Monday, January 16, 2017

Alan Ladd Betrayed in "Captain Carey, U.S.A."

The studio sets are pretty convincing.
Webb Carey (Alan Ladd) provides intelligence to the Allies while hiding out on an island off the coast of Italy during World War II. The local residents know about the Americano and a fellow officer, but not the location of their base of operations. It turns out that Webb has discovered a secret room belonging to the de Cresci family, where valuable art has been stored for centuries.

Webb has also fall in love with Giulia de Cresci, whom he calls Julie. Tragedy strikes when the Nazis somehow discover the secret room and shoot Webb, kill his friend, and drag Julie away--as Webb hears a gunshot.

Years later, long after the war has ended, Webb finds a de Cresci-owned painting--one once stored in the secret room--for sale by an art dealer in New York. That causes him to return to Italy to find out who betrayed him and who murdered Julie.

Made in 1950, the blandly-titled Captain Carey, U.S.A. is a post-war drama in the same vein as The Third Man (1949) and Cornered (1944). It most closely resembles the latter, which is a far better film than Captain Carey. That's not Alan Ladd's fault. He carries the first half of the film on his shoulders admirably. His disillusioned character reminds me of a watered-down version of the noir anti-heroes he played in classics like This Gun for Hire.

Alan Ladd and Wanda Hendrix.
It should come as no surprise that Julie is not dead and, even worse, she is married to another man. When she finally confronts an embittered Webb, he quips: "What do you want from me? A wedding present?"

Any hopes for a post-war noir vanish, though, when Webb and Julie team up to find a killer who has been covering their treasonous tracks. Wanda Hendrix, who portrays Julie, never convinces the audience that she is a strong-willed survivor equally obsessed with the truth. She's certainly no match for Ladd's driven hero and she somehow manages to make him seem less interesting.

Ladd listening to "Mona Lisa."
There are still some bright spots in Captain Carey, U.S.A. The film introduced the popular Ray Evans-Jerry Livingston song "Mona Lisa," which won an Oscar. It was not crooned by Nat King Cole in the movie, though. Instead, it's sung by the partisans as a warning for the approach of the Nazis. The film also boasts an early screen appearance by Russ (billed as Rusty) Tamblyn, who gets a chance to show off his acrobatic skills.

If you're searching for a gripping post-war revenge drama, then I recommend watching Cornered, which features one of Dick Powell's best performances. However, you could do worse than Captain Carey and, if you're an Alan Ladd fan, then you'll likely enjoy it.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dick Gautier Chats with the Café about Birdie, "Get Smart," Robin Hood, and His Caricatures

As a tribute to the late Dick Gautier, who passed away on January 13, 2017, we're republishing his interview with us from 2013.

Actor, singer, composer, author, artist, and voice talent--Dick Gautier is pretty much a man of all media. Perhaps best known as Hymie the Robot on TV's Get Smart, Mr. Gautier has appeared in over 100 films and TV series according to the Internet Movie Database, as well as ten stage productions. He still acts occasionally (having appeared in an episode of Nip/Tuck) and has gained fame as a caricaturist. Despite the hectic schedule, he found time to drop by the Café for a chat.

Café:  You portrayed Conrad Birdie in the original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie and received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical. How did you come to be cast as Conrad?

Gautier (in gold) as Conrad Birdie in
the original Broadway production.
Dick Gautier:  Unbeknownst to most folks, I started as a stand-up comedian. I was not really a joke teller, although I enjoy telling stories in which you can improvise and utilize character voices and accents, and that little advertised phase of my career has gotten me to places in the industry I never dreamed of. After my four-year stint in the Navy (U.S., thank you), I worked at the hungry i in San Francisco. I followed Mort Sahl, who had just made a good name for himself. As a side note, Maya Angelou, the distinguished poet, once opened for me doing a calypso act. The Purple Onion, which was across the street, spawned people like Phyllis Diller, the Kingston Trio, etc. I then went to New York and worked (after several fruitless months) at The Blue Angel, where I appeared with Margaret Whiting. It was there that Gower Champion, the wonderful dancer who--with his wife Marge--graced many MGM musicals, came in with Charles Strouse, the composer. They evidently stayed until the end of my show where I sang briefly, because a month later I received a call in Chicago from my agents, who told me that I was to meet about a project called Bye Bye Birdie. I flew to NY, we met, I sang for them and after they bolstered up my insecurities (I was comfortable singing Gershwin or Jerome Kern--but not rock 'n' roll), I got the part, over, I was told, about 750 other guys. I didn’t understand why I was chosen and I still don’t get it to this day. But I’m grateful. It was a great cast, Dick (Van Dyke), Chita (Rivera), Paul (Lynde), and Susan (Watson). Gower was a wonderful director and it began a totally unanticipated phase of my career.

Café:  Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde appeared in both the stage and film versions of Bye Bye Birdie. Was there any discussion about you recreating your role for the film?

DG:  My agents at William Morris didn’t want me to get typecast as a rock 'n' roll guy and the script was undergoing major changes; the part of Kim (Susan Watson) was being redone for Ann-Margret and Birdie was taking a backseat. So, we opted out of the film because, as my agents said: "The film along with the stage show would make the part indelibly mine." Not a good idea. They were right. I avoided the casting trap and poor Jesse Pearson (Birdie in the movie) didn’t have much of a career after that and passed away rather young.

Café:  You were brilliant as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart. How did you get the part and what was it like working on Get Smart?

Gautier as Hymie the robot in the
season 2 episode "Anatomy of a Lover."
DG:  It was fun doing Hymie on Get Smart, though not an actor’s challenge. When I met with the powers that be, I told them that when I was a kid in Canada I saw a man in a storefront window acting like a manikin to drum up business. If you could make him smile, you’d get $10. So, I tried, but not by acting crazy--I merely imitated his movements. I didn’t win the $10, but I got the part of Hymie, which was a little better. Again, I was blessed to be working with a talented, nice group of actors. Don (Adams), Barbara (Feldon), Ed Platt, and even Victor French, who was always stuck in a clock or something. They were always pleasant and creative and encouraging to me.

Café:  You were always a popular panelist on game shows like Password, The Match Game, and Win, Lose or Draw. What were your favorite game shows and why?

DG:  I loved doing game shows. Sure, the games were fun, but the other celebrities were usually quick-witted opponents and we had a great time trying to crack each other up. (I’m a patsy, it’s easy to get to me).  I especially liked Password because I’m sort of a word freak. I enjoy etymology (word derivations) and being a part-time writer. I enjoy word play of all kinds. Match Game was fun because Gene Rayburn and all the others were absolute crackups. I always felt guilty accepting the money. (Well, not THAT guilty!)    

As Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten.
Café:  You played Robin Hood on Mel Brooks' When Things Were Rotten, a delightful parody that was sadly cancelled after 13 episodes. It has a big cult following now. What are your memories of working on it?

DG:  I was thrilled when I got the part of Robin Hood. I mean who ever thinks of himself as a classic character?  We had the best time. All we did was giggle it was so silly. And to work with our great guest stars like Sid Caesar and Dudley Moore or be directed by Marty Feldman…it was a hoot! I wish it had gone on longer, but Fred Silverman didn’t like it when it was offered to him at CBS, so it was no surprise that we disappeared when he took over ABC.  I don’t think he has the greatest sense of humor anyway. The jokes always parted his hair when they flew over his head.

Café:  You wrote several episodes of the TV series Love, American Style. You also penned the screenplays for Maryjane, a 1968 drama about a teacher framed for drug dealing (starring Fabian and Diane McBain) and the 1972 anti-war comedy Wild in the Sky (aka God Bless You, Uncle Sam). Did you ever consider writing screenplays full-time? And, hey, why aren't those movies on DVD?

DG:  I really enjoy writing, probably more than the people who buy movies. I’ve written at least 11 films, I’ve only sold six and two were produced. Oh well…you can’t be a hit at everything. I’m still trying. Why not? I send them out all the time, better than just sitting in a dirty underwear drawer.

Café:  You worked with just about every actor in Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, from Jack Nicholson to Diana Rigg to Angela Lansbury. Who were some of your favorite actors to work with and why?

Gautier and Mary Tyler Moore.
DG:  This is tough. I loved working with Diana Rigg. Mary Tyler Moore was a joy. Jimmy Stewart, what a gracious sweet man, the superbly talented Brian Dennehy, Nicholson of course, Robert Young, the charming Elizabeth Montgomery, the great Angela Lansbury, Jack Klugman--"Mr. Mench," all of Charlie’s Angels, the wonderful and weird Larry Hagman, Bob Newhart was a delight, my good pal Lucy, lovely and terrific Doris Day, funny Buck Henry, the versatile Nancy Dussault, and too many more to mention.    

Café:  You're a well-known caricaturist and oil painter. In fact, you've written several how-to books on drawing caricatures, such as The Art of Caricature (1985), The Creative Cartoonist (1988), and Drawing and Cartooning 1,001 Figures in Action (1994). How did you become interested in art?

Gautier's Sammy Davis, Jr.
caricature.
DG:   I've always drawn cartoons and caricatures. It got me in big trouble when I was a kid, ridiculing my teachers, but I was a class clown anyway so that was merely another extension of the same stuff. I got a little more "serious" later and tried portraits in acrylics and oils. My relatives in Canada are painters and so I come by it naturally. The books were a complete surprise to me. I got one published and then two… and finally up through fourteen. But no more, I've squeezed an awful lot of books out of a very small talent. I can’t think of another idea anyway.

Café:  Looking back over your acting career in stage, film, and television, what are your favorite roles?

DG:  I’d have to say Birdie, Robin Hood, Hymie, the stage musical Little Me where I got to play seven different characters, all written by Neil Simon, The Rockford Files as a real bad guy, South Pacific where I got to stretch my vocal range as Emile De Becque, and as the preacher in Fun with Dick and Jane with Jane Fonda and George Segal.

Café:  You seem to stay incredibly busy. Are there any upcoming projects you want to share with our readers?

DG:  I try to stay busy, it’s easier since I’m getting "up in years," but I recently wrote a play and it’s gotten some nice reactions from those who've read it. It’s called Commisseration and it’s a dialogue between two guys in their sixties. Some think it’s very funny, some think it’s "touching," some think it stinks. We’ll see. We’re close to a production with a couple of very fine actors and I’ll direct. If this all works out, it will be pretty exciting.  

You can learn more about Dick Gautier at his web site:  www.dickgautier.com and even purchase some of his artwork.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Introducing the International TV Blog!

We're pleased to announce that the International TV Blog has joined the Classic Film & TV Cafe's "family." The focus of this new blog is on television series from Great Britain, Japan, Australia, and around the globe.
Its first review is about the addictive Australian television series A Place to Call Home. Set in the 1950s, it centers around Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp), a nurse who has returned home after many years. When her reunion with her mother does not go well, Sarah accepts a job in the rural town of Inverness. Sarah becomes involved with the Bligh family and its powerful matron Elizabeth. The two women clash frequently, in large part because Elizabeth's son George is attracted to Sarah--but also because Sarah knows a secret about one of the family members.

The strength of A Place to Call Home is how its gradually reveals pertinent details about its characters' pasts. For example, it's evident that Sarah is a woman of strength and perseverance from the moment she's introduced. However, the series slowly reveals the pieces from her past that made her that way. Likewise, it's not until season three that we learn how some of George's actions were driven by his relationship with his now-dead father.

You can visit the International TV Blog and read the full review. In fact, we hope you'll drop in from time to time to see what's new in the world of international television.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Five Best Jack Lemmon Performances

1. The Apartment (1960) - This is an obvious choice, but I can't think of a better Jack Lemmon performance than his turn as ambitious junior executive C.C. Baxter. It helps, of course, that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond provide Lemmon with an extremely well-written character that allows the actor to showcase both his dramatic and comedic skills. His scenes opposite Shirley MacLaine are legendary, but his best acting in this Wilder gem may be his climatic confrontation opposite Fred MacMurray's heartless Mr. Sheldrake.

Lemmon as Daphne.
2. Some Like It Hot (1959) - He may be third-billed, but Jack Lemmon generates more laughs than anyone else in another Wilder classic. He plays a struggling bass player who witnesses a gangland massacre and goes on the lam with pal Tony Curtis--only they're disguised as members of an all-female band. As the blonde-wigged Daphne, Lemmon delivers many of the best one-liners and shines brightly in one of the funniest scenes: Daphne's tango with her wealthy suitor Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).

3. The China Syndrome (1979) - In probably the best of his later-career performances, Jack Lemmon plays a shift supervisor at a nuclear plant who gradually realizes that the reactor is dangerously close to a meltdown. Lemmon brilliantly transforms his character from an unassuming, loyal employee to one willing to do anything to expose the truth and the danger of a large-scale disaster. The performance earned him the sixth of his eight Oscar nominations. His other nominations include both Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. He won a Best Actor Oscar for Save the Tiger (1974) and a Supporting Actor Oscar for Mister Roberts (1956).

4. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) - My wife doesn't like to watch this Blake Edwards film--not because it's not a fine picture, but because Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick are achingly good as a couple that ruin their lives through alcoholism. It'd be easy to overact in some of the more dramatic scenes--such as when Lemmon's character is confined in a strait-jacket in a sanatorium. Instead, Lemmon somehow elicits sympathy for a man who has brought on his own demons and introduced them to his wife.

Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills.
5. Avanti! (1972) - One of Wilder’s last films stars Jack Lemmon as an uptight American businessman who journeys to a small Italian town to retrieve the body of his father, who died in a car accident. To his surprise, Lemmon learns that his father was having an affair—secretly meeting his lover in the same hotel every August for the past ten years. Furthermore, Dad’s mistress died in the same accident and her daughter (Juliet Mills) shows up for the funeral. After a very leisurely opening, this quirky love story turns on the charm…helped immeasurably by the scenic setting, memorable music, and incredible chemistry between Lemmon and Mills. It's the least known film on this list, but well worth seeking out.

Honorable Mentions:  Mister Roberts; Cowboy; and The Odd Couple.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Movie of the Week Blogathon!

The Classic Film & TV Cafe will host a Movie of the Week Blogathon on February 20th. The focus of this blogathon will be made-for-TV movies broadcast between the mid-1960s and 1989.

Many of these can be viewed on YouTube, though the quality varies (of course). Click here to view a YouTube playlist with over 50 made-for-TV movies. Hey, how many blogathons provide access to movies that you can review?

There are some terrific made-for-TV movies, such as: Duel, Brian's Song, My Sweet Charlie, The Night Stalker, Trapped, Trilogy of Terror, and Birds of Prey.

And for those of you who write about films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are plenty of made-for-TV movies featuring classic film stars: Olivia de Havilland (The Screaming Woman), Ray Milland (Daughter of the Mind), Bette Davis (The Judge and Jake Wyler), Eleanor Parker (Home for the Holidays), Barbara Stanwyck (A Taste of Evil), and Fred Astaire (The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again).

If you want to participate, please do the following:
  1. Leave a comment with your film and your blog's web address.
  2. Ensure your blog complies with our blogathon guidelines.
  3. Include a link back to this post at the beginning or end of your blog post.

If you have any questions, send an e-mail to: rick@classicfilmtvcafe.com.

Here's the blogathon schedule so far:

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) - John V's Eclectic Avenue
Gidget Grows Up (1969) - Michael's TV Tray
The Gift of the Love (1983) - Christmas TV History
Haunts of the Very Rich/Scream of the Wolf - Classic Film & TV Cafe
Home for the Holidays (1972) - Twenty Four Frames
Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) - Lo, The Humanities!
The Love War (1970) - Silver Screenings
The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler - Once Upon a Screen
Pray for the Wildcats (1974) - Movie Movie Blog Blog
Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole (1972) - Caftan Woman
Shadow on the Land (1968) - Captain Video
Sole Survivor (1970) - Apocalypse Later
Strange Homecoming (1974)- Made for TV Mayhem
Thirteen for Dinner (1985) - British TV Detectives
The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan (1979)- Reelweegiemidget Reviews
The UFO Incident (1975) - The Flaming Nose
Where Have All the People Gone (1974) - Phantom Empires

Monday, January 2, 2017

Nighthawks Makes Me a Winner!

I recently participated in a Facebook contest in which actress Catherine Mary Stewart gave away an autographed Blu-ray disc of Nighthawks (1981). I never win contests--so imagine my surprise when I was informed of my victory! The "collector's edition" of Nighthawks features lots of bonus material, including new interviews with Ms. Stewart and co-star Lindsay Wagner. But what about the movie?

Well, it starts off with Sylvester Stallone in drag. To be precise, he's dressed like a woman so he and fellow police detective Billy Dee Williams can nab a couple of street thugs. Meanwhile a terrorist-for-hire called Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) is forced to flee Europe and relocate to New York City.

Stallone looking like Serpico.
Stallone's character, Deke DaSilva, is one of those tough cops that irritates his superiors. So, it's no surprise when he and his partner are reassigned to an anti-terrorist task force. Deke doesn't like sitting in a classroom learning about terrorists...he just wants to get out there and stop them. He gets his chance when Wulfgar starts blowing things up again. Pretty soon, it's a cat-and-mouse game between Deke and Wulfgar and the stakes are high for the denizens of NYC. (How high? In one scene, Deke recognizes Wulfgar in a crowded disco and inexplicably calls out his name--resulting in the deaths of several innocent bystanders.)

Rutger Hauer as the bad guy.
Plagued with production problems, it's almost impressive that Nighthawks is a reasonably entertaining movie. Much of the credit belongs to Rutger Hauer, who makes a strong impression in his U.S. film debut. Hauer is so good that I thought another actor was playing Wulfgar until the character had plastic surgery and transformed into a more recognizable Rutger Hauer. He also manages to make his villain charming in a creepy kind of way.

In contrast, Sylvester Stallone--decked out in Serpico-style facial hair--comes across as a one-dimensional hero. Some of his co-stars, to include Lindsay Wagner, insist that Stallone gave one of his best performances--but that his best dramatic scenes were left on the cutting room floor.

There may be some truth in that. Nighthawks was started by one director (who was fired) and finished by another. It was also heavily re-edited from 140 minutes to focus on the action elements and then trimmed to a crisp 109 minutes. The casualties include Wagner and Billy Dee Williams, who are introduced as major characters and then all but disappear. The music score by Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer was also truncated.

Catherine Mary Stewart.
As for Catherine Mary Stewart, the 22-year-old actress appears as a sales clerk in a very brief scene with Hauer. In the interview on the Blu-ray, she reveals that her voice was dubbed, apparently because the producers didn't like her British accent. While Nighthawks may not have furthered her career, she kept auditioning for parts and became a favorite of sci fi movie fans two years later when she starred in Night of the Comet and The Last Starfighter.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top Ten Posts of 2016

It's a tradition at the Classic Film & TV Cafe to close out the year with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 105 in 2016. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2016. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

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

Jane Randolph in The Cat People.
10. Last August, we listed Five Swimming Pools in Classic Movies--no doubt inspired by all that swimming in the Olympics. Our picks included many obvious ones (e.g., The Cat People, The Swimmer), but also some lesser known pools that deserve more recogition (e.g., the creepy pool in Hammer's Taste of Fear).

9. The highest charting regular film review was something of a surprise: The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It just proves that the Gill Man still has his fans--as does the enchanting Julie Adams.

8. Following an enthusiastic response to a post about foreign films, we hosted a panel discussion on acclaimed filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut. If you're unfamiliar with Truffaut, the panel members recommended checking out his films The 400 Blows and The Story of Adele H. as an introduction.

Billy Mumy as Will Robinson.
7. Last July, a friend gave me his boxed set of the Lost in Space TV series when he upgraded to Blu ray. That led to a review of Lost in Space: The First Episode, which chronicled how the show evolved from its original premise.

6. In one of our regular Cafe features, we reminiscence about forgotten TV series. Last July's Seven (More) Obscure TV Series That I Curiously Remember included oldies such as Harold Robbins' The Survivors, The Silent Force, and The Pruitts of Southampton.

5. Last June, we pondered why foreign-language films aren't more popular among American classic film fans. It was a question that sparked a lot of discussion on the Cafe's social media platforms and led to the panel discussion listed at #8.

Jacqueline Scott & David Janssen.
4. Back in March 2016, I attended the Williamsburg Film Festival and was fortunate enough to interview actress Jacqueline Scott. She told some marvelous stories about acting alongside stars like Walter Mathhau and about her guest appearances in TV series such as The Fugitive (she played Richard Kimble's sister) and Perry Mason.

3. I also got to interview actress Audrey Dalton in Williamsburg, Virginia. She discussed her amazing career, which ranged from starring in My Cousin Rachel with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton to appearing in William Castle's cult classic Mr. Sardonicus.

2. For National Classic Movie Day 2015, we hosted the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. It asked participants to list what five movies they would watch over and over if stranded on a deserted island. It proved to be a popular topic that trended nationally on Twitter for a couple of hours.

1. However, our most popular blogathon was also our most popular post of the year: The TV Sidekick Blogathon. Twenty bloggers, many of them from the Classic TV Blog Association, wrote about their favorite sidekicks. The line-up included the obvious (Kato in The Green Hornet), the obscure (Dyna Girl in Electra Woman and Dyna Girl), and the downright odd (the Corvette on Route 66).

Monday, December 26, 2016

Breakheart Pass: Murder on the Western Express

A murder mystery set aboard a train cruising through snow-covered mountains? Add Charles Bronson and an Old West setting and you've got Breakheart Pass. As discussed previously at this blog, I'm a big fan of mixed genres and, in particular, the Western mystery (see 5 Card Stud). This 1975 adaptation of Alastair MacLean's 1974 novel proved to be one of Charles Bronson's better 1970s films and has aged surprisingly well.

Bronson as the outlaw Deakin.
Bronson plays John Deakin, a minor outlaw who's arrested by a federal marshal (Ben Johnson) after cheating at cards in a tiny mining town. The marshal plans to transport Deakin to Fort Humboldt aboard a military train carrying a physician and medical supplies to the diphtheria-infected post. Odd things start happening before the train even departs. Two officers, tasked with decoding a message for the governor (Richard Crenna), disappear without a trace.

Once the train heads toward the snowy peaks, the plot thickens when the physician turns up dead. Deakin, a former lecturer on medicine, recognizes foul play when he sees it: "It's hard to believe, Major, we have a killer aboard." The audience also learns that there is no diphtheria at Fort Humboldt. Instead, a notorious outlaw has taken over the military post and plans to link up with a renegade band of Paiute Indians and attack the train.

Jill Ireland as the only woman aboard.
Breakheart Pass is one of those films that doesn't give you time to process the narrative. That's a good thing, because the plot--once it's fully unveiled--doesn't withstand close scrutiny. Deakin's presence aboard the train ultimately doesn't make any sense and the same applies to the governor's fiancee portrayed by Jill Ireland (Mrs. Bronson). Additionally, those viewers familiar with Alastair MacLean's earlier works, particularly Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, will recognize some of the author's recycled plot twists.

Nothing of that matters, though, as Bronson's Deakin works to expose the killer, clashes with Archie Moore atop the speeding train, and participates in a wild climatic shoot-out. Hercule Poirot had a much easier time aboard the Orient Express!

Ben Johnson as the marshal.
Bronson is well cast as the sardonic hero. It's a less violent variation of the kind of roles that made him an international star in the early 1970s. The supporting cast is peppered by veteran character actors like Crenna, Johnson, Charles Durning, David Huddleston, and Ed Lauter. Look quick and you might spot future Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.

One of my favorite stories about Breakheart Pass is from Roger Ebert's book Awake in the Dark. He describes the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's visit to the film's set:

BERGMAN (to BRONSON):  Please explain to me what you're doing.

BRONSON:  Well, this is a scene where I get shot. So I'm wearing these squibs with fake blood under my shirt, and--but you know all this stuff. You're a director.

BERGMAN:  No, no. Please continue. This is all new to me.

BRONSON:  You mean you don't use guns in your pictures?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kate Nelligan Shines in "Without a Trace"

The poster for the 1983 kidnapping drama.
When I reviewed Eye of the Needle (1981) earlier this year, I heard back from a number of Kate Nelligan fans via social media. It was refreshing to discover that the talented Canadian actress remains popular today. It also inspired me to dig out an old review of one of her best films, Without a Trace, which I penned during my film critic days. I've updated and re-edited it for this blog, but my original assessment of this well-crafted, seldom-shown film remains the same.

Beth Gutcheon adapted the screenplay from her novel Still Missing, which was inspired by a true case involving a six-year-old boy's disappearance in Manhattan in 1980. Gutcheon could have easily stressed the suspenseful aspects of her story and made the movie another crime thriller. Instead, she concentrates on the people involved and their relationships.

Kate Nelligan as the mother.
Kate Nelligan stars as Susan Selky, a Columbia University professor whose son disappears after leaving for school one morning. When the case attracts local media attention, both Susan and her estranged husband come under scrutiny (e.g., she is criticized for allowing her young son to walk to school by himself). As leads continue to fizzle, the senior detective's bosses apply pressure to scale back the investigation, leaving Susan to wonder if her son will ever be found.

Much of the film's tension can be attributed to its realistic portrait of an upper middle-class, urban neighborhood. From the downtown delicatessen to the children's playground in the park, the world created in Without a Trace is one considered safe by the families who live there. It's why Susan doesn't hesitate to let her son walk three short blocks to school. When a crime does occur in this "safe" world, it is all the more horrifying. As one of the policemen says: "If it happened here, it could happen anywhere."

Nelligan conveys courage, frustration and determination in every frame of the movie. It is a bravura performance in a critical role. One simply has to watch her face when a telephone rings, her eyes filled with a mixture of hope and terror.

Director Stanley R. Jaffe employs sound and silence to great effect throughout the film. He uses a tea kettle whistling in a silent apartment to convey the mother's growing alarm as she slowly realizes that something has happened to her son. The sounds of a clicking toy, a whimpering dog, and police sirens are all deftly used to complement the action. Jaffe skillfully reminds us that movies can do more than move and that there is more to sound than just dialogue. Amazingly, it was his only directorial effort, despite a successful career producing films such as Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Bad News Bears, and Fatal Attraction.

Nelligan, David Dukes, and Judd Hirsch.
The fine supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as the caring police detective, David Dukes as the boy's father, and Stockard Channing as Susan's neighbor and friend. Still, it's Nelligan's superb performance that holds the film together. I was certain she would receive a Best Actress nomination, but that was not to be (it was the year that both Shirley MacLaine, the eventual winner, and Debra Winger were nominated for Terms of Endearment).

Without a Trace is a carefully crafted film that represents Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Kate Nelligan's performance is worth the price of admission. The rest of the movie is simply frosting on the cake-- but it is all very tasty indeed.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (Dec 2016)

Bing Crosby and Tyrone Power.
'Tis the holiday season and time for making connections! 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. Charlton Heston and Clark Gable.

2. Michael Caine and John Saxon.

3. Shelley Winters and Burt Lancaster.

4. Jason Robards, Jr. and Shirley Jones.

5. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.

6. E.G. Marshall and Arthur Hill.

7. Veronica Lake and Agnes Moorehead (an easy one!).

8. Montgomery Clift and Bing Crosby.

9. Ray Milland and Patrick McGoohan.

10. Joan Fontaine and Kirk Douglas.

11. Gregory Peck and Robert Lansing.

12. Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby.

13. Ronald Colman and Danny Kaye.

14. Charles Laughton and Gene Hackman,

15. Robert Stack and Dana Andrews.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Blanche Fury" and "High Anxiety"

Blanche Fury (1948).  Poor Blanche. In a short span, she improves her social station by progressing from servant to governess to the wife of wealthy landowner Laurence Fury. Unfortunately, on her wedding night, she realizes that she's passionately in love with the estate's bitter steward, Philip (Stewart Granger). He believes Clare Hall rightfully belongs to him as the only son of its former owner. The problem is that Philip is illegitimate--well, he believes his parents were married in Italy, but a five-year search has provided no proof. Philip hates Laurence Fury, hates the fact that the Furies claim ownership of Clare Hall, and hates that his lover, Blanche, is married to Laurence. It would be so convenient if something unpleasant happened to Laurence and his father....

Valerie Hobson.
This British-made Victorian drama principally serves as a showcase for the under-appreciated Valerie Hobson and a young Stewart Granger, who acting career was on the upswing. Hobson is particularly effective as the female lead, constantly finding depths in her character that keep the story interesting. If not for her name, I never would have known it was the same actress from Bride of Frankenstein. Granger has an easier time as Philip, but there's no doubting his charisma and he displays a sharp edge that he would refine later in his best performances (e.g., Scaramouche).

While never as gripping as it should be, Blanche Fury holds interest with just enough unusual touches. Examples include the weird story about the Fury coat of arms (which features an ape) and the fact that Philip's family took the name Fury when they moved into Clare Hall (their actual name was Fuller). I watched a muted print, but have read where the film's color photography was rather impressive. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who photographed the exteriors, would later win Oscars for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979).

A little Vertigo?
High Anxiety (1977).  Typically, Mel Brooks runs hot and cold for me--which makes this Hitchcock parody an anomaly. It's often amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny. I like it, but I'm always left with the feeling that it should have been so much better.

Mel stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new administrator at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. It's quickly evident that Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) and Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) are harboring secrets. But before Thorndyke can uncover what's happening at the institute, he's off to San Francisco to attend a psychiatric convention. He is soon framed for a hotel murder and, with the help of Victoria Brisbane (Madeleine Kahn), must prove his innocence.

The killer impersonates Thorndyke.
The best parts of High Anxiety are trying to identify which Hitchcock classic is being parodied. Some are obvious (the playground scene from The Birds, the mental hospital from Spellbound), while others are more subtle (e.g., a long tracking shot that recalls Rope). Surprisingly, one of the best scenes has nothing to do with Hitch, but consists of Mel doing a Sinatra tribute as he sings the title song in the hotel's lounge.

The hotel bellboy, who has one of the funniest scenes, was played by Barry Levinson. He co-wrote the script with Brooks, Ron Clark, and Rudy De Luca. Five years later, Levinson would write and direct the critically acclaimed Diner, the first of several big screen successes (e.g., Rain Man, The Natural).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Five Weirdest and Worst Movie Titles

Kreski, Newley, and Collins.
1. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969) - Anthony Newley co-wrote the songs, co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced, directed and starred in this X-rated vanity musical about a middle-aged, sex-obsessed singer. The bizarre cast included Joan Collins (then Newley's wife) as Polyester Poontang, Milton Berle, and Playboy Playmate Connie Kreski as Mercy Humpe.

2. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (1996) - One would hope that Mom's response to the title question was: "No, dear daughter, you may certainly not." Tori Spelling plays a college student who meets a nice young man--who is actually a possessive, psycho killer. This made-for-TV movie has become something of a cult film due to its unintentional camp quotient.

The memorable graphic from the LP.
3. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1967) - Rosalind Russell plays an overbearing mother who takes her husband and son (Robert Morse) on a vacation to the Caribbean. By the way, her husband is dead, stuffed, and in a coffin. The film was based on an Off-Broadway stage farce written by three-time Tony-nominated playwright Arthur Kopit.

4. Hawmps! (1976) - James Hampton, best known as Dobbs on F Troop, stars in this Western comedy about an attempt to replace horses with camels in the U.S. Cavalry. It was produced and directed by Joe Camp, the man that made Benji a 1970s canine icon. As for the film's title, what in the heck was Joe thinking?

Star Cash Flagg was Steckler.
5. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964) - There is no way I can write a better summary than this one from the IMDb: "Jerry falls in love with a stripper he meets at a carnival. Little does he know that she is the sister of a gypsy fortune teller whose predictions he had scoffed at earlier. The gypsy turns him into a zombie and he goes on a killing spree." Filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler didn't make good movies--but they were original and had great titles. The alternate title for this one is the equally memorable Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.

Honorable Mention: Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, another Steckler "classic." When asked about the odd title in an interview on The Incredibly Strange Film Show, Steckler explained that the title was supposed to be Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. However, there was a mix-up with the title company and Steckler couldn't afford to get the title corrected.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"The Fury" Ups the Ante on Teenage Alienation

Kirk Douglas watches his son get abducted.
Brian DePalma has made better movies than The Fury (1978), but none that can match it for pure entertainment and craftsmanship. It shows a director, at the peak of his powers, layering science fiction and teen alienation over a conventional suspense plot. As if to make the film even more robust, DePalma integrates some unexpected humor and a shock ending that stunned audiences.

For most of its running time, The Fury follows two parallel stories. In the first, Peter (Kirk Douglas), a retired government agent, searches desperately for his kidnapped teenaged son. An early scene between father and son reveals that Robin (Andrew Stevens) is “special,” though his unique talents remain a mystery throughout much of the film.

Amy Irving as Gillian.
The second plot revolves around Gillian (Amy Irving), a teenage girl who inadvertently discovers she may possess extrasensory powers. Eager to learn about herself, Gillian enrolls at the Paragon Institute, which studies ESP and telepathy. She soon learns that she has a psychic connection with a former Paragon resident—a boy named Robin.

Thematically, the connection between Gillian and Robin is that they’re both isolated from a “normal” society. When Robin’s father discusses returning to the U.S. to attend school, Robin replies: “I won’t fit in; I’d feel like some kind of freak.” Likewise, Gillian knows she is different. Except for one friend, her classmates treat her cruelly or ambivalently (not unlike the title character in DePalma’s earlier Carrie). It’s no wonder that Gillian becomes anxious to meet Robin—to finally talk with someone like herself.

Tragedy strikes during the escape.
Stylistically, DePalma engages in some of his trademark directorial flourishes. There are plenty of foreboding overhead angles and a shot where the camera revolves around Gillian on the stairs as she has a vision. But The Fury also features my favorite sequence in any DePalma film: a stunning, five-minute, slow-motion scene in which Gillian escapes from the Paragon Institute. Manipulating the soundtrack to maximum effect, DePalma avoids dialogue and filters out all natural sounds except for screeching tires and gunshots. He then uses John Williams’superb music score to alter the scene’s mood from light to dark in a matter of seconds.

Although the climax to The Fury goes over-the-top and turns excessively gory, the film’s virtues easily outweigh its faults. Amy Irving turns in a winning, vulnerable performance, while Carrie Snodgress provides great support as a nurse who befriends her. DePalma keeps the plot moving smartly, while visually reminding us this is a film about people reaching out to one another. Watch for his many shots of hands: Gillian grabbing the doctor’s hand on the stairs; Gillian’s and Robin’s finger tapping in unison; and Peter holding onto his son’s hand near the end.

Carrie Snodgress and Kirk Douglas.
Kirk Douglas appeared in movies for three more decades after The Fury. I'd rate this among the best of his late-career performances. He and Snodgress share some winning scenes and he forges an effective paternal relationship with Irving. The Fury is really an ensemble piece and Douglas, the film biggest star, accepts that knowingly.

Trivia fans should note that two of Gillian’s classmates are played by Daryl Hannah and Laura Innes (Carrie on the television series ER). The off-duty cop with the new Cadillac is Dennis Franz, long before NYPD Blue. For the record, my second favorite DePalma film is the equally underrated Body Double, an entertaining, slightly sleazy homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.


This post is part of the Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin. Click here to check out the complete blogathon schedule.

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Diggstown" and "The Idolmaker"

James Woods as a con man.
Diggstown (1992).  "A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can. A good con man...he doesn't have to leave town until he wants to." Those words of wisdom are uttered by Gabriel Caine (James Woods), who--as you may have guessed--is a pretty good con man. Still, he's made mistakes, such as employing an artist that used acrylic paint on 18th century landscape forgeries. That landed Gabe in a Georgia County prison where he hatches the grand con that comprises Diggstown.

The root of the con is a million-dollar wager with the villainous John Gillon (Bruce Dern) that "Honey" Roy Palmer, a little-known retired boxer, can defeat ten men in the boxing ring in a single day. Gabe and Gillon both work hard to outsmart each other. They bribe people, spy on the competition, and manipulate the rules. It's like a chess game played by two grand masters of the "art of the con." In the end, though, only one of them turns out to be a good con man.

Gossett, Jr. as Honey Roy.
A recent viewing of Diggstown reminded me that James Woods was one of the best actors of the 1980s. He could turn on the charm in lighthearted films like this, while also delivering first-rate dramatic performances in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Salvador (1986), and My Name Is Bill W. (1989). Of course, Woods gets a great assist in Diggstown from Lou Gossett, Jr., who injects his own subtle brand of humor as "Honey" Roy, who trades barbs with his old pal Gabe.

Woods and Gossett, Jr. are the primary reasons to see Diggstown, although this caper film also has an easygoing appeal in its favor. There is one misstep in the film's tone (an unnecessary death), but the script somehow manages to get back on track before the climax. The ending, which features a nifty little twist, will leave you with a smile on your face.

Ray Sharkey in the title role.
The Idolmaker (1980). This little-known sleeper starred Ray Sharkey, in what should have been a star-making performance, as a hard-working music producer who transforms two young singers into pop music idols in the 1960s. If the story sounds familiar, then that's because The Idolmaker was based on the life of Robert Marcucci, the man behind the success of singers Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

Marcucci gets a credit as "technical advisor," although his imprint is all over this slightly fictionalized biography. Part of the fun is figuring out which character represents what real-life person. Sax player Tommy Dee is obviously based on trumpet player Frankie Avalon. The perfectly-coifed Caesare is Fabian. Magazine writer Brenda Roberts is Rona Barrett and the hard-charging Vincent Vacarri is Marcucci.

Peter Gallagher as Caesare.
I'm a sucker for music biographies set in the rock 'n' roll era, whether fact-based (the excellent Buddy Holly Story) or fictionalized (the underrated Grace of My Heart). The Idolmaker is not as good as either of those movies, but it's still a diverting story about an ingratiating hustler who creates stars because he doesn't think he's got the talent to be one. One of the film's best scenes has Vacarri singing and dancing in the wings, in perfect unison with his pop idol performing on the stage.

Sadly, The Idolmaker didn't open many doors for the talented Ray Sharkey. He battled drug addiction through much of his career and died in 1993 at age 40 from complications due to AIDS. His best post-Idolmaker performance was as gangster Sonny Steelgrave in the excellent first season of the 1987-90 TV series Wiseguy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Joel Grey's Best Performance Isn't in "Cabaret"

Judging from its title, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was intended to be the first of a film series. Heaven knows, there was no shortage of source novels. The film was based on The Destroyer novels written by several authors, most notably original creators Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Since the duo penned Created, the Destroyer in 1971, there have been over 150 Destroyer novels published...and yes, they're still being produced today.

Remo's literary origin introduces the character as a New Jersey cop, who was framed for murder, convicted, and then "rescued" from the electric chair by a shadowy organization called CURE. He is listed as officially dead and given a new identity.
In Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, police officer Sam Makin (Fred Ward) survives a dockside encounter with three violent youths only to have his squad car plowed into the East River by a mysterious man in a truck. He awakens in a hospital and discovers he has a new face and a new identity as Remo Williams.

Fred Ward as Remo.
He learns that he has been recruited (against his will) to become an agent for a secret government agency dedicated to eliminating major criminals and which answers directly to the President. Remo starts his training under an unassuming Korean martial arts master named Chiun. His first mission requires him to take down a corrupt arms manufacturer who has been selling defective weapons to the U.S. Army.

Yes...this is Joel Grey as Chiun.
The highlights of Remo Williams are the training sequences with Chiun, played brilliantly by an unrecognizable Joel Grey. The actor is so convincing as the elderly Korean master that, although I knew Grey was in the movie, I didn't realize he was Chiun for the longest time. Make-up artist Carl Fullerton received an Oscar nomination for his work. However, Grey deserves most of the credit for embodying his character so completely, from the voice to his body movements to the smallest gestures. Of course, he gets a host of great lines as he berates his pupil Remo. Here are a few of my favorites:

"You move like a pregnant yak."

"The trained mind does not need a watch. Watches are a confidence trick invented by the Swiss."

(Assessing Remo) "He's very slow. His reflexes are pitiful; poorly coordinated. He's in wretched physical condition, impetuous, and clumsy. He moves like a baboon with two club feet! However, there is a feeble glint of promise in his eyes. I think I can do something with him."

Remo:  You know, Chiun, there are times when I really like you.
Chiun:  Of course. I am Chiun.
Remo:  And there are times when I could really kill you.
Chiun:  Good! We will practice that after dinner.

One of the ongoing jokes is Chiun's sole obsession: Watching an American soap opera called Beyond the Night. Thus, as Remo navigates a strenuous obstacle course, we see Chiun curled up on a couch in front in the TV, anxiously awaiting news about Jim's pending operation.

Unfortunately, the rest of Remo Williams can't sustain this high level of entertainment, although there's a dandy fight scene on the Statue of Liberty while it was undergoing restoration in 1985. For his part, Fred Ward flashes the quirky combination of humor and toughness that helped make the later Tremors (1990) a cult favorite.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was directed by James Bond veteran Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger) and penned by 007 scribe Christopher Wood (The Spy Who Loved Me). Yet, despite its Bond pedigree, it never caught fire at the boxoffice--and so the adventure ended rather quickly. Three years later, an unsuccessful Remo Williams TV pilot was made with Roddy McDowell as Chiun. I suppose one could criticize both the TV pilot and theatrical film for not casting a Korean actor as Chiun. While that's a valid comment, the film's budget likely drove the studio to look for a known performer to cast opposite the relatively inexperienced Fred Ward.

As for Joel Grey, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for the Golden Globes, but wasn't even mentioned at Oscar time. I suspect it's because the studio never mounted a campaign on his behalf. It should have--his performance in Remo is far better than his more celebrated, Oscar-winning one in Cabaret.