Monday, December 6, 2021

Classic Movies About Ballet

Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes.
The challenge of integrating a dynamic theatrical art form into the confines of cinema has proven to be a difficult task. Consequently, it has been undertaken almost exclusively by filmmakers/ballet lovers, whose artistic successes have been mixed equally with unmitigated failures.

British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced two outstanding ballet films, with Powell also contributing a third, less memorable solo effort. The first Powell-Pressburger ballet film was 1948’s The Red Shoes, which starred real-life ballerina Moira Shearer as a young dancer driven to her death by her inability to choose between ballet and a “normal” life. The highlight of this dazzling, colorful film is a 14-minute ballet of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” brilliantly danced and photographed against stylized sets. The elaborate sets returned in 1951’s Tales of Hoffman, a fusion of drama, singing, and ballet based on Offenbach’s opera and featuring ballerina Shearer again. Powell turned to ballet once more, sans Pressburger, in 1959’s all-but-forgotten Honeymoon, which featured excerpts from the Spanish ballets “Los Amantes de Teruel” and “El Amor Brujo.”

Leslie Caron & Gene Kelly in
An American in Paris.
The most interesting pre-Red Shoes ballet picture was The Specter of the Rose (1946), an offbeat drama about a young dancer who is slowly losing his mind. It featured a rare screen appearance by drama teacher Michael Chekhov and the potent presence of Dame Judith Anderson. Gene Kelly, after choreographing a modern ballet for a set-piece in An American in Paris (1951), incorporated ballet into his all-dance 1957 picture Invitation to the Dance. Shot in 1952, this three-part anthology boasted energetic dancing and clever direction (including a combination of live action and cartoon), but it crashed at the boxoffice and almost ended Kelly’s career. In contrast, Herbert Ross’s The Turning Point (1977) was a solid popular and critical favorite. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft had the starring roles as a pair of former ballerinas, but Mikhail Baryshnikov stole the film every time he took to the dance floor.

Ballets filmed in their entirety have been rare, but have nevertheless been captured in Peter Rabbit and the Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), Nutcracker (1982), and Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986).

Margaret O'Brien in
The Unfinished Dance.
There have been numerous films, not expressly about ballet, which have featured ballerinas as principal characters. The role call of actresses who have played ballerinas is a varied one: Greta Garbo (Grand Hotel); Maureen O’Hara (Dance, Girl, Dance); Vivien Leigh (Waterloo Bridge); Loretta Young (The Men in Her Life); Margaret O’Brien (The Unfinished Dance); Janet Leigh (The Red Danube); Gene Tierney (Never Let Me Go); and Leslie Caron (Gaby).  (I think it's too early include the stars of The Black Swan....it's not a classic yet).

Ballet segments have highlighted many mainstream musicals, though the sequences in An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, and On Your Toes stand out. Films about ballet, or featuring notable scenes, include:

Grand Hotel (1932)
On Your Toes (1939)
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
The Men in Her Life (1941)
The Dancing Masters (1943)
Specter of the Rose (1946)
Carnival (1946)
The Unfinished Dance (1947)
The Imperfect Lady (1947)
The Red Shoes (1948)
The Red Danube (1949)
Illicit Interlude (aka Summer Play; Summer Interlude) (1950)
An American in Paris (1951)
Tales of Hoffman (1951)
Limelight (1952)
Never Let Me Go (1953)
Dance Little Lady (1955)
Oklahoma! (1955)
Gaby (1956)
Meet Me in Las Vegas (aka Viva Las Vegas) (1956)
Invitation to the Dance (1957)
Angel in a Taxi (1959)
Honeymoon (1959)
Vampire and the Ballerina (1962)
Peter Rabbit and the Tales of Beatrix Potter (aka The Tales of Beatrix Potter) (1971)
The Turning Point (1977)
Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978)
The Cowboy and the Ballerina (1984 TVM)
Nutcracker (1982)
Nutcracker: The Motion Picture (1986)
Dancers (1987)
Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas (1989)

Monday, November 29, 2021

Walt Disney's Live-Action Robin Hood

Richard Todd as Robin.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is one of the greatest films ever made--with its perfectly-cast characters, vivid color, fabulous sets, and iconic scenes (e.g., the archery contest, the climatic swordfight). Thus, it's surprising that Walt Disney chose to mount his own version of the Robin Hood legend just fourteen years later. And yet, what's even more surprising is that The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952) is a lively, diverting yarn with its own charms. To be sure, it will always be overshadowed by the Warner Bros. classic, but it still stands proudly on its own.

Joan Rice as Marian.
In this version, Robin (Richard Todd) and Marian (Joan Rice) are childhood sweethearts who are separated when King Richard leaves to fight in the Crusades. Marian is placed under the protection of the Queen Mother in London, while Robin and his father remain in Nottingham. When Robin's father refuses to support greedy Prince John and his handpicked sheriff (Peter Finch), he is murdered and his son becomes an outlaw. Robin soon forms his band of merry men, who live in the forest and rob from the rich noblemen and give the spoils to their overtaxed countrymen.

There are the requisite encounters with Little John (James Robertson Justice) and Friar Tuck (James Hayter) before Marian returns in time to get imprisoned by Prince John. That development, plus a scheme to steal King Richard's ransom money, sets up the climax in this fast-paced, 84-minute adventure.

Peter Finch as the sheriff.
The British cast impresses from top to bottom, with Richard Todd making a likable hero, Joan Rice sparkling as a sweet Marian, and an almost unrecognizable Peter Finch as Robin's worthy adversary. It's too bad the big duel between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham seems like an afterthought (though the latter's demise is memorably gruesome, especially for a Disney film). 

The same applies to the scenes with James Hayter as Friar Tuck and James Robertson Justice as Little John. The latter made a career out of playing bigger-than-life characters in films such as Doctor in the House, but he has little (pun intended) to do here. On the other hand, musician Elton Hayes gets some choice scenes as traveling minstrel Alan-a-Dale. One almost wonders if he was Danny Kaye's inspiration for his Giacomo in The Court Jester.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men was just Disney's second live-action film, following 1950's Treasure Island. Like that film, the production values are high, with scenes shot in the real Sherwood Forest blending effectively with set pieces filmed in Pinewood Studios. Really, though, Disney should restore some of its early live-action movies, as the once vibrant colors have faded on the even best quality prints.

Richard Todd appeared in two additional Disney pictures the following year: The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. Both are fine escapist fare and co-star Justice and the always enchanting Glynis Johns. Nevertheless, they lack the strong narrative that comes with the Robin Hood legend. There's just something about watching the men and women of Sherwood Forest performing their derring-do.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Movie Quote Game (November 2021)

This month, we're introducing a new game! We will list a quote from a famous movie and ask you to name the movie. Try to answer these questions on your own without resorting to Google searches. As always, please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play.  If you have a response other than the intended one, just be able to defend it.

1.  "Damn that Texan! When you need him, he's dead."

2.  "I didn't bring your breakfast, because you didn't eat your din-din!"

3.  "Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration."

4.  "There's nobody alive but us! And nobody's going to help us except ourselves. lt's up to each one of you. lt's up to all of us. Together."

5.  "I proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb."

6.  "This was no boat accident."

7.  "I can promise you one thing, I'll do nothing to disgrace the office of the United States Senate."

8.  "How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? Man can't even trust his own pants."

9.  "Leiningen, you're up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide... forty square miles of agonizing death! You can't stop it!"

10. "You have yourself a few flings this summer. I bet you're quite a ladies' man, huh?"

11. "They can't make a fool out of Lina Lamont. They can't make a laughing stock out of Lina Lamont. What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than...than...than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!"

12. "So few people can boast that they've lost a flying saucer and a man from Mars--all in the same day! Wonder what they'd have done to Columbus if he'd discovered America, and then mislaid it."

13. "There's nothing wrong with Ellen. It's just that she loves too much."

14. "All right then, run, lady, and you keep on running. Buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost--and then maybe, just maybe, you're gonna be safe from me."

15. "In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention."

Monday, November 15, 2021

Seven Things to Know About George Sanders

1. In his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad, George Sanders recalled his first film role in The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937) as one of the gods: "The part called for me to ride half-naked and shiny with grease, at four o'clock in the morning during one of England's coldest winters, on a horse which was also coated with grease. Torin Thatcher and Ivan Brandt were the other two greasy gods. Though I never fancied myself as a horseman, I was the only one of the three that didn't fall off. In that regard at least I was already a successful film actor."

2. George Sanders was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1906. His family moved to Great Britain in 1917. After studying at Brighton College and Manchester Technical College, Sanders worked in the textile industry and on a tobacco plantation in South America. On his return to Great Britain, he was working for Lever Brothers when his co-worker Greer Garson suggested he take up acting.

George Sanders and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
3. George Sanders was married four times. His second wife was Zsa Zsa Gabor (1949-54) and his fourth wife was Zsa Zsa's sister Magda Gabor (1970-71). That marriage only lasted for a month. In between, Sanders was married to actress Benita Hume, the widow of Ronald Colman, until her death in 1967. When asked about ex-husband Sanders, Zsa Zsa once said: "We were both in love with him. I fell out of love with him, but he didn't."

4. George Sanders played debonair detective Simon Templar in five films starting with The Saint Strikes Back in 1939. Sanders then transitioned to a similar "B" detective series in which he played another suave detective, Gay Lawrence aka The Falcon (loosely inspired by a Michael Arlen short story). By the time he had appeared in three Falcon movies, Sanders was in demand for "A" pictures. RKO wanted to continue The Falcon film series, so it made The Falcon's Brother (1942), in which Gay Lawrence is killed and his brother, Tom, takes over as The Falcon. The nifty part is that the role of Tom Lawrence was played by George Sander's real-life brother Tom Conway. He went on to star as The Falcon in nine more movies (see The Falcon and the Co-eds, easily the best in the series).

With Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca.
5. Although Sanders' breakthrough role was in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), as the adulterous title character's lover, his first starring role wasn't until 1942. He played a stockbroker-turned-painter in The Moon and Sixpence, which co-starred Herbert Marshall and Doris Dudley (who made only four films). Subsequent roles, though, often typecast him as a cad--such as the married children's book author who romances Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). He got another break in 1950 when he played a cynical theatre critic in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Although Jose Ferrer was originally considered for the part, it's hard to imagine anyone other than George Sanders as the velvet-voiced, part-time narrator who introduces himself so memorably: "To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt. My native habitat is the theater. In it, I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre."

Elizabeth Taylor and George Sanders.
6. His Oscar win afforded him more choices in his next few roles. He got the opportunity to sing opposite Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1953). He played a well-written villain in love with Elizabeth Taylor's character in Ivanhoe (1952). He even hosted a short-lived, half-hour anthology TV series called The George Sanders Mystery Theatre in 1957 (also starring in one episode).

7. George Sanders was still acting at age 65 when he committed suicide in 1972. According to his New York Times obituary, he died of an overdose of sleeping pills and left the following note: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." 

Monday, November 8, 2021

Doris Day Finds the Thrill of It All

In the early 1960s, Doris Day was romantic comedy royalty. Her films with leading men Rock Hudson, James Garner, and Rod Taylor delighted audiences and scored big at the box office. One of her finest was The Thrill of It All (1963), a sparkling effort that pokes fun at advertising while addressing such ’60s issues as a wife’s right to work.

Doris plays Beverly Boyer, the spouse of obstetrician Dr. Gerald Boyer (James Garner) and mother to their two young children. At a dinner party, she meets Tom Fraleigh, the head of the Happy Soap Company, and comments that the soap "saved her life" that day. She explains that her young daughter put up a fuss about getting her haired washed with the usual tar shampoo. So, Beverly switched Happy Soap instead--which her daughter said "smelled like her piano teacher." Old Mr. Fraleigh is charmed by the story and asks Beverly to do a commercial.

Doris as Beverly Boyer.
After a rocky start, viewers and buyers respond to Beverly's television commercials and she is hired as the Happy Soap spokesperson for $80,000 a year. However, Gerald has trouble adjusting to the family's new life and to his wife's fame. She receives VIP treatment at restaurants and fans seek her autograph. His breaking point comes when he discovers--at a very bad time--that the Happy people have installed a swimming pool in his backyard without notifying him!

Doris Day and James Garner on the set.
In retrospect, the casting of James Garner as Gerald is crucial to the enduring popularity of The Thrill of It All. Viewing the film through a contemporary lens, Gerald comes off as a selfish, chauvinistic spouse who is upset that he is no longer the family's primary breadwinner. He also complains that Beverly's job keeps her away from the children too much, although he is frequently on call due to his job. Gerald could easily be an unlikable character--but that's not the case because he's played by James Garner. The actor uses his natural charm and appeal to make the audience give Gerald the benefit of the doubt. Plus, James Garner and Doris Day make such a convincing couple that we never doubt that Gerald loves Beverly.

Yet, The Thrill of It All is more than just a domestic comedy, as screenwriters Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart also take aim at television and advertising. Their sharpest jabs are aimed at the anthology show sponsored by Happy Soap, which recycles the same plot in a different setting each week. When one of the executives notes the redundancy, another quips that TV viewers will never notice. The next scene shows Beverly's kids watching the show and describing what the characters will do next--because they realize it was the same plot every week!

Carl Reimer originally envisioned The Thrill of It All as a vehicle for Judy Holliday, but health problems prevented her from taking the lead role. Judy would have been fine, but The Thrill of It All is an ideal vehicle for Doris Day. She and James Garner reteamed again in 1963 to make Move Over, Darling, a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940).

Despite having a conventional conclusion, I rank The Thrill of It All as Doris Day's second best 1960s comedy, behind the marvelous Lover Come Back and ahead of That Touch of Mink.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Ten Little Indians x Five!

Agatha Christie's classic 1939 mystery novel Ten Little Indians (the original title is best forgotten) has been adapted multiple times in multiple languages for the big and small screens. Below are the five best-known versions ranked--according to the Café staff--from best to worst.

Shirley Eaton.
1. Ten Little Indians (1965) - This one is the first, and best, of three adaptations produced and co-written by Harry Alan Towers. It shifts the location from an island to a snowy retreat which becomes isolated when the only cable car is sabotaged. The theatrical version features a sixty-second Whodunit Break which stops the action near the climax to "refresh your memory with a few clues." The cast includes great character actors such as Wilfrid Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway, Dennis Price, and Leo Genn (plus Christopher Lee as the voice of Mr. U. N. Owen). However, the film belongs to Shirley Eaton, who turns the female protagonist into a cool beauty who just might be capable of murder! Alas, there's also Fabian who is hopelessly miscast...but at least, his demise comes quickly. The setting, the supporting cast, and Ms. Eaton elevate the 1965 Ten Little Indians to our top spot over other versions.

Walter Huston, Louis Hayward & Roland Young.
2. And Then There Were None (1945) - This adaptation written by Dudley Nichols opts for the happy ending from Agatha Christie's 1943 stage play as opposed to the downbeat one in her novel. It's a practice that most other screen versions would mimic. It also uses the title of the U.S. publication of the book and changes some of the characters' names. Otherwise, it's a pretty faithful adaptation set on an isolated island and blessed with a strong cast of veteran performers such as C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson, Walter Huston, and Barry Fitzgerald. None of the murders are explicitly shown. Director Rene Clair even adds a touch of macabre humor to the proceedings--although that also lessens the suspense. Incredibly, 20th Century-Fox allowed the copyright to expire, so beware of poor public domain prints. You can view all the murders in this compilation clip on our YouTube channel (just beware of spoilers!).

3. And There There Were None (2015) - This is the first of several Agatha Christie television adaptations written by Sarah Phelps. The first-rate cast features Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, and Aidan Turner. Christie purists can rejoice that it retains the island setting, restores the original ending from the novel, and features a dark, menacing atmosphere. At times, though, it's almost too grim and its three-hour length feels too bloated for the plot. 

Elke Sommer and Oliver Reed.
4. Ten Little Indians (aka And Then There Were None) (1974) - Harry Alan Towers' second adaptation exists in two versions: a 109-minute film with a subplot about spies and a more widely available 98-minute cut that is almost a scene-for-scene remake of Towers' 1965 film. Both versions are notable for their color photography (the '45 and '65 films were in B&W) and for relocating the the mystery plot to an abandoned luxurious hotel in the middle of an Iranian desert. I've only seen the shorter print, a color-by-numbers exercise that fails to do justice to Christie's ingenious premise. The international cast never quite meshes together, though it's still fun to see the suspects played by the likes of Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Charles Aznavour, Adolfo Celi, Richard Attenborough, Gert Fröbe, and Herbert Lom. Interestingly, Celi and Fröbe played James Bond villains in, respectively, Thunderball and Goldfinger. In the latter film, Fröbe's Goldfinger painted Shirley Eaton's character with gold paint; as noted above, Eaton starred in the '65 Ten Little Indians. 

Sarah Maur Thorp.
5. Ten Little Indians (1989) - Towers intended his third adaptation to be more faithful to the source novel. However, budget constraints led him to set the film in Africa, with the suspects living in tents! Actually, this setting works surprisingly well as it seems more plausible for a killer to sneak around a safari camp without being seen. The cast features a handful of respectable performances, notably Donald Pleasance, newcomer Sarah Maur Thorp, and Herbert Lom (who appeared in the '74 version as a different character). However, Frank Stallone (Sly's brother) makes a wooden "hero" and Brenda Vaccaro nibbles on the scenery far too often. Although the running time is similar to Towers' earlier endeavors, this perfunctory version turns into a snooze fest long before the climax.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth

"Akita osur!"

Roughly translated, that means: "Look, there's a dinosaur!" I know this because I got a copy of the promotional Caveman Vocabulary pamphlet distributed by theaters during the original run of Hammer's When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Released in 1970, this prehistoric opus is sometimes described as a sequel to Hammer's earlier One Million Years, B.C. (1966), which helped make a star of Raquel Welch. It's not a sequel, but both movies feature a lovely scantily-clad heroine, no English dialogue, and impressive dinosaurs.

Victoria Vetri as Sanna.
Victoria Vetri stars as the blonde-haired Sanna, who--along with two other fair-haired beauties--is about to sacrificed by her tribe during a sun ritual. During a solar disturbance, Sanna tries to escape but falls into the ocean. She survives the plunge and is rescued by Tara (Robin Hawdon), a fisherman from another tribe. There's an instant attraction between the two comely cave people. The only problem is that Tara's current girlfriend, Ayak, quickly becomes jealous of the blonde newcomer. The result is a catfight worthy of comparison to Krystle and Alexis in the early days of Dynasty.

Still, Sanna barely has time to get settled in her new home when her old tribe shows up. Still preferring not to be sacrificed, Sanna escapes into the rugged inland where dinosaurs dominate the landscape.

The simplistic plot serves as an adequate framework for the prehistoric creatures, which are naturally the highlight of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Hammer originally wanted to reunite with Ray Harryhausen, who did the special effects for One Million Years, B.C. However, he was still completing the stop-motion animation for The Valley of Gwangi (1969). Thus, Hammer turned to Jim Danforth, who previously exhibited his special effects wizardry in movies like Jack the Giant Killer (1962) and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). 
The sequence with the Plesiosaur at night.

Danforth’s stop-motion animated dinosaurs are amazing, but Harryhausen’s creatures somehow seem more convincing. That said, a battle between Tara’s tribe and a plesiosaur on the beach is pretty jaw-dropping, expertly matching the movements between the human actors and the animated dinosaur. Danforth and special effects coordinator Roger Dicken earned an Academy Award nomination for their special effects work--something which somehow eluded Harryhausen during his illustrious career (he did receive an honorary Oscar in 1992).

As the principal human star, Victoria Vetri was unable to duplicate Raquel Welch's success from One Million Years, B.C. Using the name Angela Dorian, she had gained minor fame as a Playboy centerfold and went on to become the 1967 Playmate of the Year. When the auburn-haired beauty was cast in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, she refused to dye her hair blonde and instead wore a wig. She later starred in one of Roger Ebert's favorite cult films Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). However, her film and TV career stalled in the mid-1970s.

A handy sheet for non-cave people.
Victoria Vetri made headlines in 2010 when she shot and wounded her third husband following an argument. She pleaded no contest to attempted voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to nine years in prison. She was paroled in 2018.

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth was released with a G rating in the U.S. An "international version" includes a few seconds of nudity. It made a tidy profit for Hammer Films, but could not match One Million Years, B.C.'s box office. That didn't dissuade Hammer from releasing another prehistoric movie the following year: Creatures the World Forgot (1971). It featured an attractive star (Julie Ege)...but no dinosaurs.


This review is part of the 3rd Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. Click here for the blogathon's full schedule.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Classic Horror Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic horror film (they're all pre-1960 so that should help) and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. I Screamed When I Saw My Groom!

2. Silver Wolf Cane and Wolfbane.

3. The Return of Maleva.

4. Dracula Is Alive and Well and Living in Louisiana.

5. The Hairy Adventures of Little Joe.

6. Andoheb and the Tana Leaves.

7. Quest for Wilbur's Brain.

8. Look, He's All Eaten Away!

9. Amy and Her Friend.

10. Blood Under the Door.

11. A Man Called Gill.

12. Jane Eyre of the Caribbean.

13. Christine Takes Singing Lessons.

14. Don't Pic the Mariphasa Flowers!

15. The House of Pain.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Ranking All 25 James Bond Films from Best to Worst

Sean Connery as the movies' first 007.
I originally ranked the first 22 James Bond films back in 2008. After recently watching No Time to Die, I thought it'd be interesting to review my list and update it to include all 25 Bond movies. Surprisingly, my rankings stayed much pretty the same. The two biggest movers were License to Kill and Quantum of Solace, two offbeat series entries which have improved with age. In the list below, the hyperlinks lead to in-depth film reviews by former Café staff writer Sarkoffagus. His assessment of a movie may not always be consistent with mine.

1. Goldfinger (1964) – The ultimate 007 film: terrific pre-title sequence, memorable song, worthy adversaries (Goldfinger and Oddjob), strong women, fun gadgets, clever plot, right mix of humor and action, Shirley Bassey's booming vovals on the title track, and Connery in peak form. Need I say more?

Roger Moore in Spy.
2. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – As a fan of The Saint TV series, I thought Roger Moore would be an ideal Bond. But his first two entries had me re-evaluating that assessment; fortunately, this one restored my faith in Roger. He seems incredibly comfortable in the role for the first time. The film also benefits from lush scenery, the most famous henchman of the series, a great Carly Simon song, and Caroline Munro & Barbara Bach (did she ever make another decent film?). I only wish Stromberg was a more compelling villain.

3. From Russia With Love (1963) – Connery’s second-best entry features the meatiest plot of any Bond film. It introduces the trademark gadgets with 007’s versatile attaché case. Lotte Lenya and Robert Shaw (in freaky white hair) score as the villains. The close quarters fight on the train between Bond and Shaw’s henchman is one of the best in the series.

Lazenzy in his solo series entry.
4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – OK, so George Lazenby made a pretty bland Bond. The rest of the film more than compensates for the lack of a dynamic lead. We get Diana Riggs (truly worthy of being Mrs. Bond), a snowy mountaintop headquarters for Blofeld, and some of the most memorable action sequences in the whole series.  Director Peter Hunt, a former editor, was far ahead of his time with his quick-cutting fight scenes. I love the John Barry title theme, but am not a fan of the closing song warbled by Louis Armstrong. Composer John Barry loved it, though, and the song resurfaces in No Time to Die.

5. Casino Royale (2006) – Daniel Craig's first 007 outing remains his best. It’s a muscular Bond film in every way. I even think the poker game—often criticized as the lull point in the film—is exciting. The torture scene goes on too long, but that’s my only qualm. Eva Green easily convinces us why Bond is smitten with Vesper Lynd and Le Chiffre is a worthy 007 adversary. Craig brought an edge to 007 that had been missing since Goldfinger (except perhaps for a brief flare-up in Licence to Kill).

Dalton was growing in the role.
6. Licence to Kill (1989) – It took me several years to warm up to this one. It’s basically a revenge tale and that’s what disappointed me at first. But I later came to appreciate its uniqueness from other Bond films. It’s too bad Timothy Dalton didn’t appear as 007 again. Like Roger Moore before him, I think Dalton was growing into the role and might have had a breakout with his third film. The title song, sung by Gladys Knight, is an underrated gem.

7. The World Is Not Enough (1999) – All right, Denise Richards wasn’t convincing as a physicist and is saddled with the worst name of any Bond character (Christmas Jones, really?). However, we still get Pierce Brosnan in his best 007 outing, along with a great plot twist, a breathtaking pre-title sequence, and strong performances from everyone not named Denise.

Craig as the "blonde Bond."
8. Skyfall (2012) – Daniel Craig’s second Bond film delves deeply into the complex relationship between 007 and M (Judi Dench). That, along with a nail-biting chase through the London Underground, elevate Skyfall into the top third of the Bond filmography. It would rank even higher if it didn't dip into self-importance and borrow Bond’s last stand climax from The Bourne Identity (2002). Adele’s title song is one of the better later themes.

9. For Your Eyes Only (1981) – This was a pivotal entry because it righted the ship after Moonraker steered the series too far into comedy. It’s almost too low-key compared to others, but that works in its favor. Carole Bouquet, Topol, and Julian Glover boost this outing with convincing performances (although former ice-skater Lynn-Holly Johnson is a distraction).

10. Thunderball (1965) – It features most of the virtues of Goldfinger, but has too much of each of them. For me, it verges on being over-the-top, but that’s not to say it isn’t a lot of fun (especially Luciana Paluzzi who steals the film from pretty, but dull heroine Claudine Auger). The underwater climax should be exciting, but everyone moves slower in the water!

Ursula Andress in Dr. No.
11. Dr. No (1962) – The series’ first entry is enjoyable from a historical perspective. It takes awhile to really get going, but Joseph Wiseman sets the standard for Bond villains and Ursula Andress makes the most memorable entrance of any Bond heroine (so much so that Halle Berry pays homage to it in Die Another Day).

12. Octopussy (1983) – This solid outing benefits from Maud Adams in the title role (in her second 007 film) and more screen time for Q. The circus setting near the climax is certainly unusual, but who wants to see James Bond in clown make-up? John Barry’s “All Time High” is easiest his weakest title song.

Pierce Brosnan.
13. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) – It initially works in fits and starts, but finally gains momentum once Michelle Yeoh’s character gets paired with Bond. Their action scenes are dynamite and their chemistry keeps the plot perking along.

14. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) – This entry is a hodgepodge that balances Britt Ekland’s bubble-headed heroine and the unnecessary return of Clifton James’ J.W. Pepper with Christopher Lee’s delightful turn as the high-paid assassin Scaramanga and Lulu's blistering version of the title song. I probably rate it higher than most people—but the bottom line, for me, is that it’s consistently entertaining.

Charles Gray as Blofeld.
15. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – Connery’s much-publicized return after a one-film absence results in a lightweight affair where everyone seems to be having a grand time. Charles Gray steals the film as Blofeld, but, in all honesty, the supporting characters are the attraction here. Who can forget Bond fighting Bambi and Thumper and the amusing dialogue exchanges between henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd?

16. Quantum of Solace (2008) – It’s a grim, violent revenge picture from start to finish. It’s imperative that you watch it immediately after Casino Royale, because that film establishes the motivations for Bond’s actions. The first time I saw it, I was unimpressed. However, it has improved with subsequent viewings, likely because I watched it and Casino Royale back-to-back. I also like that it’s efficient action film (the shortest running time in the series) and Bond’s relationship with the heroine is all business. 

17. No Time to Die (2021) – This fitting conclusion to Daniel Craig’s five Bond pictures starts off promisingly with two gripping pre-title sequences. Once the dust settles, it focuses on Bond trying to find his place in the world as he comes out of retirement to help CIA friend Felix Leiter. Much time is spent on the relationship between Bond and his one-time love Madeleine—who harbors two big secrets. There are some fine set pieces and several delightful homages to previous 007 films. However, Craig and lead actress Léa Seydoux lack chemistry and Rami Malek’s weak villain seems to be channeling Peter Lorre…in a bad way.

Donald Pleasance as the best Blofeld.
18. You Only Live Twice (1967) – Donald Pleasance gets high marks as the series’ best Blofeld and his volcano headquarters (courtesy of set designer Ken Adam) is ingenious. On the downside, Connery looks tired and the climax is a letdown.

19. GoldenEye (1995) – This lackluster debut for Pierce Brosnan has its fans and was a big hit.  However, it feels like a mash-up of previous Bond films. Its highlights are Brosnan, who brought some panache in his 007 interpretation, and Sean Bean as the villain, a former MI6 agent bent on revenge. Incidentally, the GoldenEye video game is famous in its own right and is a personal favorite.

Judi Dench as M.
20. Spectre (2015) – Its first half is full of promise as a posthumous message from M sends James on a mission to expose a mysterious criminal organization. Unfortunately, the second half collapses under its own weight with the revelation that Bond’s evil foster brother is behind every bad thing in 007’s life. It’s a shame because Christoph Waltz is an excellent modern-day Blofeld and the story didn’t need to connect him to Bond.

21. Live and Let Die (1973) – I remember Roger Moore being interviewed when this came out and commenting that Bond films consisted solely of connected chase scenes. Well, the best ones do have a plot! But Live and Let Die has minimal plot and indeed features a ton of chase scenes, most of which are silly (Sheriff J.W. Pepper did not belong in a 007 film!). Yaphet Kotto makes a memorable villain, but needs more to do.

Richard Kiel as Jaws.
22. Moonraker (1979) – I first saw this film at wonderful time in my life and that probably shades my assessment (otherwise, it might be ranked lower). There’s little to recommend it: it’s too spoofy (e.g., the silly use of The Magnificent Seven theme) and it transforms Jaws from bad guy to good guy…with a love interest no less.

23. The Living Daylights (1987) – One of my nephews likes this one and says I need to see it again. I recall it being an uninspired affair except for Dalton, who brought some energy back to the role.

24. A View to a Kill (1985) – It’s hard to decide what’s worse: Christopher Walken’s incredibly campy villain, Tanya Roberts’ non-performance as the heroine, or the fact that Roger Moore seems to be walking through his role. On the plus side, John Barry and Duran Duran collaborated to compose one of the best James Bond title songs--and the only one to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

25. Die Another Day (2002) – An invisible car? A female spy that’s the equal of Bond? Madonna as a fencing master? These are indications that the producers and writers had run out of ideas and ingenuity. The decision to reboot the franchise with Craig? Excellent!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Moon-Spinners: A Disney Film With a Touch of Hitchcock

Hayley Mills as Nikky.
What do you get when you cross an Alfred Hitchcock suspense film with a Disney movie? The answer is something like The Moon-Spinners (1965), an attempt to transition 17-year-old Hayley Mills to more grown-up roles.

The Moon-Spinners opens with musicologist Fran Ferris (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Nikky arriving on the island of Crete. Despite telegraphing ahead to reserve a room, they are initially turned away by The Moon-Spinners Inn. The inn's owner (Irene Pappas) and, more emphatically, her brother Stratos (Eli Wallach) don't want strangers snooping around. However, when a young lad intercedes on behalf of the visitors, they are allowed to stay for a night.

Nikky becomes infatuated with a handsome stranger named Mark (Peter McEnery), who seems to be keeping a watchful eye on Stratos. Later that night, Mark is shot while spying on Stratos and his crony at the Bay of Dolphins. Nikky discovers a wounded Mark in an empty church the next day and agrees to help him--even though he refuses to tell her what he's really doing on the island.

The windmill where Nikky is captive.
It's a familiar Hitchcock plot: a normal person encounters a stranger and gets involved in a tangled adventure with mysterious people (see The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent). Alas, although loosely based on a Mary Stewart novel, The Moon-Spinners' resemblance to a Hitchcock picture ends with the premise. At a length of almost two hours, it moves sluggishly against its colorful backdrop and struggles to manufacture suspense. Indeed, the only scene that generates any legitimate thrills is when Nikky has to escape from a windmill by grabbing hold of one of the arms.

John Le Mesurier.
Eli Wallach makes for a menacing villain, but also a surprisingly tedious one. It's a shame as we know from The Magnificent Seven that he can play a wonderfully despicable baddie. Fortunately, Wallach gets some help in the villain department from John Le Mesurier, who is introduced late in the film as Stratos' boss. His suave English gentleman remains remarkably calm while dealing with his second-rate henchman and his own wife (a delightful Sheila Hancock), whose propensity for liquor results in talking too much.

One wishes that The Moon-Spinners had made better use of Joan Greenwood, Irene Pappas, and former silent film star Pola Negri. These fine actresses are limited to a handful of scenes, though Negri appears to be having fun as an eccentric heiress with a pet cheetah and a penchant for rare jewels.

Hayley Mills never seems to find the right tone as the teenage heroine; her character comes across as too juvenile. Additionally, she and Peter McEnery have little rapport. When he finally kisses her--Hayley's first on-screen smooch!--it comes across as very chaste. Mills followed up The Moon-Spinners with an excellent performance in The Chalk Garden (1964) and later starred in The Trouble With Angels (1966), one of her most beloved films. The handsome McEnery's film career petered out by the end of the decade despite a promising performance in the earlier Victim (1961) and a starring role in Disney's The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966). 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Juggernaut Narrowly Avoids Submersion

Richard Harris as Fallon.
Made during the 1970s disaster movie craze, Juggernaut (1974) replicates the ocean liner setting from the earlier Poseidon Adventure, but adds a twist. What if there was a bomb on board--seven of them, to be precise--and a limited amount of time to defuse them?

The premise unfolds slowly with the opening scenes devoted to the passengers and staff of the Britannic. Captain Brunel (Omar Sharif) pilots the ship with detached authority and has a dalliance with a married passenger (Shirley Knight). The overenthusiastic social director (Roy Kinnear) tries to entertain shipboard guests with bingo games and shuffleboard. A woman gets seasick and tries to find ways to amuse her children.

Omar Sharif looks concerned.
The plot finally picks up when one of the cruise line's board members receives a call from a man identifying himself as "Juggernaut." He states that he will blow up the Britannic within 24 hours if he is not paid £500,000. As the police try to track down Juggernaut, the Royal Navy sends explosive ordnance disposal specialist Tony Fallon (Richard Harris) and his crew to the ocean liner to defuse the bombs.

For most of its running time, Juggernaut is a clunky affair in need of better storytelling, tighter editing, and more memorable characters. It finally shifts into high gear during the final half-hour which focuses mostly on Fallon’s desperate attempts to defuse the bombs. The result is that the film ends on a high note, which may account for some of its positive reviews. (Is there such a thing as a false-positive film review?)

Shirley Knight as Mrs. Bannister.
The cast is certainly capable with Sharif, Harris, Knight, Anthony Hopkins, and David Hemmings. None of them are given much to work with, though Harris projects the right amount of swagger as the bomb disposal expert. Shirley Knight also brings conviction to her throwaway role, making her character the only passenger that elicits any concern. It's a far cry from the character-centric, infinitely more suspense-laden Poseidon Adventure.

It's hard to fault director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, The Three Musketeers) for the film's weaknesses. Two directors, Bryan Forbes and Don Medford, left the production prior to the start of shooting. Lester was a last-minute replacement and he completed Juggernaut with two weeks left on the production schedule. He also re-wrote the script with Alan Plater. The author of the original screenplay, veteran scribe Richard Alan Simmons, was so unhappy with the revised screenplay that he changed his credit to "Richard De Koker." He based his original script on a real-life bomb threat aboard the Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 (in which no bombs were found).

Juggernaut has the pedigree to be a first-rate thriller, but unfortunately nearly sinks under its own weight until the extended climax. Still, those scenes generate enough nail-biting to keep the film from being a total waste of time. Then again, you could just fast-forward until there's only a half-hour left and use the 70 minutes you saved to do something more productive.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Gregory Peck Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Gregory Peck film and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! 

1.  A Day With Anya.

2.  The Other Son.

3.  Savage Command.

4.  Queequeg and Me.

5.  Maddalena.

6.  The Man Who Forgot Himself. (This one works for two movies!)

7.  The Cipher.

8.  Maycomb.

9.  The Big Muddy.

10. Ghost Town.

11. Black Hair, Blue Eyes. (This one might be tough!)

12. Flag.

13. The Final Days.

14. Cady's Vengeance.

15. Ward 7.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Best Seller and Alien Nation: Cop Buddy Films with a Twist

James Woods and Brian Dennehy.
Best Seller (1987).  Cleve is a professional killer who feels he never got the respect he deserved from his ex-employer, a powerful corporate executive. To gain revenge, Cleve (James Woods) approaches Dennis Meechum to write an exposé about the corrupt businessman who used Cleve's services. A police detective who once authored a non-fiction bestseller, Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is skeptical at first. Gradually, Cleve persuades Meechum that his tale is true; it "helps" that suddenly both men become the targets of murder attempts.

Made in 1987, Best Seller is mostly a study of the relationship between Cleve and Meechum. Granted, there are the requisite action scenes and a climax filled with multiple corpses, but that's not the focus. Instead, Larry Cohen's screenplay explores the rocky "friendship" between a smooth, charming, vicious killer and an honest cop struggling to be a single parent. The strength of Cohen's script is that it dupes into believing that Cleve may not be so bad, then shows him performing a cold-blooded, needless murder. Like the audience, Meechum eventually becomes intrigued with the engaging killer--but he's smart enough to never fully trust his new ally.

Coming off a Best Actor nomination for Salvador (1986), James Woods pulls in the audience with his riveting portrayal of Cleve. Brian Dennehy provides an effective foil, but his role is less showy. Best Seller belongs to Woods and his compelling, creepy character.

It's not a brilliant film. There are too many gaps in logic, such as when Meecham--whose life has been threatened--leaves his teenage daughter home alone. My recommendation is that you overlook its faults and watch Best Seller to see Woods at his best.

Mandy Patinkin as Francisco.
Alien Nation (1988).  In 1991, Los Angeles is the home to 300,000 aliens who arrived three years earlier when their spaceship crashed on Earth. Labeled Newcomers, the aliens are humanoid in appearance and have been partially assimilated into American society. Treated as slaves on their planet, the Newcomers have embraced their new freedoms. Still, they are viewed by many humans as a race to distrust and even fear.

Police detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) loses his partner when they intervene during a convenient store robbery in Slagtown, the slang name for a Newcomer community. Determined to find his partner's killer, Sykes volunteers to team up with Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), the first Newcomer to be promoted to detective. The prejudiced human gradually realizes that his new partner is intelligent and dedicated, even if he does have a propensity to follow the rules.

James Caan as Sykes.
With Alien Nation, screenwriter Rockne O'Bannon (Farscape) goes to great lengths to create a new world--and then does little with it. He litters the story with fascinating tidbits about the Newscomers: their favorite foods include raw beaver; they can breathe methane; they can master the English language in three months; and consuming too much sour milk makes them drunk! Alas, none of these revelations factor into what is essentially a boring a plot about a businessman trying to start a drug racket.

Mandy Patinkin is entertaining as Sam Francisco (whom Sykes calls George...an inside joke since the producers were not allowed to use the name George Jetson). James Caan provides a nice foil, but he has played roles like his independent, grumpy cop far too often in his career. In the end, they make Alien Nation watchable, but not especially memorable.

The film did spawn a short-lived TV series and five follow-up television movies starring Eric Pierpont as Francisco and Gary Graham as Sikes (now spelled differently).

Monday, September 6, 2021

Cold War Thrills in The Bedford Incident

Richard Widmark as Captain Finlander.
The 1960s was a grand decade for top-notch Cold War thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Fail Safe (1964). Although it falls a little short of those aforementioned films, The Bedford Incident (1965) remains a first-rate drama that crackles with tension from start to finish.

Richard Widmark stars as Captain Eric Finlander, who commands the U.S.S. Bedford, a destroyer whose purpose is to monitor Soviet submarines and "prevent by threat a certain course of action by the enemy." The Bedford's new chief physician, a reserve officer named Potter (Martin Balsam), clashes almost immediately with Finlander. The captain belittles Potter by stating he did not request a new medical officer and holds reserve officers in low regard. 

Potter and Ben Munceford, a journalist on board to write a story about Finlander, soon detect on a pervasive atmosphere of apprehension aboard the ship. The crew works long hours, remains constantly on high alert, and are discouraged from going to sick bay. Munceford (Sidney Poitier) also picks up on Finlander's unbridled excitement when the Bedford discovers a Soviet submarine patrolling near Greenland. The captain insists that his mission is only deterrence, but Munceford begins to wonder if Finlander is obsessed with destroying the Soviet vessel.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford.
The Bedford Incident is a slow burn that methodically builds suspense to its unexpected climax. There are no action scenes. Rather, James B. Harris--in his directorial debut--is content to let the screenplay do the heavy lifting. Harris, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several films (including Paths of Glory), directs with an unobtrusive, sure hand. The film's most memorable scenes--when Potter confronts Finlander and when Munceford interviews the captain--could have been lifted from a stage play. That's meant to be a compliment as it shows Harris's total trust in his actors to deliver the drama.

Veteran screenwriter James Poe's adaptation of the novel by Mark Rascovich wisely avoids turning The Bedford Incident into a contemporary Moby Dick. Yes, Finlander is obsessed with the Soviet submarine, but his sense of duty keeps him from pursuing personal goals at the expense of imperiling his country. This internal dilemma is what makes the final outcome in The Bedford Incident so devastating.

It's easy to see why Richard Widmark, who also served as one of the producers, was drawn to The Bedford Incident. It provides him with one of the best roles of his distinguished career. I love the aforementioned lively interview between Munceford and Finlander in which one can see the latter trying to dampen his temper and choose his words carefully because of his distrust of the press. It's a master class in acting.

Martin Balsam and (far right) Wally Cox.
Sidney Poitier is content to play Munceford as a catalyst. We never learn much about the journalist, but through him, we learn a lot about Finlander, Dr. Potter, and a former German U-boat commander on board as a NATO observer (the excellent Eric Portman). James MacArthur and Wally Cox are also present in small but pivotal roles. Look quickly and you may be able to spot Donald Sutherland and Ed Bishop (UFO) as crewmen.

The Bedford Incident was the third teaming of Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, following No Way Out (1950) and The Long Ships (1964). When Widmark died in 2008, his friend Poitier said: "His creative work is indelible on film and will be there to remind us of what he was as an artist and a human being."

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Seven Things to Know About the Emmy Awards

1. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded the first Emmys in 1948. However, the first winner for Best Dramatic Show was not bestowed until 1950. That honor went to Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, which featured 60-minute adaptations of Pulitzer Prize-winning works such as You Can't Take It With You, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Mary of Scotland. The series aired on ABC and was sponsored by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

2. Kelsey Grammer is the only actor to be nominated for playing the same character in three television series. He first appeared as Dr. Frasier Crane in Cheers and was twice nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He earned another nomination for playing Frasier in a guest-starring role on Wings in 1992. He capped it off with ten nominations and four wins for playing the title role in his Frasier TV series from 1993-2004. (And for the record, Kelsey also won for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for The Simpsons in 2006.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was nominated for each of its first four years, but failed to win an Emmy thanks to All in the Family and M*A*S*H. However, it then won three consecutive times for Outstanding Series--Comedy. By the time it finished its seven-year run in 1977, it had racked up an amazing 41 wins in various categories. That was the record for the most Emmys won by a single TV series until Frazier passed it 25 years later.

4. Television shows developed for streaming services and cable networks dominate the prime time Emmys these days--but it wasn't always that way. The Sopranos became the first cable TV series to win Outstanding Drama Series in 2004. It was nominated in 1999, 2000, and 2001--losing to, respectively, The Practice and The West Wing (twice).

Belafonte and Emmy.
5. Harry Belafonte was the first Black performer to win an Emmy. His episode "Tonight with Belafonte" on The Revlon Revue won for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in 1960. Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. were the first Black actors to be nominated for an Emmy in 1956. The first Black actress to win an Emmy was Gail Fisher for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Mannix in 1970.

6. As Erica Kane on All My Children, Susan Lucci was nominated 21 times for the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She finally won an Emmy with her 19th nomination. It was her only win out of 21 total nominations. Don't feel sorry for her, though, as Susan Lucci became daytime television's highest-paid star in the early 1990s, earning $1 million annually.

7. Dick Van Dyke once said: "I've won several Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy so maybe somebody will let me have an Oscar, and then I'll have a full set."