Monday, February 8, 2016

MOTW: "Seven in Darkness" and "Men of the Dragon"

Seven in Darkness (1969). The first film broadcast by ABC under its Movie of the Week banner is a well-made suspense adventure bolstered by a nifty premise. All the passengers aboard a chartered airplane are blind; they are traveling to a conference in Seattle. When the plane runs into a strong storm, one of the pilots inquires about passengers. The stewardess replies: "Anyone else being tossed like this, I'd have my hands full. But they just sit there...it's kinda creepy."

Milton Berle and Sean Garrison.
Inevitably, the plane--which has gone off-course--crashes into the mountains. The seven people that live are all blind! Alex (Barry Nelson), the group's de facto leader prior to the crash, reminds the survivors: "We're blind, but we're not helpless." Spurred by the dual threats of more bad weather and a pack of hungry wolves (plus the fact that one of them is pregnant), the group leaves the crash site. They press Mark (Sean Garrison), a Vietnam veteran, into a leadership role. He resists it initially, but realizes it's the best course of action for all concerned. He doesn't notice, though, that this sudden change in leadership doesn't sit well with Alex.

There's a lot going on in Seven in Darkness. When the survivors aren't crossing a treacherous bridge with rotted wood, they're bickering among themselves and fending off wolves. Although the characters slip into stereotypes at times, a veteran cast keeps the film on course. Milton Berle, in a rare dramatic role, gets better as the story progresses and Sean Garrison makes a good stalwart hero with a secret. Garrison is perhaps best remembered for his short-lived TV series Dundee and the Culhane, in which he and John Mills played lawyers on the Western frontier. Other cast members include Arthur O'Connell and a blonde-haired Lesley Ann Warren (who gets to sing).

Director Michael Caffey directs with a sure hand, using sounds and images to remind us of the perils faced by the blind survivors. The whistling winds and the distant howls are particularly effective, as is a shot that shows us (but not the characters) that a railroad track being followed leads to a precipice. Incidently, Caffey is the father of Charlotte Caffey, who played in the all-female rock band The Go-Go's.

Katie Saylor gets ready to rumble.
Men of the Dragon (1974). As the Kung Fu craze reached its peak in the U.S., ABC showed this lively made-for-TV variation on Bruce Lee's hit Enter the Dragon (1973). Jared Martin (Dusty on Dallas) and Katie Saylor star as siblings who return to Hong Kong to save a near-bankrupt martial arts school run by a close friend (Robert Ito) and his father. During a shopping excursion, the sister is kidnapped by a powerful villain who aims to sell her as a slave for $1 million. With the help of a kindly brothel madam, the brother and his friend--both martial arts experts--track sis to an island fortified by the bad guy's minions.

Yes, there's not much to the plot of Men of the Dragon--but it provides an adequate framework for the many fight scenes. David Chow, who served as the "technical adviser" on the Kung Fu TV series, choreographed the kicks and punches. The fights may seem pedestrian compared to Lee and his peers, but they're convincing enough and wisely avoid the over-reliance on slow motion employed in the Kung Fu series.

Wiseman in his better known role.
Men of the Dragon is also notable for two other reasonsFirst, it's refreshing to see a female character on 1970s TV trade punches with the male baddies. Granted, Saylor's big fight scene may be brief, but she remains feisty throughout the film. Second, the villain is portrayed by none other than Joseph Wiseman, best known as the title character in Dr. No. He doesn't have much to do here, but he can make any line sound evil!

Jared Martin, Katie Saylor, and Robert Ito look respectable in the fight scenes. I couldn't confirm that any of them practiced martial arts in real life. Martin, who was Brian De Palma's roommate at Columbia, did appear in the 1987 film Karate Warrior. He and Saylor also starred together in the short-lived 1977 sci fi series The Fantastic Journey. Robert Ito is probably best-remembered as lab assistant Sam Fujiyama on Quincey M.E.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Quentin Durward: The Dying Days of Chivalry

Robert Taylor in the title role.
After Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953), MGM was hoping the casting of Robert Taylor in a third medieval picture would once again generate big profits. Unfortunately, Quentin Durward (1955), which reteamed Taylor and director Richard Thorpe, failed to find an audience. That's puzzling for a movie that boasts colorful scenery, lively swordplay, and an affable cast. It may not be Ivanhoe, but Quentin Durward is an entertaining swashbuckler that deserved a better fate in '55 and should be more fondly remembered today.

Taylor plays the title character, a Scottish knight in 1465 who, by his own admission, was "born perhaps a few minutes too late." Quentin is an honorable, honest, valiant--and also poor--man. Alas, he lives during the "dying days of chivalry" when political intrigue and treachery dominate Europe.

This is not a painting, but one of the real castles used in the film.

Robert Morley as the French king.
His elderly uncle sends Quentin to France to arrange a marriage with the lovely and wealthy Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy. The Duke of Burgundy wants Isabelle (Kay Kendall) to marry Quentin's uncle, but the Countess refuses and seeks the protection of King Louis XI (Robert Morley). The King has his own plans for Isabelle's future and those plans naturally benefit Louis more than Isabelle. Meanwhile, Quentin gains King Louis' confidence and, of course, falls in love with the beautiful countess.

Veteran British actor George Cole.
While the castles and costumes may draw attention, the best swashbucklers rely on likable actors cast in well-written roles (e.g., The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scaramouche). That's good news for Quentin Durward, which provides Taylor with one of his best parts. He hits all the right notes as the valiant knight, but he also finds humor in the character (e.g., Quentin isn't shy about accepting money). Robert Morley softens King Louis' treacherous side by making him a royal rascal. And George Cole steals scenes aplenty as a gypsy who tries to rationalize his good deeds.

Kay Kendall--Grace Kelly was first
offered the part.
While Kay Kendall shows some spunk as Isabelle, the cool beauty lacks the sizzle that Elizabeth Taylor brought to Ivanhoe. That leads to the one significant flaw in Quentin Durward: the lack of a worthy villain. George Sanders was brilliant as the conflicted baddie in Ivanhoe. In his place, Quentin Durward offers a cardboard blackguard played by Duncan Lamont. I think Lamont could have played a worthy adversary, but his role is poorly-written and he's barely in the picture.

Taylor and Lamont do engage in one of my favorite swashbuckler duels. They swing on bell ropes over blazing flames as they lunge toward one another with their weapons. The fight ends too abruptly, but still ranks as one of the most original I've seen. (Click here to watch it on the Cafe's YouTube channel.)

In a 1954 Quentin Durward review, the venerable entertainment industry newspaper Variety wrote: "This lively film version of Walter Scott's Quentin Durward finds knighthood again in bloom with enough dash and costumer derring-do to make fans of swashbucklers happy." That's an accurate summary and, in my book, a pretty good endorsement for watching this forgotten favorite.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Announcing the TV Sidekick Blogathon!


In most TV series, it's the star that gets the biggest laughs, the most fan letters, the fattest paycheck, and his or her name in the show's title. How often did Artemus Gordon end up with the pretty girl on The Wild, Wild West? Adam West received tons of fan mail for playing Batman, while Burt Ward got a lot less as Robin. And why was there never a TV series called The Many Loves of Maynard G. Krebs?

Yes, throughout television history, sidekicks have gotten little respect. That changes today!

Being a dapper dresser didn't
help Artemus with the ladies.
On March 6-8, the Classic Film & TV Cafe will host the TV Sidekick Blogathon. It's an opportunity for bloggers to write about their favorite classic TV sidekicks and give them the recognition and love they deserve.

If you wish to participate, please read the Cafe's blogathon guidelines first. If you're good with them, then send your selected sidekick, your blog's name, and web address in an e-mail to: blogathon@classicfilmtvcafe.com. Or, you can leave the required information below as a comment.

Please note that this is a classic TV blogathon, so no sidekicks that debuted on TV series after 1989 will be included. Duplicates will not be allowed (e.g., only one person will be able to write about Barney Fife). You can write about more than one sidekick, though (but please, only two per person).

Della Street: Perry's sidekick
or girlfriend...or both?
Do not e-mail your posts. I will publish a link to the post on your blog during the blogathon. If you can publish your post by 7:00 a.m. EST on your scheduled day, I can promote it throughout the day on social media. (If you'd like to publish on a specific date, let me know and I will try to accomodate.)

Please send any questions to rick@classicfilmtvcafe.com. We hope you can participate. It's a great way to honor TV sidekicks.

Here's the schedule so far:

Sunday, March 6
Corporal Randolph Agarn (F Troop) - The Horn Section 
Rickie Brockelman (The Rocford Files) - Unknown Hollywood Weekend
Dyna Girl (Electra Woman and Dyna Girl) - Comfort TV
Kato (The Green Hornet) - Captain Video
Ethel Mertz (I Love Lucy) - Michael's TV Tray
Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Star Trek) - The Flaming Nose

Monday, March 7
John Bosley (Charlie's Angels) - Made for TV Mayhem 
The Corvette (Route 66) - Classic Film & TV Cafe
Della Street and Paul Drake (Perry Mason) - Caftan Woman
Blanche Morton (The Burns and Allen Show)- How Sweet It Was
Sergeant Schultz (Hogan's Heroes) - Vote For Bob Crane
Torque (A Man Called Sloan) - Phantom Empires - U.S. TV

Tuesday, March 8
Vivian Bagley (The Lucy Show) - TV When I Was Born
Bear (B.J. and the Bear) - Some Polish American Guy Reviews Things
Buffalo Baker and Sam the Dog (Hondo) - The Horn Section
Artemus Gordon (The Wild, Wild West) - Recap Retro
Ralph Malph (Happy Days) - The Flaming Nose
The Rankin/Bass Elves - Christmas TV History

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Best Movies You May Have Never Seen (January 2016)

Recommended and reviewed by Gary Cahall, MovieFanFare

Murder, He Says (1945).  This playfully macabre dark comedy is packed with homicidal hillbillies, a hidden fortune and, maybe, an NPR theme song. A sleepy Ozarks community panics over news that Bonnie Fleagle–part of a notorious local outlaw clan–has escaped prison. Picking that moment to pedal into town is Pete Marshall (Fred MacMurray), a bike-riding polling company survey-taker looking for a missing co-worker. Pete’s backwoods search lands him in the clutches of the aforementioned Fleagles: short-tempered, bullwhip-wielding matriarch Mamie (Marjorie Main, Fred's future The Egg and I co-star); her dim-witted twins Bert and Mert (Peter Whitney) and addled daughter Elany (Jean Heather); and Mamie’s latest husband, toxins expert Mr. Johnson (Porter Hall, the twitchy Macy’s psychologist in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street).

Twins Bert and Mert (far left and right) were played by Peter Whitney.

The oddball brood's final member, bed-ridden Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige), is being slowly poisoned--with a substance that makes her glow in the dark--because she knows where Bonnie and her bank-robber pa stashed $70,000 before being caught. Mamie and company coerce Pete into posing as Bonnie’s boyfriend so that Grandma might confide in him before dying. She gives him a sampler whose stitched musical notes (“To them what doesn’t know the tune, sounds like the ravin’s of a loon”) offer a clue. A hitch arises when the fugitive Bonnie (Helen Walker) arrives...sort of. "Bonnie" is really the daughter of a banker wrongly convicted of aiding the Fleagles. Can she and Pete decipher the nonsensical-sounding lyrics (“Honors flysis, Income beezis, Onches nobis, Inob keesis”) Elany sings to the sampler’s melody?

Like 1940's The Ghost Breakers (which this movie mentions in one scene; both were directed by George Marshall for Paramount), Murder, He Says briskly delivers heapin' helpin's of laughs and chills. Along with a dinner which a Lazy Susan-style table and a poisoned dish turn a gastronomic Russian Roulette game, there are chases through secret passages and a climactic barnyard battle with a hay-bailing machine. The bone-riddled decor of the Fleagles’ run-down abode predates the Texas Chain Saw Massacre house, and a luminous dog–one of Hall’s test animals–running through the woods could have come from The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Helen Walker and Fred MacMurray.
The ever-versatile MacMurray easily goes from befuddled to fearful to heroic without skipping a beat. Leading lady Walker, whose career and personal life never recovered after a 1946 car crash, is a suitably spunky heroine. Main mixes Ma Kettle with Ma Barker as the conniving “poor old lady” who can kill a fly in mid-air with her whip, while shifty-eyed Hall continuously pops up from hidden doorways or tunnels. Best, though, is the hulking Whitney's dual turn as Mert/Bert (the trick photography is convincing, even by today’s standards). When MacMurray asks how you tell them apart, Main explains that Bert has “a crick in his back,” then demonstrates by slapping Whitney’s back…instantly dropping him to his knees in a contorted, immobilized heap.

Oh, and the NPR theme? Listen to Elany sing Gramdma’s song. Doesn’t it sound like the opening notes to “All Things Considered?”
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Recommended and reviewed by Silver Screenings

Scott of the Antarctic (1948).  Have you ever wanted to go on an adventure that tests you so thoroughly you don't know if you'll come through it intact?

If so, you might be interested in the 1948 British adventure flick, Scott of the Antarctic, a grim re-enactment of Robert Falcon Scott's 1911-12 expedition to the South Pole. Scott, a former naval officer, is consumed with being the first person to reach the South Pole.

As you might imagine, Scott and his team are up against it on all sides. Not only must they contend with the weather and inhospitable landscape, they're racing against another team, led by famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen is never shown in the film, but he is an ever-present monkey on Scott's back.

Much of the movie was filmed in the desolate snow of Norway. The actors pull heavy sleds through deep snow and pour tea inside cramped tents. No scenes shot in front of a green screen here; this filmmaking is about authentic as it gets.

It’s not a movie that spares you the savage realities of travelling through the Antarctic. Prior to embarking on his expedition, Scott is advised not to bring motorized sleds. Dogs are much more useful, he is told, because once "a dog is finished, he is still useful to the other dogs."

Man vs. the harsh elements.
Yikes! Now that we've almost frightened you away, let us point out that the acting in the movie is pitch-perfect. Expedition leader Scott is portrayed by the great John Mills who, as it turns out, has a passing resemblance to the real Scott.

Then there's James Robertson Justice, who plays injured team member Evans. In one scene, there is a close-up of Justice against the bitter white snow: his face reveals his determination despite his physical pain; then the realization that he is unable keep up with the others; and, finally, the knowledge that he's going to die, here, at the bottom of the world.

The legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff has captured amazing images: penguins squirting out of the water and onto the ice; stark white icebergs resting in the ocean; sled dogs breaking out of drifts of snow after a night's sleep.

Scott of the Antarctic is a haunting movie that was the #4 box-office draw in Britain in 1948. It is arguably one of the best adventure movies made.

Monday, January 25, 2016

This Gun For Hire: One of the Great Film Noirs in American Cinema

Alan Ladd in his star-making role.
This practically perfect early noir has a strong reputation and yet, while researching for this review, I was left with the feeling that it's underrated. The prestigious British Film Institute doesn't even include This Gun for Hire (1942) in its list of "10 Great American Film Noirs." (Yes, it would rank in my Top Ten.)

Alan Ladd became a star as anti-hero Raven, a contract killer who is double-crossed by his client. The film's opening scene tells us all we need to know about the quiet Raven. He takes in a stray kitten and feeds it milk. But when the cleaning lady (dressed like a showgirl) shoos away the cat, Raven grabs her, rips her dress, and slaps her backhanded across the face. Here is a man that is ruthless, but with a morsel of humanity buried deep inside. (Later, Raven tries to rationalize his affection for cats by claiming that they bring luck.)

Raven kills the innocent girlfriend.
Still, the screenplay by Albert Maltz and W. R. Burnett leaves no doubt that, first and foremost, Raven is a man that will do whatever is required. Knowing that a victim's innocent girlfriend can identify him, Raven shoots her in cold blood. Later, after vowing not to kill again, he does just that when trying to evade a policeman.

The plot hinges on a chance encounter when Raven and nightclub entertainer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) wind up sitting together on a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Raven is going to L.A. to find Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), an obvious middleman who hired Raven and then tipped off the police by paying the killer with stolen money. Raven's objective is to find out who Gates works for and then kill Gates and his employer.

Unknown to Raven, Ellen is also traveling to meet Gates, who owns The Neptune Club. A U.S. senator has informed Ellen that Gates is working for a powerful man who is selling a secret formula to the enemy. Ellen's mission is to find out the identity of Gates' employer.

Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
The glue that holds the film together is the relationship between Raven and Ellen. From the outset, he is surprised by her kindness. When he steals $5 from her, she demands he return it, but then offers to give him $1. Raven admires her street smarts and, though he's careful never to show it, he undoubtedly finds her attractive. Most importantly, Raven trusts her--enough to describe his abusive childhood (if only in the context of a dream).

Ellen is touched by the fact this hardened killer is willing to confide his darkest secret to her. She is also attracted to his decisiveness and moxie when he rescues her from Gates' henchman. In many films, this relationship would have involved into an unlikely romance. But in This Gun for Hire, Ellen kisses Raven on the cheek and that's it. There are no looks of missed opportunities. Raven is simply not a man that falls in love easily (if at all). And Ellen truly loves her police detective boyfriend (Robert Preston).

Laird Cregar as Gates,
Despite the fine performances from the leads, Laird Cregar almost steals the film as Gates. He's a villain that's willing to send a hired gun to kill people, but wants no part of the actual event. When his henchman is describing how he will skilfully dispose of Ellen's body, Gates squirms uncomfortably and tells him to stop. Cregar provides the film's humor, but in a subtle way that never comes across as obvious comic relief. It's a performance that somehow reminded me of Vincent Price's turn as Shelby Carpenter in Laura (1944).

Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz team up on a number of exciting visuals. The chase through the train yard and the drainage pipes may be the film's highlight, but there are clever bits throughout. My favorite may be a scene where the hotel maid goes to use a pay phone in a police-filled lobby, unaware that Raven is hiding there. He presses his gun against her side as she pretends to talk on the phone. Her phone dialogue consists of answers to his questions. It's a brilliant merger of smart dialogue and murky lighting.

Veronica Lake as Ellen.
John Seitz, by the way, would earn seven Oscar nominations for cinematography during his career. He served as the director of photography on a number of film noir classics, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Clock (1948), and Sunset Blvd. (1950).

This Gun for Hire was loosely based on Graham Greene's 1936 novel This Gun for Sale. James Cagney directed a remake in 1957 called Short Cut to Hell, which starred Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson. It was Cagney's only stint in the director's chair.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Five Best Natalie Wood Performances

1. Splendor in the Grass (1961) - Natalie Wood gives a heart-wrenching Oscar-nominated performance as the emotionally fragile Deanie in William Inge's potent tale of young love. The scene where Deanie stands in front of her English class and discusses the meaning of William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality"--as she tries to hold back her emotions--is masterful. Elia Kazan brought out the best in Natalie in this poignant classic.

2. West Side Story (1961) - One can argue that the role of Maria should have gone to a Hispanic actress or that Marni Nixon deserves more credit for dubbing the singing vocals. Neither of those detract from the fact that Natalie Wood provides the heart and soul of West Side Story. Her scenes with Richard Beymer make one believe that Maria and Tony become soulmates as soon as they spot each other on the dance floor. Watch her expressive face during the climax as she throws herself protectively over Tony's corpse and if you don't sniffle, you're not human.

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - At age 9, she gives one of the best child performances of Hollywood's Golden Era in this holiday classic. Her incredibly natural acting never comes off as artificially cute and she holds her own in the charming scenes with Edmund Gwenn, one of the great character actors.

4. This Property Is Condemned (1966) - I'm not sure why this film and Natalie's performance aren't better known. She stars as Alva Starr, a Southern belle (of sorts) who lives with her manipulative mother (Kate Reid) and idolizing younger sister (Mary Badham) in a railroad boarding house during the Great Depression. Alva could easily have come off as a shallow character, but Natalie turns her into a hard-edged young woman that strives to hide her dreams and insecurities. (By the way, Mary Badham is as good here as she was as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird).

5. Rebel Without a Cause (1958) - While this is now regarded as, first and foremost, a James Dean film, it launched the "young adult" phase of Natalie Wood's film career. It also earned her the first of her three Oscar nominations for her performance as Judy. Ironically, director Nicholas Ray initially considered Natalie too wholesome and naive for the role. She captures Judy's teen angst beautifully, especially her difficult relationship with her father.

Honorable Mentions: Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), her third Oscar nomination and a fave among her fans; Gypsy (1962); and The Searchers (1956).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sam Waterston is Q.E.D.

Last year, I reminisced about seven obscure TV shows that I saw long ago and had never seen again. One of them, The Senator starring Hal Holbrook, was released by Timeless Media on DVD last June. I recently discovered that another, Q.E.D., has been uploaded to YouTube.

Sam Waterston stars as Quentin Everett Deverill, a Harvard professor circa 1912 who leaves the university when his colleagues rebuff his idea for a device that can receive transitted signals from an antenna and turn them into a moving image (no TV for them!). Deverill relocates to England to "pursue his studies in private and peace."

However, a newspaper headline about the unexplained disappearance of a yacht skipper catches his attention. When the missing man's sister shows up, Deverill delves into the mystery and unmasks an elaborate plot to destroy London with an explosive rocket. The villain behind this horrid crime is Dr. Stefan Kilkiss, a "brilliant, wicked man...and international saboteur." Matching wits with Kilkiss, the quick-thinking Deverill saves London and escapes from the villain's lair (quite stylishly) in a hot air balloon.

The cast of Q.E.D.
There is much to like about the first episode of Q.E.D., from Waterston's high energy performance to the charming period detail and Julian Glover's broad portrayal of Kilkiss. However, the limitation of the show's concept begins to surface in the second episode, "The Great Motor Race." It's little more than a condensed version of Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969), though there's a nice twist at the climax. With the exception of George Innes as Deverill's multi-talented assistant Phipps, the supporting characters have little to do other than marvel at the inventor's ingenuity. A casting change doesn't help with the spunky Sarah Berger essentially being replaced by Caroline Langrishe (they play different characters technically, but serve the same function).

The third episode is an improvement, with Deverill being forced to develop a remote-controlled bomb for nefarious uses by Ian Oglivy (the former Simon Templar playing against type). Kilkiss returns for the fourth episode, which boasts the added bonus of being set aboard a train. Both episodes are reasonably entertaining, but it's easy to see why CBS and ITV decided not to renew the series. I suspect that both networks were concerned about whether the show would connect with contemporary audiences. The period sets probably added to the cost of producing Q.E.D. as well.

The bottom line is that Q.E.D. might have fared better as a limited run series on Masterpiece Theatre. That strategy worked amazingly well for other period-set TV series such as the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries which flourished in the 1970s.

Sam Waterston on Law & Order.
Sam Waterston didn't return to series television until I'll Fly Away in 1991, a short-lived, critically-acclaimed drama about a Southern lawyer in the late 1950s. Of course, he found his greatest success a few years later when he joined the original Law & Order as Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy. He played the role in 368 episodes spanning seasons 5-20. He also starred as McCoy in seven other episodes of the Law & Order spinoffs and in a made-for-television movie.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sands of the Kalahari: Fear Not the Baboons

These aren't Bette Davis eyes.
1965 was a banner year for well-made survivalist adventures. Two of the best-known examples of that subgenre--The Flight of the Phoenix and The Naked Prey--were released that year. A third representative, the lesser-know Sands of the Kalahari, hit theaters as well. It did not click with movie-goers nor critics (Bosley Crowthers of the New York Times wrote: "It is largely a question of who can take the Technicolored agony longer, the characters or the customers"). However, time has been kind to this sometimes brutal film and it has developed a cult reputation over the years.

Susannah York as the lone female.
The opening scenes closely mirror The Flight of the Phoenix with six passengers boarding a small cargo plane for Johannesburg after their commercial flight is delayed. The pilot accepts one final passenger even though he knows it puts the plane over its weight-carrying limit. During the flight, the aircraft encounters an enormous horde of locusts that clogs the engines and sends the plane crashing into the Kalahari desert. The pilots are killed, but the passengers escape before the plane bursts into flames.

A passenger called Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) emerges as the group's leader. He guides the others to a mountainous area with drinkable water, melons for food, and caves for protection. There is also a congress of baboons (yes, I looked that up) nearby, but the monkeys with the scary-looking teeth only express curiosity about their new neighbors. When Sturdevan leaves the group to seek out help, O'Brien (Stuart Whitman) assumes his role. He heartlessly kills the baboons, explaining that they are the group's competitors for food. However, it gradually becomes clear that O'Brien is an extreme survivalist who wants to get rid of more than just the baboons.

Baboons have sharp teeth!
I recently watched Sands of the Kalahari for the first time in probably two decades. I could have sworn the central premise pitted the passengers against the baboons. I was mistaken, though, for the baboons are not the film's villain; that would be O'Brien. Indeed, although the baboons play a key role in the climax, their primary purpose is to provide an analogy. In describing an article on baboons, a passenger named Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel) notes: "There is a leader, a king, an absolute monarch. He gets first choice to all the food and the females. And he can only be deposed if he is defeated by a younger and stronger challenger." Bondrachai could just as well have been talking about the his fellow survivors. The only difference is that O'Brien doesn't have to fight his biggest rival, Sturdevan. He just bides his time until Sturdevan  leaves, then O'Brien takes over as the monarch of the group.

In a film with a small ensemble cast, well-drawn characters and strong performances can make all the difference. Fortunately, Sands of the Kalahari features solid veteran British performers such as Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, Susannah York, and Davenport. They bring their characters to life even though writer-director Cy Endfield fails to flesh their parts out as as skillfully as the survivors in The Flight of the Phoenix.
Director Enfield's numerous overhead shots suggest the baboons
are watching the humans.
Susannah York and Stuart Whitman face the toughest acting challenges. York plays Grace Munden, the lone female character, who displays a lack of moral strength until late in the film. Early on, she attaches herself to O'Brien, either because she wants the brutal hunter's protection or is attracted to his animal quality (or both). As a result, it's hard to empathize with Grace, even though it's conceivable that she has simply recognized her weaknesses and taken the most logical actions required for her survival.

Stuart Whitman as O'Brien.
Whitman initially seems an odd choice for O'Brien (allegedly, Baker, who also co-produced, wanted his friend Richard Burton to play the role). Still, he does an effective job of lurking in the shadows until it's time for O'Brien to take control of the group. Whitman may overplay his part at times, but O'Brien is clearly intended to be a egocentric ruler who believes he has found his destiny.

I'm not surprised that Sands of the Kalahari was a boxoffice failure. The plot borders on grim and brutal at times and it lacks the feel-good ending of Flight of the Phoenix. However, it's a fascinating film that keeps viewers continually guessing what's going to happen next. And when the baboons finally make their presence known in the film's climax, let's just say that it's a confrontation that you won't soon forget.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (January 2016 Edition)

The connection between David Hartman
and George C. Scott?
Welcome to a new year and a new edition of the Cafe's most popular game! As always, 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. Art Carney and Tim Allen.

2. Errol Flynn and Louis Hayward.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird and So I Married an Axe Murderer (this one could be tough!).

4. Fabian and Charles Bronson.

5. Susan Hampshire and Natalie Wood.

6. Glynis Johns and Julie Adams.

7. Billy Wilder and Beach Party.

8. Hal Halbrook and Charles Laughton.

9. John Wayne and Chuck Connors.

10. Dick Powell and Robert Conrad.

11. Bill Bixby and Tony Curtis.

12. Robert Fuller and Gary Cooper.

13. Beau Bridges and Allison Hayes.

14. Ray Milland, Kirk Douglas, and Henry Fonda.

15. David Hartman and George C. Scott.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Raymond Chandler's "The Blue Dahlia"

The Blue Dahlia nightclub.
"As pictures go, it is pretty lively. No classic, but no dud either."

That's how Raymond Chandler described the movie made from his only original screenplay in a 1946 letter. Chandler was typically critical of his work. In fact, The Blue Dahlia is a very good film noir. It's almost a classic, but a hastily-constructed ending and some sloppiness around the edges keep it from achieving that goal.

Alan Ladd as Johnny.
Alan Ladd stars as Johnny Morrison, a Navy officer who has returned from World War II to find his wife Helen throwing a wild party and smooching another man. Things go downhill from there, especially when Helen confesses that she lied about their son's death--the young boy died in a car accident while she was driving under the influence. Understandably, Johnny walks out on his wife and hitches a ride with a beautiful stranger named Joyce (Veronica Lake), who happens to be the wife of Helen's lover.

Buzz talking with Helen (Doris Dowling).
If you think that's a startling coincidence, then consider that Johnny's Navy pal Buzz goes to look for Johnny. He ends up in a bar sitting next to Helen, who invites him back to her apartment. The next morning, the hotel maid finds Helen's dead body. As the police search for Johnny, he starts his own investigation to uncover Helen's murderer.

As a novelist, Raymond Chandler was a master at intertwining subplots into a complex mystery. His attempts to do the same in The Blue Dahlia rely too much on coincidences. To Chandler's defense, he was given little time to write the screenplay. According to producer John Houseman, Paramount was in a rush to finish the picture because Alan Ladd was being recalled to the Army. (Others have maintained that Ladd, who served a year in the Army in 1943, was never recalled in 1946 and left for his ranch when The Blue Dahlia was completed.)

(Spoiler alert on the way!)

Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.
The film's biggest flaw, though, is the slapdash ending in which the house detective turns out to be the killer (I'm still foggy on his motive). It's also weird to watch Johnny and Joyce playfully flirt in the final scene. Johnny has apparently failed to inform her that her husband lies dead or critically wounded. It's hard to totally blame Chandler for either of these inconsistencies. His original ending had Buzz, who was suffering from a head injury, murder Helen and then forget it until the climax. Unfortunately, the Department of the Navy objected, fearing that it would cast U.S. veterans in a negative light. Paramount requested the revised ending and Chandler provided it.

Despite its flaws, Chandler's script boasts well-developed characters and sharp dialogue. I love the little touches like a thug knocking out Johnny, spotting a nice pen in his pocket, and taking it. Chandler received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Two years earlier, Chandler received his only other nomination for co-writing Double Indemnity with Billy Wilder.

Veronica Lake as Joyce.
The Blue Dahlia was the third of four screen pairings of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. They had learned to play off each naturally by then, making their "meet cute" a charming scene despite its unlikeliness (really, why would someone like Joyce pick up a complete stranger walking along the road?). In fact. The Blue Dahlia may feature my favorite Veronica Lake performance. The supporting cast is solid, though William Bendix goes over the top once or twice as the troubled Buzz.

While Chandler thought George Marshall was a mediocre director, Marshall keeps the plot moving along smartly. He also employs some effective long shots, such as when Joyce spots Johnny at a hotel desk and warns him about the police.

The bottom line is that The Blue Dahlia remains a memorable film noir despite its imperfections. It's just not as well-written as Chandler's Double Indemnity nor as stylish as Ladd and Lake's This Gun for Hire.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Is "Homicidal" William Castle's Best Film?

Castle introduces the movie.
Best known for fanciful gimmicks like "Emergo" (a skeleton on a wire that flew over audiences), producer-director William Castle also made some very good suspense films. Two of his finest, Homicidal and Strait-Jacket were produced in the 1960s and are relatively gimmick-free. While the latter features a first-rate Joan Crawford performance, I recently watched Homicidal and believe it may be the better of the two. It's often described as a Psycho "knock off," but that's doing this underrated fright flick a disservice.

Glenn Corbett as Karl.
After an amusing introduction featuring Castle (in which he references several earlier films), the story starts with a prologue set in 1948. A young girl is playing tea with her doll when a boy walks into her room and grabs the doll. The action shifts to present day and we learn that the children, now adults, are step-siblings Miriam and Warren Webster. Miriam (Patricia Breslin) owns a flower shop and is romantically involved with family friend and druggist Karl (Glenn Corbett). Warren lives in his childhood home with his former nanny Helga, who is mute and wheelchair-bound, and Emily, the young woman that cares for Helga.

Jim, the bellhop, and Emily.
We first meet the blonde-haired Emily when she registers under Miriam's name at a Ventura hotel. She pays the handsome bellboy Jim $2000 to marry her that night. He agrees (well, it's a quick way to make some money and he's attracted to Emily, too). However, when they call on a justice of the peace to conduct the nuptials, Emily pulls a knife out of her purse and viciously stabs the judge multiple times. She leaves her new husband and the judge's widow gaping in shock as she steals Jim's car, ditches it, and returns to Warren's house.

It's a masterful opening sequence that's as good as anything done by Alfred Hitchcock. It not only pulls the audience in right from the beginning, but it makes us a witness to the gruesome crime. We know Emily is a murderer, but we don't know why and we don't know who else has knowledge of her homicidal tendencies.

Warren confronts his sister.
If Homicidal focused solely on Emily's bloody plan, it would have been a highly effective chiller. However, Castle and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robb White, have come up with a doozy of a twist that may inspire you to watch the film a second time. (I actually guessed the twist...and still enjoyed Homicidal immensely).

Joan Marshall on Star Trek.
Much of the cast went on to successful TV careers, with Patricia Breslin becoming a regular in Peyton Place and Glenn Corbett replacing George Maharis on Route 66. They give respectable performances, but are overshadowed by Jean Arless as the killer. It was the kind of role that should have jump-started her film career. Sadly, it did not, although she also established a successful career on television, appearing under her real name of Joan Marshall. One of her best-known guest appearances was on the "Court Martial" episode of the original Star Trek.

The Fright Break clock.
Castle does inject a gimmick into Homicidal, although it's one of his less elaborate ones. As Miriam is about to enter a darkened house at the climax, the action stops and a clock is superimposed on the screen. Viewers are given a 45-second "Fright Break" and afforded the opportunity to leave the theatre and get a full refund. During the theatrical run, Castle provided yellow cardboard booths labeled "The Coward's Corner." Anyone demanding a refund had to stand in the Coward's Corner and sign a statement that they were "a bona fide coward."

Homicidal doesn't need any gimmicks, though. It's a first-rate shocker and, if you enjoy this genre and films like Psycho, then I strongly encourage you to seek it out.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Ten Posts of 2015

As 2015 comes to an end, we thought we'd list the most viewed of our 115 posts at the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Yes, we realize that posts published at the start of the year will likely have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2015. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition. We also omitted any posts in which we hosted or promoted blogathons. Otherwise, the My Favorite Movie Blogathon, in support of National Classic Movie Day, would have grabbed the top spot. To build a little suspense, we'll start at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

10. For Halloween, we listed our picks for The 25 Greatest Horror Films, which sparked some lively discussions across the Cafe's social media platforms.

9. Ron Harper gave a fabulous interview at the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention in Winston-Salem, NC. He discussed his TV series Garrison's Gorillas and Planet of the Apes, the challenges of working with George Burns, and being an understudy for Paul Newman on Broadway.

8. Agatha Christie fans were delighted about our interview with Hugh Fraser, who played Captain Hastings in the Hercule Poirot TV series with David Suchet. The British actor also discussed his new thriller novel Harm.

Yes, that's Hitch on Mount Rushmore.
7. In The Mount Rushmore of Film Directors, we listed the four American directors we'd place on a monument dedicated to American film directors. Then, we asked three other bloggers to do the same (Lady Eve's Reel Life, Classic Movie Hub, and Immortal Ephemera).

6. We interviewed former Disney star Michael McGreevey at the Williamsburg Film Festival, where he discussed working with Kurt Russell, Burt Reynolds, and Robert Mitchum and writing for the TV series Fame.

5. In Who Is Nina Van Pallandt?, we profiled the former folk singer who became a Baroness and later an actress in films such as The Long Goodbye.

4. We also interviewed Lana Wood at the Williamsburg Film Festival. She discussed The SeachersDiamonds Are Forever, and the Peyton Place TV series.

Kathy Garver as Cissy.
3. Kathy Garver, best known as Cissy on Family Affair, gave a fascinating interview at the Western Film Fair and Nostalgia Convention. Earlier this year, she finished writing her autobiography Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood.

2. The Five Ellery Queen TV Series Episodes proved that Jim Hutton's 1975-76 television series is still fondly remembered by its fans.

1. Our review of the DVD Danny Kaye - Legends, which features six episodes from The Danny Kaye Show TV series, finished at the top. It just goes to show that Danny Kaye remains a highly popular entertainer 28 years after his death.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Claudine Longet and the Death of Spider Sabich

Claudine Longet on The Bold Ones.
I recently watched a 1969 episode of The Bold Ones: The Lawyers called "The Rockford Riddle." It guest starred Claudine Longet as a woman accused of murdering her husband's mistress. Anyone who remembers the French actress/ singer will recognize the irony immediately. Eight years after this episode, she would be tried in a Colorado courtroom for reckless manslaughter in the death of her lover Vladimir "Spider" Sabich.

Claudine Longet was born in Paris in 1942 and became a dancer at age 17. The demure beauty was trying to make it in Vegas when she caught the eye of entertainer Andy Williams. She was almost 20 and he was 34 when they married in 1961.

Williams was already an established star, having scored several top ten hits and a chart-topper with 1957's "Butterfly." He launched his long-running NBC TV series The Andy Williams Show in 1962 and Claudine made frequent appearances alongside her husband. Her voice, often described as girlish and breathy, was certainly distinctive, but she failed to score a hit single in the U.S. Her highest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100 was "Love Is Blue" in 1968, which peaked at #71. Her albums fared better, with the self-titled Claudine reaching #11 and selling over 500,000 copies.

Andy Williams and Claudine Longet.
She also branched out into acting and made guest appearances on TV series such as Hogan's Heroes, Run for Your Life, The Rat Patrol, and The Name of the Game. Her most successful theatrical film was Blake Edward's silly, but funny The Party (1968), which paired her effectively with Peter Sellers.

Offscreen, she and Andy Williams had three children and became close friends with Robert and Ethel Kennedy. They appeared to be a blissful couple, but the marriage fell apart in the late 1960s. They separated in 1969 and divorced six years later.

Longet with Spider Sabich.
By 1976, Claudine Longet had moved in with her boyfriend, American skier Spider Sabich, in Aspen, Colorado. The grandson of Croatian immigrants, Sabich finished fifth in the slalom in the 1968 Olympics. After a moderately-successful career on the World Cup circuit, he turned professional after the 1970 season. Good-looking and charismatic, the popular Sabich won several professional championships and made a good living off endorsement deals. He and Longet met at a celebrity-pro benefit in 1972.

On March 21, 1976, Sabich died from a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Various sources have different accounts about what happened on that afternoon. Most claim that Longet said Sabich's .22 caliber handgun accidentally discharged while he was showing her how it worked. After a police investigation, Longet was arrested and charged with reckless manslaughter (which carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison). She hired L.A. attorney Charles Weedman and Aspen lawyer Ron Austin.

The trial drew national attention.
Andy Williams supported his former spouse throughout her four-day trial. Evidence, to include a diary and blood and urine tests, were ruled inadmissible (police confiscated the diary without a warrant). After less than four hours of deliberation, the jury found Claudine Longet guilty of criminal negligence. The judge sentenced her to a $250 fine and 30 days in county jail, which did not have to be served consecutively. Sabich's family later filed a lawsuit against Longet, but it was settled out of court. According to some sources, the settlement contained a proviso that she could not write a book about Sabich.

Longet and her co-defense attorney Austin married in 1985 and currently live in Aspen. She will turn 74 in January.

Although Claudine Longet has kept a low profile over the years, she has remained a fixture in pop culture. Mick Jagger wrote a controversial song about her called (appropriately) "Claudine." It was pulled from the Rolling Stones 1980 album  Emotional Rescue, but later appeared on a deluxe version of Some Girls. And in 1975, Saturday Night Live did a skit abut a skiing competition called the Claudine Longet Invitational, in which the skiers were "accidentally" shot by Longet. After receiving a cease-and-desist order, SNL producer Lorne Michaels issued a formal apology on the show the following week.


For more information on Claudine Longet's trial, you may want to seek out True Crimes: Celebrity Murder Stories by Ryan White and the article "Claudine Longet: Aspen Femme Fatale," which was published in a May 2013 issue of the British edition of GQ magazine.