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 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."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Roger Corman

1. Roger Corman produced Martin Scorsese's second feature-length film Boxcar Bertha (1972). In Corman and Jim Jerome's book How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Scorsese recalled: "He once said, 'Martin, what you have to get is a very good first reel because people want to know what's going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it turns out.' Probably the best sense I have ever heard in the movies."

2. Corman offered the lead role in his motorcycle gang picture The Wild Angels (1966) to George Chakiris, an Oscar winner for West Side Story. However, Chakiris could not ride a motorcycle and withdrew from the film, so Corman promoted Peter Fonda to the lead role. Fonda accepted on the condition that his character's name be changed from Jack Black to Heavenly Blues (a type of Morning Glory flower). Fonda's previous role, that of the doomed gang member Loser, went to Bruce Dern. The Wild Angels cast also included Nancy Sinatra, Dern's then-wife Diane Ladd, Michael J. Pollard, Gayle Hunnicutt, and Corman regular Dick Miller.

A young Tom Selleck in Terminal Island.
3. In the mid-1960s, Roger Corman interviewed several UCLA and USC graduates for an assistant position. He eventually hired Stephanie Rothman, who had a master's degree in film from USC. She later became a producer, writer, and director responsible for drive-in cult classics like The Student Nurses (1970) and Terminal Island (1973). Corman interviewed UCLA grad Julie Halloran, but didn't hire her. He did start dating her and they were married in 1970. Julie Corman became a successful film producer, too.

4. Corman tried working for a major Hollywood studio on a couple of occasions. His year-long deal with Columbia Pictures in the 1960s proved fruitless. Corman wanted to produce an adaptation of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Columbia wasn't interested. However, his deal with Twentieth Century-Fox yielded The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). The one million dollar budget was the largest of Corman's directorial career. The director originally wanted Orson Welles for the role of Al Capone, but the studio convinced him otherwise. So, he had Jason Robards switch parts from Bugs Moran to Capone.

5. One of Roger Corman's most cost-effective hits was Tidal Wave (1973). It was originally a three-hour Japanese movie called Submersion of Japan. Corman bought that film, had it edited down to 72 minutes, dubbed the dialogue, and included new footage of Lorne Greene as a United Nations ambassador. Corman said: "It surprised all of us and made money...Tidal Wave was probably the most outrageous example of re-editing a film for domestic release."

Jack Nicholson in The Terror.
6. The Terror (1963) is often described as a horror film made by Corman in two days with the leftover sets from The Raven (1963). The reality is that it was the longest film ever made by Roger Corman. With barely a script and Boris Karloff available for only two days, Corman shot as much footage as he could. Then, over a period of several months, he had five different directors shot sequences of the film. Those directors included Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Jack Nicholson, who co-starred in The Terror, commented to Corman that "everybody in this whole damned town's directed this picture" and asked if he could direct the last day. Corman said: "Sure, why not?"

7. Today, Roger Corman is 95. His last film credit was as executive producer of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy in 2018. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave Roger Corman an honorary Oscar "for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers."

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith.
"Running was always a big thing in our family, specially running away from the police. It's hard to understand. All I know is that you've got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post's no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That's what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like."

Those words are spoken over the opening scene of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by its protagonist Colin Smith. A young man from a working class background, Colin (Tom Courtenay) has recently arrived at Ruxton Towers Reformatory after his conviction for robbing a bakery. Colin struggles to suppress his defiant attitude until his athletic ability unexpectedly changes his fortunes at Ruxton.

Michael Redgrave as the governor.
It turns out that Colin can run faster than any of the other lads. That draws the attention of the reformatory's governor (Michael Redgrave), who is obsessed with winning a cross country running competition with a private school. Colin's new privileges include being able to run alone outside the reformatory's walls. As he does so, he reflects on his life, his hazy future, and the events that led to his present situation.

Made in 1962, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner initially resembles the "angry young men" films popularized in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the working class young protagonists in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Colin has a chip on his shoulder. He wants a job with good pay, but he doesn't want to work for anyone and lacks the initiative to start his own business. It's easier to commit small-time larceny. 

Yet, by conventional accounts, Colin is the type of juvenile delinquent that can be reformed. One could reason that he just needs some direction, some discipline, and a goal. The reformatory's governor believes that the rigors of long distance running can instill the discipline and that winning a championship cup for the school can provide a goal. Yet, what the governor doesn't grasp is that his goal may not be Colin's goal. 

In the end, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is not about Colin's transformation. That might have made an interesting, inspirational movie. Instead, screenwriter Alan Sillitoe and director Tony Richardson choose to paint a portrait of Colin's life inside and outside the reformatory. It's a similar approach to the duo's earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning--except that Colin is much more appealing than Albert Finney's self-absorbed protagonist. Additionally, Colin's defiant attitude and independent spirit just might provide him with the strength to better his life.

While the cast includes veterans such as Michael Redgrave and Alec McCowen, this is Tom Courtenay's film. He's in almost every frame, fully inhabiting the complex character at the heart of the story. His performance earned him a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.

In the same year he made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, director Tony Richardson married Michael Redgrave's daughter, actress Vanessa Redgrave. The couple, who were married for five years, had two children who also became actresses: Natasha and Joely.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Jamie Lee Boards a Terror Train; The Animals Have Their Day

Jamie Lee Curtis.
Terror Train (1980).  When a cruel college prank goes awry, its victim, Kenny, seemingly has a nervous breakdown. Three years later, the prank's perpetrators have become senior pre-med students, one of whom has hired a steam-driven train for a masquerade party. After almost everyone has boarded the train, a student named Ed is secretly murdered. The killer rolls the corpse under the caboose and dons the disguise—a Groucho Marx mask—worn by Ed. Thus, all the party attendees think that “Groucho” is Ed…and not a revenge-minded homicidal psycho.

The killer in disguise.
The Canadian-made Terror Train was one of the first slasher films made in the wake of Halloween’s box office success. Helmed by veteran Roger Spottiswoode, it’s an efficient thriller that generates a reasonable amount of tension. A key plot point has the killer donning the disguise of his latest victim. It also features an effective twist at the climax, which—while not original—nevertheless comes across as a mild surprise.

In her third "slasher film", following Halloween (1978) and Prom Night (1979), Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a surprisingly tough heroine. Her character may regret her role in the ill-fated prank and even feel sympathy towards Kenny, but she's willing to take on the killer at the end. The supporting cast is stronger than usual for this type of film with Ben Johnson as the train conductor, Hart Bochner as a manipulative student, and David Copperfield in his only dramatic role as...a magician. If actress D.D. Winters looks familiar, that's because she became Prince's protégé Vanity.

Terror Train isn't an undiscovered gem. It's an average thriller made on a modest budget, but by people that know how to make this sort of thing.

Christopher George as Steve.
Day of the Animals (1977). When the Earth's ozone layer starts depleting, it has an inexplicable effect on both domestic and wild animals living in high altitudes. It transforms them into bloodthirsty killers!

That's bad news for a group of vacationers participating in a two-week wilderness trek through the mountains led by guides Steve (Christopher George) and Daniel (Michael Ansara). After the group fends off an attack by a single wolf, it begins to splinter. Matters get worse when one of the hikers, a bigoted executive (Leslie Nielsen) with a huge ego, convinces some of the group to follow him instead of Steve. Pretty soon, the humans are fighting for their lives as they face mountain lions, bears, birds, snakes, wild dogs--and each other.

Leslie Nielsen.
Made two years after Jaws (1975), Day of the Animals is often mentioned with other ecologically-themed films where Mother Nature rebels against humans (e.g., Grizzly, Frogs, Food of the Gods, The Pack, etc.). That's a shame, because it's better than those drive-in efforts; indeed, for most of its running time, Day of the Animals is a tidy suspense film with solid acting. 

Unfortunately, it starts to unravel when Leslie Nielsen's bizarre executive strips off his shirt and starts acting like a mad man. Sure, Nielsen has a field day overacting and spouts some memorable dialogue (to a young boy: "You little cockroach! You gonna tell me about survival?"). However, his performance ruins the second half of the movie (for a more serious take on a similar character, see Sands of the Kalahari).

Lynda Day George and hair.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves satisfactorily and it's fun to see: Lynda Day George (Chris's wife) as a reporter whose blonde hair always looks perfectly coiffed; Ruth Roman as an overbearing mother; Richard Jaeckel as a well-meaning professor; Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) as a former football player; and a young Andrew Stevens.

The animals prove to be adequate thespians, too, especially the bear and a pack of wild dogs that attack near the climax. The latter scene does leave one with a lingering question: Why are all the wild dogs in the pack German Shepherds?

Monday, August 2, 2021

If a Man Answers: Treating Your Husband Like a Dog

Sandra Dee as Chantel.
Romantic comedies were box office gold in the early 1960s with hits like Lover Come Back and Come September (both 1961). Therefore, it was inevitable that a Hollywood studio would make one aimed at the young adult crowd. That's what Universal had in mind when it cast Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin as the leads in If a Man Answers (1962).

Dee and Darin met on the set of Come September, fell in love, and were married in 1960. By 1962, Sandra Dee was the ninth biggest draw at the U.S. box office and Bobby Darin had a #3 hit record on the Billboard Top 40 chart with "Things."

In If a Man Answers, Sandra Dee stars as a young socialite named Chantel, who has rejected numerous suitors. Her attitude toward men changes when she meets Eugene (Darin), a smooth-talking fashion photographer. He asks her to pose for him for a calendar shoot and--after some minor obstacles--the two get married.

Bobby Darin as Chantel.
However, Eugene doesn't want to photograph his wife in risqué outfits, so he hires Chantel's "friend" Tina (Stefanie Powers) as a model. That creates its own problems for the newlyweds. Chantel turns to her mother for advice and receives an unexpected response. Her mother "trained" Chantel's father using lessons from a dog obedience book. At first, Chantel is incredulous, but when she tries one of the dog training techniques on Eugene, it works like a charm.

Micheline Presle.
It's a silly premise, but works surprisingly well thanks to the agreeable cast. While Dee and Darin hold their own as the stars, it's the older supporting cast that shines. As Chantel's mother, French actress Micheline Presle adds elegance, intelligence, and a touch of sparkle. It's easy to see why her daughter confides everything to her and why her husband is devoted to her. Cesar Romero is her equivalent as Eugene's playboy father, who makes an appearance late in the film. Romero was born to portray charming lovers who are more playful than dangerous. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The other "star" of If a Man Answers is costume designer Jean Louis. The Hollywood veteran makes Sandra Dee, Micheline Presle, and Stefanie Powers look fabulous in tailored dresses in vibrant colors such as red, orange, and blue. Jean Louis is especially successful at enhancing Dee's sexiness after the actress was all but stereotyped as a tomboy in movies such as Gidget (1959) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961).

If a Man Answers continued Sandra Dee's string of hit movies. Bobby Darin's next film was a dramatic change-of-pace with him playing an Air Force gunner suffering for post-traumatic stress disorder in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Darin's performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1965, husband and wife teamed up again for another romantic comedy, That Funny Feeling.

By the late 1960s, however, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin had divorced and each began to experience a decline in popularity. Darin died in 1973 following open heart surgery; he was 37. Sandra Dee appeared sporadically on television, but essentially retired from acting in 1978. She died in 2005 at age 62 from complications of kidney disease. Their son, Dodd Mitchell Darin, wrote a biography of his parents in 1994 titled Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (James Stewart Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred James Stewart 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. The Undressed Boot Object.

2. The Wyoming Male.

3. The Model Airplane Designer.

4. Voyeur.

5. The Manion Case.

6. What Pyewacket Knows.

7. My Pooka Friend.

8. Mattie's Eye.

9. Vindicator.

10. Frenchy and Tom.

11. The Sycamore Family.

12. Bell on the Saddle.

13. The Last Boy Ranger.

14. Madeleine.

15. The Art of Murder (this may be a toughie).

Monday, July 19, 2021

Michael Caine Meets a Billion Dollar Brain

Michael Caine as Harry Palmer.
It was assuredly no easy task to follow in the footsteps of two of the best spy thrillers of the 1960s: The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. So, one must cut a little slack for Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Michael Caine’s third outing as thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. 

Since we last saw Palmer, he has become a low-rent private eye working out of a dimly-lit office filled with half-empty food containers. He turns down a offer to spy again for his former boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and accepts a job from a computerized voice on the phone. His assignment is to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki. Palmer learns that his cargo consists of six eggs containing a deadly virus. The recipient is an old Palmer associate named Leo (Karl Malden), who works for a Texas billionaire intent on ending the spread of Communism.

Karl Malden as Leo.
It's a promising opening, but the plot soon goes off the rails with a detour to Latvia, a trip to Texas to see a giant computer, and a brief climatic confrontation on the frozen Baltic Sea. The film's biggest mistake, though, is in relegating Palmer to a pawn in these shenanigans. Part of the fun of the earlier Palmer pictures was that his foes constantly underestimated the intelligent, if reluctant, spy. No one manages to manipulate Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain (unless he wants to be by a beautiful Russian agent). However, he has little impact on what happens in the story.

As Palmer's double-crossing one-time friend, Karl Malden looks lost in a poorly-written role. It's hard to believe that his over-eager, seemingly desperate former CIA agent could survive so long in the espionage business. Malden, an exceptional actor in the right part, was prone to occasional bouts of ham (see also Parrish) and that's sadly the case in Billion Dollar Brain.

 Françoise Dorléac as Anya.
His castmates have little to do, with Françoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve's sister) being wasted in an under-developed part. (Alas, that was a problem with many of the male-driven spy thrillers of the decade.) At least, Oskar Homolka has a grand time reprising his Russian army general from Funeral in Berlin in a couple of scenes with Caine. Also, look quickly and you may spot future film stars Donald Sutherland as a computer technician and Susan George as a young girl on a train that interacts with Palmer.

It's interesting to note that Billion Dollar Brain was directed by the frequently flamboyant Ken Russell. At that time in his career, Russell was primarily a television director who wanted to get established in films. Thus, Billion Dollar Brain was basically a "for hire" assignment and, as a result, doesn't bear his usual trademarks. To his credit, Russell makes good use of his outdoor locations shot in Finland and he keeps the plot moving along at a reasonable pace.

Billion Dollar Brain isn't a disaster, but it's a horrible letdown from Caine's two previous Palmer movies. If you enjoyed those, you should probably seek out Billion Dollar Brain so you can complete the original Palmer trilogy. Otherwise, there are better ways to spend your time.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Michael Asimow Discusses His New Book on Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies

What movie fan doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?

In Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies, co-authors Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman dissect over 200 movies that “take place in a courtroom, defined broadly enough to include pretrial discovery, plea negotiations, jury deliberations and appellate court arguments.” Michael Asimow is a professor at Santa Clara Law School and a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School. Paul Bergman is a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School.

The films in their book range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird to fact-based dramas (Judgment at Nuremburg), comedies (My Cousin Vinny), and intriguing lesser-known fare such as Never Take Candy from a Stranger. Each film review includes a synopsis, an analysis of the courtroom events that “distinguishes truth from trickery,” and production notes. The authors also provide extensive details on the actual cases that served as the basis for fact-inspired films.

We had the opportunity to recently discuss Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies with co-author Michael Asimow.

Café:  What inspired you and your co-author Paul Bergman to embark on the fascinating endeavor of analyzing the courtroom scenes of over 200 movies from their legal and ethical perspectives?

Michael Asimow:  Paul and I love old movies and we love the law. We’ve had long and great careers as law professors. And we thought we’d bring our passions together by providing a guidebook to courtroom movies. It will enable our readers to find courtroom movies from the 1930s to the present that they’ve never seen or to revisit the ones they saw years ago. We provide a rating scheme (of one to four gavels) for each film to help readers select the best ones. We hope our discussions will help answer the questions viewers might have after watching the films. 

Café:  Aside from tracking down all the movies, what was the most challenging aspect of writing Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies?

Michael Asimow:  One challenge was to provide a gentle analysis of the films that would be fun for non-lawyer readers to think about without getting too technical, yet not oversimplifying serious issues. Another big challenge was dealing with "reality." Of course, courtroom films aren’t "realistic." If they were, they would last for eight days and be indescribably boring. These films aren’t documentaries, they are entertainment vehicles. Filmmakers have to select the best bits of the trial process and make them as dramatic as possible. We don’t want to criticize the filmmakers for taking those necessary shortcuts, yet we wanted to let readers know when the films depart too far from courtroom procedures or legal ethics. That was a serious challenge. 

Café:  Based on your analyses, which movies feature the most believable lawyers or do the best job of presenting a case realistically?  

George C. Scott and Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder.
Michael Asimow:  Our all-time favorite is Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the classic film starring Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott. Almost all of it is a gripping murder trial, with two great lawyers going after each other, full of twists and turns and with an ambiguous ending. Watch this movie—you’ll be amazed at how good it is.  

Café:  I know you teach a course on "Law and Popular Culture," but have you ever used a movie’s courtroom scene to emphasize a point or stimulate discussion in other law school courses?

Michael Asimow:  Oh, sure. Paul uses courtroom scenes in teaching evidence and trial practice and I use them in teaching contract law. When students see the great actors entangled in legal problems and procedure, they remember it long after they’ve forgotten what the professor said. 

Café:  One of the most interesting aspects of your book is where you describe the actual cases behind fact-based films such as Compulsion, Inherit the Wind, and Marshall. What are your favorite fact-based courtroom dramas and why?

Humphrey Bogart in Marked Woman.
Michael Asimow:  So many of the films we discuss are based on actual trials like the three ones you name. We love the recent ones like The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), which is closely based on the famous Chicago conspiracy case of 1969, and Denial (2016) which retells the story of Holocaust-denier David Irving’s libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt who had called him out. But some oldies are equally good. Marked Woman (1937) is based on the trial in which crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey puts away gangster Lucky Luciano, who controlled New York rackets and prostitution.   

Café:  You note that the lawyers in many films violate certain principles of law or ethics—such as when James Stewart’s defense attorney coaches the defendant (Ben Gazzara) in Anatomy of a Murder. Are you surprised that more movies don’t have legal experts who review the screenplays for inaccuracies?  

Michael Asimow:  They often have experts, but filmmakers love ethical dilemmas. These aren’t inaccuracies, they are deliberate attempts to tell great stories. We try to identify ethical lapses in our discussions, but we don’t criticize the filmmakers for putting them there. Lawyers often find themselves in terrible ethical positions as in And Justice for All (1979), in which lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is stuck with a client who confesses his guilt, but insists that Kirkland give him a full defense complete with testimony that Kirkland knows will be perjured. 

Café:  What are your five favorite courtroom movies and why?

Paul Newman in The Verdict.
Michael Asimow:  It’s a tough call as there have been so many great ones. Besides Anatomy of a Murder, which we already talked about, I’d have to choose: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), which has the best twist ending; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) which will tear your heart out; My Cousin Vinny (1992) which is by far the best comedy; The Verdict (1992) for best lawyer epiphany; and A Few Good Men (1992) for best military justice movie and terrific cross-examination.  

Café:  You’ve also written Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television, so I must ask your opinion on one of my favorite legal shows: The Defenders.

Michael Asimow:  Me too! The Defenders (1961-65) involved a father and son law firm (played by the great E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed). Each week they took up another big social or legal problem and framed it in the context of a trial.  Some especially memorable shows concerned the anti-Communist blacklist, defending Nazi protestors, and abortion. The first season of The Defenders is available on DVD.  Well worth watching! 

Café:  Thank you so much, Michael, for taking the time to talk with us.

Michael Asimow:  My pleasure, Rick!  

You can purchase Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies from booksellers such as Amazon.