Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bond Is Forever: "The Spy Who Loved Me"

When British and Russian submarines (armed with nuclear missiles) inexplicably vanish, MI6 and the KGB assign their best agents to investigate. Major Anya Amasova, aka XXX or Triple X (Barbara Bach), unaware that British agent James Bond (Roger Moore) has killed her lover on a mission in Austria, becomes 007's ally. They travel to Egypt, and a microfilm containing plans for a tracking system eventually leads them to Karl Stromberg (Curd Jürgens, credited in this and most English-speaking films as Curt Jurgens). Stromberg, whose aspirations include designing and surviving in an underwater society, has at his disposal a lethal tank of sharks and a tall, deadly henchman, Jaws (Richard Kiel), armed with metal teeth. Bond and Anya must recover the subs and stop a missile launch against both New York and Moscow.

The Spy Who Loved Me
(1977) is a taut, stylish entry in the Bond series. Both Stromberg and Jaws are two of the best
villains, especially the latter, who is virtually indestructible. Most of his countless potentially fatal encounters with 007 end with Jaws simply brushing dirt from his coat. Perhaps best of all, Anya is a superb character, wonderfully portrayed by Bach. Throughout the film, there is a parallelism between Anya and Bond. Both agents are introduced in bed with lovers, and while there is more emotional attachment between Anya and her bedmate, the Russian agent makes a mention of Bond's marriage, a topic that 007 quickly supresses. Both agents are prone to spying (and fighting) in formal wear. Triple X even carries a Beretta, the same gun (although a different model) that Bond has exchanged in the first film (and which he uses for a number of the novels). Anya is strong and reliable, and, like Bond, she puts the mission before everything else.

One example of the film's style is a scene set at the Egyptian pyramids, as Bond follows a lead, Fekkesh, who is in turn being tracked by Jaws. There is what appears to be a tour group, entertained by a show with bright lights and loud music. The sequence plays with the movie's diegetic elements, which would be the lights and music within the confines of the narrative. Both of these become non-diegetic, as the lights dramatically establish Jaws' presence, and the music turns into the film's score, crashing vociferously as Jaws reaches Fekkesh before 007 and kills him. It's also the first time Bond sees Anya, and, after discovering the man's body, he tells her, "Hope you enjoyed the show." He then wishes her good night, as the tour's show ends and applause can be heard in the background.

Ian Fleming's novel, The Spy Who Loved Me, was first published in 1962, the same year that Bond made his cinematic debut in Dr. No. The book is written from the perspective of a Canadian woman, and James Bond almost becomes a secondary character. Considering the shift in the presentation of Bond and as Fleming was reportedly unhappy with the novel (as well as the critical and commercial response), the author, when selling the rights to his character, requested that only the title be used for an adaptation. Although the two henchmen in the film, Jaws and Sandor, share a likeness with two of the novel's villains, Horror and Sluggsy, additional characters and narrative components were expressly created for the big screen.

This film introduced audiences to KGB head General Gogol (as portrayed by Walter Gotell, who had a small role in 1963's From Russia with Love). Gogol would make appearances in the next five Bond movies, and he acts as a Russian equivalent of M, head of MI6. The Minister of Defence, Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), is also introduced in this movie, and Keen, like Gotell, would reprise the role in the following five films. By this time, Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny had starred in every 007 movie, and Desmond Llewelyn, who debuted in the second Bond outing, had played Q in all films barring Live and Let Die (1973). This was the second Bond film directed by Lewis Gilbert, who had previously helmed 1967's You Only Live Twice and would direct the subsequent film, Moonraker, in 1979. It was also the first movie without Harry Saltzman as producer.

One of the more compelling aspec
ts of The Spy Who Loved Me is the appearance of both Caroline Munro and Valerie Leon. Both ladies were "Hammer girls," starring in movies from Hammer Films: Munro, best known for Brian Clemens' excellent Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974), and Leon in the equally good Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971), directed by Seth Holt. Additionally, each actress appeared in an "unofficial" Bond entry: Munro in 1967's Casino Royale (typically viewed as a satire), and Leon in Never Say Never Again (1983), which is a remake of 1965's Thunderball and was made after a lengthy legal dispute. Of all four characters, only Munro's Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me has any true plot relevance. The rest are, unfortunately, nothing more than eye candy. To further a Hammer connection, Edward de Souza, who portrays Bond's contact in Egypt, Sheikh Hosein, starred in the Hammer films, The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963). Geoffrey Keen had a lead role in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) with Christopher Lee. Milton Reid, who plays Sandor, had a notable role in 1962's Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures) with Peter Cushing. Reid also played guards in the '67 version of Casino Royale and in Dr. No (he stands behind Bond as 007 dines with the titular villain) and starred in Ferry to Hong Kong (1959) with his Spy Who Loved Me co-star Jürgens and director Gilbert.
Reportedly, an early draft of the screenplay had terrorist organization SPECTRE responsible for the cinematic transgressions. But, while SPECTRE had played an important part in many of the preceding Bond films (it would have been the first appearance in a Bond movie with Moore), EON Productions decided to bypass further complications with the ongoing legal battle. SPECTRE all but disappeared from the series, although SPECTRE head Blofeld has a cameo in For Your Eyes Only (1981). In future Bond productions, other crime syndicates or organizations would essentially take the place of SPECTRE. In the movies with Daniel Craig, the SPECTRE-like affiliation is Quantum.

The most significant gadget that Bo
nd uses in The Spy Who Loved Me is his car, a Lotus Esprit, Series 1. The Lotus is incredibly versatile, as it outruns a motorcycle, a car, a helicopter, and, after converting into a submarine, successfully evades any underwater threats. The title song is "Nobody Does It Better," performed by Carly Simon. It was the first Bond theme to not be named after the movie's title, although the title is incorporated in the lyrics: "But like heaven above me, the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight." Co-scripter Christopher Wood also wrote the film's novelization, titled James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me, presumably to avoid confusion with Fleming's novel. Although the previous Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), was likewise dissimilar to the novel, this was the first novelization of a Bond movie.

As was customary for the earlier Bond movies, a disclaimer following the closing credits announces Bond's subsequent film (hence the immeasurably clever "Bond Is Forever" concluding disclaimers). This film states that "Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only." However, with the immense success of George Lucas' 1977 Star Wars (or, for the purists, Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli decided to capitalize on audiences' renewed interest in sci-fi by next making Moonraker (although the novel's story did not deal with outer space). For Your Eyes Only would then follow in 1981.
The Spy Who Loved Me, which performed very well (much better than its predecessor, The Man with the Golden Gun), is a Bond film that I did not like when I initially watched it. But it has since grown on me, and it seems to improve the more I watch it. It's a film that brings 007 down to the level of an everyday man. He is very condescending in dealing with Anya, but she proves to be a dependable colleague. Consequently, his attitude toward her seems petty, as if he were bothered by her dexterity and apparent refusal to fawn over him. It's an intriguing way to dismantle the conception of Bond as an immaculate agent, not to tarnish his character, but to make him more human. The more flawed traits Bond displays and the more missteps he has, the easier it is to sympathize with him, making him a more substantial protagonist. The film is abundant with action, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. Any thoughts on Roger Moore's third time as 007?

Bond Is Forever will return next month with Goldfinger (1964).

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Narrow Margin is a Fast Train Ride

The tagline to The Narrow Margin states: “That Bullet’s Meant for Me.” And believe me, that is the truth for the unfortunate Mrs. Neall. The Narrow Margin is a film noir made in 1952 and directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer directed several film noir movies which made him famous such as: The Bodyguard (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). The Narrow Margin is one of his best thrillers.

Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is a policeman assigned to protect a dead mobster’s wife. Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) has agreed to testify before a grand jury. Needless to say, her dead husband’s friends do not want this to happen. She becomes a target and two men are hired to murder her. She is being hidden in a hotel and will be transported by train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown shows his contempt for the mobster’s wife by describing her to his partner as: “The sixty cent special--cheap, flashy, strickly poison under the gravy” (I love that line). Unfortunately, Mrs. Neall is indeed rude, dressed cheaply and irritating. As Brown and his partner are escorting her the hotel room, the beads from her necklace break and some fall down the stairs. Two beads land right beside the killer’s feet as he waits at the end of the stairs in the darkness. Brown’s partner goes down the stairs first and is shot and killed. Now it is left up to Brown to get her safely to the train station and on the train.

Mrs. Neall panics in the taxi and tells Brown he’d better be good protecting her because her life definitely depends on him. When they arrive at the station, Brown realizes they have been followed by two mobsters sent to silence the witness. One of the mobsters even tries to bribe Brown, who refuses to let him have Mrs. Neall. Brown successfully hides her in a train compartment without the two mobsters knowing which one. Mrs. Neall is so annoying. She is rude to Brown, flirts with her, and constantly complains. He leaves her to go to the dining car to bring her breakfast when he meets a pretty blonde woman named Ann Sinclair. On his way back to the compartment, he also runs into a woman with a wildly imaginative son. The little boy sees Brown’s gun under his jacket and yells it to anyone within shouting distance. Brown gets around the boy only to be confronted by a fat man who blocks his way. The fat man complains that no one likes a large man on a train and Brown hurriedly gets around him. It turns out that everyone Brown has confronted on the train has secrets he doesn’t know about. The rest of the movie moves swiftly to the ending where, of course, the mobsters try to kill Mrs. Neall.

The film is only 71 minutes and is quickly paced. That is a good thing too because movies on trains can be very boring in such a confined setting. The Narrow Margin is not boring at all because the taunt action, snappy dialogue, and the many twists with the characters keep the movie fast-paced and interesting. I kept wondering how Brown was ever going to outsmart the mobsters and save Mrs. Neall’s life. The screenplay is well-written and the tight direction makes this movie a great film noir. The Narrow Margin was remade as Narrow Margin in 1990 starring Gene Hackman and Anne Archer, which is a good, fast-paced film that's also well worth watching.

The Narrow Margin was shot in only 13 days. The only scene filmed near a train was the arrival scene in the movie. The rest of the movie was filmed on a set. Fleischer used a hand held camera to film the actors going from one compartment of the train into another one, which was a unique idea at the time. The train set was nailed to the floor and Fleischer’s use of the hand held camera made the train appear to move with a rocking motion. The Narrow Margin was filmed in 1950 but not released until 1952. Howard Hughes, then owner of RKO Pictures, had a copy of the film sent to him to view in his private screening room. Hughes thought the movie had a lot of potential and considered making it into a higher class film by editing and even reshooting some of the scenes. Hughes kept the film for a year.

Star Charles McGraw was known for portraying hard-boiled law officers or military leaders in films like Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery (1950). He played the naval commander in The Bridges of Toko-Ri with William Holden. His most famous role may be as the gladiator trainer in Spartacus (1960). He died in a freaky accident at the age of 66 in 1980. He slipped and fell through a glass shower door in his own home.

Marie Windsor, who trained as a stage actress, plays Mrs. Neall. She starred in mostly "B" films, with her most most well-known being the manipulative wife in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). Jacqueline White, who portrays Ann Sinclair, only made 25 films. This is her most famous "B" picture. However, she did make one "A" picture movie called Crossfire (1947), directed by film noir veteran Edward Dymtryk.

Director Richard Fleischer is the son of the famous animator and producer, Max Fleischer. Richard began his film career directing animated shorts produced by his father such as Popeye and Superman. Walt Disney, who was once his father’s rival as a cartoon producer, asked Richard to direct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which was written by The Narrow Margin's screenwriter Earl Felton). Fleischer won an Oscar in 1948 for a documentary entitled Design for Death which he co-wrote with Theodor Geisel who later became better known as Dr. Seuss. Later in his career, Fleischer directed many different kinds of films such as the action movie Mr. Majestyk (1974) starring one of my favorite actors, Charles Bronson and The Vikings (1958). Then he turned his talents to making movies about famous serial killers such as: Compulsion (1959), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). He also helmed one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” films, Conan the Destroyer with Arnold Schwarzenegger (1984). Other notable movies he directed were Barabbas (1961), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Dr. Dolittle (1967).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Week's Poll: What is your favorite Film Noir that "played" at the Cafe this month?

To close out the Cafe's Film Noir Festival this month, I thought it'd be fun to do a poll asking readers to pick their favorite film noir. Alas, I quickly realized that there are too many choices and no fair way to reduce the nominees to a reasonable number. Therefore, I'm cheating (sort of) by limiting to the nominees to some of the movies that were reviewed by the Cafe's contributors this month. It's an impressive list of classic film noir pictures and lesser-known ones with loyal fans. Instead of describing each film, I've linked the titles to the reviews at the Cafe. Just click on the title to go to the link.

Beware, My Lovely

Clash By Night

Double Indemnity

Kiss Me Deadly


The Narrow Margin

Out of the Past

Whistle Stop

Please keep in mind that this poll is not about which review you liked best (hey, they're all good!). It's about which of the above nominees is your favorite film noir. To vote, go to the green sidebar on the right.

The Umbrella TV Series of the 1970s: The Saga of The Bold Ones, the NBC Mystery Movie, and Others

In 1955, U.S television launched one of its most interesting experiments: the umbrella series, in which different TV shows were rotated in the same time slot under a single title. The original umbrella series was Warner Bros. Presents, in which the TV shows Cheyenne, Casablanca, and King’s Row were all shown in the same time slot. The only one of the three to be renewed was Cheyenne, the Clint Walker Western that evolved into a launch pad for other TV series. The umbrella series concept seemed to die a swift death.

However, it was revived unexpectedly in 1969 when NBC borrowed the format for The Bold Ones—which was three separate series linked only by the fact that (apparently) the protagonists were bold! The rotating shows were The New Doctors (with John Saxon, David Hartman, and E.G. Marshall), The Lawyers (Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella, and James Farentino), and The Law Enforcers (with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes). The last series performed poorly and was replaced the following year with The Senator, starring Hal Holbrook as an idealistic politician. For the third year, only The New Doctors and The Lawyers were retained. In its final season, The Bold Ones consisted only of its three physicians, even though the umbrella title was still used.

In 1970, NBC introduced the umbrella series Four in One. This time, there was no attempt to connect the separate shows even loosely. Each series consisted of six episodes shown back-to-back…and then the next series would start. The four shows were: McCloud (with Dennis Weaver); San Francisco International Airport (with Lloyd Bridges); Night Gallery (hosted by Rod Serling); and The Psychiatrist (with Roy Thinnes). The advantage of the format was that each series got a limited try-out. It worked out well for Night Gallery, which was renewed and given its own time slot, and McCloud, which moved to The NBC Mystery Movie the following year. The downside to the format was that viewers didn’t have time to get invested in a series before the next one started. As a result, Four in One was deemed a failure.

That didn’t stop NBC from continuing to experiment with the umbrella series concept. In 1971, it launched the most successful of all umbrella series: The NBC Mystery Movie. In its original form, this 90-minutes series consisted of three shows: the previously mentioned McCloud; Columbo (starring Peter Falk); and McMillan & Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan St. James). The NBC Mystery Movie was a hit from the start and finished among the Top 15 TV series in its first year. Realizing it had a lucrative franchise on its hands, NBC tried to add a fourth show to the original three and eventually expanded to a second night of mysteries with The NBC Wednesday Night Mystery Movie. Alas, detectives came and went quickly, including: Richard Boone as Western detective in Hec Ramsey; Tony Curtis as a con man detective in McCoy; James Farentino as an expensive detective in Cool Million; James McEachin as an African-American family man detective in Tenafly; and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters. The only segments that really clicked were Banacek (with George Peppard as an insurance investigator) and Quincy, M.E. starring Jack Klugman. They each earned their own time slots, though Quincy was the far more successful of the two.

The success of the mystery movie prompted ABC and CBS to develop their own umbrella series—although neither was successful. ABC’s attempt was The Men (love that title!), a 1972 one-season wonder consisting of Assignment: Vienna (with Robert Conrad); The Delphi Bureau (with Laurence Luckenbill); and Jigsaw (with James Wainwright). CBS opted to go with big-name stars with the 1973 New CBS Tuesday Night Movie. Each month, CBS showed two original made-for-TV movies and then one episode each of Hawkins and Shaft. The former series starred James Stewart as a “countrified” crafty lawyer. In the latter series, Richard Roundtree reprised his film role as private eye John Shaft (the violence displayed in the movies was toned down considerably for the small screen).

Except for the NBC Mystery Movie, the umbrella series faded quickly. There were attempts to revive the format in 1979 with Cliffhangers (an innovative experiment worthy of its own article) and NBC Novels for Television (which were basically miniseries…not unlike PBS’s long-running Masterpiece Theater and Mystery!). Unfortunately, the business side of TV production killed the concept. It was simply cheaper to produce one series with a regular cast and standing sets than to multiply those costs by two or three. Variety may be the spice of life, but on television, it can be expensive!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Beware, My Lovely - Something A Little Different

Beware, My Lovely is not a typical film noir. It does not take place in the underworld of Chicago or the back streets of New York. It is not set in modern time, nor does it involve crime bosses or femme fatale molls. Yet, it is as the genre name indicates, a dark movie, tense and disturbing, about a crime already committed and potential crime yet to come. The setting is a small American town in the year 1918. It is Christmas time in a lovely tree-lined neighborhood where children are laughing and playing and the sun is shining.

The film opens in the kitchen of a big-city apartment, where handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) discovers the dead body of the lady he has been working for. Howard looks at the body, shocked and confused. We know he does not know what to do, and in his fear he flees the building. The next scene opens in the small town described above, in the home of a World War I widow Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). Helen is cleaning and preparing her house for Christmas. She is also saying goodbye to Walter (Taylor Holmes), her longtime boarder who is moving away. Helen’s niece Ruth (Barbara Whiting), a particularly sullen and malicious adolescent, is being punished by her mother, who has ordered her to help Aunt Helen with her cleaning. Some of Helen’s little piano pupils drop by, and Helen’s little dog is happily romping around with all the company.

Amidst all of this pleasant bustle, Howard enters. He seems intensely shy and unsure of himself, quiet and gentle. He is looking for work, and Helen decides to hire him for the day to help with the cleaning. Soon Walter is moved out, the children are gone home, Ruth has been released from her punishment, and the dog is outside. Helen is alone with Howard, and so begins a day of terror for her. Howard is mentally unstable, at once menacing and pitiful, sharp and alert one moment, confused and forgetful the next. Helen comes to realize that she is trapped in the house with him, and as she comes to understand the danger she is in, her fear and vulnerability increase with every moment.

Each scene of Beware, My Lovely builds upon the next like the little Russian doll that opens to reveal another smaller doll, than another, until the core is revealed. Screenwriter Mel Dinelli did a wonderful job with this subtly terrifying story. (Dinelli also wrote the screenplay for another of my favorite suspense thrillers, The Spiral Staircase.) There is little more I am willing to reveal about the film because the very nature of it depends upon the unknown. Suffice it to say that this is not a typical story with a typical ending.

Beware, My Lovely began as a stage play and then a radio play in 1945 on the popular Suspense program, starring Agnes Moorhead and Frank Sinatra in his radio drama debut.  Ida Lupino and her husband produced the movie in 1952. Lupino was one of the first women to begin her career as a beautiful starlet and go on to work behind the camera to produce and direct movies. Director Harry Horner did his usual wonderful job (he also directed one of my favorite movies, The Heiress). The cast was solid, including long-time character actor Taylor Holmes and young Barbara Whiting, the sister of famed singer Margaret Whiting and the daughter of Robert Whiting, a prolific songwriter whose compositions included “Hooray for Hollywood” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop”.  The art direction was done by the wonderful Albert D’Asgostino, who was also responsible for art direction in The Magnificent Ambersons. Mention must be made of the costume designer, Michael Woulfe. Lupino’s costume with the long hobble skirt popular in 1918 gives her an even greater look of trapped inability to save herself.  Ryan’s clothing, including an oddly short tie, is rather dorky and sad, like a man who does not know how to dress himself.

With all these winning elements, not to mention the great performance by Lupino, the fact is that Beware, My Lovely is Robert Ryan’s movie. Audiences accustomed to seeing Ryan as intensely masculine, tall and dominant, saw him in this movie as a sad, tired, mentally ill man. He is indeed menacing, but at the next moment unable to remember what had happened and afraid of his confusion. He terrorizes this woman, and at the same time has gentle feelings for her. His character cannot be pigeon-holed into good guy/bad guy, and Ryan masterfully creates this disturbing presence.

Beware, My Lovely belongs in the film noir genre despite its uncharacteristic elements, maybe even because of the peculiarity of mental volatility and disturbing undercurrents that darken the sunniest day.

(ADDENDUM)  A fellow CMBA member, RDF, wrote to remind me that Harry Horner did indeed work on The Heiress in art direction, but not as director.  I appreciate RDF's sharp eye, and  I'm glad to  have this opportunity to keep my facts straight!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Who's That Lady? Part II

This baby grew up to be a real doll.

Who is she? Becky recognized the icon to end all icons, Marilyn Monroe...before she blossomed into the legendary star she became and still is...thanks to Gilby, Avalon and Becky for playing...more next week.

This award winning actress has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame...

Who is she? Gilby recognized Oscar winner Margaret O'Brien, child actress/movie star whose heyday was in the 1940s.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Losing Control to "The Lady from Shanghai"

The following review is a collaboration between Rick and Sark.
After saving a beautiful woman from three would-be attackers, Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) is offered a job by the woman, Elsa (Rita Hayworth). Although apparently disappointed that she is married to a prominent defense attorney, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), Michael agrees to pilot her husband's yacht. At sea, Michael not only witnesses the rather unusual relationship between husband and wife, he also meets Bannister's law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby makes a peculiar offer: the lawyer is planning on faking his death, and he wants Michael to confess to the "murder," so that Grisby can collect the insurance reimbursement. Michael agrees, because by this time, he and Elsa have started an illicit affair, and he needs the money so that they can leave together. The stage is set for various double crossings and multiple plot twists!
The Lady from Shanghai is clearly a film about control, or the lack thereof. From the beginning, it seems, Elsa is controlling Michael. She draws him in with her beauty, and although he initially appears upset that Elsa is married, Michael still accepts the job offered by Mr. Bannister. Does he need to money? Perhaps. But the audience (and Elsa) knows why he really wanted to go sailing. Elsa controls everyone, and by extension, she controls everything. Elsa manipulates all three men and has them playing against one another. For example, one could maintain that she kissed Michael knowing fully well that Grisby would see them. One of the movie's best lines belongs to Elsa (when first offering the job to Michael): "I'll make it worth your while." This is the essence of Elsa. Would a man do something he didn't want to simply because she asked him to do it? Most likely, yes. And there's absolutely no question as to what she's referring, by the breathy and seductive manner in which she speaks the line.
Elsa even controls the camera. One scene in particular is a great example of her visual control. Elsa is lying on the ship's deck with Grisby sitting nearby, and Bannister is discussing money with Michael. While Bannister is talking, the shot lingers on Elsa as she hands her cigarette to Grisby and asks him to light it (for the audience, her dialogue dominates and momentarily overrides Bannister). Another shot shows Michael lighting the cigarette, and then a crane shot follows the smoldering cigarette from Grisby to Elsa, who indifferently puffs away. Michael desires Elsa, Bannister is speaking about money and happiness but seems to be alluding to his beautiful wife, and retrospectively, it's known that Grisby is planning on killing Bannister for Elsa. Three men -- three fools -- all controlled by the magnetic woman dreamily staring at the sky. Likewise, the shots of Elsa lying on the deck and posing on the rocks are seductive images. Grisby spies on her, and Michael watches her, too. The two men cannot look away.
The theme of "control" is intriguing. Welles wrote the screenplay (with a small credit for the story and novel), produced, and directed. He also famously had his wife cut and dye her trademark red hair. So while Hayworth's character was in total control on the screen, Welles wielded it behind the scenes -- until the studio took it away. Welles had trouble maintaining control of his films after Citizen Kane (1941). The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was completely recut without his consent, as was The Lady from Shanghai. Welles' original cut was reportedly 150 minutes, so that means there's an hour of missing footage. The studio reeling Welles in was quite possibly beneficial, as it is difficult to imagine the film at two hours, let alone in excess of that. As Alfred Hitchcock once said: "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
Welles' films always benefit from rich characters, and The Lady from Shanghai is no exception. Ironically, the most sympathetic character may be Bannister. He knows Elsa is bad (he starts to tell the story of how they met... but cuts it short) and know that he's under her control. He's even willing to pimp for her; isn't that what he's doing when he goes to the docks to hire Michael? He's willing to let her cheat on him, as evidenced by stating that he doesn't mind that Michael loves her (and he likely means "love" in the physical sense). All he asks is that she stay with him, which makes him sympathetic or pathetic or both?

Then again, it's a fairly sad lot of people from which to find sympathy. Bannister seems to accept things the way they are, and he deals with life as it comes along. This is in contrast to Michael, who constantly looks ahead, hoping for everything to turn out one way but knowing it'll likely go somewhere else. I think the most unsympathetic person might be Grisby. Any type of control he has or thinks he has is highly evident, because he acts in the manner of a child, especially in the scene with Michael on the boat and Elsa is on the rocks. He also sweats incessantly, so perhaps Welles wanted the audience to view him as the "greasy" character. But, at the very least, Grisby is honest with himself. Michael wants Elsa, but he has to find excuses to be with her. Elsa would lie in a blink if it meant self-preservation. Grisby is transparent: he is greedy, he is jealous of Michael, and he wants Elsa, too. He doesn't try to hide his intentions or present himself as anything other than the greasy weasel that he is.
Orson Welles was perhaps a better director than actor. While he's very good in Touch of Evil (1958), he was too exaggerated as the evil cop, and even in Citizen Kane, he hams it up. Although, he was always theatrical because of his work on radio, in which voice is the most important tool (it's similar to the theatre, where an actor has to overdo it a bit because he/she has to project the voice). Welles is sometimes too theatrical, but Michael in Shanghai is underplayed to great effect. Michael is a brooding man and an emotional punching bag. With a lack of presence, he's really only there for Elsa to unload upon. In short, he's the complete opposite of other Welles' characters, like Quinlan in Touch of Evil and Charles Foster Kane. Rita Hayworth gives a smashing, memorable performance, and she and Welles are complemented by the supporting cast, especially Sloane (who played an equally cynical employer in 1956's Patterns, scripted by Twilight Zone creator/narrator Rod Serling).

Though it's easy to see why The Lady from Shanghai is a cult film, it's undoubtedly flawed. Even at 90 minutes, it's an indulgent film, sometimes quirky just for the sake of it -- such as the over-the-top courtroom scene with Bannister cross-examining himself. Welles gives himself the best dialogue, though everyone has a memorable line or two. Technically, it alternates between shoddy (some of the rear screen shots) and dazzling (the location scenes in San Francisco, the incredible mirror hall climax). But one thing is clear: it's not an easy film to forget!

Trivia Time Part - 41

This week's Trivia Time will be the last until July 11th. And I'll be posting the answers on Wednesday afternoon

Who Am I? I've worked in films since the 1940'and s have had two TV series (one in the 60's and 70's). I've worked with William Powell, Natalie Wood (as a child and young adult), Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Irene Dunne, Myra Loy, and many others. I've also done radio in the 80's and 90's. Who am I?

#1. Name the two films Who Am I did with Natalie Wood

#2. What 1950 film had Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (uncredited) as husband and wife ( for the first time)?

#3 Who were the film's stars?

#4. Who was the director? What other film did he direct that year?

#5. Who were Kazan's first choice to play the brothers in East of Eden?

#6. Did they ever make a film together? Name the film.

#7. What was the first TV series filmed in color? Who were the stars?

#8. Who were the stars in the 1970's TV spin-off of Adam's Rib?

#9. What film had Oscar nominations for both Robert Duvall and Michael O' Keefe?

#10. Who played the older son in the film Islands in the Stream? Who did the score?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This week's poll: Which of the original "NBC Mystery Movie" detectives was your favorite?

The NBC Mystery Movie was a "wheel" TV series which ran from 1971-77, though some of its installments survived much longer (e.g., Columbo, Quincy, M.E.). The "wheel" format meant that several TV series rotated in the same time spot under the umbrella title of The NBC Mystery Movie. The original three series were Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan & Wife. The Western detective series Hec Ramsey was added in the second season.

The Mystery Movie was so popular that it eventually expanded to twice weekly: The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (the original) and The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie (which featured all new detective series). There were a plethora of rotating shows that came and went during the seven-year run: McCoy (Tony Curtis), Amy Prentiss (Jessica Walter), Lanigan's Rabbi (Art Carney), The Snoop Sisters (Helen Hayes & Mildred Natwick), Tenafly (James MacEachin), Banacek (George Peppard), Cool Million (James Farantino), Faraday & Company (Dan Dailey), Madigan (Richard Widmark), and Quincy, M.E. (Jack Klugman).

To keep this week's poll to a manageable size, our nominees include only the original three plus Hec Ramsey, which joined the rotation for the second and third seasons.

Lieutenant Columbo - With his crumpled raincoat and apparent absentmindedness, it's no wonder that a number of wily murederers underestimated L.A. police detective Columbo--but that was their mistake. Created by William Link and Richard Levinson, Columbo was first played by Bert Freed in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. That episode formed the basis of the stage play and TV-movie Prescription: Murder. The latter starred Peter Falk as Columbo; the actor and character would be forever linked. Ironically, Link and Levinson originally thought Bing Crosby would make the ideal Columbo. The series, which lasted the longest of the Mystery Movie originals, boasted an unusual format: Viewers watched the culprit commit murder in the opening scenes; the appeal of the show then became watching the crafty Columbo catch the often over-confident murderer.

Sam McCloud - Dennis Weaver played McCloud, a New Mexico marshal who traveled to New York City and stayed there to solve crimes. The series was inspired the Clint Eastwood movie Coogan's Bluff and, especially in the early episodes, played up the "cowboy in the big city" theme. The McCloud series originated on Four in One, a rotating series that lasted a single season. When it folded, McCloud moved over the new NBC Mystery Movie and enjoyed a long run.

McMillan & Wife - Rock Hudson moved from the big screen to the small screen to play San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan. Susan St. James played his much younger, more free-spirited wife Sally. Together, the McMillans solved crimes with assistance from police detective Sergeant Enright (John Schuck). Nancy Walker provided comic relief as the McMillans' housekeeper Mildred. When a contract dispute with St. James couldn't be resolved, Sally McMillan died in a plane crash in the fifth season. The show carried on for one more year as McMillan.

Hec Ramsey - During the second season of The NBC Mystery Movie, Richard Boone starred as a former gunslinging lawman in the final days of the Old West, who had become interested in forsenic investigative methods. Dr. Amos Coogan (Harry Morgan) accompanied Ramsey on most of his cases. Despite good critical notices, Hec Ramsey only lasted two seasons.

If you want to vote, please select your choice in the green sidebar on the right!

Trivia Time Part 40 - The Answers

Happy Fathers Day. Not a lot of players this week, but all in all, you all did well. Saz, good to see you back. Here are the two questions you missed.

Who Am I# 3 is Lloyd Bridges.

#7. The "classic" sci fi film is 1950's Rocket Ship X-M.  Here is the trailer. See you later today.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Double Indemnity: There Is No Insurance for Murder

double_indemnityWhen it comes to the ultimate femme fatale you need only think of one name: Phyllis Dietrichson. Many have tried to surpass her—many have failed. In her first unsympathetic villainess role, Barbara Stanwyck set the bar so high that you can’t even measure how short other actresses have fallen trying to be as good a femme fatale as she was in Double Indemnity (1944). One of the great travesties in 1184601505_1665 Academy Award history is that Stanwyck, who was nominated four times for Best Actress, never won an Oscar. She was nominated for this film in 1944, but lost to Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Many film critics believe this was a glaring oversight by the Academy, citing the outright nastiness and amoral nature of her character as the reason she was snubbed. Quite frankly, Hollywood wasn’t ready for Phyllis Dietrichson. And, when you think about it, who could ever be ready for such an evil force of nature?

Legendary auteur Billy Wilder directed this penultimate film noir, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography (black and white), Best Sound, and Best Score. It won none. Perhaps a film about an adulterous murder plot to collect insurance money was just too much for a country at war.

With the help of the great detective novelist Raymond Chandler, Wilder adapted the James M. Cain novella Three of a Kind into one of the greatest screenplays of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Chandler and Wilder’s dialogue is searing and sharp and the overall storyline is a taut, thrilling ride down a boulevard of betrayal. In a film noir staple, the film is told in the past tense, via voiceover. The story involves a very unsatisfied (I suspect mostly in the Biblical sense) housewife (Stanwyck) and an easily enticed insurance salesman. While carrying on a licentious affair, the couple kill the husband to claim a double indemnity clause in his accidental death policy. What follows the murder is suspicion, guilt, double-crosses and bullets.

Aided by the deft cinematography of John Seitz (whom Wilder worked with on several films), Wilder captured the unseemly nature of Hollywood, incorporating several locales into the film—most notably the Hollywood Bowl and the Glendale train station. Roger Ebert has said that Seitz’s photography in this film “helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely settings." Countless “venetian blind” shots are used.

The film opens with injured, Pacific double-indemnity-1All-Risk Insurance Company salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray in a rare bad-guy role) staggering into the company’s building one early Los Angeles morning to record, via Dictaphone, how and why he committed the “perfect crime” for a woman wearing blonde bangs, honeysuckle perfume and an anklet. It all started innocently enough when he accidentally met bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson at her faux-Spanish mansion while stopping by to get her husband to renew his car insurance. In one of the more memorable film entrances, Stanwyck enters the screen wearing only a towel and a flirtatious smile. When she emerges next to “properly” meet Neff she’s 22dvd_1_650 wearing a revealing dress and her signature anklet. For those of you who don’t know, the old theory was that women who wore anklets were loose women. Her use of her legs as a diversionary tactic in this scene is something that Sharon Stone would use in Basic Instinct—of course Stanwyck was wearing panties…I hope. A double-entendre conversation ensues between them about speeding cars, where Neff makes it clear he’s interested in insuring he sees her again. That is soon arranged, as Phyllis asks him to come back the next evening to speak to her husband about the policy.

Later that day Neff introduces us to by-the-book Edward-G-Robinson-Double_lclaims investigator Baton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), a man consumed with getting every detail right and uncovering shady insurance claims. (Keyes is the man for whom Neff is recording his crimes.) While in his office, Phyllis calls and changes their appointment for the next afternoon. Strangely enough when he arrives the next day, Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is not at home again and it’s the maid’s day off. In addition, Phyllis seems very concerned about the dangerous nature of her husband’s work (he spends a lot of time in his oil fields). So much so, that she asks about buying an accident policy without her husband knowing about it. Shocked by the suggestion and angry that she thought he was so stupid that he couldn’t see what she was planning, Walter huffily walks out on the blonde bombshell.

doubleIndemnityKiss Yet, later that night when he finds Phyllis standing in his doorway (returning a hat she doesn’t seem to have) he doesn’t exactly slam the door in her face. Perhaps it was the clingy sweater she was wearing, or even the scent of wafting honeysuckle in the air. After explaining she doesn’t want him to get the wrong impression about her and that her life with Mr. Dietrichson is horrible, Walter grabs her and plants a “red-hot” kiss on her lips. Later, Phyllis explains that she often fantasizes about killing her husband with carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. To Neff there are three bonuses to this plan: $1000,000, beating the insurance game, and having Phyllis all to himself. Presumably after they have consummated their newfound relationship (he smokes a cigarette and she reapplies her makeup), Neff agrees to help her kill her husband and make it look like an accident, but everything had to be “straight down the line” as he doesn’t want there to be any mistakes for Keyes to find.

A few days later Neff arrives at the Dietrichson house to have Mr. Dietrichson renew his auto insurance policy. Leading the unknowing husband to believe he must sign duplicate forms, Neff gets him to sign his own death warrant. The next double3 part of the plan concerns having Mr. Dietrichson take the train instead of his car on his next trip to Stanford. The double indemnity clause pays twice as much for a death that occurs on a train. They use the local grocery store as their clandestine meeting place to plan their crime. A monkey wrench is thrown into their plan when Mr. Dietrichson breaks his leg, but only temporarily. When Mr. Dietrichson decides to take his trip after all, using crutches to get around, Neff and Phyllis hatch a plan where he takes the place of the injured husband on the train. Disguised as the soon-Double_Indemnity-backseat to-be dead husband, Neff hides in the back of the Dietrichson car while Phyllis drives Mr. Dietrichson to the Glendale train station. When she honks the horn three times he pops up from the back seat and breaks the husband’s neck. While the murder isn’t shown on screen, Wilder uses a close-up of the unflinching face of Phyllis staring straight ahead as her husband is being murdered on the seat beside her to convey the vileness of the murder. Taking the husband’s place on the train, Neff later jumps from the train when it slows down and he and Phyllis put Mr. Dietrichson’s body on the tracks. Now they just had to wait.

Although the police don’t suspect foul play, the insurance company wants to investigate to see if they can get out of paying the double indemnity clause. Keyes is assigned the case and told by the company president that they want him to find out if Mr. Dietrichson killed himself. In a meeting with Phyllis, di17 the company president explains the situation and offers to make a smaller settlement to her. Pretending to be unaware of the policy, Phyllis feigns fury and storms out. Meanwhile, Keyes doesn’t think suicide by slow-moving train is very likely and tells Neff that the case seems like a legitimate one.

MV5BMTI4NTcyNTIyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNTU5MjM2__V1__SX450_SY302_ Later, with Phyllis on her way to his apartment, Neff opens the door and finds Keyes. Something just popped into his head about the case: why hadn’t Mr.Dietrichson filed an accident claim when he broke his leg? Perhaps, Keyes believes, because he didn’t know about the policy but that Phyllis did. Luckily for the dastardly duo Phyllis can overhear Keyes from the hallway and she hides behind the door until he leaves. Cracks begin to appear in their relationship as Phyllis is angry that Neff suggests they not see each other while the investigation is taking place. In addition, Mr. Dietrichson’s daughter, Lola (Jean Heather), suggests to Neff that Phyllis not only killed her father but her own mother as well when she was her nurse. Oh, and by the way, step-mommy is sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, Zachetti (Byron Barr), as well. Feeling sorry for the girl and wanting to keep her quiet, Neff begins spending time with her as a substitute for Phyllis.

After putting the pieces of his investigation together, Keyes reveals to Neff what really happened in the Dietrichson case: the husband was killed by his wife and her lover. He explains to Neff every step of the crime correctly, but he doesn’t suspect Neff. Nervous, Neff and Phyllis meet yet again at the supermarket. Phyllis is highly suspicious when Neff suggest she not sue for the insurance claim and is even more suspicious about the time he has been spending with Lola. She coldly reminds Neff that their in it “straight down the line.” Neff starts to think that things would be better if Phyllis were dead, especially after Keyes determines that Zachetti was Phyllis’ accomplice. And, so the fateful 11 'o’clock meeting is set at the mansion.

With Zachetti as his fall guy, Neff determines to rid himself of the one person who can connect him to the murder: Phyllis. Shadowed by venetian blind slats, a living room of death awaits the final showdown between Phyllis and Neff. Oh, but Phyllis has her own suspicions that the double-cross is on. DoubleIndemnity1TN So, after unlocking the door for her accomplice, she sits down in a chair with her pearl-handled gun hidden under the cushion. When Neff arrives he informs Phyllis of his plan to off-her and frame Zachetti for everything. Really? How stupid can you be? Phyllis informs him she has her own plans and they don’t involve her death but his own. In an excellent climatic scene, Neff closes the living room blinds and when the room goes black a shot rings out. The next thing we see is Neff staggered by a bullet and Phyllis standing over him hesitating to finish him off. In a strange twist, Phyllis surrenders to her love for Neff and allows him to take the gun from her. While vulnerably embracing him some form of intelligence returns to her brain when she feels the barrel of the gun pointing at her chest. Two point blank shots to the chest and it’s “goodbye baby”. Really? I don’t like this ending at all, but it was Hollywood 1944, so what can I expect?

di05 The final scene of the film finds Neff in his office with Keyes, who is shocked by what his friend has done. When Neff asks him to give him four hours before calling the police, Robinson delivers the great line: “You’ll never make the border…you’ll never even make the elevator.” He was right.

The twists and turns of this thrilling film noir are enough to make your pulse race. You pair the stellar storyline to the raw sexuality that Stanwyck brought to her role as Phyllis and this is a wonderful film to just sit and absorb. While both Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson do great jobs with their respective characters, this film belongs to Stanwyck. This was, without a doubt, her greatest dramatic role. She was so good in this role that countless male fans who had loved her before seeing this film actually started to dislike her after seeing it. She and Double Indemnity are a “straight down the line” treat to watch.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Whistle Stop (1946): She was trouble for every guy who made a play for her!

Whistle Stop (1946). Director: Leonide Mogur. Cast: George Raft, Ava Gardner, Victor McLaglen, Tom Conway, and Jane Nigh.

When Mary returns home to sell her house, her first stop is to visit Molly Veech. Mary was in love with Molly's son Kenny, a lazy bum who's stuck in a small town, indulged by his mother. Mary is disappointed to learn Kenny still spends his nights gambling and drinking. That night at dinner, Kenny becomes jealous when Mary receives roses from Lew, the owner of the town's hotel and bar, and goes into town with her when she goes to thank him. Lew is watched by Kenny and his girlfriend, Fran. Kenny and Lew's animosity results in antagonism and arguments as they compete for Mary's affections. Later, when Kenny sees the bartender in Lew's club, he suggests that he and Kenny steal the money from the local carnival earnings and then murder Lew. At first, Kenny says "no", but when Mary tells him that she is leaving town, he may decide to go through with it. The results could be deadly, but.. for who?.

Even though this movie seemed clunky at times, I did enjoy Victor McLaglen's performance in the role of the bartender. As for Ava Gardner, she is perfect for the part and she gives an excellent performance, in this "B" film. Tom Conway also does an excellent job of playing an evil and ruthless nightclub owner. This may not be George Raft's best performance, but he was fun to watch..

Click to view the movie: Whistle Stop.

George Raft, was best known for his portrayals of gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. George Raft, is also known for his role in Some Like it Hot, Scarface (1932), Bolero (1934), and They Drive by Night (1940).

Jane Nigh was discovered in 1944 by Arthur Wenzler while working in a defense plant. She later signed a contract with Fox studios. She performed in movies such as Give My Regards to Broadway, Sitting Pretty, Dragonwyck and Laura (uncredited).