Monday, May 25, 2020

Murder Must Advertise

My introduction to Dorothy L. Sayers' aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was via the 1972-75 TV series broadcast in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatre. Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, the series featured adaptations of five Sayers novels. Each mystery comprised four or five episodes and starred Ian Carmichael as the title character. The highlight of the series was The Nine Tailors (1974), which we reviewed on this blog previously. Today's review covers the third adaptation, Murder Must Advertise (1973), which is a faithful version of Sayers' 1933 novel.

Before apparently falling to his death, an employee at Pym Publicity, Ltd., an advertising agency, pens a vague note about suspicious activities taking place at the firm. The owner hires Lord Peter to conduct an inquiry, which he facilitates by hiring the amateur detective--under a false identity--as the new copywriter. It doesn't take long for Lord Peter to discover that his murder investigation is linked to a large-scale dope distribution case being worked by his brother-in-law, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Parker.

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.
Murder Must Advertise differs from Carmichael's other four Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. First, Lord Peter's faithful butler Bunter (played three times by Glyn Houston) is missing from the plot. That's a shame since the pragmatic Bunter provided the perfect counterpart to the more intellectual Wimsey. However, Bunter is only mentioned briefly in Sayers' novel, so his absence is a result of remaining faithful to the book. In his stead, Inspector Parker has more scenes with Lord Peter.

Secondly, Murder Must Advertise is not a standard whodunit; it's more of a "how did they do it." There are only a few viable suspects, so it's not hard to guess the culprit. However, the method of the murder is quite clever--as is the criminals' elaborate scheme for distributing cocaine to the upper class.

By the time he starred as Lord Peter, veteran actor Ian Carmichael was 53. That made him at least a decade older than Sayers' detective. The age difference is not a factor in the other adaptations, but it is noticeable in Murder Must Advertise. Part of the plot hinges on the attraction that a young socialite has for Wimsey's "bad boy" alter-ego. As good as Carmichael is, he can't quite pull that off.

Veteran actor Peter Bowles.
The supporting cast includes some familiar faces to fans of British television. One of the Pym employees is played by Christopher Timothy, who charmed audiences for years as veterinarian James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. There's also Peter Bowles, best known in the U.S. for the quirky series The Irish R.M., who is convincing as a retired major eager to exploit drug addiction for profit.

Murder Must Advertise is not as strong as the other four Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations--but don't let that discourage you from watching it. It's still first-rate television and Carmichael makes it grand fun. Some of the best scenes are of Lord Peter writing his first commercial jingles and introducing himself to the staff. He states that his name is Death Bredon--making a point to note that while most people pronounce that name as "Deeth," he prefers to use "Death" (as in rhyming with "breath").

Thursday, May 21, 2020

John Wayne and Kim Darby Show Their True Grit

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn.
The year 1969 was a remarkable one for the Western genre. The biggest hit of the year was the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sam Peckinpah's violent The Wild Bunch earned critical raves in the U.S., while Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West thrilled European audiences. Thus, it's not surprising that True Grit--a conventional Western compared to the other three--slipped under the radar. However, it gradually became the eighth biggest moneymaker of the year and earned John Wayne his only Oscar.

Kim Darby as Mattie Ross.
Kim Darby stars as determined teenager Mattie Ross, who arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to bury her father. She also wants to know why the sheriff isn't pursuing her father's murderer. When he confides that his jurisdiction doesn't extend into the Indian Nation, Mattie seeks out a federal marshal. She sets her sights on Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) because she hears he has "grit." Cogburn isn't interested until Mattie agrees to a $100 reward--that plus the fact the grizzled lawman also admires the girl's spunk. Mattie and Rooster are joined by a Texas Ranger named Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is seeking the same man for the murder of a Texas senator.

Based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel, True Grit benefits from an exceptional screenplay by Marguerite Roberts (Ziegfeld Girl, Ivanhoe). She imbues the dialogue with natural humor and captures the well-drawn characters from the Portis novel. I especially like how she introduces the outlaw Ned Peppers (Robert Duvall) through other characters' descriptions of him. It's not until late in the film that Peppers finally makes an appearance.

Wayne on stunt horse Twinkle Toes.
Marguerite Roberts was blacklisted in Hollywood for nine years, starting in 1951, for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. John Wayne thought her True Grit script was the best he'd read in years. He was also a fan of the novel and told Roger Ebert in 1969: "I loved that book. Charles Portis has a real Mark Twain feeling, the cynicism and the humor. I tried to buy the book myself. I went up to $300,000, and that's pretty good going for an unpublished galley of a Western story. But (producer) Hal Wallis knew about this other book by Portis, Norwood, and he made an offer for both and outbid me. Then he came back to me to play Rooster."

The strength of True Grit, of course, is the relationship between Mattie and Rooster. He affectionately calls her "little sister" and, in a rare moment of insight, Rooster tells the teenager about his failed attempts at marriage and fatherhood. Wayne thought that scene was the best acting he had ever done, though he was surprised when he won the Oscar for Best Actor (he thought Richard Burton would win for Anne of the Thousand Days). Wayne is highly entertaining in True Grit, but some of the credit belongs to his co-star Kim Darby. Her gritty performance as Mattie provides the perfect counterpoint to the larger-than-life Rooster.

Kim Darby was not the first choice to play Mattie Ross. John Wayne promised the part to his daughter Aissa, who had a small role in McLintock, but Hal Wallis nixed her casting.  Mia Farrow turned down the role of Mattie when Robert Mitchum told her that Henry Hathaway was a difficult director. Wallis cast Darby after seeing her play an unwed mother in the Ben Gazzara TV series Run for Your Life. Darby's post-True Grit career was undistinguished, though she appeared in a pair of interesting telefilms: The People (1972) and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).

Glem Campbell as La Boeuf.
Interestingly, Elvis Presley was among the choices to play La Boeuf before negotiations broke down.  Campbell, who had already scored several hit songs, was signed despite lacking any significant acting experience (he did a guest spot on The F.B.I.). His thespian skills are clearly lacking, though he appears to try hard. He also sings the pretty title song composed by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black, which peaked at #77 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Screenwriter Roberts, Darby, and Campbell teamed up again in 1970 in an adaptation of the Portis novel Norwood. It was about a Vietnam veteran who aspires to be a country singer and co-starred New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

Meanwhile, John Wayne followed up True Grit with the 1975 semi-sequel Rooster Cogburn (aka Rooster Cogburn and The Lady). It paired him with Katherine Hepburn in what has often been described as an unsuccessful mash-up of True Grit and The African Queen. Its screenplay was written by actress Martha Hyer under a pseudonym; she was married to producer Hal Wallis.

Warren Oates as Rooster.
In 1978, Warren Oates played Rooster Cogburn in the made-for-TV movie True Grit: A Further Adventure, with Lisa Pelikan as Mattie. And in 2010, Jeff Bridges played Rooster in True Grit, a memorable adaptation of the Portis novel by Joel and Ethan Cohen. It featured an ending closer to the book.

Friday, May 15, 2020

6 from the '60s Blogathon for National Classic Movie Day

To celebrate National Classic Movie Day on May 16th, we are hosting the 6 from the '60s Blogathon. Per its title, each participant has listed his or her six favorite films from the 1960s and explained why they deserve such an honor!

The 1960s was a one of the great decades for movies, spanning the transition from the Golden Age of Hollywood to a new era filled with young auteurs (e.g., Kubrick, Frankenheimer, Peckinpah), rising stars (e.g., Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway), and influential international filmmakers (e.g., Truffaut, Godard, Fellini). It featured beloved films like To Kill a Mockingbird, cult movies like Point Blank, blockbusters like The Great Escape, and ground-breaking movies like Bonnie and Clyde. It also marked the debut of James Bond on the big screen and the birth of Spaghetti Westerns.

Join us in celebrating the most beloved films of the 1960s by checking out the posts below!

Caftan Woman
Cinema Essentials
Cinematic Scribblings
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Film Observations & Obsessions
The Classic Movie Muse
Critica Retro
4 Star Films
Hometowns to Hollywood
It's About TV!
The Lady Eve's Reel Life
Love Letters to Old Hollywood
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
Movie Rob
The Midnite Drive-In
Mrs. Charles
Old Hollywood Films
A Person in the Dark
Reel Charlie
Reelweegiemidget Reviews
A Shroud of Thoughts
Sibyl's Scribbles
Shadows and Satin
Silver Scenes
Silver Screenings
The Story Enthusiast
Taking Up Room
Twenty Four Frames
Unknown Hollywood
Whimsically Classic

My Picks for the 6 from the '60s Blogathon

This is our entry for the 6 From the '60s Blogathon in celebration of National Class Movie Day. Since the 1960s was an incredible decade for movies, choosing just six favorites proved to be incredibly difficult. While the half-dozen below are all marvelous films, I might pick a different six movies if faced with the same challenge next week!

Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Lover Come Back (1961) - After mostly dramatic roles in the 1950s, Rock Hudson developed into a gifted comedian with Pillow Talk (1959) and this delightfully delirious follow-up. Rock stars as Jerry Webster, an unethical Madison Avenue advertising executive who will do anything to beat his rival, Carol Templeton (Doris Day). When Carol mistakes the womanizing Jerry as a nerdish inventor, he plays along--even to the point of emphasizing he's "never been with a woman." This leads to Rock's best scene, as Jerry tries to encourage Carol to seduce him in her apartment--during which a convenient phone call enlightens her about his true identity. While Lover Come Back is sometimes described as a variation of Pillow Talk, it's actually a superior film, with clever jabs at the advertising industry and sparkling supporting performances (especially from Tony Randall and Edie Adams).

Sidney Poitier ad Lilia Skala.
Lilies of the Field (1963) - Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Homer Smith, a drifter who stops to get water for his car at a southwestern farm run by German nuns. What Homer doesn't know is that the nuns believe he is the answer to their prayers--that he will build a chapel for them even though they have no money nor materials for the building. Often described as a feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field far exceeds that simple label with its inspirational message about faith and finding meaning in one's life. Poitier is at his most charming as Homer, a stubborn man who resists building the chapel initially. When he finally relents, he doesn't want anyone to help him. His scenes with the equally firm Mother Maria (beautifully played by Lilia Skala) are not to be missed.

Kirk Douglas in disguise.
The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) – John Huston’s mystery is best known for its gimmick: several famous stars make cameos in heavy make-up. While trying to spot the stars is undeniably fun, the gimmick disguises the fact that The List of Adrian Messenger is a highly-entertaining, crafty film that starts as a mystery and evolves into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game. In the opening scenes, author Adrian Messenger provides a list of ten names to his friend Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), a former MI5 operative, and asks him to quietly find out if the ten people on the list are still alive. Gethryn agrees to undertake the assignment. A few days later, a bomb explodes aboard a plane carrying Adrian as a passenger. Based on a 1959 novel by mystery author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald, The List of Adrian Messenger borrows the killer’s motive from another famous detective novel (no spoilers here!). But the “why” is only part of the fun in The List of Adrian Messenger. It’s the “how” that differentiates it from other mysteries. Among his many skills, the murderer, played delightfully by Kirk Douglas, is also a master of disguises. That provides the opportunity for Douglas to don a number of incredible “looks” designed by make-up master Bud Westmore. Thus, the killer appears as a pointy-chinned priest, a short mousey man, a white-haired elderly villager, and others.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.
Marnie (1964) – 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 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?

Hayley Mills spying.
The Chalk Garden (1964) – My favorite Deborah Kerr film is this offbeat, poignant tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity. Ms. Kerr stars as a governess (once again), hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. As the story progresses, its focus shifts from the young girl to the governess—a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn't have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. This quiet film is content to rely on its carefully-crafted characters and wonderful performances (to include John Mills). They will ensure that The Chalk Garden lingers with you long after its secret is revealed.

Charles Bronson as Harmonica.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – "Epic" and "sprawling" are the words critics frequently used to describe this now-revered 1968 Spaghetti Western. Yet, despite its lengthy running time and visually massive backdrop, Once Upon a Time in the West focuses tightly on the relationships among four people over a relatively short period of time. These characters are: Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless gunfighter who aspires to be a powerful businessman; Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a rascally outlaw with killer instincts; Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute in search of a more meaningful life; and a mysterious revenge-minded stranger whom Cheyenne calls Harmonica (Charles Bronson). It took multiple viewings over the span of several years for me to fully appreciate Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. In the end, I was won over by its fascinating characters, overarching theme, Ennio Morricone’s score, and some marvelous set pieces (especially the opening and climactic showdown between Frank and Harmonica).

There are too many honorable mentions to list, but it's just wrong not to include: Bunny Lake Is Missing, Jason and the Argonauts, Von Ryan's Express, Where Eagles Dare, Goldfinger, To Kill a Mockingbird, Splendor in the Grass, Brides of Dracula, Flight of the PhoenixQuatermass and the Pit, 101 Dalmatians, and To Sir, With Love.

Click here to check out all the fabulous entries in this blogathon.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.
A year after her husband's death, widow Lucy Muir has made the bold decision to move to the coastal village of Whitecliff-by-the-Sea with her young daughter and housekeeper. It's a decision that's derided by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law--but Lucy (Gene Tierney) knows her mind and no one is going to change it.

A village realtor learns that same lesson when he tries to talk Lucy out of renting Gull Cottage, an isolated home previously owned by a sea captain. Lucy falls in love with Gull Cottage instantly--despite the rumors that it's haunted by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). On the family's first night in their new home, Captain Gregg appears before Lucy. Instead of screaming and running away, Lucy talks with the salty sea man and convinces him to let her family stay on a "trial basis."

It's the beginning of a friendship between Lucy and Daniel that develops into something more. But what future can there be in the love between a very human woman and a ghostly man?

Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir.
Based on Josephine Leslie's 1945 novel, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1948) is a grand Hollywood romance made with care and craftsmanship. Set at the turn of the century, it offers a unique mix of quaint charm and haunting imagery. Famed cinematographer Charles Lang earned an Oscar nomination for his striking black-and-white photography. Composer Bernard Herrmann should have been honored as well. His beautiful, expressive score will linger with you long after the movie. The composer considered The Ghost and Mrs. Muir his finest film score. Entire books have been written about it (e.g., Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide).

George Sanders as a suitor.
While The Ghost and Mrs. Muir earned mixed reviews on its original release, it has become a bona fide classic over the years. In the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest movie love stories, it ranked #73 (far too low in my opinion). Its enduring popularity has much to do with the natural chemistry between stars Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison and Philip Dunne's masterful screenplay that makes the audience invest fully in this unlikely romance. It helps, too, to have a wonderful supporting cast that features George Sanders as a cad (who writes children's books, no less) and Edna Best as Mrs. Muir's housekeeper and friend.

In hindsight, it's also interesting to note that Lucy Muir is a very strong, independent woman for a Hollywood romance of this period. She takes bold risks, doesn't frighten easily, and isn't afraid to face loneliness. One of the film's best scenes is when she reflects back on her life with her grown daughter near the end.

Hope Lange & Edward Mulhare.
Though The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has never been remade, it was adapted for radio twice: in 1947 with Madeleine Carroll and Charles Boyer and in 1951 with Jane Wyatt and Charles Boyer. It was adapted into a TV sitcom in 1968 with Hope Lange as Carolyn Muir and Edward Mulhare as Captain Gregg. The TV series added another child (as in the novel) and a dog. The show only lasted two years--despite the fact that Hope Lange won two Emmys for playing Mrs. Muir!

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Dark Side of Human Nature in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole

Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum.
There are plenty of cynics in Billy Wilder's films, but none perhaps can match ambitious newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole (1951). Once a star reporter, Tatum's womanizing, drinking, and tendency to bend the truth have gotten him fired from all the major newspapers. He still has enough talent to convince the publisher of the small-scale Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin to hire him. Chuck's plan is to hang around until he can find a story that will return him to the big time.

Fate provides just that when Chuck and young photographer Herbie stop at a desert gas station en route to a rattlesnake hunt. They meet platinum blonde Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling), whose husband Leon has become trapped in a mountain cave while hunting for Indian relics. Chuck takes charge of the situation--quickly dispatching with a sheriff's incompetent deputy--and promises Leon that he will be free in no time.

Chuck brings news to Leon.
Within 24 hours, Chuck is writing front page headlines and transforming the isolated locale into a bustling hub of activity. He even convinces the crooked county sheriff that his re-election hinges on Leon's rescue. However, Chuck and the sheriff receive "bad news" when a chief engineer informs them that Leon's rescue is imminent. They want the story to last longer, even if it means leaving Leon in the cave for a few additional days. Hence, they direct the engineer to drill from the top of the mountain, an endeavor that will require much more time to free the trapped man.

In the opening scenes, there appears to be a glimmer of humanity in Chuck Tatum. He has the pluck and courage to navigate the dangerous cave tunnels to check on Leon's condition. He calms Leon, gives him hope, and seemingly offers genuine friendship. However, Tatum's motives become questionable when he prevents others from visiting the trapped man. His access to Leon makes him powerful and he uses that to manipulate the media. By the time Tatum intentionally prevents Leon's timely rescue, it's clear that his chief concern is his own career. As Lorraine so elegantly puts it: "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you--you're twenty minutes."

Jan Sterling as Lorraine.
Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, softens Tatum's edges by making Lorraine an even more unappealing character. She shows no interest nor sympathy in her husband's plight. In fact, she sees it as an opportunity to get away from Leon--until Tatum convinces her that she can make money from the situation. (For his part, Tatum needs a grieving wife to write about!)

Kirk Douglas plays Tatum as a driven, ruthless man--a master manipulator who can fake empathy when reporting to the public about Leon's condition. He is both attracted to and repelled by Lorraine, whose heart may be colder than his own. The heartless wife is the kind of role that Jean Harlow would have played in the 1930s, although Jan Sterling--in her first starring role--is quite convincing.

The strength of Wilder's film, though, is the director's transformation of the isolated gas station/diner into a mecca filled with gaping tourists, news media, and even a carnival. The level of spectator interest is cleverly conveyed by showing a sign about access to the Indian caves. There is no cost in the beginning, but then there's a 25¢ admission charge which goes up to 50¢ and finally $1. The film's alternate title The Big Carnival, is actually a very appropriate one.

Ace in the Hole was a rare Billy Wilder flop when originally released. I rate it as "good" Wilder, but not among the director's best work. It's too long and the ending comes across as a compromise with the censors. Kirk Douglas and Jan Sterling both deserved Oscar consideration, but the film's only nomination was for screenplay.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 6)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie 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! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description.

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

2.  Obsession with Carlotta.

3.  Don't Water the Rocks!

4.  King Kelly and the Wood Repellent.

5.  Looking for Debbie.

6.  Professor Challenger's Expedition.

7.  Tumak Loves Loana.

8.  Harry Worp's Body.

9.  Wilbur's Brain.

10. Gull Cottage.

11. The Id Monster.

12. Mrs. Lane's Deceit.

13. Chris and The Other Six.

14. Dr. Robert Merrick.

15. The Midwich Children.



Monday, May 4, 2020

Kevin Costner Looks for a Way Out

Kevin Costner as Tom Farrell.
Unless you've seen No Way Out (1987) or The Big Clock (1948), be forewarned that this review will contain plot spoilers. The former film is a updated remake of the latter, with both films being based on the 1946 novel The Big Clock by author and poet Kenneth Fearing.

The 1987 adaptation stars Kevin Coster as Commander Tom Farrell, a Naval officer stationed in Washington, D.C., who has a torrid one-night stand with socialite Susan Atwell (Sean Young). They put their relationship on hold when he is deployed to the Philippines. When a heroic act gets Tom reassigned back to Washington, their affair heats up again. However, there is a problem: Susan is also the mistress of David Brice, the Secretary of Defense, who just happens to be Tom's boss at the Pentagon.

When Brice (Gene Hackman) discovers that Susan is seeing another man, he flies into a rage and accidentally kills her. Instead of going to the police, Brice confides in his right-hand man Scott Pritchard (Will Patton). Pritchard comes up with a plan to blame the murder on "the other man" and suggests he may be a Russian spy. He then assigns his most competent officer to conduct the investigation and find the killer. That turns out to be Farrell--who now has the unenvious task of framing himself for murder!

Gene Hackman as David Brice.
While No Way Out retains the basic premise of Fearing's novel, it makes major changes to the characters and setting. In the book and the 1948 film version, a wealthy publisher murders his mistress and assigns his best investigative reporter to uncover the murderer--not knowing that the reporter was seeing the same woman. The setting is New York City and, yes, there is a big clock. The bulk of the plot takes place inside the publisher's building.

Director Roger Donaldson "opens up" his film by setting most of it in the U.S. capital and taking advantage of the locations. From Susan's townhouse to the Pentagon to a foot chase through the streets, the city shines almost as brightly as Kevin Costner's white Navy uniform. The setting seems to inject a feeling of realism in what turns out to be a pretty far-fetched plot.

However, Donaldson and screenwriter Robert Garland also slow down the action by spending too much time on the affair between Tom and Susan. Their sizzling love scene in the back of a limousine--which incidentally features no nudity--gets their relationship off to a memorable start. However, Susan's murder doesn't occur until almost 45 minutes into the film. That's a long time before the audience reaches the central premise.

Sean Young as Susan Atwell.
While neither Costner nor Hackman are required to play complex characters, they are convincing in their roles. The standout, though, is Sean Young as the confused mistress whose underlying fear of Hackman's character keeps her from breaking off the affair earlier. Young's once-promising career derailed in the 1990s for a variety of reasons.

No Way Out opens and ends with framing scenes that culminate in what was intended to be a big twist. The twist doesn't add anything to the film, at least not now in the absence of a Cold War. Still, it doesn't detract from a fairly efficient thriller that relies on author Fearing's ingenious premise to carry the day.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Peter Sellers and Neil Simon? It's After the Fox!

The Fox masquerades as a director.
Imagine Peter Sellers starring in a comedy written by Neil Simon and directed by Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves)! A talented trio, to be sure--but also a seemingly unlikely one. And yet they teamed up in 1966 to make the Italian comedy After the Fox.

It's almost two movies in one, with the first half being devoted to the life of master criminal Aldo Vanucci--better known as The Fox. After a clever escape from prison, Vanucci tries to make amends with his mother and teenage sister (Britt Ekland). Mother Vanucci is upset that her son spends all his time in prison without taking care of his dear mother. Meanwhile, Vanucci fears that his sister Gina has become a streetwalker. Actually, she's just trying to break into the movies! With the police hot on his trail, the master criminal indulges in a lot of disguises and accents (which plays to Peter Sellers' strength).

After the Fox goes off in a different direction when a fellow thief contacts Vanucci and wants him to smuggle 300 bars of gold bullion into Italy. Vanucci hatches a brilliant idea: He will make a movie and incorporate the unloading of the gold into the plot. He convinces a fading American actor (Victor Mature) to star in The Gold of Cairo and casts Gina as the female lead.

Victor Mature as an aging star.
While the first half of After the Fox is mildly amusing, the second half evolves into a sharp satire of the movie business. Victor Mature is splendid as Tony Powell, a has-been movie star who spurns an offer to play a 64-year-old sheriff in a Western because the character is too old. When his agent (Martin Balsam) points out that Tony is in his sixties, the actor exclaims: "I don't want to be sixty, I want to be forty!"

Sellers also excels as the thief playing the part of a movie director. Tossing around terms like neorealism, he appeals to Tony's vanity as well as an entire village's desire to be immortalized in a movie. His initial plan is to just film the unloading of the gold from the ship. However, when the ship's arrival is delayed, he has to start shooting a motion picture. With no script, he decides to make a movie about two beautiful people doing nothing. As he explains to Tony: "We have a great opportunity to make a wonderful comment about the lack of communication in our society." It's a concept that Tony thinks is brilliant (as does a film critic in a later scene).

A dark-haired Britt Ekland as Gina.
One suspects that Neil Simon's intent was to satirize the artistic filmmakers who dominated international cinema in the 1960s, such as Godard, Renais, and Antonioni. It was Simon's first screenplay after making a splash on Broadway with Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. De Sica insisted that Simon work with his frequent collaborator Cesare Zavattini. The result is that--whether intentional or not--Sellers' director seems to be a larger-than-life portrait of De Sica. I think that's one of the reason that After the Fox has acquired a cult reputation over the years.

Of course, it also has a ridiculous--but mind-numbingly catchy--title tune written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The Hollies and Peter Sellers perform it over the credits and it start with these lyrics:
    Who is the fox?
    (I am the fox)
    Who are you?
    (I am me)
    Who is me?
    (Me is a thief)
    You'll bring your poor, poor mother grief.

Incidentally, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland were married when they made After the Fox. He insisted that she be cast as Vanucci's sister Gina. It was the second of three movies starring the couple, with the others being Carol for Another Christmas (1964) and The Bobo (1967). They divorced in 1968 after a four-year marriage that produced a daughter named Victoria.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun

Debbie Reynolds in the title role.
In 1963, a Belgian nun named Sœur Sourire--also known as The Singing Nun--had a worldwide hit record with the song "Dominque." Even though the lyrics were in French, the song went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. It's no surprise that this amazing feat attracted the attention of Hollywood filmmakers. Thus, in 1966, MGM released The Singing Nun, which starred Debbie Reynolds as a young nun very loosely based on Sœur Sourire.

The film opens with Sister Ann (Reynolds) arriving at Samaritan House, which is located in a struggling community in Brussels. Sister Ann composes and sings music, accompanying herself on guitar. Her talents immediately attract the attention of Father Clementi (Ricardo Montalban), who believes her faith-inspired music can bring comfort to millions. With the church's approval, he convinces a record executive (Chad Everett) to make an album with Sister Ann. (It turns out that the executive studied music with Sister Ann prior to her conversion.)

Katharine Ross.
Meanwhile, Sister Ann has become involved with a motherless little boy whose unemployed father is an alcoholic and whose older sister (Katharine Ross) makes money by posing for risque photos. As her music fame grows, Sister Ann struggles with her own success--especially when a tragedy strikes close to her heart.

It's a flimsy plot for a 97-minute movie and The Singing Nun relies on Debbie Reynolds' charm and musical talents to carry the day. There are some good tunes, especially an English-language version of "Dominque" as well as a boisterous rendition of "Brother John" (which was written by Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels). However, the subplot about the little boy and his family lacks interest, likely because it feels manufactured solely to tug at the heart strings.

Ricardo Montalban.
The Singing Nun boasts an impressive supporting cast, but none of them have much to do except for Ricardo Montalban. That includes Greer Garson as the Mother Prioress and Agnes Moorehead and Juanita Moore as two of Sister Ann's fellow nuns. On the plus side, Ed Sullivan appears as himself in one of the film's better scenes in which Sister Ann records a song for his popular show.

The real-life story of Sœur Sourire would have made a far more interesting film--though not the family film that MGM wanted. As Jeannine Deckers, she left the convent and continued to record music, although her former music company would not allow her to use the names Sœur Sourire or The Singing Nun. She found little success, eventually recording a disco version of "Dominique" in 1982. Jeannine Deckers and a close friend committed suicide in 1985; she was 51.

As for The Singing Nun, it was a modest hit, finishing #23 at the boxoffice in 1966. Director Henry Koster has said that the production wasn't a pleasant one with star Debbie Reynolds and producer John Beck clashing frequently. It turned out to be Koster's last film, following an impressive career that included The Bishop's Wife, Harvey, and Come to the Stable.

Here's a clip of Debbie Reynolds singing "Brother John," courtesy of our YouTube Channel:



Monday, April 20, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Donald O'Connor

1. Show business was in his blood. His father, John, worked as an acrobat, clown, trapeze artist, and strong man for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. His mother Effie was a circus bareback horse rider and dancer. When Donald was thirteen-months-old, he and his sister Arlene, who was six, were hit by a car while crossing the street. She died instantly. A few months later, Donald's father collapsed on stage and died from a heart attack.

2. Donald joined the family vaudeville act almost as soon as he could walk. He, his brother Jack, and his mother were billed as The O'Connor Family, the Royal Family of Vaudeville. They sang, danced, and performed comic routines all over the country. Donald never received any formal dance training, something he later said made it difficult to transition to movies.

3. He was signed to a contract with Paramount in 1936 at age 11. His first major role was in Sing You Sinners (1938), in which he played the youngest brother of Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray. He sang with Crosby on "Small Fry," composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser. Incidentally, Donald O'Connor played Fred MacMurray as a boy in Men With Wings, Gary Cooper as a youth in Beau Geste, and Eddie Albert as a kid in On Your Toes.

Donald and co-star Francis.
4. In 1941, Donald signed with Universal Pictures, where he was often paired with Peggy Ryan in musicals like Private Buckeroo and When Johnny Comes Marching Home (both 1942). He was drafted in 1943 and spent two years in the Air Corps. When he returned, he made a handful of musicals and comedies before being cast opposite a "talking mule" in Francis (1950). The film was a huge hit and O'Connor starred in five of the six sequels between 1951 and 1955. When asked why he quit the profitable Francis series, O'Connor famously quipped: "When you've made six pictures and the mule still gets more mail than you do...."

5. Donald O'Connor, who was a heavy smoker, was physically exhausted after performing his famous wall-climbing dance to "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain (1952). When he was done, Gene Kelly asked if he could do it again the next day because the footage was ruined due to a technical problem. O'Connor, ever the professional, recreated the dance again. For his performance in Singin' in the Rain, Donald O'Connor won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical. Gene Kelly was not nominated.

6. In 1954-55, Donald starred in The Donald O'Connor Show, which was also known as Here Comes Donald. The half-hour sitcom alternated with The Jimmy Durante Show as part of The Texaco Theatre. In this sitcom, O'Connor and co-star Sid Miller played songwriters trying to peddle their songs. It was really just an excuse for the duo sing, dance, and perform comedic bits. While that show didn't last long, O'Connor did win an Emmy Award earlier in 1954 as a regular on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Debbie Reynolds and O'Connor.
7. Donald O'Connor was married twice. His first wife, Gwen Carter, has a small unbilled part in Singin' in the Rain. They had a daughter and divorced in 1954 after ten years of marriage. He married Gloria Noble in 1956. They had three children and remained together until his death. Donald O'Connor died from complications due to heart failure in 2003. He was 78.



Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Original Bad News Bears

Tatum O'Neal and Walter Matthau.
Time has been kind to The Bad News Bears, a 1976 baseball comedy pairing a grumpy Walter Matthau with a bunch of misfit kids. The film sparked a minor controversy when originally released due to several of the youths spewing profanity. In hindsight, the language is less harsh than it once seemed and the humor less broad. That allows the viewer to focus on director Michael Ritchie's delight in going behind the scenes of one of America's most revered institutions: Little League baseball.

The film opens with attorney Bob Whitewood having won a lawsuit that forces an ultra-competitive youth baseball league to add a seventh team composed of less skilled "athletes"--such as Whitewood's son. The attorney pays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner and washed-up minor league baseball player, to coach the team. Initially, Buttermaker (Matthau) is content to regale the boys with tales such as when he struck out Ted Williams in spring training. However, when the league's best team embarrasses the Bears in their first game (26-0), Buttermaker realizes his team can only gain self-respect by winning.

Jackie Earle Haley as Kelly.
He recruits Amanda Whurlizer (Tatum O'Neal), a hard-throwing 11-year-old pitcher and daughter of one of his ex-girlfriends. Amanda plays a key role in gaining the services of Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), a Harley-riding troublemaker who is also "the best athlete in the area." With Amanda and Kelly leading the way, the Bears start to gel as a team and begin winning. But are Buttermaker and the Bears championship material?

Much of the humor in The Bad News Bears is derived from the beer-guzzling Buttermaker's interactions with his motley group of kids. There are some stereotypes, to be sure, such as the overweight catcher who devours chocolate bars in their wrappers because he needs "energy." And it's no surprise when the team's worst player makes an incredible catch during the big game.

Still, director Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son) capture revealing moments that ring with truth: the coach so obsessed with winning that he slaps his son, the tough outsider finding joy in the camaraderie with his teammates, the understanding mother, and even Buttermaker, who realizes he has pushed his team too hard. Ritchie also delights in exploring the spectacle behind the game, as he did in Smile, his 1975 satire on beauty pageants. In The Bad News Bears, we're treated to a high school band playing before the first game, Buttermaker's challenge with acquiring a sponsor for the uniforms, and a funny, realistic trophy presentation.

The Bears' team photo.
Walter Matthau has a grand time in a role that fits him like a glove. He and Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her Oscar win for Paper Moon (1973), have an easygoing, natural relationship. In general, all the young actors acquit themselves nicely (and yes, that Brandon Cruz from TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father as a rival pitcher).

The Bad News Bears was the tenth highest-grossing movie of 1976. It spawned two sequels: The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) with William Devane and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) with Tony Curtis. Some of the original's young cast, such as Jackie Earle Haley, appear in all three films. Jack Warden played Morris Buttermaker on the 1979-80 TV series The Bad News Bears. Billy Bob Thorton starred in a needless 2005 remake, which got mixed reviews. I recommend sticking with the original.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Five Best Walter Matthau Performances

1.  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) - Four men hijack a New York subway and hold the passengers for ransom, demanding that $1 million be delivered within an hour. One passenger will be executed for every minute that the money is late. As the unlikely hero of this tense suspense film, Matthau stars as Lieutenant Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police. Initially, Garber appears a dull, methodical company man who spends most of his day in the transit’s office. But as the situation worsens, Matthau reveals his character's coolness and ability to make quick decisions in a finely nuanced performance.

2.  Charley Varrick (1973) - The title character is a crop duster who makes ends meet by robbing small-town banks. When a patrolman recognizes a stolen license plate, one of Charley's robberies goes horribly awry, resulting in three fatalities. Plus, it turns out the stolen loot belongs to the mob. Charley is an morally dubious anti-hero, but at least he's better than the corrupt bank officials and the hit man chasing him. The gruff, likable Matthau fits the bill perfectly, somehow coming across as curmudgeonly and cold. The bottom line is that, despite his significant moral flaws, it's easy to root for Charley because we admire his ingenuity--and because he's played by Walter Matthau.

3.  Hopscotch (1980) - When CIA operative Miles Kendig is forced into retirement, he decides to get even by writing and publishing his memoirs. Her former bosses are none too pleased and set off to find him--though Kendig always seems to be one step ahead. Walter Matthau makes it grand fun to watch the crafty, opera-humming Kendig outmaneuver the CIA at every turn. It's also entertaining to watch him unveil his grand scheme step by step. Oddly enough, Warren Beatty was originally cast in the role--I can't imagine that!

4.  The Fortune Cookie (1966) - Cameraman Henry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. The Fortune Cookie is one of Billy Wilder's most uneven films, but it provides Matthau with a plum role as Whiplash Willie. As the rascally devious attorney--who is actually quite smart--Matthau stole the film and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It was his only Academy Award, though he was also nominated for Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975).

5.  Kotch (1971) - Walter Matthau was 51 when he starred in Kotch, but he's quite convincing as an elderly man who rejects his family's plan to put him in a retirement home. It would be easy to turn the title character in a stereotypical curmudgeon, but Matthau finds the loneliness, hopefulness, and humor in the role.

Honorable Mentions:  Charade, Lonely Are the Brave, The Odd Couple, The Bad News Bears, and Fail Safe.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 5 - Errol Flynn Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie 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! Good luck.

1. Perilous Trek.

2. Rapiers That Form an "X"

3. Not in Favor of Any Pennants.

4. The Big Star at Dawn (this one is a stretch).

5. Liz and Robert: Confidential.

6. One More Daybreak.

7. Don't You Ever Try to Leave Me!

8. Let's Leave It at a Trio.

9. The Early Morning Squad.

10. Dr. Pirate.

11. Showdown in the Alamo.

12. The Killer Dentist.

13. RCMP vs. The Nazis.

14. The Jean Picard Story.

15. Red Beard and the Boy Spy.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Kotch: Lemmon Directs and Matthau Acts

Walter Matthau as Kotch.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had acted together in two films when they made Kotch in 1971. This collaboration was a very different one, however, as Lemmon was the director and Matthau the star.

For his directorial debut, Lemmon chose to adapt Katharine Topkins' novel about Joseph Kotcher, an elderly man who lives with his son (Charles Aidman) and daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr, Jack Lemmon's wife). Kotch (Matthau) spends most of his day caring for his baby grandson Duncan. His world gets turned upside down when his daughter-in-law decides he is no longer a suitable babysitter--especially after another mother makes a complaint about Kotch. First, Wilma hires a teenage babysitter to care for Duncan and then she convinces Gerald that his father would be "more comfortable" in a home for the elderly.

Kotch has no intention of moving into the Sunnydale retirement community ("for the sunset years"). Instead, he goes on a road trip along the West coast. When he returns home, he decides to look up Duncan's former babysitter, who departed after getting pregnant. Kotch learns she has moved to Palm Springs, so he heads there to find her. It's a decision that will change his life.

Deborah Winters as Ricci.
The beauty of Kotch is that it's one of those films that takes off in an unexpected direction. When the lead character is essentially rejected by his own family, he unintentionally decides to form a new one. The film's central relationship becomes the one between Kotch and Ricci, the pregnant former babysitter (well played by Deborah Winters). They are an unlikely duo, but they need each other for different reasons and that forms a strong bond.

Walter Matthau was 51 when he starred in Kotch, but he's quite convincing as a much older man who delights in regaling stories from his past. It would be easy to turn Kotch in a stereotypical curmudgeon, but Matthau finds the loneliness, hopefulness, and humor in the role. Ultimately, the film is about its title character's transformation from a man searching for his place in the world after his wife's death to an individual secure in his new life and newfound self-reliance.

Larry Linville, pre-M*A*S*H,
as Ricci's brother.
Director Jack Lemmon shows a deft understanding of his source material. However, he struggles to keep the plot moving at times; the film's first half seems downright sluggish (even the opening credits seem to go on forever). The pace picks up once Kotch relocates to Palm Springs, though, and the closing scenes end the film on a high note. It's a promising directorial debut, but it would also turn out to be Lemmon's only outing in the director's chair.

Kotch earned Walter Matthau the second of his three Oscar nominations. He lost the 1972 Best Actor Oscar to Gene Hackman for The French Connection. Kotch also earned Oscar nominations for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Song. Frankly, I found the song, "Life Is What You Make It" by Marvin Hamlisch and Don Black, to be too saccharine. Instrumental snippets are repeated ad nauseum throughout the film.

Here's a clip from Kotch, courtesy of our YouTube Channel:



Thursday, April 2, 2020

Up Periscope: Early James Garner

The same night that he proposes marriage to a recent acquaintance, Navy Lieutenant Kenneth Braden (James Garner) is whisked away to conduct a secret mission in the Pacific. Once aboard the submarine Barracuda, Captain Paul Stevenson (Edmund O'Brien) explains that Braden will be dropped off in a lagoon near a Japanese-occupied island. His task is to locate a enemy radio transmitter, photograph a radio code book, and return to the sub.

As if that's not challenging enough, the journey to the island is fraught with its own perils. The most significant may be that the submarine crew has lost confidence in its commander. During an earlier mission, Stevenson played it "by the book" and waited underwater for six hours while Japanese boats patrolled the ocean surface. However, as a result of the long wait, a young sailor died of wounds sustained during the attack.

Edmund O'Brien frets a lot.
Apparently, Warner Bros. was grooming James Garner, one of its biggest TV attractions, for movie stardom in Up Periscope (1959). However, it's clear that the studio didn't want to put too much effort into this modestly-budgeted actioner. The trek to Braden's destination contains some minor thrills (e.g., an aerial attack on the sub), but the plot never gains steam until the final half-hour. Add a pedestrian script and what you have is a rather perfunctory picture that does little but showcase Garner's natural appeal.

Edmund O'Brien deserves better than the clichéd role of the vessel commander who begins to doubt his own decisions. The same can be said of an interesting supporting cast, which is mostly wasted. Still, it's entertaining to watch early appearances by football player/future broadcaster Frank Gifford, Edd Byrnes, and Warren Oates. Judging by Byrnes' limited screen time, I'm guessing the production started before he became a pop culture phenomenon as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip.

Alan Hale, Jr. with beard!
Two other actors may have unknowingly auditioned for their most famous roles. As Garner's bunkmate, Alan Hale, Jr. provides most of the film's humor--preparing him well for playing the Skipper in Gilligan's Island. Meanwhile, Henry Kulky, who plays the Barracuda's Chief Petty Officer, would play one again in the first season of the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (Sadly, he died of a heart attack, so the Seaview had a new CPO in seasons 2-4.)

If you're a James Garner fan, you probably ought to see Up Periscope. Garner displays everything that made him a film and TV star for decades, from the heartfelt love scenes with Andra Martin to the physicality of his (backlot) jungle scenes. That's the best recommendation for this otherwise soggy adventure.

James Garner and Andra Martin on the beach.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Cinema '62: A Book Review

In their new book Cinema '62: The Greatest Year at the Movies, authors Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan set out to dispel the popular notion that 1939 was the best year for movies. Farber, a former president of the Los Angeles Critics Association, and McClellan, a former senior executive for Landmark Theatres, make a compelling case that 1962 was a landmark year for motion pictures.

They contend that 1962 "stands out as a pivotal year in film history," as it signaled the end of the studio era and the "full-blown emergence of the New Hollywood." They support their argument with chapters devoted to topics such as: the growth of international cinema; the rise of new American auteurs such as John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Peckinpah; the continuing popularity of established stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda; strong female roles in films such as The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; the popularity of literary adaptations; and the emergence of more films that examined racial conflict (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird and The Intruder). These chapters serve as a potent reminder that the early 1960s were indeed a turning point in global cinema.

However, the authors are less successful when championing 1962 as an important year for psychological dramas and films with strong sexual themes. Otto Preminger had already knocked down sexual barriers in the 1950s, dealing frankly with the topic in popular films such as The Moon Is Blue and Anatomy of a Murder.  Likewise, psychological dramas were common in the decades prior to the 1960s, with subtle ventures such as Black Narcissus (1947) and more blatant ones like White Heat (1949) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

Of course, as filmmaker Bill Condon states in the foreword to Cinema '62: "Choosing the best year in movies has always been fun sport, for film critics and fans alike." Keeping that in mind, Cinema '62 sparks an interesting, entertaining debate. One cannot deny that a proliferation of classic movies was released in 1962. In addition to films mentioned earlier in this review, the list of significant motion pictures includes: Lawrence of Arabia, The Music Man, Ride the High Country, Jules and Jim, Birdman of Alcatraz, Lolita, Victim, Lonely Are the Brave, David and Lisa, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Advise & Consent.

Farber and McClellan briefly address "Other Films of 1962" in an appendix that covers everything from Elvis Presley's popularity to Disney's reign at the box office to imported sand-and-sandal pictures like Damon and Pythias. Another appendix lists accolades and box office figures for major 1962 releases. Cinema '62 also contains a comprehensive index, although it would have been nice to include a handy list of all the major films released in the U.S. in 1962.

Note: We were provided with a digital review copy of this book.