Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Panel Discussion on Acclaimed Filmmaker and Critic Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut (1932-1984).
After a long hiatus, we're reviving our "3 on 3 panel" this month. The concept is that we ask three experts to answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions about French film critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Our panel of three Truffaut experts consists of: Richard Finch, co-founder of the Facebook group Foreign Film Classics; Ray Keebaugh, a frequent contributor to the Foreign Film Classics group; and Sam Juliano, who writes about classic movies at his blog Wonders in the Dark.

1. What Francois Truffaut film would you recommend as an introduction to someone who has never seen any of his works?

Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows.
Richard Finch: The Truffaut film I would recommend as a starting point is his very first one, The 400 Blows. It’s about a lonely and alienated boy, about 14 years old, growing up in Paris and finding solace in books and movies. If you read a biography of Truffaut, the film is clearly autobiographical and like most such first films (and novels, for that matter) heartfelt and moving. It clearly has the feeling of lived experience to it. It has one of the most haunting and enigmatic final shots in all cinema, Truffaut’s version of the last shot of Garbo in Queen Christina. In a poll at the excellent film blog site Wonders in the Dark last year for the top films about childhood (79 made the cut), it was chosen #1.

Ray Keebaugh:  If someone had never seen a movie by Truffaut, he is not likely to be acquainted with foreign films nor with movies beyond those made in America. I’d recommend The Story of Adele H., then Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. If his/her appetite was not stimulated enough to seek more Truffaut after those extremes, there's not much else I can do.

Sam Juliano: The venerated critic-director's very first film--The 400 Blows--would be my choice for the newbie approaching his work. My own history with The 400 Blows dates back to the early 1970s and the revival house screenings it enjoyed in such banner Manhattan institutions like The Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. The film was almost always paired with Jules and Jim, a 1961 work that cemented Truffaut’s reputation as one of the rare people who followed a successful career as a critic with an even more renowned one as a director. I first saw it as an impressionable 17 year-old, and as such it moved me deeply, perhaps more than any other European film had, and led to discovering critical writings on the film by the most noted writers of the time. In the beginning--as should be expected for one so green behind the ears--it was actor Jean-Pierre Léaud's familial alienation, the bittersweet, seductive music by Jean Constantin, and the most haunting final shot the cinema ever showcased. It sent shivers down my spine and still does today. There is a universality in The 400 Blows that, while not exclusive in Truffaut's canon, is perhaps most accessible in this, a film that is easy to connect with and executed with the director's trademark aching lyricism. 

2. What do you believe was Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema?
Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock.

Richard:  Truffaut made several important contributions to world cinema. First, he was one of the original theorists and practitioners of the French New Wave, a movement that has had immense influence on subsequent filmmakers. He and others like Jean-Luc Godard first proposed what is called the auteur theory, the concept that the director of a film is its author, the same as the writer of a book is its author. They developed an informal manifesto of a new type of film typified by freedom of style and and an emphasis on personal expression. Second, because for inspiration they looked to the Hollywood directors who, even though working in the studio system, consistently left their own stamp on their films. They brought serious attention to American directors like Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. These directors had been dismissed by American critics as mere purveyors of entertainment. Third, as Truffaut’s style and choice of subject changed over his 30-year career, he made it acceptable that directors can grow and develop--not just stick with their youthful dogma and keep making the same movie again and again. In many ways, his earliest films can be quite different from those of his maturity.

Ray:  It’s something to be argued among critics and “serious” film students. A cinematographer would not provide the same answer as, say, an editor. Different directors would not necessarily agree among themselves, and you may be certain critics wouldn’t. For me, choosing e pluribus unum, I love the eerie ease with which he draws us quickly into stories--often about destroyed lovers--like an unselfconscious poet. Narrative was not something to be sacrificed for his "art." It was what his art served. How he did it so entertainingly reflects the director's youthful love for movies, which, unlike some of his characters, did not come to a shocking, destructive end (except that it was so early). Truffaut also restored dignity to adolescence by weeding out all that false Hollywood Blue Denim crap. 

The Wild Child (1970).
Sam:  Truffaut's most important contribution to world cinema was his mastery of humanism, ranging from childhood to old age, and embracing various time periods and settings. His intoxicating cinematic lyricism was his manner and his foray into psychological realism. He was understandably celebrated for his ability to investigate the childhood experience. When movie fans are asked to identify the prime proponents of the cinema of childhood, the names of Steven Spielberg and Francois Truffaut invariably dominate the discussion. In the case of the former, the label seems more than justified all things considered, but of the Frenchman Truffaut’s twenty-one films, only three could reasonably be framed as films dealing with and populated by kids. The reason for the misrepresentation is undoubtedly the fact that the New Wave master’s debut feature, The 400 Blows, is one of the most celebrated and influential films of all-time, and the one most often named as the ultimate work on adolescent alienation. To be sure, Truffaut did chronicle the aging process of his Antoine Doniel character a series of films like Bed and Board and The Soft Skin, but at that point the youthful parameter had expired. In 1969, he explored the true-life story of a deaf and dumb boy raised in the outdoors--The Wild Child--and then seven years later, he wrote and directed what was to be his final foray into the pains and wonders of childhood with his magical Small Change. 

3. What do you think is Truffaunt's masterpiece and what is your personal favorite? Explain your choices.

Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim.
Richard:  My personal favorite of Truffaut’s films and what I consider his masterpiece is one and the same: Jules and Jim. It’s one of those films that just grab you and never leave your mind. Its centerpiece is the puzzling but hypnotic character Catherine, played by Jeanne Moreau, one of the greatest of all screen actresses, in what I think is her greatest performance. She plays a woman who has an affair with two best friends at the same time--a bona fide ménage à trois, quite a daring subject for its time, even for the French! Its influence can be seen in American films as diverse as Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For me, it’s one of those films of which I can say without equivocation: “Once seen, never forgotten.”

Ray:  I love this question because it separates moviegoers from critics.  A critic has to regard a director's masterpiece as his favorite because what would it say about a critic's "taste" if he/she didn't? I'd say The 400 Blows is the "masterpiece." My favorite Truffaut movie would be (since I have to choose) Jules and Jim.

Sam:  The 400 Blows would also be my choice for the director's absolute masterpiece. No matter what you opt for, the landmark 1959 film remains his piece de resistance in a career that produced twenty-six films. Many regard the film as the most defining in the French New Wave movement, and by any barometer of measurement, it is seen as a definitive work in the childhood films cinema, finishing at or near the top in various online polls and per the declaration of film historians. Yet, the film’s preeminence as a work of psychological insight into the mind of a child has also pigeon-holed the director’s reputation with some as the cinema’s most celebrated director of these kind of films, or at least the equal of the American Steven Spielberg, when in fact the celebrated Gallic has helmed only three films about childhood. Such is the magnitude of The 400 Blows’s impact and continuing legacy that it has succeeded in forging a perception of a legendary director that is markedly in error, though even if it were true it wouldn’t diminish his top level artistic standing. Truffaut's legacy and contribution to world cinema doesn't only rest with his profound studies of childhood, but with the human condition, where he sits with the most renowned practitioners in the art.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Movie Object Game

The amulet mentioned in question #9.
The Movie-TV Connection Game is taking the month off (vacation time!), but will return in August. In its place, we're trying a new game in which we list an object featured prominently in a movie and ask you to identify the film. There may be multiple correct answers--which is bound to be interesting. As always, please answer no more than three questions a day so others can play, too. Good luck!

1. An hourglass.

2. A child's sled.

3. A letter with a misspelled word.

4. A jewel-encrusted glove.

5. A 1904 French motor vehicle.

6. A drinking vessel with the figure of a dragon.

7. A wrist watch that also functions as a super magnet.

8. A sword that cuts through iron--but only for one person.

9. A mysterious amulet that wields power when a unique word is spoken.

10. A monogrammed lighter.

11. A piece of paper with runic symbols.

12. A bust of Napoleon (actually several of them).

13. Flash bulbs.

14. A rare postage stamp.

15. An airplane and a beer truck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Seven (More) Obscure TV Series That I Curiously Remember

Kevin McCarthy, Lana Turner, and George Hamilton.
1.  Harold Robbins' The Survivors (1969-70). Novelist Harold Robbins was still churning out lurid bestsellers when he was approached to create a prime-time series. The result was this nighttime soap about the jet set starring Lana Turner, George Hamilton, Ralph Bellamy, Kevin McCarthy, and even Mrs. Howell (or rather, Natalie Schaefer). My family watched it because Dad was a Robbins' fan (some of the early novels, like A Stone for Danny Fisher, are pretty good). The Survivors, on the other hand, wasn't very good and ABC axed it after 15 episodes. It did resolve its major storylines in the final episode, leading some folks to claim it was American television's first miniseries.

2.  The Most Deadly Game (1970-71).  Speaking of Ralph Bellamy, he returned to prime time the next fall as Mr. Arkane, the senior member of a team of criminologists specializing in high profile murder cases. His colleagues included his former ward, Vanessa (Yvette Mimieux), a college-educated expert in criminology, and former military man Jonathan Croft (George Maharis). Originally, the series was to be titled Zig Zag and feature Inger Stevens as the female lead. She died in 1970, though, and the role was recast.

Phyllis Diller as Phyllis Pruitt.
3. The Pruitts of Southampton (1966-67) - I can still remember the lyrics to the title song of this Phyllis Diller sitcom and they concisely describe the premise: "The Pruitts of Southampton live like the richest folk/But what the folks don't know is/That the Pruitts are flat broke." Yes, the Pruitts were forced to declare bankruptcy after learning they owed millions in back taxes. Other series regulars included Reginald Gardiner as Uncle Ned, Grady Sutton as the butler, and Richard Deacon as the IRS agent. The show was revamped at midseason and renamed The Phyllis Diller Show. The change didn't help Phyllis find a steady viewing audience.

4. The Second Hundred Years (1967-68). A gold prospector (Monte Markham), who was frozen during an Alaskan avalanche in 1900, "thaws out" in 1967. Perfectly preserved, he winds up living with his 33-year-old grandson (Markham in a dual role) and 67-year-old son (Arthur O'Connell). A little confusing, eh? This "high concept" sitcom lasted a year thanks mostly to likable leads Markham and O'Connell.

The Silent Force trio.
5. The Silent Force (1970-71).  Bruce Geller (Mission: Impossible) may have played a role in developing this half-hour series about three Federal agents--played by Ed Nelson, Percy Rodriguez, and Lynda Day George--who go undercover to fight organized crime. It was a well-done show that probably would have worked better as an hour series. ABC cancelled The Silent Force after 15 episodes. Lynda Day George joined the cast of Mission: Impossible in the fall of 1971.

6. T.H.E. Cat (1966-67). We've written about this incredibly cool show before, but it still deserves a spot on this list. Robert Loggia stars as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a former circus performer and retired cat burglar who now works as a bodyguard. T.H.E. Cat featured one of the best openings of any 1960s show, with a terrific Peter Gunn-inspired theme and a nifty animated sequence (a black cat lunges forward and transforms into a shadowy man). Still, it was Loggia that made this show such a delight.

Michael Nouri as the Count.
7. Cliffhangers (1979). This short-lived, but clever series featured chapters from three different serials each week. The serials were: Stop Susan Williams, starring Susan Anton as a photographer investigating her brother's death; The Secret Empire, a science fiction Western; and The Curse of Dracula with Michael Nouri as a modern-day vampire who teaches history (of course) at South Bay College. Several of the "chapters" were edited into television movies; for example, condensed versions of The Curse of Dracula turned up as World of Dracula and The Loves of Dracula.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Five Best War Films

Who better to select the five best war films than a recently retired U.S. Army colonel? Migs, our guest blogger, was commissioned in 1987 from the United States Military Academy at West Point and held various commands during a distinguished military career. It was not an easy task to pick just five war films, but Migs accepted the mission graciously and we thank him. Here are his choices and his rationales:

1. Saving Private Ryan - What else is there to say. I cry at the end of the movie every time: "Tell me I am a good man, tell me I’ve lived a good life." This movie covers the alpha to omega on emotions. Simply, the best war movie ever.

Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax.
2. Paths of Glory - I started to write my own review about this compelling movie, which has a similar theme to A Few Good Men and another great war movie Apocalypse Now, which both convey the fog and insanity of war. However, I will use the words of an unknown critic: “Paths of Glory is a wonderful film about authority and at times the idiocy and insanity of those that were on top of the pile. It takes place during World War I. Anyone who has studied it or has knowledge of it knows it was a period of war in which traditional methods of warfare clearly failed and millions died over the ignorance and arrogance of a few.” I thought Kirk Douglas was great in the movie. He convincingly played the role of the 701st Regimental Commander, the lead protagonist. The director, Stanley Kubrick, elected to go for an atypical Hollywood ending. I will not spoil it for you. It is a very easy movie to watch at just over 85 minutes and it can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence.
3. Lawrence of Arabia is a personal favorite of mine because of my experiences as a military advisor in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Before our deployment to Iraq as advisors, we were required to watch this movie. I initially saw little to no value, especially after spending almost four hours watching a movie that by today standards lacks all the good Hollywood stuff. However, six months into my deployment, there was probably no better movie for us to watch in preparation to be an advisor. The cast is superb, an absolute all-star cast. I understand that the movie cost almost ten times more to make compared to other films at that time. However, the authenticity is real and you can feel it as you see the actors actually struggling with the effects of real desert terrain and weather. I find myself watching clips of the movie on YouTube. If you are looking for a good intellectual movie with a classic acting, Larry of Arabia is for you.

Denzel Washington.
4. Glory is a fantastic movie recounting the story of the 54th Massachusetts. The powerful story line lays out the struggles of a nation and culture where racism is deep in both the Confederacy and United States. It features a great cast led by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, Mathew Broderick and Morgan Freeman. My biggest problem with this movie is that the story is told from the perspective of Colonel Shaw (Broderick). I would much rather have seen or at least seen some scenes from the perspective of John Rawlins, the escaped slave. Another thing that still irks me is that, despite a fantastic job by screenwriter Kevin Jarre, I still do not get why the 54th has little or no support while attacking. Still, Glory is, in my opinion, the best Civil War movie.

Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Moore.
5. We Were Soldiers is a great movie if you do not let Hollywood get in your way. Hollywood takes the great story of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s leadership and fouls it up with sometimes stupid lines that, having served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, distort the challenges in combat and do not give enough credit to the ones left behind at our homes.  If I am saying these things about the movie, why is it on my list?  It is simply a great leadership story and there are some realistic scenes depicting combat and the reality of casualties. Mel Gibson does a fine job and Sam Elliot is OK.  If I were a Company Commander again, I would make all my subordinates watch this movie.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Peggy Cummins Twin Bill

American viewers probably know Peggy Cummins best from the film noir classic Gun Crazy (1950), Curse of the Demon (1958), and The Late George Apley (1947). However, despite appearing in only 26 films, the enchanting actress was a steady presence in British cinema in the 1950s. I recentlycaught two comedies from that decade which paired her with Terence Morgan.

Always a Bride (1953). Peggy Cummins as a con artist? In this amusing comedy, she plays a daughter who reluctantly teams with her grifter father. One of their scams involves checking into a luxury hotel as newlyweds--with the groom (her father) allegedly stealing his young wife's fortune and abandoning her. She then "steals" from the hotel guests who willingly donate money to help out the destitute "bride." Problems arise when Clare (Cummins) falls in love with one of her fraud victims, an earnest treasury employee named Terence Wench (Terence Morgan). When a guilt-ridden Clare disappears, Terence pursues her--while Clare's father teams up with old cronies for one last big sting.

Terence Morgan.
Running a tight 82 minutes, Always a Bride capitalizes on its versatile cast. Peggy Cummins and Terence Morgan make an appealing couple; his offbeat charm reminds me very much of Michael Wilding's police detective in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950). Cummins, meanwhile, taps into her vulnerable side in a role that's the direct opposite of her bad girl in Gun Crazy. While they provide the film's romance, Ronald Squire has a grand time as Clare's rascally father. Assisted by a bevy of old pros, he makes Always a Bride fun to watch as his grand money-making scheme spirals out of control. (By the way, look fast for Sebastian Cabot as a taxi driver.) If you enjoy Ealing's 1950s comedies, be sure to check out Always a Bride, which is currently available on Amazon Prime.

The March Hare (1956). This disappointing reteaming of Peggy Cummins and Terence Morgan gets off to a decent start when Morgan's character, a young Irish baronet, loses his estate betting on his race horse. His aunt (Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula) buys him a promising colt and hires Lazy Mangan (Cyril Cusack) to raise and train it. I don't know about you, but I'd be wary about employing someone called "Lazy" and who is well known for his propensity to spend hours at the pub. Meanwhile, a wealthy American rents the estate and his lovely daughter (Cummins) catches the baronet's eye.

Cyril Cusack as Lazy Mangan.
The biggest problem with The March Hare is that there's too little of Peggy Cummins and too much of Cyril Cusack. The latter chews up several pastures of scenery--at least I think he does. It's actually hard to understand most of his line readings given his heavy accent and the character's perpetual drunken state.

Although its running time is only three minutes longer than Always a Bride, The March Hare is quite a slog. And if you're wondering what the title means, I'll save you the effort of watching: It's the name of the horse. Really.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Steel Collar Man and Me

We like tickets at a discount!
I made my first trip to New York City in May 1984. My wife, my friend Herb, and I had originally intended to vacation in Great Britain. Alas, that fell through (we had cheap stand-by tickets and the flight was full). Our backup plan was an East Coast jaunt, starting in Philadelphia and including three days in the Big Apple at the Milford Plaza (no luxury suites for us, though!). 

On our first afternoon, Herb and I walked to the TKTS booth at Times Square to get half-price tickets to a Broadway show that night. As we were waiting in line—trying to decide on which play—we saw a young woman handing out tickets for free. She approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of television focus group for CBS. We would be shown a pilot for a new prospective TV series and then given the opportunity to provide feedback. Plus, everyone who participated would receive a free gift! It sounded like fun—plus I always like to get free presents—so we took three tickets (the third one for my wife).

The NYC headquarters of "The Eye."
Late that afternoon, the three of us showed up at CBS’s New York headquarters. Along with perhaps 17 other people, we were ushered into a small room with a TV and chairs with what looked like remote controls on both arms. We learned that we’d be watching the pilot episode of a science fiction adventure called The Steel Collar Man.

First, we were asked some general questions about our television viewing habits. Then, someone explained how the “remotes” were used to gauge audience reaction during the viewing. If you saw something you liked, you pressed a green button with one hand. If you saw something you didn’t like, you pressed the red button with the other hand. Finally, the lights dimmed and the opening scene of The Steel Collar Man was underway.

The credits were even hard to read.
Fifty-two minutes later, my “red button” finger was sore from exertion. The Steel Collar Man was one of the worst TV pilots I have ever seen—it was a testament to ineptitude. 

For the record, Saturday Night Live alum Charles Rocket played D5B, an android created for warfare, but on the run from government baddies (led by Chuck Connors). D5B wants to go to the White House to make a plea for his right to exist. Hoyt Axton co-starred as a trucker that helps him along the way. I surmised that the android and the trucker would help out nice folks each week as they trekked across America—narrowly avoiding capture by mean Chuck.

Charles Rocket as D5B.
Given the earlier successes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Fugitive, it’s easy to see why a pilot was commissioned that combined the premises of those hit shows. Indeed, the concept wasn’t the problem; it was all in the execution. Rocket, speaking in a deliberate monotone, was ridiculous as the protagonist. Even worse, the show’s attempts at occasional humor failed miserably. The latter is especially surprising considering that Dave Thomas created The Steel Collar Man and penned the pilot. Four years earlier, Thomas was hailed for his funny skits as one half of the McKenzie Brothers (with Rick Moranis) on SCTV.

I wasn’t alone in my assessment of The Steel Collar Man. My wife and my pal Herb has experienced similar finger pain. We still laugh about the experience today. I’m also glad to report that CBS didn’t pick up the pilot for a TV series. However, a year later the pilot episode of The Steel Collar Man showed up on CBS in the summer of 1985 as a “special.” In TV lingo, that’s called “burning off" a busted TV pilot.

By the way, a good thing came out of that first day in NYC. That evening, we sat in the second row of Sunday in the Park With George, a sublime Stephen Sondheim musical that remains a favorite. Plus, we only paid half-price for the tickets!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Irwin Allen's The Lost World

A dinosaur gets his veggies.
One of my favorite movies as a kid was this 1960 popcorn movie based on the adventure novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A recent viewing (it's available on Amazon Prime) revealed that The Lost World is less enthralling to the adult me. While that was a somewhat disappointing revelation, I stand by my youthful memories to the extent that I can see its appeal to younger audiences. Plus, it's still a lively affair with a good cast and some nice special effects.

Claude Rains as Challenger.
As with similar fantasy adventures (e.g., Journey to the Center of the Earth), the first third of the plot is devoted to preparing for the expedition. This particular trek leads to a plateau in the Amazon where dinosaurs still roam. The intrepid explorers consist of: Professor Challenger (Claude Rains); a skeptical fellow scientist (Richard Haydn); big game hunter Lord John Roxton (Michael Rennie); journalist Ed Malone (David Hedison); a helicopter pilot (Fernando Lamas); and socialite Jennifer Holmes (Jill St. John) and her Poodle Frosty. (There's also an expendable, greedy guide and Jennifer's brother).

Shortly after the group's landing on the plateau, their helicopter is destroyed by a clumsy dinosaur. Still, getting back to civilization isn't the worst of their problems. There are also giant spiders, cannibals, a volcano on the verge of erupting, a revenge subplot, and the ominously-named "Cave of Fire" (think thin ledges and molten lava).

David Hedison and a pesky dino in the Cave of Fire.
As with 20th Century-Fox's superior Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), live lizards are substituted for the dinosaurs. Naturally, these creatures can never capture the magic of the imaginative stop-motion creatures created by Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen in, respectively, King Kong (1933) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Still, the special effects, courtesy of Fox's resident expert L.B. Abbott, look convincing enough.

Jill St. John and Hedison.
It's the humans that keep The Lost World from being a better movie. Jill St. John is saddled with a silly character that wears pink pants, a pink belt, and pink the jungle. Even worse, she personifies the extraneous female added to an action movie simply to broaden its appeal. One can understand Challenger's frustrations with her, but his snippy remarks make him sound like a chauvinist pig. Michael Rennie and Fernando Lamas do what they can with their underwritten parts, while David Hedison comes off best as the film's de facto hero.

Ever-resourceful producer Irwin Allen recycled footage from The Lost World in a first-season episode of his TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) entitled "Turn Back the Clock."  Since David Hedison also starred in Voyage, it worked amazingly well. (For the record, Allen also recycled the plot and footage from his 1961 theatrical film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in a second season episode.)

A scene from the 1925 version.
According to some sources, Willis O'Brien sketched out sequences for The Lost World, which were never used due to budget constraints. Thirty-five years earlier, O'Brien did the special effects for a silent adaptation of Doyle's novel. Its climax featured a Brontosaurus destroying London--an undoubtedly expensive scene which doesn't appear in the 1960 version.

Doyle's book has served as the basis for several subsequent movies. A 1999 made-for-TV film doubled as the pilot for an Australian TV series based on The Lost World. The resulting series strayed mightily from the book, but retained the characters and was quite entertaining in its own way.

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."