Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Wild Bunch - Looking Back on Peckinpah's Classic After 50 Years

William Holden in The Wild Bunch.
Fifty years ago, two of American cinema's most influential Westerns were released: the revisionist Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Neither film staved off the decline of the Western genre, but each impacted Hollywood in significant ways. The former may not have been the first "buddy picture," but the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford revitalized those kinds of films. As for The Wild Bunch, while more violent and bloody films preceded it, they weren't mainstream movies with big stars and a major director. Many critics and filmgoers considered its violence shocking at the time.

Indeed, The Wild Bunch opens and closes with beautifully choreographed and edited scenes of carnage. It was enough, according to one Peckinpah biographer, for some audience members to walk out of the film when it was first released. However, sandwiched between those bloody scenes, Peckinpah presents a carefully-crafted tale of family loyalty and changing times.

Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton.
The Wild Bunch opens with Pike Bishop and his gang riding into a bustling town to rob a railroad office. Bishop (William Holden) has no idea that it's a trap set by a former pal, Deke Thornton, whose permanent release from a brutal prison hinges on his capture of Bishop. By the time, the outlaws realize it's a set-up, it's too late and their only option is to shoot their way out of town. The ensuing gunfight leaves the streets littered with dead bodies, including many innocent townspeople caught in the hail of bullets.

When Bishop regroups after a narrow escape from the town, his gang has been reduced to just five members. Moreover, their loot from the robbery turns out to be bags of worthless metal washers and Thornton is leading a gang of bounty hunters in pursuit. With few alternatives remaining, Bishop and his men journey to Mexico, where they make a deal with a ruthless revolutionary leader to steal guns and ammunition from a heavily-guarded train for $10,000. It's a decision that will ultimately result in the demise of the quintet.

Except for the bookend shoot-outs and a splendid train robbery scene in the middle, The Wild Bunch is a dialogue-driven film. Bishop repeatedly emphasizes the importance of family loyalty, for make no mistake that these outlaws are a family. They bicker, threaten each other, and talk of splitting up, but ultimately they abide by Bishop's code: "When you side with a man, you stick with him." It's enlightening when Bishop reveals to Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), his closest companion, that he feels responsible for Thornton's capture in the past. For his part, Thornton has nothing but respect for Bishop--although he's willing to capture or perhaps kill him to avoid returning to prison.
Pike's gang leaves a poor village that provided them with a moment of peace.

Set in 1913, The Wild Bunch also explores one of Sam Peckinpah's favorite themes: the end of the Wild West. Bishop and his gang marvel when they see an automobile and talk about machines that can fly in the air. The days of horse-riding outlaws are coming to an end and Bishop knows it: "We got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." It's a theme that Peckinpah visited earlier in his elegant classic Ride the High Country (1962) and would return to again in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Peckinpah wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike, but Marvin instead chose Paint Your Wagon (1969), which offered a hefty payday. That was fortunate for The Wild Bunch, for William Holden gives one of his finest performances as the weary, gritty Pike. According to most accounts, the star and the director clashed often on the set, arguing about issues such as whether Holden should wear a fake mustache (he initially refused, but finally agreed...and it's hard to imagine his character without it).

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch.
The supporting cast is exceptional, especially Borgnine, Robert Ryan as Thornton, and an unrecognizable Edmund O'Brien in his last great role as an old-timer who is fiercely loyal to Pike. The camaraderie between Holden and Borgnine seems so genuine that the two were paired again in the 1972 Western The Revengers (which is strictly a standard oater).

Sadly, the graphic violence in The Wild Bunch doesn't seem as horrifying as it once did. Slow-motion shots of bullets entering into bodies and blood spurting everywhere have become too commonplace on the silver screen. However, it is still jarring to see children participate in the violence, whether they're playfully reenacting the opening gunfight or actually picking up guns and shooting people in the climax. One has to wonder what will become of these desensitized youngsters as they grow into adults.
The Wild Bunch makes their final walk.

While The Wild Bunch may be Sam Peckinpah's most famous film, it's not his best (that would be The Ballad of Cable Hogue). But fifty years later, one can appreciate The Wild Bunch as a landmark motion picture that showcases its director's visual flair and love of the Western genre. It also contains one of the most iconic images of 1960s cinema:  the shot where Thornton's men are seemingly suspended in air for a split-second when Pike blows up both ends of a bridge. It's a brilliant metaphor for the end of the Old West, which is literally slipping away from men like Thornton and Pike. It's also a reminder that--when he wanted to be--Sam Peckinpah could be a truly great director.
The bridge collapses out from under Thornton's men.


This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's (CMBA) Anniversary Blogathon. Click here to check out all the other great entries as the CMBA celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (October 2019)

Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.
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. The TV series Superman and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

2. The TV series Lost in Space and Sky King.

3. Banacek and Longstreet.

4. Bonanza and Lost in Space (this one is a stretch...but still a connection).

5. The TV series Star Trek and The Love Boat.

6. Tales of Manhattan and The Yellow Rolls Royce.

7. The Music Man and the TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

8. Dead of Night (1945) and Spellbound.

9. Raquel Welch and Grant Williams.

10. Lee J. Cobb and Stewart Granger.

11. Rebecca and The Birds (No, it's more than Hitchcock!).

12. Peter Lorre and Doris Day (an easy one!).

13. Ava Gardner and Kim Cattrall.

14. Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.

15. George Hamilton and Sissy Spacek.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Christopher Lee Battles Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee as the hero.
Upon his return to London, Rex Van Ryn learns from the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) that their mutual friend Simon has been a mysterious recluse for the last three months. The duo motor over to a country estate recently purchased by Simon and interrupt what their friend claims is an astronomical society meeting. It's apparent that something else is going on and de Richleau confirms his suspicions when he finds satanic symbols on the observatory's floor and animals awaiting sacrifice.

It turns out that Simon and a young woman named Tanith are about to be baptized into a satanic cult led by a powerful black arts practitioner named Mocata (Charles Gray). Knowing that the following night is a sacred one for the satanists, de Richleau tries to devise a rescue plan while Rex struggles to understand what is happening.

Nike Arrighi as Tanith.
Set in the 1920s, The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) ranks as one of Hammer Films' finest motion pictures. Richard Matheson--an acclaimed writer in his own right--adapted Dennis Wheatley's 1934 supernatural novel. The result is an intelligent script with Hitchcockian overtones.

Hammer's best director, Terence Fisher, ramps up the suspense with three thrilling scenes. The first is when de Richleau and Rex interrupt Mocata's bloody ritual to nab Simon and Tanith from his clutches. The following morning, a dapper-looking Mocata visits the house where Simon and Tanith are being guarded. In a scene straight from Hitchcock's playbook, Mocata exudes charm as he chats politely with the house's owner...and slowly bends her to his will. Charles Gray, who gives a masterful performance as Mocata, uses his penetrating eyes and smooth, controlling voice to great effect.
Charles Gray as Mocata, looking dapper and then in his ceremonial robes.

Fisher's final big flourish occurs in the climatic scene where Mocata uses all his tricks--and the Angel of Death--to lure de Richleau and his friends from a circle of protection. The scene is hampered slightly by merely passable special effects. A giant spider doesn't look all that big--the result of the film's modest budget, no doubt. However, as de Richleau, Christoper Lee's ominous warnings create a general air of unease.

It's no surprise that Christopher Lee considers The Devil Rides Out one of his best films. The sets are convincing and the English country houses--connected by narrow, empty roads--add to the feeling of isolation. Perhaps author Dennis Wheatley gets the credit here, but the decision to stage the satanic baptism ceremony in the woods at night was a brilliant one.

Christopher Lee and Charles Gray give commanding performances as powerful figures at opposing ends of the good-and-evil spectrum. The supporting cast is convincing in their roles, especially British TV veteran Sarah Lawson, who plays the woman who confronts Mocata in her home.

No review of The Devil Rides Out would be complete without mentioning one of the greatest shots in Hammer history. When Tanith is driving a car, Mocata appears to her--with only his eyes visible in the rearview mirror. It's an incredibly creepy image that lingers from one of the best horror films of the 1960s.

Charles Gray's eyes in the rearview mirror.

Monday, October 7, 2019

A Circus with Acrobats, Animals, and...Vampires!

Anthony Higgins is about to bite!
After a highly-successful decade in the 1960s, Hammer Films faced a crossroads in the early 1970s. Their Gothic horror films were no longer considered scary. In fact, they appeared rather tame compared to other movies playing at your local movie theater. Thus, the studio made a concerted effort to make their horror pictures sexier (well, with more nudity) and more violent. One of its most interesting movies during this period was Vampire Circus (1971).

A long pre-title sequence lays the groundwork for the plot. After a headmaster sees his wife take a young girl into the woods, he follows them to the castle of Count Mitterhaus. When he's prevented from entering the castle, the headmaster gathers a group of villagers who are convinced that Mitterhaus is a vampire. They force their way into the castle and kill the bloodsucking nobleman with a stake. With his last words, the count proclaims that the town will die and the villagers' children will die to give him back his life.

Adrienne Corri runs the circus.
Fifteen years later, the village is rife with plague and neighboring towns have created blockades to prevent anyone from leaving or entering. Yet, somehow a traveling circus gets through the roadblocks (when asked how, the troupe's headmistress says nothing). While the circus provides a pleasant distraction for the townspeople, its activities mask the motives of its bloodsucking performers. Their goal is to kill the children of the men that destroyed Count Mitterhaus.

As Hammer vampire movies go, Vampire Circus is an above-average entry with some intriguing ideas, most of which aren't fully developed. The male vampires are not just irresistible to the village women...they're almost sexually addictive. When a mother initially refuses to let her daughter secretly meet with one of them, the girl breaks down in tears and pleads frantically. Some of the vampires are shapeshifters, including one that can transform into a black leopard. But the most original aspect of Vampire Circus is its combination of vampires (scary) and circuses (creepy...you know they are!). 

Robert Tayman as the Count.
With one exception, the low-wattage cast is solid and features actors associated with Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Who, and TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The one weak link is Robert Tayman as the villainous Mitterhaus (the actor's voice was dubbed by David de Keyser). He projects an effeminate quality that negates his effectiveness. Perhaps, it's the combination of his chest-baring costume, gold choker, hair, and make-up. In any event, he never comes across as sexually powerful nor especially threatening.

As I watched Vampire Circus recently, I was reminded of another movie about a traveling carnival that delivers evil to a small town: the 1983 film version of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's a flawed movie, too, but, like Vampire Circus, it projects an unusual fairy tale-like quality. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Margaret Rutherford Goes for a Ride at the Gallop Hotel

Margaret Rutherford.
The best way to approach Margaret Rutherford's four "Miss Marple" films is to forget that she's playing Jane Marple. Rutherford's films are comedies with a little mystery and her character bears only a slight resemblance to Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth. The best of Rutherford's movies may be the second one, Murder at the Gallop (1963), which boasts a charming setting, a strong supporting cast, and a decent mystery. Surprisingly, the plot is adapted from a Hercule Poirot novel called After the Funeral.

It opens with Miss Marple and her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) witnessing the death of a wealthy eccentric named Enderby. The police quickly conclude that the old man died of natural causes. However, Miss Marple suspects foul play based on finding a cat lurking around Enderby's residence. The old man had a deathly fear of cats. Thus, his heart attack could have been triggered by the sudden appearance of a feline.

Robert Morley as a suspect.
An eavesdropping Miss Marple learns that Enderby's fortune will be split among four relatives. Well, make that three because one of them is murdered shortly after the reading of the will. Now determined to find the culprit, the elderly sleuth checks into the Gallop Hotel, which is run by Enderby's nephew Hector (Robert Morley). The hotel's other guests include the remaining relatives who will share Enderby's fortune. Surely, one of the them must be the killer--but can Miss Marple expose the murderer before there's another homicide?

The villain's identity seems pretty obvious, though the mystery does incorporate one of Agatha Christie's patented tricks. It just strikes me as odd that the producers chose not to adapt one of the Miss Marple novels. There's even one that takes place at a hotel (At Bertram's Hotel).

The Gallop Hotel.
Still, the English countryside settings exude quaint charm, even in black-and-white. If there was really a Gallop Hotel (it was actually a farm in Aldenham, Hertfordshire), I'd certainly be interested in booking a holiday there--murderer or not!

As for Dame Margaret Rutherford, her performance is a matter of taste. I'm not a big fan, but I have film friends who find her delightful. For non-fans like me, at least her antics are nicely balanced by Stringer Davis, Rutherford's real-life husband, whose quiet presence provides a calming contrast. Robert Morley tops the supporting cast, though James Villiers and Katya Douglas have fun as a distrustful couple.

If you're in the mood for a crackling Agatha Christie mystery, then Murder at the Gallop will not be your cup of tea. However, if you're just seeking out a light comedic mystery with a short running time, then you may find it amusing. Of course, you'll need to be able to tolerate the irritating, "playful" Miss Marple music that crops up every few minutes. Unfortunately, it seems to be a staple throughout all four of Margaret Rutherford's Marple movies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hercule Poirot Discovers Death in the Clouds

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.
When a passenger sitting across from him on a Paris-to-London flight is murdered, Hercule Poirot becomes determined to find the killer. It's not just a matter of bringing the criminal to justice, the timing of the crime is a personal affront to the famed Belgian detective!

Cathryn Harrison as Lady Horbury.
The victim, the mysterious Madame Giselle, turns out to be a moneylender (and blackmailer) to affluent society members on both sides of the Channel. The suspects consist of:  Lady Horbury (one of Giselle's clients), her friend Venetia, an archaeologist, a dentist, a mystery writer, and the two flight attendants. The murder weapon appears to be a poison dart shot from a blowgun. But how could anyone have committed the crime within the confines of the first-class cabin with no one noticing? As for Hercule Poirot, he was napping!

Death in the Clouds was one of three feature-length episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot that aired in 1992 during the series' fourth season. It's a mostly faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1935 novel of the same title. A few characters are omitted, but the murderer's identity, method, and motive remain unchanged. In its simplicity, Death in the Clouds is one of Dame Agatha's most ingeniously-plotted  Poirot books.

Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp.
Although Poirot's friend Captain Hastings (wonderfully played by Hugh Fraser) is sadly absent, Philip Jackson's Inspector Japp takes up the slack. The beauty of Jackson's performance is that he makes a believable Scotland Yard inspector while also supplying a light dose of comic relief. For Poirot fans familiar with Jackson's work in the series, I recommend seeking out Raised By Wolves, an offbeat family sitcom in which the veteran actor is hilarious as Grampy.

Of course, the highlight of every episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot is David Suchet's portrayal of the title character. Agatha Christie didn't live to see Suchet as her Belgian detective, but her family approved his casting. Indeed, Christie's daughter Rosalind Hicks once told Suchet: "My mother would have been absolutely delighted with what you've done." Interestingly, prior to playing Poirot, Suchet was cast as Inspector Japp opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot in the 1985 made-for-TV movie Thirteen for Dinner.

Death in the Clouds is one of the best episodes in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series. Boasting a great setting, a clever mystery, and an impeccable cast, it's a fine introduction for newcomers and a certain delight for Agatha Christie fans.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced

Joan Hickson as Jane Marple.
For many Agatha Christie fans, Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Jane Marple in the 1984-1992 British TV series is considered the definitive one. It's difficult to disagree, although I'm also fond of Julia McKenzie in a later television series. But whereas McKenzie showcased Miss Marple's soft side, Hickson admirably captures the elderly amateur detective's sharp intelligence and subtle interrogation skills. Her Marple can be warm and understanding--while simultaneously probing for a crack in a suspect's alibi.

Samantha Bond as a suspect.
The highlight of the Hickson series may be A Murder Is Announced, which aired in 1985 as a three-part episode. It begins with a most unusual premise:  A notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn newspaper announcing that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks at 7:00 that evening. Little Paddocks is the home of Letitia Blacklock, a elderly woman who lives with two younger cousins, a dear friend, a widow who serves as gardener, and a housekeeper. Anticipating the arrival of curious villagers, Letitia opens a bottle of sherry and prepares to receive her guests.

The drawing room is full of people when seven o'clock arrives. Suddenly, the room goes dark, the door is opened, and a man with a flashlight shouts: "Stick 'em up!" Three gunshots are fired amid much screaming. When the lights are restored, there is a corpse on the floor.

Letitia's friend Bunny recognizes the victim as a foreign lad who worked as a clerk at the local hotel. Apparently, he was the man with the flashlight. But who was he firing at and why did he kill himself? Or, if it wasn't suicide, who at Little Paddocks would want to kill a stranger and announce the murder beforehand in the newspaper?

Chipping Cleghorn (not a painting!).
In addition to Dame Agatha's crackerjack mystery, A Murder Is Announced makes excellent use of its rural 1950s setting and benefits from an exceptional teleplay. Powerstock, a village in Dorset, England, stands in for Chipping Cleghorn. Its quaint stone buildings and rolling hills provide a charming backdrop for murder and deceit.

The teleplay by veteran British writer Alan Plater remains remarkably faithful to the 1950 novel. Moreover, it captures the atmosphere of a post-World War II England where foreigners still drew suspicion and food rationing was a way of life. Miss Marple hardly appears in the first episode, in which Inspector Craddock (well played by John Castle) takes lead on the investigation.

Kevin Whately, prior to Morse,
as a Detective Sergeant.
When Craddock requests her assistance, based on the advice of his superior, Miss Marple confides that suspects will tell an elderly spinster things they might never confide to a police inspector. One of the series' best scenes has Miss Marple ever-so-subtly introduce the topic of family photos during a conversation with suspects. It's her way of gaining access to a family album that might contain an old photo of the killer.

As with many Agatha Christie mysteries, there are numerous red herrings and the key to unraveling the murderer's identity hinges on an incident in the past. That makes it a hard puzzle for the audience to solve, but armchair detectives likely won't mind. In this version of A Murder Is Announced, the joy lies in watching the investigation being conducted by Joan Hickson's Miss Marple.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Five Best Agatha Christie Movies

For this list, we are omitting the numerous telefilms that appeared as part of TV series based on Agatha Christie's works (e.g., the shows starring David Suchet, Joan Hickson, and others).

Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton.
1. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) - Based on a short story and stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is justly famous for its twist ending--which is flawlessly executed. However, its success can be attributed to those old basics of good acting and good script writing. Charles Laughton, who had a tendency to ham up some of his later roles, finds the perfect blend of seriousness and humor as the barrister defending accused murderer Tyrone Power. He is matched by Marlene Dietrich and his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester. The latter portrays Miss Plimsoll, a nurse charged with the unenviable task of caring for Laughton's Sir Wilfred. The duo make a delightful comic team, one savvy enough to generate laughs out of the contents of a thermos. Dietrich has a more difficult role, especially since her character is a conundrum for much of the film. However, when it comes to her big scenes, she exceeds all expectations.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
2. Evil Under the Sun (1982) - Playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) adapted Dame Agatha's 1941 mystery classic. He reduces the number of suspects by merging two into one and eliminates two minor characters altogether. However, he maintains the central plot and captures the spirit of the novel. I know some Christie purists are not fan's of Peter Ustinov's Hercule Poirot. Personally, I think his interpretation is second only to David Suchet's definitive portrayal in the TV series. The rest of the delightful cast delivers splendid performances, especially Maggie Smith, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, and Diana Rigg. Evil Under the Sea also gets a boost from its stunning locations in Spain and a score comprised of Cole Porter songs (even if the tunes become a bit repetitious).

Shirley Eaton as a murderer?
3. And Then There Were None (1941) and Ten Little Indians (1965) - It's hard for me to separate these adaptations of arguably Agatha Christie's most famous novel. Rene Clair's 1941 film retains the island setting and features a stellar cast of Hollywood veterans (e.g., Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson, C. Audrey Smith). However, I'm also a big fan of the 1965 version, which takes place in a isolated, snowbound villa. There are some weak links in the cast (e.g., Fabian, but he's murdered quickly). Wilfrid Hyde-White and Stanley Holloway provide a touch of class and Shirley Eaton keeps us guessing whether her icy blonde will be a victim or the murderer. Plus, it features the Murder Minute--whereby the stop pauses for 60 seconds to provide the audience with time to guess the killer's identity.

Bette Davis as suspect.
4. Death on the Nile (1978) - Peter Ustinov's first appearance as Hercule Poirot is smooth sailing--except for the murders that take place aboard the S.S. Karnak. It's a colorful, expensive production that won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. There's a touch of "Old Hollywood" in this, too, with the presence of veteran stars such as Bette Davis, David Niven, and Angela Lansbury (who would go on to play Miss Marple). Yes, Ustinov plays Poirot too broadly at times, making the sleuth more humorous than he should be. However, there's also a winking intelligence behind his performance that works well. Dame Agatha's mystery is first-rate and requires careful attention, especially at the beginning of the film.

Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple.
5. The Mirror Crack'd  (1980) - Angela Lansbury's sole outing as Miss Marple is a good one that finds the spinster detective up to her neck in suspects when a devoted fan of a film star is poisoned. Like the Ustinov films, this one boasts first-rate production values and an all-star cast that includes Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak as rival divas. Lansbury signed a three-picture deal to play Jane Marple, but when The Mirror Crack'd underperformed at the U.S. boxoffice, the film series was sadly nixed. Although I like Angela Lansbury as Agatha's Christie sleuth, my favorite portrayals are by Joan Hickson and later Julie McKenzie in British television series.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

One Fan's List of the Best Hitchcock Films

On September 5, 2009 at 4:56 p.m., I published my first post for the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Suffice to say, there was a lot I didn't know about blogging. But here I am, 968 posts and ten years later, and I must say that I've had a wonderful time writing and managing the Classic Film & TV Cafe. To commemorate  the last decade, I thought it'd be fun to update my first post about my picks for Alfred Hitchcock's ten best films. To my surprise, other than re-ranking two films, I made few changes. Please note that there are spoilers in my write-ups!

1. Vertigo - This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. What we see at the bell tower is initially false, but ultimately true. I could go on and on…but, hey, whole books have been devoted to this film. I think it’s Hitch’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Hermann, and a nifty Saul Bass title sequence.

2. Rear Window – My wife would rate this as No. 1, but she’s not writing this post! As with Vertigo, there are multiple layers to Rear Window. Taken alone, there’s nothing interesting about the mystery of the missing salesman’s wife. The movie is really about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Though she is rich, beautiful, and loves him (Stella describes her as “perfect”), Jeff refuses to commit to Lisa. He fears that doing so will cause him to sacrifice his exciting, globetrotting life as a magazine photographer. It is only when Lisa becomes his “legs” and joins in the investigation of the missing wife that Jeff realizes how bright and exciting she truly is. It’s part of the film’s offbeat humor, because, to the viewer, Grace Kelly's Lisa looks stunning and exciting from the moment she walks into Jeff’s apartment. To provide contrast to Jeff and Lisa’s evolving relationship, Hitchcock lets us spy—with Jeff—on his neighbors in the apartment complex. Their stories are effective mini-dramas that are funny, sad, and murderous: Miss Lonelyhearts (that’s what Jeff calls her) dresses up and sets a table nightly for an imaginary date; Miss Torso practices dancing routines in her underwear, but rejects all suitors when she throws a party (later we learn why); the composer struggles to finish his compositions at the piano in his studio apartment; and an older couple, with their little dog, sleep on the balcony because the nights are so warm. Technically, the film is one of Hitch’s finest achievements. Almost every shot is from the viewpoint of Jeff’s apartment, an amazing feat but also one that’s not distracting (unlike the ten-minute takes in Hitchcock’s Rope). Even the stagy sets work to the film’s advantage, for the apartment complex seems like its own artificial world.

3. Marnie – When I first saw Marnie as a teenager, it made no impression at all. I thought Tippi Hedren was miscast and Sean Connery dull. The plot--what there was of one--seemed thin and the characters lacked interest. Decades later, I watched it again and, to my complete surprise, I loved it! Tippi Hedren's subtle detached performance made Marnie a vulnerable, intriguing character. The progressively complex relationship between Marnie and Sean Connery’s character generated suspense--in its own quiet way--worthy of Hitch’s best man-on-the-run films. I was captivated by Hitch's finest use of color (especially during the opening scenes). And finally, there was Bernard Herrmann's incredible score (which, for me, ranks second only to Vertigo among his Hitchcock soundtracks). I've often wondered how I missed all of this the first time around?

4. The Birds – This one functions on two levels for me. It is, of course, a masterfully directed thriller about unexplained bird attacks in a small California seaside community (I love the playground and gas station sequences). But it’s also a well-acted 1960s relationship drama about three women and their interactions with the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother. These relationships are what the film is about—the birds are merely catalysts. That’s why the ending works for me; when the relationships are resolved, the bird attacks end.

5. Strangers on a Train – One of the cleverest (and most disturbing) premises of all Hitchcock films. The carousel climax is justly famous, but I favor the cigarette lighter in the drain. It’s a perfect example of how Hitch could generate suspense from a simple situation—with potentially disastrous consequences. I think Farley Granger and Robert Walker are pretty good in the leads, but not as strong as other Hitchcock stars.

6. Shadow of a Doubt – It took this one awhile to grow on me, but that makes sense in hindsight. Shadow of a Doubt is all about gradual realization. Charlie (Teresa Wright) slowly evolves from disbeliever (those accusations toward her beloved uncle could not be true!) to one who suspects the truth to believer to would-be victim. It’s a chilling tale, all the more so because it’s set against the backdrop of a friendly Thorton Wilder town.

7. North by Northwest – I think of this as something of a lark for all involved, but that’s partially why it’s so much fun. It’s my favorite of Hitch’s man-on-the-run films and James Mason, who plays the villain straight, is the perfect foil for Cary Grant. I only wish the Mount Rushmore scenes looked a little more realistic and Roger’s mother had more scenes.

8. Psycho – It’s hard to gauge the impact of Psycho now, but I can remember how shocked I was when I first saw it. I knew Janet Leigh was a major actress and so I was more than a little shocked to see what happened to her character of Marion Crane. (By the way, I was equally shocked when Arbogast was killed…filmed from that disorienting overhead camera angle). It’s really a fine film--more than a shocker--and also offers good performances, great Hermann music, and (once again) memorable Saul Bass titles. And I guess that shower scene turned out to be a little influential.

9. Rebecca - It’s too bad that David Selznick and Hitchcock didn’t get along better, because this collaboration is an excellent, atmospheric adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. I love how the cheeriness of the opening scenes between the future Mrs. De Winter and Maxim contrast with the later scenes at Manderley. The cast is pitch perfect with Judith Anderson and George Sanders standing out in supporting roles. Like many people, my favorite scene is when Mrs. Danvers suggests that maybe the second Mrs. De Winters should just end it all.

10. Young and Innocent and Stage Fright (tie) – I am now officially in trouble with fans of Notorious, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Frenzy. Those are all fine films and I would list them in my top 20. But I must confess that I enjoy the two listed in my #10 spot more than those movies. The seldom-shown Young and Innocent is a fine early man-on-the-run film with sweet performances and its share of great scenes (e.g., carving meat at the dinner table, the great tracking shot leading to the killer’s twitching eye). As for Stage Fright, I’ll say upfront that the controversial flashback doesn’t bother me at all; I don’t understand the big fuss. Stage Fright makes this list on the basis of sheer fun and a delightful cast (Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, and Michael Wilding at his most charming). I saw it late among Hitch’s films and I never fail to be entertained when I watch it again.

Honorable Mentions: Those mentioned in No. 10 that will get me in trouble for omitting…plus To Catch a Thief, Secret Agent, Blackmail, the underappreciated I Confess, and Sabotage (with the controversial bomb scene).

Monday, September 23, 2019

Kapow! Batman: The Movie

The Caped Crusaders board a yacht.
Sarkoffagus, who wrote for the Classic Film & TV Cafe for its first five years, penned this special guest blogger review.

As the Cafe celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, someone else has reached a prominent anniversary in 2019. The DC Comics character, Batman, is now 80 years young. He’s been featured in numerous films, including the 1966 movie based on the TV series.

The Caped Crusaders try to rescue an inventor--and his invention--aboard a yacht. As they approach in the Batcopter, the yacht suddenly vanishes. Batman soon deduces that a sinister plot is unfolding, courtesy of not one villain, but four: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman. Unfortunately, their scheme of global proportions also entails targeting Batman and Robin, to ensure the crime-fighters won’t interfere. Catwoman poses as Russian journalist, Kitka, and seduces Bruce Wayne (to draw out Batman, as the villains are unaware of the irony); and Penguin attempts to infiltrate the Batcave. All the while, Batman and Robin must thwart the nefarious plan already underway.

Bruce Wayne has dinner with...Catwoman.
This feature film, released in the summer between the TV show’s first and second seasons, retains all the colorful campiness of its television source. While some of it may seem dated, the filmmakers were undoubtedly aiming to make an entertaining romp. In one scene, Batman sprints around a dock, looking for a safe place to dispose of a bomb with a burning fuse. It’s a lengthy bit played mostly for laughs, much like the ending, in which the resolution has a surprising hitch.

Robin and Batman in the Batmobile.
The classic Batmobile makes several appearances, of course, as do the Batcopter, the Batcycle, and the shockingly fast Batboat. It’s great fun to see all four villains on the big screen, though their diabolical plot is somewhat muddled; it isn’t easy to tell if it’s all been planned, or if they’re making some of it up as they go along. Still, watching their egos clash is an interesting turn.

Catwoman, the Joker, and the Penguin plot deviously.
Everyone reprises their respective TV roles with panache, save Julie Newmar, who was unavailable to play Catwoman in the movie. Lee Meriwether does an admirable job portraying the feline villain, even if she’s not quite as charming as Newmar or as playful as Eartha Kitt, who took the Catwoman reins in Season 3.

The film makes sure to hit a few of the TV series’ trademarks: ballooned onomatopoeia in fights; the occasional moral lesson (drinking is bad); Batman’s preference for milk (this time, in a brandy snifter at a fancy restaurant); and Batman and Robin’s unhurried rope ascent.

I have enjoyed numerous portrayals of Batman throughout the years, but Adam West remains my favorite. The 1960s Batmobile is likewise my favorite version. One of my dearest memories is my brother and I, many years ago, repeatedly attempting the TV theme song. It was a horrid and cacophonous endeavor that no one in proximity appreciated, especially the hive full of bees that retaliated by stinging us without remorse.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire are Baffled!

Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire.
Plagued with psychic visions, race car driver Tom Kovack ignores them until he sees himself plunge off a cliff into the ocean--and wakes up drenched in salt water. Accompanied by psychic authority Michelle Brent, Tom travels to Cornwall to learn why he senses evil at a country manor-turned-hotel.

The guests at the coastal hotel include a famous actress and her daughter, with the latter undergoing a sudden personality change. On a dark evening, Tom follows the young woman down a treacherous path along the cliffs. A loose railing sends Tom (are you ready?) plunging into the icy waters just like in his vision. When a mysterious van almost runs Tom and Michelle off the road, the duo get serious about uncovering the source of evil.

Hampshire as Michelle.
Made in 1972, Baffled! is a 90-minute made-for-TV movie that doubled as a pilot for TV series that never materialized. Leonard Nimoy stars as Tom Kovack, having departed from Mission: Impossible after a two-year stint. British actress Susan Hampshire plays Michelle Brent in what was a change-of-pace from her other television work. She had already won Emmys for her performances in the classy British dramas The Forsyte Saga and The First Churchills. She would win a third Emmy in 1973 for Vanity Fair.

Neither Nimoy nor Hampshire take their parts too seriously. While their playful banter is amusing enough, it seems out of place with the rest of Baffled. One senses that the intent was to make a mystery with supernatural undercurrents similar to Gene Roddenberry's first-rate TV movie Spectre (1977). I suspect it was this incongruent tone--plus low ratings--that doomed the chances for a Baffled! TV series (well, to be honest, I also think the title leaves a lot to be desired).

Rachel Roberts as a villain?
For a telefilm, Baffled! boasts an impressive supporting cast. The standout performance belongs to Rachel Roberts, a one-time Oscar nominee for This Sporting Life (1963). As the hotel's owner, she channels Mrs. Danvers but adds an intriguing touch of middle-aged sexuality. Her fellow actresses don't fare as well in underwritten parts, with Vera Miles being wasted as the former movie star and Angharad Rees (Demelza in the original Poldark) relegated to a bit part.

Despite its shortcomings, Baffled! offers enough to keep one's interest for an hour-and-a-half. The rocky coastal setting adds to its atmosphere. There's a nice twist at the climax (though it's not too hard to figure out). And Susan Hampshire is always a pleasure to watch, even when she just has to be her charming self.

Here's a scene from Baffled!, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:



Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Seven Things to Know About James Franciscus

1. James Franciscus met Jane Fonda in 1956 when they were working at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. In the biography Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, she said: "He was blond, blue-eyed, and movie star handsome...I was smitten. My previous inarticulate philanderings had not prepared me for true romance."

2. In a 1964 interview that appeared in Motion Picture Magazine, he explained the origin of his nickname: "Goey has been my nickname since I was a kid. My middle name is Grover, but when I arrived on the scene, my brother couldn't pronounce it--it came out sounding like Goey. So, I've been Goey to my family and friends ever since."

3. James Franciscus graduated magna cum laude from Yale University in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theatre Arts. One of his classmates was Dick Cavett. He was offered two movie contracts his senior year, but turned them down. He was also the first choice to play Dr. Kildare, but that didn't work out and the role went to Richard Chamberlain.

A young detective in Naked City.
4. Soon after his graduation, he starred as Detective Jimmy Halloran opposite John McIntire in the half-hour version of The Naked City. When the show was cancelled after one season, Franciscus headed to Hollywood where he would become a familiar face in movies and on television.

5. Of his five television series, the two most successful ones were Mr. Novak (1963-65) and Longstreet (1971-72). The former cast him as a new idealistic English teacher at a Los Angeles high school. Although the series was cancelled after just two seasons, it earned numerous accolades--including a prestigious Peabody Award in 1963. According to the Peabody Awards website, the award was given "for restoring dignity and honor to the popular image of the American schoolteacher, for reminding our young people that there is no grander pursuit than the pursuit of knowledge, and for daring to insist—without preachment or piety—that the uneducated man is an incomplete man."

With Pax on Longstreet.
6. On Longstreet, Franciscus was cast as an insurance investigator that lost his wife and sight during an explosion intended to kill him. Determined to become self-sufficient, Longstreet convinces a young Asian man (Bruce Lee) to teach him martial arts. Lee only appeared in four episodes, but they were memorable--as was Longstreet's seeing-eye dog Pax, a white German Shepherd. In between TV series, James Franciscus also had starring roles in diverse motion pictures such as Youngblood Hawke, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Valley of Gwangi, and Cat O' Nine Tails.

7. James Franciscus married Kathleen "Kitty" Wellman, the daughter of director William A. Wellman, in 1960. They had four children, but divorced in 1979. The following year, he married Carla Ankney. They were married when he died in 1991, at age 57, from emphysema.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Happy Anniversary, Café – I Left My Heart Again…


On September 13, 2009, I published my first post as a contributor to Rick Armstrong’s newly inaugurated classic film blog, The Classic Film & TV Café!  That first piece of mine was titled, “I Left My Heart…Five San Francisco Favorites,” and in it I proceeded to list and discuss five of my favorite films set in my favorite American city, a town just south of where I live now and where I once lived for many years. As part of my congratulatory return to the Café in tribute to its impressive tenth year, I thought it might be fun, for old times’ sake, to revisit the subject of that first blog post. So, here I offer, exactly ten years later, five more San Francisco-set favorite films.

Cleverly titled After the Thin Man (1936) this second - after The Thin Man (1934) - in the six-film series is the one I like best of all. It begins with stylish, martini-sipping, wisecrack-swapping Nick and Nora Charles returning home by train to San Francisco from the New York sojourn where the first film took place. The pair arrives at their mansion-with-an-amazing-view  (which looks like it’s either on Telegraph Hill or in Pacific Heights, both ultra-toney ) to find a “welcome home” party that’s already far past full swing. And poor Asta, their irrepressible fox terrier, comes upon an even more startling scene when he discovers that “Mrs. Asta” has, in his absence, been consorting with the Scotty next door. Pretty soon, once the party winds down and the Scotty is driven out, there’s trouble brewing, and murder, involving lots of shenanigans and tomfoolery until Nick reveals the killer in the final minutes of the third act. The plots don’t matter that much in Thin Man movies, they follow a pretty standard whodunit pattern. The attraction is in the characters – Nick, Nora and Asta – and the sophisticated, witty-banter-filled world they inhabit. It doesn’t hurt at all that Powell and Loy and Skippy (as Asta) are loaded with charm and chemistry and are, thus, entirely irresistible. Always interesting in the Thin Man films is the Runyonesque cast of characters Nick and Nora encounter on each case. Among the supporting folk in After the Thin Man is a very young James Stewart with a central role in this murder mystery. It’s interesting to watch him before he became a star and fully developed his onscreen persona.

The final scene, as Nick, Nora and Asta depart San Francisco by train, is quite cute but the change it portends will ultimately have the effect of taking some zing out of the series.


 
"...and you call yourself a detective..."

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Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur’s quintessential noir, is only partially set in San Francisco. Truthfully, among the film’s key locations – the others are rural Bridgeport, California, Acapulco, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe – it’s not the most alluringly depicted of the lot. But San Francisco has gotten so much limelight in so many other movies that I won't quibble.

It makes sense, considering Out of the Past’s convoluted plot, that a convoluted series of locations is part of the story. The opening is set in rural Bridgeport, California, a small town in the Sierras, where Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is leading the low-key life of a gas station owner/operator. Jeff’s tranquil idyll will be interrupted when an old acquaintance happens to catch a glimpse of him and then come looking for him. Jeff has a past. And into the past Out of the Past will go, in flashback, with voiceover narration. Back to New York, where Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hired Jeff, then a private eye, to find the woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot him and took him for $40,000 (close to $500,000 in 2019 dollars). Jeff will track her to Mexico and once there he will find her…and fall for her and not care when she tells him she didn’t take Whit’s money. Jeff will lie to Whit and say he couldn’t find her, then he and Kathie will steal away to San Francisco, hoping to escape the past together. This, of course, doesn't happen in film noir. So, when Kathie nastily double-crosses Jeff and leaves him holding the bag with a potential murder rap, he heads for the hills. Literally. And in Bridgeport he will open his gas station and meet Ann, a nice girl, and once more try to leave the past behind. But that will never be possible, and he will trek to Lake Tahoe to face Whit. And he will go to San Francisco once more, this time at Whit’s behest. And, finally, in the Sierra Nevada, he will meet his fate.

Some San Francisco locales depicted in Out of the Past were filmed on a backlot...

the fictional "Mason building" in San Francisco

But there are also some nice location scenes, too.

on Broadway in San Francisco

Even more evocative - to the point of transporting - are the Lake Tahoe and Mexico settings, some of it studio work and some of it shot on location. Credit for this goes to Tourneur, the art director and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (1948 Oscar nomination for I Remember Mama). 

Kathie's bungalow in Mexico

Whit's estate in Lake Tahoe
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Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey
Pal Joey (1957) began as a 1940 Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hart. The story, by John O’Hara, followed the exploits of a conniving Chicago nightclub performer, primarily a dancer, who gets involved with a wealthy married woman. Gene Kelly starred, and it was the part and the show that would launch him to stardom and send him to Hollywood. When Pal Joey was adapted to the screen 17 years later, Joey would now be a so-so lounge singer newly arrived in San Francisco. With Frank Sinatra in the leading role, adjusting the character’s forte was not only logical, but necessary. The 1950s Joey would be nicer and more likable than the 1940s Joey, and the wealthy woman (Rita Hayworth) would now be an ex of his, formerly a stripper known as “Vanessa the Undresser” who’d married money and is now a rich widow. Kim Novak was third on the bill as the naïve chorus girl Joey falls for. San Francisco would play a  supporting role, providing locales like the ferry building, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Jackson Square, the Marina and Pacific Heights as a dreamy backdrop for all the drama and romance. It doesn’t stop there, though. Nelson Riddle would also be on hand taking care of musical arrangements, notably Sinatra’s renditions of “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “There’s a Small Hotel” and the medley, "What Do I Care for a Dame"/"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"/"I Could Write a Book." These performances alone would be worth the price of admission. The music, the racy elements (for the time) of the story, the glamour of Rita and Kim, and the tarnished charm of Ol’ Blue Eyes as Joey combined to make Pal Joey a very big hit that would go on to earn four Oscar nominations.

The Spreckels mansion served as the site for Chez Joey, Joey's club
 ~

Bullitt (1968) provied Steve McQueen, already an A-lister when he filmed it, with his defining screen role. As maverick San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt, McQueen is  the epitome of late '60s cool. The film was a monster hit and would turn out to be a precursor to the Dirty Harry franchise. In fact, McQueen was offered the Dirty Harry role (along with other renegade cop roles, like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection), but turned it (and them) down to avoid typecasting.

As James Stewart did in Vertigo, McQueen makes his way up, down and around the many streets of San Francisco in Bullitt, though in a hotter car at a higher speed. Location footage includes scenes in neighborhoods as diverse as Nob Hill,  Pacific Heights, the Embarcadero, North Beach, Potrero Hill, The Mission, South of Market (aka/SOMA) and downtown. McQueen, who produced, would choose Brit Peter Yates to direct because of his experience shooting on location for Tony Richardson and because of a film he’d made in 1967, Robbery, that featured an exciting car chase. Of course, the most famous sequence in Bullitt, it’s centerpiece, is a 10-minute car chase that winds through all parts of the city and climaxes in a takedown race over Mount San Bruno that ends in a deadly crash in Brisbane, a small town south of the city. That particular route was part of my daily commute for many years and every so often I’d think of that sequence when I reached the crest of the mountain and started down the other side. But I was never inspired enough to accelerate. Bullitt is another film in which the plot is incidental – a sort of MacGuffin. The real “story” is Steve McQueen’s character, Bullitt, and that tale is enhanced by the iconic chase scene – the “granddaddy of them all" – and the breathtaking city of San Francisco. For my full review of Bullitt on its 50th anniversary last year, click here.


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What’s Up, Doc?  (1972) was the second of the three films that made Peter Bogdanovich’s reputation as one of the top New Hollywood directors of the early 1970s (along with Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and others). Before it had come his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show (1971), and following would be Paper Moon (1973). Bogdanovich’s standing - and career - as a director would suffer a dizzying plunge in the mid-'70s, but this was before that, and What’s Up, Doc? is an effervescent delight of a tribute to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal share a fine chemistry and are supported by a dazzling ensemble cast including Madeline Kahn (in her film debut), Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, Michael Murphy, Mabel Albertson and more.

Four identical bags...
What’s Up, Doc? has been referred to by some as a re-make of Bringing Up Baby (1938). It’s not. It’s not even a “loose re-make,” but it is a superbly crafted homage. The plot follows the confusion that is unleashed when four identical plaid suitcases arrive at the same San Francisco hotel at the same time. One bag belongs to musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal, wearing a pair of glasses a la Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby), and contains a set of important “musical rocks.” Another bag belongs to Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), a wacky perennial college student who leaves chaos and trouble in her wake wherever she roams. Her bag is packed with her clothes and a dictionary. A third bag belongs to “Mr. Smith” (Michael Murphy) and contains confidential government documents. The fourth bag belongs to wealthy Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson) and holds her vast collection of expensive jewelry. As you might expect, an incredible mix-up occurs and madcap escapades ensue.

One of the highlights of What’s Up, Doc? is a riotous car chase through the city involving, first, a delivery bicycle and then a decorative VW Beetle. The sequence is a wild parody of the legendary Bullitt chase and ends with a splash in the San Francisco Bay. Written by Buck Henry (The Graduate), David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, who won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart) and based on a story by Bogdanovich, the film also features a soundtrack filled with songs, sung or just heard in the background, by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and others of that golden age of popular music. This is one film that deserves a whole lot more love and attention than it gets.



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Curious about my original five picks of 10 years ago? Click here. And if you have favorite San Francisco-set movies, tell me about it.

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Congratulations, Rick, and thank you for everything!