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.

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Delphi Bureau

Glenn Garth Gregory is a reluctant spy.
Laurence Luckinbill.

He believes he was hired to do research for a government agency called the Delphi Bureau. Of course, the bureau has no street address and possibly no other employees. Glenn (Laurence Luckinbill) receives his assignments from Washington, D.C. socialite Sybil Van Loween (Celeste Holm). Unlike the men from U.N.C.L.E. and even Maxwell Smart, Glenn doesn't carry a weapon of any sort. He relies on his photographic memory--which he employs in McGyver-like fashion to get out of tight spots.

Cameron Mitchell as a baddie.
In the 1972 pilot film, the theft of surplus government jets sends Glenn to the small town of Lotus, Kansas, to investigate Buttercup Farms. Glenn suspects that the farm's owner, a former arms dealer, is using a feed-the-hungry program as a cover for the illegal sales. It's not long before the Delphi Bureau agent gets framed for murder and chased through cornfields by Cameron Mitchell on a tractor. Yes, there's a little bit of North By Northwest in The Delphi Bureau--just no Hitch and no Cary Grant.

The Delphi Bureau is a watchable made-for-TV adventure that relies heavily on Laurence Luckinbill’s charms and its supporting cast of familiar faces. Fortunately, those are two good reasons to view it. While never achieving major stardom, Luckinbill forged a moderately successful acting career on stage (the original Boys in the Band), film (playing Spock’s half-brother in Star Trek: The Final Frontier), and television. He has been married to Lucie Arnaz since 1980.

Dub Taylor as a farmer.
The supporting cast features Bradford Dillman (one of TV's busiest actors in the 1970s), Cameron Mitchell (Buck on The High Chaparral), and Bob Crane. Dean Jagger and Dub Taylor, who appeared together in the 1961 Troy Donahue soap Parrish, have small roles. Taylor has a delightful cameo as an applejack-drinking farmer who picks up Gregory while the latter is trying to elude a posse.

The female lead is Joanna Pettet, another TV veteran, whom I have always found a bit lacking in warmth. Her cool demeanor is used well in The Delphi Bureau as it prevented me from ascertaining if she was duplicitous or not until the closing scenes.

Joanna Pettet.
Pettet led an interesting life offscreen. She visited her close friend Sharon Tate on the day of Tate's murder. Pettet was married to Alex Cord for 21 years; their adult son died of a drug overdose. She and British actor Alan Bates became close friends in the mid-1960s and lived together as companions during the last years of his life.

As for The Delphi Bureau, it spawned a 1972-73 television series which became one of the three rotating elements of The Men (what an awful title!). The other two series were Assignment Vienna with Robert Conrad and Jigsaw starring James Wainwright. Celeste Holm, who was used sparingly in The Delphi Bureau pilot, did not appear in the series.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Alternate TV Series Title Game (Volume 4)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic television series and ask you to name the actual show. 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! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description. 

1. A Town in Wyoming.

2. A Very Difficult Assignment.

3. Bruce the Ocelot. 

4. Urban Cowboy Detective.

5. Sterling Ladles.

6. Three Men, Technology, and the Man Who Was Penguin.

7. A Lot of Frosty Money.

8. Amanda and the Guy from Oz.  

9. The Mrs. Beasley Show. 

10. Sally and Husband.

11. Not Spying...Stealing.

12. Malloy & Reed.

13. No Brag, Just Fact.

14. Groovy Cops.

15. Texan Attorney.

Monday, June 21, 2021

James Stewart Sings--and Plays the Accordion--in Night Passage

Night Passage (1957) should have been the sixth Western starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann. The duo's earlier collaborations included some of the finest Westerns ever made (e.g., Winchester '73, Bend of the River). However, according to Jeanine Basinger's biography Anthony Mann, the director withdrew from the picture at the last minute because he felt the script was weak. Mann's decision created a rift between James Stewart and him, and the pair never worked together again. Journeyman director James Neilson took over the movie.

The opening scenes of Night Passage play like a classic Mann Western. Stewart stars as Grant McLaine, who makes his living by playing the accordion after being fired by the railroad five years earlier. It turns out that Grant, who was responsible for the railroad's security, let an outlaw named The Utica Kid ride away. Now, however, the railroad's boss (Jay C. Flippen) wants to re-hire Grant to stop a gang that's been stealing the company's payrolls on a regular basis.

De Wilde, Stewart, and accordion.
As in earlier Mann Westerns, colorful characters abound. Miss Vittles (Olive Carey) is a sly old lady who follows around gold prospectors like a mobile chuckwagon business. Paul Fix plays a worker sandwiched between his wife (Ellen Corby) and one of the "professional ladies" in the railroad camp. Brandon De Wilde, who played the youth Joey in Shane, plays another Joey here.

Alas, most of these characters are quickly forgotten when Grant agrees to guard the latest payroll train. To no one's surprise, the outlaw gang attacks the train, but can't find the money. So, they kidnap the railroad boss's wife and hold her for a ransom of $10,000. Grant, who has cleverly hidden the payroll with Joey, gets hit on the head and left for dead. He's just fine, though, and sets out to recover the money and free the hostage.

Night Passage is a solid Western, but it's also not a very memorable one. Although written by veteran Western screenwriter Borden Chase, it lacks the overarching themes (e.g., redemption, family, civilization, etc.) that elevated the Mann-Stewart films. There are also too many characters jammed into the story, leaving some of the cast stuck with stereotypes--in particular, Dianne Foster as the "good girl" and Dan Duryea's as the psychotic outlaw leader.

Audie Murphy as Utica.
Then, there is the miscasting of Audie Murphy as The Utica Kid and James Stewart's accordion. Murphy was at the peak of his acting career, so his hiring probably made sense from a box office perspective. However, The Utica Kid is an ambitious, quick-witted cynic with conflicted morals. That clashes with Murphy's established earnest on-screen persona and he lacks the acting chops to pull off the role. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't appear until 35 minutes into the 90-minute movie.

That brings us to the aforementioned accordion. James Stewart plays the accordion (as he did as a youth) and sings in Night Passage (although his accordion playing was dubbed over by a professional). If you want to hear Stewart crooning songs like "You Can't Get Far Without a Railroad" (with music by Dimitri Tiomkin), then Night Passage is required viewing. To be honest, the legendary star can carry a tune, though it's understandable why he didn't become a singer. The accordion, though, is another matter. Stewart's character has to lug it all over the Wild West--on his horse, on the train, on his back. The only reason seems to be so he can play a familiar family tune for Utica--who turns out to be his brother.

The challenge with a movie like Night Passage is imagining how good it could have been. With Anthony Mann's directing, a key casting change, a better screenplay, and less accordion playing, it might have ranked with the best Westerns of the 1950s.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The 1970s was a fantastic decade for gritty, urban crime dramas. Audiences were treated to fine films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Seven-Ups, The French ConnectionDirty Harry, and, of course, The Godfather. A lesser-known movie that could be included in that group is Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, featuring Robert Mitchum in his best performance of the '70s (though he's also excellent in The Yakuza).

Richard Jordan as an ATF agent.
Mitchum plays Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a mid-tier criminal in Boston who's facing a 3-5 year prison sentence for driving a truck of stolen goods. A weary middle-aged thug with a family, Eddie will do almost anything to avoid another jail term. Looking for a way out, he meets with an ambitious ATF agent (Richard Jordan) who promises to "do something" for him if Eddie will turn informant.

There's not a lot of plot to The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is more concerned with its characters and its portrait of the Boston underworld. Mitchum portrays Eddie as an experienced criminal, aware of his limitations, who operates within his own ethics. For example, Eddie is willing to snitch on a gun dealer, but he won't provide evidence on the man who hired him to drive the truck. You just don't squeal on the guy that gives you a job.

Steven Keats as a gun dealer.
Mitchum receives exceptional support from his castmates, especially Jordan, Peter Boyle, and Steven Keats. Jordan portrays his ATF agent as an opportunist whose morals are marginally better than the bad guys he pursues. While Peter Boyle appears in just a handful of scenes, he commands the screen as the criminal equivalent of a double agent--he sells out his fellow felons to Jordan while concurrently working as a hired killer for clients like "The Man." However, the film's best supporting performance belongs to Steven Keats, who plays a bottom-of-the-heap gun dealer named Jackie Brown. An ambitious hustler, Jackie is smarter than he first appears--though that doesn't save him in the end. Surprisingly, Keats' work didn't further his career in terms of major movies, though he was a busy TV actor. As you may surmised, Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name "Jackie Brown" for his 1997 movie.

Director Peter Yates lovingly captures the bars, dives, bowling alleys, and deserted buildings where Eddie and his fellow criminals operate. He imbues the film with an urban urgency that lingers after the final scene. (My only issue with the settings is one that's not unique to Eddie Coyle--I'm always flummoxed when characters discuss crimes in public places where they could be easily overheard!) Yates also inserts two tense bank robbery sequences that nicely offset the film's more dialogue-driven scenes. Still, it's one of those talky scenes that provides a memorable exchange between Mitchum and Keats, in which Eddie tries to share his experiences with the younger "operator."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle had been on my "watch list" for many years. I only recently discovered a DVD copy at a local library. I was concerned that my expectations would lead to disappointment--but that was not the case. It's a well-written, well-acted crime drama that falls just short of being included among the best of the 1970s. Still, that's high praise considering the quality of crime genre films during that decade.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Burt Reynolds' Unofficial Remake of a Film Noir Classic

Burt Reynolds as Sharky.
After placing a civilian in harm's way, big city detective Tom Sharky is "demoted" from narcotics to vice. It's intended to be a humdrum assignment, but that changes quickly when Sharky (Burt Reynolds) confiscates a list of seven coded phone numbers from an affluent pimp. One number belongs to a murder victim; Sharky is directed take no action on a second number. That's the one that interests him, of course, and it belongs to a high-class prostitute named Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Sharky and a fellow vice detective bug Dominoe's apartment and learn she is having an affair with a politician running for state governor. Convinced there is a link to the earlier murder, Sharky conducts 24-hour surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. He also begins to follow her and slowly develops an infatuation with the beautiful call girl. That comes to an end, though, when she answers the doorbell one morning and is shot in the face with a shotgun.

If you don't already recognize the plot to a famous 1940s film noir, then stop reading this review now because spoilers lie ahead.

Although it was based on a 1978 novel by William Diehl, Sharky's Machine borrows its premise largely from Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). In both films, a detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is believed to be murdered--only to turn out to be alive. The key difference is that Dana Andrews' detective in Laura falls for a woman he believes is dead. At least, Sharky's obsession is about a "real" woman.

Rachel Ward as Dominoe.
Sharky's Machine could have been a dark mystery with disturbing overtones. Let's be honest, Dana Andrews' character in Laura wasn't that far removed from James Stewart's over-the-edge protagonist in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The problem with Sharky's Machine is that its star--who also directed--doesn't know how to make anything but a Burt Reynolds movie. With his trademark mustache and sly smile, Burt portrays Sharky as a conventional detective who plays tough with the boys and tough-tender with the ladies. The scene where a coy Sharky flirts with Dominoe and then carries her to bed is painful to watch.

Bernie Casey as Sharky's pal.
Reynolds surrounds himself with a capable supporting cast, but gives most of them little to do. It's sad to see a fine actor like Brian Keith relegated to a bit part (but it's also likely he wasn't in demand at that point in his career). Rachel Ward is gorgeous as Dominoe but struggles in a poorly-written part. She showed off her acting prowess two years later in The Thornbirds miniseries. As Reynolds' vice squad partner, Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) delivers the most believable performance.

To his credit, Reynolds tries to tweak his standard formula by setting the action in Atlanta (instead of NYC or Chicago) and incorporating a jazz soundtrack with songs by Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, and others. Personally, I didn't care for the score, but I chalk that up solely to personal taste.

Burt Reynolds initially asked John Boorman to direct, but the filmmaker was still working on Excalibur. Based on his earlier success in the crime movie genre (see Point Blank), I am sure Boorman could have delivered a far superior film. It's easy to speculate on what Sharky's Machine might have been. The reality is that Reynolds' variation on Laura is nothing more than a passable time-filler if you've got nothing else to do.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Jack Lemmon Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Jack Lemmon 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. Meltdown.

2. Tenderfoot.

3. Homage.

4. Enter!

5. The Witches of Greenwich Village.

6. Josephine and Daphne.

7. The Legend of Whiplash Willie.

8. Some Days You Win, Some Days You Lose. (This might be a hard one!)

9. Love and Gin Rummy.

10. Lobsters on a Train!

11. The Disappearance of Flight 23.

12. Ex-Presidents.

13. New York Ain't For Everyone!

14. The Leslie Special vs. The Hannibal Twin-8.

15. Father Tim.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Van Cleef Seeks Revenge; Holden Steals Cattle!

Lee Van Cleef as Ryan.
Death Rides a Horse (1967).  As young Bill Meceita watches a vicious outlaw gang slaughter his family, he notes a distinguishing feature on each killer--a scar, an earring, a tattoo, a spur. Two decades later, a dead cowboy provides a key clue that reignites Bill's desire to avenge his family. As he tracks down the villains, he keeps encountering a man named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Recently paroled, the older Ryan has his own reasons for finding the same outlaws. Inevitably, Ryan and Bill team up to take down the outlaw's gang leader, who has become a successful (albeit crooked) businessman.

John Philip Law as Bill.
Like the previous year's blockbuster The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Death Rides a Horse was written Luciano Vincenzoni, features music by Ennio Morricone, and, of course, stars Van Cleef. Thematically, though, it shares more in common with Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965). Each film features two men pursuing the same villain independently, though they eventually have to team up to accomplish their goal. Some film critics have claimed the two Spaghetti Westerns also share a mentor-protégé premise. That may be true of Death Rides a Horse, but Van Cleef's ex-colonel and Clint Eastwood's bounty hunter do not fit that mold in For a Few Dollars More

In the hands of director Giulio Petroni, Death Rides a Horse is an above-average Spaghetti Western punctuated with a handful of well-staged shootouts. The relationship between Ryan and Bill (John Philip Law) is well-developed, though the big twist is obvious from the moment Ryan is shown on screen. 

Unlike Eastwood, who moved back to Hollywood after his Spaghetti Western hits, Van Cleef remained in Europe until the late 1970s. His most successful non-Leone Western was probably Sabata (1969), though Death Rides a Horse has attained cult status over the years.

Alvarez Kelly (1966).  During the American Civil War, cattleman Alvarez Kelly delivers a herd of steers to the Union Army, who needs beef to feed its troops. However, Kelly barely has time to count his profits before he's kidnapped by the Confederates. They want him to help them steal the cattle for their troops!

Loosely based on a real-life event called the Beefsteak Raid, Alvarez Kelly squanders a promising premise and a strong cast. The film's central focus seems to be the relationship between the apathetic Kelly (William Holden) and a passionate Confederate colonel (Richard Widmark). To drive a deeper wedge between the men, the script includes a hasty subplot in which Kelly helps the colonel's fiancée (a poorly-utilized Janice Rule) escape from the surrounded Virginia capital of Richmond. Despite this, the audience is led to believe that Kelly and the colonel can still become "frenemies."

Standard fare like Alvarez Kelly and Paris When It Sizzles (1964) stifled Holden's career in the mid-1960s. Fortunately, it got a huge shot in the arm when Sam Peckinpah cast Holden as the lead in The Wild Bunch (1969). Richard Widmark wasn't as lucky, though he got a juicy role as an NYC detective in Madigan (1968) and its belated TV series (which aired under one of NBC's Mystery Movies in 1972-73).

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Celebrate National Classic Movie Day with the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon!


Tomorrow marks the celebration of National Classic Movie Day and, as is tradition, we're hosting a blogathon to highlight this annual May 16th event. This year, we're asking classic movie bloggers to list one favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s (or, one film per decade from the 1930s through the 1980s). Our goal is to shine the spotlight on the incredible movies that were made during cinema's classic era.

Thirty of our favorite movie bloggers are participating. We invite you to check out their blogathon entries below. We will highlight a blog's title in red as its 6 Films - 6 Decades entry is published.

Box Office Poisons

Caftan Woman

Cinema Essentials

CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch

Classic Film Obsessions

Classic Film & TV Cafe

Critica Retro

dbmoviesblog

The Everyday Cinephile 

Four Star Films

goosepimply all over

The Lady Eve's Reel Life

Love Letters to Old Hollywood

The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film

Old Books and Movies

Once Upon a Screen

A Person in the Dark

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies

Realweegiemidget Reviews

Reel Charlie

Shadows and Satin

Silver Scenes

Silver Screenings

the Story Enthusiast

Taking Up Room

Thoughts All Sorts

Twenty Four Frames

Whimsically Classic

My Picks for the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon

For my entry in the 6 Films - 6 Decades Blogathon, I chose a favorite film from each decade from the 1920s through the 1970s. My criterion was a simple one: These are classics I can watch over and over again! If I join one of them in progress while channel surfing, you can bet I will be watching the rest of the movie again.

James Olson and Arthur Hill.
The Andromeda Strain (1971) – This superior science fiction outing pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. Its critics have labeled it slow-moving and overlong, but I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? Part of the appeal for me is that The Andromeda Strain includes one of my favorite plot devices: the forming of a team in which each member is introduced to the audience.

James Stewart as the pilot.
The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) – Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so fascinating: the friction among the survivors; their audacious plan to reach civilization again; and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere. Despite the presence of stars James Stewart, Peter Finch, and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character as a quiet, bespeckled German who proposes an incredible plan to save the plane crash survivors—he's irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds everyone together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

James Stewart and Ben Gazzara.
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 the jury's 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).

Out of the Past (1947) –  My favorite film noir has Robert Mitchum as a man who has put his shady past behind him and found love with a good woman in a small community where he operates a gas station. But, as is often the case in the movies, his past catches up with him when a former acquaintance passes through town. With its contrasts of bright lights and dark shadows, Out of the Past is a visual feast. It’s also a compelling tale of a man pulled back into the shadows of his past—no matter how hard he tries to escape them. Kirk Douglas nails the manipulating villain; too bad he didn’t play more bad guys. Yet, despite the presence of Mitchum and Douglas, the film belongs to Jane Greer, an underrated and under-utilized actress who created one of the genre’s best femme fatales.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) – It's hard not to list The Adventures of Robin or The Wizard of Oz as my1930s representative, but I've written about them before. So instead, I will opt for another Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland classic. Often criticized for its historical inaccuracies, The Charge of the Light Brigade is nonetheless a top-notch historical action film. Against the backdrop of the Crimean War, Errol and Patric Knowles play brothers vying for Olivia's affections. An early scene informs us that Olivia’s character, though engaged to Flynn, has secretly fallen in love with Knowles. This knowledge causes us to empathize with Flynn’s British officer as his emotions evolve from disbelief to anger to understanding. I think it’s one of Flynn’s finest performances. The climatic charge, directed by Michael Curtiz, is an incredible sequence (although it resulted in many complaints over the mistreatment of horses).

Spies (aka Spione) (1928) - A diabolical genius heads a mysterious criminal organization bent on world domination. A secret agent, known only by a number, is given the mission to stop the villain. A femme fatale is dispatched to kill the hero--but instead falls in love with him. Is this the plot of the latest James Bond movie? No, it's Fritz Lang's influential silent film Spies, which pre-dates 007's movie debut by 34 years. Spies often gets lost amid Lang's early German silent classics such as Dr. Mabuse (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1927). And yet, in terms of entertainment and as an expression of Lang's love of cinema, Spies surpasses those better-known films. It's a thrill ride from start to finish, highlighted by a nailbiting train crash and a climax with a clown that could have been devised by Hitchcock. For many years, only a 90-minute print was available--and that's the one I've seen. In 2004, it was restored to 143 minutes.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Love, Hogs, and Mincemeat at the State Fair!

Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.
This bright 1962 remake of the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical State Fair (1945) was clearly intended to attract the young adult audience. Top-billed Pat Boone had scored a #1 hit song with "Moody River" the previous year. Co-star Bobby Darin was still churning out hit singles with regularity. For good measure, the cast included two up-and-coming actresses: Ann-Margret and Pamela Tiffin.

Boone and Tiffin played siblings who are attending the Texas State Fair with their parents. Wayne Frake (Pat Boone) hopes to win an auto race. His mother has entered her mincemeat into a contest. Dad has big plans for his prized hog Blue Boy. As for their daughter Margy (Pamela Tiffin), she is looking for something--she's just not sure what.

Pamela Tiffin as Margy.
To their surprise, both of the Frake kids find love at the fair. In between fine-tuning his car's carburetor, Wayne falls hard for Emily (Ann-Margret), a vivacious entertainer that's unlike any of the girls back in Wayne's home town. In another case of opposites attract, Margy becomes enamored with a smooth-talking TV host (Bobby Darin). 

Will the kids' romances turn out to be the "real thing"? Will Mom's mincemeat triumph over the big companies? Will Blue Boy regain his confidence and become top hog? State Fair answers all these questions!

The plot hews pretty closely with the 1945 version, the only musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote directly for the screen. In the earlier film, Wayne isn't an amateur race car driver, Margy's boyfriend is a newspaper reporter, and the setting is the Iowa State Fair. Richard Rodgers also wrote the music and lyrics for five news songs for the 1962 film. (Incidentally, I can't imagine the song "Never Say No to a Man" being included in any future productions.)

Ann-Margret as Emily.
As expected, Pat Boone is the featured vocalist. Surprisingly, Bobby Darin has only one solo number, the mediocre "This Isn't Heaven" (one of the new tunes). The musical highlight belongs to Ann-Margret, who turns "Isn't It Kinda Fun" into a dynamic song-and-dance number. The soundtrack's most famous song, the Oscar-winning "It Might As Well Be Spring," is lip-synced by Pamela Tiffin; most references list Anita Gordon as the singer.

While generally pleasant and diverting, State Fair is still a lesser effort compared to other Rodgers-Hammerstein musicals. Frankly, the songs aren't as good and director José Ferrer doesn't know how to shoot a musical. For example, he uses a wide shot during much of "It Might As Well Be Spring," a sweetly melancholy song that calls for close-ups of the performer's face.

Incidentally, Wally Cox is on-screen for less than ten minutes, but proves to be a supreme scene-stealer as a contest judge who can't enough of Ma Frakes' brandy-soaked mincemeat.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Burgess Meredith

1. In So Far, So Good: A Memoir, Burgess Meredith wrote: "Well, everybody was taking parts in Batman — from Frank Sinatra to Otto Preminger, everyone. It was the trendy thing to do back then. The Penguin stuck to me because the character was vivid." Actually, Sinatra never played a Batman villain. He reportedly wanted to play The Joker...but Cesar Romero was already signed for the role. 

2. Surprisingly, Meredith's most memorable TV role was not as The Penguin. He played bank teller and book lover Henry Bemis in "Time Enough to Last," one of the most beloved episodes of Twilight Zone. He once said: "I've heard...more about it than anything else I've done on television. I think it must have had a great impact on people. I don't suppose there's a month goes by, even to this day, that people don't come up and remind me of that episode."

3. In an 2016 interview with Empire Online, Rocky director John Avildsen said: "A lot of people came in to audition for the role of Mickey, the trainer. I wouldn’t hire anybody unless they auditioned and I liked them. Lee J. Cobb came in and he wouldn’t audition. We got Lee Strasberg to audition. Then Burgess [Meredith] came in and they read the scene where Rocky is told that he has to get out of his locker. He read the scene a few times and then I said, 'Why don’t you guys go through the scene and do it in your own words?' So they did, and at the end Rocky is walking away, dejected, and Burgess yells, 'Hey, did you ever think about retiring?' Stallone doesn’t know what to say to him, so he says, 'No,' and Burgess says, 'Well, start thinking about it.' That was just perfect, and that’s how he got the job."

Meredith as Mickey in Rocky.
4. Burgess Meredith was highly respected among his acting peers. He received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for The Day of the Locust (1975) and Rocky (1976). He won an Emmy as attorney Joseph Welch in Tail Gunner Joe, a 1977 TV movie about Joseph McCarthy. (Interestingly, the real Joseph Welch played the judge in Anatomy of a Murder.) He received another Emmy nomination that same year for a TV version of The Last Hurrah. Finally, he was nominated for a Tony for directing the Broadway play Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) and received a Special Tony for directing A Thurber Carnival in 1960.

5. Director Otto Preminger was a big Burgess Meredith fan and cast the actor in 1962's Advise and Consent (one of my personal favorites), The Cardinal (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Hurry Sundown (1967), Skidoo (1968), and Such Good Friends (1971).

6. In addition to directing for the stage, Meredith helmed two theatrical films. The first was The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949), a mystery starring Charles Laughton as Inspector Jules Maigret. The second was the 1970 oddity The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go with James Mason and Jack MacGowran. Its poster claims: "It'll make you think of Dr. No!" Honestly, I don't believe you will. Meredith's most accomplished directing job was on the Playhouse 90 live TV drama The Days of Wine and Roses, which starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. (She discussed it with us in 2014.)

7. Burgess Meredith was married four times. His third wife was Paulette Goddard; their marriage lasted five years. He stayed married to fourth wife, Kaja Sundsten, from 1950 until his death. They had two children. Burgess Meredith died in 1997 at age 89.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Peter Falk Channels Bogie in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective

A befuddled Lou Peckinpah.
Following the success of his romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), Neil Simon returned to the zany spoof formula of Murder By Death (1976). Indeed, The Cheap Detective could have been a sequel to Murder By Death with Peter Falk reprising his role of Sam Diamond--a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade. Instead, Falk plays Lou Peckinpah, a 1930s hardboiled detective--who is still a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade.

Set in San Francisco, the movie kicks off with the discovery of six corpses in a seedy hotel. One of the victims is Floyd Merkle, the partner of private eye Lou Peckinpah. The police target Lou as their primary suspect since he had been having a nine-year affair with Floyd's wife. That prompts Lou to tackle the case and prove his innocence. 

Madeline Kahn.
He receives a visit from a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) who claims to have knowledge of Floyd's death. However, she will help Lou only if he can recover twelve stolen diamonds, each valued at over $250,000. Meanwhile, Lou encounters his former flame, Marlene DuChard (Louise Fletcher), whose war hero husband wants to establish a French restaurant in Oakland against the Nazis' wishes.

Yes, The Cheap Detective is essentially a spoof of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Its plot is serviceable, but Simon clearly didn't put much effort into it. Instead, he chose to focus on "the funny"--packing his comedy with one-liners, wacky situations, and relying on an engaging cast. An example is the scene in which Floyd's widow (Marsha Mason) comes to see Lou after her husband's murder. Lou asks her: "Are you sure the police didn't follow you here?" She replies: "I'm positive. They came with me." Three police detectives then emerge from two doors behind her. It's the kind of silly--but funny--gag that would be employed two years later in Airplane! (1980).

DeLuise channeling Lorre.
The cast has grand fun playing parodies of famous movie characters from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. John Houseman channels Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman as Jasper Blubber and Fernando Lamas does a fine Paul Henreid impersonation as Marlene's husband. However, the standout performances belong to Madeline Kahn as a Mary Astor-like femme fatale and Dom DeLuise imitating Peter Lorre. Peter Falk serves as the film's straight man, typically setting up the funny scenes for his co-stars.

As with the later Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, the gags are plentiful with more hits than misses. For this reason, I found The Cheap Detective to be funnier than the slower-paced Murder By Death. I suspect I'm in the minority, though, as Murder By Death seems to be fondly remembered by movie fans whereas The Cheap Detective has been sadly neglected. If you've never seen it--or if it's just been awhile--Neil Simon's 1978 comedy is definitely worth a look.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Five Easy Pieces: When Good Performances Aren't Enough

Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea.
The years have not been kind to Five Easy Pieces (1970), which earned four major Oscar nominations and was hailed by Roger Ebert as a "masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity." In retrospect, it's a meandering film that boasts two stellar performances and an iconic scene. That's not enough, though, to justify the bloated running time and the "so what" of it all.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a disgruntled young man from an affluent family of classical musicians, who works in the California oil fields. Bobby lives with Rayette (Karen Black), a pretty but none-too-bright diner waitress who aspires to sing country music. He cheats on Rayette, berates her in front of friends, and is too embarrassed to introduce her to his family. He also gets her pregnant.

Susan Anspach as Catherine.
When visiting his sister Partita, Bobby learns that his father has suffered two strokes. Partita (Lois Smith) encourages Bobby to resolve his differences with his estranged father before it's too late. Bobby's reunion with his family bores him until he meets Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is studying music with his brother Carl. As Bobby pursues the reluctant Catherine, Rayette waits for him at a motel a few miles from the Dupea house.

As a character study, one can forgive the wandering plot of Five Easy Pieces. However, director Bob Rafelson allows his film to lose focus by indulging in extraneous scenes. There are lingering shots of Bobby working in the oil fields. A hitchhiker prattles endlessly about how the world is filled with filth. Bobby gets irate about a highway traffic jam (one of Ebert's favorite scenes).

Karen Black as Rayette.
The film perks up whenever there's a scene with Karen Black as Rayette. The actress keeps the character from being nothing more than Bobby's victim. Yes, Rayette can be irritating, but she sincerely loves Bobby, forgives him for everything, and finds joy in her simple life. In one of the best scenes, Rayette interrupts a ridiculous pseudo-intellectual discussion by asking: "Is there a TV in the house?"

Jack Nicholson is wonderfully convincing as the disillusioned Bobby--who isn't quite sure what he's disillusioned about other than his life in general. One doesn't have to like the character to admire Nicholson's performance or appreciate the tiny details that make Bobby seem real. There's the justifiably famous scene of Bobby trying to reason with a diner waitress who refuses to make any substitutions on his breakfast. However, Nicholson's best scene is saved for what functions as the film's climax--a "conversation" with Bobby's father that's essentially a monologue of self-reflection.

The film's screenplay, Rafelson, Nicholson, and Black all earned Oscar nominations in 1970. If Nicholson first garnered serious critical acclaim in Easy Rider (1969), then Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made him a star. He would make three of his best films over the next five years--The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--receiving three more Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest.

All of those films are better than Five Easy Pieces, a promising character study that gets lost in its own pompousness.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Olivia de Havilland Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred Olivia de Havilland 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. Funerals with Footwear. 

2. No Room for a Quartet.

3. Vipers' Den.

4. Charlotte & Emily.

5. The Evil Sister.

6. Elevator!

7. What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?

8. The Mysterious Past of  Mark Sebastian.

9. Rejection.

10. Mother Without a Son.

11. Outlaw Town.

12. The Brothers Vickers.

13. Voice from the Grave.

14. A Wedding in Florence.

15. Trapped Underwater!

Monday, April 5, 2021

Hoosiers: A Tale of Inspiration and Second Chances

Gene Hackman as Coach Norman.
Second chances, the popularity of small town sports, and teamwork are the themes that underlie Hoosiers, a surprise 1986 boxoffice hit.

Gene Hackman stars as Dale Norman, a formerly disgraced college basketball coach hired at Hickory High School. The team has only seven players...and that includes the equipment manager who plays in practice only. Jimmy Chitwood, the town's best player, left the team following the death of the former coach, a father figure to the lad.

Coach Norman clashes with the townsfolk almost immediately, starting with a teacher (Barbara Hershey) who questions his education qualifications. The players' parents don't condone his pass-first basketball approach (four passes before a shot!) and his closed practices. It's not long with there's a petition to remove Norman from his job--although there are those who come to admire his emphasis on teamwork and discipline.

Barbara Hershey.
Hoosiers is a sports movie and a very good one. Set in the 1950s, it captures the importance of basketball in a small town devoid of other forms of entertainment. Heck, the school is too small to field a football or a baseball team, so basketball is everything. As Hershey's teacher says: "You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god...I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old."

Dale Norman loves the game of basketball and recognizes a great player when he sees one. But for him, there are no individual heroes, only teams where the players work together to achieve the victory. I think this is what make Hoosiers a favorite among many real-life basketball players. When the 2002 Indiana University Hoosiers made an unlikely run to the NCAA championship game (ultimately losing to Maryland), the players watched Hoosiers before each tournament game.

Dennis Hopper as Shooter.
Yet, Hoosiers is also a movie about giving second chances and making the most of those opportunities. Coach Norman gets his chance to coach again because the high school principal, an old friend, believes in him. Norman pays it forward by taking on Shooter (Dennis Hopper), an alcoholic former high school star who happens to be the father of one of Norman's players. In one of the film's most amusing scenes, Norman gets intentionally thrown out of a game so that Shooter has to step up and coach the team. Hopper isn't in much of Hoosiers, but he brings out his character's love of the game and his desire to fight the demons that separated him from his family. It's a performance that earned Hopper a Best Supporting Actor nomination (though his best performance of 1986 was in David Lynch's riveting Blue Velvet).

During the filming of Hoosiers, Gene Hackman clashed almost daily with rookie director David Anspaugh and was convinced the film would flop. But after seeing the rough cut, Hackman knew that Hoosiers was special. The story is inspirational and the acting good, but it's the little touches that make it memorable: the autumn colors, the wind blowing through the fields, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score.

The plot of Hoosiers was inspired by the 1954 Milan high school basketball team. Milan, Indiana, boasted a population of just over a 1,000 residents. And yet its high school basketball team played toe-to-toe with the biggest and best Indiana schools for two years. They almost won the state championship in 1953 and then accomplished the feat in 1954 in what has been dubbed The Milan Miracle.