Thursday, August 22, 2019

Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine Execute a Gambit

Shirley MacLaine as Nicole.
This review contains a spoiler. 

In  the first 29 minutes of Gambit (1966), we see art thief Harry Dean (Michael Caine) execute the perfect heist with the aid of dance hall girl Nicole (Shirley MacLaine) and his partner Emile (John Abbott). Of course, it turns out that the entire sequence is merely Harry describing his plan to Emile. When it comes time to actually pull off the robbery, almost nothing works out as Harry envisioned.

In Harry's plan, he and Nicole, disguised as a wealthy British businessman and his wife, are met at the airport by the hotel's limo. They are given the royal suite and invited by the hotel's reclusive owner to dinner in his rooms. Later, Harry steals the most valuable piece in the hotel owner's art collection.

Michael Caine as Harry.
When it comes to execute the caper for real, there is no limo (the hotel no longer sends one for VIP guests), they don't get their desired suite, and the hotel's owner--already suspicious of them--invites them to lunch on his yacht. Furthermore, Harry's target, an invaluable bust, is protected by a new electronic security system.

A playful caper film, Gambit has plenty of twists, so knowing the first one doesn't negate the enjoyment of the others. Still, it's the first twist--the 29 minute "planning" sequence--that the film is known for. It has fooled me both times I watched it (albeit my viewings were several decades apart). And there are plenty of clues that something is amiss during the sequence. First, Shirley MacLaine's character doesn't speak a word of dialogue, which struck me as peculiar. Secondly, it's apparent that Harry isn't a first-class thief, so it seems odd that everything goes so smoothly.

The most amusing part of Gambit is the role reversals between the plan and the execution. In Harry's plan, he is totally in charge and Nicole follows his every instruction. During the execution, Nicole's quick thinking and knowledge of art saves Harry and his plan on multiple occasions.

Herbert Lom as Shahbandar.
Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine are a delightful duo. It's a shame that this was their only movie together (other than a few scenes in the anthology Woman Times Seven). However, the unheralded star of Gambit is Herbert Lom, who plays the reclusive art collector. Lom was a highly versatile performer, appearing in horror films (The Phantom of the Opera), historical epics (Spartacus), and comedies (A Shot in the Dark). His surprising flair for physical comedy resulted in his best-known work, as Peter Sellers' nemesis, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, in the best Pink Panther films.

On of Nicole's gowns.
Gambit was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Set Design, Best Costumes and Best Sounds. The film, Shirley MacLaine, and Michael Caine were all nominated for Golden Globes. MacLaine lost to Lynn Redgrave for Georgy Girl while Alan Arkin nabbed Best Actor in a Comedy with The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

The screenplay for Gambit was based on a story by Sidney Carroll, who penned scripts for The Hustler and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (which also features a famous twist). The Coen Brothers adapted Carroll's story for a 2012 version of Gambit starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Frenzy--Hitchcock's Penultimate Film

Hitchcock's cameo at the begining.
In 1972, Hitchcock was coming off one of the least successful periods of his long career. His last three films--Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz--had fizzled with moviegoers and critics. Still, there was much anticipation surrounding the release of Frenzy. It was a return to a familiar Hitchcockian premise, with an innocent man being pursued by the police while a murderer roams free. It was the famed director's first movie to be made in his native Britain in two decades. And it also marked Hitch's first, and only, film rated "R" for nudity and violence.

Jon Finch as Blaney.
Jon Finch stars as Richard Blaney, a self-pitying former RAF pilot who drinks too much and can't hold a job. After being fired from a London pub, he visits his successful ex-wife and berates her twice in front of other people. When he goes to see her the following day, her office door is locked. What Blamey doesn't know is that the notorious "necktie killer" has strangled his ex-wife. When he is seen leaving the office building, he becomes Scotland Yard's quarry in the manhunt to find the serial murderer.

Hitchcock reveals the identity of the necktie killer early in Frenzy. Thus, he merges two of his favorite plots: the one in which an innocent man has to elude the police (e.g., Young and Innocent, North By Northwest) and the one in which the killer takes center stage in the film (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train). It's a clever structure and Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) merge the two storylines seamlessly.

Barry Foster as a Blaney friend.
Hitch is less successful at balancing the tone of Frenzy, which shifts awkwardly from extreme violence to black comedy. Hitchcock is not one to shy away from violence...the shower scene in Psycho proved that. However, the rape and strangulation of Blaney's ex-wife is shown in explicit--and needless--detail. In a DVD interview, Anthony Shaffer called the scene "disgusting" and recommended that Hitchcock delete it--to which the director allegedly replied: "Nonsense, my boy." Fortunately, Hitchcock refrains from showing a second murder in the same fashion, opting instead to use the more potent power of suggestion.

The best scenes in Frenzy are the comedic ones, which range from darkly humorous to intentionally amusing. The latter scenes focus on the Scotland Yard inspector (a first-rate Alec McCowen) and his wife (a delightful Vivien Merchant). As they discuss the case, she serves him visually revolting meals, which are the result of her cooking classes. The best example of black comedy occurs when the killer dumps a victim's corpse into a potato truck, only to realize later that the victim grabbed a lapel pin from his jacket. As the truck careens down the highway, the killer desperately struggles to find the right potato bag, pull out the corpse, and retrieve the lapel pin from the clutches of a clinched rigor mortis-laden hand. It's physical comedy at its best, in a disgusting sort of way!

Vivien Merchant as the
inspector's wife.
Although the two main characters are male, the best performances come from the actresses in the cast. In addition to the aforementioned Vivien Merchant, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as the ex-wife) and Anna Massey (as Blaney's girlfriend) stand out. French filmmaker and critic Francoise Truffaut noted this was one of the few later Hitchcock films to "turn away from glamorous and sophisticated heroines (of whom Grace Kelly remains the best example) toward everyday women...and they bring a new realism to Hitchcock's work."

Frenzy doesn't rank with Alfred Hitchcock's best films, but it stands out as the best among his post-Marnie works. It would have been a fitting end to his career, but, alas, he went on to make Family Plot. Like many great artists (and athletes), the Master of Suspense didn't know when to quit.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Seven-Ups: More Than a Great Car Chase

Roy Scheider as Manucci.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a banner period for gritty, urban cop pictures. Philip D'Antoni produced three of the best, which all incidentally featured nail-biting chase sequences: Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. The least famous of that trio is The Seven-Ups (1973), which serves as a sort of follow-up to The French Connection (1971) and also stars Roy Scheider.

He plays Buddy Manucci, a single-minded detective who heads a secret police unit called the Seven-Ups. He and his three team members focus on mobsters who commit major crimes...and earn sentences of seven years or more. Buddy's success hinges in large part on his childhood friend Vito (Tony Lo Bianco), an undertaker with mob connections who serves as an informant.

Tony Lo Bianco and Scheider.
Vito needs money--a lot of it. His wife may have tuberculosis and his day job isn't paying all the bills. He gleans information from Buddy to hatch a scheme to kidnap notable mob bosses and hold them for ransom. It's a profitable venture until one of the kidnappings results in the death of one of the Seven-Ups and Buddy makes it a personal vendetta to find the killer.

The character of Buddy Manucci is based on real-life NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, who also served as the inspiration for Scheider's character in The French Connection. In a 1971 interview in The New York Times, producer D'Antoni stated that Grosso told him a "weird and fascinating story" that became the basic plot of The Seven-Ups.

Roy Scheider, who always excelled at playing obsessive characters, is convincing as a driven cop willing to cross the line to get the job done (e.g., he withholds oxygen from a severely injured criminal to get information). However, Tony Lo Bianco nearly steals the film as the too-smooth-for-his-own-good Vito. When he uses his wife's illness as justification for his crimes, it's unclear whether he's sincere or just using his family tragedy as an excuse.

A shotgun blasts removes the hood from Scheider's car.
The famous car chase occurs almost an hour into the film and lasts for ten minutes. Unlike Bullitt, there are no muscle cars involved, as Scheider drives a Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe and the bad guys are in a Pontiac Grand Ville sedan. That doesn't mean there is any less suspense as the cars careen through crowded streets at high-octane speeds. In my opinion, it's the best car chase in movie history. Much of its impact can be attributed to the facial expressions of Scheider and Richard Lynch (as one of the villains). There's a great sequence showing a group of kids playing in the street who scream and scatter as the first car zips through them. They reconvene in the street only to go running for the sidewalks again as Scheider zooms past.

Richard Lynch and Bill Hickman.
Stunt driver extraordinaire Bill Hickman helped choreograph the car chase and also plays the unflappable baddie behind the wheel of the speeding sedan. Hickman also served as a stunt driver in Bullitt and The French Connection. Jerry Greenberg, who won an Oscar for editing The French Connection, likely had a hand in the editing though he's listed solely as an associate producer for The Seven-Ups.

In addition to his producer duties, Philip D'Antoni also directed The Seven-Ups--it was his only directing job. He obviously learned a lot from watching William Friedkin (French Connection) as he makes superb use of his New York locales. The snowy streets, whistling winds, and frosty breaths all contribute to the film's realism. It's a shame that D'Antoni didn't make more gritty action pictures. Instead, he moved to television where he co-created the 1974-76 TV series Movin' On, with Claude Akins and Frank Converse as truckers. He also produced a TV series pilot movie called Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside starring Tony Lo Bianco (again) and Hal Linden as big city cops.

Incidentally, if one of Scheider's Seven-Ups team members looks familiar, then you must have recognized the late Ken Kercheval. He would achieve his biggest success five years later as Cliff Barnes in the long-running Dallas TV series.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

James Stewart is The Man From Laramie

James Stewart as Lockhart.
Shortly after Will Lockhart delivers a load of supplies in the small town of Coronado, he runs afoul of Dave Waggoman. The son of a wealthy rancher, the psychotic Dave punishes Will for inadvertently trespassing on Waggoman land. Dave burns Will's wagons and kills several of his mules.

The elder Waggoman (Donald Crisp) reimburses Will (James Stewart) for his losses and even offers him a job. However, Will has no intention of working for anyone nor leaving town. He is driven by revenge, having arrived in Coronado to find out who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches that killed his younger brother. It's inevitable that Will will clash again with Waggoman, his out-of-control son, and the foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who runs their ranch.

Made in 1955, The Man From Laramie is the last of five Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. It's also the least memorable of the quintet, but keep in mind that three of the other four are among the best Westerns made in the 1950s (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country). The Man From Laramie pales in comparison only because it's a more conventional tale of revenge, as opposed to a treatise on the civilization of the Old West and the importance of family.

Arthur Kennedy as Vic.
Of course, there's nothing conventional about any Anthony Mann Western. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many critics view The Man From Laramie as a Western retelling of King Lear. To be sure, there are thematic similarities: Waggoman bequeaths his ranch to his son Dave and to his foreman Vic (Kennedy) and then has second thoughts about his decision. Although one could say it's inspired by Lear, The Man From Laramie is not really based on it. (For a better Shakespearean Western, check out Delmer Daves' Jubal).

Arthur Kennedy, who also teamed with Stewart and Mann in Bend of the River, portrays the most interesting character. Vic, the foreman, has invested his life in the ranch under the impression that he's a "son" to the elder Waggoman. However, when Waggoman makes it clear that Dave is his only true son, Vic starts to have other ideas. A couple of bad decisions place him into an uncomfortable position and we get to watch as he tries to squirm out of it. Kennedy is very convincing, almost to the point that one wishes that Vic will succeed with his plan.

Cathy O' Donnell.
The supporting cast is inconsistent. Alex Nichol makes Dave so unhinged that it's difficult to fathom why anyone--even a loving parent-- would leave him in charge of the Waggoman ranch. Cathy O'Donnell doesn't have a lot to do as the female lead, but she and Stewart are appealing together while never sharing a romantic scene (his character is more interested in her than she in him). Frankly, it's refreshing to not inject a love triangle in a Western already packed with subplots about revenge, family discord, and dynasty-building. O'Donnell didn't appear in a lot of movies, though she held her own in quality films like Detective Story and The Miniver Story.

The Man From Laramie may not be required viewing, but it's a worthwhile Western. It's also notable for one of the most violent scenes in a 1950s Western when Stewart gets his hand shot at close range. No details are shown, but Stewart's acting is so good that you'll cringe throughout the scene. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Here's a clip from The Man from Laramie, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, August 5, 2019

Spy Game: Mr. Palfrey of Westminster

Alec McCowen as Mr. Palfrey.
His enemies call him a rattlesnake. His boss compares him to a terrier. And his assistant describes him as "prissy." They all agree, though, that Mr. Palfrey is an extraordinary spy hunter--though he claims that he is simply a civil servant.

Set in the 1980s, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is a first-rate, cerebral espionage drama that aired for two seasons on Thames Television in Great Britain and on PBS in the U.S. Star Alec McCowen first appeared as Palfrey in an episode of the anthology show Storyboard called "The Traitor."

In the opening episode of the Mr. Palfrey, our protagonist learns that his department has been reorganized and he has a new boss--known only as the Coordinator--who answers directly to the Prime Minister. The Coordinator is a woman, a fact which has no bearing to Palfrey, but which irks many of his sexist male colleagues.

Caroline Blakiston.
Under the reorganization, Palfrey has a new (smaller) office, a secretary (for three days a week), and a "legman" named Blair to perform tasks such as surveillance. Initially, the Coordinator directs Blair (Clive Wood) to spy on Palfrey and report back to her. That's a short-lived directive, though, as Blair develops loyalty to his new boss and the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston) learns why Palfrey has such a stellar reputation.

The plots revolve around defectors, suspected spies, blackmail, and cover-ups. Palfrey and the Coordinator frequently clash over how to handle their assignments. He isn't afraid to challenge her (always politely) and often chooses his own path to achieve the desired outcome.

For example, in the episode "Return to Sender," Palfrey is directed to convince a former defector to return to the Soviet Union. If the man is unwilling to leave, then Palfrey is to silence him permanently. It is an official act of murder that Palfrey and Blair are willing to do--grudgingly. Fortunately, the resourceful Palfrey employs another equally effective method to get the job done.

Clive Wood as Blair.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is how it develops its characters slowly, revealing snippets here and there about their background. We know that the gentlemanly Palfrey has a dog (a Golden Retriever named Jess), likes to fish, has few close friends, and respects women. He may occasionally enjoy the company of a certain female defector. Other than that, Palfrey seems focused solely on his job. Blair is even more an enigma, though one episode reveals a serious relationship in his past. Rough around the edges, Blair does have aspirations of career progression.

Alec McCowen, with his quick wit and intelligent eyes, is perfectly cast as Palfrey. A highly-respected stage actor, American audiences may remember him best as the Scotland Yard inspector in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, as Q in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, and opposite Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt.

Following the cancellation of Mr. Palfrey, Clive Wood played Blair again in a episode of Storyboard called "A Question of Commitment." It served as a TV series pilot, but a regular show was not commissioned. Blair--without Palfrey--didn't prove to be interesting enough.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Malden and Fraciscus Try to Solve a Cat O' Nine Tails

Karl Malden as Arno.
If you've never seen an Italian giallo film--and have an aversion to movie violence--then Dario Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) just might be your cup of tea. It's not a prototypical example of the genre (see Argento's later Deep Red), but it will give you a taste of these movies. It features several familiar giallo elements: a mysterious killer whose identity isn't revealed until the climax, a dark noirish atmosphere, plenty of red herrings, and multiple murders.

Karl Malden plays Franco Arno, a blind former journalist who lives with his young niece Lori.  During an evening walk, Arno and Lori overhear two people in a car discussing blackmail. A couple of days later, Lori recognizes a photo of one of the car's occupants in the newspaper. The man, a scientist who worked at the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research, apparently killed himself by jumping in front of a moving train. 

James Franciscus as Giordani.
Arno suspects foul play and goes to see journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who was investigating a break-in at the Terzi Institute. Arno suggests that a photo of the "suicide" be enlarged and Giordano contacts the photographer. The enlargement reveals a hand on the side of the frame, shoving the victim in front of the train. However, by the time Arno and Giordani reach the photographer, he has been strangled and the picture has been stolen.

Could the murders somehow be linked to the Terzi Institute and involve the discovery of a chromosome that makes people prone to violent behavior?

Director Dario Argento is justly famous for his fluid camerawork and dark visual aesthetic. His camera moves less than usual in Cat o' Nine Tails, but his visual design does not disappoint. Shadow-filled streets, hallways lit with a sliver of light, and close-ups of a bloodshot eye create a pervasive atmosphere of unease. As in Val Lewton's pictures, alleys and buildings seem devoid of people--except for the victim and the killer, whose presence is often indicated by a point of view shot.

Catherine Spaak as a suspect.
Malden and Franciscus don't really mesh with the Italian supporting cast, but that doesn't detract from the story. Malden fares best as the curious former journalist who jumps at the chance to unmask the murderer ("I like solving puzzles"). However, he disappears for a long middle section as the plot focuses on Franciscus and his relationship with one of the suspects (Catherine Spaak). Their awkward lovemaking scene is the film's low point. Well, that plus placing little Lori out of harm's way only to have the killer nab her near the climax.

The title refers to an metaphor used by Malden, in which the cat is the crime and the nine tails are the leads that should result in solving it. That may not quite make sense, but then Cat o' Nine Tails is not a movie that can withstand close scrutiny. Watch for the visuals and the atmosphere. If you're intrigued--and not squeamish--then look for Deep Red (1975). It stars David Hemmings (Blow Up) as a pianist who witnesses the murder of a telepathic woman who sensed the thoughts of a killer during a parapsychology demonstration in a theater.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Davy Crockett A-fightin' Some River Pirates!

Fess Parker as Davy.
When Walt Disney's Disneyland TV series debuted its first Davy Crockett limited run series in 1954, no one could have anticipated its massive success. Not only was it a ratings smash, but it spawned an extremely lucrative line of tie-in merchandise and a hit song. It also made a TV star of then-unknown 31-year-old Fess Parker and made coonskin caps popular again (at least with the young folks). To capitalize on the overwhelming response to this three-episode Davy Crockett series, Walt Disney had an edited version released as the 1955 theatrical film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

A sequel was inevitable and in 1955, Disneyland aired two additional Davy Crockett episodes. They were also edited together and released to theaters as Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Technically, the second "film" is a prequel as it chronicles events that took place prior to the climax at The Alamo at the end of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

After several months of hunting, Davy and his chum Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen) plan to hire a keelboat to travel from Kentucky to New Orleans to sell their pelts. They first approach the boisterous Mike Fink, the self-proclaimed "King of the River," who wants to charge them a highly unreasonable $1000. Davy and Georgie nix that offer and decide to form their own crew aboard elderly Captain Cobb's Bertha Marie Marietta.

Jeff York as Mike Fink.
Mike Fink doesn't take kindly to the competition, so he gets a drunk Georgie to bet all the furs against two barrels of whiskey that Davy and crew reach New Orleans first. It's a lively boat race with Davy navigating river rapids, fighting Indians (more on that later), coping with sabotage, and helping out a marooned farmer.

The second half of the film finds Davy and Georgie trying to quell a local Indian uprising. They discover a band of ruthless "river pirates" are impersonating the Indians and attacking boats. Realizing they need some help, Davy turns to Mike Fink and his men.

The plot of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is understandably disjointed, as it was comprised of  two 60-minute episodes that aired on Disneyland as Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. The keelboat race is the more entertaining of the two as it provides more screen time to Jeff York as the colorful Mike Fink. York breathes life into his loud and bigger-than-life character, providing an effective contrast to Fess Parker's incorruptible hero. Fink even has his own catchy song which describes him as "a bull-nosed, tough old alligator, and real depopulator, born too mean to die."

If Jeff York looks familiar, you may be remembering him from Old Yeller (1957), in which he played Fess Parker and Dorthy Maguire's lazy, grub-hunting neighbor. He also later appeared opposite Parker as a guest star on the Daniel Boone TV series. York briefly had a series of his own, co-starring with Roger Moore in The Alaskans (1959-60).

The other standout performances in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates belong to Buddy Ebsen and Kenneth Tobey. The former rarely got a chance to stretch himself on The Beverly Hillbillies, so it's entertaining to watch him as a humorous sidekick. As for Tobey, who famously played the hero of The Thing from Another World, he's barely recognizable as Fink's grizzled, cigar-chewing, red-headed crony.

Buddy Ebsen and Kennth Tobey.
Watching it today, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates drips with nostalgia and is strongly recommended for film and TV fans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. It's also surprisingly progressive in its treatment of Native Americans, who are not portrayed as villains.

Incidentally, Fess Parker did not benefit financially from the Davy Crockett merchandise bonanza due to the nature of his contract with Disney. When repeats of the Davy Crockett episodes sparked renewed interest in the character in 1963, Parker approached Disney about a Davy Crockett TV series. When that didn't work out, Parker and producer Aaron Rosenberg developed the Daniel Boone TV series, which ran for six years on NBC. Parker owned 30% of the show and pretty much retired from acting after its run.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2019)

The proverbial 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. James Mason and Herbert Lom.

2. Hope Lange and Tuesday Weld.

3. Cliff De Young and James Stewart.

4. Richard Carlson and Rod Steiger.

5. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nigel Green.

6. Alec Guinness and James Mason.

7. Paul Newman and Robert De Niro.

8. James Stewart and Danny Kaye. 

9. Miriam Hopkins and Audrey Hepburn. 

10. Ronald Reagan and Ray Milland. 

11. The movie Leave Her to Heaven and the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

12. The Mark of Zorro and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.   

13. Dale Robertson and Sean Flynn (Errol’s son). 

14. Sally Field and Gary Collins.

15. Tony Randall and Kenneth Branagh. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

#FaveVampireFilms - Your Favorite Vampire Films Tweetathon

What are your favorite vampire films?

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

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

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

Here are our #FaveVampireFilms in no particular order:

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

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bette Davis as Madame Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

Jack Arnold's "It Came From Outer Space"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The China Syndrome—More Than a Conspiracy Thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Swingin' Summer Swings No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

Seven Things to Know About Andy Griffith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2019)

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

1.  The Satan Bug and Homicidal.

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

3.  Patrick O'Neal and Vincent Price.

4.  Dean Jones and Lon Chaney, Jr.

5.  The Day of the Triffids and Thunder Rock.

6.  Cary Grant and Tom Hanks.

7.  Debbie Reynolds and Robert Wagner.

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

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

10. Warren Beatty and Robin Williams.

11. Ronald Colman and Peter Finch.

12. Ronald Colman and Elke Sommer.

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

14.  Ray Danton and James Coburn.

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

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Quatermass 2 (Enemy from Space)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Capricorn One: Peter Hyams' Conspiracy Thriller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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