Monday, April 24, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2017)

Patrick & Ray: What's their connection?
Along with April showers comes a new edition of one of our most popular features! 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.  Patrick McGoohan and Ray Bolger.

2.  The TV series The Virginian and Laredo.

3.  David Hedison and William Shatner.

4.  Rachel Ward and Gene Tierney.

5.  Florence Henderson and E.G. Marshall.

6.  Robert Reed and Roy Thinnes.

7.  Chuck Connors and George C. Scott (could be a toughie).

8.  Michael Landson and Alan Hale, Sr.

9.  Cary Grant and Michael Landon.

10. The Thomas Crown Affair and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

11. The made -for-TV movies Something Evil and Duel.

12. James Garner and the TV series Mission: Impossible.

13. Chill Wills and Rocky Lane.

14.  Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould.

15. Gene Barry and Patrick Macnee.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder found his career at the crossroads in the 1960s. Successes such as The Apartment and Irma la Douce were offset by flops like Kiss Me, Stupid and the under-appreciated One, Two, Three. It's almost as if he couldn't quite grasp what appealed to the public. I'm not suggesting that Wilder ever intentionally tried to appeal to mass audiences, but his aesthetic seemed to align with movie audiences for most of his career.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would become one of the great teams.
Made in 1966, The Fortune Cookie was Billy Wilder's last mainstream hit. It's an uneven dramedy that perfectly encapsulates Wilder's challenges during the decade. It's also notable for pairing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the first time.

Lemmon doing his wheelchair dance.
Lemmon plays cameraman Henry Hinkle, who suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. Initially, nice guy Henry rejects the idea, but he falters when Willie (Matthau) convinces him it may be a way to win back his ex-wife Sandy.

The Fortune Cookie works best as a comedy, with Matthau's shyster pulling out all stops to keep the scam going. In one scene, Willie has an Oriental lunch delivered to the hospital so the "delivery man" can administer drugs to numb Henry's leg so he can pass tests given by the insurance company's doctors. When Henry asks if the delivery man can administer drugs, Willie confirms that the man is a doctor...a veterinarian who lost his license to practice.

Judi West as the self-centered Sandy. 
The film's other subplots deal with Boom Boom Jackson, the guilt-stricken football player who believes he's paralyzed Henry, and Henry's ambitious ex-wife Sandy (Judi West). In a perfect scene, Wilder tells us all we need to know about Sandy. When she calls Henry, we see her laying in a bed with disheveled hair, smoking a cigarette, in a squalid apartment with a man in the shower behind her. Her compassionate comment to Willie about Henry: "Poor bastard...I just hope he winds up with a little money."

Willie in his cluttered office.
Despite effective turns from Lemmon and West, The Fortune Cookie belongs to Walter Matthau. After years as a supporting player in dramas and comedies, he had perfected his rascally on-screen persona. He won a best-supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Whiplash Willie and would graduate to lead roles beginning with his next film A Guide for the Married Man (967). It helps, of course, to have Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond write your dialogue. And, of course, Willie is a great character, because he's not only devious, he really is a smart attorney.

The Fortune Cookie earned three other Oscar nominations, including one for original screenplay for Wilder and Diamond. It hasn't aged as well as other Wilder films and it's too leisurely at 125 minutes. Still, Matthau, Lemmon, and West (this was sadly her only major role) are three fine reasons to watch it. It was Wilder's last film for four years. He would return to the screen in 1970 with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a different spin on the famous sleuth.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Visual Splendor of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

When originally released in 1959, Sleeping Beauty was a major critical and financial disappointment for Walt Disney. The film cost a then-hefty $6 million and failed to break even on its original release in the U.S. Critics were unkind, too, calling it ponderous and lacking in memorable characters.

Having just watched the digitally remastered 55th anniversary edition of Sleeping Beauty, I think the critics were perhaps a little harsh. While it doesn't rank with Disney's finest, it's still superior to most animated films. The only memorable characters are the three fairies--Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather--who become Princess Aurora's de facto parents. Dressed in bright red, green, and blue outfits, they dominate the story. Aurora, Prince Phillip, and even the evil Maleficent could have been better developed with more time on the screen.

The plot is based on--but also simplifies--French author Charles Perrault's version of the fairy tale. Fairies Flora and Fauna bestow the gifts of beauty and music on the baby princess at a joyous celebration. But before Merryweather can give her gift, Maleficent appears and curses the child. She states that before the sun sets on Princess Aurora's 16th birthday, she will prick her thumb on a spinning wheel and die. Following Maleficent's departure, the King asks if the fairies can reverse the curse. Their magic is not strong enough to do that, but Merryweather changes Aurora's death to a deep sleep from which she can be awakened only by a kiss from her true love.

The strength of Sleeping Beauty lies not with its narrative, but with its visuals. It was Disney's second widescreen animated feature film (after Lady and the Tramp) and the larger frame is filled with detail. Artist Eyvind Earle is generally given credit for the film's overall look. He won a 1953 Oscar for the Disney widescreen animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. However, Sleeping Beauty was undoubtedly the product of many gifted animators given the resources to create a visual masterpiece.

I don't think the images below capture the vivid color and rich facets of the film. So, I encourage you to view a copy of the new Sleeping Beauty "Diamond Edition" DVD. Thus, I'll end this review here and let the pictures do the talking.

The colorful Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
Aurora walking in the woods. Note how the leaves are used to add depth.

Maleficent--could she have influenced Cruella in 101 Dalmatians?
With the reflection in the water, this looks like a painting.
Aurora cries in her room, thinking she has lost her love. I love the details--
such as how the fire lights part of the tapestry on the wall.
The fairies try to find Aurora before she pricks her thumb. Note the almost
Expressionistic angles, especially the archway.
Maleficent's castle--reminding me a little of the one from The Wizard of Oz
The dragon sequence is breath-taking--always the film's highlight for me.

This shot reminds me of one used many years later for Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Working with Steve McQueen on "Le Mans": An Interview with Don Nunley

The new book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror, which arrives in stores today, chronicles the making of McQueen's 1971 cult classic about the famous international endurance race. It was written by Don Nunley, who worked as the film's property master, and Marshall Terrill, who has written biographies about McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Filled with over 400 fabulous photos, this book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about the making of motion pictures. Co-author Don Nunley--who purchased, acquired, manufactured, and placed props in over 30 motion pictures and television series--took time out of his busy schedule to stop by the Café for an interview. 

Café:  What inspired you to follow in your father's footsteps as a property master? 
         
Don Nunley on the Le Mans set.
Don Nunley:  My father did not encourage me to follow him into the film business. He knew how hard it was on your personal life. Long hours, and travel away from home and family. And the need to deal with personalities and huge egos on a regular basis. I started in 1960. There was an opening at Universal Studios in the Labor Department. It was to be a summer job until school started again in the fall. I was already enrolled at UCLA. It turned out I liked working at the studio. Later I moved into the prop department and that's where I stayed for my entire career. Call it serendipity. 

Café:  How did you first meet Steve McQueen?
Steve McQueen in 1971.

DN:  I met Steve McQueen on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive. We weren't formally introduced. It was more of an acknowledgment of each other while I was working as part of the set-dressing crew for the series.

Café:  When production designer Phil Abramson fell ill, you replaced him on Le Mans. What additional duties did that involve? Was any there discussion of you receiving a credit for your production design work?

DN:  When Phil left the picture, we were well into production. Most of the locations had already been chosen since most of the film was shot on the Le Mans circuit itself. There were still a few sets to dress and, of course, the big one was the paddock that had to be re-created after Steve's refusal to be filmed walking through it on the actual day of the race. I never asked, nor did I expect, to take Phil's credit from him. I know the studio appreciated what I did and that was enough.

Café:  What led to the two-week production shutdown on Le Mans and the departure of director John Sturges?

Director John Sturges.
DN:  Nobody could come up with a script that everybody liked. We had been shooting for several weeks without a leading lady or one word of recorded dialogue. Steve did not give John Sturges the respect he deserved. The studio was watching its money evaporate. John Sturges told (executive producer) Bob Relyea he was going home, and Relyea thought John was going back to the hotel. But John got on a plane the next day, flew to LA, and never looked back. That's when the studio took over. Within two weeks they brought in a new director, Lee Katzen, and took away all control from Steve's company, Solar Productions.

Café:  Next to Steve McQueen's erratic behavior, what was your biggest challenge with making Le Mans?

DN:  I would say matching the cars for the particular hour of the race we were shooting each day. The cars changed dramatically from hour one to hour 24. We wouldn't get our marching orders until the night before as to what we would be shooting the next day. This picture had no shooting schedule as a normal picture would have had.

Café:  You mention in your book that one of the Heuer watches worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans fetched $800,000 at an auction many years later. What was your role in those watches being featured in the film?

The Heuer Monaco.
DN:  One of my duties as a prop master was to supply the personal effects an actor used in the film. Steve wanted to look like one of the top drivers on the circuit. He liked the way (auto racing drivers) Joe Siffert, Derek Bell, and Brian Redman looked. I always needed to offer options. Ray Summers, the costumer on the film, and I put together a variety of choices for Steve to pick to wear on his uniform and on his person. One of the patches Steve choose to wear on his driving suit was the patch for the Heuer watch. He then selected, from the several brands of watches I provided, the Omega Moon watch. I tactfully pointed out to Steve that he wouldn't wear an Omega watch and a Heuer watch patch.  I had several choices of the Heuer chronograph for him to choose from. I thought he would pick one that was more subtle and mainline, but to my astonishment he chose the now famous square, blue-faced Monaco. Now, it's perhaps better known as the Steve McQueen watch.

Café:  Looking back over his career, what is your final assessment of Steve McQueen--both as an actor on the silver screen as well as a person you worked with on the set?

Steve McQueen and Don Nunley (center).
DN:  I was never one to hang around with actors. Steve had a lot of buddies, people who rode motorcycles and raced cars with him. When we started Le Mans, Steve was the number one box office star in the world. He was not the most difficult actor I worked with, but he certainly wasn't the easiest. He was careless with his props and required one of my staff to shadow him to make sure we got back what we gave him each day. He did not demand special treatment, at least not from my department. For me, Steve was always interesting and made the kinds of movies I wanted to see. 

Café:  You were involved in a host of other famous films, including Little Big Man, The Scalphunters, and The List of Adrian Messenger (one of our faves). What was your favorite movie that you worked on and why?

Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
DN:  I would have to say Little Big Man. Working with Dustin Hoffman very early in his career, and Arthur Penn, one of the top directors in Hollywood, was both a great challenge and a delight. With Arthur's support, I was able to spend the money, and do things right. I am very proud of my work on the film. In 2014, Little Big Man was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

Café:  Finally, your filmography includes one acting credit as "Doctor" in the 1983 Kirk Douglas movie Eddie Macon's Run. There's got to be a story there, right? 

DN:  In Eddie Macon's Run, I became an actor by default. It turned out that the actor chosen to play a doctor could not remember his lines. Out of frustration, the director, Jeff Kanew, turned around, looked at me and asked: "Can you remember the lines?" By then, I think everyone on the set--except for that actor--knew the lines. I put on the doctor's coat, grabbed a prop stethoscope and somehow did a page of dialogue in one take. I still receive about two dollars a year in residuals. So much for my acting career. 


All photos are from the book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror (except for the one from Little Big Man). Don Nunley's book was published by Dalton Watson Fine Books.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

For Love or Money: When Kirk and Mitzi Played Rock and Doris

Mitzi Gaynor and Kirk Douglas.
Made in 1963, For Love or Money is one of those mildly suggestive 1960s romps made famous by the classic comedy team of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It even features two veterans of the Rock-Doris films: Thelma Ritter and Gig Young. Indeed, the only major difference is that For Love or Money stars Kirk Douglas and Mitzi Gaynor.

Kirk plays Deke Gentry, an attorney hired by wealthy Chloe Brasher (Thelma Ritter) to smooth over the financial difficulties that have arisen between her and her three grown daughters. Deke can also pocket an extra $100,000 if he can match up each daughter with Mom's selected suitor. Considering that Deke spends more than he earns, the extra cash sounds mighty good.

Julie Newmar as Bonnie.
The daughters are an eclectic trio consisting of: Bonnie, a fitness guru (Julie Newmar); Jan, a hippie art enthusiast (Leslie Parrish); and Kate, a motivational researcher (Mitzi Gaynor). Though it requires some elaborate planning, Deke pairs off Bonnie with an IRS agent (Dick Sargent) and Jan with a childhood friend (William Windom) who rehabilitates convicts through art. However, his plans to match up Kate with his wealthy best friend Sonny (Gig Young) keep going awry. In fact, Kate begins to suspect that Sonny is a figment of Deke's imagination.

For Love or Money is an amusing comedy that lacks the sharp wit behind genre classics such as Pillow Talk (1959) or Lover Come Back (1961). Still, it's a better movie than some of the later individual efforts by Rock (e.g., A Very Special Favor) and Doris (e.g., Do Not Disturb). It could have used more of Thema Ritter and, at 108 minutes, it's easily ten minutes too long and lumbers to the expected finish.

Mitzi in a stunning orange Jean
Louis gown with a white coat.
The film's greatest strength is its two stars. Amazingly, Mitzi Gaynor only made seventeen feature films, preferring to concentrate on television specials and her nightclub act (I saw her perform live in a 1990 touring production of Anything Goes). She comes across as a natural comedienne in For Love or Money and generates plenty of sex appeal in some stunning Jean Louis outfits. This would turn out to be her final film appearance.

As for Kirk Douglas, it's easy to forget his versatility as an actor. During his career, he starred in action films (The Vikings), Westerns (Man Without a Star), hard-hitting dramas (The Detective Story), political thrillers (Seven Days in May), and mysteries (The List of Adrian Messenger). So, it should come as no surprise that he seems completely at home in a romantic comedy. Indeed, Douglas often exhibited a playful side even in his serious roles. So, perhaps, it's surprising that he didn't make more straight comedies during his lengthy career.

For Love or Money is one of eight movies featured on the modestly-priced DVD set Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection. Some of the others include Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, Man Without a Star, and The List of Adrian Messenger.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Seven Things to Know About Raymond Burr

1. According to John Beltran's book Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, the famed director gave Raymond Burr's villain gray, curly hair and glasses to look like David O. Selznick. Hitchcock and Selznick clashed frequently during their film collaborations.

2. When the original Godzilla (1954) was released in the U.S. in 1956, it was re-edited and included new scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter. His character's name: Steve Martin.

Burr in his famous role.
3. Raymond Burr had to audition for the role of Perry Mason in the 1957-1966 TV series. Originally, he tried out for the part of private investigator Paul Drake. He was later called back for an audition as Perry. His competition for the role included William Hopper--who was eventually cast as Paul Drake. Other actors allegedly considered for the famous attorney included Fred MacMurray, Richard Carlson, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Burr as Robert Ironside.
4. Burr appeared in the last episode of Perry Mason on May 22, 1966. Sixteen months later, he starred in the first episode of Ironside (a pilot film had aired earlier in March 1967). Ironside ran for an impressive eight seasons, meaning that Raymond Burr appeared in 271 episodes of Perry Mason and 199 episodes of Ironside. He reprised Perry Mason and Robert T. Ironside for made-to-TV "reunion movies." The former telefilm, Perry Mason Returns (1985), spawned a series of 30 TV movies. Burr starred in 26 of them, with Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook playing other attorneys in the last four films following Burr's death.

5. Raymond Burr was nominated for eight Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: five times for Ironside and three times for Perry Mason. His only wins were for Perry Mason in 1959 and 1961. Just to show that nobody can always be successful in television, Burr's 1976 series Kingston Confidential--in which he played a powerful, crime-solving publisher--only lasted for 14 episodes.

6. In 2008, Raymond Burr was one of four Candian actors to be honored on postage stamps. The others were Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, and Chief Dan George.

7. Actress Jacqueline Scott worked with Raymond Burr while guest starring on Perry Mason (multiple episodes) and Ironside. When we interviewed her in 2016, she described him as the consummate professional: "Raymond was a very special man. We shot court scenes on Perry Mason for two days. And on those days, he would have someone there to cue him the day before or else they worked at night. When he shot his scenes, he never used a script or a teleprompter. He knew his lines like the back of his hand...every single episode."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Accidental Tourist: A Wistful Tale of Emotional Healing

William Hurt as Macon Leary.
Tragedy still looms over Macon and Sarah Leary a year after the sudden, violent death of their 12-year-old son. The introspective Macon (William Hurt), never one to express his feelings easily, has built a cocoon around his pain. With no emotional support, the still grieving Sarah (Kathleen Turner) informs Macon that she is leaving him.

Macon, an author of tourist books, plods though the routine of life until two separate events change his world. First, he meets a force of nature known as Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), a single mother and dog trainer who takes an instant interest in Macon. Around the same time, he has a freak accident in his basement and breaks his leg. During his recovery, he moves into the old family home occupied by his three siblings, whose eccentricities make Macon look normal (they store their groceries in alphabetical order).

Kathleen Turner as Sarah.
Based on Anne Tyler's 1985 award-winning novel, The Accidental Tourist (1988) is a wistful film filled with quiet surprises. It's a decidedly sharp change of pace from the first collaboration between William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and director Lawrence Kasdan. That would be 1981's sexy film noir Body Heat, in which Turner played a murderer and Hurt her easily-deceived lover. Like Body Heat, though, The Accidental Tourist benefits from an excellent cast from top to bottom, a sense of time and place, and an unforgettable music score.

Trying to avoid social interaction.
William Hurt is clearly the star of The Accidental Tourist, for the story centers on how Macon learns to live again. His tourist books are written for travelers who don't want to leave home. They aren't about enjoying new experiences, but rather about how to avoid them (one of his tips is to always carry a book on planes, so you can read and not have to interact with other passengers).

Thus, Hurt has the challenge of playing someone who is "emotionally muffled" (as his wife puts it), but also one who must appeal to the audience. To his credit, Hurt gives a beautiful performance. It reminded me of why he was one of my favorite actors in the 1980s. (It's too bad later roles somewhat sidetracked his career, though he gained attention again this year with a creepy turn in the TV series Goliath).

Geena Davis as Muriel.
While Kathleen Turner is second-billed, Geena Davis has more screen time as the quirky Muriel. It's an energetic, heartfelt performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Equally enjoyable are Ed Begley, Jr. and David Ogden Stiers as Macon's brothers and Amy Wright as his sister. The latter is involved in the film's only major subplot when an unlikely romance develops between her and Macon's publisher (nicely played by Bill Pullman).

Director Lawrence Kasdan lovingly captures the old homes and the low-rent neighborhoods of Baltimore. His feel for the city almost matches that of two of the city's most beloved filmmakers: Barry Levinson and John Waters.

The Accidental Tourist also features one of the finest soundtracks of the 1980s. John Williams' melodic love theme--featuring strings, piano, and french horn--is both poignant and hopeful. It's truly one of the famous composer's finest works. To this day, I'm baffled as to how it could have lost the Oscar for Best Music Score to Dave Grusin's The Milagro Beanfield War.

Macon's scene-stealing Corgi.
On a personal note, I hold fond memories of my first viewing of The Accidental Tourist. Back in the 1980s, when my wife and I were younger, we would sometimes make the 45-minute drive from our home to Louisville, Kentucky, and catch multiple theatrical movies in an afternoon. On one day in 1989, we watched Mississippi Burning, The Accidental Tourist, and Lair of the White Worm--three very different movies, to be sure, but also each memorable in its own way. That day still ranks as our favorite theatrical "triple feature."

Monday, March 27, 2017

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Albert Finney as Arthur.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one of the many working-class social dramas that proliferated throughout British cinema during the late 1950s and the 1960s. These films were inspired, in part, by the "angry young men" genre that began with John Osborne's 1956 stage play Look Back in Anger. That play was adapted for the screen by Tony Richardson, with Richard Burton in the lead role, in 1959. The following year, Richardson produced Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which earned numerous awards and made a star of Albert Finney.

Rachel Roberts with Finney.
Finney plays Arthur Seaton, a young factory worker in Nottingham, who escapes his mundane existence by routinely getting drunk on the weekends and sleeping with a married woman named Brenda (Rachel Roberts). Arthur scoffs at colleagues who try to further their careers and admires co-workers who "know how to spend money like me." He still lives with his parents and occasionally goes fishing with his cousin. He also takes delight in making life miserable for a straight-laced neighbor (to the point of shooting her in the bum with a BB rifle).

Doreen and Arthur flirt.
Two events occur that nudge Arthur off the road to nowhere. First, Brenda gets pregnant--which is a serious problem considering she and her husband (who have a son) have not engaged in sexual activity for several months. Around the same time, Arthur meets an attractive young woman named Doreen, who also works in a factory.

Screenwriter Alan Sillitoe, who adapted his own novel, creates a memorable--if not always likable--character in Arthur. His young protagonist is filled with self-importance and considers himself something of a rebel without a cause. Yet, he's not quite the uncaring, fun-loving bloke he thinks he is. He gives part of every paycheck to his Mum to cover lodging and food. He genuinely cares about Brenda, although he certainly doesn't love her. And, in a rare moment of true reflection, he admits: "God knows what I am."

Rachel Roberts as Brenda.
It's easy to see why Albert Finney's energetic performance catapulted him to fame. However, Rachel Roberts dominates much of the film. She hits all the right notes as the carefree Brenda who cavorts with Arthur when her husband and son are away. That sets the stage for a remarkable transformation when her life is turned upside down with the unexpected pregnancy. Crestfallen and looking as if the weight of the world is upon her, Brenda confesses to a befuddled Arthur that her best course of action is to tell the truth to her husband and hope for the best. It's a remarkable scene and no doubt helped secure her the 1960 Best Actress Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also won as Best Picture that year. I can see how its realism, social criticism, and stark black-and-white world (the cinematographer was the great Freddie Francis) seemed like a breath of fresh air. Personally, while I found it a worthwhile viewing, I prefer other "angry young man" pictures such as Room at the Top (1959) and another one based on an Alan Sillitoe work, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). I also have a soft spot for the more cynical British satires of the 1960s, such as Georgy Girl (1966), Nothing But the Best (1964), and I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967).

By the way, be forewarned some of these films end rather abruptly by conventional standards.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (March 2017 Edition)

The connection between Jiminy and Gregory?
Spring is almost here! And what better way to celebrate than with the return of the Cafe's most popular game! 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. Sharon Tate, Stella Stevens, and Ann-Margret.

2. Leo G. Carroll and Richard Anderson.

3. Elsa Lanchester and Veronica Carlson.

4. David Hasselhoff and Jerry Van Dyke.

5. Ronald Colman and Ray Milland.

6. Warner Oland and Michael Landon.

7. Otto Preminger, Anne Baxter, and Art Carney.

8. Sandra Dee, Lesley Ann Warren, and Karen Valentine.

9. Judy Garland and Moira Shearer.

10. Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn.

11. Jiminy Cricket and Gregory Peck.

12. Christopher Lambert and Jock Mahoney.

13. Faye Dunaway, Buddy Ebsen, and James Dean.

14. Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood.

15. Elizabeth Taylor and Dumbo.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is "Green for Danger" one of the Greatest Detective Films?

It's a nifty, though misleading, poster.
In his book The Detective in Film, William K. Everson touts Green for Danger (1946) as one of the three best detective films ever made (the others being The Maltese Falcon and The Kennel Murder Case). I not only concur, but will add that it may be the best Hitchcock film not made by Hitchcock. That’s a bold statement, I know (and fans of Charade may be aghast), but Green for Danger could easily have been directed by Hitch during his late British period that produced The Lady Vanishes. In fact, the two films bare an obvious connection: both were written by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Gilliat also directed Green for Danger.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.
Based on the 1944 novel by Christianna Brand, the film takes place during World War II at an “emergency” hospital in the English countryside. Emotions are running high at the hospital due to the constant air raids and a love triangle with two of the doctors (Trevor Howard and Leo Genn) vying for the affections of one of the nurses (Sally Gray). After another nurse announces that a patient’s accidental death was really murder, she is found dead. Scotland Yard is summoned and arrives in the form of cinema’s most offbeat detective, Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim).

Gilliat and Launder make brilliant use of time and place. Random explosions from the German bombs create both tension and humor (in the masterful hands of Sim). Equally atmospheric are the isolated hospital’s shadow-filled rooms, the tight hallways, and the white operating theater. It’s a spooky place, especially in the eerie, brilliantly-lit scene where Sister Bates is killed. People sometimes die in hospitals due to natural causes—so what better place to stage a murder?

But what separates Green for Danger from other mysteries is its seamless integration of subtle humor in the form of its detective. In the midst of a homicide investigation, the Inspector and the head of the hospital have this exchange:

Dr. White: I do hope everything can be arranged discreetly.

Inspector Cockrill: Hmm, shouldn't think so for a moment.

Dr. White: Why not? Press? Do they have to be seen?

Inspector Cockrill: Can't keep ’em out.

Dr. White: Oh, dear.

Inspector Cockrill: I don't mind. They always give me a good write-up.

Cockrill also narrates the film from time to time, which allows him to offer amusing commentary like: “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall…I found it all tremendously enjoyable."

Inspector Cockrill nicely interrogates Nurse Linley (Sally Gray).

What makes Cockrill so interesting is that he can turn off the flippant humor like a switch and demand an answer to a probing question. It’s a credit to Sim’s acting ability that he pulls this off so effortlessly. It’s also a shame that Sim, Gilliat, and Launder didn’t make any follow-up films featuring Inspector Cockrill.

Sim gets excellent support from the actors portraying the suspects, especially Howard and Genn as the rival doctors. They are so convincing that the identity of the murderer is a well-kept secret throughout the film, even though the title provides a vital clue before the credits even roll.

Green for Danger was on my want-to-see list for about 15 years. One day I came from work and my wife seemed a little excited. She had made a lovely dinner, served me in front of the TV and VCR, and turned on Green for Danger—which she had taped off USA Network during that day (back when USA showed quality movies!). Sometimes, expectations result in disapppointment, but I’m glad to say that Green for Danger exceeded all expectations and remains a movie that my wife and I continue to show any acquaintances who haven’t seen it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Five Best Vincent Price Performances

A little devil provides bad advice!
1. Champagne for Caesar (1950). It's a shame that Vincent Price didn't make more straight comedies because he's hilarious as a business tycoon in this underrated gem. He plays Burnbridge "Dirty" Waters, owner of the Milady Soap company ("the soap that sanctifies") and sponsor of a popular quiz show called "Masquerade for Money." When Burnbridge doesn't hire an overqualified genius (Ronald Colman), the latter gains revenge by winning big on the quiz show. My favorite scene is when Burnbridge contemplates killing Colman's character, getting advice from a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other (both played by Price, of course).

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
2. Laura (1944). In another atypical role, Price is perfection as Shelby Carpenter, a worthless playboy that lives off older women but somehow manages to get engaged to Gene Tierney's title character (one of the true mysteries in the film!). He and Clifton Webb steal the movie...and get all the good lines, such as: "I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes."

3. The Baron of Arizona (1950). I'm not sure why Samuel Fuller's fascinating fact-based tale of one of the greatest American scams isn't better known. It provides Price with a dandy role as a meticulous con artist who masterminds an incredible scheme to claim ownership of the Arizona territory (prior to it becoming a state). Like the best villains, Price's character has his good points (he truly loves his wife). In fact, I found myself rooting for him to succeed (despite knowing that he wouldn't).

Price as stage actor Edward Lionheart.
4. Theatre of Blood (1973). Several of Vincent Price's later performances skewed toward being hammy. In this black comedy, he plays a ham--a Shakespearean actor who attempts suicide after being skewered by the critics and ignored at the awards once too often. He survives, though, and with help from his daughter (Diana Rigg), he exacts revenge on those pompous theatre critics. Price is a delight, reenacting death scenes from Shakespeare with relish. It was one of Price's favorite films and, ironically, earned some of the best reviews of his career.

5. House of Usher (1960). Price gave fine performances in several of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. In fact, one could plug Pit and the Pendulum (1961) or The Masque of the Red Death (1964) into this slot and you'd find no argument from me. I opted for this one because Price is compelling as Roderick Usher and because it was the first of the Price-Poe-Corman collaborations.

Honorable Mentions:  The Last Man on Earth (1964), in which Price plays the lone human survivor after a plague of vampirism.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the Five Stars Blogathon!


For the third consecutive year, the Classic Film & TV Cafe will celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th by hosting a blogathon. This year, we will shine the spotlight on those actors and actresses that made the Golden Days of Hollywood glitter brightly.

The Five Stars Blogathon invites bloggers to list their five favorite movie stars and explain why you love them. It's that simple.

If you want to participate, please check our blogathon guidelines. If you're good with them, leave your blog's name and web address as a comment to this post. You can also just send the information to: rick@classicfilmtvcafe.com. I will add your blog to the schedule and link to it.

If you don't have a blog, you can still participate on National Classic Movie Day by listing your five favorite stars on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or another social media platform.

And since May 16th is all about our love of classic movies, it's a great day to introduce a friend to the wonderful films from the silents to the 1970s!

Here are the participants so far:

Another Old Movie Blog
Caftan Woman
Champagne for Lunch
Classic Film & TV Café
Classic Movie Digest
Classic Movie Treasures
Critica Retro
dbmoviesblog
The Flapper Dame
goosepimply all over
Hometowns to Hollywood
In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Journeys in Classic Film
Little Bits of Classics
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
(Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews
MovieMovieBlogBlog
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Musings of a Classic Film Addict
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
A Person in the Dark
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
portraitsbyjenni
Realweegiemidget Reviews
Shadows and Satin
Silver Scenes
Silver Screen Modes
Silver Screenings
Taking Up Room
Thoughts All Sorts
Twenty Four Frames
Unknown Hollywood
Whimsically Classic

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Birds--A Matter of Misdirection

Alfred Hitchcock’s most divisive thriller finds the Master of Suspense in magician mode. On the surface, The Birds is a traditionally-structured horror film, in which the bird attacks build progressively to three of Hitchcock’s most intense sequences. However, this is just Hitchcock performing a little playful sleight of hand with the audience. Our feathered friends play a strictly peripheral part in moving the plot along. In actuality, The Birds is a relationship movie about another memorable Hitchcock mother, her adult son, and the women who threaten to come between the two—a theme explored by Hitchcock earlier in Notorious and Psycho.

In The Birds, the son is the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother.

Mitch's mother places herself between the lovebirds,
turning her back to ignore Melanie.
These characters come together when Melanie follows Mitch to his home in Bodega Bay after a flirtatious exchange in a pet store. Melanie’s arrival coincides with the beginning of the bird attacks. It’s almost as if the birds arrive to prevent any potential love between Mitch and Melanie, perhaps an extension of Mitch’s mother’s anger at having to defeat another rival for her son’s love. (Taken to the extreme, there could a parallel between the birds and the creature created by Morbius in Forbidden Planet).

However, although the birds initially come between Mitch and Melanie, they eventually have a very different impact. They allow Melanie, who first appears spoiled and shallow, to show her courage and vulnerability. In the end, Mitch’s mother no longer sees Melanie as a threat, but as a woman worthy of her son. Once the friction between those two characters is resolved, the bird attacks stop and the movie ends. Hitchcock’s conclusion—often criticized as ambiguous—is perfectly logical.

Hitchcock goes to great lengths to misdirect his audience by disguising The Birds as a conventional thriller. Always concerned with audience expectations, the Master of Suspense told French director/film critic Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, a brilliant collection of interviews: “I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story….” For that reason, the first bird attack comes at twenty-five minutes into the film and occurs toward the end of a playful scene in which Melanie races her boat while Mitch drives along the lake road trying to beat her to the dock.

Mitch, with all the women in his life, looks
concerned after the birthday party bird attack.
From that point on, the birds become progres-sively more menacing and their appear-ances more frequent: Mitch sees them on the power lines after Melanie visits for dinner; a bird crashes into Annie’s front door and dies; birds swoop down to break up a children’s birthday party; they fly through the open flue into Mitch’s house; and Mitch’s mother finds the first human victim in a farmhouse. (I love how Hitchcock uses broken teacups in this scene to foreshadow the impending horror. Earlier, he shows Mitch’s mom picking up broken teacups after the birds-in-the-flue incident. Then, when she visits the apparently empty farmhouse, she sees broken teacups hanging on their hooks—just before discovering the bloody, eyeless body.)

Melanie trapped in the phone booth, a metaphor for
her previously sheltered, empty life.
The remainder of the film consists of the three major set pieces: the bird attack outside the school-house; the attack after the gas station blows up; and Melanie’s struggle with the birds in the attic. Again, following the classic horror film structure, Hitchcock separates each sequence with a transition scene that allows the audience to relax and catch its breath. The scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist is one of Hitch’s rare missteps in The Birds; as Truffaut points out, it goes on too long without contributing to the narrative structure. I won’t dissect the birds’ attack on the school children—it’s an iconic sequence—but I strongly recommend that Hitchcock fans seek out Dan Auiler’s Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which includes the director’s hand-drawn storyboard and notes.

Though less famous, the burning gas station sequence is no less impressive. In the midst of the terrifying chaos, Hitchcock shows Melanie protected—and trapped—inside a phone booth. This “glass cage” is a marvelous metaphor for her previously sheltered life (also symbolized by the lovebirds in the birdcage) from which she is rescued by Mitch (literally…when he pulls her from the phone booth).

The three years between Psycho and The Birds (1963) comprised the longest gap between Hitchcock films up to that point. Much of that time was spent dealing with the technical difficulties in bringing Daphne du Maurier’s short story to the screen. In Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock admits that he discovered narrative weakness in The Birds as he was shooting it. A compulsive pre-planner, who storyboarded every shot in every film, Hitchcock began to improvise during the shooting of The Birds: “The emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.”

That creative genius is captured for all to see in The Birds. From its use of bird sounds in lieu of music to its disturbing closing shot, The Birds is an atypical Hitchcock film which finds the director in a mischievous mood. He gives us a classic chiller, but then reveals that it’s all wrapping paper and that’s what inside is a relationship drama. It’s an unexpected gift and, hey, Hitchcock even includes a birthday party for us—although it’s disrupted by those darn birds!

There's nothing ambigious about the ending--the real
conflict has been resolved.