Thursday, November 23, 2017

Elevators in Classic Movies

“Take the stairs! Take the stairs! For God’s sake, take the stairs!” proclaimed the ad line to 1984’s The Lift. In general, that’s advice that should be heeded by most film characters. Angie Dickinson played a housewife that was brutally murdered in an elevator in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). In another psychological thriller, the inferior Scissors (1991), Sharon Stone survived an elevator attack. The killer in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) successfully booby trapped an elevator before the opening credits even rolled. In The Lift, an elevator with a mind of its own (well, courtesy of an experimental computer chip), bumped off apartment dwellers in imaginative, gory ways. Even Steve Martin’s wacky comedy The Man With Two Brains (1983) featured a mysterious villain known as The Elevator Killer.

Olivia de Havilland trapped in her elevator.
Malfunctioning elevators have stranded their passengers between floors in films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Secrets of Women (1952), The Elevator (1974), and Out of Order (1984). Olivia de Havilland played a wealthy invalid trapped in her home elevator and threatened by psychotic teens in Lady in a Cage (1964). Another psycho, played by Dennis Hopper, threatened to blow up passengers stuck in a high-rise elevator at the beginning of Speed (1994). A villainous Charles Laughton fell to death in an elevator shaft in The Big Clock (1947). Michael Rennie plunged to his death aboard a malfunctioning elevator in Hotel (1967). Rennie fared far better as the alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). When an elevator abruptly stops between floors, he explains to a frightened Patricia Neal why he has “neutralized” the Earth’s electricity.

In more fantastical films, elevators have been used to travel between planets (Dream One), travel through time (Time at the Top), and fly through the air (the “Wonkavator” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Bruce Willis climbing the elevator shaft.
Many film characters, such as Bruce Willis’ police detective in Die Hard (1988), have used elevator shafts as shortcuts in large buildings. Johnny Depp spent a lot of time traveling in glass elevators in Nick of Time (1995) and Sean Connery as James Bond looked very stylish standing atop an exterior, moving elevator in Diamonds Are Forever (1970). A woman had a child resulting from an elevator encounter in Between Heaven and Earth (1992), while a nude woman unexpectedly exited from a lift in Allen Funt’s What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970).

Elevator operators have been relegated to supporting roles in most films, although they played significant roles in Jimmy Boy (1935), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Confessions of Felix Krull (1957), and Living Out Loud (1998). Our favorite elevator operator is Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) from The Apartment.

Here's a representative list of pre-2000 films featuring elevators:

Jimmy Boy (1935)
Secrets of Women (aka Waiting Women) (1952)
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Confessions of Felix Krull (1957)
Lady in a Cage (1964)
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)
Hotel (1967)
What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
The Elevator (1974 TV movie)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
The Man With Two Brains (1983)
Dream One (aka Nemo) (1984)
The Lift (1984)
Out of Order (aka Abwärts) (1984)
Die Hard (1988)
Scissors (1991)
Between Heaven and Earth (1992)
Speed (1994)
Downtime (1997)
Living Out Loud (1998)
Time at the Top (1999)

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (November 2017 Edition)

Welcome to this month's edition of the Cafe's most popular game (of all time even...and there have been other games). You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers, your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Judy Garland and Bill Paxton.

2. Robert Wagner and Kevin Costner.

3. Ward Bond and John McIntire.

4. James Arness and Charlton Heston.

5. Barbara Feldon and Patrick McGoohan.

6. George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef.

7. The TV series Lost in Space and the film Alien.

8. George Burns and Robert Conrad.

9. Cary Grant and Mark Wahlberg.

10. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

11. Margaret Rutherford and Vanessa Redgrave.

12. Dual M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

13. Karen Valentine and Sandra Dee.

14. Moira Shearer and Danny Kaye.

15. The TV series Peter Gunn and Batman.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Family Discord in Edward Dmytryk's "Broken Lance"

The 1954 Western Broken Lance is a curious film that is both overly familiar and more nuanced than it first appears.

Father Tracy and sons Holliman, O'Brien, Widmark, and Wagner.
The plot focuses on the friction between cattle baron Spencer Tracy and three of his four sons (Richard Widmark, Hugh O'Brien, and Earl Holliman). It'd be easy to paint the brotherly trio as the film's villains and youngest son Robert Wagner as the hero. But the reality is that Richard Widmark's bitter son is smarter than his father; he understands the necessity for change and embraces it. His father, meanwhile, adheres to doing business the same way as usual--by bulldozing his way through all obstacles.

Wagner (sporting a Fabian hair-do) and Tracy.
Adding to the family discord, Tracy favors youngest son Robert Wagner with the fatherly affection he denied the other three. They grew up as he was building his empire. They toiled alongside their then-widowed father from an early age, rarely earning even a word of praise. Thus, their acrimony is understandable to an extent and it's hard to fault them when they take advantage of their father's folly.

As for their younger sibling, he has his heart in the right place. However, he is also too eager to play the hero. When Wagner's character rashly takes the blame for his father's actions and winds up in prison, it's hard to feel sorry for him. He also seems too eager to play the martyr willing to take the punishment for his dead old dad.

Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers.
Yet, while the family relationships hold one's attention for awhile, Broken Lance can't overcome a pervasive feeling of familiarity. Perhaps, that's because you've seen House of Strangers, a 1949 film noir written by Philip Yordan and starring Edward G. Robinson as the headstrong family patriarch and Richard Conte as the good brother.

Just five years later, Yordan transplanted the same plot to the Old West and won an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, for Broken Lance. Yes, he won an Oscar for a writing a story based on a screenplay written for a previous film! This gets even more interesting, because some reliable sources consider both films to be adapted from Jerome Weidman's 1941 novel I'll Never Go There Anymore. Of course, one could also argue the influence of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Tracy and Katy Jurado.
The strong cast--which also includes Jean Peters and Katy Jurado--fails to inject much-needed excitement. Spencer Tracy could play a take-charge cattle baron in his sleep. As his wife--the calm voice of reason--Jurado earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Director Edward Dmytryk, whom I tend to associate with film noir (e.g., Cornered) and tight dramas, sets the action against some breathtaking vistas. He teamed with Tracy and Wagner again two years later for The Mountain.

This was his sixth film following his return to the U.S. in 1951 after four years overseas. He left the country after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as one of the "Hollywood Ten." When Dmytryk returned to the States, he was arrested and served six months in a West Virginia prison before agreeing to name names before the HUAC in 1951. In his 1996 book Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Holywood Ten, he explains his change of heart about testifying: "[If] I were going to be a martyr, I wanted the privilege of choosing my martyrdom. . . ."

I met Dmytryk in the late 1970s when he gave a guest lecture at Indiana University. He signed his name alongside the entry about him in my copy of The Filmgoer's Companion.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon. Check out all the entries on the blogathon schedule by clicking here.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Double Case of Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.

The plots of each version closely mirror Christie's 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett's bloody corpse--which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds--is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh case).

The snowbound train.
The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot's advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer's interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot's explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery's solution in detail (indeed, the "reveal" scene lasts almost 25 minutes).

Wendy Hiller.
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it's easier to tell the suspects apart, because they're played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.

Ingrid Bergman.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that's unfortunate because he's a poor choice to portray Christie's sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot's manners, but there's no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using--it certainly didn't sound Belgian French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney's portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff.
The 2010 Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain's ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Jones (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.

At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film's opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic "reveal." It's a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie's plot will be able to fully follow Poirot's explanation.

David Suchet as Poirot.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is--as always--superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet's great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet's Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they're the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).

The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet's 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Five Biggest Stars of the 1950s

A while back, we had a lot of fun listing our picks for the Five Biggest Stars of the 1960s. Today, we're turning our attention to the 1950s--quite possibly our favorite decade for classic movies. As before, our very subjective criteria take into account boxoffice power, critical acclaim, and enduring popularity. We expect some dissenting opinions...so bring them on!

James Stewart in The Far Country.
1. James Stewart - Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, no actor enjoyed a better decade. In Rear Window and Vertigo, Stewart portrayed complex "heroes" struggling with, respectively, commitment issues and an unhealthy obsession. His hard-edged protagonists in Mann's "adult Westerns" helped redefine the genre. He also starred in a number of hugely popular hits, such as Harvey and The Greatest Show on Earth.

2. Cary Grant - While his career probably peaked in the previous decade, Grant was still going strong in the 1950s. He also benefitted from Hitchcock's magic touch, appearing in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. He teamed up with Deborah Kerr in the romantic classic An Affair to Remember. And he started the decade with one of his most underrated and interesting films, People Will Talk.


Deborah in From Here to Eternity.
3. Deborah Kerr - She began the 1950s playing traditional heroines in big hits such as King Solomon's Mines, Quo Vadis, and The Prisoner of Zenda. She then switched things up as a passionate, adulterous wife in From Here to Eternity. She also charmed a generation in The King and I and caught Cary Grant's eye in the aforementioned An Affair to Remember.

4. Marilyn Monroe - She started the decade with a small part in All About Eve and ended it as a major star and iconic sex symbol. Along the way, she starred as a murder-minded spouse in Niagara, appeared in musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, earned critical praise for Bus Stop, and capped it all off with Billy Wilder's quintessential comedy Some Like It Hot.


Burt in Sweet Smell of Success.
5. Burt Lancaster - Admittedly, I struggled with this last slot, because there are a lot of excellent choices. I opted for Lancaster because of the variety and quality of his work. He appeared in lively swashbucklers (The Flame and the Arrow, the irrepressible Crimson Pirate). But he also turned electrified in dramas such as From Here to Eternity, The Sweet Smell of Success, and Gunfight at the OK Corral Two of his lesser films are personal favorites due to the Lancaster charm: The Kentuckian and The Rainmaker.

Honorable mentions:  John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Glenn Ford, Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. Hey, the 1950s was a pretty impressive decade for Hollywood!


Monday, November 6, 2017

Classic TV on Amazon Prime

Ray Walston as our Favorite Martian.
Without any fanfare, Amazon Prime has been quietly increasing the number of classic (pre-1980) TV series offered on its streaming service. Amazon Prime has always featured a handful of classic favorites, such as the original Star Trek and selected episodes of I Love Lucy.

But recently, it began to augment those staples with shows such as Petticoat Junction, My Favorite Martian, and The Rifleman. Many of these series can still be viewed on cable television. However, there are advantages to watching them on Amazon Prime: the episodes are uncut and commercial-free, plus you can watch them anytime you want.

There are also some surprise offerings, such as Buddy Hackett's sitcom Stanley (1956-57), which co-starred a young Carol Burnett and Paul Lynde, who voiced a character who is never seen. It's also surprising to find episodes of The Merv Griffin Show that feature guests such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Pryor, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Orson Welles, and Dick Cavett.

In the listing below, I've listed the number of seasons in parentheses after each show's title. If you've found other classic TV series on Amazon Prime, please share them in the comments and I will add them to the list.

Sitcoms
The Andy Griffith Show (8)
The Beverly Hillbillies (1)
The Danny Thomas Show (2)
The Doris Day Show (5)
The Donna Reed Show (2)
Dusty's Trail (1)
Family Affair (5)
Father Knows Best (1)
Here's Lucy (1)
The Honeymooners "Lost Episodes"
The Mothers-in-Law (2)
My Favorite Martian (3)
My Living Doll (1)
"Best of" I Love Lucy
Petticoat Junction (1)
Stanley (1)
That Girl (5)

Dramas
The Adventures of Robin Hood (4)
The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1)
The Buccaneers (1)
Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1)
Dangerous Assignment (1)
Dark Shadows (6)
Decoy (1)
H.G. Wells' Invisible Man (2)
Mission: Impossible (7)
Movin' On (2)
Mr. Lucky (1)
Mr. & Mrs. North (1)
Peter Gunn (3)
Route 66 (1)
"Best of" Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (2)
Star Trek (3)
Twilight Zone (5)

Westerns
Bonanza (3 episodes)
The Cisco Kid (6)
Hopalong Cassidy (2)
The Rifleman (5)
Yancy Derringer (1)

Quiz Shows
I've Got a Secret (1)
Match Game '75 (1)
Password Plus 1979
Tattletales '74
What's My Line? (1)

Miscellaneous
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts (1)
The Gumby Show (1)
The Merv Griffin Show (1)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Covenant With Death

George Maharais as the judge.
George Maharis's brief flirtation with movie stardom included one crackerjack suspense film, The Satan Bug (1965), plus several questionable career choices. Made in 1967, A Covenant With Death falls in the latter category with Maharis playing an inexperienced half-Mexican judge in a small Southwestern town.

Maharis with detective Gene Hackman.
The implication is that Benjamin Morales (Maharis) was appointed to his judicial position by the governor as a favor to Ben's deceased father. He appears to be doing well enough with his job until a more senior judge (Arthur O'Connell) heads off on a fishing vacation following the end of a murder trial. When the governor rejects the accused man's (Earl Holliman) appeal, Ben has to sign the execution order for death by hanging. However, the execution goes horribly wrong and the hangman is accidentally killed. Making matters even more complex, evidence comes to light that may free the convicted killer of his original crime.

Had it honed in on the legal intricacies of its plot or explored ethic prejudice, A Covenant With Death might have been a sharp, little courtroom drama. Alas, the film goes astray with too many subplots surrounding Ben and the three women in his life. His strongest relationship is with his mother (the always reliable Katy Jurado), with whom he bickers with constantly, sometimes playfully and sometimes not. She knows what's best for her son and it's not the pretty blonde that visits from the big city.

Laura Devon as one love interest.
That blonde would be Rosemary (Laura Devon), who certainly shares a passionate, physical relationship with Ben. However, it's also an uneasy one since his dark moods set her on edge. She also describes him--accurately--as "a selfish, cruel little boy." Hence, it's hard to understand why Ben's sweet, innocent distant cousin Rafaela (Wende Wagner) is attracted to him. But it's a mutual attraction and takes up a surprising amount of Ben's time considering the legal challenges he's facing.

George Maharis was a better actor than people gave him credit for. As evidence, I offer the first two excellent seasons of Route 66 and the show's gradual decline when he left it. In A Covenant With Death, though, Maharis seems content to rely on his natural charm. He's never believable as a young judge with a bright legal mind. It doesn't help that his character is incredibly self-centered and borderline chauvinistic. His character might have been at home in a darker film, but A Covenant With Death is ultimately a conventional film with a sloppy happy ending.

Wende Wagner as another love.
The supporting cast features Gene Hackman just before his performance in Bonnie and Clyde put him on the map to stardom. As for the ladies, Laura Devon appeared mostly in television, notably in The Richard Boone Show and Dr. Kildare. She was married to Brian Kelly (Flipper) and later composer Maurice Jarre. Wende Wagner has a Richard Boone connection, too, having starred with him in the Western Rio Conchos (1964). She was discovered by Billy Wilder and later was a regular on The Green Hornet as Britt Reid's secretary Lenore "Casey" Case.

Here's a clip from A Covenant With Death. 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.