Monday, November 27, 2023

The V.I.P.s and The Fog

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The V.I.P.s
(1963).  A fogged-in London airport provides the setting—and serves as the catalyst—in playwright Terence Rattigan’s The V.I.P.s. This collage of mini-dramas shares the same structure as films such as Grand Hotel and Rattigan’s own Separate Tables. The principal characters include: an emotionally-withdrawn tycoon (Richard Burton); his ignored wife (Elizabeth Taylor), who plans to leave him; her lover (Louis Jourdan); a businessman (Rod Taylor) fighting a hostile takeover of his company; his secretary (Maggie Smith) who secretly loves him; an elderly, financially-strapped dowager (Margaret Rutherford); and a blustery filmmaker (Orson Welles), who stands to pay a hefty tax bill if he can’t leave the country by midnight. As expected, some subplots are engrossing (Rod Taylor’s dilemma), while others are filler (the plight of Welles’ filmmaker). The standout performances come from Richard Burton and Maggie Smith. Burton’s initially one-dimensional character gains depth as the film progresses, while Maggie Smith shines brightly from start to finish. A scene between Burton and Smith toward the end is a master class in acting. Dame Margaret Rutherford won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the befuddled dowager. She’s good, delivering a more reserved portrayal than usual. However, I would have given that award to the luminous Maggie Smith. 

Adrienne Barbeau in the lighthouse.
The Fog
(1980). In his theatrical follow-up to Halloween (1978), John Carpenter opts to create a different kind of horror film with a supernatural tale set in an atmospheric Northern California coastal community. The premise is set up with a nifty recounting of a local story in which a clipper ship’s crew of six died in a crash against the rocks after mistaking a campfire for the lighthouse on a foggy night. A hundred year later, as Antonio Bay prepares to celebrate its centennial, a glowing fog engulfs the town—and brings forth the vengeful ghosts of the ship’s crew. But why are the murderous spirits seeking the lives of six town residents? The answer is somewhat interesting, but therein lies the problem with The Fog. It’s a middle-of-the-road effort that rarely lives up to its potential. The ghosts aren’t frightening, the characters lack interest, and Carpenter fails to generate adequate suspense (a surprise coming on the heels of his superbly-crafted Halloween). The cast—which includes real-life mother and daughter Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis—is game, but just doesn’t have enough quality material. One suspects Carpenter recognized these flaws as he shot additional footage after viewing the rough cut. The director certainly rebounded, with his next two movies, Escape from New York (1981) and The Thing (1982), ranking among his best.

Monday, November 13, 2023

The Movie Quote Game (John Ford Edition)

This month, we're focusing on quotes from John Ford films. We will list a quote from one of his movies and ask you to name it. Try to answer these questions on your own without resorting to Google searches. As always, please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play.  If you have a response other than the intended one, just be able to defend it.

1. "Everything I ever learnt as a small boy came from my father, and I never found anything he ever told me to be wrong or worthless. The simple lessons he taught me are as sharp and clear in my mind as if I had heard them only yesterday."

2. "A fine soft day in the spring, it was, when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off."

3. "I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems."

4. "Seems like the government's got more interest in a dead man than a live one."

5. "Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week."

6. "Oh, Uncle Guns, please don't fight, don't spoil our party."

7. "I don't believe in surrenders. Nope, I've still got my saber, Reverend. Didn't beat it into no plowshare, neither."

8. "The fact that the city is no longer yours. It's ours. You have this musty shrine to your bluenose ancestors, but my people have the City Hall and that's what sticks in your craw."

9. "That appendix of yours certainly gets around, Reber. Now it's on the wrong side. Two aspirin, marked for duty. Next."

10. "Gentlemen, I did not seek this command, but since it's been assigned me, I intend to make this regiment the finest on the frontier."

11. "I've heard a lot about you, too, Doc. You left your mark around in Deadwood, Denver and places. In fact, a man could almost follow your trail goin' from graveyard to graveyard."

12. "The only lions I ever want to see again are the two in front of the public library."

13. "And now the British think I'm with the Irish, and the Irish think I'm with the British."

14. "Even a dog can go where he likes... but not a Cheyenne."

15. "Private Winkie it is. A full-fledged soldier of the Queen!"

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Of Vampire Bats and Manitous!

Nick Mancuso as the hero.
The late 1970s saw the release of two horror films based on popular novels that featured Native American protagonists: The Manitou (1978) and Nightwing (1979).

The latter movie stars Nick Mancuso as Youngman Duran, the only law enforcement officer on a tribal reservation in New Mexico. Duran is coping with a lot of stuff: his physician girlfriend is pondering a move to Texas; a energy company has acquired oil rights from a neighboring tribe; an old medicine man, who raised Duran, is dying; and something is draining the blood from cattle--and eventually tourists.

David Warner hunts bats.
Enter British scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner), who announces grimly that the bloodless victims were attacked by vampire bats. Payne has dedicated his life to tracking and killing the night-bound creatures. He now believes they are living in the local mountain caves and--brace yourself for more bad news--are carrying the bubonic plague!

Nightwing is a film filled with unrealized potential. Its strongest element is its desert setting, which typically works well in the horror genre (see Gargoyles). However, Arthur Hiller, a director best known for romances and comedies, can't capitalize on the visual splendor of the dark dunes and the isolated mountains.

Deputy Duran could have been an interesting character, but Mancuso, saddled with a lackluster script, comes across as angst-ridden and befuddled. The screenplay also tosses in heaping helpings of mysticism in the hope of making some kind of profound statement about the destruction of the environment.

David Warner lends some gravitas to Nightwing in spite of portraying an under-developed character. Sadly, the movie wastes the talents of the legendary character actor Strother Martin. He appears briefly as a supply store owner, then vanishes from the movie. That just isn't right.

Susan Strasberg as Karen.
The Manitou may be no better than Nightwing, but it sure is more fun. Susan Strasberg stars as Karen Tandy, a woman who seeks medical help when a large lump starts growing on the back of her neck. After examining her X-rays, her perplexed surgeon comments that the growth looks like a fetus! 

He's right. It turns out to be the fetus of a "manitou"...the spirit of an ancient, evil, dwarf-sized medicine man. Once Karen gives birth, she will die and the manitou will grow in power until it can destroy the human race. Karen's on-and-off-again lover Harry (Tony Curtis), a fake medium, eventually learns what's happening. He journeys to South Dakota to find a contemporary medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), to battle the formidable manitou. 

Tony Curtis as Harry.
The premise of The Manitou might have worked in Graham Masterton's novel. But seeing it on the big  screen is something else and I suspect most of the cast recognized that when they read the screenplay. Tony Curtis can't keep a straight face and the same applies to a trio of screen veterans featured in brief parts: Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith, and Stella Stevens (who appears to stifle a laugh after a séance scene). However, to their credit, the cast goes with the flow and somehow keeps The Manitou from transforming into a parody--despite having to speak mystical chants like "pana witchy salatoo" or coming face-to-face with the little manitou guy in a dark hospital room.

It helps that director William Girdler had previous experience in the horror genre, having helmed Abby (1974), Grizzly (1976), and the wacky The Day of the Animals (1977). He knows that showing less is better and keeps the blood-soaked manitou bathed in shadows after its birth. The climax, set in a hospital on emergency power as a thunderstorm rages in the background, works well in spite of the cheap special effects. Sadly, Girdler died in a helicopter crash shortly after he completed The Manitou.

You can watch The Manitou and Nightwing for free! Click here to watch Nightwing on the Creatures Features channel on Rumble (a YouTube-like streaming service). Click here to watch The Manitou on the Internet Archive

Monday, October 16, 2023

A Study in Terror and The Detective

A Study in Terror (1965).  Murder By Decree (1979) may be the best known pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper--but it wasn't the first. That distinction belongs to the mostly forgotten A Study in Terror. Produced with the cooperation of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, A Study in Terror boasts an original screenplay that finds Holmes investigating a series of brutal murders in London's Whitehall area. His interest is peaked when he receives a case of surgical instruments that is missing the scalpel, the type of instrument that Scotland Yard believes was used in the murders. Holmes quickly discovers that the case belonged to Michael Osborne, the older son of Lord Carfax. Osborne vanished two years earlier, but could he have resurfaced as Jack the Ripper? Made on a modest budget, A Study in Terror recreates Victorian London convincingly and features a splendid performance by John Neville as the Baker Street detective. In fact, I'd rate Neville's portrayal as the fourth best, topped only by Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Cushing. Donald Huston makes an acceptable Dr. Watson, though he gushes over Holmes's deductions a bit too much. While the plot holds interest and moves swiftly, the fiery climax rushes to a conventional conclusion. Mostly disappointingly, the killer's motivation feels like an afterthought. Still, the primary reason to watch A Study in Terror is to see John Neville's Holmes. Fans of 1950s teen horror films might recognize one of the producers. Yes, that's the Herman Cohen, who made unforgettable drive-in classics such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. You can currently watch A Study in Terror for free on Rumble by clicking here.

The Detective
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is a no-nonsense NYC police detective who stands up defiantly to meddling politicians, cop corruption, and his superiors. His investigations into the brutal murder of a gay socialite and the mysterious suicide of an accountant take their toll on Joe--professionally and personally. His marriage is crumbling, in part because his wife Karen (Lee Remick) copes with her emotional insecurities by sleeping with other men. Used to bottling up his own emotions, the middle-aged Joe can't connect fully with Karen except on a physical level. Made in the turbulent late 1960s, The Detective is an ambitious, but shaky attempt to merge a Chandleresque crime drama with a character study. The former works better than the latter, with the flashbacks detailing Joe and Karen's relationship interspersed with Joe's investigations. It's a clunky structure that distracts the viewer from the best part of the movie. It also hampers Lee Remick's performance by relegating most of her scenes to poorly-written vignettes with Sinatra. The screenplay saddles some fine supporting actors with stereotyped characters: Ralph Meeker as a cop on the take, Robert Duvall as a bigoted detective, and Al Freeman, Jr. as a young Black officer who suddenly transforms from a naïve newcomer to a ruthless, overly ambitious detective. As a mystery, The Detective works well, though it's certainly not a surprise when Leland learns his two cases are connected. The NYC locations and Jack Klugman, in a small but pivotal part, are nice bonuses. Ultimately, The Detective doesn't compare favorably with Sinatra's best 1960s films (The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan's Express), but it is a worth a watch. You can view it for free on Hoopla if your local public library subscribes to that streaming service.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass

Nigel Davenport as John Custance.
Actor Cornel Wilde directed eight films, beginning with 1955's Storm Fear. His best picture is The Naked Prey (1965), in which he also stars as a safari guide being hunted down by African tribesmen. It's a lean, gripping adventure that showcased Wilde's promising future as a first-rate filmmaker. Unfortunately, Wilde never realized that potential as a director, as evidenced by his bizarre 1970 science fiction opus No Blade of Blade.

The film opens with a five-minute montage showing man's pollution of the environment, accompanied by the melancholy title song performed by Roger Whittaker. The story then picks up with the London-based Custance family, which has been warned to evacuate the city by their friend Roger Burnham. In flashback, we learn that a grass disease, created by pollution, has caused worldwide famine. Food has been rationed. Martial law has been declared in large cities. There are rumors of government-directed mass killings in some countries.

John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife, daughter, and Roger to his brother's rural farm in the north. They barely make it out of London, though, as rioters and looters attack their cars. They stop at a hardware store to buy guns and ammunition, but the elderly store owner refuses to sell to them without a firearms license. An argument ensues and a store employee named Pirrie kills the old man. John allows Pirrie and his wife to join their caravan. It's the first of many questionable decisions made for the sake of survival.

As the travelers make their way north, they encounter violent gangs, desperate families, and soldiers who have turned on their superiors. It's a bleak look at humanity. When the Custances are ambushed and robbed of their supplies, a shocked Ann Custance asks: "What kind of people are you?" The reply: "The same kind of people you are, ma'am." In a handful of scenes like this, director Wilde drives his points home effectively. 

Lynne Frederick and Anthony May.
Unfortunately, his heavy-handed approach dilutes the overall effectiveness with flash forwards, too many pollution montages, and an overreliance on news broadcasts to substantiate the events (a technique George Romero used effectively in Night of the Living Dead). The treatment of the Custances' teenage daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), is also disturbing. In the film's opening scenes, she is apparently in a nonsexual relationship with Roger, who must be twice her age. She and her mother are later raped by the biker gang, in a scene that is unnecessarily explicit. Even worse, the trauma surrounding that event is never addressed in the film, almost as if it never happened. Finally, after the borderline psycho Pirrie "disposes" of his wife, he expresses his interest in Mary. She agrees to go with him because she feels safe--a decision that her parents accept all too quickly.

Jean Wallace, aka Mrs. Wilde.
The standouts in the cast are Nigel Davenport as John Custance and Anthony May as Pirrie (the most interesting character). This was the last film made by Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's spouse at the time. It marked the film debut of Lynne Frederick, who married Peter Sellers at age 22 (she was the last of his four wives).

Adapted from John Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass, No Blade of Grass was hard to see for many years. You can now view it for free on the Rumble channel Silver Age Science Fiction Classics 1965-90 by clicking here

For an interesting comparison, you may want to seek out Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero (1962), a similar--but more effective--examination on the potential end of civilization through the eyes of one family.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Seven Things to Know About Walt Disney's Zorro TV Series

Guy Williams as Zorro.
1. Walt Disney launched his Zorro TV series on ABC in October 1957. Despite airing on Thursday nights against the Top 10 show You Bet Your Life, Zorro was an immediate hit. The first season's 39 episodes were divided into three 13-episode story arcs. In effect, each story played out like a 13-episode serial. That structure was retained for the second season, but the length of the story arcs was shortened. Zorro's ratings dipped that season, but ABC was still interested in renewing the show on a limited basis. Unfortunately, a legal dispute between Disney and ABC resulted in Zorro being cancelled (for more info on the legal issues, check out Bill Cotter's article). In 1960, four hour-long "special" episodes of Zorro were shown on the anthology series Walt Disney Presents--which, ironically, was still being shown on ABC.

Jonathan Harris as Don Carlos.
2. Jonathan Harris guest-starred in Zorro several years before he was cast as Dr. Smith alongside Guy Williams on Lost in Space. He played villainous landowner Don Carlos Fernandez in three second season episodes: "Zorro and the Mountain Man," "The Hound of the Sierras," and "Manhunt." Harris's agent told the Zorro producers that his client could ride a horse. In fact, Harris had a fear of horses and a stunt double had to be used. Of his future Lost in Space co-star, Jonathan Harris said in a Television Academy Foundation interview: "I don't think we got very friendly."

3. The title song to Zorro was written by Norman Foster and George Bruns and performed by The Mellomen. Bruns earned four Academy Award nominations for his work on Disney films over a span of several decades. He also co-wrote "The Ballad of Davy Crocket," which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as recorded by Bill Hayes. The Zorro song was released as single, too, but peaked at #17. That version was recorded by the female quartet The Chordettes. Their biggest chart hits were "Mr. Sandman" and "Lollipop."

Annette Funicello.
4. Annette Funicello was a huge Zorro fan, so Walt Disney gave her a unique present for her 16th birthday: a three-episode story arc on Zorro. She played Anita Cabrillo, a young woman who arrived from Spain in search of her father. The three episodes, which aired during season 2, were: "The Missing Father," "Please Believe Me," and "The Brooch." Annette later guest-starred as another character in "The Postponed Wedding," one of the hour-long episodes.

5. The international popularity of the Zorro character led Walt Disney to release two theatrical films consisting of edited episodes of the TV series. The Sign of Zorro (1958) was edited from eight season one episodes. Zorro the Avenger (1959) has Zorro taking on The Eagle (Charles Korvin), who appeared in six episodes, also from the first season. Disney re-released The Sign of Zorro to theaters in 1978 and in 1982. In the latter instance, its running time was shortened and it was paired with Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973).

6. Walt Disney Television revived Zorro in 1983 with the CBS TV series Zorro and Son. Set 20 years after the original show, it introduced Don Carlos de Vega as Zorro's offspring, who naturally follows in his father's footsteps. Guy Williams considered returning as Zorro, Sr., and even flew from his Argentine estate to meet with the producers. However, when he discovered the show would have a comical slant, he turned down the role and Henry Darrow (whom I interviewed in 2015) was cast as Zorro. Despite the presence of veteran comedians Bill Dana and Dick Gautier, Zorro and Son was cancelled after five episodes.

7. Following the cancellation of the original Zorro, Guy Williams starred in a couple of European films (including Damon and Pythias) in the early 1960s. He was then cast as Ben Cartwright's nephew Will on Bonanza. The intent was for him to "replace" Pernell Roberts, who had decided to leave the popular series. When Roberts was retained for the following season, Will Cartwright was written out of Bonanza after just five episodes. Still, Guy Williams didn't stay unemployed for long as he was cast as family patriarch Dr. John Robinson in Irwin Allen's sci fi series Lost in Space. Unfortunately, Dr. Robinson faded into the background of most episodes when Jonathan Harris's Dr. Smith became the show's unexpected breakout star. Guy Williams retired from acting in 1968. He eventually moved to Argentina in the 1970s, where he was immensely popular because of his Zorro portrayal. He died in 1989 of a brain aneurysm.

Click here to read all the entries in Silver Scenes' The 100 Years of Disney Blogathon!

Monday, September 4, 2023

The Killers (1964) and Tenebrae

Clu Gulager and Lee Marvin.
The Killers (1964). Don Siegel's adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1946 short story "The Killers" is sadly overshadowed by the 1946 film version that made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Siegel's The Killers is a lean, fast-paced drama that borrows elements from the 1946 movie, but alters the narrative path. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play contract killers Charlie and Lee, who are hired to murder former race car driver Johnny North. The job goes off without a hitch, but Charlie (Marvin), the more experienced hit man, is bothered by the fact that Johnny knew they were coming to kill him--but chose not to flee. Charlie becomes obsessed with finding out why and, as the killers interview people who knew their victim, Johnny's story unfolds in flashbacks. John Cassavetes turns in one of his most likable performances as Johnny, whose once-promising career goes off the rails when he falls for a mobster's mistress (Angie Dickinson). The flashbacks are well done, but The Killers works best when it focuses on the contrasting title characters: the quiet, perceptive Charlie and his younger, more action-minded partner Lee. Marvin's performance foreshadows his ruthless role in the better-known Point Blank (1967), while Gulager is a revelation. It's a shame that his career was mostly limited to TV series such as The Tall Man and The Virginian. The Killers was originally intended as one of the first made-for-TV movies, but its content was deemed too violent and it received a theatrical release. A scene in which Ronald Reagan, as a ruthless criminal, slaps Angie Dickinson is often cited for its violence. However, it pales in comparison to a later scene in which Marvin's hit man brutally slugs her. You can currently stream The Killers on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Tenebrae (1982). After a detour into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), filmmaker Dario Argent returned to the giallo genre where he experienced great success in the 1970s (e.g., Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). Tony Franciosa stars as American writer Peter Neal, who travels to Rome to promote his latest mystery, a grisly thriller titled Tenebrae. Following the death of a young woman, Peter receives a letter from the killer who claims to have been inspired by Peter's violent novels. As more murders occur, the author closes in on the identity of the murderer--but all is not what it seems. Stylish and thematically complex, Tenebrae suffers from Argento's desire to pull out all the stops--no matter the costs. There's an incredible tracking shot in which the camera crawls along the side of a building, then up and over it and down the other side. It's an amazing technical feat, but adds little to the scene's suspense. There are also anonymous flashbacks, blood-splattered killings (you've been warned!), and a doozy of a climatic twist. I'm still not sure if the latter plays fair with the audience, but it will grab your attention. Tenebrae is a a moderately-successful return to Argento's roots, but it could have been so much more. Despite starring a well-known American actor, Tenebrae received a limited release in the U.S. two years after its European premiere; it was heavily edited and retitled Unsane

Monday, August 21, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game - Greatest Hits (Vol. 1)

This month, we're doing something a little different for the Alternate Movie Title Game. The "titles" below have been compiled from some of our previous games--so this is sort of a greatest hits edition! The rules are the same: We will provide an "alternate title" for a famous movie and ask you to name the film. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. The Lying--But Likable--Magazine Columnist's Holiday in New England.

2. Hole of Vipers.

3. Incident at the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q.

4. Alien Nuptials.

5. Octopus in the House.

6. Battlin' Buckboard.

7.  A Snake Called Adolphe.

8. The Secret Agent That Got Nice and Toasty.

9. The Ugly Bug Ball.

10. Red Beard and the Boy Spy.

11, Queen of Neewollah.

12. Avalanche in Echo Pass!

13. I'm Beverly Boyer and I'm a Pig.

14. General Sternwood's Daughter.

15. Robur the Conqueror.

Monday, August 7, 2023

The Deadly Affair and Harper

James Mason as Charles Dobbs.
The Deadly Affair (1967). James Mason stars as Charles Dobbs--a renamed George Smiley--in Sidney Lumet's moderately successful adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Call for the Dead. The plot is more mystery than espionage as Dobbs tries to discover whether a diplomat (recently cleared of spying) committed suicide or was murdered. While the authorities are content with an explanation of suicide, Dobbs can't rationalize why the dead man requested a wake-up call the night of his death. Director Lumet creates a visually compelling tapestry filled with dark rainy days and shadowy characters. Mason makes a respectable Dobbs/Smiley, but Harry Andrews almost steals the film as a recently retired police detective concerned only with the facts (he falls asleep whenever Dobbs starts to speculate). Simone Signoret is also fabulous as the dead man's widow, a Holocaust survivor whose political allegiances are less murky than they appear. A subplot involving Dobbs' serially unfaithful wife Ann was added for the film. Interestingly, it foreshadows a critical plotline in Le Carre's later Smiley novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You can currently stream The Deadly Affair on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Newman as Lew Harper.
Harper (1966).  George Smiley wasn't the only 1960s protagonist to undergo a name change en route from novel to film. Ross Macdonald's private eye Lew Archer became Lew Harper when Paul Newman agreed to star in an adaptation of the novel The Moving Target. Allegedly, Newman requested the name change because of his previous success in films with titles starting with "h" (e.g., The Hustler, Hud). Harper is a slick, star-infused mystery that finds the titular detective searching for a missing millionaire at the bequest of the man's bitter wife (Lauren Bacall). The case quickly turns into a kidnapping and pretty soon dead bodies start appearing. Newman is well-cast as the cynical, gum-chewing private eye intent on pursuing every possible lead. Screenwriter William Goldman provides Harper with an estranged wife (Janet Leigh), perhaps in an attempt to give Harper a backstory. It doesn't add much, though, as Lew Harper serves mainly to guide the audience through the labyrinthian plot. What elevates Harper are the splashy locales in and around sun-drenched Los Angeles and the star-packed supporting cast that includes Bacall, Leigh, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Pamela Tiffin, Arthur Hill, and Strother Martin. Newman reprised the role of Lew Harper in the inferior 1975 sequel The Drowning Pool. If you enjoy Harper, I recommend checking out James Garner's turn as Philip Marlowe in Marlowe (1969). You can currently stream Harper on Rumble for free by clicking here.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Lon Chaney, Jr. Makes a Strange Confession

Chaney Jr. and the black bag.
The most incongruent entry in Universal's six-film Inner Sanctum series is also one of the best. Whereas its brethren are psychological suspense tales, Strange Confession (1945) is a straight drama with a subtly gruesome conclusion.

Series regular Lon Chaney, Jr. stars as Jeff Carter, a chemist who wants to make a difference for humanity. As he often says, Jeff doesn't care about money nor glory. His attitude and work ethic are exploited by his employer (J. Carrol Naish), the unscrupulous head of a pharmaceutical company. When Jeff refuses to rush a new drug to market, his boss promptly fires him and prevents him from working at any other lab.

J. Carrol Naish as the villain.
Jeff is content to work at a drugstore and conduct his experiments in his spare time. However, his wife Mary (Brenda Joyce) understandably wants a better life for their young son and for herself. When Jeff has an opportunity to return to his old job, Mary convinces him to take it. That decision results in personal tragedy as well as affecting the lives of hundreds of others.

Told in flashback, Strange Confession makes it clear from the opening scenes that it will not have a happy ending. Prior to relating his tale in an old college friend, now a prominent attorney, Jeff reveals the contents of a small black bag he has been carrying. The audience doesn't get to see the contents, but the attorney's reaction (and the size of the bag) make it pretty obvious. It's a chilling--but highly effective--way to capture one's attention!

Brenda Joyce as Mary.
While Chaney's do-gooder and Naish's villain are pretty much black-and-white characters, Brenda Joyce gets one of her best roles as Mary Carter. She loves her husband for his noble ideas, but she also realizes that good intentions don't provide a better life for her family. Her motives in regard to Jeff's boss are more complex. When he ships Jeff off to South America and starts paying her attention, it's hard to imagine that Mary is totally blind to his intentions.

It's nice to see Brenda Joyce in a part so different from her most famous one: Jane in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller and Lex Barker. Her transition from a full-time mother living in a small apartment to a well-dressed suburban resident with a full-time housekeeper is a credit to the actress...and costume designer Vera West. West dresses the actress modestly in the early scenes before shifting to more luxurious outfits following the family's rise in financial status.

If the plot to Strange Confession sounds vaguely familiar, then you may have seen The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) with Claude Rains. Both films were based on the same 1932 stage play by Jean Bart. While the plot is different in Strange Confession, it retains the central premise and Chaney's character even notes that Naish's villain has stolen his ideas and he needs to "reclaim his head."

The Inner Sanctum film series is a cut above other "B" pictures produced by Universal in the 1940s. While not a typical entry, Strange Confession is an engrossing one that will hold your attention from the start to finish. It's also an opportunity to see future TV stars in supporting roles: Lloyd Bridges (shown on right) plays Lon's co-worker and Milburn Stone is Naish's de facto henchman.

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Musicals Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a movie musical and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Columbia Inn.

2. A Man Named Detroit.

3. I Am Going to Like It Here.

4. Avalanche in Echo Pass!

5. The Think System.

6. The Parish Boy's Progress (this might be a little difficult).

7. Umbrella, Brooms, and Kites.

8. Chance Is a Fool's Name for Fate.

9. A Whole Lot of Young Ladies.

10. Faust: The Musical.

11. The Road to Rome (there may be more than one answer).

12. Dancin' When Wet.

13. Hank and the King (another potentially hard one).

14. Daisy or Melinda?

15. The Student Witch.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Rod Serling Saddles the Wind

John Cassavetes glares.
The opening of notes of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans's title tune--a torch song whispered intimately by Julie London--lets you know that Saddle the Wind (1958) won't be a conventional Western. But if you start to doubt that notion, Rod Serling's credit as screenwriter and the casting of John Cassavetes as an unhinged cowboy will dispel any such notions. 

Robert Taylor stars as Steve Sinclair, a reformed gunfighter who operates a mid-sized ranch in a scenic valley. Steve spends a lot of his time looking out for his younger brother--and surrogate son--Tony (Cassavetes). Steve loves his brother, but recognizes that Tony is a "gun crazy, loco kid." One day, Tony returns from a cattle-selling trip with a saloon singer named Joan (London) and announces his intention to marry her. 

Julie London as Joan.
Steve doesn't exactly welcome Joan into the family and she initially resents his parental treatment of Tony. However, Joan gradually realizes how much Steve cares for his brother. She also learns there is a dark side to Tony--especially after she watches him kill a gunfighter after goading the man into a face-off.

The opening scenes of Saddle the Wind promise to deliver a unique take on the Western genre. Unfortunately, the story goes off the rails when it nudges Julie London to the background and shifts focus to the tired old plot about Eastern settlers building fences on the open range. It's hard to fault screenwriter Serling, who was saddled (pun intended) with a story by Thomas Thompson. 

Saddle the Wind also exhibits signs of studio interference. The sub-90 minute running time is atypical for a star-powered feature and the denouement wraps up the story too quickly. Also, Jeff Alexander's score was replaced by one composed by Elmer Bernstein. (In 2005, Alexander's Saddle the Wind soundtrack was released for the first time.)

Robert Taylor as Steve.
Rod Serling's screenplay still crackles with memorable dialogue. When Steve is trying to make a point to Tony, he asks: "Do I have to crawl inside your head with an iron and burn it there?" The opening scene is pure Serling, a brilliantly-written, three-character "play" in which a grizzled gunfighter barges into a saloon looking for Steve Sinclair. It reminded me of Serling's later, underappreciated Western TV series The Loner, which takes place during the same post-Civil War period.

Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes work well together as the very different brothers. Taylor exudes calm and resilience, while Cassavetes plays Tony like a rubber band that's ready to snap at any given time. Julie London brings an gritty realism to her disenchanted saloon singer. The scene where she sings to Cassavetes could have been a throwaway, but she turns it into a touching moment. I was bummed when London's character was shuffled to the background and relegated to a minor supporting part.

One of the last "adult Westerns" of the 1950s, Saddle the Wind is an odd duck--and I mean that in a good way. It may not always work, but what's left on the screen holds one's interest while leaving the viewer a little sad that didn't turn out to be more.

You can watch Saddle the Wind for free on by clicking here. My Twitter pal @CED_LD_Guy has uploaded lots of interesting films on his Rumble channels.

Monday, June 12, 2023

12 Great World War II Movies of the 1960s...and How to Watch Them for Free

Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen.
I recently asked my 25,000 (awesome) Twitter followers to rate eleven of the finest World War II films of the 1960s. I wanted to keep my survey to a reasonable length, but it was tough to cut off the list at eleven. In fact, I initially tried to keep it at ten, but I just couldn't do it!

The reason is simple: The 1960s was an amazing decade for first-rate films set during World War II. Although Hollywood produced war movies during the 1940s and the 1950s, the number of major war movies exploded in the 1960s. There were films with big budgets and all-star casts (The Longest Day) as well as intimate pictures with rising stars (Hell Is for Heroes). There were fact-based movies (Battle of the Bulge) and espionage thrillers (36 Hours). Some films focused on daring escapes (Von Ryan's Express, The Great Escape), while others focused on daring missions (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare). There were films about the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy (In Harm's Way), and the British Royal Air Force (Battle of Britain).

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
Interestingly, actors from The Magnificent Seven appeared in a bunch of 1960s war films: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson in The Great Escape; McQueen and Coburn in Hell Is for Heroes; McQueen in The War Lover; Coburn in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?; Bronson in The Dirty Dozen and Battle of the Bulge; Brad Dexter in Von Ryan's Express and None But the Brave; Robert Vaughn in The Bridge at Remagen; and Yul Brynner in The Battle of Neretva, Triple Cross, and Morituri.

Now, without further ado, here's my list of the 11 Best World War II Films of the 1960s, as ranked by the smartest film buffs on Twitter. I have also included a twelfth film, The Train with Burt Lancasterbecause it was mentioned frequently in the responses to my original tweet. Twitter movie guru @CED_LD_Guy secured the rights to make these movies available on his War Movie Classics channel on Rumble (which is similar to YouTube). I've added the links for you, so just click on a title below to watch the movie without ads for free! To view a film on your television, you'll need to add the Rumble app to your streaming device or smart TV and subscribe the channel (which is also free). If you want more information on how to do that, leave a comment below.

The Great Escape (1963) - Prisoners of war tunnel their way to freedom in this blockbuster starring James Garner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, Richard Attenborough, and James Coburn.

The Dirty Dozen (1967) - An Army major (Lee Marvin) has to train 12 military convicts for a deadly mission behind enemy lines.

The Longest Day (1962) - Daryl F. Zanuck produced this all-star epic about the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

The Guns of Navarone (1961) - A team of commandos go undercover to destroy two large German cannons positioned strategically on Navarone Island. Based on an Alistair MacLean novel.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) - Another Alistair MacLean thriller provides the basis for this exciting tale about commandos tasked with rescuing a captured U.S. general from a mountain-top stronghold--but all is not as it seems.

Von Ryan's Express (1965) - Prisoners of war escape and hijack a train, racing through occupied Italy to their freedom in Switzerland. Check out my review.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) - This all-star epic is loosely based on the title battle, which lasted for several weeks near the end of World War II. The cast includes Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, and Telly Savalas.

Battle of Britain (1969) - The Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe fight for control of the skies over Great Britain in this all-star picture starring Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Christopher Plummer and many more.

In Harms Way (1965) - Otto Preminger explores the lives of naval officers and their wives stationed in Hawaii in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hell Is for Heroes (1962) - A small squad of U.S. soldiers must hold off an advancing German company until reinforcements can arrive. The cast includes McQueen, Coburn, Fess Parker, Bobby Darin, and Bob Newhart.

36 Hours (1964) - On the eve of the Normandy invasion, an American intelligence officer (James Garner) gets thunked on the head during a clandestine rendezvous with a spy. He awakes in an Allied military hospital five years later and is told he has been suffering bouts of amnesia. Or is he? Check out my review.

The Train (1964) - The French Resistance seeks to stop a train loaded with art treasures stolen by the Nazis.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Private Eye Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a private eye film and ask you to name it. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Homicide, My Lollipop.  (An easy one to start!)

2. Don't Pick Iron Outta My Liver.

3. The Keyhole Camera.

4. The Water Wars.

5. Winslow Wong Gets His Kicks.

6. A Boat Going in Circles.

7. Margo and Ira.

8. The Light from the Box.

9. Bree.

10. The Roman P.I.  (Not one of my best!)

11. General Sternwood's Daughter.

12. A Man Called Peckinpaugh.

13. The Cat That Won't Cop Out.

14. It's Not Archer.  (This one may be difficult!)

15. A Lengthy Farewell.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Seven Things to Know About "The Jimmy Stewart Show"

In support of National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon. This blogathon focuses on classic film stars who appeared in TV series, miniseries, variety shows, made-for-TV movies, and even commercials. Check out all the blogathon entries! Our post takes a look at the short-lived 1971-72 TV series The Jimmy Stewart Show.

 James Stewart in Fools' Parade.
1. The year 1971 was a pivotal one in the career of James Stewart. He appeared in Fools' Parade, the last theatrical film in which he'd be the principal star and made his debut in his own weekly TV series. The Jimmy Stewart Show premiered on NBC on September 9, 1971 while Fool's Parade was released the following month. The film received mixed reviews (I'm a my review here), but was a box office disappointment. I suspect the 63-year-old Stewart knew that he was at a career crossroad and when Warner Bros. offered to make him one of TV's highest paid stars, he seized the opportunity.

2. Film director and writer Hal Kanter created The Jimmy Stewart Show. Kanter must have seemed like the perfect choice, having received acclaim for his popular Emmy-nominated TV series Julia (1968-71). Plus, Kanter worked with James Stewart on the theatrical film Dear Brigitte (1963). Indeed, Kanter had tried to lure Stewart to TV in the mid-1960s. The goal was to develop a half-hour family comedy with Stewart playing an anthropology professor who taught at Josiah Kessel College in the quaint California town of Easy Valley. 

3. The original intent was that James Stewart's wife, Gloria, would play his TV spouse. However, according to Marc Eliot in his 2007 book Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, NBC "decided she wasn't good enough an actress to pull it off." After an extensive search, Julie Adams, who co-starred with James Stewart in the 1952 Western classic Bend of the River, was cast as the professor's wife. She was 18 years younger than Stewart.

4. When I interviewed Julie Adams in 2013, she told me: "As I recall, a lot of women read for the role of Martha Howard, the wife of Professor James K. Howard (Stewart). The day I tested for the part with Jimmy, I brought into play my genuine friendship and admiration I had for him as a person. I think that came through on the screen; we had nice chemistry together. After the screen test, he gave me a little nod and as I walked back to my dressing room I thought: "I think I have this part!" I was so thrilled. The show was not a success, and only lasted 24 episodes. But, as I've often said: My idea of heaven was going to work with Jimmy Stewart every day for six months." 

5. Each episode opened and ended with James Stewart speaking directly to viewers. Here's an example: "This week, we have that distinguished actor, Vincent Price, with us. So we called this episode Price Is Right. You know, fair is fair." Each episode ended with Jimmy telling the television audience: “My family and I wish you peace, and love, and laughter.”

Veteran actor John McGiver.
6. In addition to Julie Adams, the other notable cast members were John McGiver, who played Jim Howard's faculty colleague Dr. Luther Quince, and Mary Wickes (who appeared in four episodes). The guest stars included a nice mix of veteran actors and up-and-coming talent: Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Jack Soo, Kate Jackson, Will Geer, Gloria DeHaven, William Windom, Jackie Coogan, Beulah Bondi, Regis Philbin, M. Emmet Walsh, Nita Talbot, and Pat Buttram. Gloria Stewart may not have gotten to play her husband's wife, but she did appear in the show's first episode "By Way of Introduction."

James Stewart in Hawkins.
7. Despite being sandwiched between Top 20 shows The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza on Sunday night, The Jimmy Stewart Show was a ratings disappointment. Its cancellation after a single season was not a surprise. Allegedly, James Stewart was relieved as the film schedule was more work than he anticipated. The famed actor wasn't done with television, though. In 1972, he reprised his performance as Elwood P. Dowd in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Harvey. Its cast featured Helen Hayes and his Jimmy Stewart Show co-star John McGiver. The following year, Stewart starred as as homespun lawyer Billy Jim Hawkins, who took on headline-making cases in the 90-minure drama Hawkins. The episodes were rotated with the Shaft TV series and CBS made-for-TV movies so that only eight episodes of Hawkins were aired. You can read our review of Hawkins here.

Monday, May 1, 2023

John Wayne in 3D in Hondo!

John Wayne as Hondo.
With John Wayne's 1953 3D Western Hondo, you actually get two movies in one. The first is an interesting love story between an tough dispatch rider for the U.S. Cavalry and a lonely woman--with a worthless husband--who operates a ranch deep in Apache territory. The second "movie" is a more conventional tale about the Cavalry taking on the Apaches, who have rebelled against their poor treatment at the hands of "white men."

It's the first plot that elevates Hondo from dozens of other Western pictures. James Edward Grant's screenplay, based on a Louis L'Amour story, provides exceptional depth in regard to the two lead characters. Hondo Lane (John Wayne) spent five years with the Apaches and married one of them. He is sympathetic to their plight, but his loyalty still lies with the Cavalry. His only companion is a dog named Sam, whom Hondo expects to be self-proficient. Hondo is content to let people make their own decisions and live with the outcomes.

Geraldine Page as Angie.
That changes, though, when he meets Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her six-year-old son Johnny. Angie is self-proficient, too, although she has fallen behind in running the ranch. She claims that her husband is rounding up some lost calves, but his continued absence make Hondo (and the viewer) wonder if Angie is a widow. It's no surprise that these two hardworking, independent people should become attracted to one another.

Katharine Hepburn was originally slated to portray Angie, but she dropped out as the role grew smaller during script revisions. That opened the door for Geraldine Page, a then-promising stage actress. Page is perfect for the part, displaying Angie's grit but without the hard edge that Hepburn sometimes brought to her characters. Page earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Hondo. As for the teaming of Wayne and Hepburn, that would happen 22 years later with Rooster Cogburn.

Michael Pate as Vittorio.
Hondo also earned Louis L'Amour a nomination for Best Original Story. However, the nomination was withdrawn when L'Amour pointed out his story "The Gift of Cochise" was published a year before Hondo was released. Screenwriter James Edward Grant, who often worked with Wayne, expands the plot effectively. In one of his best scenes, the Apache chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) informs Angie that she must marry so that Johnny will have a worthy father. He then has selected braves "audition" to be her husband by showing off their riding and athletic skills as he provides background information (e.g., number of horses they own, current number of squaws). It's a sincere scene, not a silly one, but it's nonetheless unexpected in a Western of the 1950s.

Although Hondo was filmed was in 3D, it was also released in a "normal" print since the 3D novelty was fading by the time the movie was released. There are a handful of shots of characters throwing or jutting objects at the camera, but it's not Bwana Devil. It's also interesting that Hondo is less than 90 minutes long, but has an intermission at the mid-point (hey, more concession sales!).

Ralph Taeger as TV's Hondo.
John Wayne co-produced Hondo through his company Batjac. In 1967, Batjac developed a Hondo TV series starring Ralph Taeger as the title character. It only lasted 17 episodes, but became a cult show when it started appearing on TNT in the early 1990s. My blogging friend, Hal Horn, is a Hondo authority and has written extensively about the series. Check here to read his fascinating history of the show.

Sam was played by a Lassie relative.
Spoiler Alert. I do have two problems with Hondo and they involve the dog Sam. The first time I saw the scene-stealing rascal, I thought: Please, let's not kill Sam in this movie. When he narrowly escapes during an Apache attack, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, a few minutes later, there's poor Sam laying dead on the doorstep with a spear sticking out. There was no reason to kill him! It's added nothing to the plot. Aargh! I've seen this happen in too many movies! (Fortunately, Sam was a regular later in the TV series.)

My second problem with Hondo and Sam may be unique to my family. When Angie fixes a nice plate of eggs and bacon for Sam, Hondo won't let her give them to his canine companion. It'll make him soft, he says! I'm glad my dogs can't talk, because they would have been screaming at the TV screen. In our pack, that's just not how we roll--it's tasty treats for all!

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Burt Lancaster Edition)

 Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred Burt Lancaster and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!


2. Precipitation.

3. The Bluegrass Man.

4. Flight from Behind Steel Bars. 

5. King of the Press.

6. Red Striped Pants. 

7. The Hotel Beauregard.

8. As the Waves Wash Over.

9. Reflections in the Pools.

10. Kitty and the Swede.

11. Boot Hill...So Cold, So Still.

12. When Lou Met Sally.

13. Get Patroni!

14. Painted Cargo.

15. The Legend of Dardo.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Seven Classic Made-for-TV Movies...that you can watch for free!

In an interview in its February 2023 newsletter CMBA Today, the Classic Movie Blog Association asked me an intriguing question: "If you could program a perfect day of classic movies for TCM, what would be the seven films on your schedule?"

I tried to think of seven movies I'd like to see again as well as share with others. Assuming TCM could get the broadcast rights to these films, I’d opt for a day of classic made-for-TV movies. The 1960s and the 1970s were a “Golden era” for television films and featured stellar writers (e.g., Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Gene Roddenberry) and good actors (e.g., Angie Dickinson, Suzanne Pleshette, Ray Milland, Myrna Loy). I’d limit my seven picks to lesser-known films that appeared on the wonderful ABC Movie of the Week (1969-75).

I've previously reviewed all but one of my movie selections on this blog. Click on a film's title to read the review. One of my Twitter friends, @CED_LD_Guy, uploaded all seven picks to his Rumble channel. Rumble is a free platform, like YouTube, that allows you to view media content online or on your TV by adding the Rumble channel to your streaming device. Click on the "watch" links below to enjoy these fascinating made-for-TV movies. Remember, these are rare films, so the video quality will vary from excellent (The Birdmen) to fair (Dr. Cook's Garden).

Milton Berle and Sean Garrison.
Seven in Darkness
(1969) watch – A plane crashes in the wilderness and only its blind passengers survive. This was the first ABC Movie of the Week and stars Barry Nelson, Dina Merrill, Lesley Ann Warren, Season Garrison, and Milton Berle (in a dramatic role).

Daughter of the Mind (1969) watch – A psychic researcher (Don Murray) investigates when a famous scientist (Ray Milland) claims his dead daughter has been appearing to him. Gene Tierney and Ed Asner co-star.

Suzanne Pleshette.
Along Came a Spider
(1970) watch  – Suzanne Pleshette headlines this twisty thriller about a widow who goes undercover to discover her husband's murderer(s).

How Awful About Allan (1970) watch – A man (Anthony Perkins) suffering from psychosomatic blindness returns home to live with his sister (Julie Harris), but thinks someone is trying to kill him.

Dr. Cook’s Garden (1971) watch – Is there a pattern to the deaths in a small rural town where a kindly physician (Bing Crosby) practices? Frank Converse and Blythe Danner co-star. Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives) and Art Wallace based their screenplay on Levin's short-lived stage play starring Burl Ives.

Richard Basehart as a German officer.
The Birdmen
(1971) watch – During World War II, POW prisoners try to fly to freedom by building a glider. Incredibly, part of the film really happened! The unusual cast features Richard Basehart, Chuck Connors, Doug McClure, Tom Skerritt, and Max Baer, Jr. There's about eight minutes of stock footage at the beginning--but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a very entertaining adventure.

Assault on the Wayne (1971) watch – Enemy agents plot sabotage aboard a nuclear submarine in this Cold War thriller. The cast features Leonard Nimoy, William Windom, Lloyd Haynes, and Sam Elliott.