pitiful; poorly coordinated. He's in wretched physical condition, impetuous, and clumsy. He moves like a baboon with two club feet! However, there is a feeble glint of promise in his eyes. I think I can do something with him."

Remo:  You know, Chiun, there are times when I really like you.
Chiun:  Of course. I am Chiun.
Remo:  And there are times when I could really kill you.
Chiun:  Good! We will practice that after dinner.

One of the ongoing jokes is Chiun's sole obsession: Watching an American soap opera called Beyond the Night. Thus, as Remo navigates a strenuous obstacle course, we see Chiun curled up on a couch in front in the TV, anxiously awaiting news about Jim's pending operation.

Unfortunately, the rest of Remo Williams can't sustain this high level of entertainment, although there's a dandy fight scene on the Statue of Liberty while it was undergoing restoration in 1985. For his part, Fred Ward flashes the quirky combination of humor and toughness that helped make the later Tremors (1990) a cult favorite.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was directed by James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) and penned by 007 scribe Christopher Wood (The Spy Who Loved Me). Yet, despite its Bond pedigree, it never caught fire at the boxoffice--and so the adventure ended rather quickly. Three years later, an unsuccessful Remo Williams TV pilot was made with Roddy McDowell as Chiun. I suppose one could criticize both the TV pilot and theatrical film for not casting a Korean actor as Chiun. While that's a valid comment, the film's budget likely drove the studio to look for a known performer to cast opposite the relatively inexperienced Fred Ward.

As for Joel Grey, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the Golden Globes, but wasn't even mentioned at Oscar time. I suspect it's because the studio never mounted a campaign on his behalf. It should have--his performance in Remo is far better than his more celebrated, Oscar-winning one in Cabaret.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Screenwriters Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim Team Up for "The Last of Sheila"

The six suspects--and a key clue.
A Valentine to Agatha Christie's murder mysteries, The Last of Sheila may be best remembered for its off-screen stories. First, though, let's start with the product on the screen: an all-star whodunit set aboard a yacht cruising the Mediterranean. The yacht's owner, film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) is a widower, whose wife Sheila died in an apparent hit-and-run car accident.

Clinton's six guests include an actress (Raquel Welch), two talent agents (Dyan Cannon and Ian McShane), a screenwriter and his wife (Richard Benjamin and Joan Hackett), and a director (James Mason). Under the pretense of entertaining his guests, Clinton has devised "The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game," a nightly event in which guests try to uncover a "pretend secret" about one of their fellow passengers. Clinton distributes the following six secrets at the start of the game: shoplifter, homosexual, informer, ex-con, little child molester, and alcoholic.

Joan Hackett and Richard Benjamin.
The "game" turns serious, though, when one of the group is discovered dead. The police rule it an accidental death and the cruise continues. However, it soon becomes apparent that a murderer is aboard the yacht--especially after another corpse is discovered.

Like the best mysteries, The Last of Sheila displays all its clues clearly for the viewer. And, while I may not be the most observant individual, even I noticed a discrepancy...but which actually turned out to be a critical clue. The film shares much in common with Dame Agatha's superior Death on the Nile, right down to the climatic "reveal" in which one character describes the killer's motive and methods. The only difference is that Hercule Poirot would have had all the suspects in the room, instead of just the murderer and the self-appointed detective.

Dyan Cannon as a talent agent.
Another difference between The Last of Sheila and a Hercule Poirot mystery is that Agatha Christie was much more gifted at creating memorable characters. Screenwriters Perkins and Sondheim based some of their characters on real-life people (e.g., Dyan Cannon's character was based on talent agent Sue Mengers). While film buffs may have fun trying to guess what character was based on whom, this "inside joke" doesn't make for great drama. Additionally, there's a shortage of likable characters; even the film's "hero" has a suspect past.

The idea for The Last of Sheila can be traced to party games devised by puzzle enthusiasts Perkins and Sondheim to amuse their friends. These games ranged from treasure hunts to a "murder game" devised by Sondheim. Herbert Ross, who knew Perkins and Sondheim, suggested that they write a murder mystery.

Raquel Welch as the actress Alice.
The original intent was to film aboard a real yacht in France. However, the production was plagued with problems ranging from bad weather to sea sickness to conflicts among the cast members. Eventually, it was completed in a studio aboard a yacht set. In regard to the on-set friction, James Mason famously said of Raquel Welch: " I have never met someone so badly behaved."

The Last of Sheila was a modest hit and earned generally favorable reviews. Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim collaborated on a couple of other scripts, but none of them made it to the screen. By the way, Sondheim did not compose the score for The Last of Sheila (Billy Goldenberg did). He didn't even write the closing song ("Friends" performed by Bette Midler).

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ray Milland and the Dragon Squad

Ray as Hugh Drummond.
Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937). In one of his last "B" films, Ray Milland portrays the debonair British detective Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond. The film opens with a tense scene of Drummond piloting his plane to a landing in thick fog. Later that evening, he encounters a young woman--and a dead body--on an isolated country road. After carrying the woman to his car, he goes to examine the corpse--only to watch the rescued damsel drive way in his roadster.

He quickly learns her name is Phyllis Clavering and she appears to be an unwilling prisoner at Greystone Manor. Her "host" at the manor confides to Drummond: "Phyllis is suffering from a persecution complex and believes I killed her brother and am plotting to steal her inheritance." Who's telling the truth? Drummond intends to find out--with some help from his stalwart valet Tenny and chum Algy (who's awaiting the birth of his son).

Bulldog Drummond Escapes is a peppy little mystery that runs a scant 67 minutes. Milland gives a remarkably self-assured performance, though he may be a little too enthusiastic at times. His Drummond owes more to Ronald Colman's portrayal in two earlier films than it does to the literary sleuth. The Captain Drummond from H.C. "Sapper" McNeile's books and plays is described as a big, muscular, rugged man. That sounds more like Ward Bond than Ray Milland and Ronald Colman.

Still, this lively "B" picture--which takes place in a single night--convinced Paramount that Milland was ready for bigger roles. The following year, the studio would cast him alongside Gary Cooper and Robert Preston in Beau Geste. As for the Bulldog Drummond series, John Howard would take over the role for seven more films. John Barrymore co-starred as Inspector Nielson of Scotland Yard.

Jimmy Wang Yu in Dragon Squad.
Dragon Squad (1974). The kung fu craze was still in its peak in the U.S. when Bruce Lee died in 1973. As a result, U.S. distributors sought to create another martial arts superstar and one of their nominees was Jimmy Wang Yu. Ironically, Wang Yu had been a huge star in Asia for years--long before Bruce Lee attained fame.

He directed and starred in Dragon Squad, which is also known by its incredibly bland translated title Four Real Friends. The minimal plot is about a villain that steals gold from a convoy, but lets one of the guards escape. The guard eventually teams up with a prominent landowner, a drunken martial arts teacher, and a con man (Wang Yu) to defeat the bad guys.

So why am I writing about this film? Well, if you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I have a soft spot for 1970s kung fu cinema. I saw this opus with some chums back in my high school days. It was their introduction to martial arts movies and they talked about it for days. That was literally the last time I saw Dragon Squad until it recently popped up on Amazon Prime (a good print, no less).

It was still entertaining this time around--though it's nowhere nearly as fun as Wang Yu's outrageous Master of the Flying Guillotine (which Quentin Tarantino has made justly famous). Wang Yu loves to film his fights in unusual places and in Dragon Squad, the climatic ballet of kicks and punches takes place in a barn filled with chickens (and subsequently flying feathers).

The man with the fan.
The director-star also has a penchant for creating memorable baddies and, in Dragon Squad, that would be the villain's hired henchman. His trademark is that he unfolds a hand fan and tears it in half whenever he's about to kick someone's butt. It may make no sense, but it's just kinda cool...and it's the one thing I remembered from Dragon Squad for the last 42 years.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gift Ideas for the Classic Film & TV Fan

For the last seven years, we've published a list of our favorite gift ideas for classic television and movie fans. It's typically one of our most popular posts of the year. So, without further ado, here are our choices for 2016:

1. Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection. This boxed set is a great value with eight movies and a price under $20. Of course, it's the quality of films that count and there are four winners in this set: Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, The List of Adrian Messenger, and Man Without a Star. The other quartet are less impressive, but still entertaining enough (e.g., John Wayne joining Kirk in The War Wagon). Just consider those flicks a bonus!

Robert Reed and E.G. Marshall.
2. The Defenders: Season 1. We just reviewed this 8-disc set, so we'll skip a description other than to say this is one of the great legal dramas in television history. The cases are just as relevant and controversial today as they were in the 1960s. We've seen it priced under $30--another fine value considering that you get 32 50-minute episodes.

3. The Jack Lemmon Star Collection. This is our favorite of the various collections of Jack Lemmon movies. It includes two Billy Wilder classics--The Apartment and Some Like It Hot--and the underrated Lemmon-Wilder collaboration Avanti! The fourth and final film, How to Murder Your Wife, is a pleasant 1960s comedy with Virna Lisi. It's not as good a value as other boxed sets in the list, but you may be able to find a good deal over the holidays.

4. Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Complete Cases Collection. Are you shopping for any mystery fans? If so, then we heartily recommend this boxed set containing 70 episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot starring David Suchet. The mystery plots range from ingenious ("Lord Edgware Dies") to the routine (and, yes, they sometimes deviate from Ms. Christie's works). However, Suchet is impeccable as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Hugh Fraser makes a fine Captain Hastings. This is not an inexpensive present, but you may be able to find it for under $100 during the holiday season. Then, you can sit down and pit your little gray cells against Hercule's!

5. Green for Danger. If you're looking for an inexpensive stocking stuffer, then consider this nifty 1947 British mystery starring Alastair Sim and Trevor Howard. Set in a hospital during World War II, it pits a droll detective against a clever murderer. In his book The Detective in Film, William K. Everson touts it as one of the three best detective films ever made (the others being The Maltese Falcon and The Kennel Murder Case). You can buy it for under $8.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Five Best Episodes of "The Defenders" (Season 1)

Robert Reed and E.G. Marshall.
The Defenders is frequently listed as one of the finest television dramas of the 1960s. The series' first season, released on DVD last summer by Shout Factory, confirms that its reputation is for real. There's not a lemon among the 32 episodes. E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed play father-and-son attorneys in New York City who take on cases ranging from murder to illegal abortion to sports gambling. One can only hope that Shout Factory releases the remaining seasons of this classic legal series. As for the marvelous first season, it was difficult to pick the five best episodes, but we finally decided on the following:

E.G. Marshall and Fritz Weaver.
1. "The Riot" - When a riot ensues at Stony Point Prison and hostages are taken, the convicts will negotiate only with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall). It turns out that Lawrence defended one of the convict leaders, who still holds the attorney in high esteem. The first of several episodes to features a "trial" outside the courtroom, this gripping drama is a showcase for Marshall--just watch his face as his character tries to figure out a peaceful resolution to a potentially deadly situation. The strong supporting cast includes Fritz Weaver, Frank Sutton, and Ossie Davis.

Jack Klugman as the D.A.
2. "The Search" - A man confesses to a murder long after one of Lawrence's clients was convicted and executed for the same crime. Burdened with guilt and questions, Lawrence and the district attorney who prosecuted the case (Jack Klugman) search for clues they may have missed during the trial. This fascinating episode boasts a strong narrative, but also serves as a portrait of two men whose passion for justice drives everything they do. This was the second of Klugman's appearances as the D.A. He also guest-starred in a fourth season episode as another character--and won an Emmy.

E.G. Marshall as Lawrence Preston.
3. "The Best Defense" - An alcoholic, former colleague asks for Lawrence's help in defending a notorious racketeer accused of murder. When Lawrence declines, his friend then reminds Lawrence of his own words: Everyone, no matter who they are, deserves the best defense available. This engrossing episode explores the ethics of the law and features one of many lively legal discussions between father and son. It also boasts a clever twist at the climax, a rarity for a series that avoided last minute courtroom revelations.

Robert Reed as Kenneth Preston.
4. "The Accident" - Kenneth Preston becomes emotionally invested in a case in which a boy's parents refuse to approve surgery on their son on the grounds of their religious beliefs. As the boy's chances for survival dwindle, Kenneth desperately tries to find a legal means to save the child's life. Complicating the situation: It's a weekend night and he can't find a judge. Lawrence Preston is the lead counsel on most of the season one episodes, but this one is all about Kenneth and Robert Reed proves up to the task. The subject is a popular one for legal dramas, but you won't find it handled any better.

5. "The Tarnished Cross" - Lawrence and Kenneth happen on a kangaroo court being administered by a youth club. But this is no game--the defendant is being tried by his peers for murder and they plan to sentence him to death if he's found guilty. Another stellar episode with a trial outside the courtroom, this one is buoyed by excellent performances from the young guest stars, particularly Martin Sheen and Ken Kercheval (Cliff on Dallas).

Honorable Mention:  "The Benefactor" - Many television legal dramas have dealt with abortion, but I can't think of one that did it any better.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (Nov 2016)

Lloyd Bridges and Jacqueline Bisset.
You know the rules! 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 Horton and Gregory Peck.

2. Judy Collins and Elizabeth Taylor.

3. Bruce Springsteen and Keith Carradine.

4. Andy Williams and Peter Sellers.

5. Claude Rains and David McCallum.

6. Lloyd Bridges and Jacqueline Bisset.

7. Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood.

8. Jack Palance and Kirk Douglas.

9. Fred Astaire and Robert De Niro.

10. Linda Evans and Fred MacMurray.

11. Stalag 17 and Beach Party.

12. Ray Milland and Jack Lemmon.

13. Robert Wagner and Kevin Costner.

14. Robert Redford and Cliff Robertson.

15. The Dirty Dozen and The Thing With Two Heads.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors: The People-Eating Plant Musical

Rick Moranis in one of his best roles.
It is undoubtedly the funniest musical ever made about a soul-singing, people-eating, six-foot plant from outer space. Never mind that it's the only movie that fits into that one-of-a-kind genre, 1986's Little Shop of Horrors ranks alongside the underrated sleeper Pennies from Heaven (1981) and Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) as one of the best musicals of the 1980s.

Whereas Pennies offered upbeat production numbers against a depressing background, Little Shop takes a lighter, sassier approach toward its grisly subject matter. For example, Steve Martin's sadistic dentist is so repulsive that one wonders how the plant could stomach him (literally).

The plot, borrowed from Roger Corman's 1960 nonmusical, has nerdish floral assistant Seymour saving a flower shop from bankruptcy by discovering a new plant species. Seymour's flower, dubbed the Audrey II after the fellow employee he secretly loves, grows and grows. And so does business.

Yet, only Seymour knows what makes his plant thrive--blood, lots of it. And after draining himself to a dangerously low level, Seymour becomes convinced (by the plant) to look elsewhere for plant food. 

Moranis and the marvelous Ellen Greene.
Four marvelous performances make this a comedy to cherish. Rick Moranis is perfectly cast as the bumbling, lovable Seymour. He is ideally matched with then-newcomer Ellen Greene, whose Audrey is a delightful homage to both the sexy blonde heroines and the "perfect" television mothers of the 1950s (her Donna Reed fantasy sequence is a gem). As Audrey's sadistic dentist boyfriend, Steve Martin flashes his comic brilliance. His exaggerated mannerisms have never been put to better use and his timing is impeccable (Patient: "But that drill's rusty!" Dentist: "It's an antique.").

The Audrey II.
But even Martin is upstaged by the film's true star: The Audrey II. A special effects masterpiece with a voice provided by the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, this big plant is rude, nasty, and one heck of a singer. Its duet with Moranis (and all the baby Audrey II's) is a rocking, soulful, dynamic production number. 

Amazingly, there's not a throwaway song in the entire Howard Ashman and Alan Menken score. From the opening dance tune "Skid Row" (where depression is status quo) to Green's emotional rendering of the ballad "Suddenly Seymour," the songs wittily accent the far-out story.

Steve Martin as a painful dentist.
Little Shop of Horrors originated as an Off-Broadway musical in 1982. It earned Ashman and Menken numerous honors, including the 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. The songwriting duo added two new songs for the film, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Song for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space."

Following Little Shop, Ashman and Menken almost singlehandedly revived animated musicals with their delightful Disney classic The Little Mermaid. They followed it with the even better Beauty and the Beast in 1991, which became the first animated movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Tragically, Ashman died that same year at age 40 from complications due to AIDS.

His legacy includes some of the most buoyant, entertaining musicals ever to grace the silver screen. It's impossible to watch Little Shop of Horrors without feeling a little giddy with delight as the end credits roll. Just be wary of singing, people-eating plants!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Hollywood Optimism vs. British Reality

Within the last week, I watched two films I hadn't seen in many years: the 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie and the 1959 British crime drama Sapphire. It would be difficult to find two films so distinctly different in every way. And yet, these films share a common theme: prejudice. Predictably, one film ends with an optimistic resolution while the other leaves many hanging threads.

McLaglen and Shirley.
Wee Willie Winkie is a prime example of the formula that made Shirley Temple a boxoffice sensation in an era in which moviegoers coped daily with the realities of the Great Depression and impending war. She plays an inquisitive nine-year-old who, with her widowed mother, travels to Northern India to live with her grandfather (C. Audrey Smith). "The Colonel" is a crusty military man with no time for children, so he entrusts his granddaughter to the rough and tough Sergeant McDuff (Victor McLaglen). Pretty soon, McDuff is conducting training drills just so Shirley--looking very cute in her little uniform--can play soldier.

Shirley also befriends Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), a captured rebel leader plotting war against the British Army. Following Khan's escape, several British soldiers are killed in a skirmish. It looks like more blood will be spilled--on a grander scale--unless Khan and the Colonel can overcome their prejudices and reach an accord.

If you've seen any of Shirley's 1930s films, you know how Wee Willie Winkie is going to end. It's no wonder that Shirley was appointed an ambassador later in real life; by then, her negotiation skills, apparently developed through her movie roles, had to be impressive. Of course, there's a certain satisfaction in knowing the outcome of a Shirley Temple film. It's a comforting experience.

As for Wee Willie Winkie, in particular, it's slickly directed by John Ford (though I grew restless with the 100 minute running time). It features Victor McLaglen in the kind of role that made him famous. His gruffness is the perfect complement to Shirley Temple's sweetness. They make a wonderful team and remain the best reason to watch Wee Willie Winkie.

Made 22 years later, Sapphire tackles racial prejudice in Great Britain, but does so in the guise of a conventional murder mystery. In the opening scene, two children discover the corpse of a young woman in Hamstead Heath. The police soon identify the victim as 21-year-old Sapphire Robbins, a student at the Royal College of Music whom her friends described as a "sweetie." Why would anyone want to stab her six times in the chest?

Police question a suspect in Sapphire.
As the investigation unfolds, a complex portrait of Sapphire emerges. She was three months pregnant, a fact that her fiance and his family may or may not have known. She wore "flashy, pretty underwear" under her conservative clothes. And, in the words of one confidante, she "tried to pass herself off as white" (we learn that her father was white and her mother was black).

Sapphire is not the first film where a character tries to hide his or her race. It was a major subplot in the original Imitation of Life (1934) and took center stage in films like Pinky (1949).

What differentiates Sapphire is its frank approach and willingness to show the ugliness. A detective inspector working on the case casually asks Sapphire's physician: "Did she tell you she was colored? You always can tell, can't you? I can tell them a mile away." There is subtle prejudice, too, such as the landlady who liked Sapphire, but doesn't want people to know the truth because she runs a "white house" and it could hurt business. There's even prejudice against white people; a black barrister, who talks down to the police, makes disparging remarks about Sapphire for being half-white.

Of course, Sapphire plays it safe to a certain extent. The lead detective, Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick), is a no-nonsense, nonjudgmental character. It might have been more interesting to watch him struggle with his own prejudices instead of making his second-in-command the bigot. Still, that's a minor quibble with a well-meaning mystery that reveals the murderer's identity, but is intelligent enough to avoid a neat and tidy resolution. Reality is often messy.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Gene Hackman Looks for Meaning in "Night Moves" (Me, too)

There are certain movies I feel compelled to watch periodically--even though I've seen them and know they will disappoint me again. One such film is Michael Crichton's Looker, which I've reviewed for this blog, and another is Arthur Penn's Night Moves. Both films have impressive pedigrees, with Crichton and Albert Finney responsible for the first and Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman teaming up for the second. Certainly, Night Moves is the more critically acclaimed of the duo--although let me stress that you won't find me among its admirers.

Dig the moustache?
Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a former Oakland Raiders football player who has become a private investigator. Because Night Moves was made in the 1970s, there must be a psychological reason for why he chose such an unusual profession. Sure enough, it turns out that Moseby's father abandoned him as a youth and that he tracked down Dad as an adult. Harry now finds meaning in finding people (more on that later), so he becomes a detective.

A young Melanie Griffith.
Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a former "B" movie actress, hires Harry to find her 16-year-old daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith), who has been missing for two weeks. Harry doesn't like Arlene, who won't win any parenting awards, but he takes the job for $125 a day and expenses. His investigation leads to a movie shoot in Mexico and eventually to Delly's stepfather's in the Florida Keys. He finds Delly, but also a lot of messed-up people and, yes, even murder.

Meanwhile, Harry's seemingly-grounded wife (Susan Clark) asks if he wants to see a revival of My Night at Maud's. Harry declines by quipping: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry." This is the film's most famous quote...which is probably meaningful in some psychological way. (Incidentally, I like Rohmer.) Harry changes his mind later and shows up at the movie theater to discover his wife getting into a car with an unknown man. He follows them and later confirms that his wife is having an affair. Yes, this private detective isn't observant enough to note that his own marriage is on the rocks. I think this is intended to be psychologically meaningful.

James Woods is effective in a small role.
I believe there's a solid premise buried somewhere within Night Moves and that, plus Hackman's performance, may be what compels me to return occasionally to this film. However, I always end up flustered by the half-baked ideas. There are references to Kennedy and some hand-held footage of a car crash that may not be an accident (ah, an analogy to the Zapruder footage). Harry plays chess and discusses a knight move in a famous game (ah, "knight move" and "night move"). It turns out that Harry lied to his wife about finding his father. (I did pick up on the reference to football player Alex Karras, who was co-star's Susan Clark's husband in real life.)

Night Moves intentionally posts some key questions and then ends without answering them. That's how life is and I respect that approach. I don't mind a challenging film either--heck, I watched Last Year at Marienbad and count myself among the millions baffled by it. However, Night Moves is simply unsatisfying on too many levels to make it a meaningful viewing experience. Please note that I'm in the minority among my film critic brethren. Roger Ebert thought it was a new kind of film noir about "an old-fashioned private eye who says and does all the expected things while surrounded by a plot he completely fails to understand."

As for me, I'm glad I wrote this review. Ten years from now, when I'm intrigued to watch Night Moves again, I can re-read this post and then opt for a Rohmer movie instead.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Crowhaven Farm: A Creepy Made-for-TV Tale

When her cousin Henry dies in a car accident soon after inheriting Crowhaven Farm, Maggie Porter becomes the estate's new owner. She and her husband Ben move to the rural New England property. He hopes to find success as a painter and Maggie accepts a position as a legal secretary to the town's handsome--and single--attorney. Ben's jealousy fuels already existing marital discord caused by the couple's inability to conceive a child.

Meanwhile, Maggie discovers that she knows things about Crowhaven Farm, such as the location of secret rooms in the house. She also has visions of a woman being "pressed", an unpleasant method of killing witches by placing a wooden door on their prone bodies and stacking large stones on the door. A local historian unintentionally makes matters worse when he tells Maggie the story of the Brampton witches, a coven that existed in Puritan times.

Lange with Patricia Barry, who starred
in a memorable Thriller episode.
As is often the case in these kinds of movies, Ben doesn't take Maggie's concerns seriously. In fact, he's not very observant at all, even failing to notice that the 10-year-old girl they "adopted" seems to prefer him significantly to Maggie. And that's just the beginning of Maggie's problems.

Made in 1970, Crowhaven Farm is an eerie supernatural tale that was made for the ABC Movie of the Week. It was produced and written by John McGreevey, whose many television writing credits include The Waltons. The film's opening scenes can be described as a Waltons plot with sinister overtones. The local handyman, played creepily by John Carradine, isn't the pleasant local craftsman that one would expect. The kindly physician turns out to be a villain. Even the picturesque countryside is revealed to be the site of sacrifices. (Note: Click here to read our interview with Michael McGreevey, John's son, who acted in numerous films and became a successful writer-producer as well.)

Handyman John Carradine.
While watching Crowhaven Farm, I was struck by the similarities with Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home. The former pre-dates Crowhaven Farm; not surprisingly, Rosemary's Baby inspired a number of movies about witches' covens. However, Crowhaven Farm was actually made three years before Harvest Home. Tryon's novel features a premise in which a couple with a strained marriage relocates to an old house in a rural community so the husband can pursue an artistic career. Sound familiar?

For me, the most effective supernatural thrillers are those grounded in normal characters who become gradually exposed to unnatural events. In the case of Crowhaven Farm, the casting of Hope Lange as Maggie helps immeasurably. It's hard to think of an actress more capable of portraying conventional and believable characters. Although pretty enough to be a model (which she was), Lange carved out a successful acting career playing naïve teenagers, understanding mothers, and patient wives. Her convincing performance in Crowhaven Farm is one of the reasons this film has lingered with me since I first saw it 46 years ago.

Cindy Eilbacher as Jennifer.
Watching it recently, though, I was also struck by the film's potency. While it's never gory, the image of the witches stacking stones on top of Maggie is pretty strong stuff. There's also a disturbing scene in which young (fully clothed) Jennifer sneaks into Ben's room and climbs into bed with him when they are home alone. It may have been innocent enough in the early 1970s (obviously, the censors didn't object). However, in today's context, Ben casual acceptance of this situation seems highly questionable and caused this viewer to squirm a bit.

If you've never seen Crowhaven Farm, you're in luck: There are several prints on YouTube. The visual quality varies, but they are watchable.


This post is part of the Terror TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. To read all the fabulous posts in this blogathon, click here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Old Dark House: "It's not good to be frightened on an empty tummy"

Fenella Fielding and Tom Poston.
William Castle's 1963 adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted has little to do with the book or James Whales' 1932 film version. Screenwriter Robert Dillon jettisons the original premise of a group of travelers forced to spend the night in the ancestral home of the unusual Femm family. Instead, we have Tom Poston as an American car salesman who is invited by his "friend" Caspar Femm to spend the weekend at Femm Hall in Dartmoor. Given that Tom Poston is the lead, you may have surmised that the emphasis in this version is on comedy.

The Femm family is still an unusual lot, but that's to be expected when you're home-bound. It turns out that the Femm children's great, great grandfather was the pirate Captain Morgan who, before being hanged, wrote a will with a peculiar provision. Each family member must appear at a midnight gathering or forfeit his or her share of the family fortune. Thus, every time a Femm dies, the survivors grow richer.

Joyce Grenfell as Agatha Femm.
Yes, The Old Dark House boasts a creaky old plot that eventually wears out its welcome. However, that's not to say that the cast, peppered with seasoned pros, don't make it mildly entertaining. Robert Morley makes a dry, surly head of the house, while Joyce Grenfell (the "lovely ducks" lady in Hitch's Stage Fright) has fun as the matriarch (who knits "by the mile"). She has many of the best lines, including the sage remark that "it's not good to be frightened on an empty tummy."

Janette Scott as Cecily Femm.
Mervyn Johns (Dead of Night), Fenella Fielding (you'll recognize her voice instantly), and the lovely Janette Scott round out the supporting cast. Scott, who also starred in The Day of the Triffids and Paranoiac, became a cult movie star of the 1960s. She was immortalized in the song "Science Fiction/Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Singer Mel Torme was the second of her three husbands.

As the hero, Tom Poston executes the required pratfalls and looks of distress. However, he lacks the comic flair necessary to carry off this kind of role (Bob Hope and Lou Costello did it much better). Poston was always more at home as a TV series supporting player, where he found great success. For the record, he also starred in another William Castle picture: the previous year's fantasy-comedy Zotz!

The Old Dark House boasts an unusual production pedigree in that it's a co-production between Castle and Hammer Films. The film's crew includes many names familiar to Hammer fans: set designer Bernard Robinson, editor James Needs, cinematographer Arthur Grant, and others. Allegedly, Hammer's Anthony Hinds co-produced The Old Dark House at Bray Studios in Great Britain. However, his name is missing from the credits. Furthermore, the last two credits are very unusual: "Produced and directed by William Castle" is followed by the redundant "Directed by William Castle."

Speaking of the stylish credits, they were done by the famous cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family). His hand appears on screen as he signs his name in cursive. Hey, even Saul Bass, the most famous creator of credits, never got to do that.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Describe the Movie...You Name It! (Halloween Month Edition)

It's been a long time since we played this game at the Cafe! The objective is simple: We offer a short, sometimes vague, description of a movie and you have to name it. As always, please don't answer more than three questions per day, so others can play.

1. Famous outlaw's chum is turned into a monster.

2. Rawhide star battles a vampire. Roll 'em, doggies!

3. Jane Eyre goes to St. Sebastian (well, kinda).

4. Cult anime film with a vampire and a talking hand.

5. Monster talks with Ygor's voice.

6. There's a lycanthrope lurking around a reformatory for young women.

7. It has to be the most spine-tingling of all horror movies.

8. There's a creepy scene in which the villain's face appears in a car's rearview mirror--but he not in the car.

9. Police hunt baby in a sewer.

10. Dracula dances to classic disco song.

11. Baron Boris Von Frankenstein heads the the Worldwide Organization of Monsters.

12. Basil Rathbone is a wolf...I mean, he plays Wolf.

13. I'm smelling mimosa. How 'bout you?

14. It ends the same way it begins...exactly.

15. "They're coming to get you, Barbara!"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

ABC Movie of the Week: How Awful About Allan

Allan discovers the blaze...too late.
Allan (Anthony Perkins) has spent eight months in a state hospital, being treated for the trauma caused by a fire that killed his father and scarred his sister. You see, Allan left the paint cans and thinner by the heater that caused the inferno. Physically, there is nothing wrong with Allan, but he remains emotionally fragile--and partially blind. As he explains: "There is nothing organically wrong with my eyes. The blindness is all in my head."

Following his discharge, Allan (perhaps unwisely) returns to his home to live with his sister Katherine (Julie Harris). She informs her brother that they need to take in a lodger to afford the house payments. Allan hates the idea, but a room is quickly rented to a college student named Harold Dennis. When Allan begins to hear whispering voices at night, he becomes convinced that Harold is out to murder him.

This reminded me of Psycho.
Made in 1970, How Awful About Allan was originally broadcast on the ABC Movie of the Week. It boasts an exceptionally strong pedigree for a made-for-television film. In addition to major stars Perkins and Harris, the cast includes Joan Hackett (The Group) as Allan's former fiancee Olive. It was directed by Curtis Harrington, a once promising filmmaker that helmed the cult movie Night Tide (1961) and Games (1967), a semi-remake of the 1955 French suspense classic Les Diaboliques.

In fact, there are several similarities between Games and How Awful About Allan. Both films center on three major characters, two women (Katherine and Olive) and one man (Allan)--with the female characters being much stronger than the male. And, in each film, nothing is what it appears to be.

Julie Harris as Katherine.
The central mystery in How Awful About Allan is the identity of the mysterious lodger, whom the viewer sees only as a blurred image (as Allan sees him). Is Harold Dennis really Katherine or Olive in disguise? Could he be Eric, Katherine's former lover who was forced to leave town? Or is he really Harold Dennis, an innocent college student--meaning that the voices and fleeting shadows are all in Allan's mind?

A creepy shot of Allan.
It's an interesting premise, but it also makes for a thin plot. Fortunately, How Awful About Allan has a running time of only 73 minutes. Harrington also piles on the atmosphere, making Katherine and Allan's house one of those creepy abodes with dark hallways and weird noises. Even in daylight, it looks grim and uninviting--especially when viewed through Allan's eyes.

The suspense/mystery genre was a popular one on the ABC Movie of the Week. While How Awful About Allan doesn't rank with the best of them (Along Came a Spider, Isn't It Shocking?), it's still an above-average suspense tale with a fine cast.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Ka-bam! Look Out for the Five Fingers of Death!

If you are a connoisseur of cinema history, then Five Fingers of Death (1973) is required viewing. It's not the best kung fu film. It wasn't the first one. It didn't launch the careers of any stars--at least not as far as English-speaking audiences were concerned. And yet, when Warner Brothers released it in March 1973, it ignited mainstream interest in martial arts films.

The table had been set, so to speak, with the success of David Carradine's Kung Fu TV series, which debuted a year earlier. But Kung Fu's occasional slow motion fights didn't prepare audiences for the explosive kicks and punches executed gracefully by the cast of Five Fingers of Death. Still, the film's success was not a total surprise to Warner Brothers, which released it in the U.S. Known by its original title of King Boxer, the film had played to packed houses in Europe.

It also helped that American interest in Asian culture was peaking due to President Nixon's visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. For a modest sum, Warners acquired the rights to six movies made by the Shaw Brothers and released King Boxer first--under the catchier title Five Fingers of Death.

Lieh Lo looking humble as the hero.
Lieh Lo stars as Chao Chih-Hao, the star pupil in a martial arts school who has fallen in love with his teacher's daughter Yin-Yin. Marriage is out of the question, though, until he wins a major martial arts tournament. When some local thugs almost get the better of Chih-Hao's teacher, the elderly man sends his student to study with another martial arts master.

Chih-Hao gets off to a bad start at the new school, losing a fight handily to his best friend. His new master proclaims that Chih-Hao is "not good enough" and must show he's worthy to join the martial arts classes. The young man performs menial jobs without bitterness and continues to practice kung fu on his own. His resilience impresses the new master--as does Chih-Hao's ability to quickly grasp new techniques. Chih-Hao's steadily rising stature causes friction between him and his best friend (who also happens to love Yin-Yin).

Looking like the villain he is!
Meanwhile, the villainous Meng Tung-Shun (Feng Tien) schemes to set up his son's victory in the martial arts tournament. He "hires" a highly-skilled wandering fighter as well as three Japanese killers. This results in plenty of fights, changed allegiances, retribution, and reformation before the film's end title.

There are certainly elements of Five Fingers of Death that became overused in the genre: the big martial arts tournament; the secret technique (in this case, the Iron Fist); the mysterious stranger who changes sides; the disrespected school; and the one vs. many brawl. But with its many well-placed fight scenes and convincing cast, Five Fingers of Death makes it all seem fresh again. Star Lieh Lo may lack the celluloid grace of Bruce Lee, but he punches with power and kicks with authority. Director Chang-hwa Jeong injects flair, too, especially with a fight scene that takes place in a darkened room. (Note: There are edited versions, running less than 104 minutes, that omit key scenes.)

Note glowing right Iron Fist!
It should come as no surprise that director Quentin Tarantino often lists Five Fingers of Death among his favorite films. Kill Bill (both volumes) turns the Iron Fist lethal technique into the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. When Uma Thurman's character sees two of her enemies, the music signature--know as the "siren sound"--is the same one played when Chih-Hao uses the Iron Fist in Five Fingers (interestingly, the "siren sound" was taken from the "Theme from Ironside," written by Quincy Jones).

As for Five Fingers of Death, Verina Glaessner sums up its influence nicely in the opening of her book Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance: "Led by King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death) and hotly followed by the films of Bruce Lee...these films set the scene for a mass invasion of western cinemas by Chinese action films." For more on the kung fu movie craze, you can check out our previous post on that subject.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mr. Sardonicus: The Look of (Not) Love

This unusual foray into Gothic horror is one of William Castle's strangest films--and that's saying a lot. Typically, the gimmicky Castle focused on contemporary plots, enhanced with offbeat humor, aimed at teen audiences. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is so different that one might suspect it wasn't a William Castle film...except that the producer-director appears on-screen at the beginning and end. And yes, he somehow manages to incorporate one of his famous audience gimmicks.

Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert.
Mr. Sardonicus opens in London in 1880 with Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) "curing" a crippled girl at Queens College Hospital. Sir Robert is more than a gifted physician; he is a renowned pioneer in the field of medicine. Still, he quickly cancels all appointments when he receives a letter from Maude (Audrey Dalton), an old flame who has married a baron. Obviously, his love still burns strongly for her, for he hops aboard a train to Gorslava at her first sign of distress.

Remember how villagers treat strangers when they learn folks are traveling to Castle Dracula? That's the same kind of response that Sir Robert gets when he arrives in Gorslava and mentions Baron Sardonicus. Fortunately, Krull (Oscar Homolka), one of the Baron's servants, is at the train station to drive Sir Robert to the castle.

The Baron wearing his mask.
Things are revealed to be a bit odd at the spooky mansion. Sir Robert rescues a servant girl who has been covered in leeches as part of an "experiment." Maude acts initially like nothing is wrong. And Baron Sardonicus arrives at dinner wearing a full facial mask because he has been horribly disfigured. The Baron wants Sir Robert to cure him--which leads to a lengthy flashback that reveals how the Baron became the man he is today.

Up to this point, Baron Sardonicus is an atmospheric, engrossing, well-acted tale. Unfortunately, the Baron's bizarre flashback answers the central question that propelled the film. Once we know what happened to Sardonicus, it's like director Castle let out all the air of the film and it deflates quickly.

Homolka as Krull.
The cast is one of Castle's best, with Ronald Lewis exhibiting the kind of commanding presence that made me wonder why he didn't have a better career. He did appear in a nifty Hammer thriller called Taste of Fear (1961) and in the big budgeted Billy Budd (1962). Other acting honors go to the always-reliable Oscar Homolka, whose Krull proves to be scarier than Sardonicus, and Erika Peters in a small role as Sardonicus' first wife. Sadly, the talented Audrey Dalton has little to do as Maude and isn't in much of the film. (When I interviewed Ms. Dalton earlier this year, she did say it was one of her most enjoyable films to make.)

Castle explaining how to vote in the poll.
As for the gimmick, Castle appears near the end of the film to introduce a "Punishment Poll" in which audience members are supposedly given the opportunity to vote on the fate of Baron Sardonicus. There have been periodic discussions over the years as to whether Castle actually shot two endings for the film. But, to date, no one has found the footage of a second ending.

For the record, I think the make-up for the Baron's skull-like smile was inspired by the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder." You be the judge below:

Well, the noses are similar!

Finally, Mr. Sardonicus played a key role in a storyline on the 1987-90 critically acclaimed TV series Wiseguy, in which a character was obsessed with the film. That reminds me that the title is really misleading...no one calls him Mister Sardonicus...because he's a baron!