Thursday, September 21, 2017

James Caan and Michael Mann Team Up for "Thief"

James Cann as Frank.
Michael Mann makes a remarkably self-assured debut as feature film director with his sleek 1981 drama Thief. After graduating from the London Film School in the 1960s, Mann gained experienced on television, working on crime dramas such as Starsky and Hutch and Joseph Wambaugh's Police Story. He won an an Emmy for writing and a DGA award for directing the made-for-TV film The Jericho Mile. Thus, Mann already had an impressive pedigree when he turned his sights on writing and directing Thief, an adaptation of a book written by real-life jewel thief John Seybold.

Caan and Tuesday Weld.
James Caan stars as Frank, an ex-convict who, by day, runs Rocket Motor Sales and the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. By night, though, Frank stages elaborate heists with the help of a couple of cronies. Frank's dream is for a normal life with a loving wife, a baby boy, and a home in the suburbs. Anxious to make it a reality--especially after meeting a pretty cashier (Tuesday Weld)--Frank agrees to work for a mob boss named Leo (Robert Prosky). Frank's plan is to complete one last big job and then retire to the idyllic life. Unfortunately, Leo has other plans for the thief.

Thief provides James Caan with a rare juicy role, one which highlights the actor's likability and his explosiveness. In the film's best scene, Frank recounts the horrors of prison life to his girlfriend over a cup of coffee in a restaurant. It's a revealing conversation that explains his paternal feelings toward an old master thief (Willie Nelson), who is dying in prison. More importantly, Frank explains that he survived by learning not to feel anymore. He stores his dreams on a postcard-size photo collage in his wallet, thus making them dreams that he can literally tear up and cast aside if necessary.

Yet, while Frank exhibits a handful of redeeming qualities, there is raw violence always simmering just beneath the surface. He doesn't hesitate to threaten innocent people or yell abusively at a social worker because he can't understand why an ex-con isn't considered a suitable parent for an adopted child.

Robert Prosky as Leo.
The supporting cast includes a number of effective performances, some of them delivered by first-time performers. John Santucci, a former jewel thief initially hired as a technical consultant, is pitch-perfect as a dirty cop. Dennis Farina, a real-life former cop, also made his film debut in Thief (as a villain). However, supporting acting honors go to Robert Prosky, who got his first major film role in Thief  at the age of 51. Prosky plays a mob kingpin who admires Frank's work and wants to make him part of his "family"--not understanding Frank's obsession with individualism.

While Thief is visually interesting, especially Mann's use of bold colors mixed with black, it lacks the style of the director's later work, such as Manhunter (1986) and the Miami Vice TV series. While the heist scenes are compelling, don't expect dripping suspense along the lines of Rififi (1955). The big safe-cracking sequence lasts a mere ten minutes.

Thief works best as an engrossing character study. And while it's clear from the outset that Frank will fail to achieve his unrealistic dream of a perfect family life, the closing shot is surprisingly optimistic--in its own downbeat kind of way.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Greengage Summer

Susannah York as Joss.
Knowing my affinity for 1960s British cinema, my blogger friend Connie from Silver Scenes recently recommended The Greengage Summer (aka Loss of Innocence). Currently available on YouTube, it turned out to be an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Set 15 years after World War II, The Greengage Summer opens with a train arriving in the "Green and Gold Champagne Country of France." Mrs. Grey, a mother of four, exits the train on a stretcher. She has blood poisoning and must be transported directly to a hospital. She puts her oldest daughter, 16-year-old Joss (Susannah York), in charge of her siblings. 

Danielle Darrieux and Kenneth More.
When the children arrive at their hotel, the manager nor the owner want to accept the motherless children as guests. However, a gentleman "friend" of the owner, Eliot (Kenneth More), intercedes on the children's behalf. They are allowed to stay at the Hotel Oeillets, and as the days pass, they bond closely with the fortyish Eliot. Hester, the second oldest daughter, notices that Eliot has begun to look at Joss differently. Joss has noticed this as well and likes the attention, though she carefully avoids being alone with Eliot on a country outing.

Screenwriter Rumer Godden based The Greengage Summer on her own 1958 novel. As with Godden's earlier Black Narcissus, there's an emotional intensity suppressed within most of the characters. The hotel's owner, Madame Zisi, is hopelessy in love with Eliot, even though she knows very little about him. She does, however, quickly realize that Joss has become a rival for Eliot's affections. The hotel manager, Madame Corbet, is in love with Zisi (though this subplot is never explored). Paul, a young man who works at the hotel, playfully banters with Hester--but he, too, is attracted to Joss. Emotions begin to overflow near the climax when Zisi, unable to contain her pent-up jealousy any longer, flings a glass of champagne at Joss in front of Eliot and other guests.

Susannah York and Kenneth More.
The most intriguing character is Joss, who is an instigator as well as a victim. Once she realizes her youthful beauty gives her power over men, she uses it to her advantage. She convinces Eliot to save Paul from being dismissed. She makes a grand entrance at a party after Madame Zisi specifically told her to stay in her room and then dances with practically every man. Yet, she is still a teenager, and when she overhears Eliot referring to her as a child, she becomes angry and strikes back at him in a very hurtful way.

The Greengage Summer is well acted by almost the entire cast. Susannah York makes it easy to believe that men would swoon over her (though she looks much older than sixteen). Kenneth More finds the right tone as a middle-aged man infatuated with a teenage girl. It would be easy to make Eliot a creepy character, but More deftly avoids that with his sincerity. (Some fans have suggested Dirk Bogarde would have been a better Eliot, but I disagree).

Jane Asher and Paul McCartney.
However, the standout in the cast is Jane Asher as Hester. Asher later gained celebrity status in the 1960s as Paul McCartney's girlfriend and eventual fiancee. They never married, supposedly due to Paul's infidelities. However, many Fab Four critics think that she was the subject of several Beatles' songs such as "And I Love Her" and "Here, There and Everywhere."

While The Greengage Summer lacks the thematic complexity of Black Narcissus, I quite enjoyed it. In fact, it sent me looking for other films based on Rumer Godden's works. Next up on my watchlist: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965) starring Maureen O'Hara.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The TV Characters Quiz

In a variation of our Movie-TV Connection Game, the questions in this new quiz provide three or more characters from a classic TV series and challenge you to name the show. So it's not too easy, we provide first names or last--but not both. As always, please don't answer more than three questions per day so others can play, too.

1. Troy, Hitchcock, and Tully.

2. Sam, Howard, and Emmett.

3. Sam, Hank, Fred, and Ralph.

4. April, Mark, and Waverly.

5. Tara, Mother, and John.

6. Roy, Candy, and Jamie.

7. Saunders, Hanley, and Caje.

8. Mary Beth, Christine, and Bert.

9. Chip, Lee, and Harriman.

10. Erskine, Ward, and Colby.

11. Jimmy, Witchiepoo, and Freddy.

12. Stone, Keller, and Tanner.

13. Tate, MacKenzie, and Trampas (be specific on this one!).

14. Pete, Julie, and Linc (an easy one!).

15. Larry, Clarence, and Gilbert.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sandy Dennis Goes Up the Down Staircase

I confess that I have never been a Sandy Dennis fan. Perhaps, it was her choice of roles, but her characters always came across as a contrived combination of exaggerated emotions. But after recently watching Up the Down Staircase (1967), maybe Ms. Dennis deserves a reassessment. Her incredibly natural performance as a dedicated young teacher is the highlight of this slightly more realistic variation of the same year's more popular To Sir, With Love.

She plays Sylvia Barrett, a fresh out-of-college teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in an impoverished New York City neighborhood. It's the kind of school where one of the routine announcements is: "All assaults and attempted assaults suffered by teachers in connection with their employment must be reported at once."

Sylvia has no illusions about her new job, but she's still surprised to find limited supplies (one piece of chalk), broken glass on the classroom floor, and a lack of textbooks. Her complaints are ignored, as the head administrator is consumed with disciplining students and ensuring that the school's myriad forms are completed. Undeterred, Sylvia buys her own supplies, cleans up the broken glass, and sets out to teach literature to her unruly students.

Ellen O'Mara as a lovesick student.
Three students pose particular challenges for the young teacher: a teenage girl who thinks every plot is a love story (even Macbeth) and who has a crush on a handsome male English teacher; a leather-clad young man with a high IQ who is constantly on probation and in danger of being expelled; and Jose Rodriguez, the boy at the back of the class who never says a word.

Based on Bel Kaufman's autobiographical bestseller, Up the Down Staircase shares many similarities with To Sir, With Love...right down to a feel-good ending. However, its setting--the film's exterior scenes were shot in East Harlem--does a better job of evoking the socioeconomic conditions faced by the students and their families.

In one of the best scenes, a woman asks if she can stay during a teacher meeting even though she is not a student's mother. We learn that the youth in question has drifted from family to family after being abandoned by his prostitute mother. He sleeps on a sofa, works in a garage all night, and falls asleep during class. His "mother" wants Sylvia to pass the young man just so he can graduate.

Sylvia in a moment of frustration.
Sandy Dennis captures Sylvia's determination, frustrations, and love of teaching. When she finally reaches a student--if only momentarily--her face lights up with joy. It's a quiet, lovely performance and, in my opinion, superior to her Oscar-winning turn in the previous year's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Dennis followed Up the Down Staircase with a handful of leading roles in films like Sweet November (1968) and The Out of Towners (1970). Her film work decreased in the 1970s, leaving her to focus again on the stage where she had her greatest successes as an actress. She won two Tonys in the 1960s, as lead actress in Any Wednesday (1964) and as featured actress in A Thousand Clowns (1963). Sandy Dennis died of ovarian cancer in 1992 at age 54.

"Boss Hogg" as an educator?
Her supporting cast includes a handful of familiar faces, such as future Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free) and Jean Stapleton (All in the Family). The scholarly principal Dr. Bester is played by Sorrell Booke--later famous for playing Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard TV series. I was surprised to learn that Ellen O'Mara, who gives a very appealing performance as the lovesick Alice, had only three film and TV credits.

Here's a clip from Up the Down Staircase. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.




Thursday, September 7, 2017

Seven Things to Know About Barbara Stanwyck

1. Her real name was Ruby Catherine Stevens. Stanwyck's mother died from complications of a miscarriage, caused when a drunken stranger pushed her off a moving streetcar. Stanwyck's father disappeared while working on the Panama Canal.

2. Barbara's introduction to show business came courtesy of her sister, Mildred, who was nineteen years older. Mildred worked as a showgirl and Barbara followed suit in the early 1920s when she became a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies.

As Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley.
3. Barbara Stanwyck never won an Oscar, despite being nominated for Best Actress for: Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1982. In contrast, she won three Emmys for her television work in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, The Big Valley, and The Thorn Birds.

4. Her only child, Dion Anthony "Tony" Fay, was adopted during her marriage to stage actor Frank Fay. After her divorce, she gained sole custody of Tony. Sadly, mother and son became estranged soon after he enlisted in the Army in 1952. Tony died in 2006 at age 74.

Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.
5. Barbara Stanwyck married Robert Taylor, who was four years younger, in 1939. Although they divorced in 1951, she supposedly claimed that Taylor was the love of her life. They starred together in three films: His Brother's Wife (1936); This Is My Affair (1937), and The Night Walker (1964)--which was made 13 years after their divorce.

6. In regard to acting, she once said: "Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr. Capra taught me that. Sure, it's nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting--watch the eyes!"

7. Barbara Stanwyck died in 1990 at age 82 of natural causes. Per her wishes, she did not have a funeral service and was cremated. Her ashes were scattered over Lone Pine, California, a popular location for filming Westerns for many years.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dana Andrews vs. Hot Rods to Hell

A dear friend was recently involved in a car accident en route to the airport for a vacation. Fortunately, no one suffered serious injuries--but a sore back, a banged-up knee, and a two-week vacation delay is no fun. So, he turned to a comfort movie later that day...selecting Hot Rods to Hell.
Gloria and the guys out for some kicks on the highway.
Ironically, this 1967 cult classic starts with a car accident when family man Tom Phillips' car is hit by a drunken driver on Christmas Eve. Tom (Dana Andrews) sustains a severe back injury that ends his career as a regional salesman. His brother Bill convinces Tom to give up his Boston home and buy a hotel in a small California town. Tom resists initially, but eventually makes the big decision with the support of his wife (Jeanne Crain) and young son--but not his teenage daughter Tina.

Laurie Mock as Tina.
As they cruise along a desert highway toward their new home, the family runs afoul of a trio of thrill-seeking teens in souped-up cars. The youths harass the Phillips family--almost running them off the road--until Tom seeks sanctuary in a well-populated picnic area. While waiting there, Tina meets one of the trouble-makers, a handsome lad named Duke. That night, she sneaks out of her room at the hotel to look for Duke in a nearby rock 'n' roll joint. She finds him and the sparks fly, but Duke wants more than just a flirtatious dance....

It's easy to dismiss Hot Rods to Hell as a campy melodrama with outdated dialogue. Two of the most overwrought scenes feature Tina, writhing in bed as she thinks of Duke and later frantically clutching her father in the car as Duke and a pal play "chicken" with the Phillips family.

Mimsy Farmer as Gloria.
Yet, she is no match for Gloria--the wildest of the juvenile delinquents, who is aptly described as "way out." That she is, but she's really no different from Marlon Brando's restless biker in The Wild One (1953). Gloria is desperate to do something, noting that: "Everybody's out for kicks. What else is there?" She even makes suggestive promises to slimy hotel owner Lank Dailey, hoping that he will take her to L.A. or Vegas.

In a historical context, Hot Rods to Hell serves as an intriguing transition from the Beach Party films of the early 1960s to the violent biker pictures heralded by the previous year's The Wild Angels (1966). It's almost as if the alienated youth characters from the 1950s had regressed from Brando's gang leader to parodies like Eric Von Zipper and then moved forward again with Duke and Gloria and eventually the Hells' Angels.

Jeanne Crain as Tina's mother.
Originally titled 52 Miles to TerrorHot Rods to Hell was intended as a made-for-TV movie for ABC, but it was deemed too intense and released theatrically. Ironically, it made its television debut a few years later and was shown not only uncut--but with ten additional minutes.

It's an entertaining time-capsule film with a rock score performed by Mickey Rooney, Jr. and his Combo. My only major complaints are that the ending comes across as a cop-out and that Gloria, the film's most vibrant character, disappears well before the climax.

Mimsy Farmer, who played Gloria, and Gene Kirwood, who was Duke's pal Ernie, enjoyed intriguing careers after Hot Rods to Hell. Mimsy Farmer married an Italian screenwriter and forged a solid career in European cinema. Her most famous role may be as the female lead in Dario Argento's 1971 thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet. As for Gene Kirkwood, he became a producer on films such as Rocky, The Idolmaker, and New York, New York. That's just proof that alienated youths can grow into responsible adults.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Fever in the Blood

Angie Dickinson and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
As a fan of courtroom dramas and films about political intrigue, I was particularly pleased to discover A Fever in the Blood on Warner Archive's streaming service. Co-written by Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive), this 1961 feature examines the impact of a sensationalistic murder trial on a gubernatorial race. Thus, we get all the usual courtroom theatrics, plus behind-the-scenes political machinations.

The films open with Judge Leland Hoffman asking his friend, District Attorney Dan Callahan, to be his running mate as he seeks his party's nomination for state governor. Callahan declines and we later learn the reason is because he plans to run for the same nomination. Callahan goes to see Senator Alex Simon, a powerful state politician, to gain his endorsement. It turns out that Senator Simon plans to vacate his Senate seat and seek the governor's office, too!

Jack Kelly as Callahan.
Meanwhile, Judge Hoffman and D.A. Callahan become involved in a murder trial, in which a former governor's nephew is accused of suffocating his unfaithful wife. Callahan is convinced that a conviction will seal his bid for the nomination. It's a point that's not lost on Hoffman and Simon, inspiring the senator to suggest that the judge squash Callahan's free publicity by declaring a mistrial.

For most of its running time, A Fever in the Blood is an effective political drama that examines the ethics of its three protagonists. As the plot unfolds, motivations become murky and even the most moral of the trio begins to question his actions. Many of its themes are still timely, such as the effect of press coverage on the trial and, indirectly, the gubernatorial race. In one of my favorite lines, a political strategist notes of D.A. Callahan: "Celebrities write their own tickets."

Still, A Fever in the Blood almost collapses under the weight of its extraneous subplots. The final half-hour includes a hit-and-run accident in which a child is killed, the death of a major character, the capture of the real murderer, and an unbelievable ending at the state convention.

Jesse White as a police detective.
The cast consists of Warner Bros. contract players, including TV stars Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (77 Sunset Strip) as Judge Hoffman and Jack Kelly (Maverick) as Callahan. They turn in acceptable performances, though they're overshadowed by seasoned pros like Don Ameche (as Senator Simon) and Angie Dickinson (his wife). Jesse White also shines as a police detective that works closely with the district attorney. White later gained fame in TV commercials as the Maytag repairman.

Incidentally, the title is a reference to the passion felt by those who seek the power and influence of a major political office.

Here's a clip from A Fever in the Blood. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Five Biggest Movie Stars of the 1960s

We love making lists at the Cafe, so why not create one for the five biggest movie stars of the 1960s? I know...how does one define "biggest"? Is it based on boxoffice power, critical acclaim, or enduring popularity? The answer is all of the above, plus a large dose of subjectivity. But that's half the fun of making lists like this. We also enjoy reading contrasting opinions and I'm sure many of you may have different ideas about who belongs on this list.

1. Sidney Poitier - It's hard to think of an actor who had a better decade from start to finish. He earned critical raves for his powerful performances in films like A Raisin in the Sun (1961), A Patch of Blue (1965), and In the Heat of the Night (1968). He starred in two classic "feel good" movies which regularly pop up on television: To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (both 1967). Yet, his finest work may have been as a drifter who finds purpose in an unlikely place in Lilies of the Field (1963).

2. Paul Newman - The popularity of Newman's "H films" (The Hustler, Hud, Hombre, Harper) would have secured him a spot on this list. However, the 1960s also featured two of his most iconic roles as a nonconforming prisoner in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and as a charming, small-town outlaw in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). 

3. Sean Connery - Prior to 1962, Sean Connery was a little-known Scottish actor. By the end of the decade, he was one of the biggest stars in the world. That will happen when you catapult to fame by playing the most famous secret agent in cinema history. In addition to his five James Bond films, Connery's 1960s lead roles included the well-reviewed POW drama The Hill (1965), cult favorite A Fine Madness with Joanne Woodward (1966), and Marnie (1964), perhaps Hitchcock's most underrated film (and a personal favorite).

4. Doris Day - The first half of the decade spotlighted five of of her best comedies: the superb Lover Come Back (1961) along with That Touch of Mink (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over Darling (1963), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). Unfortunately, poor career choices (possibly attributed to her then-husband and business manager Martin Melcher) derailed her career. She even turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (I love Doris, but Anne Bancroft was perfect).

5. Hayley Mills - It's easy to forget that Ms. Mills was a huge star in the 1960s, thanks to her sparkling performances in two Disney classics: Pollyanna (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961). The former earned her a special Oscar while the latter featured a Top Ten song sung by Hayley ("Let's Get Together"). She appeared in several other Disney hits while also starring in more prestigious films such as The Chalk Garden opposite Deborah Kerr and Whistle Down the Wind (which you should truly see if you haven't). Plus, she starred opposite her father John Mills in the winning sleeper The Truth About Spring (1964)--yes, another personal fave.

Honorable Mentions:  Jack Lemmon, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Five Best Episodes of "The Loner"

Lloyd Bridges as William Colton.
We originally wrote a post about Rod Serling's 1965-66 Western TV series The Loner back in 2009. At that time, it seemed destined to be one of those cult TV shows lost forever except for an episode or two on YouTube. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. In 2016, Shout Factory released all 26 episodes of The Loner.

The premise has Lloyd Bridges playing William Colton, a former Union officer wandering through the Old West following the end of the Civil War. Serling, who wrote many of the episodes, uses that backdrop to explore issues such as racial prejudice, redemption, and resignation. While it's not as consistently thought-provoking as Twilight ZoneThe Loner is a different kind of Western and Bridges is excellent as its complex hero.

Here's are our picks for the five best episodes:

1.  The Oath - When Colton stops by an isolated inn on a rainy night, he discovers that its residents are being held at gunpoint by a critically-wounded outlaw. During the night, the outlaw's plight changes the lives of the innkeeper's daughter and an alcoholic former surgeon with one hand. Rod Serling once said: "Humanity is our business." That's the theme in this potent episode featuring fine performances from Barry Sullivan and Viviane Ventura. I love the unexpected conclusion, which is filled with both melancholy and hope.
Barry Sullivan and Lloyd Bridges in the background.

2.  The Lonely Calico Queen - Colton finds a letter on a dead man and delivers it. The recipient is a lonely saloon girl, who was waiting for the letter writer--a pen-pal she has never met--to "rescue" her from her mundane existence. She assumes that Colton is her knight in shining armor. Serling wrote this touching tale of dreams and disillusionment. Jeanne Cooper shines as the saloon girl's pragmatic boss, who has accepted her station in life.

3.  Westward the Shoemaker - Colton meets a naïve immigrant (David Opatoshu), who is traveling to a nearby town to open a shoe shop with his life's savings. Part character study and part celebration of the goodness in people, this one features a Twilight Zone-like twist at the climax. Writer Serling also fills it with natural little touches like the two men soaking their feet in a nearby stream as they talk.
Cindy Bridges (Lloyd's daughter) with Colton's horse Joshua.

4. Pick Me Another Time to Die - Veteran TV writer Ed Adamson penned this more conventional, but still compelling episode in which Colton is framed for the murder of a popular sheriff. Even worse, the man responsible is the deputy! The only flaw in this tight-paced, twisty tale is its hurried conclusion. Character actor Lewis Charles has some great scenes as the deputy's underling and there's a doozy of a fight in a jail cell between Bridges and Mike Mazurki.

5. The Flight of the Arctic Tern - En route to a friend's wedding, Colton encounters a beautiful blonde on horseback, who flirts openly with him. Later that day, when he meets the bride-to-be, she turns out to be the same woman! Producer Andy White wrote the teleplay for this offbeat outing about a manipulating woman (well played by Janine Gray) who doesn't know what she wants in life. Colton's look of disgust in the closing scene is not to be missed.

You can view clips from three of these episodes on the Cafe's YouTube Channel by clicking on the image below:

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2017)

Fredric March and Robert Redford.
Welcome to the first 2017 edition of our most popular game! As always, you'll 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. Beach Blanket Bingo and Dr. No.

2. Shindig! and Pajama Party.

3. The Carey Treatment and The Andromeda Strain.

4. Tony Randall and Vanessa Redgrave.

5. Robert Redford and Fredric March.

6. Shelley Fabares and Larry Hagman.

7. Sidney Poitier and Robert Urich.

8. Oliva da Havilland, Jason Robards, Jr., and Richard Carlson.

9. Raquel Welch and James Caan.

10. Tony Musante and Robert Blake.

11. S.W.A.T. and Welcome Back, Kotter.

12. Knight Rider and St. Elsewhere.

13. Raymond Massey and Lionel Barrymore.

14. Cat People (1982) and Copacabana (1985).

15. 101 Damatians (1961) and Cat People (1942).

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember (Volume 3)

1. Johnny Nobody (1961) - In a small Irish village, a ranting atheist dares God to strike him dead--at which point, a mysterious stranger shoots and kills the man. The killer identifies himself as "nobody" and claims that God directed his actions. That becomes his defense when he is brought to trial. I haven't seen this film since the early 1970s, but the premise alone left a lasting impression. Hey, TCM, if you have this one in your vaults, let's get it on the air!

2. The Southern Star (1969) - Set in Africa in 1912, this lighthearted tale concerns a huge diamond, which is stolen soon after its discovery. Adventurer George Segal, diamond miner's daughter Ursula Andress, security chief Ian Hendry, and portly villain Orson Welles all seek the missing stone. This one pops up on TV occasionally because of the cast. For some inexplicable reason, the scene I remember best is a chess game involving liqueur-filled glasses.

Ursula Andress looking groovy!
3. The 10th Victim (1965) - In the future, a television show called The Big Hunt pits participants--known as Hunters and Victims--against each other in multiple rounds of murder with the big winner gaining international fame. In this pop-art vision of the future, hunter Ursula Andress tracks down victim Marcello Mastrianni as they flirt with one another and wear stylish clothes. The 10th Victim is a bizarre film, but has its share of passionate fans. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was frequently shown on television (probably due to Ursula's popularity). These days, it's a rarity.

4. Shoot Loud, Louder...I Don't Understand (1966) - Such was Raquel Welch's fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s that most of her films were shown on U.S. network television--even this Italian-made oddity. Marcello Mastrianni (again!) stars as a sculptor who dreams that his neighbor, a notorious gangster, has been murdered. As in , Mastrianni's character has trouble distinguishing between dreams and reality--but, rest assured, this is no Fellini masterpiece.

Angel Tompkins.
5. The Teacher (1974) - What did Jay North do after the Dennis the Menace TV series? Well, one of his few starring roles was in this drive-in picture notable for featuring cult movie favorite Angel Tompkins. Jay plays a high school student who has an affair with an attractive teacher (Angel). This situation doesn't sit well with another young man who has been stalking her--and accidentally causes his young brother's death. The Teacher is not very good, but don't tell that to any of Angel's fans!

6. Paul and Michelle (1974) - One of the surprise hits of 1971 was Friends, a romance about two teens who run away together and have a baby. It was directed by 007 veteran Lewis Gilbert and featured songs by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. This belated sequel picks up the story with Paul, now in prep school, searching for Michelle and then competing with a rival for her affections. It's pretty bland, but, hey, most people don't even know there was a sequel to Friends. Now, you do! So, if you're a Jeopardy winner because of this, you ethically owe a portion of your winnings to us.

7. The Strange Door (1951) - Charles Laughton's 1950s films were a hodgepodge, ranging from excellent (Witness for the Prosecution) to awful (Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd). The Strange Door falls closer to the latter with Laughton as a vengeance-minded nobleman who plans to force his niece to marry a cad (as if locking up her father for 20 years and not telling her wasn't bad enough). The title door has no latch on the inside--so once a visitor enters Laughton's abode, they cannot escape.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Cult Movie Theatre: The Green Slime

Robert Horton as the stoic hero.
What do you do when you learn that a six million ton asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and impact is just ten hours away?

The UNSC (United Nations Space Center?) recalls Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) from retirement and sends him to Operating Base Gamma 3. Once there, Rankin's mission is to plant two explosive devices on the asteroid, thereby reducing it to atomic dust. Rankin's arrival at the space station is a little awkward. He assumes command from former best friend Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), who is planning to marry Rankin's former flame Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi).

Luciana Paluzzi as Dr. Benson.
Before this revived love triangle can be sorted out, though, Rankin and Elliott must destroy the asteroid. Their mission goes well, but a colleague gets a trace amount of a green organism on his uniform. Back on the space station, the organism begins to reproduce exponentially ("It's spreading like wildfire!"). Pretty soon, Gamma 3 is being overrun by green, one-eyed, tentacled creatures that feed on energy and kill the crew by electrocuting them.

Made by MGM in 1968, The Green Slime was an American-Japanese co-production. It was shot in Tokyo by a Japanese crew, but with an American cast (except for Italian beauty Paluzzi). Many of the extras were not professional actors. Some critics claim it was intended as the fifth installment in an Italian science fiction film series about a space station called Gamma One. (The first movie in that series was 1966's Wild, Wild Planet.

One of the cheesy-looking creatures.
The Green Slime is now considered a camp classic thanks to its atrocious special effects, silly-looking alien creatures, and composer Charles Fox's rock 'n' roll title song. That said, the monster-on-the-space station premise works well enough and foreshadows Alien (1979)--though both movies owe much to It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958).

As the stoic hero, Robert Horton appears to be having a lot of fun. In one scene, I swears he looks like he's about to burst out laughing. Sadly, the stunning Luciana Paluzzi has little to do. She was one of my favorite Bond henchman, playing fiery Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965). She also appeared in Muscle Beach Party (1964), in which she tried to steal Frankie Avalon away from Annette. The unfortunate Vince was played by the always solid Richard Jaeckel, who forged the most successful film career of the three leads.

Shouldn't it be "The Green
Slime is coming?"
The Green Slime was directed by the prolific Kinji Fukasaku. He later produced Asian box office hits like Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) and the controversial Battle Royale (2000). The latter film preceded The Hunger Games by eight years with its futuristic tale about high school students who must participate in a government-sponsored game in which they kill one another until only one survives.

Incidentally, there are two versions of The Green Slime. The U.S. release is 90 minutes long, while the Japanese version clocks in at 77 minutes. It omits the love triangle, has a different title theme, and sports a more downbeat ending.

Here's a clip from The Green Slime. You can view it full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe's YouTube Channel. You can also stream the entire movie at warnerarchive.com.



Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Shadow of Death Lingers Over "The Gunfighter"

Released in 1950--the same year as Winchester '73--Henry King's The Gunfighter helped usher in the "adult Western" genre. From its simple title to star Gregory Peck's authentic mustache, this character study works hard to differentiate itself from conventional oaters.

Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, a gunslinger and former outlaw whose body count numbers "10, 12, 15--depends on who's telling." Ringo knows the exact number, as well as the names of the men he has killed. It's not something that he takes lightly. And though there was a time when he wanted to be the fastest gun in the West, he now longs for a normal life with the woman he loves and the son he's never known. Unfortunately, he cannot escape his reputation--and those determined to earn their own fame by killing the notorious Jimmy Ringo.

Millard Mitchell was also in Winchester '73.
Most of The Gunfighter takes place in a practically empty saloon as Ringo awaits his wife's decision on whether she will see him. He reminiscences about the past with his friend Mark (Millard Mitchell), who became a marshal years earlier when errant gunfire killed an innocent boy. He learns that his best friend, another gunfighter, was shot in the back of the head in an alley. He confronts a young hothead named Hunt who unsuccessfully tries to goad him into a shoot-out.

Skip Homeier as Hunt.
But mainly, Ringo awaits his ultimate fate. In addition to Hunt, an elderly man aims a rifle at the saloon doors, hoping to kill the man he believes was responsible for his son's death. There are also three men riding toward town with the goal of gaining revenge on Ringo for the death of their brother (although it was a fair fight). It quickly becomes as clear as the ticking of the loud clock in the saloon that Ringo will not survive the day.

The use of time in The Gunfighter foreshadows the later High Noon (1952). Just as Will Kane prepares for a face-off at noon, Ringo has been given a 10 a.m. deadline for hearing back from his wife Peggy. What he doesn't know--but the viewer does--is that the vengeful brothers are due to arrive in town at that same time. As the clock counts down the minutes, the film turns more somber and the conclusion more inevitable. 

Gregory Peck and Helen Westcott.
In addition to Peck and Mitchell, the strong cast includes Karl Malden as a bartender who remembers Ringo from the old days. Regrettably, Helen Westcott comes off as incredibly bland as Peggy. While that could have been by design--a sort of opposites attract relationship with Ringo--one wishes for more passion on her part in the big scene with her husband.

William Bowers and Andre de Toth (best known for directing House of Wax) wrote the original story for The Gunfighter and received an Oscar nomination. It was initially intended as a vehicle for John Wayne. When a deal couldn't be reached with the Duke, the property wound up at Twentieth Century-Fox. 

Bob Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard co-wrote a 1986 song called "Brownsville Girl" that references The Gunfighter. The opening lyrics are:

Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding 'cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself 
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Falcon Goes on a Date...and then Strikes Back!

George Sanders as The Falcon.
A Date With the Falcon (1942) is a direct sequel to the series' first film, The Gay Falcon, with Wendy Barrie returning as Gay Lawrence's fiancée. She wants to whisk the Falcon away to get married. Instead, the debonair adventurer gets involved with an investigation into a missing scientist who has invented a near-perfect synthetic diamond. In fact, almost no one can tell the difference--which could be devastating for the jewelry industry.

The Falcon movies, which starred George Sanders and later his brother Tom Conway, were consistently entertaining "B" detective movies. Sometimes, the "comic relief" (typically provided by the Falcon's crony Goldy Locke) was a bit excessive. However, Sanders and Conway always found a way to elevate these fast-paced programmers above the likes of Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie, and Michael Shayne. Certainly, the brothers were charming on screen and seemed to define the word "suave." But I think their true secret was that they looked like they were having fun--and invited the audience to have fun with them.

A Date With the Falcon is a solid entry in the series, though I do find it silly that the writers decided the Falcon should get engaged. Sanders flirts with every woman in sight, inspiring a flower girl to quip: "He's much too nice and undependable to be taken out of circulation." There was no fiancée in sight when Gay Lawrence returned in The Falcon Takes Over, an unusual reworking of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novel Farewell My Lovely.

Tom Conway as The Falcon's brother.
When George Sanders moved on to bigger roles, RKO casts his real-life brother as Gay Lawrence's brother Tom. The transition was effected rather cleverly in the appropriately-titled The Falcon's Brother (1942). Conway's first solo outing is one of the best in the series, The Falcon Strikes Back (1943).

It opens with Tom Lawrence recovering from a hangover, only to be visited by a beautiful mysterious woman (Rita Corday) that wants him to find her missing brother. Lawrence's search leads to a cocktail bar when he's knocked unconscious. He awakens in the backseat of his convertible and quickly discovers he's been framed for the murder of a bank messenger and the theft of $250,000 in war bonds. When he returns to the cocktail bar, it's now the home of the Volunteer Knitters of America!

Harriet Nelson and Tom Conway.
Lawrence's investigation leads him to the Pinecrest resort hotel, where he encounters more murder, a bizarre puppeteer, and Harriet Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet fame. Who could ask for more?

I've always preferred Tom Conway as the Falcon, perhaps because he seems tougher than George Sanders. The Falcon Strikes Back is an enjoyable series' outing with the added distinction of being directed by Edward Dmytryk one year before Murder, My Sweet cemented his reputation.

Don't you love the irony? An earlier Falcon movie was based on Farewell, My Lovely, which was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet. The director of that movie? Edward Dmytryk.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Five Best Gregory Peck Performances


Gregory Peck and Mary Badham.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) - This is an obvious choice for the top spot. After all, Atticus Finch ranked No. 1 on the American Film Institute's list of favorite movie heroes. However, the beauty of Peck's performance is that he doesn't make Atticus a saint. He quietly conveys the character's values and principles, while achieving incredible natural chemistry with the young actors that play Scout and Jem.

2. Twelve O'Clock High (1949) - One of the best films about World War II, this insightful drama stars Peck as an Air Force general charged with replacing a nice guy commander and toughening up a bomb group with low morale. General Savage lives up to his name, telling his troops: "Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves already dead. Once you accept that idea, it won't be so tough." While Peck delivers those lines with authority, he expresses his character's inner turmoil in the brilliant scene with his executive officer played by Dean Jagger.

Peck kisses Audrey Hepburn.
3. Roman Holiday (1953) - Most film buffs probably think of this lyrical comedy as an "Audrey Hepburn picture." While it's true that she glows in every frame, it takes two actors to create a believable romance and Gregory Peck is ideal as the serious journalist. He provides the perfect balance to Audrey Hepburn's carefree, undercover princess who relishes her temporary freedom from royal responsibilities.

4. The Gunfighter (1950) - This Western stars Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a gunslinger and former outlaw who longs for a normal life with the woman he loves and the son he's never known. Unfortunately, he cannot escape his reputation--and those determined to earn their own fame by killing him. Peck believably captures the loneliness and guilt etched on his character's face.

With Ingrid Bergman on a train.
5. Spellbound (1945) - Alfred Hitchcock's clever suspense film provides Gregory Peck with multiple "roles." Initially, the viewer thinks he's the new intelligent, caring head of a mental hospital in Vermont. However, it's soon revealed Peck is only masquerading as a psychiatrist--he actually has amnesia. Later, it turns out that he may be a murderer. It's a great part and Peck shines as the impostor-victim-investigator trying to sort out what happened to him...and falling in love with Ingrid Bergman at the same time.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Connie Stevens and Dean Jones Make for "Two on a Guillotine"

Connie Stevens as Cassie.
Who is the mysterious young woman at the funeral of The Great Duquesne? She could be the spitting image of the famous magician's wife Melinda, who disappeared without explanation twenty years earlier. And what's up with the casket fitted with a window and wrapped in chains?

The young woman turns out to be Duquesne's daughter Cassie, who was raised by an aunt in Wisconsin and barely knew her parents. As for the unusual casket, a newspaper headline informs us that Duquesne has vowed to return from the dead.

As if being hounded by the press wasn't bad enough, Cassie (Connie Stevens) learns of an unusual condition to her $300,000 inheritance. She must spend seven consecutive nights in her father's mansion from midnight to dawn. If she fails to do so, then the estate will be divided between Duquesne's agent Buzzy and his caretaker Dolly.

The Great Duquesne and his guillotine.
Two on a Guillotine sounds like a William Castle film and one can just imagine the kind of gimmicks that could have accompanied it. However, this easygoing 1965 thriller was helmed by William Conrad. Yes, the man who voiced Matt Dillon on radio and later played Cannon on TV also directed movies. In fact, his follow-up was another 1965 thriller, My Blood Runs Cold, which featured Connie Stevens' frequent co-star Troy Donahue.

Dean Jones as Connie's love interest.
In lieu of Troy, Connie is paired with Disney regular Dean Jones in Two on a Guillotine. The affable Jones plays a newspaper journalist who starts out to get a story on Cassie and ends up falling in love with her. He also helps her figure out the source of the midnight moans and rattling chains in the Duquesne house.

Two on a Guillotine is a genial diversion, though it's easily seventeen minutes too long (90 minutes should be the standard for teen-oriented drive-in pictures!). Also, assuming that there are no ghosts, there's a paucity of suspects trying to drive Connie out of the house (if that's the intent).

Cesar Romero as the magician.
Conrad's direction is pretty straightforward with the exception of one Hithcockian moment. As Dean leans in to kiss Connie in a loud, rock'n'roll club, the music segues to Max Steiner's lush score. Dean pulls back from the kiss to reveal that he and Connie are now alone in her father's house.

There's also a priceless instance of unintentional foreshadowing. When Dean's character wants to reassure Cassie that he's the protective type, he jokes: "I'm half Saint Bernard." Eleven years later, Dean starred in Disney's The Shaggy D.A. His character wasn't a Saint Bernard, but he could transform into a sheepdog. Now, that's spooky!

Here's a clip from Two on Guillotine, courtesy of warnerarchive.com, which you can view full-screen on the Classic Film & TV Cafe YouTube channel. (You can also stream the entire movie at Warner Archive).