Sunday, June 26, 2016

George Pal's Production of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

The Martian machines and their force fields.
H.G. Wells purists may quibble with George Pal's 1953 production of The War of the Worlds. True enough, little remains of the novel's original plot. However, Pal and director Byron Haskin successfully balance the large-scale scope of the Earth's desperate struggle for survival with vignettes that capture the humanity of mankind. In doing so, they created one of the most influential science fiction films of the 1950s.

Gene Barry as Forrester.
Gene Barry stars as Dr. Clayton Forrester, an astro physicist from the Pacific Institute of Science and Technology, whose fishing trip is interrupted when a meteor lands in a small California town. At the meteor site, Forrester meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), an attractive USC library science teacher. In a classic "meet cute," she starts babbling about the great Clayton Forrester--unaware that she is talking with him.

The meteor, of course, turns out be one of many Martian spacecrafts sent as part of an epic invasion. In no time at all, cities like Paris are crumbling to the ground as the Earth's weapons prove useless against the invaders' most advanced technology. Can the Earth be saved?

The combat scenes remain impressive today with the Martians' triangular black-and-green war machines flitting over the battleground as they fire their incinerating death rays. Not surprisingly, these striking scenes earned The War of the Worlds an Oscar for Best Special Effects. It was nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Sound--and should have won the latter. It did win an award for sound from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA.

The uncredited SFX team used no computer digital technology!

A Martian hand on Robinson.
Despite its technical achievements, it's the more intimate scenes that give War of the Worlds its emotional strength. In fact, there are four that stand out for me on each viewing. Two are justly famous: (1) the scene where the priest walks fearlessly toward the aliens--Bible in hand, reciting a prayer--only to be obliterated; (2) the deserted farmhouse sequence with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, in which she comes face-to-face with one of the Martians.

The other two scenes of note are less widely praised, but equally impressive. The first occurs when, as a last resort, the U.S. military uses an atomic bomb to stop the Martians...only to watch in futility as an alien craft emerges from a cloud of debris ("Guns, tanks, bombs--they're like toys against them," says a general). The final scene I'll mention occurs near the climax when Forrester, who has been separated from Sylvia, finds her in a church as Los Angeles faces imminent destruction. With explosions lighting up the church's stained glass windows, a loud crashing sound causes everyone in the church to instinctively drop to the ground--except for Forester and Sylvia who remain standing in their embrace.

Playwright Barré Lyndon, who penned the screenplay, incorporates strong religious themes throughout the film. Examples include the scenes with the priest and in the church, the pending Armageddon, and even the narration that describes how the Martians were finally defeated.

Michael Rennie as the good alien Klaatu.
The 1950s remains the peak decade for science fiction films with bona fide classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, Forbidden Planet, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The War of the Worlds can't top any of those four, but making it into the top 5 is an impressive achievement.

By the way, Ann Robinson reprised her role as Sylvia 36 years later in three episodes of the funky syndicated TV series War of the Worlds.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Why Aren't Foreign Films More Popular Among American Classic Film Fans?

The Beast from Beauty and the Beast.
The good news is that 2015 saw a renewed interest in classic foreign language films. One of my favorite classic movie bloggers, Richard Finch, created a Foreign Film Classics group on Facebook. It now boasts over 725 active members who enthusiastically share their love for international cinema. Also, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) began to regularly show foreign classics in the wee hours of Monday morning (and occasionally in prime time). TCM's selections have ranged from the widely-known (Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) to the rarely-shown (Ozu's Good Morning).

Toshiro Mifune in Sanjuro.
The bad news is that the majority of classic movie fans seldom discuss or write about foreign films. This blog is no exception. While we have occasionally written about gems like Rules of the Game and Sanjuro, we have focused far more on English-language movies. That has led to some introspection and inspired this editorial which will attempt to delve into the reasons for ignoring international cinema in the classic film community.

Peter Lorre in M.
I'd watch more foreign films if they were more easily available.  This is a valid excuse to some degree. Except for TCM or perhaps your local PBS station, you're not likely to see a foreign language film on television--especially a classic one made before, say, 1980. However, video companies like Criterion and Janus have thrived by releasing foreign classics on DVD--many of which may be available from your local library. And if that's not the case, then check out YouTube where, if you look hard enough, you can discover subtitled prints of great films like Fritz Lang's M for free.

Subtitles are distracting.  If you're watching an old print with poor quality subtitles, you might have a case. I once struggled through an awful print of Les Diaboliques in which the white subtitles were superimposed over a white table in some scenes. You couldn't read any of the dialogue! However, the quality of subtitles--to include the accuracy of the translated dialogue--has improved over the years. Typically, I am conscious of reading the subtitles for about the first five minutes of a foreign film. Then I forget that I'm reading them and it's almost like the film is in English.

Sophia looking pretty iconic.
There are no foreign film stars to compete with American icons like Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and John Wayne.  Fans of Toshiro Mifune, Jean Gabin, Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Yves Montand would vehemently disagree with you. And for the record, many "Hollywood stars" actually began their careers making movies in their native countries. These stars include Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman, Peter Lorre, Omar Sharif, and Bela Lugosi.

I'm sorry, but I'm just not into artsy-fartsy foreign fare (e.g., just what does that chess game with Death really mean?).  First, the definition of "artsy-fartsy" is subjective (yes, you can quote me on that!). Second, there are artistic films in all cultures. I know plenty of film fans unable to make it through  John Cassavetes' self-indulgent 1968 classic Faces. Second, plenty of foreign fare has no artistic pretensions, but consists solely of entertaining movies that deserve to be seen. These films span all genres, from horror (Suspiria) to Western (Death Rides a Horse) to action film (Police Story) to comedy (Shaolin Soccer).

I can't identify with the culture and/or historical background.  Well, if you're not interested in learning how the rest of the world lives, then you may have a valid reason for not watching foreign films. Personally, I'm fascinated by films set in places and periods that I know little about and will often end up doing my own research to learn more. I secretly believe that someday I'll be on Jeopardy and there'll be a "Final Jeopardy" answer about the Tokugawa shogunate--and I'll know what it is from watching the Lone Wolf and Cub movies.

If you disagree with any of this editorial, please leave a comment below. Dissenting and reinforcing opinions are always welcomed. And if you haven't watched a foreign-language film in awhile, then check one out today and show a little love for international cinema.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

MGM's Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Greer Garson and Laurence Oliver.
After viewing MGM's 1940 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, comparisons with the BBC's popular 1995 miniseries are inevitable. That's not altogether fair to the 1940 version which is much shorter than the later miniseries (two hours vs. six hours). However, the simple fact remains that MGM's Pride and Prejudice is now regarded as a very good film while the BBC version instantly became a pop culture phenomenon that still boasts a loyal following.

Garson as Elizabeth.
For those unfamiliar with Austen's 1813 classic, the plot centers around the relationship between the wealthy, snobby Mr. Darcy and the headstrong Elizabeth Bennett. She comes from a modest family (though they still have a butler) headed by the sensible Mr. Bennett. Unfortunately, Mr. Bennett does not have a male heir, meaning that the family's home will go to a clergyman named Mr. Collins upon Mr. Bennett's death. Thus, Mrs. Bennett is focused on getting her five daughters married off to gentlemen with ample financial means.

Elizabeth overhears Darcy.
To his surprise, Darcy (Laurence Olivier) finds himself attracted to the witty, elegant Elizabeth (Greer Garson) at a country ball. Yet, that doesn't dissuade him from expressing his contempt for other members of the Bennett family to a close friend--a conversation that Elizabeth overhears. As a result, Elizabeth rebuffs Darcy's invitation to dance, even though she is also interested in him. Thus begins a series of advances and retreats in the slowly-developing romance between the two.

For me, the joy of Austen's novel (and all its adaptations) is watching the feelings of Elizabeth and Darcy evolve as the plot progresses. Elizabeth knows that Darcy's assessment of her family is mostly accurate. Her mother is overwrought and obvious in her marital intentions for her daughters. Sister Mary insists on singing in public despite being tone deaf. Younger sisters Lydia and Kitty are just plain silly, chasing after army officers and getting tipsy at parties. And yet, it's one thing to acknowledge the shortfalls of one's family and another to watch as a third party scoffs at them. For his part, once he realizes that he loves Elizabeth, Darcy sets out to prove his worthiness to her--even though she has made it clear that she could never love him.

Olivier as Mr. Darcy.
Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier fare well as Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, even though both are too old for the parts (Elizabeth is supposed to be 20 and Greer was then 36). It's impossible not to compare them with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth who played the couple in the BBC miniseries. Garson's performance brims with intelligence and charm, but its lacks the introspection that Ehle (born in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC) brought to it. Likewise, Olivier makes a memorable Darcy, but falls short of Firth in displaying his character's internal struggles (especially during my favorite scene--Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth).

Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins.
In my opinion, acting honors in the MGM film go to the always reliable Edmund Gwenn as Elizabeth's father, Melville Cooper as the pretentious Mr. Collins (who constantly babbles about his "esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh"), and Frieda Inescort as the haughty Ms. Bingley.

Acclaimed British noveliest Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) co-wrote the screenplay. However, credit for the excellent abridgment of Austen's novel probably belongs to Helen Jerome. Her 1935 Broadway play served as the basis for the MGM film. Incidentally, that stage play starred British actress Adrianne Allen as Elizabeth. Ms. Allen was then married to Raymond Massey.

A recent viewing of the 1940 film reminded me, though, how much of the dialogue was penned by Jane Austen. It's the author and her vivid characters, lively dialogue, and understanding of human nature that makes Pride and Prejudice a true classic. Cast it with good actors and I don't think one could go wrong--whether it's this version, the BBC one, or the 2005 adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Revenge of the Creature...or the Gill Man Visits Ocean Harbor Oceanarium

The Creature runs amok at the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium.
When the Gill Man was last glimpsed at the end of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), his limp bullet-riddled body was drifting in the water. It turns out that he somehow survived--only to be captured again and sent to a Florida aquarium where he can be studied by scientists and gawked at by tourists. It's a miserable experience for the Gill Man...except for the presence of science student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), who appears to have replaced Kay (Julie Adams) as the object of his affections.

There's not much to the plot of this sequel, which, like its predecessor, was filmed in 3D. It's primarily an excuse for a couple of nifty scenes. The first occurs when the Gill Man breaks free from his chains and climbs out of a giant tank, lumbering through the crowd as he heads to the beach. The second highlight occurs near the climax when the Creature makes an impromptu appearance at a seaside dinner club, grabs Helen, and dives off a pier.

Let no Gill Man come between John Agar and Lori Nelson.
Director Jack Arnold, who also helmed the first film, always had a flair for exciting visuals. That's the strength of this sequel. It lacks the sexual undercurrent of Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the Gill Man becoming more of a traditional monster. He does generate more sympathy this time around, but that can be attributed to the Gill Man's situation (e.g., it's sad watching him eat out of a basket like a lab rat...speaking of lab rats, Clint Eastwood has a quick unbilled role as a lab technician who almost loses a rat).

Lori with blonde hair.
John Agar and Lori Nelson do what they can with their underwritten roles. It's somewhat jarring to see the dark-haired Nelson as a blonde. Perhaps, that was an attempt to distinguish her from Julie Adams' character from the original film. Incidentally, Adams and Nelson starred as sisters in Anthony Mann's Bend of the River (1952). The two actresses became lifelong friends.

As for the Gill Man, he appeared in one last Universal picture in 1956: The Creature Walks Among Us.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Marvin Gaye, Lee Majors, and Half of the Righteous Brothers? It's "The Ballad of Andy Crocker"

Lee Majors in the title role.
After fighting for his country in Vietnam, Corporal Andy Crocker (Lee Majors) returns to his Texas hometown as a decorated war hero. The local newspaper touts his acts of bravery. His father gazes proudly at his son's medal. Strangers buy Andy drinks and offer him jobs. But all the ex-soldier wants to do is to see his girlfriend Lisa (Joey Heatherton) and work on motorcycles in his repair shop. Those memories kept him alive during his bleakest hours.

Joey Heatherton as Lisa.
First, he learns that Lisa married three months ago--around the time she stopped writing. Then, he discovers that his incompetent business partner (Jimmy Dean) has allowed their motorcycle shop to fall into financial ruin and wants to sell the property.When he tracks down Lisa, she admits she still loves him, but refuses to run away with him. She's willing to have an affair, but not leave her well-to-do husband. It turns out Lisa is pregnant.

The Ballad of Andy Crocker (1969) is certainly not the first film about a veteran who returns from war and becomes disillusioned. However, it's an interesting oddity, given when it was made and who appeared in it. The U.S. was still sending troops to Vietnam in 1969 and the war dominated the nightly news. Yet, it was a subject ignored largely by filmmakers except for rare efforts like John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) and the low-budget A Yank in Vietnam (1964).

The plight of Vietnam veterans was explored more frequently on television. Glenn Corbett, who joined Route 66 in its third season, played a Vietnam veteran. His first episodes dealt with his challenges with finding a new place in society. It essentially paved the way for The Ballad of Andy Crocker, which was broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week. According to Lee Goldberg's reference book Unsold Television Pilots, the Lee Majors TV film was intended as a pilot for a TV series called Corporal Crocker. One can only assume that the concept would have been for Andy to travel the U.S. and have various adventures (along the lines of...Route 66).

Marvin Gaye as David.
The unusual cast in The Ballad of Andy Crocker includes three famous singers: soul music legend Marvin Gaye, Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers (he sang the lead on "Unchained Melody"), and country singer Jimmy Dean. Gaye and Hatfield only have a couple of scenes and neither one makes an impression. It was Hatfield's only film appearance. Gaye also co-starred in the feature film Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), which ironically was about another Vietnam vet (only this time, an ex-Green Beret finds his girlfriend dead and seeks revenge on a biker gang). As for Jimmy Dean, he had already appeared as a regular on the Daniel Boone TV series and would later appear in films like Diamonds Are Forever.

Actress Joey Heatherton had a modest singing career, too, though she wouldn't have a hit record until three years after The Ballad of Andy Crocker. She released her creatively-titled The Joey Heatherton Album in 1972. Her only Top 40 hit, a cover of Ferlin Husky's "Gone," peaked at #24 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

Actor-writer Stuart Margolin.
The Ballad of Andy Crocker was written by actor Stuart Margolin, who is probably best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of the conniving Angel on The Rockford Files. Margolin boasted some musical roots, too, having co-written several songs. He even released a 1980 album called And the Angel Sings. Margolin has a small role as a hippy in The Ballad of Andy Crocker and also penned the lyrics to the title song which plays excessively throughout the movie.

The Ballad of Andy Crocker is a predictable film, but it has its heart in the right place and probably provides Lee Majors with his best film role. But the main reason to see it is for its then-timely topic and for the rare opportunity to see some music greats try their hands at another medium.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Creature from the Black Lagoon: The Gill-Man's Debut

Destined to join Universal's pantheon
of monsters.
Universal Studios was the “Home of Horror” from 1931 to 1946, but its Gothic monsters were relegated strictly to appearances alongside Abbott & Costello by the 1950s. There are many theories for the decline of Universal’s horror movies (e.g., the real-life horrors of World War II, uneven quality, genre fatigue, etc.). Whatever the reason, science fiction cinema had surpassed the horror genre and Universal wanted to recapture its audience. It got off to a good start with It Came from Outer Space (1953), a well-regarded alien creature saga based on a story by Ray Bradbury.

The following year, Universal released Creature from the Black Lagoon and launched the career of its most famous monster since the Wolf-Man. Like It Came from Outer Space, Creature was filmed in 3D and directed by Jack Arnold. However, the idea for a movie about a human-like amphibian creature is attributed to producer William Alland. There are various origin stories, but the most commonly accepted is that Alland heard about the legend of a “man-fish” in the Amazon during a dinner party.

The Creature's hand appears.
His film kicks off with an archaeologist discovering a fossil of a webbed hand in the upper regions of the Amazon. Focusing on the fossil, he fails to see a living webbed hand emerge from the murky water and disappear back into it. (The stinger music that accompanies each appearance of the Creature is very effective, if overused; there is no credited composer.)

Back at the Instituto de Biologia, wealthy Mark Williams (Richard Denning) is impressed enough with this new find to sponsor an expedition to unearth the rest of the skeleton. He takes along Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), a pretty colleague, and her fiance, ichthyologist David Reed (Richard Carlson).

Julie Adams as Kay.
Tracking the fossil remains to a hidden lagoon, the scientists discover the Gill Man and capture him. He soon escapes, though, and the hunters become the quarry when the humans find their exit from the lagoon blocked with a dam. It also becomes apparent that the Creature's main interest in the humans is Kay.

This straightforward plot serves as the framework for one of cinema's more unusual love triangles. Naturally, I'm not talking about the friction between Mark and David over Kay's affections. Though Mark may be interested in her, Kay ignores him. The real triangle is between Kay, David, and the Gill Man. Kay certainly shows no affection for the Gill Man, but he does intrigue her and she is quick to note that he never hurts her. One might call their relationship one of mutual curiosity.

The hand reaches out to touch Kay.
It's an intriguing one, no doubt, fueled by the film's most famous sequence. When Kay makes an ill-advised decision to go for a swim, the Creature spies her submerged form (quite fetching in a one-piece white bathing suit). As Kay swims along the surface, the Creature--his face looking up at her--glides underneath her, mirroring her movements. It's a stunning vision of erotic underwater ballet. This classic scene is only briefly described in the script, so most of the credit belongs to director Jack Arnold, who often infused his films with a stunning visual or two. (Another brilliant scene is a close-up of the Creature's hand as he hesitantly reaches out to touch Kay's foot as she paddles in the water.)

Ben Chapman played the Creature on land with Ricou Browning performing the underwater scenes. Considering he was wearing a molded sponge rubber suit, Browning's Creature is amazingly graceful and expressive. There were two different suits. The one used for the underwater scenes was painted bright yellow to create a contrast against the dark water (the film was shot in black-and-white). Although many people provided input to the design of the Creature suits, most film historians recognize Millicent Patrick's contributions as the most significant. According to Bill Warren in his excellent reference book Keep Watching the Skies!, the Creature's body was inspired by the Oscar statuette and its head was modeled after Anne Sheridan.

The mist gives this shot near the climax a Gothic feel.

By the way, the Creature is never referred as "the Creature" in the film. (Actually, an earlier title for the film was simply The Black Lagoon). It's none other than Whit Bissell--one of Hollywood's busiest supporting actors--who first labels the Creature "the Gill Man." It's a nickname that would stick.

Creature from the Black Lagoon was a huge hit for Universal and inspired two sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955), which was also shot in 3D, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The Creature also made cameo appearances in other films (e.g., Mad Monster Party?) and on television (e.g., Uncle Gilbert in The Munsters) in the ensuing years. There have been numerous plans to mount a big budget remake, including a proposed 2015 reboot with Scarlett Johansson rumored as a cast member (not playing the Creature!).

When we interviewed the luminous Julie Adams at the Cafe in 2013, she noted the enduring popularity of Creature from the Black Lagoon: "The astonishing afterlife of this film never ceases to amaze me. I'm proud that it has entertained so many movie fans for so long."

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2016)

What do Ida and Jodie have in common?
For those new to this 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. The Scarlet Claw and The List of Adrian Messenger.

2. Cry Wolf (the Errol Flynn pic) and Fellini's La Strada.

3. Errol Flynn and Peter O'Toole.

4. Richard Burton and Richard Harris.

5. Richard Harris and Thank God, It's Friday (this one is a little loose).

6. Star Trek: The Next Generation and the TV series The Prisoner.

7. Green Acres and Animal Farm (an easy one).

8. The Plague Dogs and Disney's animated Robin Hood.

9. Ida Lupino and Jodie Foster.

10. Joan Collins and Dorothy Lamour.

11. Eleanor Parker and Joan Collins.

12. Guy Williams and Van Williams.

13. Michael York and Gene Kelly.

14. Burt Lancaster and James Stewart.

15. Robert Mitchum and Patrick McGoohan.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

He That Troubleth His Own House Shall "Inherit the Wind"

Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.
Based on the celebrated stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, this 1960 film adaptation is a fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In that landmark case, renowned attorney Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. William Jennings Bryan, a former Presidential nominee and Secretary of State assisted the district attorney. In the play and film, the names have been changed, although opposing lawyers Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) are clearly based on Darrow and Bryan.

Dick York played the defendant.
Tracy and March, both in the twilight of their distinguished acting careers, give powerhouse performances. March portrays Brady as an overzealous evangelist determined to wear down detractors by the sheer strength of his convictions and the power of his voice. However, he is also a man clearly torn by common decency (represented by his wife) and his overwhelming drive to win a last big case. When the local minister whips a crowd into a lynching frenzy, it is Brady who calms them down. Yet, the very next day, he betrays the trust of a young woman in the courtroom.

Gene Kelly in his best dramatic role.
Tracy’s Henry Drummond is the opposite of the flamboyant Brady. His goal is to preserve the law—its very consistency, which is threatened by unreasonable state statutes like the one that prevents a schoolteacher from teaching Darwin's theory. Grim, but as determined in his low-key way as Brady, Drummond represents the moral center of the film (Brady is the Conservative and Gene Kelly’s cynical reporter the Liberal).

The other major character in Inherit the Wind is the town of Hillsboro. Director Stanley Kramer expertly shows the town’s transformation from quiet hamlet to frenzied carnival, complete with side shows, hucksters, and a ferris wheel. Even the courtroom is a circus, a media circus with reporters typing and sending reports on telephones during the trial.

Kramer stages these courtroom theatrics with an astonishing attention to detail. The stifling Southern heat hangs heavily over the room—people actually sweat…profusely. Kramer carefully positions his camera to capture contrasting actions in the same frame. It’s a textbook example of how to adapt a stage play to film, although a couple of talky scenes could have been trimmed.

The film's title comes from Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Ironically, it is Brady that paraphrases this moral, cautioning that one can be “overzealous to save that which you hope to save, so nothing is left but emptiness.”

Spencer Tracy received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The film also earned Academy Award nods for screenplay, editing, and cinematography--though it didn't win in any category. The play has been adapted for television three times with Drummond and Brady being played by: Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in 1965; Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas in 1988; and Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in 1999. On Broadway, the roles were originated in 1955 by Paul Muni as Drummond and Begley as Brady. Muni had to drop out temporarily due to cataracts and was replaced by Melvyn Douglas.

Monday, May 30, 2016

My Five Favorite Clint Eastwood Movies

Note that this list isn't comprised of the five best Eastwood films. Rather, it's just one fan's personal faves. And since this is a classic movie blog, I've focused on Clint's work through the 1980s.

1. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Eastwood's fifth film as a director spotlights two of his favorite themes: the bonding among outcasts and personal redemption. Set after the Civil War, Eastwood portrays the title fugitive, a former farmer who rediscovers his humanity as an assortment of outcasts join him on his quest for revenge. Eastwood skilfully blends action, comedy, and character development. I think this one also ranks near the top of any list of his best movies.

2. The Gauntlet (1977). Because Clint plays a tough police detective in The Gauntlet, it often gets lumped in with the Dirty Harry movies. It's a very different picture, with Clint playing Ben Shockley, an alcoholic, none-too-bright detective assigned to protect a witness (Sondra Locke) testifying against the Mob. When she makes Shockley realize he's being used, he finally digs down inside to find the man he could have been...or, perhaps, still could be. The Gauntlet is fast and funny (especially when the two leads are sparring) and the ending is delightfully over the top.

3. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). It's hard to imagine a more unlikely duo than Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. Perhaps, that's what makes them such a perfect pair in this lighthearted Don Siegel Western. Clint portrays a soldier of fortune who rescues a nun from bandits and helps Mexican revolutionaries fight against the French. Things get complicated when the grizzled cowboy finds himself attracted to the whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking Sister Sara. Budd Boetticher wrote the original story and intended it as a vehicle reuniting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison co-stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Clint with Sondra Locke.
4. Bronco Billy (1980). It took awhile for me to appreciate this low-key comedy about a traveling band of misfits that performs Wild West shows. It was a critical failure and most fans probably discount it. But Eastwood once said: "If, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you'll find it in Bronco Billy." It certainly has plenty of old-fashioned charm, a sincere message, and shares some common themes with The Outlaw Josey Wales. Locke, who lived with Eastwood offscreen at the time, made six movies with him.

5. For a Few Dollars More (1965). My favorite of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone collaborations pairs Clint with fellow bounty hunter Lee Van Cleef. They are both pursuing the notorious outlaw El Indio--though for very different reasons. Clint wants the bounty, while Van Cleef's reason isn't revealed until the climax (a trick used by Leone even more effectively in the later Once Upon a Time in the West). The success of this Spaghetti Western has as much to do with Van Cleef as Clint, but the two make a great pair.

Honorable Mentions:  Where Eagles Dare is a near-perfect action film, but Clint isn't really the star; Kelly's Heroes; and Magnum Force (Dirty Harry may be a better movie, but Magnum is more fun).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cult Movie Theatre: John Carpenter Channels Howard Hawks in "Assault on Precinct 13"

When Los Angeles police officers execute six gang members for stealing guns, the local gangs join together and swear a blood oath to retaliate against the city. That afternoon, a gang member randomly shoots a young girl. Her father, overcome with grief and rage, pursues and kills his daughter's murderer. But then, the hunter becomes the hunted and the father seeks protection inside a police station with the gangs in pursuit.

Austin Stoker as Lt. Bishop.
What he doesn't know is that Precinct 9, Division 13 has been replaced by a new police headquarters. Only a skeleton crew, led by a new highway patrol lieutenant, remains inside the old building. Of course, there are also some unexpected prisoners--to include death row killer Napoleon Wilson--who arrived when a prison bus had to make an unplanned stop. It's shaping up to be a long night for Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, as he battles hundreds of gang members assaulting the police station, copes with the prisoners inside, and deals with power outages and severed phone lines that keep the precinct building isolated.

Following the success of his debut film, the sci fi satire Dark Star (1974), writer-director John Carpenter wanted to make an homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. His limited budget of $100,000 prevented Carpenter from making a Western, so he transplanted the action to modern-day L.A. and titled his script The Anderson Alamo. Running a crisp 91 minutes, Carpenter's film jettisons Hawks' well-defined characters, but still retains the central premise of an unlikely group of misfits fending off an attack on a jail against all odds.

After a slow build-up, the last half of the film is almost wall-to-wall action as the gang members make varied attempts to capture the police headquarters. In addition to Rio Bravo, Carpenter has a grand time paying homage to other genre classics such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Thing from Another World (1951). In regard to the latter, there's a long hallway that will look mighty familiar to sci-fi fans. As for Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter has acknowledged that Romero's ghouls inspired the gang members, who become nameless, nondescript creatures once the siege begins. In addition, Night fans will pick up on subtle references like the brief discussion on the merits of the basement as a safety haven.

Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson.
The use of little-known actors, which was a financial necessity, works to the film's advantage. While there were never any concerns about John Wayne's John T. Chance dying in Rio Bravo, the fate of Austin Stoker's Ethan Bishop remains in doubt until the film's closing scenes. The three leads--Stoker, Laurie Zimmer as a police employee, and Darwin Joston as the death row killer--acquit themselves nicely. Joston, a quirky screen presence, comes across as an early version of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken from Carpenter's later Escape from New York (1981). One of the running gags in Assault on Precinct 13 has people asking Napoleon Wilson how he got his first name. (He replies that he'll tell them later...but never does.)

Kim Richards then and now.
Laurie Zimmer.
The only cast member to achieve any kind of stardom was Kim Richards, who played the young girl Kathy. She starred in Disney's Escape from Witch Mountain and its sequel. Decades later, she gained fame (of a sort) playing herself on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Of the three leads, Laurie Zimmer, who conveyed brains and beauty, seemed like the one most likely to succeed. However, she made only three more films and retired from acting. Twenty-seven years after Assault on Precinct 13, filmmaker Charlotte Szlovak tracked her down for the documentary Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? It revealed that Zimmer was a teacher who was married and living in San Francisco.

Although the film takes place in Precinct 9, Division 13 headquarters, the film's backers thought the title Assault on Precinct 13 was more memorable (and rightly so). The movie only did so-so business in the U.S., but performed very well in Europe and led to Carpenter making Halloween (with a budget that tripled the one for Assault). Halloween (1978) went on to gross $70 million at the boxoffice (yes, that's 233 times its budget).

A respectable remake of Assault on Precinct 13 appeared in 2005 with Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishbourne, and Maria Bello. It retains the 1976's film's basic plot, but changes the characters.

Finally, John Carpenter's memorable, minimalist score for the original film--which was written in just three days--was unavailable as a soundtrack until 2003.

Monday, May 23, 2016

23 Paces to Baker Street (or, Van Johnson's Rear Window)

Van Johnson and Vera Miles in lieu of Stewart and Kelly.
Although based on a 1938 novel by Philip MacDonald, this 1956 London-set mystery owes a lot to Rear Window (1954). In Hitchcock's classic, James Stewart was a wheelchair-bound photographer who enlists the aid of his girlfriend and house-keeper when he believes a murder has occurred. In 23 Paces to Baker Street, Van Johnson plays a blind playwright who overhears what he believes may be a kidnapping. He enlists the aid of his former fiancee (Vera Miles) and manservant (Cecil Parker) to help solve the crime.

In both films, the investigation redefines the relationship between the film's central couple. Unlike Stewart's character, who was only temporarily incapacitated, Johnson's playwright is permanently blind and determined to rely on no one. His bitterness and stubbornness apparently caused his break-up with Miles in the past. However, as he becomes more involved in solving the crime, he realizes how much he needs her.

Van Johnson overhears the plotting of a crime.
Despite its derivative premise, 23 Paces to Baker Street is a dandy mystery. It retains the central plot from MacDonald's novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared. While sitting in a pub, Johnson's character overhears a man and a woman, who may be a nursemaid, discussing what sounds like a kidnapping. Johnson memorizes the conversation and records it later, playing it over and over as he searches for clues. Considering that Philip MacDonald also wrote The List for Adrian Messenger--in which a man's final words provide an invaluable clue--it should come as no surprise that the conversation warrants careful listening.

Scene-stealing Cecil Parker.
Johnson and Miles are fine as the leads, but acting honors go to scene-stealer Cecil Parker as the resourceful butler, cook, chauffeur, and amateur detective. The film also gets a fine boost from the atmospheric foggy London exteriors and sounds.

By the way, the title comes from a quick scene where Johnson gives directions to a stranger in the fog. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie--nor Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Signpost to Murder: A Tidy Thriller

The Milhampton Asylum.
Alex Forrester, an inmate at the Milhampton Asylum for the Criminal Insane, is under-standably perturbed when the institution's board denies his release. However, he hatches an escape plan after his psychiatrist, Dr. Fleming, mentions an unusual law which entitles a fugitive to a new trial if he evades capture for 14 days.

Forrester (Stuart Whitman) seeks refuge at the isolated home of Molly Thomas (Joanne Woodward). Molly appears to be a lonely woman no longer in love with her husband Evan. She confesses that she married him because she wanted to become someone else. For her husband's part, Molly tells Forrester: "It's having a wife that Evan loves."

Forrester senses Molly's vulnerability and she is surprised by his innocent nature. He doesn't seem like a man who may have slit his wife's throat. The couple draw closer together as the police dragnet closes in. But the police are only one of Forrester's problems--especially after he sees a male corpse with a slit throat on the water mill located in the middle of Molly's house.

Joanne Woodward, Stuart Whitman, and the water mill visible through window.

Made in 1964, Signpost to Murder has become nothing but a footnote in the careers of its stars. However, that doesn't negate the fact that it's a tidy thriller that holds interest and takes advantage of a brilliant set. Most of the action takes place in Molly's house and around the aforementioned river mill. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest a number of film fans know it simply as "the river mill house movie." (Click here to see a clip on our YouTube channel.)

The water mill is located under the three windows in the roof.

Signpost to Murder was based on a 1962 London play by Monte Doyle. That comes as no surprise, given the limited number of sets. You'll likely figure out the plot's big revelation before the climax. Still, with a running time under 80 minutes, you won't get bored.

Stuart Whitman makes Forrester a sympathetic character, no small feat considering that the escaped inmate may be a murderer and is holding a woman hostage with a shotgun. Whitman earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 1961 for The Mark, in which he played another emotionally fragile individual. He also played a man posing as an asylum inmate in 1964's Shock Treatment.

The 1960s were an uneven decade for Joanne Woodward, who balanced critically-acclaimed performances (Rachel, Rachel) with misfires (e.g., The Stripper). She and Edward Mulhare (as Dr. Fleming) give solid performances in Signpost to Murder. However, from an acting standpoint, it's Whitman that holds the movie together.

The view from Forrester's perspective as he watches Molly and Dr. Fleming.

I first saw Signpost to Murder on The CBS Late Movie in the mid-1970s. It was one of those movies that stuck with me over the years. I recently had the opportunity to watch it again and, while it could use the Hitchcock touch, it remains a compelling thriller. And, yes, I still love that "river mill house."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon in Support of National Classic Movie Day

Happy National Classic Movie Day!

To celebrate this day devoted to classic movies from the silents to the 1970s, we're hosting the 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon. As it name implies, the intent is for participants to write about the five classic movies they'd want to have with them if stranded on a deserted island. (Yes, you can assume the island has electricity, a projector, big screen, and popcorn!) These choices might be one's all-time five favorite movies or a mix of some comfort films desired to give one's tropical habitat that desired "homey feel."

Thus, the selections have been wonderfully varied so far, ranging from the haunting 1973 Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive to Hitchcock's celebrated North By Northwest. The 32 participating blogs (with links) are listed below. If the blog's title appears in blue, then the blogger's 5 Movies post has been published.

We hope you can check back with us throughout the day and read each blogger's selections!

B Noir Detour
Back to Golden Days
Caftan Woman
Christmas TV History
CinaMaven's Essays from the Couch
Cinematic Scribblings
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Movie Hub Blog
Classic Reel Girl
Critica Retro
The Flaming Nose
Films from Beyond the Time Barrier
Hometowns to Hollywood
In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Java's Journey
Journeys in Classic Film 
Lady Eve's Reel Life
Little Bits of Classics
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Movies, Silently
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
Outspoken and Freckled
A Person in the Dark 
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
Prowler Needs a Jump
Shadows and Satin
Silver Scenes (Constance and Diana)
Silver Screen Modes
Spellbound by Movies
30Hz Rumble
Taking Up Room
Twenty Four Frames
Virtual Virago
Wolffian Classic Movies Digest

Our Picks for the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon

To celebrate the second annual National Classic Movie Day, the Cafe is hosting and participating in the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. The idea behind this blogathon is simple: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only watch five movies over and over, what would they be?

I pondered this question with Toto, my fellow Cafe contributor and editor extraordinaire. Each of us focused on identifying comfort movies--as opposed to our favorite movies. A major criterion was how well a film still entertained us after repeated viewings.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone in
The Court Jester.
Toto's fine selections, in no particular order, are:

1. The Court Jester.
2. 101 Dalmatians (1961).
3. Lover Come Back.
4. Pollyanna.
5. The Bishop's Wife.

I had a tough time narrowing my choices to just five. I knew there had to be a Hitchcock picture and a Hammer film in my list. It was difficult to omit at least one guilty pleasure, such as the island-friendly Beach Blanket Bingo, but there just wasn't an available slot. Again, in no particular order, my choices are:

The courtyard in Rear Window.
1. Rear Window – Vertigo is my favorite Hitchcock classic and Marnie and The Birds are right up there, too. But, when it comes to "repeatability," it's hard to match Rear Window. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter are a terrific trio and Raymond Burr makes a memorable villain. Thematically, it's one of Hitch's finest (e.g., the hero is a peeping tom and fears commitment). However, my favorite element is that wonderful courtyard and the "stories" featured in the other apartments.

2. Brides of Dracula – My Hammer friends may be shocked I didn't select a film with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. For that reason, I seriously contemplated The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). In the end, though, I went for a vampire flick and this is the best of Hammer's Dracula series, pitting Van Helsing (Cushing) against a handsome vampire (David Peel) taking advantage of a girls' boarding school. An added bonus: I never get tired of watching the windmill climax.

Kirk Douglas in disguise!
3. The List of Adrian Messenger – For this slot, I contemplated choosing Green for Danger or Ten Little Indians (1965). However, they were bumped in favor of John Huston’s gimmicky 1963 mystery, in which several famous stars make cameos in heavy make-up. While trying to spot the stars is undeniably fun, the gimmick disguises the fact that The List of Adrian Messenger is a highly-entertaining, crafty film that starts as a mystery and evolves into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game. The revelation of the murderer's motive is only part of the fun. It’s the “how” that differentiates it from other mysteries. Among his many skills, the murderer, played delightfully by Kirk Douglas, is also a master of disguises!

4. The Andromeda Strain – As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a sucker for movies in which the protagonist forms a team (the prototype of this kind of movie is The Adventures of Robin Hood). The Andromeda Strain is a great "get the team together" film, but it's also a superior science fiction outing that pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? 

Jane Powell and Howard Keel.
5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – You may think I selected this movie just to drool over the most excellent breakfast that Jane Powell prepares for husband Howard Keel and his rowdy brothers in the Oregon Territory in 1850. Well, I can't deny it--I've often thought of that tempting breakfast! However, this colorful musical features a memorable score by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, Michael Kidd’s spectacular choreography, and charming performances from the cast.

Be sure to check out other bloggers' choices for the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. You can see the full schedule by clicking here. Also, don't forget to wish your favorite movie fans a Happy National Classic Movie Day!