Monday, July 15, 2019

#FaveVampireFilms - Your Favorite Vampire Films Tweetathon

What are your favorite vampire films?

Last month, we had a grand time with our science fiction films tweetathon. So, in the spirit of movie sequels, we've decided to host another tweetathon--but this time, the focus will be on vampire movies.

If you would like to participate, just go to Twitter and send a tweet with your film picks and the hashtag #FaveVampireFilms. Include our Twitter name @classic_film and we'll share your selections with over 13,000 other movie fans.

Of course, you don't need a Twitter account to participate. You can also join the fun by listing your picks on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform. Or, you can just leave a comment below with your five favorite science fictions films.

Here are our #FaveVampireFilms in no particular order:

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires) (1967)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter (1974)
Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Fright Night (1985)
Horror of Dracula (1958)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bette Davis as Madame Sin

A TV series centered around a Fu Manchu-like villainous played by the incomparable Bette Davis? That was the idea behind Madame Sin, a TV series pilot which aired in 1972 on the ABC Movie of the Weekend.

Executive producer Robert Wagner stars as Tony Lawrence, a disgruntled former intelligence agent kidnapped by Madame Sin's henchmen and transported to her fortress in the Scottish Highlands. Madame Sin tries to convince Tony to join her evil organization by showing him film footage of his girlfriend being tortured and killed as part of an American espionage plot. It works and pretty soon Tony is helping to abduct a submarine commander so his brain can be reprogrammed to steer his sub into Madame Sin's clutches.

Denholm Elliott.
Shot in England and Scotland, Madame Sin looks more expensive than most made-for-TV movies of the era. It also features a respectable cast, with the always reliable Denholm Elliott present as Madame Sin's right-hand man.

I suspect the producers wanted to recreate the tongue-in-cheek, gadget-laden approach of the Derek Flint films. But whereas those were sophisticated fare, Madame Sin veers closer to camp. Ms. Davis, decked out in layers of light-blue eye shadow and a large black wig, utters lines like: "You're a prisoner only if you think of yourself as one." Later, when Tony finally realizes he's been duped, he yells: "You're not a woman. You're a disease!" (I thought: "No, Tony, she is a woman and a whole lot smarter than you.")

Wagner as Tony Lawrence.
Madam Sin was released theatrically overseas, but stateside its television ratings weren't strong enough for it to become a regular series. Personally, given the ending (and no spoilers here!), I can't help but wonder what the producers were thinking. I cannot fathom an American television network in the early 1970s being bold enough to build a weekly series around a villain. I suppose one could argue that Dallas became just that in 1978, but even J.R. Ewing had more redeeming qualities than Madame Sin.

Before a decision has been made on the Madame Sin TV series, Bette Davis starred in another made-for-TV movies that also served as a pilot. The Judge and Jake Wyler boasted a more conventional premise with Bette playing a retired judge who becomes a private investigator. Her titular partner is an ex-con serving probation (Doug McClure). It wasn't picked up as a regular series either.

Ironically, Robert Wagner later played another character who would work for an evil villain bent on world domination. Yes, he starred as Dr. Evil's right-hand man, No. 2, in three of the Austin Powers movies.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Jack Arnold's "It Came From Outer Space"

Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush.
On a cool evening outside Sand Rock, Arizona, amateur astronomer John Putnam and his girlfriend Ellen watch a meteor crash into the desert. The pair and a pilot friend are the first to arrive at the newly-formed crater. John ventures into the rubble and--to his astonishment--finds the door to a spaceship. No one believes his story, especially since there is no sign of a spaceship when the authorities later investigate the meteor site.

However, it's not long before some of the townspeople begin to act strangely, speaking in a robotic monotone. John learns that alien lifeforms have taken selected humans hostage and replicated their human form. The aliens claim that they pose no threat to Earth at this time. They landed on it inadvertently and just want to repair their ship and depart. But are they telling the truth?

An example of Arnold's visual flair.
Made in 1953, It Came From Outer Space is a seminal science fiction film from the mind of Ray Bradbury. It was also the first sci fi film directed by Jack Arnold, who would go on to helm other 1950s genre classics: Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the CreatureThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and Tarantula. It was also one of the most successful 3D films, back when the then-new technology was launched in response to the movie industry's fear of television. (Arnold also shot Creature and its first sequel in 3D).

Like Arnold, star Richard Carlson also became known for his many sci fi films (Creature, The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars, The Maze, and The Power). I never found Carlson to be an exciting actor, but he is well-cast as an everyman in It Came From Outer Space. He projects quiet strength as Putnam, an intelligent writer who has to ignore his detractors because he knows what he saw. (Putnam's path isn't an easy one...even the local newspaper features the headline "Stargazer Sees Martians.")

Is it Russell Johnson or an alien?
Much has been written about who deserves credit for the story and screenplay: Bradbury, who penned the film treatment, or Harry Essex, who was listed as the screenwriter. Bill Warren, who authored the superb sci fi film encyclopedia Keep Watching the Skies, makes a compelling case for Bradbury based on his examination of Ray's own archives. The story's strongest elements are its eerie desert setting (which was mostly created in a studio) and the aliens who, for once, aren't intent on taking over Earth. That doesn't mean that the aliens are friendly; indeed, one of them tries to kill Putnam even though he insists he is not a threat.

Arnold avoids showing the aliens for most of the film. Instead, he employs the now-familiar technique of showing their first-person perspective (whereby the audience sees what the aliens do). However, the studio insisted that the one-eyed Xenamorphs (the aliens were named in the advertising only) ultimately be shown. They aren't very frightening.

A well-dressed alien!
The influence of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evident from the opening sounds of the theramin on the soundtrack. While It Came From Outer Space may be important historically in the sci fi film genre, it lacks the power and timeless quality of that earlier movie. Still, it makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking 81 minutes. 

The 1996 made-for-TV It Came From Outer Space II purports to be a sequel, but is actually an unimpressive, unnecessary remake. A more interesting 1970 TV movie Night Slaves, although based on a novel by Jerry Sohl, boasts a similar plot.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The China Syndrome—More Than a Conspiracy Thriller

Jane Fonda as Kimberly.
Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), an ambitious reporter for an L.A. television station, wants to be a serious journalist. Instead, her condescending boss has given her “puff pieces”—stories about singing telegrams and tiger birthday parties at the zoo. Another routine assignment, a documentary about the nearby Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, is at least a little more promising.

However, when Kimberly and her crew tour the plant, they observe an “event” that throws the control room personnel into a brief panic. California Gas and Electric, which owns the plant, explains away the incident as a “routine turbine trip.” Kimberly and her photographer-friend Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are convinced they witnessed a radiation leak—which Richard secretly filmed. To their dismay, the TV station manager quashes the story on legal grounds.

Jack Lemmon as Godell.
An angry Richard steals the film, while Kimberly has an encounter with Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), one of the plant’s supervisors. Initially, Godell adamantly insists the incident was a routine one. However, the more he thinks about it, the more he becomes convinced that the plant may be in danger of a meltdown.

Made in 1979, The China Syndrome is a film that works as a “no nukes” statement, an examination of journalism ethics, and a conspiracy thriller. Not surprisingly, it was poorly received by nuclear power plant companies that felt it promoted the likelihood of a real-like nuclear incident. In actuality, The China Syndrome plays it fair by explaining all the protocols in place to prevent such catastrophes. The irony, though, is that the Three Mile Island incident occurred just months after the film’s release. As a result, the movie and the real-life accident are now forever linked and no doubt negatively impacted the growth of nuclear power stations in the U.S.

Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.
From a journalism perspective, the key issue is the public’s right to know. When Kimberly and Richard push to broadcast a story about the first incident, we see the energy company’s PR head talking with the TV station’s manager. The implication is that the company wants to kill the story. However, the station manager’s rationale is that federal law prohibits filming inside a nuclear facility. That’s a pretty good reason given the possible lawsuits and potential for criminal charges against the station and its personnel. However, from an ethical perspective, it’s a complex issue because the public surely has a right to know if it’s in danger. The station manager’s best course of action would have been to have an expert view the Richard proposes and does.

Finally, The China Syndrome turns into a conspiracy thriller during its third act. Faced with losing almost $500,000 a day, the energy company takes extreme measures to prevent Godell from exposing a cover-up during an investigation of the first accident. There are wild car chases and an intense climax in which a key character struggles to explain the truth before being silenced.

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon bring earnestness and urgency to their performances. It’s apparent that Kimberly and Godell make a connection when they first meet in a bar. As we learn more about them, we discover that both are lonely people whose lives revolve around their professions. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards and earned top acting honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Michael Douglas produced The China Syndrome as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Richard Dreyfus was originally cast as Jane Fonda’s cameraman colleague. When he had to withdraw from the production, Douglas assumed the role.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Swingin' Summer Swings No More

I suspect that many of you have experienced the disappoint-ment of re-watching a once-cherished movie that has been tarnished by time. I wouldn't classify A Swinging' Summer as a "cherished" movie, but there was a time in my youth when I found it to be a pleasing entertainment. Thus, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime, I was enthused about seeing it again. Oh, woe!

The plot is not the problem since many Beach Party knock-offs of the 1960s were held together with string, sealing wax, and other fancy stuff. Rick, his girlfriend Cindy, and his pal Mickey plan to work at a Lake Arrowhead dance pavilion during their college summer break. They don't even reach their destination before they hear on the radio that the pavilion will not open. Undeterred, Rick proposes that the trio take charge and run it themselves. After all, Rick happens to have a friend who is a talent agent. Surely, they have enough money between them to stage the first dance.

William Wellman Jr. & Quinn O'Hara.
As it turns out, they need a lot more cash upfront! Without telling Rick, Cindy has her rich dad guarantee the finances. However, Rick turns into a workaholic, so Cindy flirts with a lifeguard who looks like trouble. Meanwhile, Mickey encounters a pretty scholar (Raquel Welch) who decides she wants to study him. There's a big fight between Rick and the lifeguard. And, oh yeah, there's a lot of music.

Frankly, the music is pretty good, but we'll get to that in a minute. The problem is that the viewer has to suffer through 50 minutes of the picture's 80-minute running time before the rock'n'roll shifts into high gear. As the film's star, William Wellman, Jr., the famed director's son, makes Frankie Avalon look like Ronald Colman. He has no screen charisma and it's hard to fathom why Cindy doesn't dump her crappy boyfriend and just stay with the lifeguard. (Yes, I admit that I sometimes wondered why Annette didn't drop Frankie, but he had some charm...and could sing!) Wellman, Jr. even looks pathetic in the big fight scene with the lifeguard, which is horribly staged and goes on for far too long.

Quinn O'Hara.
Scottish-born redhead Quinn O'Hara is pleasant enough as the female lead. She later had a small part in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, the last Beach Party movie. She did lots of TV in the 1960s and allegedly dated Frank Sinatra and Fabian in real life. Her other co-star, James Stacy, is best remembered for the Western TV series Lancer and for marrying Connie Stevens and later Kim Darby. His acting career was temporarily derailed when he lost an arm and leg in a motorcycle accident. He staged a remarkable comeback, but it was short-lived and he was later convicted of child molestation. Stacy served six years in the prison in Chino, California. That incident casts a dark cloud over his lighthearted scenes.

Despite its amateurish build-up, A Swingin' Summer ends on a high note with musical performances by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Rip Chords, Raquel Welch, and The Righteous Brothers. I had forgotten how successful Gary Lewis's band was--it charted twelve Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That's actually the same number as The Righteous Brothers, who are better remembered today. The duo sing "Justine" in A Swingin' Summer, which was not a hit. However, its follow-up on the chart was the iconic "Unchained Melody."

A studious Raquel Welch.
A Swingin' Summer was Raquel Welch's third film and provided her biggest role to date. She wouldn't get to demonstrate her modest singing talents in another movie. However, she later earned good reviews for her Vegas act and for replacing Lauren Bacall on Broadway in the musical Applause. Incidentally, Raquel was on her way to stardom when A Swingin' Summer was released overseas. So, the film's title was changed to La Calda Notte, which translates to The Hot Night and features Raquel alone on the poster.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Andy Griffith

Andy in No Time for Sergeants.
1. Andy Griffith's first major success was a comic monologue called "What It Was, Was Football," in which a country preacher accidentally attends an American football game--having never seen one--and tries to describe it. It became a regional hit and was picked up for national distribution by Capitol Records. The single reached No. 9 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. Andy is credited as Deacon Andy Griffith on the single's label; the "B" side is his countrified version of Romeo and Juliet.

2. In 1955, he appeared in "No Time for Sergeants," a one-hour episode of The U.S. Steel Hour adapted by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) from Mac Hyman's novel. Levin expanded his teleplay into a stage success that also starred Griffith, who received a Tony nomination. The Broadway cast also included Don Knotts! When Warner Bros. decided to turn No Time for Sergeants into a film, Griffith and Knotts retained their roles.

The serious side in A Face in the Crowd.
3. To convince Elia Kazan that he was the right actor to play Lonesome Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd (1957), Griffith did an impersonation of Oral Roberts conducting a healing. Kazan hired him the next day.

4. Andy Griffith first appeared as Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry, in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show that aired in the show's seventh season in 1960. It was titled "Danny Meets Andy Griffith" and served as a "backdoor pilot" for The Andy Griffith Show. Andy's new show debuted later that year. During its first season, Andy portrayed a variation of his country bumpkin from No Time for Sergeants. That changed in the second season when he became the straight man and other Mayberry characters, such as Don Knott's Barney's Fife, provided the comedy.

5. After leaving Mayberry behind, Andy Griffith tried several times to launch a new TV series as a serious small town sheriff. His first attempt was Winter Kill, a 1970 ABC Movie of the Week which cast Andy as Sheriff Sam McNeill. The plot concerned a sniper killing the residents of a small resort town. It doubled as a pilot for TV series. Although it didn't result in a regular show, Andy did play a different sheriff of a small resort town in the 1975 TV series Adams of Eagle Lake. It only lasted two episodes. In 1977, he played Abel Marsh, the police chief of another small town, in two telefilms: The Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game. If the character's name sounds familiar, that's because James Garner played Abel Marsh in the 1972 theatrical film They Only Kill Their Masters.

With Rob Reiner in Headmaster.
6. It's easy to forget that Andy's post-Mayberry career included two other short-lived TV series. In Headmaster (1970), he played the head of a private school in California. It lasted for 14 episodes on CBS. In January 1971, its time slot was taken by The New Andy Griffith Show, in which Andy starred as a big city guy who moved his family to small town to become its mayor. Lee Meriwether portrayed his wife. It lasted just ten episodes. Of course, as we all know, he eventually found great television success again with Matlock (1986-95).

7. In a 2018 interview, Karen Knotts, Don's daughter, spoke about Andy Griffith: "He was very friendly to me; he was like an uncle. He had different sides. You could see that sometimes he would be intense and other times very, very warm and endearing. One thing I will tell you, and one thing that is different from what has been written in books, was that Andy was never jealous of my dad. He was his biggest fan and mentor. Everything later he was in, he wanted to get my dad in, too. He was in my dad’s corner."

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2019)

Ronald Colman and Elke Sommer.
Never played before? Here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1.  The Satan Bug and Homicidal.

2.  Shirley Eaton and Christopher Lee (other than James Bond).

3.  Patrick O'Neal and Vincent Price.

4.  Dean Jones and Lon Chaney, Jr.

5.  The Day of the Triffids and Thunder Rock.

6.  Cary Grant and Tom Hanks.

7.  Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner.

8.  Raquel Welch and Kathryn Grant (aka Mrs. Bing Crosby).

9.  Where Eagles Dare and the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

10. Warren Beatty and Robin Williams.

11. Ronald Colman and Peter Finch.

12. Ronald Colman and Elke Sommer.

13.  Riding High and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

14.  Ray Danton and James Coburn.

15.  Cuban Rebel Girls and The Big Boodle (an easy one!).

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Quatermass 2 (Enemy from Space)

While returning to his observatory in rural England, physicist Bernard Quatermass narrowly avoids a car accident. The other vehicle stops and a delirious man emerges...with an unusual wound on his face. His wife claims he was burned by a falling piece of stone. After assisting the couple, Quatermass arrives at his science complex.

His staff is anxious to tell him about weird meteor-like objects falling throughout the countryside. Quatermass is in no mood to listen to anyone. He's deeply bitter after learning that his moon colony project has been unfunded. The next day, Quatermass connects the two incidents involving the falling rocks and decides to investigate with a colleague.

Discovering the dome city.
The duo discover that a nearby village has disappeared. In its place, they find a city of metallic domes that looks mighty similar to Quatermass's moon colony model. The landscape is also littered with the unusual rocks. When Quatermass's colleague picks one up, he suffers a facial burn. Within seconds, security personnel in gas masks appear and take away the injured man amid Quatermass's feeble protests.

It's difficult to describe the plot to Quatermass 2 (aka Enemy from Space), the superior 1957 sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). As Quatermass probes deeper into mysterious activities at the dome city, he uncovers a tangled conspiracy that involves members of the British government. (I love that government officials explain that the facility will end world hunger by manufacturing synthetic food--when its real mission threatens to end mankind's existence.)

Like the first Quatermass film and the later Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Quatermass 2 was based on a TV serial written by the brilliant Nigel Kneale. The TV version consisted of six 30-minute episodes, which provided more time to explore Kneale's central theme of an "invisible" enemy indistinguishable from the human race. (Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass 2 is considered by some critics to be a Cold War metaphor.)

A lingering image....
If the screenplay, penned by Kneale and director Val Guest, rushes the plot, Guest compensates by including some marvelous visuals. The Shell Haven Refinery in Essex was used as the setting for the mysterious plant. With its cold metallic structures, it provides a chilling, bleak backdrop to the action. And one scene, in which a dying man staggers down a metal staircase covered in a burning, black goo...let's just say it's a genuinely disturbing image that lingers long after the movie is over.

The miscast Donlevy.
The only thing preventing Quatermass 2 from taking its place among the best sci fi films of the 1950s is its star. Brian Donlevy, who played the lead in The Quatermass Xperiment reprises the role--and he reminded me of one of those emotionless pod people in Body Snatchers. He recites dialogue like a robot and never convinces the audience--not for a nanosecond--that he is a rocket scientist. In contrast, Quatermass and the Pit is the best Quatermass movie largely because of Andrew Keir's performance in the lead role (well, it also features a highly imaginative plot that mixes sci fi and horror).

Hammer horror fans will instantly recognize the music in the opening scene. It's a variation of James Bernard's Horror of Dracula score (which was reused in several other Hammer pictures).

This post is part of the 2nd Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon hosted by Cinema Catharsis and and Reelweegiemidget Reviews. Please check out the full blogathon schedule by searching for #HammerAmicusBlogathon on Twitter.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Capricorn One: Peter Hyams' Conspiracy Thriller

Moments before the launch of a manned mission to Mars, Capricorn One's three astronauts are secretly pulled from the rocket. Hidden from view, they are whisked away to a remote desert facility. As the empty rocket blasts off, the project director explains to the bewildered astronauts that he learned of a critical fault in their life support systems three weeks earlier.

The Capricorn One studio set.
With Congress already concerned about the Mars program's $24 billion price tag, certain individuals feared that a rocket launch cancellation could mean the end of federal funding. They made the decision to fake the mission. A recording of an earlier simulation would give the illusion that the astronauts were still on-board the rocket. However, it would be necessary for the three men to "act out" certain scenes, such as the Mars landing. That would be accomplished in a TV studio complete  with a Mars set and a replica of the landing module.

James Brolin's astronaut learns the truth.
When the astronauts refuse to go along with the massive deception, the project director expresses concern about the safety of their families: "There are people out there--forces out there--with a lot to lose." In other words, the three astronauts do not have a choice.

Made in 1977, Capricorn One is an entertaining thriller inspired by moon landing conspiracy theories. Writer-director Peter Hyams' central premise is that most people believe real-life events viewed through the lens of the news media. Therefore, if you could manipulate that media, then you could deceive the world. Hyams provides just enough detail to make his story work, such as the ingenious plan to send the space capsule off-course as it lands back on earth--thereby providing enough time to insert the astronauts into the capsule before the recovery team's arrival.

Elliott Gould trying to control his car.
Hyams propels the plot by cutting back-and-forth between the astronauts and a news reporter (Elliott Gould) who learns that something isn't right about the Mars mission. The latter storyline implies that the shadowy people behind the deception have limitless power and will stop at nothing--even murder. That leads to the film's two best scenes:  a nerve-racking sequence in which Gould can't stop his car as it speeds through crowded metropolitan streets and an aerial chase between a crop-dusting biplane and two military helicopters. (Parts of the car scene were later recycled in the TV series The Fall Guy.)

Capricorn One is what Hollywood moguls now call a high-concept film. As such, it doesn't require big stars and so the cast features actors like Gould (who worked with Hyams earlier in the comedy Busting), Hal Holbrook (the project leader), James Brolin (who heads the astronauts' team), Brenda Vaccaro (Brolin's wife), and O.J. Simpson (another astronaut). With the exception of Simpson, they all do solid work, which is all the script requires. It's worth noting that the cast includes both of Barbra Streisand's husbands: She was married to Gould from 1963-71 and has been married to Brolin since 1998.

The real star of Capricorn One is writer-director Hyams, who takes an outrageous premise and makes you believe--if only for a moment--that it could happen. Incidentally, in regard to the cast, Hyams said in a 2014 interview in Empire: "O.J. Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

#5FaveSciFiFilms - Your 5 Favorite Science Fiction Films Tweetathon

What are your five favorite science fiction films?

That's the topic for our first tweetathon, which is sort of a blogathon for Twitter. If you would like to participate, just go to Twitter and send a tweet with your five film picks and the hashtag #5FaveSciFiFilms.

If you'll include our Twitter name @classic_film, we'll share your selections with over 13,000 other movie fans.

Of course, you don't need a Twitter account to participate. You can also join the fun by listing your picks on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform. Or, you can just leave a comment below with your five favorite science fictions films.

To get this event jump-started, here are our #5FaveSciFiFilms:

1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
2. Quatermass and the Pit (Five Million Years to Earth) (1967)
3. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
4. The Power (1968)
5. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Inspector Morse: The Remorseful Day

John Thaw as Morse.
This review contains spoilers!

When it debuted on the PBS anthology series Mystery! in 1987, Inspector Morse offered something different for American audiences: a grumpy, cynical detective who investigated homicides in contemporary Oxford, England. Morse was only the second "present-day" detective featured on Mystery! (preceded only by Dalgleish). Based on Colin Dexter's novels, the British-made Inspector Morse TV series consisted of 33 episodes produced between 1987 and 2000.

Morse (John Thaw) is a highly-intelligent, middle-aged bachelor who shares few interests with his colleagues. While they're passionate about soccer, he prefers opera, literature, crossword puzzles, and zipping around in his red Jaguar Mark 2. Granted, he does like his beer...but only the good stuff. Morse isn't above flirting with the opposite sex (including suspects), but he doesn't have much luck with enduring relationships.

Kevin Whately as Lewis.
His partner, Detective Sergeant Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately), is his antithesis--public school-educated, a family man, and interested in sports. (In one episode, Morse has Lewis go undercover as a cricket team player.) Yet, while they share few common interests, the duo respect and remain loyal to each other--even when Morse belittles Lewis for not knowing the name of a Wagner opera.

The series' last episode The Remorseful Day (2000) finds Morse on the verge of retirement as he copes with ulcers and an ailing heart. Lewis has graduated from "Inspector School" and is awaiting a vacancy so he can be promoted. Chief Superintendent Strange assigns Lewis to tail a recently-paroled burglar who may know something about an unsolved murder case from the previous year.

Morse, who turns out to have a personal interest in the case, starts his own investigation--much to Lewis's dismay. However, the two detectives team up when the former burglar and a taxi driver, also connected to the murder, are found dead.

Lewis and Morse watching birds.
The Remorseful Day is a typically complex Morse mystery, but it also has grander ambitions. It serves as the final curtain call for a memorable TV detective. It's apparent early in the episode that Morse is ill-prepared for retirement. He tries his hand at bird-watching only to discover that Lewis knows more about the featured creatures than he does. (That said, his limited ornithological knowledge helps solve the murder case!)

Morse doesn't realize the identity of the killer until moments before he crumples to the ground from a heart attack. By the time Lewis arrests the murderer at the airport, Morse is already dead. His final words are not spoken to his partner, but to his sometime-nemesis Superintendent Strange: "Thank Lewis for me."

Morse and his beloved Jaguar.
Inspector Morse doesn't rank among my favorite British detective shows. Actually, I much prefer the spin-offs Inspector Lewis and Endeavor. But it was an influential series with superb performances from John Thaw and Kevin Whately. The former's nuanced acting subtly reveals a romantic buried behind Morse's grumpy, bitter façade. His relationship with Lewis is what makes the show work. Morse may criticize Lewis for his lack of culture, but the two detectives bring out the best in each other.

The Remorseful Day is a fitting goodbye--and one made with the show's fans in mind. Author Colin Dexter, who made cameos in almost all the episodes, can be glimpsed as a wheelchair-bound tourist. Barrington Pheloung, who composed the memorable music (also used for Endeavor), appears as a church choir conductor.

Here's the bird-watching scene referenced earlier, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Three-Word TV Series Game (May 2019)

The concept is the same here as with the Three-Word Movie Game. We will describe a TV series in three words and ask you to name it. Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play.

1. Nerd, pill, superhero.

2. Africa, veterinarian, lion.

3. Hotel, card, black.

4. Accountant, spy, lookalike.

5. Magazine, daydreams, cartoonist.

6. Nephew, butcher, architect.

7. Apartment, newlyweds, architect.

8. Gun, riverboat, gambler.

9. Jaguar, detective, opera.

10. Senator, physicians, attorneys.

11. Rich, poor, IRS.

12. Marineville, submarine, Phones.

13. Variety, Crosby, theatre.

14. Games, cars, Kennedy.

15. Songs, McCoo, dancers.

16. Trio, Himalayas, powers.

17. Father, lawyers, son.

18. Cone, shoes, robot.

19. Phone, butler, car.

20. Aliens, architect, finger.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Billy Wilder's Irma la Douce

Irma and her dog Coquette.
After ill-advisedly arresting eighteen Parisian prostitutes, the well-meaning Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon) is fired from his job as a policeman. He takes an interest in one of the streetwalkers, Irma la Douce (Shirley MacLaine), and defends her honor when her "manager" starts to get too rough. To everyone's surprise--including Nestor's--he wins a brawl against Irma's bad-mannered pimp.

Impressed with Nestor defending her honor, she takes him to her apartment and they become lovers. She also convinces Nestor to become her new manager. He's uncomfortable with the arrangement and considers getting a job, but Irma won't have it. She explains: "You don't want the other girls to think I can't support my man."

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
Determined to find a way to keep Irma off the streets, Nestor and a friend hatch a scheme. Nestor disguises himself as a wealthy British client, known as Lord X, who pays Irma $500 to play cards with him for two nights a week. She is thrilled with the arrangement! Nestor is pleased with the outcome, but now has to work secretly to earn the money to pay Irma. As his friend tells him, this is not a "sustainable economic model."

Irma la Douce (1963) and The Apartment (1960) share the same stars (Lemmon and MacLaine), director (Billy Wilder), and screenwriters (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Although Irma was based on a French play and a successful Broadway musical, Wilder no doubt saw it as a likely extension of The Apartment. In his earlier film, Jack Lemmon's insurance worker loans out his apartment to his business colleagues in hopes of getting a promotion. That's not the same as a pimp, but he indirectly uses sex for financial gain. He becomes displeased with the arrangement only after learning that a woman he likes (played by Shirley MacLaine) is having an affair with one of the executives using his apartment.

Lemmon as Lord X.
Yet, while The Apartment was a superb sophisticated comedy-drama, Irma la Douce is a broad comedy that works reasonably well. Lemmon and MacLaine are still magical together and the best scenes--such as when Irma casually invites Nestor to share her bed--are the ones in which they share the screen. She earned an Oscar nomination as the streetwalker with a penchant for green (even her underwear is green) and who considers her job a profession. (Amazingly, she was Wilder's third choice after Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor dropped out). As in Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon essentially gives two performances, as Nestor and as Lord X (he is virtually unrecognizable, in appearance and voice).

James Caan as a client.
Lou Jacobi headlines the supporting cast as Nestor's unlikely friend, a bartender with experiences in pretty much every field of work. Look quickly and you can also spot a number of now-familiar faces: Bill Bixby, James Caan, Howard McNear (Floyd on The Andy Griffith Show), and Grace Lee Whitney (Janet Rand on the original Star Trek TV series).

If the great Billy Wilder had a flaw as a director, it was editing his own screenplays. Like several of his later movies, Irma la Douce is inflated at a whopping 143 minutes. Wilder could have easily trimmed a half-hour without losing any plot or characterization.  It's also puzzling that he chose not to include the musical numbers from the Broadway hit--especially once the multitalented MacLaine was cast as the lead.

Of course, Shirley MacLaine did get a chance to show her singing and dancing chops six years later in Sweet Charity (1969). Although she played a dancer-for-hire (or taxi dancer), her character was based on the titular heroine of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria--who was a prostitute.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 5 Favorite Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Per its title, the goal is for each participant to list his or her five favorite films of the 1950s and explain why they deserve such an honor!

The 1950s is a decade filled with outstanding movies in a wide array of genres: epics (Ben-Hur), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Westerns (3:10 to Yuma), colorful musicals (Singin' in the Rain), intimate dramas (Marty), and laugh-out-loud comedies (The Court Jester).

It featured masterpieces from the world's greatest directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Ingmar Bergman, William Wyler, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Federico Fellini, and others.

If you don't have a blog and still want to participate, you can list your five favorite 1950s films on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media on National Classic Movie Day on May 16th.

The participants are listed below. Please check out each of their five favorite films of the 1950s. We guarantee that you'll enjoy reading the lists!

(Note: Due a last minute technical glitch, we may have omitted a couple of participating blogs. If you don't see your blog, please leave a comment and we will add it promptly!)

Another Old Movie Blog
Caftan Woman
Cinema Essentials
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Film Obsessions
Critica Retro
4 Star Films
The Flapper Dame
Hometowns to Hollywood
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Movie FanFare
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
A Person in the Dark
Realweegiemidget Reviews
Shadows and Satin
A Shroud of Thoughts
Silver Scenes
Silver Screen Classics
Silver Screenings
The Stop Button
The Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Totally Filmi
Twenty Four Frames
Various Ramblings of a Nostalgic Italian
Whimsically Classic
The Wonderful World of Cinema

Five Favorite Films of the 1950s--Toughest Blogathon Ever!

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day 2019, we're hosting the Five Favorite Films of the 1950s blogathon. Naturally, the Cafe staff is participating, too--but who knew it would be so brutal to whittle our favorite 1950s films down to a Top 5?

Sadly, we've been forced to omit many film faves! The fact is that the 1950s was a banner decade for cinema around the world. Alfred Hitchcock was at the peak of his career. Otto Preminger was breaking film censorship barriers. The wonders of real-life science inspired a number of science fiction movie classics. Colorful big screen musicals introduced new stars and provided worthy vehicles for existing ones. Great filmmakers in Europe and Japan emerged from the ashes of a world war.

Our selections below are our personal favorites, but we'd argue that one ranks with the greatest films of all time and the other four are iconic pictures that have withstood the test of time.

Kim Novak and James Stewart.
1. Vertigo (1958) – This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. I think it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart and Kim Novak), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Herrmann, and nifty Saul Bass titles. Like all great films, I glean something new from it or appreciate another facet every time I watch it. My last viewing reminded me just how brilliant James Stewart is in the lead. In a career filled with fine performances, I think Stewart does his best work as a typical Stewart “nice guy” who evolves into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.

Stewart as the defense attorney.
2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Gort--Hollywood's coolest robot.
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot in the history of cinema--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc. Its themes never fail to thrill me…making it much more exciting than any action-oriented sci fi film.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone.
4. The Court Jester (1956) – My favorite comedy is a spot-on, delightful spoof of swashbuckling films. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor). The supporting players are all at the top of their game, too. Basil Rathbone has a grand time parodying past roles such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Angela Lansbury displays a deft comedic touch, while Cecil Parker steals his scenes as the bored king whose only interest appears to be “wenches.” The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle which has the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in movie history?

Crosby and Kaye performing "Sisters."
5. White Christmas (1954) – There was a time when I grumbled because White Christmas was shown every Yuletide season while Holiday Inn (1942) only made sporadic appearances. Most critics consider the latter film, in which the song “White Christmas” was introduced, to be the superior musical. It was only after my wife and I acquired both films on video that I recognized the virtues of White Christmas. It’s a near-perfect blend of music and comedy, with the cast and crew at, or near, the peak of their careers. The dance numbers are staged energetically, with the highlight being Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dancing outside a nightclub to the melodic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney generate a more subdued, but no less effective, chemistry. Their duet “Count Your Blessings” was the big hit song from the film. The most effective pairing in the film, though, is the one between Crosby and Kaye. They’re a sensational team, whether doing musical numbers or comedy (their version of “Sisters”, done originally as a joke on the set, is hysterically funny).

Be sure to check out the 1950s film favorites from all the other blogs in this blogathon by clicking here to view the full schedule.

Monday, May 13, 2019

David Niven Says Bonjour Tristesse to Deborah Kerr

Jean Seberg and David Niven.
Seventeen-year-old Cecile and her wealthy, widower father split their time between Paris and the French Riveria. Their goal in life is to have fun. The middle-aged Raymond (David Niven) woos young attractive women, keeps them around for a few months, and then discards them. Cecile (Jean Seberg) likes the company of handsome, young men, but she also has no intent of fostering a relationship. Why should she? She has her father and that is all she needs.

Their world gets turned upside down when Raymond invites Anne, a friend of Cecile's deceased mother, for an extended visit at their coastal summer home. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a strong, self-assured woman with a successful career as a fashion designer. She resists Raymond's obvious charms, which only makes her more attractive to him. Cecile quickly develops a love-hate relationship with Anne, who provides stability in the midst of the "fun first" chaos.

Jean Seberg as Cecile.
Everything changes again when Raymond falls in love with Anne and proposes marriage. Cecile decides that the nuptials cannot take place and develops an elaborate scheme to break up Raymond and Anne. Her actions set into motion an inevitable tragedy.

Author Francoise Sagan was nineteen-years-old when she wrote the then-scandalous novel Bonjour Tristesse in 1954. It quickly became a bestseller and attracted the attention of Otto Preminger. The famed director had completed Saint Joan, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play about Joan of Arc, in 1957. The picture and its star, an unknown named Jean Seberg, had been skewered by the critics.

One suspects that the controversial subject matter of Bonjour 
Tristesse--the film vaguely hints at an incestuous father-daughter relationship--drew Preminger's interest. After all, he never shied away from controversy in films like The Moon Is Blue, The Man With the Golden Arm, and the later Anatomy of a Murder. The challenge with the film version of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is that, despite two classy leads, a beautiful setting, and plenty of style, the story and characters are simply too shallow.

David Niven as Raymond.
As played by Jean Seberg, Cecile is a petulant brat and her father lacks any parenting skills. When Anne tells Cecile to study for her exams, the latter pouts and appeals to her father. He takes the easy way out by siding with Anne. From that point on, Cecile spends all her time plotting an exit for Anne.

Preminger frames the film so that Cecile tells the story in flashback as she reflects on the emptiness of her and Raymond's lives. To emphasize the impending tragedy, the "current day" scenes are shown in harsh black & white while the flashbacks with Anne are in color, apparently signaling happier times.

Deborah Ker as Anne.
Deborah Kerr gives the best performance by virtue of having the most interesting role. Anne is a character to be admired for being practical while surrounded by a sea of frivolity. However, at the same time, she is not wholly likable and is quick to jump at conclusions. When she sees Cecile and her boyfriend passionately kissing, her reaction is to ban Cecile from seeing the young man.

While Bonjour Tristesse flopped at the box office, all the principals recovered nicely. Preminger made Anatomy of a Murder--arguably his best film--in 1959. David Niven won an Best Actor Oscar for Separate Tables that same year. Deborah Kerr co-starred with Cary Grant in one of her most famous pictures, An Affair to Remember, in 1957. And Jean Seberg became a French icon with her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave masterpiece Breathless in 1960.

For the record, Bonjour Tristesse translates to "hello sadness." Juliette Greco warbles a woeful, depressing song of the same title during one of the opening scenes.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Albert Finney Hunts Wolfen in NYC

Albert Finney and friend.
For years, I felt an irresistible impulse to indulge in Albert Finney's two 1980 horror/sci fi films whenever they were available. I finally got over the urge to watch Looker after reviewing it for this blog a few years ago. It's a terrible movie and I think that documenting that in writing "cured" me. That brings us to Finney's other 1980 film, Wolfen, which I recently discovered on Vudu...and ended up watching, of course.

The film opens with the vicious early morning murders of a rich industrialist, his wife, and their chauffeur in a New York City park. A high tech security firm and the police suspect that it's the work of a terrorist group. However, detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is puzzled by the nature of the savage wounds, missing body organs, and a hair from an unidentified animal. When a similar hair is found on the body of a dead bum in the slums, Dewey concludes that the two crimes must somehow be related.

A rundown church is the setting for one of the best scenes.
Wolfen unravels effectively for most of its 113 minute running time as Dewey gradually connects the pieces of the puzzle. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, including a group of Native Americans suggesting that shape-shifters may be at work. But make no mistake, Wolfen is not about werewolves. To its credit, it has loftier ambitions--even if it ultimately fails to achieve them.

The film's biggest challenge is its gaps in narrative structure. This is not surprising considering that director Michael Wadleigh delivered a 4 1/2 hour cut of Wolfen and was promptly removed from the post-production process. It may explain why we never learn the destiny of a dog that accompanied the couple in the opening scene or why Dewey goes to a bar to have Edward James Olmos painstakingly explain the film's premise to him. The latter is especially awkward; I felt ripped off being given the answer after spending so much of Wolfen trying to figure out what was going on. Still, things like that are bound happen when you leave over two hours of edited footage on the cutting room floor.

Gregory Hines.
Finney and his co-star Diane Venora never flesh out their characters and their one-night stand is superfluous to the plot. Perhaps, the blame can once again be attributed to the lost footage and not the actors. Gregory Hines, on the other hand, is excellent as a potato chip-eating medical examiner whose decision to help Finney's detective results in more bloodshed. Incidentally, one of the first victims is played by Anne Marie Pohtamo, who won the the Miss Universe title in 1975 (she was Miss Finland). She only appeared in one other film role.

Director Wadleigh avoids showing the Wolfen for most of the film. Instead, he relies on the old trick of showing us what the creatures see. To inject some additional visual interest, he uses a process similar to thermal imaging. It's an effective technique at first, but wears thin about the fifth time he employs it. To Wadleigh's credit, though, when we finally see the Wolfen (after about 80 minutes), it's a tense scene and the creatures are impressive-looking.

Anne Marie Pohtamo.
The screenplay was loosely based on Whitley Streiber's 1978 debut novel The Wolfen. Streiber's story is more streamlined (no terrorist plot) and I suspect it works better than the ambitious, but flawed, film adaptation.

Wolfen is the the only fictional film directed by Michael Wadleigh. His other films are documentaries, though one is pretty famous. It's called Woodstock.