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.