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."

Monday, October 23, 2017

Muriel's Wedding

Toni Collette as Muriel.
Before he directed the Julia Roberts hit comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan crafted this quirky, charming ode to feminine friendship and the joys of ABBA music. Like Strictly Ballroom (1992), another Aussie crowd-pleaser, Muriel’s Wedding features eccentric characters, dysfunctional families, and actor Bill Hunter. However, Muriel’s Wedding differs significantly in overall tone, effortlessly shifting back and forth between comedy and drama.

The film’s protagonist is Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a plain-looking young woman with a severe shortage of self-esteem. Her father, a local politician who fancies himself a bigwig, constantly berates Muriel—even calling her a “deadweight” in front of strangers. Her “friends” call her fat and criticize her hair style, clothes, and preference for ’70s music. She longs to leave the town of Porpoise Spit and get married.

Muriel realizes part of her dream after befriending Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), a free spirit who shares Muriel’s love for ABBA. The girls move to Sydney and enjoy an interlude of working-class bliss before a series of unforeseen events change both their lives. There is indeed a wedding, but it’s not what one expects—and that surprising quality is what makes Muriel’s Wedding such a delight (well, that plus watching Muriel and Rhonda, dressed as the ABBA girls, lip-synching to “Waterloo”).

Rhonda and Muriel channeling the women of ABBA.
Toni Collette, in her first starring role, transforms Muriel from an awkward loner to a confident adult who finally learns what’s important in her life. In later film roles, Collette would continue to display her amazing versatility, acting in costume dramas (Emma), suspense films (The Sixth Sense), and comedies (About a Boy).

There is a wedding....
Writer-director Hogan displays a sure hand throughout, especially in a crucial scene that goes from funny to serious in a matter of seconds. His clever use of music adds sparkle to several scenes (e.g., ABBA’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” played during a wedding). Hogan would display his canny use of music again in Unconditional Love and My Best Friend’s Wedding; our favorite scene in the latter film is when the wedding party joins Rupert Everett as he serenades Julie Roberts with “I Say a Little Prayer.”

Except for Scotland’s Bill Forsyth, Aussie filmmakers had the market for quirky comedy-dramas cornered in the 1980s and 1990s. Check out Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom to see why. They’d make a great double-feature.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (October 2017 Edition)

What do Gary and Doris have in common?
Welcome to the latest edition 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. Gary Busey and Doris Day.

2. Mickey Rooney and Charles Bronson.

3. Donald O'Connor and Mickey Rooney.

4. Valentino (1977) and White Nights (1985).

5. Bette Davis and Shirley Jones.

6. Beau Bridges and Marjoe Gortner.

7. Jack Benny and Anne Bancroft.

8. Ronald Reagan and Johnny Weissmuller.

9. Marshall Thompson and Sigourney Weaver.

10. James Garner and Ronald Colman.

11. James MacArthur and Spencer Tracy.

12. Bill Bixby and Tony Curtis.

13. Marshall Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.

14. Gregory Peck and Disney's Pinocchio.

15. Steve McQueen and James Caan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

A War Wagon Loaded With Gold!

John Wayne as ex-con Taw Jackson.
After being "shot, framed, and sent to prison" for three years, Taw Jackson (John Wayne) intends to gain revenge on the goldmine baron responsible. Taw's plan is to rob the Pierce Mining Company when it transports $500,000 of gold ore across 43 miles of treacherous terrain.

It won't be easy. Twenty-eight men, armed with repeating rifles and pistols with 200 rounds of ammo, guard the outside of the gold-carrying wagon. Five more men guard the safe inside the wagon. As if that's not bad enough, the wagon is plated in iron and was recently retrofitted with a turret housing a gatling gun. Folks call it the "war wagon" for a good reason.

Kirk Douglas as Lomax.
Taw assembles a motley crew to assist him with this heist. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) is a disgruntled Pierce employee tasked with transporting the stolen gold in flour barrels. The shady Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) has the responsibility to negotiate with a Kiowa Indian tribe to stage an attack as a diversion. Young Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr.) is a drunk with a talent for using nitroglycerin. Finally, there's a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas), who has also been offered $12,000 to kill Taw. Quite the band of merry men!

Made in 1967, The War Wagon is a breezy Western with plenty of action and humor. Among John Wayne's later Westerns, it doesn't rank with the best (True Grit, The Shootist), but I'll take it any day over run-of-the-mill oaters like Rio Lobo and Cahill U.S. Marshal. Plus, it's interesting to see the Duke as--technically--a criminal.

Valora Nolan not playing Animal!
The supporting cast alone makes it required viewing for fans of 1960s cinema and television. It includes Wagon Train TV series regulars Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks) and Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster). Keenan Wynn's "wife" is played by Valora Nolan, best known for her roles in Beach Party (as "Animal") and Muscle Beach Party. One of the bad guys is future High Chaparral regular Don Collier (whom we interviewed in 2016) and another is stuntman and future director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit).

Although John Wayne receives top billing, Kirk Douglas dominates The War Wagon as the fun-loving gunfighter Lomax. In addition to delivering most of the best lines, the athletic Douglas even steals scenes with his acrobatic approaches to mounting his horse. I do question his character's wardrobe choice, however, as that leather shirt looks like it'd be mighty hot for the Western Plains.

The scene I always remember best about The War Wagon is where a log suspended by ropes swings down and knocks off the top of the wagon. For some reason, it's one of those iconic scenes that seems to stick in one's memory long after plot details are forgotten.

The swinging log heads toward a collision with the war wagon!
By the way, one would expect that co-star Howard Keel would sing the opening "Ballad of the War Wagon," written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Instead, that's Ed Ames warbling it on the soundtrack.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

As a boy growing in the Great Depression, my father loved to read pulp magazines. His favorites were The Shadow and Doc Savage. I also became a fan when, beginning in the late 1960s, Bantam Books released paperbacks featuring these heroes. Thus, my Dad and I had high expectations when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was released in 1975. Yes, we had our reservations when we learned it starred Ron Ely, best known as TV's Tarzan. But it was produced by George Pal (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) and I knew he wouldn't let me down.

We hated Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It took our beloved hero and turned him into a camp figure with a (literal) twinkle in his eye. Thanks to Warner Archive's streaming service, I recently watched this movie for the first time in 42 years. Perhaps it was my tempered expectations, but I found it to be reasonably entertaining tale of derring-do this time around.

For those unfamiliar with Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr., he is a physically-gifted genius who might one well qualify as one of the first superheroes. He lives in a metropolitan skyscraper, but spends most of his time roaming the world on his various exploits. When he needs to do some serious thinking, he retreats to his Arctic Fortress of Solitude (which pre-dates Superman's same-named abode).

Ron Ely as Doc Savage.
Doc is assisted by the Fabulous Five, which consist of: Ham Brooks, a Harvard-educated lawyer; Monk Mayfair, a renowned chemist who also possesses great strength; Renny Renwick, a construction engineer; William "Johnny" Littlejohn, a geologist and archaeologist; and "Long Tom" Roberts, an electrical engineer.

At the start of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, Doc (Ron Ely) learns of his father's sudden death from a South American tropical disease. The elder Savage's possessions included some important documents, but before Doc can read them, they are destroyed...and Doc nearly gets assassinated by a mysterious native with a green snake painted on his chest.

Doc and the Fabulous Five head to the Republic of Hidalgo in South America, where they encounter the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler). It turns out that the Captain murdered Doc's father to prevent him from telling others about a "lake of gold" and a tribe called the Quetzamals that disappeared 500 years ago. But Captain Seas and his cronies turn out to be no match for Doc, of course!

Doc fends of the "Green Death."
It's a pretty straightforward yarn and anyone expecting a typical George Pal movie will be disappointed. The only special effects are some nifty green "air serpents" that kill their victims with electric nibbles. Veteran director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days) keeps the action moving and that disguises a lot of the film's weaknesses. 

Indeed, the only boring scenes are when Doc delivers an overly-sincere pep talk to the Fab Five and any scene featuring the ridiculous "Doc Savage" song (which is set to John Philip Sousa music). One assumes that these elements were intended to be camp. (Let's be honest, it's hard to intentionally make a camp film...Buckaroo Banzai being an exception).

Pamela Hensley.
Ron Ely does what he can in the title role, though one suspects he wanted to play the part straight. Supporting acting honors go to Pamela Hensley as a plucky young woman who helps Doc find the "lost" ancient civilization. Doc Savage could have benefited mightily from a villain more threatening than than the one played by the chunky Wexler. His climactic fight scene with Ely is absurd and not in a funny, campy way. 

Although the closing credits announce a sequel (The Arch Enemy of Evil), that production was scrapped when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze flopped at the boxoffice. There have been numerous attempts to mount new Doc Savage films, the latest being an announcement in 2016 that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would play Doc.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kirk Douglas is a Man Without a Star

Kirk Douglas as Dempsey.
Borden Chase penned some of the most important Westerns in film history, to include: Howard Hawks' Red River plus the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country. He co-wrote the screenplay for Man Without a Star (1955), an engrossing Western that may not rank with the aforementioned films, but still remains a compelling "adult Western."

Kirk Douglas plays Dempsey Rae, a cowhand that keeps drifting further north as large ranches with their fences begin to dominate the Western landscapes. While stowing away on a train, he meets a young greenhorn (William Campbell), whom he later dubs the Texas Kid. After Dempsey rescues Texas from a probable hanging, the young man clings to the veteran cowboy. Dempsey eventually takes Texas under his wing and gets both of them a job at the Triangle Ranch.

Jeanne Crain as the new owner.
They settle in nicely until two events trigger a series of conflicts. First, one of the smaller ranchers decides to use barbed wire to preserve fresh grass for his herd. The mention of "barbed wire" gets Dempsey fired up (we learn why later) and he decides it's time to move on. His plans change, though, when he meets the Triangle's new owner: the beautiful Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Although Man Without a Star was based on a 1952 novel by Dee Linford, it shares many similarities with Borden Chase's other Westerns. As in The Far Country, there are two strong female characters: Crain as the ambitious rancher and Claire Trevor as a brothel madam. However, the film's central relationship is between two men: Dempsey and Texas. That's a recurring element in all of the previously-mentioned Borden Chase Westerns (e.g., John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River, James Stewart and Walter Brennan in The Far Country, etc.).

Richard Boone, as a baddie, with Crain.
Indeed, one of the challenges in Man Without a Star is its brief 89 minute length leaves little time to explore relationships and themes. For example, once Reed Bowman shows up, the Texas Kid vanishes into the background for a large chunk of the film. Similarly, Reed is nowhere to be found in the film's closing scenes. Thematically, Chase and his fellow writers use the barbed wire fences as an analogy for the impending civilization of the West (much as Sergio Leone would later use trains in Once Upon a Time in the West). However, again, there is insufficient running time to explore this theme in any depth.

Claire Trevor and Kirk Douglas.
Screen veteran King Vidor directs with a sure hand and adds some nice humorous touches. My favorite is when Dempsey and the Triangle's foreman (Jay C. Flippen) are engaging in a pleasant breakfast conversation as Texas fights another ranch hand outside the bunkhouse. The camera never leaves the breakfast table as we hear the punches and grunts from the fisticuffs. Another funny scene is when Dempsey asks to see the new bathroom installed in the ranch house...imagine that...a bathroom in the house!

Man Without a Star was remade just 13 years later as A Man Called Gannon with Tony Franciosa in the Kirk Douglas role and Michael Sarrazin as his protege. It's a respectable Western, but lacks the verve and cast that makes Man Without a Star required viewing despite its limitations. It also doesn't have a catchy title song sung by Frankie Laine!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holmes on a Train in "Terror By Night"

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
There are better entries in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. In fact, when I ranked all twelve films from best to worst in 2009, Terror By Night came in #6--and, after viewing it again recently, that still feels right. But it has one thing the other SH films don't have...and that's a train. I've always had a weakness for movies set aboard trains.

Terror By Night opens with Holmes and Watson about to board the Scotch Express for business, not pleasure. Holmes has agreed to guard a 423-karat diamond known as the Star of Rhodesia. Legend has it that the stone resulted in "violent and sudden death" to all who possessed it. The current owner, Lady Margaret, is headed to Edinburgh with her son Roland.

The train has barely left the station when Roland is found dead in his compartment and the Star of Rhodesia is missing. Although there are no signs of foul play, Holmes remains convinced that Roland was murdered. (By the way, when Lady Margaret asks about the whereabouts of her son, Holmes simply nods towards the corpse on the floor...with Roland's eyes creepily open. It may be the detective's most callous act in the entire series, though he does apologize promptly.)

Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, Bruce, and Rathbone.
There is no shortage of suspects among the passengers, which include: a mathematician and his wife, a mysterious young woman, Lady Margaret, and even Dr. Watson's friend Major Duncan-Bleek. Could one of them be in league with the notorious criminal Colonel Sebastian Moran?

Renee Godfrey as a suspect.
It's not hard to guess the identity of the villain, but there's a nice little twist at the climax and some bright dialogue along the way. Roy William Neill, who directed all but one of Universal's Holmes films, keeps the plot speeding along. The entire film clocks in at under an hour. He also injects some much-needed action with a near-fatal clash between Holmes and the killer.

Sadly, Neill would only make two more films before dying of a heart attack in 1946. His last film, the noir Black Angel, would turn out to be one of his best.

As for Rathbone and Bruce, they would team up as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous duo for one last film: Dressed to Kill (1946). It's only a so-so entry, but that doesn't diminish one of the most entertaining "B" mystery film series of the 1940s.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cult Movie Theatre: Q--The Winged Serpent

It's Quetzalcoatl!
A window washer is beheaded. A half-naked sunbather is snatched from a skyscraper's rooftop. Yes, there's a giant winged serpent on the loose in New York City. Well, technically, it's an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it's also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices.

While the police try to solve these grisly crimes, a small-time crook named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) tries to avoid getting killed by more conventional means. During a botched diamond robbery, Jimmy winds up with all the jewels...only to promptly lose them when a car hits him while crossing the street. Now, he has a bum leg and a gang of angry criminals on his trail.

Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn.
Jimmy eventually seeks safety inside the Chrysler Building, hiding among the steel beams under the spire. To his amazement, he finds a giant nest with a humongous egg. Initially, Jimmy doesn't understand the significance of his discovery. But when he does, he decides that he can turn his knowledge into a tidy profit. City authorities want to stop Quetzalcoatl before it kills again, So, why not sell that information to them...and get his criminal record wiped clean in the bargain?

Candy Clark as Jimmy's girlfriend.
Independent film auteur Larry Cohen made a number of clever, low-budget, socially-conscious movies in the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous is probably It's Alive (1974), which somehow succeeds as both a horror tale about a killer baby and the story of an innocent child trying to survive in a scary world of "normal" people. In Q, Cohen's traditional would-be heroes are the cops played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Not only are they boring characters, they are also ineffectual when it comes to finding Quetzalcoatl.

The survival of the city's denizens is left to a hustler with limited smarts who can play a little piano. Jimmy Quinn doesn't have much going for him beyond a very tolerant girlfriend (wonderfully played by Candy Clark). Of course, even she decides she's had enough when she learns of Jimmy's extortion plan.

It can be difficult to cast anti-heroes, but Cohen was fortunate to get Michael Moriarty to play Jimmy. The actor was in high demand for much of the 1970s, appearing in prestigious roles in Bang the Drum Slowly, The Glass Menagerie (for which he won an Emmy), and Who'll Stop the Rain. His performance works inbecause he doesn't try to make Jimmy a likable rascal. Moriarty's protagonist is greedy, selfish, and dense. And that is what separates Q from dozens of other big monster movies.

Battling the winged serpent.
Due to budget reasons, Cohen limits the appearances of Quetzalcoatl, saving most of the winged serpent footage for the climax. While the serpent looks somewhat rubbery, the stop-motion animation is pretty impressive. David Allen, one of the lead animators, became an acclaimed special effects wizard. He worked on big budget films like Willow (1988) as well as TV commercials (his most famous one featured King Kong and a Volkswagen).

Larry Cohen and Michael Mortiarty teamed up for three additional movies. The most interesting one was The Stuff, a satire about a delicious gooey substance that turns people to zombies that crave more stuff.