Thursday, December 14, 2017

Playing The Pajama Game

John Raitt & Doris Day.
New superintendent Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) has his hands full at the Sleeptite pajama factory. The company's disgruntled employees want a 7½ cents raise and the company's stingy owner isn't about to give in. Sid's life becomes even more complicated when he meets Babe Williams (Doris Day), the head of the union's grievance committee.

Sparks fly between the two, even though Babe tries to feign a lack of interest in Sid (while the other female employees gush about him). However, it's not long before loves blossoms. But can a company executive and a labor leader find middle ground on the road to marital bliss?

This 1957 adaptation of the Tony Award-winning 1954 stage musical features some good songs, energetic dancing, and a rare opportunity to see famed Broadway choreographer Carol Haney in a featured role. However, it's also one of those movies where the parts never gel into a cohesive whole.

Part of the problem can be attributed to the producers' decision to trim a stage musical running over two hours to a 101-minute film. The result plays like a highlight reel with one musical number leading to another with little exposition. For example, Sid and Babe exchange a little dialogue, duet on some songs, and--presto!--they're in love. A little more story development would have done wonders.

Likewise, two of the film's most famous musical numbers--"Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway"--don't seem integrated into the plot. Its easier to justify the latter because at least it's a song about a nightclub where a scene takes place. But "Steam Heat" is presented as part of the entertainment at a union event that seems irrelevant to the rest of the movie.

Haney, in the middle, for "Steam Heat."
That's not to say that "Steam Heat" isn't a fabulous musical number, because it's a showstopper featuring the incredible choreography of Bob Fosse and Haney's precision dancing. Haney, like much of the cast, appeared in the original stage production. She first met Fosse when the two danced together in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me, Kate (click here to watch their brief, but impressive routine on YouTube). Although Carol Haney won a Tony Award for The Pajama Game, she preferred to work behind the scenes. She later received three Tony nominations as a choreographer. Her only other major film role was in Gene Kelly's Invitation to the Dance (1956).

The Pajama Game was also John Raitt's only significant film appearance. Though his strong baritone voice serves him well, his on-screen acting is wooden and he and Doris Day exhibit little chemistry. Still, he continued to have great success on the stage and as a recording artist. And, yes, he is the father of singer Bonnie Raitt.

Doris Day was cast in the lead to provide the film with some star power. At one time, Frank Sinatra was attached to play the male lead with Janis Paige reprising her performance as Babe from the Broadway show. When Sinatra dropped out, John Raitt got the part and the female lead shifted to Doris.

Carol Haney.
By the way, Carol Haney's understudy in the Broadway play was a young Shirley MacLaine. When Haney injured her ankle, MacLaine replaced her for several performances--and was subsequently signed to a movie contract. Still, I'm glad she wasn't in the film version. The Pajama Game may not be a great musical film, but it's an opportunity to see Ms. Haney dance and I quite enjoyed that.

Monday, December 11, 2017

George Gently: The Complete Collection

Searching for that perfect gift for the mystery fan in your family? Then look no farther than Acorn TV's boxed set of the superb British detective series George Gently. This show, which concluded earlier this year, consists of twenty-five 90-minute episodes that were broadcast over the last ten years. Yes, it's a stretch to write about it on a classic TV blog, but this is one series that will be a classic--plus its convincing 1960s setting will evoke plenty of nostalgia.

Martin Shaw as George Gently.
Martin Shaw stars as the title character, a veteran detective chief inspector for London's Metropolitan Police circa 1964. A highly-principled man, George Gently has been fighting corrupt senior colleagues--and his actions may have been responsible for his wife Isabella's recent death. When a snitch provides a lead to locating Bella's killer, George postpones his retirement to investigate a murder case in Northumberland.

He is paired with a young, ambitious detective sergeant named John Bacchus (Lee Ingleby). Bacchus knows the locale and its residents, but he's also a copper willing to bend the rules in the line of duty. Yet, Gently recognizes promise in Bacchus, which leads the senior detective to postpone his retirement, transfer to Northumberland, and nix Bacchus' planned reassignment to London. Gently informs his new partner in no uncertain terms at the end of the first episode: "I've told you, Sergeant Bacchus, I'm chopping you down. You're staying here. With me."

Lee Ingleby as John Bacchus.
It's the constantly-evolving relationship between Gently and Bacchus that elevates George Gently above dozens of other British crime shows. The duo ultimately become loyal to one another and form a sort of father-son relationship. But Bacchus struggles to live up to George's expectations, especially when the older detective serves as the younger one's moral compass. The relationship becomes even more complex when a female police constable, Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis), joins the team in season six. Her open admiration and deep respect for Gently immediately puts her at odds with Bacchus.

Lisa McGrillis as Rachel Coles.
Don't go thinking that George Gently is all character study, though. The mysteries are tightly constructed and often integrated into the 1960s backdrop. The Cold War, riots, a holiday camp, and the pop music scene provide the background for some of the best episodes. As the series progresses, it moves from 1964 through the rest of the decade, with the final two episodes taking place in 1970.

Author Alan Hunter introduced George Gently in his 1955 novel Gently Does It. He wrote a total of 46 George Gently mysteries with the last one being published in 1999. In the books, there is no John Bacchus, Gently is single, and he lives in Norfolk.

The boxed set of George Gently includes numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews, and photos. The best bonus item is a booklet describing key historical events in Great Britain for the years covered by the series. The booklet also contains brief text interviews with Martin Shaw, Lee Ingleby, Lisa McGrillis, and producer Jake Lushington.

Key historical events in 1964--as described in the bonus booklet.

When asked to describe George Gently in one sentence, Lushington states: "I would say that it's a challenging and entertaining detective drama that gives you a realistic snapshot of the 1960s, rather than a rose-tinted memory." I would add that it's marvelously acted, especially by Martin Shaw, and is a worthy edition to any mystery lover's video collection.

Acorn TV provided a review copy of George Gently: The Complete Collection. It retails for $149.99, but you should be able to find it for much less, especially during the holiday season.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Irwin Allen's City Beneath the Sea

Stuart Whitman as Admiral Matthews.
Shortly before The Poseidon Adventure revived his big screen career, producer Irwin Allen made this 1971 made-for-TV film about an underwater city called Pacifica. Set in 2053, it opens with the U.S. President (Richard Basehart) ordering former admiral Michael Matthews (Stuart Whitman) back to the submerged city to oversee the transport of the nation's gold from Fort Knox to Pacifica. Matthews' return is met with open hostility. Everyone blames him for the death of his friend Bill Holmes, especially Bill's bitter widow Lia (Rosemary Forsyth).

Rosemary Forsyth as Lia.
There's little time to cope with such emotions, though, as Matthews learns about a "planetoid" that's heading directly for Pacifica. Unknown to Matthews, his brother Brett (Robert Wagner) has been plotting to steal the nation's gold bullion as well as its supply of H-128, a valuable, radioactive source of highly-efficient energy. Brett sees the impending planetoid disaster as a perfect opportunity to adjust and implement his scheme.

The Flying Sub from Voyage.
Intended as the pilot for a new TV series, City Beneath the Sea borrows liberally from other Irwin Allen projects. The aircraft that Whitman and Robert Colbert use in the opening scenes is the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Much of the equipment was recycled from Voyage and Lost in Space. Star Colbert was a regular on Allen's Time Tunnel TV series, as was supporting actor Whit Bissell and "special guest star" James Darren. In addition in Basehart, look quickly and you'll spot Bob Dowdell, who played Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton on Voyage.

Robert Wagner as the bad brother.
I'm not sure if City Beneath the Sea could have sustained itself as a weekly series, but the telefilm moves crisply and features plenty of action. Though Star Trek veteran John Meredyth Lucas wrote the screenplay, there's not a lot of depth to the characters. The most promising is Aguila (Burr DeBenning), a scientist with both gills and lungs. DeBenning later appeared as an underwater-breathing man again--though this time a villain--in Man From Atlantis.

Four-time Oscar winner L.B. Abbott supervised the spotty special effects. His work was no doubt hampered by the modest budget, but still good enough to earn the film a theatrical release in Great Britain.

City Beneath the Sea was Irwin Allen's second attempt to launch a TV series about an underwater city. He made a ten-minute clip in 1967 starring Glenn Corbett, Francine York, Lloyd Bochner, and a young James Brolin as Wild Bill Tyler. You can watch it on YouTube.


Here's a clip from City Beneath the Sea. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.



Sunday, December 3, 2017

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember (Vol. 4)

1. The Sword and the Dragon (1956) - When I was a wee lad, I pestered my Dad until he took me to this movie because... well..it had a dragon in it. Alas, the dragon doesn't appear until the climax, so hopefully I didn't drive my family nuts. Many years later, I learned this was actually a Russian film called Ilya Muromets, which Roger Corman purchased and re-edited for U.S. release in 1960. Dell even published a comic book tie-in and I had a copy.

2. Eegah! (1962) - Probably the worst caveman movie ever made, Eegah! stars Richard Kiel (Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) as the title character. A young woman named Roxy discovers him in a California desert and the caveman falls in love (sort of). Arch Hall, Sr. produced, directed, and acted in it. His son Arch Hall, Jr. portrays Roxy's boyfriend. The Halls made several bad flicks in the 1960s, but you gotta love their colorful titles such as Wild Guitar, The Nasty Rabbit, The Corpse Grinders, and, of course, Eegah!

Sean Flynn on the set.
3. Son of Captain Blood (1962) - Sean Flynn, Errol's only son, made a handful of European movies in the 1960s before deciding that acting wasn't for him. The handsome, younger Flynn's best-known film is this sequel to his father's Captain Blood (1935)A Spanish-Italian co-production, The Son of Captain Blood also starred Ann Todd in the Olivia de Havilland role. Sean Flynn later became a photo journalist who is believed to have been killed in Cambodia in 1970. My father was a huge Errol Flynn fan, so my family saw this one when it played (appropriately enough) at the Robin Hood Drive-in in Winston-Salem, NC.

4. Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) - A young man (Gene Wilder) makes a living in Dublin by scooping up horse dung and selling it as garden fertilizer. He becomes smitten with an American student played by Margot Kidder. This offbeat Irish comedy was made before Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein made Wilder a star. I rather enjoyed Quackser Fortune when I saw it on The CBS Late Movie--back when you never knew what might pop up on that venue.

McCallum as Sol Madrid.
5. Sol Madrid (1968) - At the height of their Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame, both David McCallum and Robert Vaughn tried to establish themselves as big screen leading men. In Sol Madrid, McCallum played an undercover narcotics agents in Mexico mixed up with organized crime and heroin. At least, it featured a pretty good cast with Stella Stevens, Telly Savalas, Ricardo Montalban, and Rip Torn.

6. The Venetian Affair (1967) - This was Robert Vaughn's post-U.N.C.L.E. effort. Unlike McCallum, Vaughn had flirted with stardom in earlier supporting roles like The Young Philadelphians (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Of course, that didn't make The Venetian Affair--his attempt at a serious spy film--any better. I saw this one at a theater with my parents when I was 11. I didn't understand it. I'm not sure I would now, though I have become an Elke Sommer fan over the years.

7. The Maze (1953) - A man (Richard Carlson) suddenly breaks off his engagement and moves into his uncle's creepy castle in the Scottish Highlands. A huge maze and a big frog (well, maybe frog-like creature is a more accurate description) are featured in this 3D cult pic directed by famed set designer William Cameron Menzies. When my wife and I ran a nonprofit film society in the 1980s, we showed The Maze in 3D. We had to turn the 3D glasses upside-down to see the three-dimensional effect. Go figure!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Interview with Heather Menzies Urich

Canadian-born Heather Menzies Urich had only one acting credit when she was cast as 13-year-old Louisa Von Trapp in the 1965 box office smash The Sound of Music. It was a dynamic start to a film and television career that would span four decades. Her television work included guest appearances in popular TV shows such as Bonanza, Dragnet 1967, The Bob Newhart Show, S.W.A.T., Marcus Welby, M.D., and The Six Million Dollar Man. Heather starred as Jessica 6 in the 1977-78 TV series Logan's Run, which was based on the hit movie. It was one of several roles that caused her popularity to soar among science fiction fans. She also starred in the sci fi movies Sssssss (1973), Piranha (1978), and Endangered Species (1982). In 1975, Heather married fellow actor Robert Urich and the couple went on to have three children. Then, in 2002, Robert died at age 55 from cancer. Five years later, Heather founded the Robert Urich Foundation. She remains actively involved in the non-profit organization, having hosted a fundraiser in Canada last August.

Café:  What was your life like after starring in a blockbuster like The Sound of Music?

Heather Menzies Urich:  It was pretty normal. It’s not something that I bragged about or talked about. All of a sudden, people wanted to get to know me whereas before I was a bit of a wallflower. I was always painfully shy so the attention didn’t really sit well.

Heather, 2nd from left, with Julie Andrews and family.

Café: What is the secret to the amazing friendships you and your Sound of Music "siblings" have maintained over the decades?

HMU:  We kind of grew up together. Our families became close and there was always something to promote, hence a reason to pull us all together over the years. For example, there would be a new re-issue of the DVD, an anniversary, etc.

Café:  In Sssssss, your boyfriend transformed into a snake and in Piranha, you played a skiptracer that battled people-eating fish. What are some of your memories from these modestly-budgeted cult classics?

HMU:  The snake one was a lot of fun to do. I loved Strother Martin and he became a bit of a father figure to me. Bob and I used to go over to his house on Sundays and sit on the back porch all afternoon. You never knew who else was going to be there. He knew everyone in Hollywood. At first, handling the snakes was horrifying, but we all got used to it. Piranha was filmed almost entirely on location in Texas. Joe Dante went on to direct Gremlins for Spielberg, so working with him was pretty special. Not to mention Brad Dillman, Kevin McCarthy and Keenan Wynn. Legends!

Café:  The Logan's Run TV series was short-lived, but has a loyal following (and can be viewed now on WarnerArchive.com). How did you come to be cast as Jessica 6?

With Gregory Harrison in Logan's Run.
HMU:  I went to the audition and then screen tested with a few potential Logans. Nicholas Hammond and Dirk Benedict were in the running.

Café:  The series only lasted 14 episodes despite the involvement of veteran Star Trek writers, one of the authors of the novel Logan's Run, and Saul David, who produced the movie version. What do you think led to the show's cancellation?

HMU:  I think they needed to spend more money on the visuals. Star Wars came out around that time and we couldn’t really compete with that.

Heather and Robert Urich on the Libby's set.
Café:  I've read that you met your future husband Robert Urich while making a TV commercial. Can you provide details...and was it love at first sight?

HMU:  It was a Libby's Corned Beef Hash commercial. We actually got married in the commercial. I kind of avoided him at first because I thought that getting involved with a “chiseled jaw” actor was not something I needed.

Café:  What was it like acting opposite your husband in episodes of Vega$ and Spenser: For Hire and in the movie Endangered Species?

HMU:  We did a lot of work together in acting class (Milton Katseles), so we were used to working with each other. We had a tremendous amount of mutual respect for each other professionally. We also did a couple of plays together: The Hasty Heart at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater and The Kennedy Center as well as Barefoot in the Park on the Kenley Circuit in Ohio.

Café:  As noted above, you guest-starred in many of the most popular TV series of the 1960s and 1970s. What were some of your favorite roles and why?

HMU:  Anything having to do with horses. So, I guess that would be any Western, such as Bonanza, High Chaparral, and Alias Smith and Jones.

Café:  Can you tell us about your work with the Robert Urich Foundation?

HMU: It is a California-based Foundation. We raise funds for cancer research and patient care. You can learn more at www.urichfoundation.org.

Café:  Are you participating in any upcoming events that you'd like to share with our readers?

HMU:  I’m appearing at The Hollywood Show in LA in February.

You can learn more about Heather Menzies Urich at her website (www.heathermenziesurich.com). You can connect with her and the rest of the Sound of Music 7 (the performers who played all the children) on Twitter and Facebook. All photos are courtesy of Heather Menzies Urich.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Elevators in Classic Movies

“Take the stairs! Take the stairs! For God’s sake, take the stairs!” proclaimed the ad line to 1984’s The Lift. In general, that’s advice that should be heeded by most film characters. Angie Dickinson played a housewife that was brutally murdered in an elevator in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). In another psychological thriller, the inferior Scissors (1991), Sharon Stone survived an elevator attack. The killer in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) successfully booby trapped an elevator before the opening credits even rolled. In The Lift, an elevator with a mind of its own (well, courtesy of an experimental computer chip), bumped off apartment dwellers in imaginative, gory ways. Even Steve Martin’s wacky comedy The Man With Two Brains (1983) featured a mysterious villain known as The Elevator Killer.

Olivia de Havilland trapped in her elevator.
Malfunctioning elevators have stranded their passengers between floors in films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Secrets of Women (1952), The Elevator (1974), and Out of Order (1984). Olivia de Havilland played a wealthy invalid trapped in her home elevator and threatened by psychotic teens in Lady in a Cage (1964). Another psycho, played by Dennis Hopper, threatened to blow up passengers stuck in a high-rise elevator at the beginning of Speed (1994). A villainous Charles Laughton fell to death in an elevator shaft in The Big Clock (1947). Michael Rennie plunged to his death aboard a malfunctioning elevator in Hotel (1967). Rennie fared far better as the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). When an elevator abruptly stops between floors, he explains to a frightened Patricia Neal why he has “neutralized” the Earth’s electricity.

In more fantastical films, elevators have been used to travel between planets (Dream One), travel through time (Time at the Top), and fly through the air (the “Wonkavator” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Bruce Willis climbing the elevator shaft.
Many film characters, such as Bruce Willis’ police detective in Die Hard (1988), have used elevator shafts as shortcuts in large buildings. Johnny Depp spent a lot of time traveling in glass elevators in Nick of Time (1995) and Sean Connery as James Bond looked very stylish standing atop an exterior, moving elevator in Diamonds Are Forever (1970). A woman had a child resulting from an elevator encounter in Between Heaven and Earth (1992), while a nude woman unexpectedly exited from a lift in Allen Funt’s What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970).

Elevator operators have been relegated to supporting roles in most films, although they played significant roles in Jimmy Boy (1935), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Confessions of Felix Krull (1957), and Living Out Loud (1998). Our favorite elevator operator is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) from The Apartment.

Here's a representative list of pre-2000 films featuring elevators:

Jimmy Boy (1935)
Secrets of Women (aka Waiting Women) (1952)
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Confessions of Felix Krull (1957)
Lady in a Cage (1964)
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
Hotel (1967)
What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The Elevator (1974 TV movie)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Man With Two Brains (1983)
Dream One (aka Nemo) (1984)
The Lift (1984)
Out of Order (aka Abwärts) (1984)
Die Hard (1988)
Scissors (1991)
Between Heaven and Earth (1992)
Speed (1994)
Downtime (1997)
Living Out Loud (1998)
Time at the Top (1999)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (November 2017 Edition)

Welcome to this month's edition of the Cafe's most popular game (of all time even...and there have been other games). You will be 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. Judy Garland and Bill Paxton.

2. Robert Wagner and Kevin Costner.

3. Ward Bond and John McIntire.

4. James Arness and Charlton Heston.

5. Barbara Feldon and Patrick McGoohan.

6. George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef.

7. The TV series Lost in Space and the film Alien.

8. George Burns and Robert Conrad.

9. Cary Grant and Mark Wahlberg.

10. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

11. Margaret Rutherford and Vanessa Redgrave.

12. Dual M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

13. Karen Valentine and Sandra Dee.

14. Moira Shearer and Danny Kaye.

15. The TV series Peter Gunn and Batman.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Family Discord in Edward Dmytryk's "Broken Lance"

The 1954 Western Broken Lance is a curious film that is both overly familiar and more nuanced than it first appears.

Father Tracy and sons Holliman, O'Brien, Widmark, and Wagner.
The plot focuses on the friction between cattle baron Spencer Tracy and three of his four sons (Richard Widmark, Hugh O'Brien, and Earl Holliman). It'd be easy to paint the brotherly trio as the film's villains and youngest son Robert Wagner as the hero. But the reality is that Richard Widmark's bitter son is smarter than his father; he understands the necessity for change and embraces it. His father, meanwhile, adheres to doing business the same way as usual--by bulldozing his way through all obstacles.

Wagner (sporting a Fabian hair-do) and Tracy.
Adding to the family discord, Tracy favors youngest son Robert Wagner with the fatherly affection he denied the other three. They grew up as he was building his empire. They toiled alongside their then-widowed father from an early age, rarely earning even a word of praise. Thus, their acrimony is understandable to an extent and it's hard to fault them when they take advantage of their father's folly.

As for their younger sibling, he has his heart in the right place. However, he is also too eager to play the hero. When Wagner's character rashly takes the blame for his father's actions and winds up in prison, it's hard to feel sorry for him. He also seems too eager to play the martyr willing to take the punishment for his dead old dad.

Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers.
Yet, while the family relationships hold one's attention for awhile, Broken Lance can't overcome a pervasive feeling of familiarity. Perhaps, that's because you've seen House of Strangers, a 1949 film noir written by Philip Yordan and starring Edward G. Robinson as the headstrong family patriarch and Richard Conte as the good brother.

Just five years later, Yordan transplanted the same plot to the Old West and won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, for Broken Lance. Yes, he won an Oscar for a writing a story based on a screenplay written for a previous film! This gets even more interesting, because some reliable sources consider both films to be adapted from Jerome Weidman's 1941 novel I'll Never Go There Anymore. Of course, one could also argue the influence of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Tracy and Katy Jurado.
The strong cast--which also includes Jean Peters and Katy Jurado--fails to inject much-needed excitement. Spencer Tracy could play a take-charge cattle baron in his sleep. As his wife--the calm voice of reason--Jurado earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Director Edward Dmytryk, whom I tend to associate with film noir (e.g., Cornered) and tight dramas, sets the action against some breathtaking vistas. He teamed with Tracy and Wagner again two years later for The Mountain.

This was his sixth film following his return to the U.S. in 1951 after four years overseas. He left the country after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as one of the "Hollywood Ten." When Dmytryk returned to the States, he was arrested and served six months in a West Virginia prison before agreeing to name names before the HUAC in 1951. In his 1996 book Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Holywood Ten, he explains his change of heart about testifying: "[If] I were going to be a martyr, I wanted the privilege of choosing my martyrdom. . . ."

I met Dmytryk in the late 1970s when he gave a guest lecture at Indiana University. He signed his name alongside the entry about him in my copy of The Filmgoer's Companion.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon. Check out all the entries on the blogathon schedule by clicking here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Double Case of Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.

The plots of each version closely mirror Christie's 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett's bloody corpse--which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds--is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh case).

The snowbound train.
The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot's advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer's interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot's explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery's solution in detail (indeed, the "reveal" scene lasts almost 25 minutes).

Wendy Hiller.
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it's easier to tell the suspects apart, because they're played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.

Ingrid Bergman.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that's unfortunate because he's a poor choice to portray Christie's sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot's manners, but there's no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using--it certainly didn't sound Belgian French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney's portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff.
The 2010 Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain's ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Jones (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.

At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film's opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic "reveal." It's a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie's plot will be able to fully follow Poirot's explanation.

David Suchet as Poirot.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is--as always--superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet's great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet's Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they're the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).

The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet's 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1950s

A while back, we had a lot of fun listing our picks for the Five Biggest Stars of the 1960s. Today, we're turning our attention to the 1950s--quite possibly our favorite decade for classic movies. As before, our very subjective criteria take into account boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity. We expect some dissenting opinions...so bring them on!

James Stewart in The Far Country.
1. James Stewart - Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, no actor enjoyed a better decade. In Rear Window and Vertigo, Stewart portrayed complex "heroes" struggling with, respectively, commitment issues and an unhealthy obsession. His hard-edged protagonists in Mann's "adult Westerns" helped redefine the genre. He also starred in a number of hugely popular hits, such as Harvey and The Greatest Show on Earth.

2. Cary Grant - While his career probably peaked in the previous decade, Grant was still going strong in the 1950s. He also benefitted from Hitchcock's magic touch, appearing in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. He teamed up with Deborah Kerr in the romantic classic An Affair to Remember. And he started the decade with one of his most underrated and interesting films, People Will Talk.


Deborah in From Here to Eternity.
3. Deborah Kerr - She began the 1950s playing traditional heroines in big hits such as King Solomon's Mines, Quo Vadis, and The Prisoner of Zenda. She then switched things up as a passionate, adulterous wife in From Here to Eternity. She also charmed a generation in The King and I and caught Cary Grant's eye in the aforementioned An Affair to Remember.

4. Marilyn Monroe - She started the decade with a small part in All About Eve and ended it as a major star and iconic sex symbol. Along the way, she starred as a murder-minded spouse in Niagara, appeared in musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, earned critical praise for Bus Stop, and capped it all off with Billy Wilder's quintessential comedy Some Like It Hot.


Burt in Sweet Smell of Success.
5. Burt Lancaster - Admittedly, I struggled with this last slot, because there are a lot of excellent choices. I opted for Lancaster because of the variety and quality of his work. He appeared in lively swashbucklers (The Flame and the Arrow, the irrepressible Crimson Pirate). But he also turned electrified in dramas such as From Here to Eternity, The Sweet Smell of Success, and Gunfight at the OK Corral Two of his lesser films are personal favorites due to the Lancaster charm: The Kentuckian and The Rainmaker.

Honorable mentions:  John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Glenn Ford, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. Hey, the 1950s was a pretty impressive decade for Hollywood!


Monday, November 6, 2017

Classic TV on Amazon Prime

Ray Walston as our Favorite Martian.
Without any fanfare, Amazon Prime has been quietly increasing the number of classic (pre-1980) TV series offered on its streaming service. Amazon Prime has always featured a handful of classic favorites, such as the original Star Trek and selected episodes of I Love Lucy.

But recently, it began to augment those staples with shows such as Petticoat Junction, My Favorite Martian, and The Rifleman. Many of these series can still be viewed on cable television. However, there are advantages to watching them on Amazon Prime: the episodes are uncut and commercial-free, plus you can watch them anytime you want.

There are also some surprise offerings, such as Buddy Hackett's sitcom Stanley (1956-57), which co-starred a young Carol Burnett and Paul Lynde, who voiced a character who is never seen. It's also surprising to find episodes of The Merv Griffin Show that feature guests such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Pryor, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, and Dick Cavett.

In the listing below, I've listed the number of seasons in parentheses after each show's title. If you've found other classic TV series on Amazon Prime, please share them in the comments and I will add them to the list.

Sitcoms
The Andy Griffith Show (8)
The Beverly Hillbillies (1)
The Danny Thomas Show (2)
The Doris Day Show (5)
The Donna Reed Show (2)
Dusty's Trail (1)
Family Affair (5)
Father Knows Best (1)
Here's Lucy (1)
The Honeymooners "Lost Episodes"
The Mothers-in-Law (2)
My Favorite Martian (3)
My Living Doll (1)
"Best of" I Love Lucy
Petticoat Junction (1)
Stanley (1)
That Girl (5)

Dramas
The Adventures of Robin Hood (4)
The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1)
The Buccaneers (1)
Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1)
Dangerous Assignment (1)
Dark Shadows (6)
Decoy (1)
H.G. Wells' Invisible Man (2)
Mission: Impossible (7)
Movin' On (2)
Mr. Lucky (1)
Mr. & Mrs. North (1)
Peter Gunn (3)
Route 66 (1)
"Best of" Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (2)
Star Trek (3)
Twilight Zone (5)

Westerns
Bonanza (3 episodes)
The Cisco Kid (6)
Hopalong Cassidy (2)
The Rifleman (5)
Yancy Derringer (1)

Quiz Shows
I've Got a Secret (1)
Match Game '75 (1)
Password Plus 1979
Tattletales '74
What's My Line? (1)

Miscellaneous
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (1)
The Gumby Show (1)
The Merv Griffin Show (1)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Covenant With Death

George Maharais as the judge.
George Maharis's brief flirtation with movie stardom included one crackerjack suspense film, The Satan Bug (1965), plus several questionable career choices. Made in 1967, A Covenant With Death falls in the latter category with Maharis playing an inexperienced half-Mexican judge in a small Southwestern town.

Maharis with detective Gene Hackman.
The implication is that Benjamin Morales (Maharis) was appointed to his judicial position by the governor as a favor to Ben's deceased father. He appears to be doing well enough with his job until a more senior judge (Arthur O'Connell) heads off on a fishing vacation following the end of a murder trial. When the governor rejects the accused man's (Earl Holliman) appeal, Ben has to sign the execution order for death by hanging. However, the execution goes horribly wrong and the hangman is accidentally killed. Making matters even more complex, evidence comes to light that may free the convicted killer of his original crime.

Had it honed in on the legal intricacies of its plot or explored ethic prejudice, A Covenant With Death might have been a sharp, little courtroom drama. Alas, the film goes astray with too many subplots surrounding Ben and the three women in his life. His strongest relationship is with his mother (the always reliable Katy Jurado), with whom he bickers with constantly, sometimes playfully and sometimes not. She knows what's best for her son and it's not the pretty blonde that visits from the big city.

Laura Devon as one love interest.
That blonde would be Rosemary (Laura Devon), who certainly shares a passionate, physical relationship with Ben. However, it's also an uneasy one since his dark moods set her on edge. She also describes him--accurately--as "a selfish, cruel little boy." Hence, it's hard to understand why Ben's sweet, innocent distant cousin Rafaela (Wende Wagner) is attracted to him. But it's a mutual attraction and takes up a surprising amount of Ben's time considering the legal challenges he's facing.

George Maharis was a better actor than people gave him credit for. As evidence, I offer the first two excellent seasons of Route 66 and the show's gradual decline when he left it. In A Covenant With Death, though, Maharis seems content to rely on his natural charm. He's never believable as a young judge with a bright legal mind. It doesn't help that his character is incredibly self-centered and borderline chauvinistic. His character might have been at home in a darker film, but A Covenant With Death is ultimately a conventional film with a sloppy happy ending.

Wende Wagner as another love.
The supporting cast features Gene Hackman just before his performance in Bonnie and Clyde put him on the map to stardom. As for the ladies, Laura Devon appeared mostly in television, notably in The Richard Boone Show and Dr. Kildare. She was married to Brian Kelly (Flipper) and later composer Maurice Jarre. Wende Wagner has a Richard Boone connection, too, having starred with him in the Western Rio Conchos (1964). She was discovered by Billy Wilder and later was a regular on The Green Hornet as Britt Reid's secretary Lenore "Casey" Case.

Here's a clip from A Covenant With Death. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.



Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The 10 Most Creative Ways to Destroy a Vampire According to the Movies

Sure, you can just drive a stake through a vampire's heart...but the movies have proven that there are far more creative ways. What better way to start Halloween month than to list ten memorable movie methods (with a nod to Sarkoffagus for his help):

The old "use a windmill to form the shadow of a crucifix" trick.
1. Trap the vampire in the shadow of a wind-mill, so it forms a cross on the ground. (Brides of Dracula)

2. Toss the vampire into a bathtub filled with holy water and garlic. (The Lost Boys)

One of the rather unattractive
golden vampires.
3. Using kung fu, punch the vampire in the heart. (The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires)

4. Shoot the vampire in the heart with a spear gun. (The Last Man on Earth)

5. While the vampire is standing on a frozen lake, use a rifle and shoot the ice so it cracks and the vampire falls into the water. This one is tricky because vampires aren't particularly fond of winter sports like ice skating. (Dracula, Prince of Darkness)

"I spy a big cross on the ground
down there."
6. Knock the vampire off a cliff onto a big cross protruding from the ground. Another tricky one 'cause the vampire must land precisely so that the cross impales him. (Dracula Has Risen from His Grave)

7. Shoot the vampire with a crossbow and drag him into the sunlight. (John Carpenter's Vampires)

8. Lure the vampire onto a roof during a thunderstorm, and maneuver him so he's adjacent to a tall metal object so he can be struck by lightning. Visually interesting, to be sure, but one of the most difficult to accomplish. Not recommended. (Scars of Dracula)

Not all bats like vampires!
9. Call on the powers of evil to defeat evil by sending a big swarm of bats to circle the vampire's castle. (The Kiss of the Vampire)

10. If you're sure it's near dawn, you can hop on a sturdy long table, run down it, jump on the drapes, and rip them down. The sunlight will disintegrate the vampire. If he tries to crawl out of the sunlight, use some candle sticks to form a cross and keep him from moving into the safety of shadows. (Horror of Dracula)

Honorable mentions:

- Defeat the vampire in a swordfight (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), though this is very similar to stabbing him with a stake.

- Trap the vampire in the thorns of a Hawthorne tree. Actually, this won't kill the vampire, but it will keep him from going anywhere. You can then dispose of him using the traditional stake or just let sunlight finish the job. (The Satanic Rites of Dracula)

OK, I'm sure I've left some very memorable methods...so I'd appreciate the insight of other vampire movie watchers!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Seven Things to Know About James Stewart

1. As a young man, James Stewart was fascinated with aviation and avidly followed Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. Many years later, Stewart would play Lindbergh in the film biography The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). It was only one of several aviation-themed films he starred in, with the others including Strategic Air Command, Airport '77, the excellent No Highway in the Sky, and The Flight of the Phoenix (a personal fave).

2. Stewart's introduction to show business came when he worked a couple of summers as a magician's assistant. However, he began to take it seriously as a potential career while at Princeton University. He became a member of an acting troupe called the University Players. Its alumni included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan (with whom he'd make four movies).

3. After a modestly-successful stage career, James Stewart signed a contract with MGM in 1935. After several minor roles, he attracted attention as the murderer in After the Thin Man (1936), the immediate sequel to William Powell and Myrna Loy's 1934 hit.

Stewart with bunny.
4. Although he was nominated for five Academy Awards, James Stewart only won one Oscar--as Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story (1941). His other nominations were for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940), It's a Wonderful Life (1947), Harvey (1951), and the gripping Anatomy of a Murder (1960). He was also recognized with a Special Oscar in 1985 "for his fifty years of memorable performances, for his high ideals both on and off the screen, with respect and affection of his colleagues."

5. Stewart made multiple films with some of Hollywood's greatest directors. He starred in four Alfred Hitchcock movies: Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the classics Rear Window and Vertigo. He acted in three Frank Capra films: You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life. However, his most frequent director was Anthony Mann, with whom he worked eight times. He and Mann helped redefine the Western genre in the 1950s with five outstanding Westerns that started with Winchester '73 (1950).

In The Jimmy Stewart Show.
6. James Stewart starred in two television series, though neither one was successful. In The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971), he played an anthropology professor at a small-town university, whose life is disrupted when his son and family move in. Julie Adams, who played his wife, told us in a 2013 interview: "My idea of heaven was going to work with Jimmy Stewart every day for six months." His second series Hawkins (1973-74) was actually comprised of seven 90-minute made-for-TV movies in which Stewart starred as a canny, country-raised lawyer. It was part of an umbrella series that also included the Shaft TV series and CBS television movies.

7. In the biography James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life, Hitchcock states of Stewart: "He was a very responsive actor, with an intuitive grasp of what I was after, what was required of a scene. He has a great natural gift...I have always been surprised by what Jim Stewart can dredge up out of his own inner feelings for a scene."