Monday, May 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Signpost to Murder: A Tidy Thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

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

Happy National Classic Movie Day!

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

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

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

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

Our Picks for the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Introducing Our New Blog: British TV Detectives

On April 22nd, the Classic Film & TV Cafe's staff launched a new blog called British TV Detectives. Over the last few years, our love for British television detective and mystery series has grown exponentially.

We've covered some of the older shows, like Lord Peter Wimsey, here at the Cafe. However, many of these TV series were made after the 1980s and thus can't be categorized as classic television (at least, not yet). Since they don't "fit" at the Cafe, we came up with the idea of a new blog dedicated solely to British television sleuths.

We've reviewed the following seven TV series to jump-start our blog:
Michael Kitchen in the excellent
Foyle's War.
For each show: we describe the premise, provide its broadcast history and availability in the U.S., include any interesting production notes, and offer a critical review (complete with letter grade).

Our goal is to review a new show weekly. We already have a backlog of intriguing series waiting to be reviewed (e.g., Dalgliesh, Midsomer Murders, George Gently, etc.). If you're interested in watching any of these shows, we recommend checking out your local public library or streaming services like Acorn TV.

We invite you to visit our British TV Detectives blog and let us know what you think of it. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (May 2016)

What do Tony and Veronica have in common?
National Classic Movie Day is May 16th! That's got nothing to do with this game--we just wanted to give it a plug. Now for the rules: You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and The Jokers (1967).

2. Walter Pidgeon and Ronald Colman.

3. Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.

4. Tony Curtis and Veronica Lake.

5. Short Cut to Hell (1957) and Beware! The Blob (1972).

6. Enter the Dragon and the TV series Mission: Impossible.

7. Gardner McKay and Charlton Heston.

8. Stephanie Beacham and Deborah Kerr.

9. Quartet (1948) and Mary Poppins.

10. Lana Wood and Lee Remick.

11. The TV series Sapphire and Steel and Goldfinger.

12. Christopher Reeve and Vincent Price.

13. Vincent Price and Ray Milland.

14. Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins.

15. The Hayley Mills movie The Family Way and the 007 picture Live and Let Die.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Seven Things to Know about Bill Bixby

1. Bill Bixby starred in five prime-time television series: My Favorite Martian (1963-66); The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-72); The Magician (1973-74); The Incredible Hulk (1977-82); and Goodnight, Beantown (1983-84).

2. Bixby became life-long friends with Ray Walston, his "uncle" on My Favorite Martian, and Brandon Cruz, who played his son on The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Cruz guest starred on a 1978 episode of The Incredible Hulk. He named a son after Bixby (Lincoln Bixby Cruz).

3. Bill Bixby actually was a magician--an amateur one--and belonged to the exclusive Hollywood magicians club The Magic Castle. He hosted several TV specials featuring magicians and appeared in a supporting role in the 1976 TV movie The Great Houdini (with Paul Michael Glaser in the title role).

Bixby, as an assassin in disguise, in a
1974 Streets of San Francisco episode.
4. He was nominated for three Prime Time Emmys. His first one was in 1971 for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Both of his other nominations came in 1976. He earned one for lead actor in a guest starring role on The Streets of San Francisco (the episode "Police Bluff"); it was his second guest stint on San Francisco. He earned his second 1976 Emmy nomination for supporting actor in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.

5. Bixby played the part of alcoholic writer Willie Abbott in Rich Man, Poor Man. The following year, he receive a nomination from the Directors Guild of America for directing one of the "chapters" in the sequel Rich Man, Poor Man - Book II.

With Kathryn Hays in Ride Beyond Vengeance.
6. Bill Bixby usually played "nice guys"--but the 1966 Western Ride Beyond Vengeance was an exception. In its review of this film, Wildest Westerns Magazine states: "Bill Bixby shines as a psycho-sexual pretty boy who plunges a branding iron into his own stomach in a hysterical fit of remorse." The film's star, Chuck Connors, recommended Bixby for the role.

7. Bill Bixby, who died from cancer at age 59, became a highly successful television director. His credits included 30 episodes of the 1992-94 sitcom Blossom. He died six days after completing his final episode in 1993.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sam Peckinpah Goes Kung Fu in "The Killer Elite"

At the outset of The Killer Elite (1975), Mike and George appear to be two happy-go-lucky mercenaries that work for a CIA contractor. That changes when George (Robert Duvall) kills a defector they're protecting--then shoots Mike (James Caan) in the knee and elbow. As George stands over his bleeding pal, he states flatly: "(You) just retired. Enjoy it."

As Mike recovers from extensive surgery, his two bosses (Arthur Hill and Gig Young) visit him to deliver good news and bad news. The good is that he will receive $1500 in disability a month (a tidy sum compared to government employees). The bad news: "Given a year, maybe you'll be able to walk up a flight of stairs. That leg of yours will never be anything but a wet noodle."

George (Duvall) and Mike (Caan)
prior to Mike's "retirement."
Fueled by determination and perhaps a little revenge, Mike makes an impressive recovery, but now wears a brace on his left arm and walks with a cane. However, he still wants to get back in the business. Mike gets his opportunity when he's asked to protect an Asian diplomat from an assassination attempt by none other than George.

Unlike most of his films, Sam Peckinpah was not involved with The Killer Elite from the beginning. He joined it when his plans for a thriller called The Insurance Company hit a snag. In fact, in the book Peckinpah, author Garner Simmons includes this telegram sent by studio executive Mike Medavoy to Peckinpah: "I am confirming to you, per your note of January 27th that you are not to do any writing on the script."

The Japanese poster emphasized
the kung fu!
Instead, Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) and Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) penned the screenplay. Although Robert Hopkins' source novel Monkey in the Middle took place in England, the film's locale was shifted to San Francisco. Silliphant, a martial arts enthusiast who trained under Bruce Lee, added several kung fu elements. Caan's character practices martial arts as part of his rehabilitation and Ninja assassins also try to kill the Asian diplomat played by Mako. Silliphant even wrote a role for his wife Tiana Alexandra, who held a brown belt at the time (and also studied under Lee).

Given his lack of involvement in the script, it's surprising that The Killer Elite comes across as a typical Peckinpah film. In fact, it works as a thematic sequel (of sorts) to my favorite Peckinpah movie: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In both films, the protagonists are betrayed by a friend (or friends) and left to die (one could argue that Mike "dies" when his profession is apparently taken away from him). And both films focus on the rehabilitation and, ultimately, reinvention of their protagonists. In the concluding scene of The Killer Elite, it's obvious that Mike has undergone a life-changing transformation.

Director Sam Peckinpah.
While The Killer Elite doesn't rank with Sam Peckinpah's best films, it remains an interesting outing that makes outstanding use of the San Francisco locales. Plus, Caan gives one of his best performances. My only real criticism centers on the martial arts fight sequences. While I love a good kung fu fight, Peckinpah's attempts come across as pedestrian--especially compared to the action films being made during the same period by Bruce Lee and others in Asia. Peckinpah should have mandated the substitution of a couple of good shootouts. With this film, though, he probably didn't have the clout to do that.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Seven (More) Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember

Karkoff or Karkov?
1. Terror in the Wax Museum (1973) - Listen to this cast: Ray Milland, Elsa Lanchester, Louis Hayward, Broderick Crawford, John Carradine, and Patric Knowles. I know that veteran stars sometimes get stuck in bad movies, but what a shame that this combination of Jack the Ripper and a wax museum setting is...well...lifeless. Did I mention it includes a hunchback billed as Karkov in the credits, but Karkoff on the poster?

2. Little Fugitive (1953) - A six-year-old boy, believing that he has shot and killed his older brother, runs away to Coney Island. This independent feature boasts no major stars, but features an incredibly natural performance from Richard Brewster as little Lennie. This sweet, wholesome film plays like a home movie from the 1950s--you can almost taste the boardwalk hotdogs. It pops up occasionally on television, so it's less obscure than others on this list. I highly recommend it.

3. Outlaw Blues (1977) - Peter Fonda plays a ex-con who writes a catchy country song that's stolen by a famous singer. When he confronts the singer, the latter is accidentally shot and Fonda becomes an outlaw. Outlaw Blues reminds me of one of those entertaining drive-in pics that eventually made Burt Reynolds a star (e.g., W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings). Fonda and Susan Saint James make an appealing pair. The title tune was written by John Oates of Hall & Oates.

Judy as the white Mewsette.
4.  Gay Purr-ee (1962) - Judy Garland and Robert Goulet provide the voice of the feline lovers in this colorful, non-Disney animated musical. The songs were composed by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who worked with Judy on another musical you may know (that'd be The Wizard of Oz). The script was written by Dorothy Webster Jones and her husband, celebrated Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones. According to some sources, Warners terminated Chuck for his involvement since Gay Purr-ee was made by rival studio UPA. Rhino Records re-released the soundtrack in 2003 with several never-before-heard demos.

5. Love That Brute (1950) - Paul Douglas stars a lovable gangster that falls for a charming governess (Jean Peters). He tells her that he is a widower with a son--which means he has to find a son! I'm a fan of comedies in which a simple lie (is there such a thing?) cascades into an elaborate deception that's certain to come crumbling down. Given the popularity of Peters and Douglas, you'd think this would be shown much more often than it is. It's supposed to be a remake of Tall, Dark and Handsome (1940), which I have not seen.

That's Dr. Lauren Bacall!
6. Shock Treatment (1964) - A writer (Stuart Whitman) goes undercover in an insane asylum to discover the whereabouts of $1 million in stolen loot. If this sounds like a bad idea, you're right. Whitman heads a fine cast consisting of Lauren Bacall, Carol Lynley, and Roddy McDowell. It's a lurid tale at times, but better than Samuel Fuller's more celebrated Shock Corridor.

7. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Director Fritz Lang's last U.S. film (and one of the last of his career) stars Dana Andrews as a novelist who frames himself in order to make a statement on capital punishment. Neither Lang nor Andrews are in top form here, but Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is an absorbing "B" picture with a twist that genuinely surprised me when I saw it as a teenager.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Dark, Rainy Streets of "Phantom Lady"

An example of Siodmak's lighting.
If you've read this blog recently, you know we've been on a film noir kick since the start of the new year. We started by revisiting The Blue Dahlia and then moving on to This Gun For Hire and Black Angel. Our latest noir is Robert Siodmak's 1944 "B" mystery Phantom Lady, which--like Black Angel--features an amateur female sleuth.

The film opens with civil engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meeting a mysterious, distraught woman (Fay Helm) at an empty bar on a hot Saturday night in New York City. Scott, who has been stood up by his wife, asks the dark-haired stranger if she wants to see a musical revue with him. She initially refuses, but then reluctantly agrees on one condition: They exchange no names, no addresses, and never meet again. Scott agrees.

Later that night, Scott goes home to find the police at his apartment. His wife has been strangled with one of his ties ("A knot so tight it had to be cut with a knife," says one of the detectives). Scott's alibi falls apart when he can't identify his mysterious date. Even worse, the bartender, a taxi driver, and a drummer at the theatre all act as if they had never seen him.

Scott is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to die. It's up to his office co-worker Carol (Ella Raines) to find the real murderer. It's obvious to everyone--except Scott--that Carol is mad about the civil engineer.

Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Ella Raines in a telling scene.
This premise is similar to the later--and better--Black Angel, in which a man's wife must prove his innocence while he awaits his fate on death row. Black Angel provides more complexity and more nuance. The only element separating Phantom Lady from a dozen other mysteries is that the key witness--the mysterious woman from the bar--appears to have vanished without a trace. Well, there is another distinguishing trait: the killer, played by the biggest star in the picture--doesn't show up until the film is half over.

A passer-by (far right) likely saves Ella's life at the train platform.
Yet, if Phantom Lady lacks a creative spark plotwise, it benefits mightily from Robert Siodmak's moody direction and Ella Raine's determined detective. Siodmak creates some knockout visuals once Carol takes to roaming the city's darkened streets to find the killer. The scene in which she follows the suspicious bartender is a tour-de-force as the two move through rainy streets, a shadow-filled train platform, and partially lit arches. It as good as the famous sequence in Cat People (1942) in which Jane Randolph is followed by something after leaving the swimming pool.

I'm curious as to whether the decision to have the murderer wring his hands compulsively was the screenwriter's or Siodmak's. Regardless, it provides the director with the opportunity to provide some disconcerting close-ups of the hands of the strangler.

As for Phantom Lady's star, Ella Raines makes Carol so likable that it's easy to see why Inspector Burgess decides to help her. (Sure, he makes up an excuse for doing so, but I think it's clear that he admires Carol.) She also gets to display her first-rate acting chops when slipping in a disguise as a trampy lady who takes a liking to a manic drummer (and key witness) played by Elisha Cook, Jr.

Raines had a solid, if unspectacular, acting career. She starred in a handful of "A" pictures opposite leading such men as John Wayne (Tall in the Saddle), Randolph Scott (Corvette K-225), and Eddie Bracken (Hail the Conquering Hero). She later headlined the 1954-55 TV series Janet Dean, Registered Nurse.

Ella Raines also reteamed with director Robert Siodmak in another film noir, The Suspect (1944), which starred Charles Laughton. A year later, Siodmak would make The Spiral Staircase, one of my favorite mysteries, and follow it with his noir masterpiece The Killers (1944). I suspect we will reviewing that one in the near future, too.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Something's Abuzz in "The Deadly Bees"

While lip-synching one of her hits on a television show, pop singer Vicki Robbins collapses from exhaustion. Her physician prescribes some rest and relaxation at a friend's quiet farm on Seagull Island. This is not necessarily a good thing. In an earlier scene, Whitehall government officials discuss a series of letters from "some fruitcake" on Seagull Island who has threatened to release his new species of killer bees.

Once on the perpetually gloomy island, Vicki (Suzanna Leigh) discovers that there are two rival bee farmers: her host, Ralph Hargrove, a rather unpleasant sort, and Mr. Manfred, his kindly neighbor who welcomes Vicki warmly. Despite the friction between the neighbors, Vicki finds herself enjoying the island life until Mrs. Hargrove's dog--and later Mrs. Hargrove--are killed by swarms of bees. Hargrove and Manfred accuse each other of not controlling their bee hives. However, the coroner rules that the lethal attack on Mrs. Hargrove was "death by misadventure."

A publicity still with Suzanna Leigh.
Yet, if that were the case, then how could one explain why Vicki appears to be the pestilent pests' next victim?

While it's never surprising, The Deadly Bees (1966) is the best of the "killer bee" movies that appeared in the late 1960s and 1970s. That lot includes Irwin Allen's big-budgeted The Swarm (1978), The Bees (1978) starring John Saxon, and the made-for-TV movies Killer Bees (1974), The Savage Bees (1976), and Terror Out of the Sky (1978).

It's hard to see the bees here as they buzz by.
Much of the film's effectiveness can be attributed to director Freddie Francis and co-screenwriter Robert Bloch (Psycho). Francis, who was better known as an acclaimed cinematographer (e.g., The Innocents), turns Seagull Island into a gray, uninviting vacation spot. The bee attacks, while never looking real, are just convincing enough. My only complaint with his direction is a tendency to have his camera linger too long on important objects. ("Why are we looking at Vicki's red coat...oh, there must be something on it!").

The screenplay lacks Bloch's usual flair, making me suspect that he served only as script doctor. While the dialogue is flat, there are some nice touches: Hargrove is an unappealing hero, there's no hint of romance between Vicki and him, and one character--who would have died in most movies--survives a bee attack.

Like director Francis, star Suzanna Leigh and several other cast members (Michael Ripper, Michael Gwynn) were Hammer Film veterans. Yet, while The Deadly Bees may look like a Hammer product, it was made by studio rival Amicus. The pretty Ms. Leigh was a busy actress in the 1960s, appearing opposite Elvis Presley in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) and as one of the stewardesses in the Tony Curtis-Jerry Lewis comedy Boeing, Boeing (1965). In real life, she was romantically linked to Richard Harris, Steve McQueen, and Michael Caine (who also battled bees in The Swarm).

Ron Wood as a member of The Birds.
By the way, the opening scene in The Deadly Bees features a musical performance by The Birds (that's not a typo, it's not The Byrds). This British group never scored a hit in the U.S., but gained some popularity in its native country. When The Birds disbanded, guitarist Ronnie Wood went on to join Faces, The Jeff Beck Group, and The Rolling Stones.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The B.I.G. Bugs of "Empire of the Ants"

Bert I. Gordon isn't known as Mr. B.I.G. just because of his initials. This low-budget director established his reputation by specializing in movies about giant people (Village of the Giants), big rats (Food of the Gods), and over-sized spiders (The Spider). But today, we are focusing on ginormous ants, which are on prominent display in Gordon's 1977 cult opus Empire of the Ants.

Let me be clear that we're not talking about Them-sized ants nor a movie that can be compared in any way to that 1954 sci fi classic. Still, this is the kind of movie I would have watched at a movie theater as a college student in 1977. To my credit, I did see Food of the Gods, but, hey, it had Marjoe Gortner and Ida Lupino fighting the kind of people-eating rats that would put Willard and Ben to shame. Yet, somehow I missed Empire of the Ants on its original release and never caught it on television.

Jacqueline Scott and Robert Lansing.
Thus, I was pleased to find it on the movie schedule at the 2016 Williamsburg Film Festival. Even better, the showing included an introduction by Jacqueline Scott, who co-starred with Joan Collins and a bearded, almost unrecognizable Robert Lansing (who, of course, could still be identified because of his distinctive eyes...which really deserved to be the subject of a pop song).

Jacqueline Scott introduced Empire of the Ants by telling a funny story about Joan Collins crying over something in her trailer. Jacqueline overheard it, walked over to Robert Lansing's dressing room, and suggested that maybe he check on Joan. Lansing disappeared for a moment. He reappeared and handed Jacqueline a box of candy. "Give this to her," he said...and closed his trailer door.

Joan Collins looking very 1970s-ish.
Joan stars in Empire of the Ants as a real estate developer trying to induce unsuspecting folks into buying a lot in Dreamland Shores, which is apparently located in isolated Florida "swamp land." She takes her potential clients on a tour of the properties--completely unaware that nearby ants are munching on radioactive waste that has washed ashore.

Before long, giant ants (I'd estimate them at five feet in height) are eliminating extraneous characters like the elderly couple and the coward who left his wife behind during a bug attack. But the ants don't kill everyone and Robert Lansing, who pays the boat captain, wryly observes: "My god, they're herding us like cattle."

A giant ant confronts Joan.
Sure enough, the final third of Empire of the Ants evolves from a big bug movie into a variation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was an unexpected plot development and, for that reason alone, I'd classify Empire of the Ants as one of Bert I. Gordon's best movies (that's not saying a whole lot...but, honestly, it was kinda interesting).

The screenplay was loosely based on a 1905 short story by H. G. Wells. In Wells' tale, a gunboat captain discovers species of large (but only five centimeters), intelligent ants in the Amazon. He tries to destroy them, but fails. At the end of the story, the narrator speculates that the ants will reach Europe by 1950 or 1960.

Bert I. Gordon's Empire of the Ants was one of many later 1970s movies about nature taking revenge on humankind. Other films in this mini-genre included Grizzly, Day of the Animals, Squirm, and--the best of the bunch--John Frankenheimer's Prophecy.

Of course, Empire of the Ants had one thing none of these other movies had. It has an ant coordinator. Really. I saw it in the closing credits!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Insects in Classic Movies

A giant ant in Them!
Be they little specks or large enough to crush a man, insects have long been a big screen pest. A plague of locusts stripped the wheat fields in the climax to The Good Earth (an effect achieved by superimposing coffee grounds over oil-covered wheat). An army of soldier ants destroyed a South American plantation in 1954’s The Naked Jungle, although the crisis served to mend Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker’s shaky marriage.

That same year introduced a colony of 12-foot-high ants in Them!, the finest giant insect picture ever made. It was also the first to imply that nature was rebelling against man’s misuse of radiation. Imitations quickly followed, featuring giant grasshoppers (The Beginning of the End) and a preying mantis (The Deadly Mantis).

A publicity still from
Return of the Fly.
A single, regular-sized fly proved the culprit in 1958’s The Fly when it interrupted an experiment and merged atomic particles with an affable scientist. Nine years later, The Deadly Bees started an insect film subgenre with its lively shock scenes of swarming bees stinging nice people to death. The number of bee films increased over the next decade, amid real-life reports of killer bees flying up from South America. A popular TV-movie, The Savage Bees, was followed by The Bees, Irwin Allen’s big-budget bust The Swarm, and Terror Out of the Sky.

While bees have been portrayed as dangerous killers, filmmakers have taken a more lenient view of ants. Certainly, the destructive side of ants was displayed in The Naked Jungle, It Happened at Lakewood Manor, Empire of the Ants, and Legion of Fire: Killer Ants. But there have also been cute computer-animated ants (A Bug’s Life and Antz) and intelligent ants seeking to breed humans to create a new super race in Phase IV.

Disney's famous cricket.
In other notable insect-related features: The Devil (Peter Cook) turned Dudley Moore into a fly in one of the episodes of Bedazzled; the Academy Award-winning pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle explored the premise that insects will inherit the Earth one day; a government device designed to kill insects raised dead humans in Don’t Open the Window and turned them into flesh-eating ghouls; the moon’s inhabitants were discovered to be the insect-like Selenites in First Men in the Moon; and a nice wholesome family turned out to be roaches in disguise in Meet The Applegates. Burgess Meredith provided the voice for a talking horsefly in Hot to Trot (1988).

The best six-legged singing insect was undoubtedly Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio fame. Below is a representative sample of pre-2000 films with prominent roles for insects:

The Good Earth (1937)
Pinocchio (1940)
Hoppity Goes to Town (aka Mr. Bug Goes to Town) (1941)
Once Upon a Time (1944)
Them! (1954)
The Naked Jungle (1954)
The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The Cosmic Monster (aka The Strange World of Planet X) (1957)
Secrets of Life (1957)
The Beginning of the End (1957)
The Fly (1958)
The Wasp Woman (1960)
Mysterious Island (1961)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
The Deadly Bees (1967)
Bedazzled (1967)
The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Phase IV (1974)
Don’t Open the Window (aka Breakfast at the Manchester Morgue) (1974)
Killer Bees (1974 TV movie)
Locusts (1974 TVM)
Bug (1975)
The Savage Bees (1976 TVM)
Empire of the Ants (1977)
Damnation Alley (1977)
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
It Happened at Lakewood Manor (aka Panic at Lakewood Manor; Ants) (1977 TVM)
The Exorcist II:  The Heretic (1977)
Terror Out of the Sky (1978 TVM)
The Bees (1978)
The Swarm (1978)
The Beast Within (1982)
Creepshow (1982)
Phenomenon (aka Creepers) (1985)
The Nest (1988)
Hot to Trot (1988)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Meet The Applegates (aka The Applegates) (1990)
Whispers (1990)
Popcorn (1991)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mosquito”)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Matinee (1993)  (the movie-within-a-movie “Mant!”)
Skeeter (1994)
Ticks (1994)
Jumanji (1995)
Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects (1995 TVM)
Angels and Insects (1996)
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Microcosmos (1996)
Joe's Apartment (1996)
Ulee’s Gold (1997)
Mimic (1997)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Legion of Fire: Killer Ants (1998 TVM)
Antz (1998)
A Bug’s Life (1998)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2016)

What do Redford and Milland have in common?
'Tis spring and time to find connections! For those new to this game, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Dean Martin, Robert Culp, and Marcello Mastroianni.

2. Planet of the Apes (1968) and the TV series The Loner.

3. Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder.

4. Burt Reynolds and Christopher George.

5. Charlton Heston and Tony Curtis.

6. Carol Lynley and Mia Farrow.

7. Michel Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins.

8. Ray Milland and Robert Redford.

9. John Cleese and Kirk Douglas.

10. Citizen Kane and This Gun for Hire.

11. Psycho (1960) and the original Outer Limits.

12. Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring and Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left.

13. Alien and The Sound of Music.

14. The original Day of the Triffids and singer Mel Torme.

15. Sylvester Stallone and Errol Flynn (and it's not boxing movies).

Monday, April 11, 2016

CMBA Blogathon: "The Prize" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella"

Paul Newman as a cynical novelist.
The Prize (1963). Ernest Lehman adapted this mixture of North By Northwest and Grand Hotel from Irving Wallace's 1963 novel. If Lehman's name sounds familiar, it's because he also penned North By Northwest. Lehman keeps the basic structure of Wallace's multi-character story about a gathering of Nobel Prize winners in Stockholm. However, he gives the film a definite Hitchcock treatment.

Newman and Elke Sommer.
Paul Newman stars as Andrew Craig, a hard-drinking, cynical, but charming author who has won the Nobel Prize for his little-known, critically-acclaimed novels. He considers turning down the honor, but decides that $50,000 "ain't hay." While he is checking into the hotel, he meets an atomic scientist (Edward G. Robinson) who politely chastises him for his unpatriotic attitude. The following day, Andrew meets the scientist again, but the elderly gentleman doesn't recognize him--and makes disparaging remarks about the free world to the press. It's almost as if he's a completely different person. And, of course, he is!

Edward G. Robinson and Diane Baker.
The Prize will never be mistaken for a Hitchcock classic, but it's still satisfying escapist fare headed by a game cast. The subplots involving the other Nobel Prize winners--a scientist who thinks a rival stole his discovery, a wife who wants to make her cheating husband jealous, etc.--provide some humor and, in one case, are tied into the kidnapping. Elke Sommer adds glamour and sass as Newman's eventual ally. Diane Baker keeps the viewer guessing whether she's actually good or bad. And Hitch favorite Leo G. Carroll adds the perfect touch as the fretful head of the awards ceremony.

Journeyman director Mark Robson knows how to keep the plot rolling along. He lacks the Hitchcock touch, but let's reflect for a moment. The Prize is a superior film to Torn Curtain, a European-set thriller about a physicist involved with spies, which was made the following year and starred Paul Newman. That misfire was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Stuart Damon and Lesley Ann Warren.
Cinderella (1965). Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II originally adapted the famous fairy tale as a television musical in 1957. That version was broadcast live on the East Coast and earned Julie Andrews an Emmy nomination. However, we baby boomers harbor fond memories of the 1965 version starring Lesley Ann Warren as Cinderella and Stuart Damon as the Prince.

Shot on studio sets, it's essentially a filmed play, though that never detracts from its charms. Running just 77 minutes, Cinderella features a lovely score comprised of catchy tunes like "In My Own Little Corner," "Impossible," "Ten Minutes Ago," and the incandescent "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?"

Eighteen-year-old Lesley Ann Warren got the lead role after she was turned down as the oldest Von Trapp daughter in The Sound of Music (1965). Her clear, melodious voice and youthful innocence led to a contract with Disney and plum parts in The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968). She had a long career on television and film, eventually receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Victor, Victoria (1982).

Her co-star, Stuart Damon, had appeared on Broadway in Irma La Douce in 1960. Despite a fine singing voice, he spent most of his career in non-musical roles. He starred in the 1968-69 British television series The Champions as a government agent with extrasensory powers. In 1977, he was cast as Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the daytime drama General Hospital. He played the role for 30 years, earning nine Emmy nominations and two wins along the way.

Ginger Rogers and Walter Pigeon.
The supporting cast in Cinderella consists of screen veterans Walter Pigeon (the King), Ginger Rogers (the Queen), Celeste Holm (the fairy godmother), and Jo Van Fleet (the stepmother). Alas, Ginger doesn't get a big dance scene!

There have been several other versions of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The most notable ones are a 1997 television version with Brandy and Whitney Houston and a big budget 2013 Broadway adaptation. Both of these musicals added songs that expanded the show's running time. For me, though, I'll just stick with the original...well, the original remake with Lesley Ann and Stuart.

This post is part of the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Be sure to check out all the outstanding posts by clicking here.