Monday, October 16, 2017

A War Wagon Loaded With Gold!

John Wayne as ex-con Taw Jackson.
After being "shot, framed, and sent to prison" for three years, Taw Jackson (John Wayne) intends to gain revenge on the goldmine baron responsible. Taw's plan is to rob the Pierce Mining Company when it transports $500,000 of gold ore across 43 miles of treacherous terrain.

It won't be easy. Twenty-eight men, armed with repeating rifles and pistols with 200 rounds of ammo, guard the outside of the gold-carrying wagon. Five more men guard the safe inside the wagon. As if that's not bad enough, the wagon is plated in iron and was recently retrofitted with a turret housing a gatling gun. Folks call it the "war wagon" for a good reason.

Kirk Douglas as Lomax.
Taw assembles a motley crew to assist him with this heist. Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn) is a disgruntled Pierce employee tasked with transporting the stolen gold in flour barrels. The shady Levi Walking Bear (Howard Keel) has the responsibility to negotiate with a Kiowa Indian tribe to stage an attack as a diversion. Young Billy Hyatt (Robert Walker, Jr.) is a drunk with a talent for using nitroglycerin. Finally, there's a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas), who has also been offered $12,000 to kill Taw. Quite the band of merry men!

Made in 1967, The War Wagon is a breezy Western with plenty of action and humor. Among John Wayne's later Westerns, it doesn't rank with the best (True Grit, The Shootist), but I'll take it any day over run-of-the-mill oaters like Rio Lobo and Cahill U.S. Marshal. Plus, it's interesting to see the Duke as--technically--a criminal.

Valora Nolan not playing Animal!
The supporting cast alone makes it required viewing for fans of 1960s cinema and television. It includes Wagon Train TV series regulars Terry Wilson (Bill Hawks) and Frank McGrath (Charlie Wooster). Keenan Wynn's "wife" is played by Valora Nolan, best known for her roles in Beach Party (as "Animal") and Muscle Beach Party. One of the bad guys is future High Chaparral regular Don Collier (whom we interviewed in 2016) and another is stuntman and future director Hal Needham (Smokey and the Bandit).

Although John Wayne receives top billing, Kirk Douglas dominates The War Wagon as the fun-loving gunfighter Lomax. In addition to delivering most of the best lines, the athletic Douglas even steals scenes with his acrobatic approaches to mounting his horse. I do question his character's wardrobe choice, however, as that leather shirt looks like it'd be mighty hot for the Western Plains.

The scene I always remember best about The War Wagon is where a log suspended by ropes swings down and knocks off the top of the wagon. For some reason, it's one of those iconic scenes that seems to stick in one's memory long after plot details are forgotten.

The swinging log heads toward a collision with the war wagon!
By the way, one would expect that co-star Howard Keel would sing the opening "Ballad of the War Wagon," written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Instead, that's Ed Ames warbling it on the soundtrack.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

As a boy growing in the Great Depression, my father loved to read pulp magazines. His favorites were The Shadow and Doc Savage. I also became a fan when, beginning in the late 1960s, Bantam Books released paperbacks featuring these heroes. Thus, my Dad and I had high expectations when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was released in 1975. Yes, we had our reservations when we learned it starred Ron Ely, best known as TV's Tarzan. But it was produced by George Pal (The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds) and I knew he wouldn't let me down.

We hated Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. It took our beloved hero and turned him into a camp figure with a (literal) twinkle in his eye. Thanks to Warner Archive's streaming service, I recently watched this movie for the first time in 42 years. Perhaps it was my tempered expectations, but I found it to be reasonably entertaining tale of derring-do this time around.

For those unfamiliar with Clark "Doc" Savage, Jr., he is a physically-gifted genius who might one well qualify as one of the first superheroes. He lives in a metropolitan skyscraper, but spends most of his time roaming the world on his various exploits. When he needs to do some serious thinking, he retreats to his Arctic Fortress of Solitude (which pre-dates Superman's same-named abode).

Ron Ely as Doc Savage.
Doc is assisted by the Fabulous Five, which consist of: Ham Brooks, a Harvard-educated lawyer; Monk Mayfair, a renowned chemist who also possesses great strength; Renny Renwick, a construction engineer; William "Johnny" Littlejohn, a geologist and archaeologist; and "Long Tom" Roberts, an electrical engineer.

At the start of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, Doc (Ron Ely) learns of his father's sudden death from a South American tropical disease. The elder Savage's possessions included some important documents, but before Doc can read them, they are destroyed...and Doc nearly gets assassinated by a mysterious native with a green snake painted on his chest.

Doc and the Fabulous Five head to the Republic of Hidalgo in South America, where they encounter the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler). It turns out that the Captain murdered Doc's father to prevent him from telling others about a "lake of gold" and a tribe called the Quetzamals that disappeared 500 years ago. But Captain Seas and his cronies turn out to be no match for Doc, of course!

Doc fends of the "Green Death."
It's a pretty straightforward yarn and anyone expecting a typical George Pal movie will be disappointed. The only special effects are some nifty green "air serpents" that kill their victims with electric nibbles. Veteran director Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days) keeps the action moving and that disguises a lot of the film's weaknesses. 

Indeed, the only boring scenes are when Doc delivers an overly-sincere pep talk to the Fab Five and any scene featuring the ridiculous "Doc Savage" song (which is set to John Philip Sousa music). One assumes that these elements were intended to be camp. (Let's be honest, it's hard to intentionally make a camp film...Buckaroo Banzai being an exception).

Pamela Hensley.
Ron Ely does what he can in the title role, though one suspects he wanted to play the part straight. Supporting acting honors go to Pamela Hensley as a plucky young woman who helps Doc find the "lost" ancient civilization. Doc Savage could have benefited mightily from a villain more threatening than than the one played by the chunky Wexler. His climactic fight scene with Ely is absurd and not in a funny, campy way. 

Although the closing credits announce a sequel (The Arch Enemy of Evil), that production was scrapped when Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze flopped at the boxoffice. There have been numerous attempts to mount new Doc Savage films, the latest being an announcement in 2016 that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would play Doc.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kirk Douglas is a Man Without a Star

Kirk Douglas as Dempsey.
Borden Chase penned some of the most important Westerns in film history, to include: Howard Hawks' Red River plus the Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country. He co-wrote the screenplay for Man Without a Star (1955), an engrossing Western that may not rank with the aforementioned films, but still remains a compelling "adult Western."

Kirk Douglas plays Dempsey Rae, a cowhand that keeps drifting further north as large ranches with their fences begin to dominate the Western landscapes. While stowing away on a train, he meets a young greenhorn (William Campbell), whom he later dubs the Texas Kid. After Dempsey rescues Texas from a probable hanging, the young man clings to the veteran cowboy. Dempsey eventually takes Texas under his wing and gets both of them a job at the Triangle Ranch.

Jeanne Crain as the new owner.
They settle in nicely until two events trigger a series of conflicts. First, one of the smaller ranchers decides to use barbed wire to preserve fresh grass for his herd. The mention of "barbed wire" gets Dempsey fired up (we learn why later) and he decides it's time to move on. His plans change, though, when he meets the Triangle's new owner: the beautiful Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Although Man Without a Star was based on a 1952 novel by Dee Linford, it shares many similarities with Borden Chase's other Westerns. As in The Far Country, there are two strong female characters: Crain as the ambitious rancher and Claire Trevor as a brothel madam. However, the film's central relationship is between two men: Dempsey and Texas. That's a recurring element in all of the previously-mentioned Borden Chase Westerns (e.g., John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River, James Stewart and Walter Brennan in The Far Country, etc.).

Richard Boone, as a baddie, with Crain.
Indeed, one of the challenges in Man Without a Star is its brief 89 minute length leaves little time to explore relationships and themes. For example, once Reed Bowman shows up, the Texas Kid vanishes into the background for a large chunk of the film. Similarly, Reed is nowhere to be found in the film's closing scenes. Thematically, Chase and his fellow writers use the barbed wire fences as an analogy for the impending civilization of the West (much as Sergio Leone would later use trains in Once Upon a Time in the West). However, again, there is insufficient running time to explore this theme in any depth.

Claire Trevor and Kirk Douglas.
Screen veteran King Vidor directs with a sure hand and adds some nice humorous touches. My favorite is when Dempsey and the Triangle's foreman (Jay C. Flippen) are engaging in a pleasant breakfast conversation as Texas fights another ranch hand outside the bunkhouse. The camera never leaves the breakfast table as we hear the punches and grunts from the fisticuffs. Another funny scene is when Dempsey asks to see the new bathroom installed in the ranch house...imagine that...a bathroom in the house!

Man Without a Star was remade just 13 years later as A Man Called Gannon with Tony Franciosa in the Kirk Douglas role and Michael Sarrazin as his protege. It's a respectable Western, but lacks the verve and cast that makes Man Without a Star required viewing despite its limitations. It also doesn't have a catchy title song sung by Frankie Laine!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Holmes on a Train in "Terror By Night"

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
There are better entries in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. In fact, when I ranked all twelve films from best to worst in 2009, Terror By Night came in #6--and, after viewing it again recently, that still feels right. But it has one thing the other SH films don't have...and that's a train. I've always had a weakness for movies set aboard trains.

Terror By Night opens with Holmes and Watson about to board the Scotch Express for business, not pleasure. Holmes has agreed to guard a 423-karat diamond known as the Star of Rhodesia. Legend has it that the stone resulted in "violent and sudden death" to all who possessed it. The current owner, Lady Margaret, is headed to Edinburgh with her son Roland.

The train has barely left the station when Roland is found dead in his compartment and the Star of Rhodesia is missing. Although there are no signs of foul play, Holmes remains convinced that Roland was murdered. (By the way, when Lady Margaret asks about the whereabouts of her son, Holmes simply nods towards the corpse on the floor...with Roland's eyes creepily open. It may be the detective's most callous act in the entire series, though he does apologize promptly.)

Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade, Bruce, and Rathbone.
There is no shortage of suspects among the passengers, which include: a mathematician and his wife, a mysterious young woman, Lady Margaret, and even Dr. Watson's friend Major Duncan-Bleek. Could one of them be in league with the notorious criminal Colonel Sebastian Moran?

Renee Godfrey as a suspect.
It's not hard to guess the identity of the villain, but there's a nice little twist at the climax and some bright dialogue along the way. Roy William Neill, who directed all but one of Universal's Holmes films, keeps the plot speeding along. The entire film clocks in at under an hour. He also injects some much-needed action with a near-fatal clash between Holmes and the killer.

Sadly, Neill would only make two more films before dying of a heart attack in 1946. His last film, the noir Black Angel, would turn out to be one of his best.

As for Rathbone and Bruce, they would team up as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous duo for one last film: Dressed to Kill (1946). It's only a so-so entry, but that doesn't diminish one of the most entertaining "B" mystery film series of the 1940s.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cult Movie Theatre: Q--The Winged Serpent

It's Quetzalcoatl!
A window washer is beheaded. A half-naked sunbather is snatched from a skyscraper's rooftop. Yes, there's a giant winged serpent on the loose in New York City. Well, technically, it's an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it's also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices.

While the police try to solve these grisly crimes, a small-time crook named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) tries to avoid getting killed by more conventional means. During a botched diamond robbery, Jimmy winds up with all the jewels...only to promptly lose them when a car hits him while crossing the street. Now, he has a bum leg and a gang of angry criminals on his trail.

Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn.
Jimmy eventually seeks safety inside the Chrysler Building, hiding among the steel beams under the spire. To his amazement, he finds a giant nest with a humongous egg. Initially, Jimmy doesn't understand the significance of his discovery. But when he does, he decides that he can turn his knowledge into a tidy profit. City authorities want to stop Quetzalcoatl before it kills again, So, why not sell that information to them...and get his criminal record wiped clean in the bargain?

Candy Clark as Jimmy's girlfriend.
Independent film auteur Larry Cohen made a number of clever, low-budget, socially-conscious movies in the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous is probably It's Alive (1974), which somehow succeeds as both a horror tale about a killer baby and the story of an innocent child trying to survive in a scary world of "normal" people. In Q, Cohen's traditional would-be heroes are the cops played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Not only are they boring characters, they are also ineffectual when it comes to finding Quetzalcoatl.

The survival of the city's denizens is left to a hustler with limited smarts who can play a little piano. Jimmy Quinn doesn't have much going for him beyond a very tolerant girlfriend (wonderfully played by Candy Clark). Of course, even she decides she's had enough when she learns of Jimmy's extortion plan.

It can be difficult to cast anti-heroes, but Cohen was fortunate to get Michael Moriarty to play Jimmy. The actor was in high demand for much of the 1970s, appearing in prestigious roles in Bang the Drum Slowly, The Glass Menagerie (for which he won an Emmy), and Who'll Stop the Rain. His performance works inbecause he doesn't try to make Jimmy a likable rascal. Moriarty's protagonist is greedy, selfish, and dense. And that is what separates Q from dozens of other big monster movies.

Battling the winged serpent.
Due to budget reasons, Cohen limits the appearances of Quetzalcoatl, saving most of the winged serpent footage for the climax. While the serpent looks somewhat rubbery, the stop-motion animation is pretty impressive. David Allen, one of the lead animators, became an acclaimed special effects wizard. He worked on big budget films like Willow (1988) as well as TV commercials (his most famous one featured King Kong and a Volkswagen).

Larry Cohen and Michael Mortiarty teamed up for three additional movies. The most interesting one was The Stuff, a satire about a delicious gooey substance that turns people to zombies that crave more stuff.