Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Describe the Movie...You Name It! (Halloween Month Edition)

It's been a long time since we played this game at the Cafe! The objective is simple: We offer a short, sometimes vague, description of a movie and you have to name it. As always, please don't answer more than three questions per day, so others can play.

1. Famous outlaw's chum is turned into a monster.

2. Rawhide star battles a vampire. Roll 'em, doggies!

3. Jane Eyre goes to St. Sebastian (well, kinda).

4. Cult anime film with a vampire and a talking hand.

5. Monster talks with Ygor's voice.

6. There's a lycanthrope lurking around a reformatory for young women.

7. It has to be the most spine-tingling of all horror movies.

8. There's a creepy scene in which the villain's face appears in a car's rearview mirror--but he not in the car.

9. Police hunt baby in a sewer.

10. Dracula dances to classic disco song.

11. Baron Boris Von Frankenstein heads the the Worldwide Organization of Monsters.

12. Basil Rathbone is a wolf...I mean, he plays Wolf.

13. I'm smelling mimosa. How 'bout you?

14. It ends the same way it begins...exactly.

15. "They're coming to get you, Barbara!"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

ABC Movie of the Week: How Awful About Allan

Allan discovers the blaze...too late.
Allan (Anthony Perkins) has spent eight months in a state hospital, being treated for the trauma caused by a fire that killed his father and scarred his sister. You see, Allan left the paint cans and thinner by the heater that caused the inferno. Physically, there is nothing wrong with Allan, but he remains emotionally fragile--and partially blind. As he explains: "There is nothing organically wrong with my eyes. The blindness is all in my head."

Following his discharge, Allan (perhaps unwisely) returns to his home to live with his sister Katherine (Julie Harris). She informs her brother that they need to take in a lodger to afford the house payments. Allan hates the idea, but a room is quickly rented to a college student named Harold Dennis. When Allan begins to hear whispering voices at night, he becomes convinced that Harold is out to murder him.

This reminded me of Psycho.
Made in 1970, How Awful About Allan was originally broadcast on the ABC Movie of the Week. It boasts an exceptionally strong pedigree for a made-for-television film. In addition to major stars Perkins and Harris, the cast includes Joan Hackett (The Group) as Allan's former fiancee Olive. It was directed by Curtis Harrington, a once promising filmmaker that helmed the cult movie Night Tide (1961) and Games (1967), a semi-remake of the 1955 French suspense classic Les Diaboliques.

In fact, there are several similarities between Games and How Awful About Allan. Both films center on three major characters, two women (Katherine and Olive) and one man (Allan)--with the female characters being much stronger than the male. And, in each film, nothing is what it appears to be.

Julie Harris as Katherine.
The central mystery in How Awful About Allan is the identity of the mysterious lodger, whom the viewer sees only as a blurred image (as Allan sees him). Is Harold Dennis really Katherine or Olive in disguise? Could he be Eric, Katherine's former lover who was forced to leave town? Or is he really Harold Dennis, an innocent college student--meaning that the voices and fleeting shadows are all in Allan's mind?

A creepy shot of Allan.
It's an interesting premise, but it also makes for a thin plot. Fortunately, How Awful About Allan has a running time of only 73 minutes. Harrington also piles on the atmosphere, making Katherine and Allan's house one of those creepy abodes with dark hallways and weird noises. Even in daylight, it looks grim and uninviting--especially when viewed through Allan's eyes.

The suspense/mystery genre was a popular one on the ABC Movie of the Week. While How Awful About Allan doesn't rank with the best of them (Along Came a Spider, Isn't It Shocking?), it's still an above-average suspense tale with a fine cast.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Ka-bam! Look Out for the Five Fingers of Death!

If you are a connoisseur of cinema history, then Five Fingers of Death (1973) is required viewing. It's not the best kung fu film. It wasn't the first one. It didn't launch the careers of any stars--at least not as far as English-speaking audiences were concerned. And yet, when Warner Brothers released it in March 1973, it ignited mainstream interest in martial arts films.

The table had been set, so to speak, with the success of David Carradine's Kung Fu TV series, which debuted a year earlier. But Kung Fu's occasional slow motion fights didn't prepare audiences for the explosive kicks and punches executed gracefully by the cast of Five Fingers of Death. Still, the film's success was not a total surprise to Warner Brothers, which released it in the U.S. Known by its original title of King Boxer, the film had played to packed houses in Europe.

It also helped that American interest in Asian culture was peaking due to President Nixon's visit to the People's Republic of China in 1972. For a modest sum, Warners acquired the rights to six movies made by the Shaw Brothers and released King Boxer first--under the catchier title Five Fingers of Death.

Lieh Lo looking humble as the hero.
Lieh Lo stars as Chao Chih-Hao, the star pupil in a martial arts school who has fallen in love with his teacher's daughter Yin-Yin. Marriage is out of the question, though, until he wins a major martial arts tournament. When some local thugs almost get the better of Chih-Hao's teacher, the elderly man sends his student to study with another martial arts master.

Chih-Hao gets off to a bad start at the new school, losing a fight handily to his best friend. His new master proclaims that Chih-Hao is "not good enough" and must show he's worthy to join the martial arts classes. The young man performs menial jobs without bitterness and continues to practice kung fu on his own. His resilience impresses the new master--as does Chih-Hao's ability to quickly grasp new techniques. Chih-Hao's steadily rising stature causes friction between him and his best friend (who also happens to love Yin-Yin).

Looking like the villain he is!
Meanwhile, the villainous Meng Tung-Shun (Feng Tien) schemes to set up his son's victory in the martial arts tournament. He "hires" a highly-skilled wandering fighter as well as three Japanese killers. This results in plenty of fights, changed allegiances, retribution, and reformation before the film's end title.

There are certainly elements of Five Fingers of Death that became overused in the genre: the big martial arts tournament; the secret technique (in this case, the Iron Fist); the mysterious stranger who changes sides; the disrespected school; and the one vs. many brawl. But with its many well-placed fight scenes and convincing cast, Five Fingers of Death makes it all seem fresh again. Star Lieh Lo may lack the celluloid grace of Bruce Lee, but he punches with power and kicks with authority. Director Chang-hwa Jeong injects flair, too, especially with a fight scene that takes place in a darkened room. (Note: There are edited versions, running less than 104 minutes, that omit key scenes.)

Note glowing right Iron Fist!
It should come as no surprise that director Quentin Tarantino often lists Five Fingers of Death among his favorite films. Kill Bill (both volumes) turns the Iron Fist lethal technique into the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. When Uma Thurman's character sees two of her enemies, the music signature--know as the "siren sound"--is the same one played when Chih-Hao uses the Iron Fist in Five Fingers (interestingly, the "siren sound" was taken from the "Theme from Ironside," written by Quincy Jones).

As for Five Fingers of Death, Verina Glaessner sums up its influence nicely in the opening of her book Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance: "Led by King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death) and hotly followed by the films of Bruce Lee...these films set the scene for a mass invasion of western cinemas by Chinese action films." For more on the kung fu movie craze, you can check out our previous post on that subject.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mr. Sardonicus: The Look of (Not) Love

This unusual foray into Gothic horror is one of William Castle's strangest films--and that's saying a lot. Typically, the gimmicky Castle focused on contemporary plots, enhanced with offbeat humor, aimed at teen audiences. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is so different that one might suspect it wasn't a William Castle film...except that the producer-director appears on-screen at the beginning and end. And yes, he somehow manages to incorporate one of his famous audience gimmicks.

Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert.
Mr. Sardonicus opens in London in 1880 with Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) "curing" a crippled girl at Queens College Hospital. Sir Robert is more than a gifted physician; he is a renowned pioneer in the field of medicine. Still, he quickly cancels all appointments when he receives a letter from Maude (Audrey Dalton), an old flame who has married a baron. Obviously, his love still burns strongly for her, for he hops aboard a train to Gorslava at her first sign of distress.

Remember how villagers treat strangers when they learn folks are traveling to Castle Dracula? That's the same kind of response that Sir Robert gets when he arrives in Gorslava and mentions Baron Sardonicus. Fortunately, Krull (Oscar Homolka), one of the Baron's servants, is at the train station to drive Sir Robert to the castle.

The Baron wearing his mask.
Things are revealed to be a bit odd at the spooky mansion. Sir Robert rescues a servant girl who has been covered in leeches as part of an "experiment." Maude acts initially like nothing is wrong. And Baron Sardonicus arrives at dinner wearing a full facial mask because he has been horribly disfigured. The Baron wants Sir Robert to cure him--which leads to a lengthy flashback that reveals how the Baron became the man he is today.

Up to this point, Baron Sardonicus is an atmospheric, engrossing, well-acted tale. Unfortunately, the Baron's bizarre flashback answers the central question that propelled the film. Once we know what happened to Sardonicus, it's like director Castle let out all the air of the film and it deflates quickly.

Homolka as Krull.
The cast is one of Castle's best, with Ronald Lewis exhibiting the kind of commanding presence that made me wonder why he didn't have a better career. He did appear in a nifty Hammer thriller called Taste of Fear (1961) and in the big budgeted Billy Budd (1962). Other acting honors go to the always-reliable Oscar Homolka, whose Krull proves to be scarier than Sardonicus, and Erika Peters in a small role as Sardonicus' first wife. Sadly, the talented Audrey Dalton has little to do as Maude and isn't in much of the film. (When I interviewed Ms. Dalton earlier this year, she did say it was one of her most enjoyable films to make.)

Castle explaining how to vote in the poll.
As for the gimmick, Castle appears near the end of the film to introduce a "Punishment Poll" in which audience members are supposedly given the opportunity to vote on the fate of Baron Sardonicus. There have been periodic discussions over the years as to whether Castle actually shot two endings for the film. But, to date, no one has found the footage of a second ending.

For the record, I think the make-up for the Baron's skull-like smile was inspired by the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder." You be the judge below:

Well, the noses are similar!

Finally, Mr. Sardonicus played a key role in a storyline on the 1987-90 critically acclaimed TV series Wiseguy, in which a character was obsessed with the film. That reminds me that the title is really one calls him Mister Sardonicus...because he's a baron!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Monster Mayhem! It's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Bela Lugosi as the Monster.
The surprising popularity of 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein (not one of my faves) left Universal Studios in a quandary. It wanted to make a sequel, but its staff writers felt that the Frankenstein Monster had nowhere to go. Desperation sometimes results in inspiration and thus was born the idea of pairing the Frankenstein Monster with the Wolf Man. It was a clever premise that would extend the Universal monster movies for another decade.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) opens with a splendidly atmospheric scene in which two grave robbers break into the Talbot Family crypt in order to rob the corpse of Larry Talbot. When they open his stone casket, they find Larry's body covered in wolf bane. I don't know about you, but that would have sent me packing in a hurry--especially with a full moon in the night sky. But the inept grave robbers hang around until Larry reaches up and grabs one of them.

Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney, Jr.
When we next see Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), he is very much alive. He gradually realizes that he survived his "death" four years earlier (depicted in The Wolf Man) and must therefore be immortal. Larry seeks out the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who has heard of a "great doctor" that may be able to help Larry find the peaceful sleep of death.

Larry finds the Monster in ice.
Alas, their journey to Vasaria proves fruitless when they learn that Dr. Frankenstein is dead. When Larry, as the Wolf Man, kills a young village woman, the townspeople pursue the vicious "wolf." As Larry the lyncanthrope evades the angry mob, he falls into a hidden chamber. The next morning, he discovers the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi) encased in ice and frees it. With the Monster's help, he tries to find Frankenstein's diaries and--he hopes--the secret to his own death.

It's hard to assess Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man because the Universal brass had the film cut before its release. In Curt Siodmak's original screenplay, the Monster could speak (as he could at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein). In his book The Dead That Walk, Leslie Halliwell includes some of the missing dialogue:

MONSTER: I can't see you. I'm blind, I'm sick. Once I had the strength of a hundred men. If Dr. Frankenstein were alive, he'd give it back to I could live forever.

TALBOT: Do you know what happened?

MONSTER: I fell into the stream when the village people burned the house down. I lost consciousness. When I woke, I was frozen in the ice.

TALBOT: Buried alive. I know, I know...

MONSTER: Dr. Frankenstein created my body to be immortal. His son gave me a new brain, a clever brain. I will rule the world forever if we can find the formula that can give me back my strength. I will never die.

TALBOT: But I want to die. If you wanted to die, what would you do?

MONSTER: I would look for Dr. Frankenstein's diary. He knew the secret of immortality. He knew the secret of death.

This missing scene is a very illuminating one. First, it explains why the Monster walks with his arms outstretched awkwardly (he's blind!). It also clarifies why the Monster can be seen mouthing dialogue silently in the film (he was actually conversing with Larry). Finally, it explains why the creature would so willingly lead Talbot to the secret location of Dr. Frankenstein's papers.

The Monster disrupts the festival.
Without this key scene, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a perplexing film at times. The middle portion also lumbers along awkwardly much like the Monster. Still, there are three marvelous scenes: the aforementioned grave robbing sequence, the Monster's sudden appearance in Vasaria during the Festival of the New Wine, and the climatic fight. Granted, it's clearly a stunt double--not Bela--as the Monster during the big showdown. Also, I can't imagine the Wolf Man surviving this face-off (his strategy seems to consist of climbing up on lab equipment and jumping on the Monster).

Director Roy William Neill was Universal's best "B" movie director and, while his pacing may be off this time, he creates a visually hypnotic world of blacks, grays, and white. The cemetery, with its eternally blowing leaves and whistling winds, is like a gothic painting come to life.

Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man.
Chaney is his usual self as the Wolf Man (and that's not a bad thing). Bela is miscast as the Monster; one can even spot his facial features through the makeup. Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Dennis Hoey, Dwight Frye, and Lionel Atwill make a solid supporting cast. I would've like to have seen more of Maria Ouspenskaya (cinema's best gypsy) and it's too bad Atwill played a mayor and not the one-armed prefect from Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a big hit and spawned two immediate sequels with even more monsters: House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). After a short rest, the Universal monsters returned in the 1950s to face off against their biggest adversaries yet: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Five Best Movies About Big Business

Sloane as the difficult Mr. Ramsey.
1. Patterns (1956). What would you do if you worked for the world's worst boss? If you answered "quit, of course," then this movie is for you! Last year, I showed Patterns to a group of senior managers and we spent over an hour discussing it. Van Heflin portrays a promising junior executive who gets promoted to vice president at Ramsey & Co. He soon realizes that the company's ruthless head (Everett Sloane) wants to push a decent, but now ineffective, older executive into retirement. When the latter takes a hard stand, Ramsey makes his life hell. But here's the catch: Ramsey truly has the best interests of the company at heart. Rod Serling adapted his own acclaimed television play.

2. Executive Suite (1954). When the president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, dies unexpectedly, two executives (Fredric March and William Holden) battle each other for the control of the company. I've also referenced this engrossing look at corporate politics in the real world. It provides an interesting discourse on quality (represented by Holden's engineer) vs. profits (March's VP of finance). It also raises an interesting point about career progression. If you don't want someone one else as your boss, are you willing to step up and do the job yourself?

Judy Holliday as Miss Partridge.
3. The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956). Judy Holliday is sublime as Laura Partridge, a (very) minority stockholder in a major corporation who keeps questioning the company’s crooked board members during its public meetings. To keep her from badgering them, the board members hire Miss Partridge as their Director of Shareholder Relations—a “do nothing” job until she decides to make something of it. It's my favorite Judy Holliday comedy, but also a sharp satire about the power of stockholders.

DeVito as Larry the Liquidator.
4. Other People's Money (1991). Danny DeVito stars as Larry the Liquidator, a corporate raider who targets a struggling company run by a kindly executive (Gregory Peck) who cares deeply about his employees. Larry, on the other hand, just wants to make money for stockholders--and himself. Peck and DeVito share a great scene at the climax in which each of their characters makes a compelling case for his viewpoint.

5. The Man in the White Suit (1951). Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a research chemist who invents a fiber that never gets dirty and never wears out. Sounds like a marvelous invention, right? Well, the textile industry--to include both management and the union--isn't thrilled at all. Naturally, Sidney's white suit will bankrupt companies and eliminate jobs. Since this is an Ealing comedy, there's a witty ending that (sort of) works for everyone. Still, it makes one wonder how many great inventions may have been stifled in the real world!

Note: I focused my picks on movies that deal with traditional businesses. Yes, you could make the argument that The Godfather is a film about a family-run business, but I think it's outside the scope of this list. Likewise, businesses play an important role in films like Citizen Kane, Mildred Pierce, and The Bad and the Beautiful. I still wouldn't call them movies about big business.

Monday, October 3, 2016

William Castle Asks If You Believe in Ghosts--13 of Them!

Illusion-O...a nifty gmmick!
I first saw 13 Ghosts on television as a youth. It was my introduction to producer-director William Castle. And even though Castle's famous Illusion-O gimmick was lost on my family's black-and-white TV, I still have fond memories of this ghostly variation of a wholesome family picture.

The Zorba's are your typical sitcom family--except for the fact that they're broke. It's so bad that Hilda Zorba calls her husband at work to complain: "The moving men are here...taking away the furniture again." Apparently, Cyrus doesn't earn much as a tour guide in the paleontology department at the Los Angeles Museum. Their kids, college-age Madea and youngster Buck, don't seem to mind. However, when Buck blows out his birthday candles that night, he wishes for "a house with furniture that no one can take away from us."

Charles Herbert as Buck.
Almost on cue, Cyrus receives a mysterious telegram from attorney Benjamin Rush. It turns out that Cyrus' Uncle Plato has left him a haunted--but furnished--house, complete with ghosts and a housekeeper that doubles as a medium. Their financial situation compels the family to move into the old house. The apparitions are a nuisance, especially the former chef that periodically empties out the kitchen cabinets onto the floor. However, there is also something evil afoot--and that spells trouble for the Zorba family.

As stated previously, 13 Ghosts is a pleasant little picture that didn't need a gimmick. Still, Castle came up with one of his best: a cardboard viewer with blue and red filters that allowed the audience to see the ghosts. At various points during the film, text appeared on screen telling the audience to "Use Viewer." The screen then turned blue and the ghosts appeared in red. If you wanted to "see" the ghosts, you looked through the red filter on your cardboard viewer. However, if you were afraid of ghosts, you could look through the blue filter and see all images on screen except for the ghosts. Castle, in one of his most entertaining introductory scenes, explained all this to the audience.
Audience members were prompted when to use their ghostly viewers.

This is what you saw if looking through the red filter.

When the ghosts departed, you didn't need to use your viewer!

Surprisingly, the top-billed member of the cast was Charles Herbert, who played Buck. Herbert was a busy child actor who appeared previously in Houseboat, The Fly, and The Boy and the Pirates. 13 Ghosts marked his final film role, but he remain in demand on television in the 1960s. He died last year on Halloween.

Margaret Hamilton look like Miss Gulch.
Other cast members included Martin Milner, Jo Swerling, and Margaret Hamilton. Milner started his four-year stint as the Corvette-driving Tod Stiles in Route 66 shortly after 13 Ghosts. Margaret Hamilton has little to do as the creepy housekeeper, but I was struck by her appearance. Her face looked the same as it did 21 years earlier in The Wizard of Oz (only it wasn't green). Pretty Jo Swerling retired from full-time acting in 1964 to raise her deaf daughter. She still remains popular enough to appear at nostalgia conventions.

13 Ghosts was remade as the R-rated Thir13en Ghosts in 2001 with Tony Shalhoub as the head of a family that inherits a haunted house. As you can imagine, the tone is quite different--and there's no Illusion-O.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cult Movie Theatre: The Hidden (1988)

MacLachlan as Agent Gallagher.
(Spoiler alert!)
After a man robs a bank in broad daylight, he smiles at the security camera and shoots several people. He then climbs into his stolen Ferrari, cranks up some rock 'n' roll, and evades the police after a high-speed chase. Detective Tom Beck's investigation turns up little useful information. Neighbors describe Jack DeVries, L.A.'s latest notorious criminal, as a "nice, quiet man--a real gentleman."

Fortunately, Beck (Michael Nouri) gets some unexpected help when Seattle FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) turns up and claims he's been pursuing DeVries. There's something odd about Gallagher, who confides to Beck that DeVries killed his partner (which causes the detective to naturally wonder why the FBI left Gallagher on the case). However, there's no denying that Gallagher knows his man--assuming that the criminal really is a man.

Nouri and MacLachlan.
The Hidden is one of the many buddy action films that appeared in the 1980s following the success of 48 HRS. As you may have surmised, the twist here is that one of the cops is an alien and he's pursuing a criminal of his own species. The second twist is that--with an obvious nod to John Carpenter's The Thing--the extraterrestrial criminal uses human bodies as hosts. Its ability to move from one human to another obviously makes tracking it difficult. (Adding to the complexity, the creature can only be killed by a special weapon when traveling between human hosts!)

Claudia Christian as the alien in one of
its many "hosts."
An unexpected sense of humor underlies The Hidden and elevates it from similar sci-fi action fare. The alien criminal has a penchant for guns and sport cars, particularly red Ferraris. It also enjoys grooving to loud rock music, which accounts for the film's lengthy soundtrack featuring songs by groups like The Truth, Hunters & Collectors, and Concrete Blonde (who scored a Top 20 hit with "Joey" in 1990).

However, the success of any "buddy film" depends on the actors playing the buddies. Nouri does a nice job playing the dedicated cop who's still a family man (Beck actually calls his wife when he's late for dinner). MacLachlan channels the offbeat personality that served him well in earlier efforts like Blue Velvet (1987) and later ones such as the 1990-91 Twin Peaks TV series. In fact. it's easy to recognize Special Agent Gallagher as a forerunner to Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. MacLachlan and Nouri play off each effectively and their dogged pursuit of their adversary keeps The Hidden from becoming too broad.

The Hidden was a modest boxoffice hit, but proved to be a popular video rental. As a result, a so-so sequel, The Hidden II, appeared in 1993. It starred Kate Hodge as Beck's daughter. Horror fans may remember her from the amusing 1990-91 cult TV series She-Wolf of London (aka Love and Curses).

Monday, September 26, 2016

Seven Things to Know About Glenn Ford

1. Glenn Ford was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford in Sainte-Christine-d'Auvergne, Quebec, Canada. He became a naturalized U. S. citizen in 1939. His father was a railroad executive; Ford played a railroad engineer in Fritz Lang's classic film noir Human Desire (1954).

2. Ford was a registered Democrat for much of his life and supported John F. Kennedy for president in 1960. However, he later became a Republican and campaigned for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.

3. Glenn Ford enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in 1941. The following year, he volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He never saw any combat duty during World War II and received a medical discharge in 1944 for ulcers. He returned to the Armed Service one last time when he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1958. He served until his retirement as a Captain in 1977.

Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.
4. Ford once said that he became a star when he slapped Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). The two, who shared a visible on-screen chemistry, starred in four other films together: The Lady in Question, The Money Trap, Affair in Trinidad, and The Loves of Carmen. In Peter Ford's biography of his father, he quotes Glenn as saying: "You couldn't help but fall in love with Rita. She was such a lovely person, but so miserable. I lent a sympathetic ear, and she trusted me because she knew I cared for her and wouldn't let anyone hurt her."

Ford in Navy uniform.
5. In Quigley Publishing Company's annual poll of movie theater owners, Glenn Ford was ranked among the Top Ten Moneymakers in Hollywood in 1956, 1958, and 1959. He was ranked at #1 in 1958. He appeared in four films that year: The Sheepman, Cowboy, Imitation General, and Torpedo Run.

6. Ford was married four times. His longest marriage (1943-59) was to Broadway and film musical star Eleanor Powell. They had one child, Peter, who dabbled in acting (appearing as a regular with his Dad in the 1971-72 TV series Cade's County) and later wrote the 2011 biography Glenn Ford: A Life.

7. Glenn Ford was never nominated for an Oscar. I doubt if he cared. He once famously said: "I've never played anyone but myself on screen."

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Plague Dogs: An Unrelenting Tale of Lost Hope

The Tod, Rowf, and Snitter.
I knew it was a mistake to watch The Plague Dogs earlier this week when my wife was at choir practice. I had originally seen this emotionally wrenching film in the 1980s, so I remembered that it was not an animated film aimed at children. I also vaguely recalled that the ending was downbeat. However, I misjudged the extent to which The Plague Dogs would touch me--leaving me a weepy mess of a man after 95 minutes of lost hope.

The story opens in an animal research facility as two scientists watch a dog nearly drown in a tank of water. The purpose of their experiment, which has been repeated multiple times on the same animal, is to determine how long the canine can survive before dying. The dog, an old Lab mix named Rowf, is returned to his cage after the experiment. When he regains consciousness, his friend Snitter, a Fox Terrier, informs Rowf that his cage door has been left unlocked. Rowf and Snitter explore the dark halls of the research facility--which is filled with dogs, monkeys, rabbits, and rats--and eventually escape through the incinerator.

Life on the outside isn't what they imagined. Snitter talks fondly of his earlier life with his master, who died in a car accident while saving Snitter. They just need to find a new master, he tells Rowf. But the gray-muzzled Lab mix distrusts people based on his experiences with the "whitecoats" (the scientists). He doesn't understand people and how they could do such awful things to him ("Why do they do it? I'm not a bad dog.").

Rowf in the background and Tod.
Unprepared to provide for themselves Rowf and Snitter meet The Tod, a crafty fox who teaches survival skills in return for a portion of any sheep killed by Rowf. Snitter likes The Tod, but the cynical Rowf distrusts the fox, too. Still, the trio share a fleeting moment of contentment, marred only by Snitter's health problems stemming from experimental brain surgery ("My head is all on fire!"). Eventually, hunters--fueled by a fake story about the dogs carrying bubonic plague--close in on the trio.

The Plague Dogs is based on Richard Adams' 1977 novel of the same name. Adams had earlier written the acclaimed bestseller Watership Down, a modern fable about a warren of rabbits that was turned into a surprise 1978 boxoffice hit. Martin Rosen, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Watership Down, performed the same duties for The Plague Dogs.

A fine example of Rosen's direction.
However, despite mostly good reviews (e.g., Janet Maslin praised the animation more than the plot), The Plague Dogs flopped at the boxoffice, It's not hard to see why. Though the animation is colorful and life-like and the characters convincing, a cloud of despair hangs about the film. Ironically, Adams' book had an upbeat ending which was added on his publisher's insistence. The film jettisons that ending for what Adams originally conceived--an ambiguous conclusion that has Rowf and Snitter swimming in the fog toward an island that may or may not exist.

John Hurt provides the voice for Snitter.
The voice cast, comprised of British veterans, is excellent. John Hurt perfectly captures Snitter's optimism. Christopher Benjamin, whose many roles include loud Sir Hugh Bodrugan on the original Poldark, voices Rowf. And James Bolam, whom we're recently watched in the detective series New Tricks, speaks in a Geordie (Northern England) dialect as The Tod.

Although most current prints of The Plague Dogs run 95 minutes, the original film was 103 minutes. Several scenes deemed too bloody for American audiences were trimmed. The longer film is available on video only in Australia. Incidentally, the closing gospel song was written and performed by Alan Price, who provided the splendid tunes for the 1973 cult classic O Lucky Man.

The Plague Dogs is a potent film about cruelty and deception. It's a good movie with an important message and I do recommend it. However, as a dog lover, it's not a movie I want to watch again for a long time.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Ipcress File: "Now, listen to me...."

One of the best "anti-Bond" spy films made in the wake of Goldfinger was--ironically--made by the team that made the Bond movies. The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, with music by John Barry, sets designed by Ken Adam, and editing courtesy of Peter Hunt. Yet, where the 007 pictures feature action-packed chases accompanied by pulse-pounding music, The Ipcress File is a moody affair set among the drabbest buildings in London and with a subdued (but memorable) score by Barry. 

Michael Caine stars as Harry Palmer, an Army sergeant detailed to a Ministry of Defence counter-espionage unit. Palmer's file describes him as "insubordinate, insolent, a tricker, with perhaps criminal tendencies." In regard to the "criminal" label, Palmer's superior, Colonel Ross, recruited him from an army brig. However, Palmer is far from a two-bit hoodlum. He is an intelligent man with a taste for gourmet food, an ear for classical music, and an eye for the ladies.

Palmer undergoes brainwashing.
In the film's opening, Colonel Ross informs Palmer that he's being transferred to another department to help investigate the "Brain Drain." Seventeen scientists have disappeared, including one that resurfaces but who can remember nothing about his research. Palmer's investigation uncovers one small clue: a fragment of an audio tape filled with strange sounds and labeled "IPCRESS." 

If The Ipcress File were a Hitchcock movie, then the mysterious audio tape would be the film's "MacGuffin." It's what propels the plot, even though it's not really that interesting once we learn its purpose. In fact, the plot just serves as a framework for the characters, their interactions, and an inside look at the "real world" of spying. The Ipcress File convinces us that spying isn't about fast cars, gadgets, and globe-hopping secret agents. It's about digging through files, conducting mundane surveillance, following suspects, and misleading people. 

The hero is nameless in the novels.
The beauty of The Ipcress File is that it makes this glimpse into the world of mundane espionage engrossing from start to finish. Most of the credit belongs to Len Deighton, who wrote the original novel, and Michael Caine. Although Caine made a solid impression in 1964's Zulu, it's The Ipcress File that propelled him to stardom. He's perfectly cast as the cynical, reluctant, bespectacled Cockney spy who still has a lot to learn about his new occupation.

Jean (Sue Lloyd) in Harry's apartment.
Producer Saltzman surrounds the young Caine with a a well-cast team of veteran performers. Guy Doleman, who plays Ross, appeared later in Thunderball and as one of the No. 2's in The Prisoner. Nigel Green, as Palmer's new superior, starred with Caine in Zulu and played an older Hercules in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Gordon Jackson, as a fellow agent, would later achieve fame as the butler Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs. The talented Sue Lloyd has a small, but effective role as an icy colleague who may have mixed loyalties. 

Sidney J. Furie's direction has been the source of much discussion among the film's fans. Furie's penchant for bizarre camera angles caused clashes with the traditional Saltzman during the production. I can see what Furie wanted to achieve--by having his camera peer through nooks and crannies, he essentially allowed the viewer to spy upon the spies. However, like Saltzman, I found some of his shots and framing too distracting.

Michael Caine returned as Harry Palmer in two theatrical sequels. Funeral in Berlin (directed by Goldfinger's Guy Hamilton) is as good as, if not better than, The Ipcress File. Unfortunately, the next film in the series, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), is a disaster with typically over-the-top direction from Ken Russell and a comic book villain played by Karl Malden. After a three-decade break, Caine returned as Harry Palmer in two made-for-cable features: Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996). Guy Doleman, Oscar Homolka, and Sue Lloyd appear in some of the sequels.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Remembering the "Laredo" TV Series

Stars Brand, Brown, and Smith.
In contrast to the popular cowboy ballad "The Streets of Laredo," the streets depicted in this 1965-67 TV Western were pretty lively thanks to a trio of boisterous Texas Rangers. The series, which currently airs on GetTV, starred Neville Brand as gruff Reese Bennett, Peter Brown as the refined Chad Cooper, and William Smith as the muscular Joe Riley. Television veteran Philip Carey played their put-upon boss Captain Parmalee.

The original series pilot aired in 1965 as the last episode of the third season of The Virginian. In "We've Lost a Train," Trampas (Doug McClure) travels through Laredo to pick a bull in Mexico for Judge Garth. Along the way, he runs afoul of Reese, Chad, and Joe--but winds up helping them retrieve stolen money from a train. As often happens with pilots, the characters here differ slightly from the ones in the eventual Laredo series. Reese is less comical and Chad isn't the ladies man that he would become.

Brown, Doug McClure, Brand, and Smith on The Virginian.
The teleplay was written by Western scribe Borden Chase, who penned film classics such as Winchester '73 (1950), The Bend of the River (1952), and Man Without a Star (1955). Universal Studios padded the pilot with footage from another Virginian episode ("Ride a Dark Trail") and released it in Europe as a theatrical film called Backtrack.

The Laredo TV series debuted on NBC in September 1965. Its time slot, Thursday from 8:30 to 9:30, pitted it against some tough competition: Bewitched on ABC and My Three Sons on CBS. Still, Laredo found an audience with its easygoing mix of action and humor. The latter often involved Reese being manipulated by his colleagues. In various episodes, Chad and Joe convince Reese to get into a ring with a lively bull, go undercover to catch villainous French officers, and take over as "acting captain" when Parmalee is away.

The second season of Laredo added Dutch actor Robert Wolders, who joined the cast as rookie Ranger Erik Hunter. According to some sources, the rationale for a fourth Ranger was to lighten Brand's workload. Erik was a bit of dandy and surpassed Chad as the best-dressed Texas Ranger on television. In real life, Wolders married classic movie actress Merle Oberon in 1975--she was 25 years older than him--for the last four years of her life. He later lived with Audrey Hepburn for the last decade of her life.

Neville Brand as Reese Bennett.
Still, Laredo owes its success to the Gunga Din camaraderie of the three actors that played the original Rangers. Each of them brought something different to the show. Neville Brand was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. He carved an acting career as a tough guy in movies like D.O.A. (the villain's description of Brand's henchman: "He's not happy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood.").  In his autobiography, Bruce Dern said of Neville Brand:   "(He was) the baddest guy I ever met in the business."

Peter Brown as Chad Cooper.
Peter Brown came to Laredo as a TV Western veteran. He played young deputy Johnny McKay to John Russell's marshal on four seasons of the half-hour series Lawman (1958-62). The show was one of the many Westerns produced by Warner Bros. at the time (others included Cheyenne, Maverick, and Sugarfoot). Between Lawman and Laredo, Brown starred opposite actresses Hayley Mills (Summer Magic), Ann-Margret (Kitten With a Whip), and Barbara Eden (Ride the Wild Surf). In the last film, he played a blonde surfer--apparently, the producers were concerned that the good-looking Brown would distract female viewers from the film's dark-haired star...Fabian.

William Smith as Joe Riley.
The least known of the three Laredo stars was William Smith, a former child actor, arm wrestler, and bodybuilder. Ironically, he was probably the most successful Laredo star after the series' cancellation, guest starring in over 90 television shows. On the silver screen, he often portrayed villains such as the motorcycle gang leader in 1971's Chrome and Hot Leather (which also featured Peter Brown). One of Smith's most memorable roles was as Clint Eastwood's bare-knuckle fight opponent in Any Which Way You Can (1980). It's interesting to note that Smith had a brief bare-knuckle bout against Mike Mazurki in the season one Laredo episode "Pride of the Rangers."

Carey as the put-upon Parmalee.
Finally, no review of Laredo would be complete without mentioning Phillip Carey, whose Captain Parmalee tried, to no avail, to keep Reese, Chad, and Joe in line. Carey made his film debut in the early 1950s and appeared in movies like Mister Roberts and Calamity Jane before entering television. Prior to playing Parmalee, he starred in the TV series Tales of the Bengal Lancers (1956-57) and in the title role in Philip Marlowe (1959-60). In 1979, long after Laredo, he made his debut on the daytime television drama One Life to Live, in which he portrayed Texas tycoon Asa Buchanan for the next 28 years.

NBC cancelled Laredo in 1967 after two seasons and 56 episodes. The network's decision to move the series to Friday nights at 10 P.M. likely contributed to the show's early demise. It still holds up nicely, a refreshing change from the traditional 1960s Westerns--although there are still plenty of shoot-outs and daring rescues. Laredo airs weekdays at 10:45 AM Eastern Time on GetTV.