Monday, January 21, 2019

Walter Matthau Plays Hopscotch

When CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) lets a Soviet spy get away, his new boss is most displeased. Kendig explains the logic behind his actions, but his explanation is abruptly dismissed. He is banished to a desk job until his retirement. The veteran spy has no intention of complying with that directive, so he shreds his personnel file and heads to Europe.

Kendig links up with Isobel von Schmidt (Glenda Jackson), a retired agent and former lover, who lives comfortably in Salzburg. He is unsure about his next move until a meeting with his Soviet counterpart gives him an idea. Kendig decides to write his memoirs, providing details on botched espionage plots and inept colleagues. After he finishes his first chapter, he mails copies to intelligence agencies in Peking, Bonn, Moscow, London, and, of course, Washington, DC.

Glenda Jackson as Isobel.
Not surprisingly, Kendig becomes a hunted man. As he completes his memoirs (again mailing out copies of each chapter), he has to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Naturally, he still finds time to exact a little revenge on his former boss (Ned Beatty).

Made in 1980, Hopscotch may appear to be a follow-up to House Calls, an earlier teaming of Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson. However, that was not the intent. Warren Beatty was originally cast as Kendig before production delays caused a shift to Walter Matthau. It's the viewer's good fortune that Matthau became the star because Hopscotch is the perfect vehicle for the actor's unique style of humor.

He makes it grand fun to watch the crafty, opera-humming Kendig outmaneuver the CIA at every turn. It's also entertaining to watch him unveil his grand scheme step by step. (Strangely enough, it reminded me of watching Edward Fox's assassin in The Day of the Jackal develop his plan down to the most minute detail).

Sam Waterston as Kendig's protege.
There's a downside to the structure of Hopscotch, however, and that's relegating Glenda Jackson to what amounts to a supporting role. From her opening "meet cute" with Matthau, she lights up the screen with her sophisticated comic timing and is sorely missed when the plot focuses on Kendig's elaborate scheme.

Hopscotch was co-written and based on the novel by Brian Garfield. The author, who died last month, also penned the novel Death Wish. He was very unhappy with the adaptation of that book into the 1974 Charles Bronson film. It's a key reason why he insisted on being involved with the production of Hopscotch.

Walter Matthau in disguise.
In director Ronald Neame's autobiography Straight from the Horse's Mouth, he describes how he and Garfield transformed Hopscotch once Matthau was cast. The original screenplay's serious tone was discarded in favor of a more lighthearted approach. Even Matthau's real-life fondness for Mozart was incorporated into his character. Neame considered Hopscotch one of his favorite films and Garfield also expressed satisfaction with the end results.

Hopscotch is rarely listed as one of Walter Matthau's best works, but it always generates a lot of positive comments when I mention it on social media. It may be a bit of lark for Matthau and Jackson, but it's also a delightful way to spend 106 minutes.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Walt Disney's Adventures of Spin and Marty

Marty arrives at the Triple R.
Although later Mickey Mouse Club serials may be better remembered today, the most popular one--by far--during its original broadcast was The Adventures of Spin and Marty (1955). No, it wasn't based on a famous children's book series like The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure nor did it feature a future Disney superstar like Annette. Yet, it gripped the attention of young TV viewers across the nation and spawned two sequels, a comic book series, and a 45 RPM record.

The 25-episode serial opens with the arrival of Martin Markham at the Triple R Ranch, a working ranch which doubles as a youth camp in the summer. Martin is quickly nicknamed Marty, but he doesn't fit in with the other boys. Having lost both parents, he lives with an overprotective, wealthy grandmother. In fact, she insists that Perkins, the family manservant, stay with Marty for the duration of his stay at the Triple R.

Tim Considine as Spin.
Marty (David Stollery) expresses his displeasure in being shuttled off to the "dirty old farm." He avoids the other lads and lies about being an experienced polo rider--when in fact he's scared of horses. Marty's attitude doesn't sit well with Spin Evans (Tim Considine), a popular boy who worked two jobs to save enough money for a second summer at the Triple R. The two boys eventually clash and it's their fight that initiates a change in Marty's views and in how the other boys view him.

I was surprised with how quickly Spin and Marty became additive viewing in my household. The episodes, each running about 12 minutes, sped by--meaning that we typically watched two (or occasionally three) per day. It's a show about transformation and the episodes skillfully portray how Marty progresses from a defiant outsider to a young man who has found a "home" at the Triple R. 

David Stollery and Tim Considine give incredibly natural performances as the two leads. It's easy to see why so many young viewers related to their characters. It's an impressive feat for Considine because the script is skewed toward getting folks to root for Marty. Spin could have easily become the de facto "villain," but Considine and the writers avoid that pitfall. At the same time, though, I love the fact that Spin and Marty stop short of becoming best pals at the end. They gradually develop a mutual respect and come to understand one another in a way that the other boys don't. It's the beginnings of what could be a great friendship.

Harry Carey, Jr.
Among the adult cast, the standout is Harry Carey, Jr. as a sympathetic ranch hand who works hard to gain Marty's trust. A veteran character actor, Carey, Jr. was a John Ford favorite and appeared in many of the director's famous Western.

As for Considine and Stollery, their careers took different paths. Considine had lead roles in other Disney serials, spent five years as the eldest son on My Three Sons, and even wrote teleplays for other TV shows. Except for an appearance in a Spin and Marty revival in 2000, Stollery retired from show business in 1960. He became an automobile designer and is responsible for one of the Toyota Celica models. On The Adventures of Spin and Marty DVD, he and Considine revisit the real life ranch (located 90 minutes from the Disney studio) where they filmed Spin and Marty in their youth.

J. Pat O'Malley as Perkins.
Following the success of The Adventures of Spin and Marty, Stollery and Considine reprised their roles in two sequels. In The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty, they vie for the affection of Annette Funicello and get involved in a swimming competition. In The New Adventures of Spin and Marty, they join Annette, Kevin Corcoran, and others to put on a show in the old barn. Sadly, only the first serial is on DVD.

If you've never seen a Mickey Mouse Club serial, then you're in luck. The Adventures of Spin and Marty is currently available on YouTube and it's a great one to start with. By the end, you may find yourself building a campfire in your backyard and singing: "Yippee ya, yippee yi, yippee yo."

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.