Monday, January 14, 2019

25 Greatest Classic TV Series

In 2012, I became one of the founding members of the Classic TV Blog Association (CTVBA), a fabulous group of bloggers who celebrate classic television. This year, the CTVBA embarked on its most ambitious project to date: a list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Our definition of "classic" was any prime-time TV series that began broadcasting prior to 1990. Each member applied his or her own criteria in nominating series. My criteria were quality, enduring popularity, and social influence. Over 55 shows were nominated in the first round of voting, but only 29 made it to the second and final round.

Here is the final official list of the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series (for more details, check out the CTVBA web site):

1.    The Twilight Zone
2.    I Love Lucy 
3.    The Mary Tyler Moore Show
4.    Columbo
5.    All in the Family
6.    Dragnet
7.    Monty Python’s Flying Circus
8.    Star Trek
9.    The Prisoner
10.  M*A*S*H
11.  The Dick Van Dyke Show
12.  The Fugitive
13.  Dallas
14.  Doctor Who
15.  The Andy Griffith Show
16.  The Defenders
17.  The Golden Girls
18.  Perry Mason
19.  SCTV
20.  The Honeymooners
21.  Alfred Hitchcock Presents
22.  Hill Street Blues
23.  The Odd Couple
24.  The Outer Limits
25.  The Avengers

Honorable Mentions:  Get Smart, The Ed Sullivan Show, Leave It to Beaver, and WKRP in Cincinnati.

I think it's a pretty strong list overall, but there were some definite surprises. I can't argue with The Twilight Zone and I Love Lucy in the top two spots. Both were landmark TV series that are just as good today as when they debuted.

David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble.
However, my choice for #1 spot was The Fugitive. I can think of no other TV series that was as uniformly strong for a three-year period (and the fourth season was also good). This modern-day Les Miserables turned Dr. Kimble and Lieutenant Gerard into iconic characters. The two-part series finale was a national phenomenon, with the last episode earning the highest Nielsen rating of any regular TV series until M*A*S*H eclipsed it.

The Defenders belongs in the Top Five. It boasted superb writing and acting, plus it explored some of the most complex social issues of the 1960s. Indeed, many of its episodes seem just as timely today. I suspect its too-low ranking may have been a case of not enough voters having seen The Defenders.

Beaver and his father.
Leave It to Beaver, which is relegated to an honorable mention, is one of the finest family sitcoms. The dialogue and plots are remarkably realistic and many of my favorite episodes are the ones in which Ward Cleaver admits to one of his shortcomings as a parent. There were many good family sitcoms, but Beaver was one of the best.

While I watched Dragnet (the 1967-70 version mostly), I wouldn't rank it among the greatest classic TV series. Yes, it was one of the first radio hits to make a successful transition to television, the music remains recognizable, and there were some famous quotes. But the repetitious formula caused me to lose interest quickly.

Peter Falk as Columbo.
Likewise, Columbo seems ranked too high. Don't get me wrong, Peter Falk is a fine actor and he makes Lieutenant Columbo one of the great TV characters--but the show's formula also wore thin despite the production of fewer episodes than most series. I suspect I'm in the minority here since Columbo is still in heavy rotation on cable television thanks to Falk and his guest star murderers.

Finally, The Odd Couple was a good show with a funny premise, strong characters, and two terrific actors--but it doesn't belong among the 25 Greatest Classic TV Series.

Of course, any "greatest" list is bound to stir some debate...and that's part of the fun! What do you think of the Classic TV Blog Association's 25 Greatest Classic TV Series list?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Three-Word Movie Game

Today, we're trying out a new game in which we describe a movie in three words and ask you to name it. That sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Most of the questions below are pretty easy, but there are a few that might pose a challenge. Please answer only three per day so other people can play. There is a "best answer" for question, but other answers may be possible. Let us you know if you enjoy this game!

1. Inn, Vermont, snow.

2. Holmes, phantom, Canada.

3. Vampire, mother, windmill.

4. Newlywed, housekeeper, mansion.

5. Farmer, gunfighter, boy.

6. Binoculars, camera, cast.

7. Robot, diamonds, elevator.

8. Physician, slave, pirate.

9. Dog, orphans, grave.

10. Murder, South (U.S.), slap.

11. Lighthouse, plants, blindness.

12. Painting, deception, bell.

13. Reindeer, questionnaire, computer.

14. Politician, mask, swordfight (yes, it's usually two words!).

15. Museum, bone, song.

16. Opera, globe, sled.

17. Museum, engineer, youths.

18. Murder, poker, revenge.

19. Mermaid, kidnapping, skydiving.

20. Wig, telephone, pirates.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark

If not for a small band of Norwegian commandos, Adolf Hitler might have had an atomic bomb before the U.S.--leading to a very different outcome for World War II. The Norwegians' exploits form the basis for the fascinating premise of Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark (1965).

The film opens in Oslo, Norway, in 1942 with the Germans manufacturing "heavy water" in a fortified factory surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The lead scientist. who doubles as spy for the Allies, smuggles a microfilm to guerrilla fighter Knut Strand (Richard Harris). Knut convinces a philandering physicist, Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas), to examine the evidence. 

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas.
Pedersen has his suspicions immediately, but cannot confirm them until consulting with British and American colleagues (to include Albert Einstein). Still, it's no surprise when they all conclude that the Nazis are producing water with a greater than normal amount of hydrogen isotope--a product that is used in creating atomic energy.

The Allies quickly decide that the factory must be destroyed, but its proximity to a nearby village creates the first challenge for Knut and Pedersen. A British bombing of the production facility could be deadly for the town's 6,000 residents. However, the factory's location and high level of security make it an almost impossible task for a ground attack. What will they decide?

Filmed largely in Norway, The Heroes of Telemark benefits mightily from the snowy vistas that frame the action. The scenes of the commandos trudging through snow drifts, with the wind whistling in the background, is enough to make most viewers reach for a hot beverage regardless of the time of year. One of the film's highlights is an exciting ski chase that pre-dates later skiing sequences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and Jean Claude-Killy's Snow Job (1972).

Douglas and Harris amid the snow-covered backdrop.

While Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris inject some star power into the proceedings, both are saddled with one-dimensional characters. That's odd considering that Anthony Mann's 1950s Westerns are noted for their emphasis on characterization over action. It's also difficult to buy Kirk's sudden transition from a university professor to a gun-carrying commando who kills bad guys without remorse. On the plus side, Mann packs The Heroes of Telemark with exciting set pieces: the hijacking of a ship; the explosive raid on the factory; and the sinking of a ferry carrying the heavy water.

Ulla Jacobsson.
Although partially based on the real-life Knut's 1954 book Skis Against the Atom, the screenplay takes some liberties with the actual events. Numerous attacks on the water production facility over a period of several years have been condensed into two raids, which makes for a more streamlined plot. However, the inclusion of a renewed romance between Douglas's scientist and his ex-wife (played by Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson) adds nothing of value of the story.

Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer were attached as the stars early in the production planning (when the film was to be called The Unknown Battle). Boyd had appeared the previous year in Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). After several delays, though, Boyd abandoned the project and, according to some sources, he sued Mann for $500,000 because he missed out on other lucrative roles.

There have been other films, books, and documentaries produced about the courageous men who ensured that Nazi Germany never developed an atomic bomb. The Heroes of Telemark may not be the most accurate version, but it's a well-made, atmospheric adventure that serves as a good introduction--and it looks fabulous on Blu-ray. Sadly, it was also Anthony Mann's last completed film. He died while directing the Cold War thriller A Dandy in Aspic in 1967 with star Laurence Harvey completing it.


Allied Vaughn Entertainment provided a review copy of The Heroes of Telemark Blu-ray.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

James Garner Stars in a Disney Duo

After an immensely successful decade in the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions hit a rut in the 1970s. The quality and popularity of its films, as a whole, took a nose dive. Two of its better efforts during this period are now largely forgotten despite the presence of James Garner. Signed to a two-movie deal, Garner appeared opposite young male co-stars in a pair of above-average Westerns.

The first, and best, is One Little Indian (1973), which focuses on the relationship between a U.S. Cavalry deserter (Garner) and a boy who has been raised by the Cheyenne, but captured by soldiers. A grizzled sergeant and a chaplain name the boy Mark and treat him kindly. However, Mark (Clay O'Brien) just wants to return to his Indian mother. He escapes from the fort and eventually encounters Corporal Keyes, who is on the run to avoid a hanging for his desertion. The pair are saddled--literally--with a pair of camels, an adult female named Rosie and her offspring (who comes to be called Thirsty).

Thirsty and Mark.
This unlikely quartet head towards Mexico with a Cavalry patrol in hot pursuit. Along the way, they narrowly avoid capture, inadvertently cause a cattle stampede, and meet a lonely widow (Vera Miles) and her young daughter (Jodie Foster). But, as the bond grows between Keyes and Mark, the former must decide what to do with his young friend.

Films like this depend largely upon the believability of the relationship between the main characters. That's not an issue in One Little Indian, in which Mark's initial distrust of Keyes gradually evolves into a deep friendship. Much of the credit goes to the always likable Garner and his young co-star O'Brien, whose intense eyes convey as much emotion as his dialogue.

Vera Miles and Jodie Foster.
The use of the camels provides a nice offbeat touch--and, of course, the target of a some humorous Garner wisecracks. Keyes alludes briefly to the Camel Corps, which was created by Jefferson Davis when he was Secretary of War. (At this point, I know some of you are probably remembering Hawmps!, a 1976 film about the use of camels in the West...but I have seen Hawmps! so let's not go there.)

Incidentally, young Clay O'Brien also starred opposite John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Under his real name, Clay O'Brien Cooper, he grew up to become a rodeo star, winning seven world championships and earning almost $3 million.

Garner's second Disney picture, The Castaway Cowboy (1974), also pairs him with a young co-star in Eric Shea. It opens with Booton MacAvoy (Shea) discovering the body of a man floating in a cove near his island home. The visitor recovers and reveals that he's a cowboy from Texas named Costain, who was shanghaied and dumped into the Pacific. Although Booton's widowed mother (Vera Miles again) treats him well, Costain just wants to get back to San Francisco.

James Garner and Eric Shea.
His plans change, though, when he learns there are wild cattle on the island. He and Booton's mother hatch a scheme to capture the cattle and sell them to ships heading back to the U.S. There are numerous obstacles to overcome, such as training the island natives to become cowboys and figuring out how to get the steers on a ship since the island has no dock. There's also a local banker (Robert Culp) who wants the plan to fail because he wants to marry the widow and gain ownership of her 10,000-acre ranch.

Vera Miles.
The Castaway Cowboy is lighter fare than One Little Indian and not as engrossing. There are too many comedic scenes of the islanders learning how to ride and rope. Eric Shea, who played Carol Lynley's irritating little brother in The Poseidon Adventure, overacts here, too.

Still, the island setting is a nice touch and Garner and Vera Miles have more scenes this time, which works to the film's advantage. I was also pleased that we actually saw how the steers were transported from shore to ships (as I had some real concerns about that).

If you only see one of these movies, then I recommend One Little Indian. But if you have some time on a lazy day, then you could do a lot worse than a double-feature comprised of these James Garner Disney pics.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Turning Back the Clock: A Tribute to the Best Time Travel Movies

I have always been intrigued by the concept of time travel. The end of the year seems like an appropriate time to list my picks for best time travel films and then learn what Cafe readers have to say about the subject. Starting from the top:

Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell.
1. Time After Time. This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Meyer serves up a second unique pairing in Time After Time--only with two nifty differences. Instead of working together, the pair are friends-turned-adversaries in the form of H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) and Jack the Ripper (David Warner) . And instead of setting the plot in the past, it involves time travel from the past to the future. The usual time travel conumdrums are explored here, but they never get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire. In short, an underrated gem.

2. The Terminator. Given the blockbuster status of its sequels, it's easy to forget that the original Terminator was a sleeper hit by unknown director named James Cameron. Although Terminator 2 is a near-perfect action film, the first Terminator is grounded by a solid love story and gets kudos for setting the concept in motion. I imagine most of you have seen it, but those who haven't I won't spoil the "nested loop" that makes the head-scratching plot so memorable. By the way, I've often wondered if Cameron borrowed parts of his premise from the 1966 Michael Rennie B-film Cyborg 2087.

3. Repeat Performance. Decidedly offbeat 1948 B-film stars Joan Leslie as a popular stage actress who kills her husband on December 31st--and then gets the chance to live the year over again. Knowing the outcome, can she change the events that lead up to her murderous act? This atmospheric film benefits from a surprisingly good cast with Richard Basehart, Tom Conway, and Natalie Schaefer. It was remade for TV in the late 1990s as Turn Back the Clock with Connie Selleca. Repeat Performance is not shown often on TV; I haven't seen it in years.

4. The Time Machine. George Pal's 1960 adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel is still the best version. The once state-of-the-art special effects hold up pretty well and Rod Taylor makes an appealing hero (Alan Young, from TV's Mister Ed, is even better as a friend). Taylor's romance with Yvette Mimieux (as Weena of the Eloi race) lack a certain magic for me, but Wells' ideas remain fresh and the time machine itself looks way cool.

5. Somewhere in Time. There are people that loathe this film and those that love it. I naturally fall into the latter group. I must admit, though, that my perceptions are clouded...I first saw this romance with my future wife when we were young and very much smitten with one another (we still are). The plot, which Richard Matheson adapted from his cult novel Bid Time Return, stars Christopher Reeve as a playwright who falls in love with a photograph of an actress (Jane Seymour) and wills himself back in time to be with her. The leads are photogenic and likable, the location filming at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is breathtaking, and the music score by John Barry (who weaves in Rachmaninoff) is one of my all-time favorites. By the way, for many years, Somewhere in Time was the top-grossing film in Japan...though it flopped in the U.S. until rediscovered years later on video.

6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy devised the entertaing premise which sent the original Enterprise crew back in time to rescue some humpback whales (who are needed to save Earth in the future). Nicolas Meyer, who already explored time travel in the aforementioned Time After Time, contributed to the screenplay. Although some of the social humor is now dated, this is one of the best of the Star Trek film series and, accounting for inflation, is probably the biggest box office hit of the original Trek pictures.

7. Back to the Future. Speaking of blockbusters, this family smash about a teenager who goes back in time and meets his parents in high school is undoubtedly the best known time travel movie with contemporary audiences. The performances are engaging and the story gets a lot of laughs out of its unlikely situations (Mom, as a teenager, is attracted to her son). The sequels, which were shot back to back, are not as good. Back to the Future 2 gets mired in its plot entanglements by sending its heroes to multiple time periods. Back to the Future 3 is set primarily in the Old West and at least restores some charm to the series.

Sean Connery in Time Bandits.
8. 12 Monkeys and Time Bandits. Although these movies are very different, I list them together because they both sprang from the fertile imagination of Terry Gilliam. For me, Time Bandits is an adult fantasy masquerading as a family film; its visual images (e.g., a knight on horseback bursting into a child's room) are what I remember most. 12 Monkeys is a richly layered time travel film, in which once again a person from the future is sent back in time to alter future events. I have several friends who will cringe to see 12 Monkeys listed way down in the No. 8 spot. I admit, I haven't seen it in awhile, so I may be off base on my ranking of this one...but if so, not by much for me.

Honorable mentions: Berekley Square and its remake I'll Never Forget You, the influential French short film La jetee, Planet of the Apes, and 1964's The Time Travelers (which may feature the most bizarre ending of all time travel movies).

OK, so there are my choices. What have I left out and how would you rank the best time travel pics?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Rock Hudson Gets Caught in an Avalanche!

Rock Hudson makes a call!
A 3.7 rating (out of 10) on the IMDb and a 7% (out of 100%) audience score on Rotten Tomatoes might lead one to believe that a movie may be a turkey. Yet, there's always that "may" and, besides, I'm a Rock Hudson fan and have a bit of a soft spot for disaster movies. Thus, I spent 91 minutes watching Avalanche so you wouldn't have to.

Rock stars as David Shelby, a rugged developer who has risked his entire fortune on a newly-opened, sprawling snow resort (you know he's rugged because he boldly wears a light-green plaid flannel shirt with a white turtleneck underneath). In addition to launching his new business, he's dealing with a messy situation involving a crooked politician and trying to woo back his ex-wife Caroline (Mia Farrow). She catches the eye of rugged photographer Nick Thorne (you know he's rugged because he lives in a cabin by himself on a snow-covered mountain).

Mia Farrow looking concerned.
Nick (Robert Forster) warns David of bad incoming weather and an unstable slope; there's also mention of a deadly avalanche that occurred in the 1880s. (Such foreshadowing is often a standard element in disaster movies). No one seems concerned about the snowfall, though, including the two figure skaters, Shelby's secretary, his mother (Jeanette Nolan), and a studly skier ("I ski like I breathe or talk...or make love").

After an hour or so of tedious plot, the avalanche finally comes when an airplane collides with the top of the mountain. The big event consists of a lot of stock footage interspersed with what appears to be foam blocks rolling into people. When the moving mounds of snow stop, the big rescue begins.

Avalanche was produced by Roger Corman during the period in which his New World Pictures was trying to compete with the bigger studios. Even so, it's borderline shocking to see the likes of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow in a Corman picture. Unfortunately, I think most of the film's budget went to their salaries. The best disaster movies (e.g., The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno) benefit from the kind of well-known cast that Roger just couldn't afford.

Robert Forster tries to save the day.
It still might have worked in the hands of a better writer and director. Corey Allen had a long successful career as a TV director and an actor before that (he was Buzz in Rebel Without a Cause). So, perhaps, he just had a bad experience making Avalanche--I don't know how else to explain his shoddy work behind the camera and as co-writer. Robert Forster, who gives perhaps the best performance, inexplicably disappears for most of the film's second half. In some sequences, Allen cuts back-and-forth between scenes so quickly that it's dizzying. His characters are poorly-developed and uninteresting and there's no logical narrative to the film. Heck, a few juicy subplots would have made a world of difference!

Still, I guess Avalanche must have affected me on some innate level for I found myself looking for another New World Pictures disaster film: Tidal Wave (1975). It starred Lorne Greene, though the disaster footage was lifted from a big-budgeted Japanese movie called The Submersion of Japan. I thought for sure I'd find it on YouTube...but not yet.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The 5 Best Christmas Movies

(Note: This post originally appeared in 2011. Seven years later, we still think these are the five best, but we've changed the order. Also, we conducted a recent Twitter poll with over 200 participants and 42% of them picked It's a Wonderful Life as No. 1.)

With the holiday season upon us, it only seems appropriate to do a Yuletide version of "The Five Best" series. Between 1938 and 2000 alone, there were over 100 movies centered around Christmas and I'm not even counting films with Christmas scenes such as The Bells of St. Mary's and Meet Me in St. Louis. Picking out a Top 5 was not an easy task and I fully expect to receive some comments on omissions and the rationale for my picks. But, as I've said previously, there's nothing like a good movie discussion!

1. The Bishop's Wife.  When I first saw this film on TV in the 1970s, it was not the annual holiday favorite that it is today. Its stature has grown exponentially since then and it’s typically listed among the best films of all three of its stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Aside from its magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), what I admire most about The Bishop’s Wife is Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn’t get the girl. Furthermore, Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.

2. White Christmas and Holiday Inn.  OK, I'm cheating by listing two films in one slot, but it's hard to separate these two Bing Crosby musicals that featured his biggest hit song. When I was young, I preferred Holiday Inn because it wasn't shown frequently on television and contained a rare Crosby-Astaire pairing. As a adult, my preference shifted solidly to White Christmas. Its detractors harp about the flimsy plot, but with such an incredible cast and Irving Berlin's songs, who cares? Danny Kaye is at the top of his game and has probably his best dance number with "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" with the underrated Vera-Ellen. Plus, Bing duets with Rosemary Clooney (who never sounded better) on "Count Your Blessings." It's worth mentioning that versatile Michael Curtiz directed--the one who helmed CasablancaThe Adventures of Robin Hood, and many other memorable movies.

3. It's a Wonderful Life.  Repeated showings on television may have diminished its impact for many people...but I still remember its emotional wallop when I first saw Frank Capra's holiday classic. Certainly, except for Dickens' A Christmas Carol, no Christmas tale has maintained such an enduring appeal and influenced popular culture. Hey, even Dallas did an episode in which J.R. Ewing was shown what would have happened to others if he had never existed. While there is much to admire in It's a Wonderful Life, what always draws me to the film is James Stewart in his first great post-World War II performance.

4. Christmas in Connecticut.  Barbara Stanwyck so excelled playing "bad girls" in classics like Double Indemnity that her comedic skills are sometimes overlooked. She is simply marvelous in this fine example of a "snowball comedy" in which a simple situation quickly gets out of control. In Christmas in Connecticut, Ms. Stanwyck plays a food and style critic for a popular magazine--the only problem being she has no actual experience. When she's required to play the part, she convinces friends to help out pull off the deception, to include getting a fake husband and baby. The supporting cast includes scene-stealing character actors such as Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, and Una O'Connor.

5.  A Christmas Story.  Jean Shepherd's nostalgic, affectionate childhood memories--centered around his Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB rifle--come to life in this perfect family film. It's a funny comedy, to be sure, but it's the little family scenes that make this one special (e.g., when Mom has Randy play "piggy in the trough" to finish his dinner). This deft blend of warmth, humor, and the spirit of childhood is tough to capture on film. Jean Shepherd and director Bob Clark tried again with a 1994 sequel called It Runs in the Family, which featured a different cast. Despite some amusing scenes, it lacks that special spark. (If you can find it, a better sequel is the TV-movie Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss, which also features Ralphie's family).

Honorable mentionsMiracle on 34th Street; A Christmas Carol (the Alastair Sim version is my favorite); The Shop Around the CornerThe Cheaters (aka The Castaway); Remember the Night (also with Barbara Stanwyck); and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Robert Lansing as The Man Who Never Was

Robert Lansing as Murphy.
With an enemy agent hot on his trail, spy Peter Murphy (Robert Lansing) ducks into a late-night Berlin bar. As he ponders his next move, he hears a loud drunkard and turns around to see a man who could be his twin. Murphy goes up to the building's roof and watches the man with his face leave the bar--only to be shot dead in Murphy's place.

When an exhausted Murphy makes his exit, he is mistaken for the dead man. Murphy's superior, Colonel Forbes (Murray Hamilton), soon learns about the switch and immediately recognizes the potential to turn it into an advantage. The dead man was Mark Wainwright, a millionaire playboy with access to resources and people which could be a boon for the intelligence agency. For his part, Murphy is reluctant to assume Wainwright's identity, realizing the challenges of pulling off the ultimate deception. The situation is greatly complicated by the fact that Wainwright was married.

Dana Wynter as Eva.
It doesn't take Eva Wainwright (Dana Wynter) long to figure out that Murphy isn't her husband. But, in a delightful twist, she has her own reasons for going along with the deception. Can Peter and Eva pull it off? Can Peter trust Eva as he tries to live another man's life while doubling as a spy?

This was the premise of The Man Who Never Was, a 1966-67 espionage TV series created by John Newland (One Step Beyond). Its network, ABC, hoped to cash in on the spy craze that was still going strong on television (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy) and in movies (the Bond films, Our Man Flint). However, unlike most of those TV shows and films, The Man Who Never Was opted for more realistic adventures. Peter Murphy never relies on gadgets and tries to avoid violence if he can (though that's not always the case).

Although the series is unavailable on DVD, you can view a handful of episodes on YouTube, though the video quality is subpar. Fortunately, four of the first five half-hour episodes were edited into a theatrical movie called Danger Has Two Faces and it's available from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives. 

Murray Hamilton as Peter's boss.
The film's first half (consisting of the initial two episodes) is excellent, with Peter and Eva feeling each other out and then trying to pull off the incredible masquerade. The second episode ends with Eva providing an alibi for Peter, who has just killed an enemy agent in self-defense. It's the act that seals their unwritten agreement.

The second half of Danger Has Two Faces consists of two unrelated episodes. One involves plotting the escape of a priest who wants to defect and the other deals with uncovering the person responsible for the deaths of two U.S. agents. Both episodes are well done if a little conventional. It helps that the show was shot in Europe and boasts fabulous scenery. However, there's not enough of the relationship between Peter and Eva, which worked so well in the first two episodes.

Lansing and Wynter facing danger.
Lansing, who had been replaced as the lead on Twelve O'Clock High after the 1965 season, is perfectly cast as a spy with a unique identity crisis. And you couldn't ask for a better female protagonist than the elegant Dana Wynter, whose calmness is the perfect complement to Lansing's intensity.

The Man Who Never Was was cancelled after 20 episodes. I suspect the half-hour format was part of the problem. It just wasn't long enough to develop the plots. Plus, its time slot rival on CBS was Green Acres, which finished the 1966-67 season as the sixth most watched television series. Still, I'd love to see The Man Who Never Was released on DVD and, with Coronet Blue finally getting a DVD release in 2017, there's still hope.

And here's a scene from Danger Has Two Faces, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:


Monday, December 17, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (December 2018)

Red Buttons and Robert Lansing.
Happy holidays to everyone! If you're new to this game, here are the rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. 

1. David Niven and Leslie Howard.

2. Red Buttons and Robert Lansing.

3. Them! (1954) and The Third Man.

4. The Gold Rush (1925) and Hobson's Choice.

5. Patty Duke and Hayley Mills.

6. Joanne Woodward and Patty Duke.

7. Tom Selleck and Robert Conrad.

8. Bing Crosby and Dustin Hoffman.

9. Jane Seymour and Elsa Lanchester.

10. Robert Redford and Fredric March.

11. The movies Dangerous When Wet and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

12. Cary Grant and George Hamilton.

13. Burt Lancaster and Rod Taylor.

14. Raquel Welch and Deborah Walley.

15. Jack Nicholson and Richard Dreyfus.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Kirk Douglas as Ned Land.
It's a whale of a tale...I swear by my tattoo. Well, truth be told, I'm not a tattoo kind of guy, but Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still an impressive achievement 64 years after its original release. However, a recent viewing reminded me that it's more a movie for adults than children.

The plot, a fairly faithful adaptation of Jules Verne's 1870 novel, opens with the U.S. government launching a search for a "sea monster" that has been destroying warships. The expedition includes a famous French scholar, Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas), his assistant (Peter Lorre), and a harpooner named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). When their ship is attacked, the trio fall overboard and are later rescued by the "monster"--which turns out to be a technologically advanced submarine called the Nautilus.

Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.
The submarine's commander is Captain Nemo (James Mason), who has turned his back on mankind and retreated to a world beneath the oceans. Nemo is thrilled to discuss his discoveries with a fellow scientist, Aronnax, so he spares the lives of his three new passengers. Yet, as their undersea voyages continue, the professor gradually realizes that Nemo is consumed by revenge. Meanwhile, the restless Ned Land plots his escape--hopefully with some of the treasure stored aboard the Nautilus.

Cannibal tries to board the submarine.
With whole sequences that play like a documentary narrated by Paul Lukas and a running time just over two hours, one would expect 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be a leisurely affair. However, director Richard Fleischer spaces the three best action scenes with precision. Just as an underwater expedition starts to turn dull, Douglas and Lorre are attached by a shark. A quick visit to a seemingly deserted island gets enlivened by a tribe of cannibals chasing after Douglas. And, as Nemo's near-madness begins to take center stage, Fleischer inserts the film's showstopper: an attack by a giant squid amid a ferocious storm.

James Mason as Captain Nemo.
Douglas, Lukas, and Lorre acquit themselves capably, but the standout performance belongs to James Mason. He captures Nemo's excitement at discovering the wonders of the deep, but also the Captain's depression over the death of his family and his hatred toward the human race that he holds accountable.

Of course, one could argue that the true star of 20,000 Leagues is the Nautilus. From the submarine's exterior design to the observation cone in the captain's quarters, it presents one wonder after another. It should come as no surprise that the film won Oscars for Best Art Direction - Color and Best Special Effects.

The giant squid attack at sunset.
Part of the justification for the latter award was no doubt the famous squid battle. It was originally filmed at sunset, but then reshot because it lacked drama (and some of the wires were visible). Although the scene was believed to be lost, 16mm footage was later discovered and the sequence edited for a "special edition" DVD. It looks pretty good, although the sunset looks like a painted backdrop. The reality is that the storm added immeasurably to the suspense.

Watch it for the thrilling giant squid. Watch it for another fine James Mason performance. Or watch it for the impressive art direction. Whatever the reason, if you haven't watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recently, it's probably time to see it again.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Five Best Movies That Start With "Q"

I know it's quazy, but what if you're in the mood to watch a movie with a title that starts with "Q"? We pondered this question and came up with five quick picks:

Andrew Keir as Quatermass.
1. Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) - Construction workers uncover the ancient skulls of “ape men” and a large metallic-like object while working in a deserted underground subway station in the Hobbs End area of London. Are the ape men the earliest known ancestors of humans? Is the metallic-like object a bomb or perhaps a spacecraft? And what does it have to do with stories of former Hobbs End residents claiming to have heard odd noises and experienced visions of “hideous dwarfs”?  Nigel Kneale's ingenious mix of science fiction and horror makes for a one-of-a-kind film. It was adapted from his earlier British television serial, which is pretty good in its own right.

2. The Questor Tapes - Robert Foxworth stars as the title character, an android assembled by a team of scientists from plans designed by Dr. Emil Vaslovik, a scientific genius who has suddenly disappeared. When Questor fails to function due to missing programming code, the project is abandoned. Later that day, the android "comes to life," completes its design (e.g., adding facial features and hair), and escapes from the laboratory--determined to find its creator. Gene Roddenberry produced this aborbing made-for-TV film, which doubled as a pilot for series that never materialized.

Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.
3.  Quo Vadis - This elaborate MGM spectacle stars Robert Taylor as a Roman military commander who falls in love with a Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) during the reign of Nero (Peter Ustinov). The studio spared no expense on the the film--and it shows with the elaborate sets, detailed costumes, and rich color cinematography. The standouts among its fine cast are the always marvelous Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov as the megalomaniacal Nero. At various points prior to production, Clark Gable and Gregory Peck were considered for Taylor's role and Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn as the female lead.

4.  Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx - A young man (Gene Wilder) makes a living in Dublin by scooping up horse dung and selling it as garden fertilizer. He becomes smitten with an American student (played by the late Margot Kidder). This offbeat Irish comedy was made before Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein made Wilder a star. It's been decades since I've seen it, but the faded memories of it are still strong enough to earn a place on this list.

Eeck! A winged serpent!
5.  Q--The Winged Serpent - A giant winged serpent is terrorizing the skies of New York City, killing window washers and snatching sunbathers from rooftops. Well, technically, it's an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it's also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices. The film's "hero" (an excellent Michael Moriarty) is a two-bit crook who wants the city to pay him to reveal the location of the monster's lair. Larry Cohen's very quirky cult classic isn't a movie for all tastes, but it's a clever and amusing affair.

Honorable Mentions:  George Segal's spy thriller The Quiller MemorandumQ Planes, another spy picture about the theft of experimental aircraft; and Queen of Outer Space, a wacky sci fi film with about four male astronauts landing on a planet populated solely by women (including Zsa Zsa Gabor).

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Alternate TV Title Game (Volume 2)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic TV series and ask you to name the actual show. Most of these are pretty easy. Keep in mind that they're older series (e.g. classic television). Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. Good luck!

1. Pistol Fumes.

2. Frozen Father.

3. Firearms and Ladies' Undergarments.

4. The Lawyer Named After a Character from Oklahoma!

5. Him & Her.

6. Romance on Top of a Building.

7. Hannibal & The Kid.

8. The Widow's Haunted House.

9. I'm Not John Drake.

10. Everyone Comes to Mother's.

11. Please...No More Than Two Times Four.

12. Call McCall.

13. The Marsupial Officer.

14. Return of a Man Called Gabe.

15. Doc on the Run.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Five Best Philo Vance Movies

Having been a Philo Vance aficionado since my teenage years, I can attest that no actor has captured the uppity, intellectual sleuth. Willard Huntington Wright, writing under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine, penned twelve Vance novels between 1926 and 1939. The first four are excellent mysteries that minimize the academic discourse that would plague the later works. William Powell played the detective four times on the screen...but his portrayal wasn't the best. Without further...discourse...here are our picks for the five best Philo Vance movies:

Warren William as Philo.
1.  The Dragon Murder Case (1934) - At a country estate in upper New York, wealthy playboy Sanford Montague disappears after a night-time dive into a natural lake called the Dragon Pool. When Montague fails to turn up after a day, the police drain the pool and discover claw marks on the sandy bottom. Later, detective Philo Vance discovers Montague's dead body in a "glacial pot-hole" on another part of the estate. The victim's mangled body is covered with large claw marks--as if he had been ripped open by a dragon. This snappy, atmospheric mystery features a fine performance from Warren William as an acerbic Vance and Eugene Pallette as the blustery Sergeant Heath (a role he played previously opposite Powell). It's too bad Warren William only played Vance one other time in the comedic The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939).

2.  The Kennel Murder Case (1933) - In his famous book The Detective in Film, author William K. Everson lauded this as one of the three best detective films ever made. I wouldn't go that far, but it is William Powell's best Philo Vance film. Set against the backdrop of the Long Island Kennel Club, this is a "locked room mystery" in which the victim is found locked inside his bedroom, an apparent suicide victim. That's not the case, of course! Michael Curtiz stylishly directs, using camera movement and quick transitions to tighten the film's pace.

James Stephenson.
3.  Calling Philo Vance (1940) - This "B" remake of The Kennel Murder Case is pretty good on its own terms, weaving espionage into the plot and making Vance more action-oriented. Despite the changes, James Stephenson makes a very good Philo Vance. Warner Bros. intended to make a new series starring him, but Stephenson died of a heart attack at age 52 in 1941. He was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor the previous year opposite Bette Davis in The Letter.

4.  The Bishop Murder Case (1930) - This early talkie is slow as molasses and rather tedious. However, it features a crisp performance by Basil Rathbone as Philo, who displays much of the cutting persona that graced his later Sherlock Holmes interpretation. The plot is also a clever one involving nursery rhymes and chess. It was based on my favorite of the Philo Vance novels and needs to be remade one day!

William Powell.
5.  The Green Murder Case (1929) - My wife and father maintain that the source novel for Powell's second film was the best novel (no, it's second best!). The plot is ostensibly about one of those wealthy families where everyone is bumped off so the killer can claim a large inheritance. Jean Arthur plays Ada Greene, one of the suspects. The cunning mystery still holds up, even if the production now seems dated and the usually reliable Eugene Pallette comes across as too inept as Sergeant Heath.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Two Disney Rareties: Rob Roy and Emil

Richard Todd as Rob Roy.
Richard Todd made three British-filmed historical adventures for Walt Disney in the 1950s: The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (!952); The Sword and the Rose (1953); and Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). James Robertson Justice co-starred in all three and Glynis Johns, one of my favorite actresses, appeared in the last two. Our subject today, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue, was loosely based on the life of Scottish folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor.

It opens with Rob Roy (Todd) leading an attack in the Highlands against the much larger army of King George I. Taken prisoner by the sympathetic Duke of Argyll (Justice), Rob Roy later escapes with the help of his comrades--and his mother. He marries his sweetheart Helen Mary (Johns), but is arrested again on his wedding night.

Glynis Johns as Helen Mary.
Having replaced Argyll, the despicable Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) promises amnesty to all the Scotsmen except for the MacGregors. But if Montrose thinks he can keep Rob Roy as a prisoner, he is mistaken....

Colorful and passionate, Rob Roy is a likable tale of derring-do. Todd, in full beard, and Johns make an appealing pair and there are plenty of fights for action fans. Except for Kidnapped and The Fighting Prince of Donegal, Disney moved away from these costume pictures--and it's really a shame. Incidentally, the soldiers depicted in the film--to include the sweeping opening scene--were real-life Scottish warriors who had returned home from the Korean War.

Made just over a decade later, Emil and the Detectives (1964) is a more traditional Walt Disney family film. It's based on a 1929 children's novel by Erich Kästner. Bryan Russell stars as Emil (we're shown it's pronounced a-mill), who sets off by bus to visit his aunt in Berlin. During the trip, a pickpocket steals an envelope of money intended for Emil's aunt. When Emil realizes the money has been stolen, he's too embarrassed to report the crime.

Gustav advises the younger Emil.
Fortunately, he runs into Gustav, an industrious lad of many professions--one of which turns out to be detective work.With Emil as a client, Gustav and his operatives track the pickpocket to a hotel where he meets with two other criminals--whom the boys call "the Skrinks." They quickly learn that the Skrinks are up to no good, but just what is it?

Two of the three Skrinks.
Released after Mary Poppins, Emil and the Detectives is an unusual Disney film in that it features a no-name cast (except for villain Walter Slezak). It did, however, play a major part in turning young Roger Mobley into a TV star. As the charismatic Gustav, Mobley is easily the most talented of the young cast in Emil and Walt Disney took notice. One year later, he cast Mobley in the lead role in "The Adventures of Gallegher," which aired on The Wonderful World of Color. This two-part mystery about an aspiring teenage newspaper reporter in the Old West was immensely popular and generated several sequels.

As for Emil and the Detectives, it's an enjoyable outing with some unexpected quirky touches. Slezak has a grand time as a cultured criminal who stops to have caviar and wine in the middle of executing a crime. The young actors acquit themselves well, too, especially Cindy Cassell as Emil's cousin Pony, who publishes her own column and wants a scoop in return for her silence.

Emil and the Detectives was not a hit and faded into obscurity quickly, although it was serialized in 1977 on The Mickey Mouse Club under the title The Three Skrinks.

Kästner's novel has been filmed multiple times. Many critics consider the 1931 German version, written by Billy Wilder, to be the best adaptation. Alas, I have not seen it.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Five Best Monty Python Skits

The members of Monty Python.
Everyone has their favorite Monthy Python skits, so compiling a "five best" is an impossible task. That said, I think we've come up with five pretty funny, laugh-out-loud classics. Our only rule was that we limited our picks to skits that appeared on the TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus (as opposed to the feature-length movies). Sadly, that leaves out the killer bunny from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Terry Jones as the waitress.
1.  "Spam" (season 2) - A couple literally "drop in" to a diner in which almost every dish is served with spam--often in multiple servings such as "spam, bacon, sausage and spam." When the wife asks for something without spam in it, the waitress notes: "Spam, eggs, sausage, and spam has not got much spam in it." The skit escalates from there and ends up with Vikings (!) singing a spam song. Incredibly silly--and funny. It works just as well on the radio and was featured on Dr. Demento's syndicated show.

2. "The Dead Parrot" (season 1) - A man tries to return a dead "Norwegian Blue" parrot to the pet shop that he purchased it from. However, the shopkeeper refuses to accept that the parrot is dead. Much of the humor is derived from the parrot owner's many ways of emphasizing that the parrot "is no more," "has ceased to be," "is bereft of life," and "rests in peace." He then flatly states: "This is an ex-parrot." The shopkeeper finally fetches the pet store proprietor--who is the shopkeeper with a fake moustache.
Michael Palin as the shopkeeper and John Cleese with ex-parrot.

3. "The Funniest Joke in the World" (season 1) - A documentary traces the origin of a joke that's so funny that people die laughing. That's the fate of the joke's writer, his mother who reads the joke thinking it's a suicide note, and a police inspector. Eventually, the joke is translated into German and taught to British soldiers during World War II. It proves to be such an effective weapon that the Germans try to create their own killer joke--to no avail.

The violent old ladies!
4. "Hell's Grannies" (season 1). A newscast features a story about Bolton being terrorized by gangs of grannies who attack young men with their handbags and nudge people off the sidewalk. One man laments on camera: "It used to be a nice neighborhood before some of the old ladies started moving in." I suspect this may not be on many Monty Python "best of" lists, but I think it's a visual riot (e.g., the grannies wait for a leggy blonde to walk by, trip her, and then laugh cruelly at her). It appeared in the same episode as "The Dead Parrot."

5. "The Lumberjack Song" (Season 1) - A lumberjack (Michael Palin) sings--accompanied by a Canadian Mountie chorus--about his manly exploits to his girlfriend. However, as the song continues, the lyrics start to take an unexpected turn: "I cut down trees. I skip and jump. I like to press wild flowers. I put on women’s clothing. And hang around in bars." Palin is delightful, but it's the faces of the Mounties and the girlfriend that make this a priceless skit.

Was your favorite Monty Python skit omitted? If so, please leave a comment!