Monday, August 3, 2020

Les Diaboliques: Murder with a Twist

Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret.
Michel Delassalle, the headmaster at a second-rate French boarding school, is not a nice person. He treats his frail wife Christina with disdain, openly engages in an affair with fellow teacher Nicole, and buys bad fish because it’s cheap. He even waters down the wine served to the staff at dinner!

The strong-willed Nicole, who wears sunglasses to hide her recent black eye, is fed up with her abusive lover. She convinces Christina that murder is the only way to get rid of Michel permanently. The two women devise a seemingly foolproof scheme that provides them with solid alibis. And everything works according to plan—except, of course, that Michel’s corpse disappears.

Made in 1955, Les Diaboliques is the forerunner to the twisty psychological thrillers, like Psycho and Homicidal, that became prevalent in the 1960s. Even Hitchcock was interested in adapting the novel She Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac. However, filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot purchased the rights after his wife Vera recommended the book.

Simone Signoret as Nicole.
Vera Clouzot also stars as Christina, infusing the role with vulnerability and timidity. Even the boys in her classes recognize her fragility (though she is easily the most popular teacher). Filled with doubt from the outset, Christina needs a strong conspirator and finds one in Nicole. Simone Signoret plays the role with authority and an almost masculine flavor. While her fellow teachers struggle with unruly boys, Nicole’s students march out of their classroom in single file. (The very nature of Nicole’s personality provides a clue to the twist ending.)

Paul Meurisse as Michel.
Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose previous film was the acclaimed Wages of Fear, directs with a sure hand. He fills his frames with shadows and furtive looks. He builds tension effectively, especially in a scene in which a frightened Christina watches from her classroom as a swimming pool—which should contain Michel’s corpse—is drained. Clouzot also adds a touch of dark humor, such as when some upstairs neighbors complain about the noise in Nicole’s apartment, not realizing that a bath tub is being filled to drown a drugged Michel. 

Les Diaboliques has been remade multiple times. Curtis Harrington’s Games is a loose variation starring Simone Signoret again. Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, and Sam Waterston appeared in a 1974 TV adaptation called Reflections of Murder. Another notable version was the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

We recommend just sticking with the original, though. Clouzot's taut direction, combined with strong acting by the lead actresses, make Les Diaboliques an influential thriller that has stood the test of time. That said, if you're a fan of twist endings, don't expect to be blown away. It's really not that surprising by today's standards, but that's only because the format has been replicated so many times since its release.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Black Hole Sinks into Itself

In the wake of the massive success of Star Wars (1977), Walt Disney Productions mounted its own science fiction adventure in 1979 with The Black Hole. The concept must have looked promising on paper: A 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea set in outer space for a new generation of young people. However, The Black Hole teeters on the brink of a total disaster with its uneven mixture of seriousness and silliness.

It opens with the crew of the the spaceship Palomino discovering a black hole and a nearby ship capable of defying its gravitational pull. The mysterious spaceship turns out to be the Cygnus, which was assumed to have been destroyed 20 years earlier. After getting too close to the black hole and suffering damage, the Palomino docks inside the much larger Cygnus. The latter ship turns out to still be functional and occupied by its commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, and a crew of robots.

Maximilian Schell as Reinhardt.
Reinhardt claims that meteors disabled the Cygnus, causing him to evacuate almost the entire crew. He assumed that their escape ship had reached Earth. Reinhardt remained behind with a handful of others--all now dead--and repaired the spaceship with the goal of entering into the black hole.

While some of the Palomino crew believe Reinhardt, others remain skeptical. Their suspicions are reinforced by an unusual robot funeral, a robot that limps, and a garden much larger than required for one human. Could it be that Reinhardt's silent "robots" are actually what's left of his human crew?

As evidenced from above, The Black Hole is not a sci fi romp along the lines of Star Wars. It's a picture devoid of any fun and lacking any action until its final half-hour. The only character with any heft is Reinhardt, who is played with passion and menace by Maximilian Schell. Good actors like Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine flail about trying to make sense of their parts. Borgnine eventually resorts to playing the stereotypical crew member concerned most with self-preservation--but at least he becomes relevant.

Vincent the robot, Yvette Mimieux, and Ernest Borgnine.
Apparently because this is a Disney film, the writers plop two cute robots into the proceedings. They don't belong in the movie and it's awkward when one of the robots banters with Timothy Bottoms when the crew should be focusing on avoiding its demise. Still, the robots are voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, which makes it almost impossible to criticize them.

The Black Hole was Disney's most expensive production to date and most of the budget went toward the special effects. Instead of farming out the effects (which is now the norm), Disney relied on its in-house technicians. The results are sometimes spectacular and sometimes surprisingly shoddy. The entrance into Reinhardt's control room and a sequence with a meteor hurling toward our heroes are jaw-dropping. On the other hand, you can see wires attached to the actors in some of the scenes where they're supposed to be in zero gravity. And some of the matte shots don't match, so it looks like live actors were placed into a cartoon.
The massive control room inside the Cygnus.
In my opinion, John Barry is one of the all-time great film composers. However, his score for The Black Hole rates as one of his weakest efforts. The opening theme is simply disturbing--perhaps indicative of the screenwriters' confusion over whether The Black Hole should be a sci fi adventure or a watered-down version of 2001. Even worse, the background music seems incongruent with the action scenes in the climax.

To be sure, there are some interesting ideas in The Black Hole, such as one character's ability to communicate with a robot through ESP. However, the film is mostly just a jumbled mess. I'm still not sure what to make of the scenes inside the black hole which show what appears to be hell and includes an angel  floating swiftly through the air. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could have made some sense of it.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2020)

Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.
The rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question. Yes, that's means we're looking for something in particular!

1. Bob Denver and Ray Milland.

2. Ray Milland and Leslie Howard.

3. Leslie Howard and Bruce Campbell.

4. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Man With the Golden Gun.

5. Rex Harrison and Marc Singer.

6. Charlotte's Web (1973) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

7. Honeymoon in Vegas and Beach Blanket Bingo.

8. Jennifer (1978) and Stanley (1972).

9. Jane Eyre (1944) and Peter Pan (1953).

10. The Wolf Man and The List of Adrian Messenger.

11. The Bishop's Wife and For Your Eyes Only.

12. James Mason and Claude Rains.

13. Barbra Streisand and Ginger Rogers.

14. Born Losers (1967) and Beach Party.

15. The Sound of Music and Bedazzled (1967).

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Classic Movies and Television on Peacock TV

This month, NBCUniversal launched a new streaming service called Peacock TV. It offers two tiers: a limited version that's free and a more robust one that costs $4.99 monthly (though it may be free with your cable service). Both tiers include commercials; it costs $9.99 to go commercial-free. We spent the last two months watching Peacock TV on Comcast Xfinity cable--which equates to the $4.99 monthly tier with commercials. Here's our review!

Let's start with the big question: With all the streaming services available, is Peacock TV a worthwhile investment for the classic film and TV fan? The answer is "maybe." 

Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo.
If you're hoping for a plethora of classic TV shows, you'll be disappointed. Most of the television series are either new ones developed for Peacock or recent shows that aired on NBC or the USA network. The most notable exceptions are ColumboAlfred Hitchcock PresentsThe Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Rockford Files, The Munsters, and Murder, She Wrote. Granted, you can currently watch some of these for free (e.g., The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on MeTV), but Peacock lets you binge the shows at your own speed. My wife and I recently finished season one of AHP (which I reviewed here earlier).

Peacock TV offers "hundreds of movies," which is substantially fewer than the big streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. Yet, while its quantity is limited, its quality is pretty impressive in terms of classic movies. There are a lot of Hitchcock films, including Saboteur, Shadow of a DoubtRope, Rear Window, and every film he made from The Trouble With Harry (1955) to Family Plot (1976). 

If you're a fan of Universal's classic horror movies, then you'll love exploring Peacock's collection of Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and Invisible Man movies. Even the Abbott and Costello comedies featuring the Universal monsters are included (though I was disappointed that Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer was missing). 

Sophia Loren in Arabesque.
There are a few notable pre-1950s films, such as Beau Geste (Gary Cooper), Shanghai Express, Death Takes a Holiday (Fredric March), Horse Feathers, The Lady Eve, and Double Indemnity. However, Peacock fares better with an impressive sample of movies from the 1950s through the 1970s. There are Hitchcock imitations (Charade, Arabesque, Midnight Lace), Doris Day comedies (The Thrill of It All, Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back), Westerns (Bend of the River, The Far Country), science fiction (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man), Douglas Sirk soaps (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), and thrillers (The Day of the Jackal).

The movies I watched included about three minutes of commercials upfront and then were shown without any interruptions. The TV shows, though, seem to have one to three commercials, though the breaks are usually pretty brief. 

It remains to be seen how often Peacock plans to freshen its classic film and TV content. If the movies and shows change on a regular basis, then the Peacock TV $4.99 tier might be a worthwhile investment. Of course, that assumes you don't already own a lot of these classics on DVD and don't want to wait for them to pop up on TCM.

Here's a current sample of classic films (note that these titles are subject to change at any time):

All that Heavens Allows
Beau Geste (1939 and 1966 versions)
A Foreign Affair
Bend of the River
Black Horse Canyon
Blonde Venus
Border River
Bride of Frankenstein 
Cape Fear
The Curse of the Werewolf
The Day of the Jackal
Death Takes a Holiday
Death of a Gunfighter
Destry Rides Again
Double Indemnity
Dracula (1931)
Duck Soup
The Eiger Sanction
The Far Country
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Frankenstein (1931)
Going My Way
The Great Impostor
Horse Feathers
Imitation of Life (both versions)
The Incredible Shrinking Man
It Came From Outer Space
King King (1933)
Lady Godiva
Lady On a Train
Lover Come Back
The Major and the Minor
Man of a Thousand Faces
McHale’s Navy
Midnight Lace
My Favorite Blonde
No Man of Her Own
Pillow Talk
Play Misty for Me
Rear Window
Remember the Night
Road to Morocco (and Utopia and Zanzibar)
Shadow of a Doubt
Shanghai Express
Tammy Tell Me True
Tammy and the Doctor
Texas Across the River
The Sting
Three Smart Girls
The Trouble with Harry

Monday, July 13, 2020

Seven Things to Know About I.A.L. Diamond

1. Beginning with Love in the Afternoon (1957), I.A.L. Diamond wrote twelve movies with Billy Wilder over a period of 25 years. Their biggest hits included Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961), and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Diamond and Wilder won an Academy Award for original screenplay for The Apartment and were Oscar-nominated for Some Like It Hot and The Fortune Cookie.

2. In a Vanity Fair interview with Cameron Crowe, Billy Wilder talked of his collaboration with I.A.L. Diamond: "It’s always very difficult for me to say, 'This is mine and this is his,' always, except of course I have to give him credit for 'Nobody’s perfect' (the closing line in Some Like It Hot). Because that’s the thing they jump on, and I say, 'That was a temporary line, suggested by Mr. Diamond.' And it wound up to be our funniest last line."

3. Diamond was born Itek Domneci and immigrated from what's now Moldova to the U.S. when he was nine. His father changed the family's last name to Diamond.  However, it was Itek who legally changed his first name to I.A.L.--allegedly because it sounded more literary. Another story is that the I.A.L. stood for Interscholastic Algebra League; the young Diamond was a math wiz who was the league's champion. In Hollywood, Diamond became known simply as Iz.

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.
4. Although Diamond was known mostly for writing with Wilder, he also wrote or co-wrote films such as:  Never Say Goodbye (1946) with Errol Flynn; Monkey Business (1952) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers; Merry Andrew (1958) with Danny Kaye; and Cactus Flower (1969) with Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress).

5. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were widely admired by their fellow screenwriters. They were nominated for the Writer Guild Association (WGA) award ten times and won three (Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment). The WGA honored Diamond with its honorary Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement in 1980.

6. I.A.L. Diamond married Barbara Ann Bentley in 1945. They remained together until his death in 1988, at age 67, of multiple myeloma. They had two children, son Paul and daughter Ann. Paul became a screenwriter and penned scripts for TV series such as Miami Vice Married...With Children, and Knight Rider.

I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder.
7. In the Vanity Fair interview, Billy Wilder also described his highly successful working relationship with Diamond: "We never talked about personal things. That was the beauty of it. I came in the morning; he came in the morning. He gets The Hollywood Reporter and I get Variety. Then we exchanged the trade papers, and then we said, 'Now, where are we?' 'Oh, yes . . .' And then it goes on. He was a unique man, so unique. It was not a collaboration like with (Charles) Brackett, where he told me who his dentist is, kind of things that don’t belong, you know. But Iz Diamond was a very taciturn guy, my partner. It was wonderful to talk about dialogue, or about structure. He was always on the set with me."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Perry Mason Primer

Warren William as Perry.
Raymond Burr will always be Perry Mason for millions of mystery fans, but Erle Stanley Gardner’s lawyer hit the big screen twenty years before the long-running TV series.

Warren William was a sharp-witted, gourmet-minded Mason in four Warner Bros. films, beginning with 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. William seemed a natural for the part, having already played that urbane sleuth Philo Vance and destined to play the Lone Wolf, a jewel thief and detective. In fact, William’s Mason did so much detection that it was easy to forget he was a lawyer and some entries were devoid of courtroom scenes. Two of William’s films are of special interest. The Case of the Curious Bride featured superstar-to-be Errol Flynn as a murder victim and Donald Woods, a future Perry Mason, in another supporting role. Meanwhile, The Case of the Velvet Claws found Mason and secretary Della Street (Claire Dodd) married and trying to take a honeymoon! Comic actor Allen Jenkins played Perry’s detective assistant Spudsy (not Paul) Drake in some of the films.

In 1936, former Sam Spade Ricardo Cortez replaced William in The Case of the Black Cat and Donald Woods finished the Warner series with 1937’s The Case of the Stuttering Bishop.

Raymond Burr.
The Perry Mason TV series debuted in 1957 and enjoyed a nine-year run on CBS. Burr played the lead, of course, with Barbara Hale as Della Street, William Hopper as detective Paul Drake, William Talman as prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger, and Ray Collins as police Lieutenant Arthur Tragg (Collins died prior to the 1965-66 season). Interestingly, William Hopper also auditioned for the part of Perry (you can probably find his screen test on YouTube).

In 1973, CBS revived the show as The New Perry Mason starring Monte Markham, but it folded after half a season. It co-starred Sharon Acker as Della, Albert Stratton as Paul, Dane Clark as Tragg, and Harry Guardino as Burger. It has never been released on video, but you still might find a few episodes on the video website Daily Motion.

Burr's return as Perry.
Then, in 1985, NBC brought back Raymond Burr in the TV-movie Perry Mason Returns, reuniting him with Hale and introducing William Katt (Hale’s real-life son) as Paul Drake’s son. The premise had a bearded Perry resigning as appellate court judge to defend Della when she is accused of murder. The film’s ratings went through the roof and a series of equally high-rated made-for-TV movies quickly evolved. NBC showed two to four Mason films annually for the next eight years. William Katt bowed out after the 1988 season, with William R. Moses coming aboard as new private eye Ken Malansky. Following Burr’s death from kidney cancer in 1993, NBC produced four Perry Mason Mysteries that starred either Paul Sorvino or Hal Holbrook as Mason-like lawyers.  Barbara Hale and William R. Moses continued as series regulars. With a total of 29 films, the NBC Perry Mason films reign as the longest TV-movie series in broadcast history.

Finally, HBO revived Gardner's sleuth for television in 2020--but with some substantial changes. This new Perry Mason takes place in 1932 with Perry (Matthew Rhys) as a small-time private investigator. Intended as a "origin" series--but with no relation to the books--it also features Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) as a beat cop and Della Street (Juliet Rylance) as the legal secretary to Perry's mentor. The first season earned generally positive reviews.

Here's a list of Perry Mason movies:

The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)  (Warren William)
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)  (William)
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)  (William)
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)  (Ricardo Cortez)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1937)  (Donald Woods)

Raymond Burr TV-Movies:
Perry Mason Returns (1985)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Notorious Nun (1986)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Shooting Star (1986)
Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Murdered Madam (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Avenging Ace (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)
Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (1989)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Poison Pen (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Silenced Singer (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Defiant Daughter (1990)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Fatal Framing (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Heartbroken Bride (1992)
Perry Mason: The Case of Skin Deep Scandal (1993)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Tell-Tale Talk Show Host (1993)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives (1993)  (Paul Sorvino as Anthony Caruso)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle (1994)  (Hal Holbrook as “Wild Bill” McKenzie)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor (1995)  (Holbrook)
A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester (1995)  (Holbrook)

Monday, July 6, 2020

A Black Sheep and a Young Burl Ives

Bobby Driscoll as Jeremiah.
Young Jeremiah Kincaid lives in a small Indiana town at the turn of the century--the kind of place where the train passing through is the highlight of the day for a youngster. One of those trains changes Jeremiah's life when it stops so that Dan Patch, the champion race horse, can stretch his legs. Jeremiah feeds an apple to the dark-brown horse, who quickly becomes the most prominent subject in the young boy's scrapbook.

When a little black lamb is born, and rejected by its mother, Jeremiah adopts it. His goal is raise Danny, named after Dan Patch (of course), into a prize-winning ram. Jeremiah's pragmatic grandmother, who cares for the boy, has reservations. She knows that black wool has little value. It doesn't help that Danny is a rascal, who runs rampant one day and almost destroys the farm.

Made in 1948, So Dear to My Heart is a heartwarming Disney picture that combines live action with animated sequences. To be honest, the animation doesn't add much to the film except a splash of color and some modestly entertaining songs sung by cowboy star Ken Carson. Still, if one subtracts the animated scenes, the 79-minute film would barely be long enough for a theatrical release.
Ever notice that large animated animals have deeper voices?
It's interesting to watch So Dear to My Heart knowing the trajectory of Disney family films over the next two decades. The studio would gradually abandon endearing family fare like this and Old Yellow (1957) in favor of comedies starring the likes of Fred MacMurray, Dean Jones, and Kurt Russell. 

A young-ish Burl Ives.
Burl Ives had only appeared in three films when he took the role of Uncle Hiram, the town's blacksmith and a father figure for Jeremiah. At age 39, he looks relatively trim, but still possesses the engaging smile and twinkle in the eyes that would serve him well in movies like this one. (It's also why he was so very effective in different roles, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) 

Ives also gets a chance to warble a couple of tunes, including the English folk song "Lavender Blue." It became one of his signature songs and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song (which is odd because it was not an original song).

Danny the black sheep.
 As Jeremiah and his grandmother, Bobby Driscoll and Beulah Bondi give appealing, natural performances. It's nice to see Bondi, a talented supporting actress, in a lead role and you can feel her character's angst as she struggles with how to raise her grandson. 

As for Driscoll, he earned a special juvenile Oscar in 1949 for his performances in So Dear to My Heart and The Window. Driscoll also appeared in other Disney fare such as Song of the South and Treasure Island. Unfortunately, his acting career fizzled as he grew older and, in 1961, he was sentenced to a rehab center for drug addiction.

So Dear to My Heart isn't shown as often as other Disney films. It used to be available on Hoopla, a free streaming service available through many public libraries. That ended, though, with the launch of Disney+. The film may not be one of Disney's best, but it nicely evokes a time when state fairs were a big deal and a small town could rally around the dreams of a young boy.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One

The new streaming app Peacock TV officially launches on July 15, 2020. However, it's available now for customers of Comcast's Xfinity cable service. Most of the TV shows on Peacock are recent ones from NBC. A wonderful exception is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the classic anthology series that aired for seven seasons starting in 1955. (Incidentally, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is also available.)

While not as consistently good as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was an above-average series comprised of twisty tales. Each episode also featured a wryly amusing prologue and epilogue starring Alfred Hitchcock. Occasionally, these were better than the stories that they book-ended!

The actors that appeared on AHP were a mix of big-name stars (Claude Rains, Joseph Cotten, Barry Fitzgerald, Thelma Ritter, Claire Trevor), promising newcomers (Vera Miles, Joanne Woodward, John Cassavetes, Charles Bronson), and Hitchcock movie regulars (John Williams, Pat Hitchcock). The Master of Suspense directed four of the 39 episodes.

Here are our picks for the best episodes from the first season:

Vera Miles in "Revenge."
Revenge - The first episode of the series is one of its finest! Vera Miles stars as a woman, recovering from a nervous breakdown, who claims she was assaulted in her mobile home. Later, she identifies the assailant to her husband. The twist ending is downright chilling. Hitchcock directed.

Premonition - A man (John Forsyte) returns to his hometown from Paris, packing only his toothbrush. He wants to make up with his estranged father, but everyone keeps putting obstacles in his way. Forsyte is excellent, but the outcome becomes apparent just before the climax.

Salvage - An ex-con (Gene Barry) seeks revenge on the woman who caused his brother's death. Yet, instead of killing her, he has a change of heart at the last minute--and then proceeds to help her become successful and content. A devious plot that works quite well.

Joseph Cotten in "Breakdown."
Breakdown - Hitchcock directed this tale in which style takes precedence over content. A ruthless businessman (Joseph Cotten) becomes completely paralyzed in a car accident and cannot communicate that he is alive. But we, the audience, can hear his thoughts as he becomes more and more desperate. An unique and satisfying episode.

The Case of Mr. Pelham - Another Hitchcock-directed episode in which a man (Tom Ewell) discovers that a lookalike is taking over his life. Genuinely bizarre, but still fascinating until the ending which I found somewhat lacking.

Marissa Paven and John Cassavetes.
You Got to Have Luck - A killer (John Cassavetes) breaks out of prison and hides out in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a young wife (Marissa Paven). Well-acted and featuring one of the best twists of the season.

The Creeper - A serial killer is murdering blonde-haired women in New York City during a hot spell. Blonde-haired Ellen Grant (Constance Ford), whose husband works at night, suspects everyone. A taut tale that benefits mightily from Ford's excellent performance and an atmospheric setting that captures the discomfort and unease experienced by the characters.

Interested in more Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Check out our picks for the series' five best episodes!

Monday, June 29, 2020

Doris Day in Hitchcock and Hitchcock-Lite

In regard to his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped: "Let's just say that the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional." These days, it's fashionable to prefer the earlier film, though I firmly believe the 1956 version is the stronger of the two.
Doris Day and James Stewart as the McKennas.
James Stewart and Doris Day star as Ben and Jo McKenna, American tourists spending three days in Marrakesh with their young son Hank. They encounter a mysterious man named Louis Bernard as well as Lucy and Edward Drayton, a friendly British couple. In the middle of a bazaar, an Arab--who has been stabbed--approaches Ben. As the dying man staggers to the ground, Ben realizes it's Bernard in disguise. He whispers to Ben that there will be an assassination in London and that Ben must tell the authorities about "Ambrose Chapel."

Later, at the police station, Ben receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and will remain safe as long as he says nothing to the authorities. When they return to their hotel, Ben and Jo realize that the Draytons kidnapped Hank. They follow them to London, determined to find their son.

Brenda De Banzie as Mrs. Drayton.
The opening scenes in Marrakesh set up the plot nicely (though Hitch's use of rear screen projection is distracting at times). However, once the action shifts to London, the tension unexpectedly lets up, punctuated by a goose chase in search of Ambrose Chapel that seems like filler material. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much ends on a high note with a suspenseful extended climax at Albert Hall and a foreign embassy.

There are still sequences featuring Hitchcock at his best, such as when the face of the disguised Bernard slides through Ben's hands, leaving brown make-up on his fingers. The Albert Hall scene, in which an assassin's shot must be timed with the crash of cymbals, shows Hitchcock at the height of his craft. It also features composer and frequent Hitch collaborator Bernard Herrmann as the orchestra's conductor.

James Stewart and Doris Day are fine as the determined parents and Doris even gets to sing the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera," which would become her signature song. Acting honors, though, go to the marvelous Brenda De Banzie as a reluctant kidnapper.

Doris walking in the fog.
Made four years later Midnight Lace (1960) is a Hitchcock wannabe starring Doris Day as heiress Kit Preston, an American newlywed in London. Even before the credits roll, she hears an eerie voice threatening her during a heavy night fog. Her husband, financier Tony (Rex Harrison), tries to convince her it was just a practical joke. However, when she starts to receive similar phone calls, Kit and Tony go to Scotland Yard.

Kit's problem is that no one else hears the disturbing phone calls. Is she delusional and imagining the voice? Or is someone really planning to kill her? There are certainly plenty of suspects: the housekeeper's creepy son (Roddy McDowell); the handsome construction chief (John Gavin) working on a nearby building; the strange man hanging around the neighborhood; or even her husband Tony.

Doris Day and Rex Harrison.
Unfortunately, the outcome becomes apparent early on in Midnight Lace. That doesn't keep it from being moderately entertaining. The supporting cast, which includes Myrna Loy as Kit's aunt and John Williams as (what else?) a police inspector, is first-rate. The London setting is both atmospheric and contributes to Kit's uneasiness (until the arrival of her aunt, she has no real friends in town).

Unlike The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace is a "Doris Day vehicle" and she's in almost every scene. For the most part, she carries the picture, although her histrionics in the later scenes verge on overacting. Director David Miller compensates by keeping the narrative to a crisp 103 minutes.

Midnight Lace was remade for television in 1981 with Mary Crosby in the lead role. Carolyn Jones has a supporting role in that version, just as she did in The Man Who Knew Too Much!

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Five Best Greer Garson Performances

As Paula in Random Harvest.
1. Random Harvest - At the end of World War I, an entertainer named Paula (Greer Gardson) falls in love with a amnesiac known only as Smithy (Ronald Colman). They marry, have a child, and live blissfully in the English countryside. Then one day, Smithy journeys alone to Liverpool and is struck by a taxi. When he awakes, he remembers his life as the affluent Charles Rainer--but he has forgotten his life as Smithy. Years later, he hires Paula--still not knowing who she is--to work for him. Greer Garson is brilliant as a woman who spends every day with the love of her life, but never reveals her identity. It's a poignant performance made all the more powerful because Garson makes Paula a strong, independent woman. The impact of the final scene rests solely on Garson's shoulders and she pulls it off with aplomb.

2. Pride and Prejudice - Greer Garson was 36-years-old when she played Jane Austen's plucky 20-year-old heroine Elizabeth Bennett. It's something I notice during the opening frames of Pride and Prejudice (1940)--and then totally forget. That's because Garson finds the strength, intelligence, and playful wit in Elizabeth, making this adaptation one of my favorite ones of Austen's classic. It helps, too, that she develops such delightful chemistry with Laurence Olivier's exceptionally brooding Mr. Darcy.

Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon.
3. Mrs. Miniver - I suspect if you polled classic movie fans about Greer Garson's best performances, the number one answer would be her portrayal of Kay Miniver. There is no doubt that she shines as the mother that holds a British family together as World War II brings danger, damage, and death into their lives. Her efforts earned her the Best Actress Oscar in 1943 (her only one to go along with six other nominations). She reprised the role of Kay Miniver in The Miniver Story in 1950.

4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips - In her first role on the big screen, Greer Garson received an Oscar nomination opposite Robert Donat in this adaptation of James Hilton's bestseller. She plays the effervescent Kathy, who transforms a shy schoolmaster into a beloved institution at a British boys' school. Amazingly, Garson had difficulty transitioning from the stage to film, finding the process of shooting scenes out of order disorienting. She relied on co-stars Robert Donat and Paul Henreid for support and advice. Her lack of confidence is not apparent on the screen and her performance transformed her into a star overnight.

Greer Garson and Errol Flynn.
5. That Forsyte Woman - This screen adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Man of Property, the first book in his Forsyte Saga, may seem like an odd choice. The film is not remembered fondly nor admired by Galsworthy's readers. Even Greer Garson noted that it "wasn't much," but was a lot of fun for the cast and crew. However, I think she underestimates her performance as Irene Heron, a Victorian woman who marries a "man of property" whom she does not love. When she later falls in love with an architect, her affair sets off a series of dramatic, and tragic, events. The role of Irene is a difficult one since initially the character elicits little audience sympathy. However, the beauty of Garson's performance is that she finds the "truth" in Irene--and brings out the best in Errol Flynn, who is quite effective in a rare serious role as her possessive husband. She was impressed enough with Flynn to write the foreward to a book about his films.

Honorable Mentions:  Mrs. Parkington, Sunrise at Campobello (as Eleanor Roosevelt); and Blossoms in the Dust.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis Take on The Scalphunters

Burt Lanaster as Joe Bass.
When easygoing trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) takes a shortcut through Kiowa land, he is confronted by a party of Indians led by Two Crows. The Kiowa leader wants to trade a black slave for Bass's pelts. The trapper isn't interested in the deal--but he's really doesn't have a choice since he is vastly outnumbered.

The slave, Joseph Winfield Lee, is an educated man who wants to reach Mexico where slavery has been outlawed. Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) is eager to discuss his situation, but Joe Bass is focused solely on retrieving his pelts. His plan is to wait for the Indians to get drunk on stolen rum, then ride into their camp and nab the furs.

Ossie Davis as Joseph Lee.
However, before he can do that, Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) and his scalphunters attack the Indians and massacre all but one (who is assumed to be dead). They take Bass's pelts, too--and that makes him fighting mad. Plus, Joe Bass considers scalphunters--who sell the scalps of murdered Indians for $25 apiece--to be the lowest scum on Earth. He devises a second plan to retrieve his pelts, but things become a little more complicated when Joseph Lee gets captured by Howie's gang.

Made in 1968, The Scalphunters is a good example of Hollywood's attempt to reshape the Western genre in the late 1960s. It is part comedy, part violent Western, and part social satire. However, first and foremost, it's a showcase for African American actor Ossie Davis. Unlike his contemporary, Sidney Poitier, Davis rarely got starring roles. Although he's billed fourth in The Scalphunters, he dominates the screen with his portrayal of Joseph Lee, connecting the other characters played by Lancaster, Savalas, and Shelley Winters.

The film's best scenes are those shared by Davis and Lancaster. Joseph Lee (Davis) is the better educated of the two and lets Joe Bass (Lancaster) know it:

LEE:  I can read, write, and cypher.

BASS:  Don't brag on it.

Shelley Winters as Kate.
Lee also knows how to adapt his persona to the situation. When he learns that Howie plans to sell him to the highest bidder, Lee assumes the role of a caring servant to Howie's mistress Kate (Shelley Winter). She wants to live the high life and Lee wants to make himself invaluable. Remembering everything Bass has told him about his natural surroundings, he uses the juice from a cactus to wash Kate's hair.

In addition to Davis, the other stars make the most of their parts. Burt Lancaster exudes his usual charm as Bass, with his performance reminding me of his lead turn in The Kentuckian thirteen years earlier. Telly Savalas plays a less extreme version of the villainous roles in which he was typecast prior to Kojak. Still, his character's genuine affection for his mistress is a nice touch. And Shelley Winters deserves more scenes as the constantly-complaining, easily-manipulated former prostitute who dreams of a better life.

The influence of The Scalphunters can be seen in later lighthearted Westerns such as Skin Game (1971), which teamed up James Garner and Lou Gossett, Jr., and Buck and the Preacher (1972) with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. The latter co-starred Ruby Dee--who just happened to be the real-life wife of Ossie Davis.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Alastair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone

A long movie that doesn't seem long is a carefully-crafted motion picture. Such is the case with The Guns of Navarone (1961), which clocks in at a brisk 158 minutes.

Based on Alastair MacLean's 1957 novel, it tells the story of a small military team tasked with destroying two huge German guns. The artillery are located on the island of  Navarone and prevent Allied battleships from rescuing 2,000 British soldiers marooned on an adjacent isle. Since the guns are housed inside a cave, they cannot be destroyed by aerial bombs. The team's only hope to scale a dangerous mountain on the most lightly guarded side of the island.

David Niven and Gregory Peck.
The team consists of: Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a famous mountain climber who is fluent in German; Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), who hatched the plan; Corporal Miller (David Niven), an explosives genius; "Butcher" Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanic and knife expert; a young soldier (James Darren) born on Navarone, but raised in New York; and Colonel Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek officer who blames Mallory for the death of his family. Irene Pappas and Gia Scala co-star as two resistance fighters who live on Navarone.

Richard Harris has a brief cameo.
Each of the stars is perfectly matched with his role, even though Peck, Niven, and Quinn are too old for their characters. That fact becomes immaterial as the action speeds along to the thrilling climax. MacLean's story constantly throws obstacles in the team's path: a curious German patrol, a savage storm at sea, capture by the Nazis, and the presence of a spy. The highlight, though, comes in the film's first half when Peck and Quinn have to climb the treacherous cliff at the rain. On a DVD commentary, director J. Lee Thompson said he thought this nail biting sequence was too long (I disagree!).

The Guns of Navarone is so expertly made--and placed in historical context--that one assumes it was based on fact. Actually, the plot is wholly fictitious, although MacLean's tale was inspired by the Battle of Leros in the Aegean Sea during World War II. The novel was MacLean's second and become a bestseller. Following the box office success of the movie adaptation, other MacLean novels were made into movies, notably The Satan Bug (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Harrison Ford in Force 10.
MacLean wrote a sequel in 1968, Force 10 from Navarone, in which Mallory, Miller, and Stavros are sent on a mission to Yugoslavia. A movie version was planned in the late 1960s with Peck, Niven, and Quinn reprising their roles. However, the production was delayed and didn't reach the screen until 1978. By then, Robert Shaw and Edward had been cast as Mallory and Miller. The plot bore little resemble to MacLean's novel. The supporting cast included Harrison Ford (Stars Wars was released a year earlier) and Barbara Bach (who had just appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Robert Lansing

1. Robert Lansing was born Robert Howell Brown, but had to change his name when he joined the Actors' Equity Association because another actor was named Robert Brown. According to Allan T. Duffin's The 12 O'Clock High Logbook, he took his last name from Lansing, Michigan, as he was about to board a bus to that city.

2. After studying at the Actors Studio, Lansing made his Broadway debut in 1951 in Stalag 17. He worked on the stage, in live television, and made his film debut in the title role of 4D Man (1959). His next movie was The Pusher (1960), which Harold Robbins adapted from an Ed McBain novel. He played tough Manhattan detective Steve Carella, a role that he would reprise in the TV series 87th Precinct (1961-62). Based on McBain's gritty crime novels, the series is well regarded now, but was cancelled by NBC after a single season. Gena Rowlands portrayed Carella's deaf wife Teddy in four episodes.

Lansing on 12 O'Clock High.
3. Lansing's most successful TV role was probably Brigadier General Frank Savage in 12 O'Clock High, which debuted on ABC in 1964. However, after one season, his character was written out of the show. In a TV Guide article, executive producer Quinn Martin blamed ABC's decision to move the show from Friday at ten o'cock to 7:30 on Monday: "ABC is very high on Lansing, and asked me to find another series for him. They said they want him for a 10 P.M. show. Had we remained at 10 P.M., Bob would have continued." Lansing seemed to take the decision in stride, commenting to TV: "I can't hate ABC. Hating a network would be like hating Dodger Stadium...I can't be mad at Quinn either. He says it was the network's decision, and I have no evidence to make me doubt him."

4.  In 1966, Robert Lansing was back on TV in the half-hour drama The Man Who Never Was. He played spy Peter Murphy, who assumes the identity of murdered millionaire Mark Wainwright. Murphy looks just like Wainwright and his impersonation convinces everyone but the dead man's wife Eva (Dana Wynter). Fortunately for Murphy, Eva is willing to go along with the masquerade--especially since her husband was trying to swindle her. Sadly, ABC cancelled The Man Who Never Was after 21 episodes. Three episodes were edited together and released overseas as the theatrical film as Danger Has Two Faces.

5. According to Alan Schneider's The American Theatre Reader, playwright Edward Albee wanted Robert Lansing for the role of Nick in the original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, Lansing was never signed due to a disagreement over the billing. The role eventually went to George Grizzard; George Segal played Nick in the 1966 film adaptation.

With feline friend as Gary Seven.
6. During the second season of the original Star Trek, Robert Lansing guest starred as Gary Seven, a human sent by the race of another planet to save Earth from destruction. The episode, which was titled "Assignment: Earth," was a backdoor pilot for a TV series that would have starred Lansing as Gary Seven and Teri Garr as his assistant. The original script by Art Wallace and Gene Roddenberry had nothing to do with the Enterprise and its crew. However, when Roddenberry couldn't get a network interested in the proposed series, he and Wallace rewrote it for Star Trek.

7. Robert Lansing was married three times. His first wife was actress Emily McLaughlin, who played nurse Jessie Brewer on ABC's General Hospital for 28 years. Lansing's second wife was starlet Gari Hardy, whom was once described as "the new Ann-Margret" (though she was blonde). When they married in 1969, Hardy was 21 and Lansing was 41. They had a daughter, but divorced after two years. Lansing married Ann Pivar in 1981 and they remained together until his death in 1994. Incidentally, Gari Hardy married another older man, Jack Ryan, who designed the Barbie doll for Mattel and who was one of Zsa Zsa Gabor's husbands.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Alternate TV Series Title Game (British Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic television series and ask you to name the actual show. 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. For this month's edition, all the answers will be British TV series.

1.  The Tracy Boys.

2.  Irene and Soames.

3.  The Himalayan Powers.

4.  Nampara.

5.  The Village.

6.  Man With a Halo.

7.  Regan & Carter.

8.  The Noble Detective.

9.  The Man from WASP.

10. 165 Eaton Place.

11.  McGill.

12.  Fiery Plants of Africa.

13.  The Opera-Loving DCI.

14.  Gemstone and Metal.

15.  SHADO.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wee Geordie Throws a Hammer!

Bill Travers as the adult Geordie.
Young Geordie MacTaggert doesn't like to be called "wee' by the other lads in his rural Scottish community. Yet, it's accurate to say that he's decidedly short for his age. It's a sore point, though, and comes to a head when he and childhood playmate Jean visit an eagle's nest. Jean is tall enough to see the baby birds, but Geordie is neither tall enough nor strong enough to view the nest.

That night, he sees a newspaper ad that will change his life. In the advertisement, bodybuilder Henry Samson asks: "Are you undersized? Let me make a different man of you!" Geordie sends off for Samson's exercise program and soon becomes obsessed with physical fitness. He eventually grows into a 6' 6" muscular young man! (As one character notes, the exercises can't have accounted for his growth spurt.)

Unfortunately, Geordie's focus on building his muscles has come with a cost. Jean, now an attractive young woman, feels ignored. The situation doesn't improve when Samson recommends that Geordie take up a sport like hammer throwing--at which he excels. Indeed, his hammer throwing attracts the interest of officials organizing Britain's team for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Norah Gorsen as Jean and Travers.
Made in 1955, Geordie (aka Wee Geordie) is a heartfelt film brimming with Scottish charm. Despite a handful of rear projection shots, it's one of those movies that will make you want to move to the Scottish glen--or at least take a vacation there. In the title role, Bill Travers makes a charming, reluctant hero who has to be convinced to participate in the Olympics. His Geordie has no desire to leave his beloved home and see the rest of the world. Why would he--when everything he loves is right there in the glen?

Indeed, Geordie works best when staying in Scotland and focusing on the Geordie-Jean relationship. One of the best scenes has Geordie floundering in his first hammer throwing competition until he hears Jean calling out to him from a nearby hill. Later, when the plot relocates to Melbourne, it becomes a conventional fish-out-of-water story.

Alastair Sim as the Laird.
Travers gets wonderful support from Norah Gorsen as Jean, Paul Young as the young Geordie, and Alastair Sim as The Laird. While it's true that Sim frequently portrayed quirky British gentlemen, that doesn't take away from his typical amusing performance. Paul Young, who made his film debut in Geordie, had a long television career (that's still ongoing). In contrast, the fresh-faced Norah Gorsen retired from acting in the mid-1960s.

Upon its release in Great Britain, Geordie quickly became a box office hit. Hollywood took notice of the ruggedly handsome Bill Travers and cast him opposite established stars in movies like Footsteps in the Fog (1955) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957). His biggest success, though, didn't come until 1967 when he appeared with his wife Virginia McKenna in Born Free (1966). That film and Ring of Bright Water (about an otter) transformed the couple into animal rights activists. It was a passion that Travers pursued until his death in 1994.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li.
My elementary school chorus teacher introduced me to the Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. To be specific, she favored the catchy songs from The Sound of Music and The King and I. Hence, I always experience some built-in nostalgia whenever I watch those movie adaptations. Yet, despite that background, I never sought out the 1961 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song--and it seemed to purposefully elude me. That changed, though, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime.

Nancy Kwan as singer Linda Low.
Set in San Francisco, it opens with the arrival of stowaways Dr. Li and his granddaughter Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki). The latter has journeyed to America to fulfill a marriage contract with Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner she has never met. Sammy has no interest in getting hitched, having been romantically involved with singer Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) for five years. He hatches a scheme to introduce Mei Li to Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong), who wants his Chinese-American son Ta (James Shigeta) to marry a woman with Old World values. This leads to a series of misunderstandings and deceptions before true love wins out.

Benson Fong's as Ta's father.
Flower Drum Song holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast. That may explain in large part why it was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and added to the National Film Registry in 2008. Its critics counter that it promotes cultural stereotypes and casts non-Chinese actors in Chinese roles (e.g., U.S.-born James Shigeta was of Japanese ancestry). One can't argue with the latter complaint, but the "stereotypes" in Flower Drum Song are merely stock movie characters. Who hasn't seen a movie with a feisty father figure who wants to impose his values on his children?

The screenplay has a lot of fun with portraying the differences between American and Chinese culture...and everything in-between. While the elders hold on to their old-fashioned values, the kids embrace everything snazzy and new. And in the middle, there's Ta's aunt, who has merged both worlds and become an American citizen after studying for five years. This central theme is captured playfully in the lyrics to the song "Chop Suey":

Living here is very much like chop suey 
Hula hoops and nuclear war 
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor 
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey 
Chop suey!

Flower Drum Song features a pleasant selection of songs, although the only bona fide hit was the playful "I Enjoy Being a Girl" (lip-synced by Nancy Kwan in a clever number in which she performs with three mirror reflections of herself). Miyoshi Umeki sings the sweet opening song "A Hundred Million Miracles" and duets with Jack Soo on the clever "Don't Marry Me." Of course, there are some forgettable songs as well, including the melodic but empty "Love, Look Away."
Nancy Kwan times three!
Filmed entirely on studio sets, Flower Drum Song bursts with bright colors and the cast provides plenty of high energy. Nancy Kwan may not sing her songs (her vocals are dubbed by B.J. Baker), but she dances up a storm. And while the cast was ignored by the Academy Awards, the film earned Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Score, and Best Sound.

Flower Drum Song may not rank with the best Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, but even their second-best is better than most. I was happily surprised and recommend checking it out if you haven't done already.

Here's one of the musical numbers, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel: