Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Hammer Duo: Twins of Evil and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell

Neither Collinson twin looks evil here.
In 1970, Hammer Films launched the Karnstein trilogy, which was loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla about a female vampire. The first two movies, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1971), were modestly successful efforts chiefly remembered for injecting nudity and a lesbian theme into Hammer's vampire movie formula. However, the third and final entry, Twins of Evil (1971), remains an above-average Gothic outing with good performances and a well-constructed plot.

Real-life twins Mary and Madeleine Collinson plays teenage sisters Maria and Frieda, who come to live with their Uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing) following the death of their parents. Gustav is a religious zealot whose followers burn young women suspected of being witches. Despite the presence of their kindly aunt (Kathleen Byron), Maria and Frieda have a difficult time adapting to their new almost-Puritan lifestyle.

Frieda becomes interested in Count Karnstein, who defies Gustav with his hedonistic activities. When Karnstein sells his soul for eternal life as a vampire, he finds that Frieda is most willing to join him. However, complications are bound to ensue when there are twin good and one evil!

Peter Cushing as Gustav.
The always reliable Peter Cushing doesn't play a heroic role this time around. Gustav kills innocent women in a subplot reminiscent of the earlier Witchfinder General (1968) with Vincent Price. Ultimately, Gustav works with Maria's boyfriend Anton to stop Karnstein, but that doesn't absolve him from his earlier acts of horror. It's a complex character and Cushing is fully up to the task.

Considering that their voices were dubbed, the Collinson twins give respectable performances. Madeleine somehow manages to look evil (and for that reason, I had no problem telling the sisters apart). The sisters famously became the first Playmate twins in Playboy. Alas, Twins of Evil was the highlight of their acting career.

Director John Hough directs with a sure hand, pacing the story well and maintaining the expected Hammer atmosphere (using the same set as Vampire Circus). An added bonus is the chance to see Kathleen Byron, an under-used actress who was brilliant in Black Narcissus and Night of the Eagle.

Cushing as Victor Frankenstein.
Three years after Twins of Evil, Peter Cushing reprised his role as Dr. Victor Frankenstein for the six and last time. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) reunited the actor with director Terence Fisher, who helmed all of Cushing's previous Frankenstein outings.

The film's opening scenes focus on handsome surgeon Simon Helder (Shane Briant), who has been studying Frankenstein's experiments. Unfortunately, his grave-robbing endeavors get him arrested and sentenced to an insane asylum for five years. The good news is that the institution's resident physician, Dr. Victor, turns out to be none other than Baron Frankenstein!

Frankenstein wants to transplant the brain of a genius into the body of an almost Neanderthal man. His work, though, has been constrained by his crippled hands. Helder eagerly agrees to perform the operation under Frankenstein's instruction. Of course, to get a genius's brain, Victor might have to resort to murder.

Prowse as the ape-like Monster.
There's not much of a plot to Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. The brain transplant idea was explored much better in the previous--and much superior--Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Heck, Victor was transplanting brains as far back as The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958). The only novel ideas in Monster from Hell are the fanatical Frankenstein working in an insane asylum and the almost humorous ending. The latter, by the way, may be why some critics consider this film to be a black comedy.

Cushing is the sole reason to watch Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. Hammer apparently wanted to make Briant into a star, but he clearly lacks the charisma to anchor a film on his own. As the monster, Dave Prowse (who would later embody Darth Vader) is limited by a mask that restricts facial movement. It's easily the worst-looking monster that Hammer put on screen in its long history.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Vincent Price Returns as Dr. Phibes

Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes.
When we last saw Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price), he was laying beside his dead wife in an hidden chamber, his blood being replaced with a mysterious fluid. Three years later, the blood-exchange process is reversed and Dr. Phibes--now revived--is rejoined by his faithful female assistant Vulnavia.

To their dismay, they discover their house has been demolished and a valuable papyrus has been stolen. Dr. Phibes immediately suspects Darrus Biederbeck (Robert Quarry), a scientist who knows the papyrus is part of a map that leads to the River of Life. Phibes and Vulnavia steal the ancient fragment and head to Egypt, where Phibes plans to revive his dead wife and secure eternal youth.

Valli Kemp as Vulnavia.
Bieberbeck, who has cheated death for centuries, pursues them in hope of also finding the magical river that will extend his life. Along the way, Phibes dispenses with Bieberbeck's henchmen using methods inspired by Egyptian mythology (e.g., one man is stung to death by scorpions).

If you've seen The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), then this 1972 sequel will hold no surprises. Both films derive their dark humor from Price's campy performance and the diabolical, often ingenious, ways that Phibes disposes of his nemeses. The 1920s setting, which added novelty to the first film, is less effective the second time around. That's largely because most of the plot takes place around an Egyptian temple (recreated cheaply on a soundstage).

Price's supporting cast is also far less impressive in the sequel. Peter Cushing and Terry-Thomas add a little spark, but their appearances amount to no more than cameos. Robert Quarry, who proved to be a menacing vampire in Count Yorga, lacks the hubris that made Joseph Cotten a worthy villain in the first Phibes picture.

American International Pictures (AIP) considered making a series of the Dr. Phibes films with colorful titles like Dr. Phibes Ressurectus, Dr. Phibes in the Holy Land, The Son of Dr. Phibes, and The Seven Fates of Dr. Phibes. One sequel would have replaced Vincent Price with David Carradine in the title role! Fortunately, none of those films were made, for although Vincent Price is a delight as the revenge-minded protagonist, two Phibes flicks are more than enough.

Robert Quarry as the villain.
Robert Quarry has said in interviews that AIP signed him to a contract to eventually become Price's successor as the studio's top horror star. Allegedly, a reporter mentioned that to Price on the set of Dr. Phibes Rises Again, thereby creating a small rift between the actors. Still, they both went on to appear in Madhouse (1974), though it was also a boxoffice disappointment.

However, in between the Phibes films and Madhouse, Vincent Price starred in one of his most entertaining movies: Theatre of Blood (1973). He portrayed a Shakespearean actor--presumed dead--who seeks revenge on the critics that vilified him.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Roald Dahl's The Witches

Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.
"Real witches dress in ordinary clothes, and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses, and they work in ordinary jobs," explains Helga to her eight-year-old grandson Luke. "Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest."

It's not a pleasant bedtime narrative, but Luke doesn't seem to mind. Plus, that knowledge becomes useful when Helga and young Luke--whose parents die in a car accident--take a holiday to a seaside resort hotel. The Excelsior is also hosting a convention for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. 

While playing with his pet mice, Luke learns that the society is merely a front for a large gathering of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston). She has developed an elaborate plan to turn all the children of England into mice! Can Luke and his grandmother stop the witches or will he suffer the same fate as his new friend Bruno...who has already been turned into a mouse?

Luke as a mouse.
Made in 1990, The Witches is a devilishly delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 children's novel. Dahl, who penned children's classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, never shies away from dark, quirky plots. The film version of The Witches retains those elements. In fact, Helga relates a downright scary tale of a girl captured by a witch, who suddenly appears as part of her father's painting of a farm. One day, her image is in the barn; another day, she is feeding the chickens. The girl's image grows old over the years and disappears one day. Spooky stuff, eh?

Most of The Witches has a lighter tone, though, as Luke and Bruno spend the second half of the movie as talking mice. As opposed to using CGI characters, director Nicolas Roeg employs real mice and mice puppets created by Jim Henson. The puppets may not look realistic, but they are convincing enough and very charming.

The highlight of The Witches are the performances by the two leads, Mai Zetterling as Helga and Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch. The latter shines brightest in a scene in which the Grand High Witch addresses her underlings, berating them for not eliminating enough children and then inspiring them with a motivational speech about how they will transform all the English children into rodents. If you've ever listened to a keynote speaker at a convention, you will appreciate the satire and Huston's impeccable delivery of her address.

Mai Zetterling as Helga.
Mai Zetterling is equally good in her more nuanced role as the elderly Helga. Earlier in her career, Zetterling played sexy leading ladies, appeared in serious Ingmar Bergman films, and even directed movies and TV series. She earned a BAFTA nomination for her 1963 short film The War Game.

The rest of the cast of The Witches is littered with familiar faces, such as Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Bill Paterson (Comfort and Joy), Brenda Blethyn (Vera), Jane Horrocks (Little Voice), and Jim Carter (Downton Abbey).

It's hard to believe that The Witches was directed by Nicolas Roeg. Early in his career, Roeg was acclaimed for challenging dramas such as Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). The Witches is a definite departure, but Roeg imbues it with atmosphere, genuine warmth, and a playful sense of humor. He and screenwriter Allan Scott did change Roald Dahl's ending. The author was displeased and threatened to have his name removed from the movie. Personally, I think the film's ending is an improvement on the book.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Hammer's Frankenstein Films Ranked from Best to Worst

Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein.
1. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) - The series' fourth film finds Victor Frankenstein performing a brain transplant to "cure" a fellow scientist's insanity. No, it's not an act of compassion; Victor's sole motive is to gain his colleague's research data to further his own work. At this point in the series, Baron Victor Frankenstein has become the Monster--his obsession with creating life makes him willing to do anything. Director Terence Fisher's best set piece involves a water main that breaks in the backyard of a Victorian boarding house...where a corpse has been buried in a shallow grave. (Actress Veronica Carlson discussed this scene in our interview with her.) Cushing is superb as the now-cruel, heartless Frankenstein and gets great support from Simon Ward and Carlson as a young couple being blackmailed and Freddie Jones as the sympathetic "creature." The fiery climax would have been a fitting way to end the series. 

Susan Denberg as Christine after surgery.
2. Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) - This film marked Terence Fisher's return to the series after passing (wisely) on Evil of Frankenstein (1964). His visual style grabs the viewer with an opening scene featuring a guillotine silhouetted against a dark, rural sky. This time around, Victor is consumed with harnessing the soul after it leaves the body. However, as a character, Frankenstein takes a backseat to a story about a ill-doomed couple: Hans, a peasant lad haunted by his father's execution as a murderer, and Christine, the tavern owner's daughter who is crippled and scarred. The film's final third turns into a revenge tale, but most of Frankenstein Created Woman is both a literate, bittersweet love story and an essay about life and the soul. Veteran British actor Thorley Walters gives one of his finest performances as Frankenstein's assistant, a physician with an affection for alcoholic beverages. And James Bernard contributes one of his best Hammer scores, which includes a melancholy melody for Christine. For the record, Frankenstein Created Woman counts Martin Scorsese among its fans!

Cushing in his second appearance.
3. The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) - The first sequel to the previous year's Curse of Frankenstein tones down Baron Frankenstein's vicious streak. In fact, Victor is relatively reserved, though obsessed with transplanting a brain into another body. He finds a willing volunteer in his lab assistant Karl, whose body is deformed. Written by Jimmy Sangster and directed by Fisher, Revenge of Frankenstein is a solid, well-crafted effort and one of Hammer's best-reviewed films. It also features the best ending of the series and establishes the brain transplant premise that is revisited later in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
4. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) - Hammer's first Frankenstein film is a bold, colorful reworking of Mary Shelley's novel. Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein is an zestful intellectual burning with the desire to learn the secret of creating life. As screenwriter Jimmy Sangster's plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that Frankenstein--not his creation--has become the real monster. The emphasis on the Baron, along with Peter Cushing's compelling performance, is what will keep Hammer's Frankenstein saga going for seventeen years. Curse of Frankenstein also introduces the blueprint for the Frankenstein sequels: vivid color photography, Gothic-inspired settings, and Terence Fisher's willingness to show the gory details. The only major disappointment is Christopher Lee's creature, which is physically imposing but devoid of any emotion. Note that the gap in quality between the films we rank 1-4 is relatively small. All of them are vastly superior to 5-7.

Kiwi Kingston as the Monster.
5. The Evil of Frankenstein (1964) - After a gap of six years, the series resumed with a subpar outing in which Frankenstein finds his creature encased in ice and revives it. There is no connection to the previous films other than Peter Cushing playing the Baron. Evil of Frankenstein is more of an homage to Universal's horror films. In fact, for the first time, Hammer was allowed to employ the famous make-up design used in the Universal movies. The screenplay veers from the established formula by introducing another villain: a wicked hypnotist named Zoltan. The result is a less interesting role for  Cushing's obsessed scientist. The great cinematographer Freddie Francis takes over as director and, while Evil is visually interesting at times, Francis would fare far better with Hammer's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Additional footage was shot in 1966 to expand the running time for American broadcast television.

Ralph Bates as a young Victor.
6. The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) - With its box office profits starting to dwindle, Hammer made the unprecedented move of allowing veteran scribe Jimmy Sanger to mess with its Frankenstein franchise. Sangster wanted to create a Victor Frankenstein for the 1970s, so he recast the title role with the younger Ralph Bates (later a villain on TV's Poldark), emphasized the sexual elements, and injected a dose of black comedy. The plot is basically a remake of Curse of Frankenstein and, while it's interesting at times, the parts never gel. David Prowse portrays the Monster, which looks like a wrestler from a Santo movie. Prowse would played the Monster again in Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and go on to portray (but not voice) Darth Vader in the Star Wars movies.

Cushing in the role for the last time.
7. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974) - At the age of 70, director Terence Fisher returned to the Frankenstein saga one last time in what would also be his final film. Peter Cushing also returns as Baron Frankenstein, who is now the resident physician in an asylum. Once again, Victor is obsessed with a brain transplant and assisted by a young surgeon (Shane Briant), whose own experiments have gotten him sentenced to the asylum. It's a lackluster outing that verges uncomfortably on black comedy and shows how far the impressive series had fallen in the five years since Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. The ending is amusing, though. In the U.S., it was released on a twin bill with the much superior Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Scott Eyman Discusses His New Biography "Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise"

On October 20th, Simon & Schuster will publish Scott Eyman's new biography Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. Eyman, a former literary critic for The Palm Beach Post, has written the bestsellers Pieces of My Heart and You Must Remember This (both with Robert Wagner) and John Wayne: The Life and Legend. He has also written biographies about about Hollywood greats such as Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. We had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his new book on the life of screen legend Cary Grant.

Café:  There have been numerous Cary Grant biographies, including ones by his daughter Jennifer Grant and ex-wife Dyan Cannon. What inspired you to write Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise?

Scott Eyman:  Reading his diary. He kept it for about five months in 1918, when he was 14 years old. There is no mention of his mother, one or two passing references to his father. Most of the time he’s cutting school to go to the movies or the music hall. Especially the music hall. What struck me was how self-contained he was, and how indifferent he was to any family or society expectations. He was a street kid. Later that year, he made his break by getting kicked out of school and apprenticing with a troupe of acrobats. It was going to be a performer’s life for Archie.   

Café:  You include a great quote from the actor: “I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” Why do you think Archie Leach felt the need to “create” the Cary Grant persona that he displayed in public and in movies?

SE:  Archie was born working class and felt he had to fit into the niche of currently popular actors of the time, who ran to elegance – Noel Coward, Leslie Howard, etc. Given his looks, it was a perfectly rational decision. Also, it was a way of building a barrier between himself and his beginnings. That said, he often made a point of talking about Bristol, and occasionally worked “Archie Leach” into scripts as an in-joke. He wanted people to realize that he was in on the joke, and I think it was also his way of signaling he wasn’t a phony or hypocrite.

Café:   Do you believe that, in his later years, he became more comfortable reconciling his private and public lives? If so, what drove this change?

SE:  Very much so. It was a combination of LSD and quitting show business. LSD worked for him in a way that therapy hadn’t, enabled him to reconcile with himself. When he retired at the age of 62, he no longer had to worry about being exposed as an imposter, which I think was an ongoing cause of anxiety.

Café:  You state that Cary Grant was conservative in choosing roles, turning down challenging ones in films such as Tender Is the Night (1962) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). What do you think would have been the impact on his career had he accepted riskier roles?

Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart.
SE:  He would be regarded less as a screen archetype and consum-mate comedian, more as a consummate actor. But he was psychologically conservative. Once he established a persona and discovered how the public liked to see him, he rarely (None But the Lonely Heart, Father Goose, etc.) deviated from it. That said, I don’t know that he regretted turning down the likes of A Star is Born or The Third Man. I’m inclined to doubt it. He had his reasons, and they had to do with his psychological needs.

Café It was interesting to learn that Grant was also involved behind the scenes in making films, suggesting a remake of the British film Mandy, sending scripts to director Leo McCarey, etc. Had his career started later, could you envision him as a star/filmmaker along the lines of Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty?

SE:  His timing was wrong for that. There were no equivalents of those careers in that era because the system wasn’t set up to service actors who wanted control of their careers. It was a classic tradeoff: we give you all this money and in return you do what we want you to do. The system began to change in the 1950s, with people like Burt Lancaster taking almost complete control of what they did. And Grant moved into production late in that decade, but that was about keeping more money, not creative experimentation. 

Café What do you consider Cary Grant’s best film performances and why?

SE:  Notorious and None But the Lonely Heart, because he dares to expose his anger and general prickliness. I love To Catch a Thief as a star turn. Among the comedies, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. And despite the fact that he hated his performance, I love two-thirds of Arsenic and Old Lace if only for his energy and technique, at least until I get exhausted during the last half-hour. 

Café You’ve written biographies of John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, Louis B. Mayer, Cecil DeMille, and other great actors and filmmakers. Who intrigues you as a future subject for a biography?

SE:  No comment. Lots of writers like to talk about what they’re writing, but I’m not one of them. I find it reduces my energy about a project, the build-up of internal compression I need to write a book. Suffice it to say that the next one will be about one of the major artists of the 20th century.

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (576 pages) is available for booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Hammer Time: Hands of the Ripper and The Satanic Rites of Dracula

Angharad Rees as Anna.
After movies featuring mummies, vampires, Frankenstein, and generic psychos, it was inevitable that Hammer Films would get around to Jack the Ripper. However, Hands of the Ripper (1971) is a bit of a surprise: a somber, well-acted tale focusing on the famous murderer's troubled daughter.

In the prologue, a young girl watches her father--the Ripper--stab her mother to death. Years later, Anna (Angharad Rees) has grown into a young woman who works for Mrs. Golding, a fake medium. After one of her seances, Mrs. Golding accepts money from a gentleman who wants to spend the night with Anna. When Anna resists the man's advances, Mrs. Golding intercedes, but the ensuing argument triggers Anna's horrid memories of her mother's murder. She grabs a poker and kills Mrs. Golding.

Eric Porter as Dr. Pritchard.
Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter), who suspects that Anna is the murderer, volunteers to care for the girl. In the beginning, Pritchard's interest in Anna is purely academic, as he wants to "cure" her. But, as their relationship progresses, he develops genuine feelings for the young woman that evolve from paternal to perhaps something more. There's only one problem: Anna can no longer control her murderous impulses.

For the  lead roles, Hammer cast two fine performers: Eric Porter, who won acclaim as Soames in the television drama The Forsyte Saga, and Angharrad Rees, the Welsh actress who would charm millions of viewers in the TV version of Poldark. The duo take what could have been a lurid film and bring out the pathos in it.

Indeed, the film's first half is an engrossing Victorian drama that barely resembles a Hammer film. Alas, that gives way to a mounting number of blood-splattered corpses as the story reaches its inevitable downbeat conclusion. Still, if you can look past the violent murders, Hands of the Ripper is worthwhile viewing thanks to its strong performances and production values.

Peter Cushing as Lorrimer Van Helsing.
At the other end of the spectrum, The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) is an inferior effort that wastes the talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It's a direct sequel to Dracula A.D. 1972 and continues the contemporary setting.

The opening scenes generate some interest by promising an Avengers-like plot--and even casting future New Avengers star Joanna Lumley as Van Helsing's granddaughter. However, the story falls apart when Van Helsing learns that Dracula wants to release a new super strain of the Bubonic plague on the world. Van Helsing offers an explanation of why Dracula would want to do this (no plot spoiler here!) and while it's novel, it just doesn't make sense.

A red-haired Joanna Lumley.
It's a shame that screenwriter Don Houghton didn't streamline the story and just focus on Dracula as a wealthy recluse (think Howard Hughes) who recruits influential world leaders to do his bidding in return for eternal life. That might have been a pretty good contemporary vampire film. Also, I feel obligated to mention that Satanic Rites features the most boring destruction of Dracula on celluloid!

The Satanic Rites of Dracula wasn't released in the U.S. until 1978. It was re-edited and re-titled as Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride. Fortunately, it wasn't the end of Hammer's Dracula saga. The studio produced one last film featuring the Count: the goofy--but highly entertaining--mash-up of vampires and kung fu known as The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 6 - Bette Davis Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie 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! Note that all the answers will be Bette Davis movies.

1.  Irish Rabbit.

2.  The Education of Morgan Evans.

3.  The Ram's Horn.

4.  I Wiped My Mouth.

5.  Louise, Helen, and Grace.

6.  Fahrenheit 451: The Beginning (this one might be tough).

7.  Octopus in the House.

8.  Blackmail in Malaya.

9.  Margo.

10. I'm Not Me!

11. Two Cigarettes.

12. Be Very Quiet, Ms. Hollis.

13. Hoosier Nuptials.

14. The Small Vulpes (who said this game wasn't educational?).

15. The Hurleys and the Hallorans.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Tony Curtis as The Great Impostor

Young Ferdinand Demara, Jr. isn't one to take "no" for an answer, even after well-intentioned Father Devlin (Karl Malden) explains that sometimes you just have to accept your limitations.

Years later, Demara  (Tony Curtis) encounters a major career obstacle when his application for Officer Candidate School is rejected by the Army because he lacks a high school diploma. After mulling over the situation, he forges college transcripts and is accepted as an officer by the Marines. That plan goes quickly awry, though, when he learns he must undergo a security check by the F.B.I.

Tony Curtis and Raymond Massey.
Demara promptly fakes his suicide and embarks on a career of creating false identities. He spends time as a Trappist monk, a deputy prison warden, a military ship's physician, and a teacher. His ability to learn quickly serves him well--especially when performing surgical operations after reading a few pages of Gray's Anatomy! Not all goes according to plan since he's captured by the Army and spends 18 months in prison. But he even turns that into a positive and later becomes a leader for prison reform in a maximum security facility.

Incredibly, The Great Impostor is based on the life the Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr. While some of the film is fictitious, the real Demara did pose as a monk, assistant prison warden, naval surgeon, and teacher. His life was the subject of the biography The Great Impostor, written by Robert Crichton.

Tony Curtis with Sue Ane Langdon.
If you're looking for insight into Demara's extraordinary life, you won't find it in The Great Impostor. The lead character's rationale is he's doing these fantastic things because he can--and because the thrill of potential capture is exciting. It doesn't help that the film has been shaped as a breezy Tony Curtis vehicle for the most part. One almost expects a cheerful Curtis to break the fourth wall and start talking to the audience long before he smiles at us in the final shot.

There are couple of serious segments, such as when Demara tries to reach a hardened convict and later performs emergency surgeries on 18 Korean combat casualties. In these scenes, it becomes apparent that Demara wants to do good--even if his actions put innocent people at life-threatening risks. (Imagine being operated on by a man with no medical experience whatsoever!)

Tony Curtis's fans are sure to enjoy The Great Impostor. Coming off the most impressive stretch of his career (1957-60), the actor seems to be having fun and lays on the charm. He is surrounded by a bunch of veteran actors (Edmond O'Brien, Raymond Massey, Arthur O'Connell) and attractive co-stars (Joan Blackman and Sue Ane Langdon, who steals all her scenes). However, in the end, it's just a shame that Tony didn't get the opportunity to play Demara in a more serious film, something along the lines of Steven Spielberg's more compelling Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Monday, September 14, 2020

Arabesque: Stanley Donen's Follow-up to Charade

Sophia Loren as Yasmin.
Oxford University professor David Pollack (Gregory Peck) is ill-prepared for spies, murder, and abduction when he agrees to translate a hieroglyphic message. On the plus side, he rather enjoys spending time with an exotic beauty named Yasmin (Sophia Loren), who may be working for the good guys...or the bad guys. Frankly, for much of Arabesque, David doesn't know who to trust.

Made in 1966, Arabesque is a breezy entertainment in which the plot is purely secondary. For the record, it has something to do with a Middle East country whose prime minister is about to sign an agreement that will devalue an oil baron's (Alan Badel) empire. The key to everything is a piece of paper with the aforementioned hieroglyphics (which in Hitchcockian terms is the film's MacGuffin).

Gregory Peck as the professor.
Style takes precedence over narrative in Arabesque, which was clearly-intended as a follow-up to the more successful Charade (1963). Both films were directed by Stanley Donen with music by Henry Mancini and with two big stars in the lead roles. More specifically, both films featured male stars who were much older than their female co-stars. A key difference, though, is that the roles have been reversed. In Charade, Audrey Hepburn's character is the innocent who gets caught up in the intrigue. In Arabesque, Gregory Peck plays the naive college professor who soon finds himself mixed up with villains and double agents.

Unsurprisingly, Donen wanted Charade star Cary Grant to play Pollack opposite Sophia Loren. However, Grant allegedly didn't like the screenplay, although the dialogue was written with him in mind. While Gregory Peck is a fine actor, it's strange to hear him spout Cary Grant one-liners--which seem to fall flat most of the time.

Loren being zipped into Christian Dior.
In contrast, Sophia Loren appears much more comfortable in the role of the mischievous Yasmin, whose willingness to use Pollack eventually gives way to caring for him. She also gets to wear a lot of fabulous Christian Dior dresses and hats. I've read that she wears twenty different pairs of shoes in Arabesque, though I didn't stop to count them.

With its colorful locations and Donen's nimble direction, Arabesque works as a satisfactory way to spend 105 minutes. Still, those hoping for a repeat of the Charade magic will be sadly disappointed.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Karen Valentine

1. A California resident, Karen Valentine competed in the 1964 Miss Teenage America pageant. She won the talent competition with "a pantomime take-off of a bossa nova song" (according to Life Magazine). Her performance caught the attention of Ed Sullivan, who invited her to appear on his weekly variety show.

2. In 1969, Karen landed her most famous role, as young energetic high school teacher Alice Johnson in Room 222. The following year, she earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy. She was nominated a second time in 1971 and remained with the show throughout its five-year run.

As Alice Johnson in Room 222.
3. In a 2013 interview with Mark Voger, Karen Valentine said about Room 222: "It was the first show, I think, that showed blacks and whites interacting so well together, and role models in teachers and counselors. It was so well accepted that in certain parts of the country, Room 222 was required viewing by some of the teachers and principals and administrative staffs around different schools."

4. Following the cancellation of Room 222, Karen Valentine got her own TV series in 1975. In Karen, she played a single, independent woman working for Open America, a citizens' advocate organization. Charles Lane co-starred as the organization's curmudgeonly founder (replacing Denver Pyle, who played the role in the pilot). Despite being co-created by Larry Gelbert (M*A*S*H), Karen was cancelled at mid-season.

5. Karen Valentine remained in high demand throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Her unsold television pilots include: A Girl's Life (1983) with Fred Dryer as her boyfriend and Joan Hackett as her mom; Adam's House (1983), in which she played a Chicago social worker; and a proposed 1980 series based on The Goodbye Girl.

6. Karen also appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies, most notably: the title role in Gidget Grows Up (1969); one of  Buddy Edsen's "daughters" in The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972); a stewardess with multiple husbands in different cities in Coffee, Tea or Me? (1973); and a "birthday present" for Richard Long in The Girl Who Came Gift Wrapped (1974). Her last movie/TV acting credit is the 2004 Hallmark Channel movie Wedding Daze, with John Larroquette.

7. Karen Valentine was married to Carl MacLaughlin, Jr. for almost four years. His profession is sometimes listed as actor, though his only credit in the IMDb is an appearance with Karen on a Merv Griffin Show about celebrity married couples. Since 1977, Karen has been wed to musician Gary Verna. He won an Daytime Creative Arts Emmy for an original song he co-wrote for The Young and the Restless.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sharpe's World: Love, Courage, and Respect

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.
In 1993, ITV launched a series of television movies based on Bernard Cornwell's novels about a British officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Sean Bean starred as Richard Sharpe, a sergeant who is promoted to lieutenant after he saves the life of the Duke of Wellington. During the series, which consisted of sixteen films, Sharpe rises to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In Sharpe's Rifles (1993), though, he struggles with being accepted as an officer. He is put in charge of a small unit of riflemen and clashes immediately with Corporal Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley). Harper considers himself the equal of Sharpe and butts heads often with the newly-minted lieutenant. It culminates in Sharpe charging Harper with mutiny--a charge he later drops when Harper saves their mission.

Sharpe also grapples frequently with his fellow officers. Unlike most officers, who bought their commissions, he does not hail from a well-to-do family and lacks a formal education. However, Sharpe possesses more battlefield experience than most of his superiors--and seldom refrains from expressing his opinions.

As the series progresses, Sharpe becomes accepted by his subordinates, who admire his courage and intelligence. However, he forms few friendships with fellow officers, preferring to fraternize with his soldiers. Put another way, he favors a hearty mug of ale over a glass of fine wine.

Daragh O'Malley as Harper.
The ruggedly handsome Sharpe has several romantic relationships throughout the series and eventually marries (one of the most interesting storylines). However, his strongest relationships are with two men: Patrick Harper and the Duke of Wellington. Indeed, Sean Bean and Daragh O'Malley (as Harper) are the only two actors to appear in every film. Their characters' mutual respect is the one constant during the chaos of war. Wellington (played initially by  David Troughton and then Hugh Fraser) also admires and trusts Sharpe. Still, he occasionally takes advantage of the younger officer--though he bales out Sharpe on several occasions.

Sean Bean perfectly captures the blue-collar ethic of the titular hero. An ongoing joke during the series is that the enemy and rival officers expect Sharpe to fight like a gentleman--while Sharpe fights to win. The beauty of Bean's performance, though, is that he also conveys Sharpe's innate kindness toward women and his insecurity in regard to his education.

Abigail Cruttenden as Jane.
The supporting cast includes several actors who appear in multiple episodes. The standouts include Pete Postlethwaite as a psychotic sergeant and Abigail Cruttenden as Sharpe's wife. If the chemistry between Bean and Cruttenden seems real, then that's because it was--they were married for two years.

The majority of the Sharpe films are above-average, though the plots start to get a little repetitious toward the end. There are also lots of battle scenes. Still, the strong characters carry the day with the only truly bad episode (Sharpe's Justice) being one that's not based on a Cornwell novel. All of the films except the last two revolve around the Napoleonic Wars and were produced during 1993-97. Sharpe's Challenge (2006) and Sharpe's Peril (2008) shift the action to India.

John Tams, who plays Rifleman Daniel Hagman, also sings occasionally on the show. Most episodes end with the traditional folk song "Over the Hill and Far Away" with additional lyrics written by Tams. In fact, the music was popular enough to result in an album, Over the Hills and Far Away: The Music of Sharpe, featuring Tams and others.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High

Clint Eastwood's first American film after achieving international stardom in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy was predictably a Western. What is surprising is that Eastwood chose to ignore the qualities that made Leone's Western pictures unique. I wouldn't call Hang 'Em High (1968) conventional--it's a downright odd mix of revenge drama, political statement, and uncomfortable romance. And yet, it's all Hollywood--no Spaghetti.

Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, a rancher on the trail with his small herd of cattle. He is confronted by an unofficial posse who suspects him of murder and theft. Despite producing a bill of sale, Jed cannot convince the posse of his innocence and he is hanged and left for dead. Jed doesn't die, though, and is rescued by a federal marshal who takes him to Fort Grant. 

Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton.
Judge Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle) aims to enforce law and order over the entire Oklahoma Territory with a small team of marshals. Learning that Jed was once a lawman, the judge convinces him to pin on the tin star again. Jed's motive is driven by revenge--he wants to track down the nine men that hanged him. In the meantime, he also takes note of a young attractive woman named Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens). Strangely, she is given the opportunity to view every new prisoner brought to Fort Grant. As Jed later learns, her motives are also driven by revenge.

There's a lot--indeed, too much--going on in Hang 'Em High. Jed's quest for revenge is overshadowed by Judge Fenton's relentless pursuit for justice. The judge resides over so many trials that there's just no time to get into the details of every case. That gets under Jed's skin when a teenage boy is hanged instead of given an opportunity to reform. Likewise, Jed can't tolerate how the mass hangings are turned into entertainment spectacles that attract almost every resident of the community.

Inger Stevens as Rachel.
There are the makings of an interesting political Western here, perhaps along the lines of Kirk Douglas's clever Posse (1975). However, just as it gets interesting, Hang 'Em High changes direction and focuses on the awkward romance between Jed and Rachel. Their relationship allows her to overcome her need for vengeance, but Jed still jumps at the chance to capture or kill the men who wronged him. I'm sure the screenwriters intended to make some major statement on this plot development, but I totally missed it.

The cast is adequate, with Pat Hingle taking over the film by the sheer force of his personality. Clint  grimaces and looks irritated, but lacks the humor that made his Westerns with Sergio Leone so entertaining. As Clint's love interest, Inger Stevens has a better-developed role than her usual ones. The Swedish-born actress with the compelling eyes was wasted in many films during her short career. She died at age 35 of an apparent suicide.

In fact, my recommendation is to skip Hang 'Em High and opt for any of Clint's Spaghetti Westerns or later quality efforts like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Doris and Rock Engage in Pillow Talk

Doris Day as Jan.
Interior designer Jan Morrow shares a party line with composer Brad Allen--and that's a problem. You see, Brad (Rock Hudson) is a lothario who uses the telephone to woo his admirers. When Jan (Doris Day) complains to the telephone company, it sends a female representative, who immediately succumbs to the handsome Brad's charms.

Brad is equally frustrated with Jan until he sees the pretty professional at a nightclub. Knowing that she would never give him the time of day, Brad invents a new persona: a naive Texan named Rex Stetson, who is visiting New York City. Sparks fly between Jan and "Rex." She believes she may have found the perfect gentleman. Brad thinks he can make Jan one of his conquests within five days (at most).

Rock Hudson as Brad.
Made in 1959, Pillow Talk is a smart, well-written comedy that benefits from brilliant casting. It was the first of three films made with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The two were already big stars, but their on-screen chemistry is far greater than the sum of its parts. Hudson, who had made over a dozen dramas during the previous five years, was not known for his comedic skills. However, his funny side blossoms alongside Doris Day. That works to her advantage because she doesn't have to carry the comedy all by herself, as she did in later films with Rod Taylor (The Glass Bottom Boat) and Richard Harris (Caprice).

Brad goes drinking with Alma.
It helps, of course, to have Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter in the supporting cast. The typically delightful Ritter actually has a small role, but it includes a wonderful scene in which Brad unwisely tries to get her drunk. Randall has a field day as a quirky millionaire pursuing Jan while trying to mount a Broadway musical with his good friend Brad. He also gets many of the best one-liners. Upon learning that Brad has been rejected by Jan, he quips: "The great Brad Allen, chopped down to size, floating down the river with the rest of us logs."

Director Michael Gordon injects Pillow Talk with a playful sense of humor. He uses split screens periodically throughout the film to show Jan and Brad talking on the party line. The technique is especially effective in the opening scene in which we see Jan, Brad, and one of Brad's girlfriends all at different locations talking on the phone. In a later split scene, Jan and "Rex" seem to touch feet romantically as they talk on the phone. However, an even more effective technique is allowing the audience to hear the thoughts of Jan and Brad as voiceovers (check out the clip at the end of this review).
Interestingly, Michael Gordon specialized in serious dramas early in his career (e.g., An Act of MurderCyrano de Bergerac). His career was interrupted when he was blacklisted in the early 1950s. Pillow Talk (1959) was his first feature film in eight years. He directed Doris Day again in Move Over, Darling (1963). He was the grandfather of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, 500 Days of Summer).

Pillow Talk earned five Oscar nominations, with its writers winning the award for Best Screenplay. Doris Day was nominated for Best Actress and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress. Doris, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall reteamed for two more comedies: Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). The best of their three films is the sparkling classic Lover Come Back. But if it's their #1 film, then Pillow Talk is #1a!

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (1950s Sci Fi Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie 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. Alien Nuptials.

2. Don't Go to Sleep!

3. When the Elevator Stopped.

4. Escape to Zyra.

5. Hooray for Bacteria!

6. Help Me! Help Me!

7. Infinitesimal.

8. Swimming With Kay.

9. Alien Desert Crash.

10. Don't Water the Rocks.

11. Carrot Creature.

12. Id Monster.

13. They Live in the Storm Drain!

14. Big Grasshoppers.

15. Gertrud (or Gertrude) the Duck.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Les Diaboliques: Murder with a Twist

Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret.
Michel Delassalle, the headmaster at a second-rate French boarding school, is not a nice person. He treats his frail wife Christina with disdain, openly engages in an affair with fellow teacher Nicole, and buys bad fish because it’s cheap. He even waters down the wine served to the staff at dinner!

The strong-willed Nicole, who wears sunglasses to hide her recent black eye, is fed up with her abusive lover. She convinces Christina that murder is the only way to get rid of Michel permanently. The two women devise a seemingly foolproof scheme that provides them with solid alibis. And everything works according to plan—except, of course, that Michel’s corpse disappears.

Made in 1955, Les Diaboliques is the forerunner to the twisty psychological thrillers, like Psycho and Homicidal, that became prevalent in the 1960s. Even Hitchcock was interested in adapting the novel She Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac. However, filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot purchased the rights after his wife Vera recommended the book.

Simone Signoret as Nicole.
Vera Clouzot also stars as Christina, infusing the role with vulnerability and timidity. Even the boys in her classes recognize her fragility (though she is easily the most popular teacher). Filled with doubt from the outset, Christina needs a strong conspirator and finds one in Nicole. Simone Signoret plays the role with authority and an almost masculine flavor. While her fellow teachers struggle with unruly boys, Nicole’s students march out of their classroom in single file. (The very nature of Nicole’s personality provides a clue to the twist ending.)

Paul Meurisse as Michel.
Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose previous film was the acclaimed Wages of Fear, directs with a sure hand. He fills his frames with shadows and furtive looks. He builds tension effectively, especially in a scene in which a frightened Christina watches from her classroom as a swimming pool—which should contain Michel’s corpse—is drained. Clouzot also adds a touch of dark humor, such as when some upstairs neighbors complain about the noise in Nicole’s apartment, not realizing that a bath tub is being filled to drown a drugged Michel. 

Les Diaboliques has been remade multiple times. Curtis Harrington’s Games is a loose variation starring Simone Signoret again. Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, and Sam Waterston appeared in a 1974 TV adaptation called Reflections of Murder. Another notable version was the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

We recommend just sticking with the original, though. Clouzot's taut direction, combined with strong acting by the lead actresses, make Les Diaboliques an influential thriller that has stood the test of time. That said, if you're a fan of twist endings, don't expect to be blown away. It's really not that surprising by today's standards, but that's only because the format has been replicated so many times since its release.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Hole Sinks into Itself

In the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Walt Disney Productions mounted its own science fiction adventure in 1979 with The Black Hole. The concept must have looked promising on paper: A 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea set in outer space for a new generation of young people. However, The Black Hole teeters on the brink of a total disaster with its uneven mixture of seriousness and silliness.

It opens with the crew of the the spaceship Palomino discovering a black hole and a nearby ship capable of defying its gravitational pull. The mysterious spaceship turns out to be the Cygnus, which was assumed to have been destroyed 20 years earlier. After getting too close to the black hole and suffering damage, the Palomino docks inside the much larger Cygnus. The latter ship turns out to still be functional and occupied by its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a crew of robots.

Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt.
Reinhardt claims that meteors disabled the Cygnus, causing him to evacuate almost the entire crew. He assumed that their escape ship had reached Earth. Reinhardt remained behind with a handful of others--all now dead--and repaired the spaceship with the goal of entering into the black hole.

While some of the Palomino crew believe Reinhardt, others remain skeptical. Their suspicions are reinforced by an unusual robot funeral, a robot that limps, and a garden much larger than required for one human. Could it be that Reinhardt's silent "robots" are actually what's left of his human crew?

As evidenced from above, The Black Hole is not a sci fi romp along the lines of Star Wars. It's a picture devoid of any fun and lacking any action until its final half-hour. The only character with any heft is Reinhardt, who is played with passion and menace by Maximilian Schell. Good actors like Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine flail about trying to make sense of their parts. Borgnine eventually resorts to playing the stereotypical crew member concerned most with self-preservation--but at least he becomes relevant.

Vincent the robot, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine.
Apparently because this is a Disney film, the writers plop two cute robots into the proceedings. They don't belong in the movie and it's awkward when one of the robots banters with Timothy Bottoms when the crew should be focusing on avoiding its demise. Still, the robots are voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, which makes it almost impossible to criticize them.

The Black Hole was Disney's most expensive production to date and most of the budget went toward the special effects. Instead of farming out the effects (which is now the norm), Disney relied on its in-house technicians. The results are sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprisingly shoddy. The entrance into Reinhardt's control room and a sequence with a meteor hurling toward our heroes are jaw-dropping. On the other hand, you can see wires attached to the actors in some of the scenes where they're supposed to be in zero gravity. And some of the matte shots don't match, so it looks like live actors were placed into a cartoon.
The massive control room inside the Cygnus.
In my opinion, John Barry is one of the all-time great film composers. However, his score for The Black Hole rates as one of his weakest efforts. The opening theme is simply disturbing--perhaps indicative of the screenwriters' confusion over whether The Black Hole should be a sci fi adventure or a watered-down version of 2001. Even worse, the background music seems incongruent with the action scenes in the climax.

To be sure, there are some interesting ideas in The Black Hole, such as one character's ability to communicate with a robot through ESP. However, the film is mostly just a jumbled mess. I'm still not sure what to make of the scenes inside the black hole which show what appears to be hell and includes an angel  floating swiftly through the air. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could have made some sense of it.