Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 30 to 21

This month’s countdown list features my favorite Hammer horror film and my favorite Disney animated movie. As always, please keep in mind that these films are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made. They are simply one classic fan's favorites. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

David Peel, who looks rather pleasant
here, with Yvonne Monlaur.
30. Brides of Dracula – How can Chris Lee be absent in Hammer Films’ best movie—a Dracula entry, no less? It seems downright peculiar, but, regardless, Brides of Dracula is an exciting, intelligent film with surprising depth, a showcase role for Peter Cushing, and a stylish vampire villain. Yvonne Monlaur plays Marianne, a young French woman on her way to a new teaching position in a boarding school. When a coachman abandons her along the way, she accepts an invitation by the elderly Baroness Meinster (the superb Martita Hunt) to spend the night in a nearby castle. She soon meets young, handsome Baron Meinster (David Peel). His mother keeps him in shackles and you can guess why—but Marianne doesn’t. Pretty soon, there’s an outbreak of vampirism at the boarding school and it’s Van Helsing to the rescue. His climatic confrontation with Meinster in a dilapidated windmill sets the stage for the most ingenious ending of all vampire films.

29. Beach Blanket Bingo – I ignored the Beach Party movies for most of my life…but finally realized what I was missing about 15 years ago. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor, the portrait of an innocent age that never existed except on celluloid. Regardless, I now always enjoy an annual trip to the beach with Frankie, Annette, and the gang. The best of the series is easily Bingo. Donna Loren sings her best song. Frankie tries to make Annette jealous with Deborah Walley, while Annette tries to make Frankie jealous with John Ashley. Bonehead dates a pretty mermaid while Linda Evans’s Sugar Kane calls him Boney. Paul Lynde cracks jokes while South Dakota Slim just acts creepy. And, best of all, there’s Eric Von Zipper, who tells Sugar that he likes her—and when Eric Von Zipper likes someone, they stay liked!

Diane McBain as the "bad girl"
in Parrish.
28. Parrish – Delmer Daves wrote and directed three big screen soaps circa the early sixties, all starring Troy Donahue: A Summer Place, Parrish, and Susan Slade. These films have their detractors, but I don’t even feel obligated to defend them. The first two are exceedingly well made, with engrossing plots, plush scenery, and sumptuous Max Steiner music. Yes, Troy wasn’t a great actor—I get that, but he was a likable, good-looking chap. In Parrish, he and his mother (Claudette Colbert) move to Connecticut to work for tobacco farmer Dean Jagger. While Parrish (Troy) tries to figure out what to do with his life, he romances a sharecropper’s daughter (Connie Stevens), a rich bad girl (Diane McBain), and a richer good girl (Sharon Hugueny). He also has to cope with a villainous tobacco magnate (delightfully overplayed by Karl Malden), who has eyes for Parrish’s mother. It’s such fun that just writing about it puts me in the mood to watch it again.

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

James Stewart learns a little detail
he wishes he hadn't learned.
26. The Flight of the Phoenix – Director Robert Aldrich bookends The Flight of the Phoenix with a wild airplane crash and an exhilarating climax. But it’s the drama in-between that makes the film so fascinating: the friction among the survivors; their audacious plan to reach civilization again; and a brilliant plot twist that comes out of nowhere. Despite the presence of stars James Stewart, Peter Finch, and supporting actor Oscar nominee Ian Bannen, the cast standouts are Hardy Kruger and Richard Attenborough. Kruger creates an unforgettable character as a quiet, bespeckled German who proposes an incredible plan to save the plane crash survivors—he's irritating, childish, determined, and innovative. It’s a well-rounded performance matched by Attenborough’s wonderfully understated turn. As the unassuming man who holds everyone together, Attenborough’s character soothes egos and forges unlikely alliances in the best interests of the group.

25. The Magnificent Seven – At the risk of offending Kurosawa fans, I’ll confide that I prefer this Western remake of The Seven Samurai to the original film. Don’t get me wrong—The Seven Samurai is an impressive cinematic achievement and certainly the more important of the two films. I just don’t find it as entertaining as John Sturges’s crisp, energetic Western. Yul Brynner stars as the down-on-his-luck gunfighter hired by a small, poor Mexican village to defend it from bandits. My favorite part of the film (no surprise to Café regulars) is when Yul recruits the rest of the reluctant heroes—played by the likes of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn. Toss in Eli Wallach as the despicable outlaw and Horst Buchholz as a young whippersnapper and you’ve got one of the all-time great casts. As an added bonus, Elmer Bernstein provides an incredible music score, capped with the rousing title theme.

24. Enter the Dragon – In the early 1970s, Bruce Lee, frustrated with the lack of decent roles, decided to take the “Clint Eastwood path” to Hollywood stardom. He left the U.S. and returned to Hong Kong to make a couple of inexpensive martial arts films. Two worldwide smashes later, Hollywood came calling—offering the lead in a James Bond-style martial arts adventure. Warner Bros. hedged its bets by casting a well-known American actor (John Saxon) and an African American real-life karate champ (Jim Kelly). Still, Enter the Dragon was clearly tailored for Lee, who plays a martial artist hired to infiltrate a super villain’s island fortress by participating in a fight tournament. A near-perfect action film, Enter the Dragon never takes itself too seriously and showcases Lee’s natural charisma and humor. It’s interesting to ponder Lee’s career arc had he lived longer--would he have alternated polished films like this with his own more personal pictures (e.g., Way of the Dragon)?

The bell tower climax--yes, it was
filmed indoors.
23. Black Narcissus – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s masterpiece follows a group of nuns who are sent to a remote Himalayan village to establish a school and hospital. These new surroundings stir repressed emotions in several of the nuns, ultimately leading to tragedy. Powerful and understated, Black Narcissus is anchored by a brilliant performance by Deborah Kerr and a compelling one from Kathleen Byron (whose acting career petered out all too quickly). Technically, the film is an incredible achievement. Many of the outdoor scenes, to include the stunning tower climax, were filmed inside a studio using “glass shots” and miniatures designed by Alfred Junge. Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography is often touted as the best example of the Technicolor process. Both Junge and Cardiff earned well-deserved Oscars.

22. The Long, Hot Summer – This engrossing trip into William Faulkner's South stars Paul Newman as drifter Ben Quick, the son of a barn burner (which makes one instantly unpopular). Ben arrives in the small hamlet of Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi, where bigger-than-life Will Varner (Orson Welles) owns just about everything. Varner, who recently recovered from a heart attack, is obsessed with getting "some more Varners" in the way of grandchildren. His weak-willed son Jody (Tony Franciosa) isn't making much progress with his pretty, but somewhat flighty wife Eula (Lee Remick). So, Varner is determined that his smart, headstrong daughter Clara (Woodward) get married. And if it's not to her long time, would-be suitor Alan (Richard Anderson)...than it may as well be to that ambitious "big stud horse" Ben Quick. The near-perfect cast brings these colorful characters to life, to include Angela Lansbury as Varner's mistress. The lively exchanges between Newman and Welles are a joy to behold (Varner to Ben: "I've been watching you. I like your push, yes. I like your style. I like your brass. It ain't too dissimilar from the way I operate.") But the heart of the film is the sparkling chemistry between Newman and Woodward; they were married the same year the movie was released. My favorite scene is an exchange between them in a general store, which goes from playful to surprisingly enlightening.

Pongo and Perdy get married with
their owners (in background).
21. 101 Dalmatians – Easily my favorite Disney animated feature, it puzzles me that 101 Dalmatians is rarely mentioned among the Disney “classics” like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, and Pinocchio. Set in London, the well-known plot traces the courtship and marriage of Dalmatians Pongo and Perdy (and their human “pets” Roger and Anita). It’s a happy home until Anita’s wealthy “friend” Cruella De Vil pays a visit and decides that Perdita’s puppies would make “such perfectly beautiful coats.” When Roger and Anita rebuff Cruella’s offer to buy the puppies, her bumbling goons Horace and Jasper kidnap the pups. It’s a well-paced, entertaining story rich with fully developed characters. Even the puppies get memorable personalities, with my favorite of the litter being the plump Rollie who spouts classic lines like: “I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant” and (a few minutes later) “I’m hungry, Mother…I really am.” Anyone who has loved a dog will appreciate the care with which the animators have captured canine traits. Pongo drags Roger mercilessly on walks, shakes off water vigorously when wet, and sticks his butt in the air when getting playful.

Next month, we reach the Top 20 as this countdown nears its conclusion. The next ten movies will include appearances by Gene Tierney (but not Laura), Cary Grant (in a non-Hitchcock role), an eccentric Scotland Yard inspector, and perhaps the longest sword fight on film.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 93

You guys did great answering TT92 last week! There were just a couple of unanswered or partially answered questions:

2. Besides Paul Newman, what do the films Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have in common? Hint: there should be AT LEAST three things!

Answers: Strother Martin, Conrad Hall (cinematography), and at least one Oscar win.

3. Raoul Walsh directed this remake of a 1930s Warner Brothers film directed by Archie Mayo. Name both films and the stars.

Answers: They Drive by Night (George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Alan Hale) was a remake of Bordertown (Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Eugene Pallette. Margaret Lindsay).

5. What do Malcolm MacDowell and Bette Davis have in common?

Answer: Rick got two of the three; the third thing they shared was being nominated (at least once) for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Actor/Actress but never winning. Bette finally won the Golden Globe "Cecil B. DeMille" Award in 1974.

And here is TT93....have fun!

Who Said This in Which Film? "I drink better than I dance." Who Said This in Which Film?

Who Am I? Over the course of my very long career, I appeared in over 300 films and television episodes. I worked with practically everyone in Hollywood and in everything from It's a Wonderful Life to I Want to Live to The Incredible Mr. Limpet. I even appeared in both versions of Kid Galahad (1937 and 1962). Who Am I?

1. Name the two "cult sci-fi" films featuring George Peppard.

2. Name both the film and the director of the film featuring a music video by the Pez People.

3. This late-'80s film spawned two sequels, a TV series, and a TV movie. Name the film and the star who appeared in all versions.

4. There are two Errol Flynn films that are considered to be "lost". Name the films.

5. John Russell and Ed Asner played basically the same part in two different films by the same director. Name the films, the director and the stars.

6. Elvis Presley wanted his favorite director to direct him in Kid Galahad, which didn't happen. Who was Presley's choice for director?

7. This Paul Newman film led to two sequels (neither of which featured Paul). Name the film and both sequels.

8. Who appeared in all three films in the previous question?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bond Is Forever: “A View to a Kill”

Having recovered a microchip in a snowy mountainous region of Siberia, MI6 agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is briefed by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) of the circuit’s likeness to another manufactured by Zorin Industries. The microchip apparently on the open market is suspect, as it has been expressly designed to withstand an electromagnetic pulse. Bond and another agent, Sir Godfrey Tibbett (Patrick Macnee), infiltrate a thoroughbred sale conducted by Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), and learn that he is drugging steeds to fix horse races. When 007’s identity is exposed, he must evade the murderous clutches of Zorin and his partner, May Day (Grace Jones). Bond’s investigation leads him to Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts), granddaughter of an oil mogul, who becomes a target for Zorin when a payoff is not as expeditious as the industrialist desires. Zorin’s ultimate goal is Project Main Strike, which would involve flooding Silicon Valley in San Francisco and shifting all the power in the production of microchips to Max Zorin.

A View to a Kill (1985) was the seventh and final film for British actor Moore, who celebrated his 57th birthday during the film’s production. It is undoubtedly one of the least popular films of the series, and the main criticism seems to be the casting of Moore, whose age shows throughout (even the actor himself publicly stated as much). Moore’s charm, however, is as strong as ever. This was also the last movie for the delightful Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Including A View to a Kill, Maxwell had appeared in all 14 Bond movies, the only actor to do so. Caroline Bliss took over the role in the subsequent film, The Living Daylights (1987).

Though flawed, A View to a Kill is an underrated entry among the Bond movies. There is depth to the plot, which bounces 007 around to distinctive locales without the impression of a lengthy pursuit, a common complaint for films such as Live and Let Die (1973). A notable factor in the solid story is the inclusion of the KGB. There’s a suggestion that Zorin was trained by the KGB but has since abandoned the agency. When Bond is believed to have been killed, the KGB confronts Zorin and condemns him for authorizing the deed without its permission. The organization becomes a neutral presence, as Bond must intercept a KGB agent (Fiona Fullerton) to stop her from obtaining incriminating evidence against Zorin, evidence that Bond needs for himself. The movie also includes a scene in which M (Robert Brown), Q, and Moneypenny are in the field with Bond, at the racecourse for surveillance, and it’s especially fun to watch Moneypenny cheer for her horse.

A View to a Kill (or at least its title) was adapted from Ian Fleming’s short story, “From a View to a Kill”, which appeared in the collection, For Your Eyes Only. Interestingly, some of the plot owes more to Goldfinger (1964). Zorin’s plan to render Silicon Valley worthless is similar to Goldfinger’s radiation attack on Fort Knox. Likewise, Zorin gathers men to explain the corporation overthrow, and anyone not interested in the endeavor is dropped from his airship. In the same manner, Goldfinger assembled members of the mob to invest in his scheme, and the man who says no thanks is given a ride to the junkyard (though those who invested were not necessarily safe). On the same point, a couple of key criticisms of A View to a Kill involve scenes which share similarities to Goldfinger, elements in the latter film that are generally not denounced. While a villain in A View to a Kill “turns good” near the end, that is essentially what Pussy Galore does (and she is always listed as a Bond Girl, never a villain). And Zorin’s oft-criticized act of gunning down men in cold blood with an uzi can be equated with Goldfinger’s original intention of dropping nerve gas and killing all military personnel at Fort Knox.

But while A View to a Kill maintains a respectable pace and entertains with worthy action sequences, it does have lesser attributes. Yet another disapproval is Tanya Roberts, who is admittedly weak as Stacey. In the same regard, the character of Stacey is nearly insignificant, as she proves helpless in combat or with information. Roberts is undeniably stunning, but Stacey is without substance, and the actress is one of the worst female co-stars in the series. Fortunately, Stacey is hardly in the first half of the film, but, not surprisingly, when she is full engaged in the storyline, the movie decelerates considerably (it’s equally frustrating to watch Stacey wear a hardhat like a baseball cap). An incursion into a mine shaft, for the final action scene, begins leisurely but picks up and concludes explosively.

The disclaimer at the end of the previous Bond outing, Octopussy (1983), te
ased the film as From a View to a Kill, though the “from” would be dropped before the 1985 release. From this film on, the disclaimer in the closing credits states, “James Bond will return,” but does not specify a title.

The title song was performed by pop band, Duran Duran, who also co-wrote with Bond composer John Barry, whose incorporation of the title song into the score is beautifully done. The single reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard charts (the only Bond theme song to ever do so), but with Duran Duran at the height of its popularity, the song’s success was foreseeable. Barry and the band were nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

Macnee’s appearance makes yet another connection to the British TV series, The
Avengers. He co-starred with Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and with Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers. Blackman starred in Goldfinger and Rigg and Lumley (the latter in a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-her part) were in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

B-movie action star Dolph Lundgren, who was dating Grace Jones in 1985, has a tiny, nonspeaking role as a KGB henchman for General Gogol (Walter Gotell) and is clearly seen for only a couple of brief moments. This cameo, however, marked his film debut, and he received much more screen time and corresponding acclaim later the same year as Russian boxer, Ivan Drago, in Rocky IV.

It’s certainly not a fan favorite and is frequently placed near the bottom of Bond lists (if not the very bottom), but I enjoy watching A View to a Kill. The action is tight and energetic, Moore’s charisma shines through, and Walken is a riveting foe (I find his discernible voice oddly comforting, an intriguing antithesis to his villainous roles). The film isn’t the best of the series, but it’s also not the worst, and I prefer it over other Bond movies. It’s an admirable farewell to Moore and Maxwell.

Bond Is Forever will return for its final installment next month with Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

3 on 3: Hammer Films

All this month, the Cafe has presented "3 on 3 panels" in which three experts answered three questions on a single classic film topic. For this final week, the Cafe poses three questions on Hammer Films, Britain's "House of Horror" to: Kevin from Kevin's Movie Corner; Alex from Korova Theatre Presents; and Sarkoffagus, the Cafe's resident authority on Hammer.

1. What is your favorite of the Hammer Frankenstein films and why?

Sark: Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. It's one of the few Frankenstein films I've seen (from any country or studio) that has a completely unsympathetic doctor, in lieu of the man simply being a misunderstood genius. This allows the character to revel in corruption and manipulation, and the more often he crosses the boundaries of good taste, the more he becomes the "monster" of the film. As his severity escalates, so, too, does the intrigue in watching him. Best of all, it's a showcase for Peter Cushing, whose energetic performance makes a lingering impression.

Kevin: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Probably Peter Cushing’s best and most ferocious performance in the series, a haunting turn by Freddie Jones as the creature, one of the greatest shock scenes in Hammer’s filmography (the burst pipe), an intelligent and adult screenplay and a devastating ending. Not one to send the audience out with a smile on their faces. Oh yeah, and Veronica Carlson too. Runner-up: Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), one of the saddest horror movies ever made. Yes, saddest. Just heart-wrenching in parts.

Victor Frankenstein confronts his
creature in The Curse of Frankenstein.
Alex: The Curse of Frankenstein is the first of seven films and is undeniably my favorite, though this series is more consistent in quality than Dracula. I like this film for many reasons, specifically the (unintentional?) subtext: "The story becomes a pretext for mankind’s toying in the clockwork of heavenly conception, unwinding the springs of electric impulse and restarting of tick-tock hearts. But it can also be seen as a Cold War parable of unleashing the atom, a power now beyond control, feared knowledge now spread like a virus among political psychopaths."

I don't quite believe it coincidence that the creature resembles a horridly burned victim of radiation, much like those poor souls who perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Christopher Lee imbues the creature with a sublime gentleness, mostly reflected in those sad eyes, a victim himself of science gone mad. To hide its face in shame, to be self-aware of its deformity is a pity...and Victor Frankenstein is to blame! He and his Promethean ego.

Terence Fisher's direction is wonderful, structuring the film in flashback and never shying away from the Technicolor gore (though tame by modern standards). I also like the tracking shot when the creature is first revealed, and compare it to John Ford's famous close-up in Stagecoach when he introduces John Wayne! Though Victor's head is eventually placed on the chopping block, nothing in the Hammer universe is ever what it seems.

2. What is your favorite of the Hammer Dracula films and why?

Sark: Brides of Dracula. It takes a consummate film to make viewers forget that the imposing Christopher Lee as Dracula is nowhere to be found. Hammer has always been known for methodically paced, gothic period pieces, but this movie is, at its very basic, a romantic action film. Cushing shines the brightest as Van Helsing, and Yvonne Monlaur is an appealing love interest. Drop in some vampires, and you've got first-class cinema!

Christopher Lee surveys a victim in
runner-up Taste the Blood of Dracula.
Kevin: Have to go with the first, Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula). Not exactly Stoker, but full of unforgettable scenes. In the last 50 years we’ve been inundated with vampires, but I can only imagine what audiences felt when they first saw this in 1958. Even today the close-up of Lee’s shocked face as he opens his eyes and his blood stained lips as he hears his vampire wife being staked is spine chilling. James Bernard’s landmark score, Hammer’s ace production design and that unforgettable climax make this a true classic. Seeing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee go at it at the end is one of my all time favorite sequences. Runner-up: Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Alex: The first of a series is once again my favorite: Dracula. Though director Terence Fisher cuts Stoker's narrative to the bone, excising exposition and Victorian misogyny, Fisher does create a wonderful action film that is well paced and well bled. I prefer Hammer's version to the classic Universal which is well shot, I've always like Tod Browning's work, but it's too meek and visually reserved. Stoker’s text is rich with sensual delights underscored by some dreaded Freudian fear of women empowered by liberation from chaste cultural mores.

Fisher’s mise-en-scene conveys information so the story can jump cut quickly to the next setup. For example, as Van Helsing searches the castle for his cohort Jonathan Harker, he discovers a shattered picture frame. In one shot we learn the who, what, when, why, and where, of Dracula’s next appearance: he’s in search of the beautiful Lucy and her precious bodily fluids. This is compact storytelling that wastes little time with lengthy establishing shots or obtuse dialogue, and propels the journey towards its candelabra climax!

3. Although Hammer is most famous for its two series above, the studio made plenty of other quality movies...some with monsters and some without. What are some of your other favorite Hammer films and why do they appeal?

Oliver Reed, filmed from underneath
the water, in Paranoiac.
Sark: Paranoiac -- My favorite of Hammer's superb black-and-white thrillers. Thoroughly captivating, plus an exceptionally creepy mask. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb -- Easily the strangest and most unsettling mummy film I've ever seen, the movie is rich in atmosphere and an overall sense of doom. Countess Dracula -- She's no vampire, but Countess Elizabeth Nádasdy craves blood just as much as a fanged creature of the night. Bolstered by a remarkable and tragically underrated performance by Ingrid Pitt, this film is vintage Hammer: gloriously bizarre and undeniably mesmerizing.

Charles Gray as the dapper villain
of The Devil Rides Out.
Kevin: The Devil Rides Out. Probably my all-time favorite Hammer horror film, despite the embarrassingly bad special effects at the end. (It’s almost like they ran out of money.) But the 1920s atmosphere, a standout performance by Charles Gray, Christopher Lee in heroic mode and a genuine aura of creepiness make this one a winner for me. Never Take Candy From a Stranger (1960): This uncompromising look at the town’s refusal to accept there is a child molester living in their midst is the bravest film Hammer ever made. Scream of Fear (1961): My favorite Hammer mystery thriller with twists I never saw coming. Marvelous lead performance by Susan Strasberg.

Alex: My favorite Hammer film is Roy Ward Baker’s Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth), the third in the BBC series of Professor Quatermass productions. Director Roy Ward Baker films in mostly medium shot and close-up, with urgent dialogue and few establishing shots which create a made-for-television style narrative: most likely because this is an adaptation from a BBC series. A thinking fan’s science fiction film, how delightful!

But there are other standouts that are often overlooked because of the Hammer label, yet have little to do with horror or science fiction. Two great War films Yesterday’s Enemy and The Camp on Blood Island make David Lean’s epic look like melodramatic kids playing at war. Director Val Guest imbues these films with brutal honesty, never shying away from the tough (and unfair) responsibilities that men face during wartime. The Nanny is a great thriller with Bette Davis, owing as much to Hitchcock as to director Robert Aldrich. And it has one of the creepiest kids since Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Mervyn Leroy’s The Bad Seed!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trivia Time - Part 92


Thanks very much to Rick for stepping in to cover for us last week! You did a great job!! Last week we were still dealing with the post-moving-to-Idaho havoc, but now we have our Internet up and running and are ready to post TT92.

First, here are the answers to the unanswered or partially answered questions from TT91:

Who Said This in Which Film? "They didn't shoot a real horse, just a costume with two waiters in it." Who Said This in Which Film?

Answer: Robert Preston in Victor, Victoria.

4. Where is Errol Flynn buried? And where did he actually WANT to be buried?

Answer: Becks correctly answered the first part of this question (Forest Lawn Cemetary, Glendale, CA). The answer to the second part is Jamaica. Beverly Aadland, Flynn's final female companion and his fiancee at the time of his death (therefore the person who was in the best position to know), stated that he wanted to be married in Jamaica, and that he also wanted to be buried there.

And here starts TT92:

Who Said This in Which Film? "When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings." Who Said This in Which Film?

1. Name the film in which Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Danny Kaye, and Sydney Greenstreet all appeared.

2. Besides Paul Newman, what do the films Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have in common? Hint: there should be AT LEAST three things!

3. Raoul Walsh directed this remake of a 1930s Warner Brothers film directed by Archie Mayo. Name both films and the stars.

4. Which tune does Cary Grant whistle "in the shower" in North by Northwest?

5. What do Malcolm MacDowell and Bette Davis have in common?

6. This producer first coined the term "cameo" for his Oscar-winning film. By the way, there were 50 cameos in this film; name the film and the producer.

7. Which Errol Flynn movie has never been seen in this country and why?

8. In which movie does Cary Grant mention his real name AND the name of one of his co-stars?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: “Alice, Sweet Alice”

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a new feature at the Cafe to focus on those movies that, years ago, would crop up on TV in the wee hours of the morning, when you were only partially awake, and right before the network turned to snow.
Twelve-year-old Alice (Paula Sheppard) resents her younger sister, Karen (Brooke Shields), envious of the attention she receives surrounding her First Communion: her new white dress and veil, and a crucifix given to her from their priest. On the day of Karen’s First Communion, it is Alice who kneels at the altar with the other girls, and a nun finds Karen’s body. Not surprisingly, the police suspect Alice of her sister’s murder, but her mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), and estranged father, Dom (Niles McMaster), refuse to believe that she is responsible. However, when Catherine’s sister, Annie (Jane Lowry), is ferociously stabbed on the stairwell in Catherine’s apartment building, she insists that the assailant, dressed in a yellow raincoat often sported by Alice and a smiling face mask that the girl would use to scare people, is her 12-year-old niece. And if the culprit isn’t Alice, then someone has blood on their mind and hands, and a giant knife for spilling more.

Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) is an extraordinary film, but also unnerving. In spite of its mediocre budget, Sole shrouds the movie in a brooding atmosphere. Inside the apartment building are the dark cellar, the claustrophobic staircase, and the creepy, reclusive landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble). But the outside world is one of gloom, drenched by the pouring rain and seemingly filled with abandoned buildings. Even a church is not safe from the atrocities, as the film’s first murder occurs in such a place. Perhaps the movie’s most noteworthy trait is that Sole provides unforgettable shocks and thrills: an early scene in which Alice scares Karen by wearing a mask (pulling aside said mask to reveal another one), and the attack on Annie, which is utterly terrifying. Though Annie survives the assault, her sister is helpless, and outside the rain disperses Annie’s blood in lieu of washing it away. There is no solace in the woman’s endurance, particularly as a tearful, pale Annie accuses Alice in her hospital bed.

Alice, Sweet Alice was filmed and released initially as Communion, a greater and more appropriate title. But due to the notoriety surrounding Pretty Baby in 1978, in which a very young Brooke Shields appeared in a movie about a brothel, Sole’s movie was re-released under the Alice title and focusing on Shields’ involvement. In 1981, after the actress had garnered even more fame with The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981), the film was released a third time as Holy Te
rror. Though the director prefers his original title, the most accepted title among fans and perhaps the best known is Alice, Sweet Alice.
Actress Miller was the daughter of Jackie Gleason and had been married to Jason Miller, who played Father Damien in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). She and her former husband are also the parents of actor Jason Patric. Though she was portraying a 12-year-old girl, Sheppard, in her cinematic debut, was 19 at the time of filming.

Unfortunately, Sole directed only a handful of films, as he was unhappy with the lack of independence working in Hollywood, including his 1982 slasher film parody, Pandemonium. Since stepping away from the director’s chair, he has become a production designer (a job which he essentially handled in Alice, Sweet Alice) and is quite prolific, working on TV series such as Veronica Mars and the currently running Castle.

Sole has cited Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) as inspiration for his 1976 film. Certainly there are visual connections to Don’t Look Now, as well as a subtle play on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but the richly textured Alice, Sweet Alice is entirely the work of Alfred Sole. He adds menace to a yellow raincoat, makes a 12-year-old girl’s playful ways ominous, and triggers a sense of dread when a character takes the stairs. He makes it abundantly clear that no one can hide, no one is safe, and no one can help. Sole offers the kind of film that doesn’t allow its viewers to alleviate their fears and unease by turning on all the lights.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Five Best Cartoons

In choosing The Five Best Cartoons, I considered the quality and popularity of the cartoons, heavily tinged by the fact that they are my favorites.  It will not be hard to figure out that Warner Brothers' fantastic cartoon shorts rate high on my list.  There are so many really good cartoons, from the movies and from television, and everybody has at least five they love.  Here are my top choices:

"Oh Bwunhilde, you're so wuvwy!"
"Yes I know it, I can't help it!"
(1)  What's Opera, Doc (1957).  Directed by the great Chuck Jones, I believe it to be Number One in cartoon creations.  The voice we all love, Mel Blanc, is in top form with this spot-on hilarious spoof of Wagnerian opera, with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in their greatest roles.  Elmer's "Kill the Wabbit!" has become one of the most well-known cartoon quotes ever.  IMBD's succinct and hilarious description of this cartoon is worth a quote:  Bugs is in drag as the Valkyrie Brunhilde who sits on an overwieght (sic) horse. "She" is pursued by Elmer playing the demigod "Siegfried".
Interesting fact:  This cartoon has approximately 104 cuts, more than any other Warner Brothers cartoon.

"That lovin' R-A-A-A-G !!"
(2)  One Froggy Evening (1955).  Director Chuck Jones again, this time with the story of the most lovable and frustrating frog that ever lived.  Only one voice is ever heard in the cartoon, that of Michigan J. Frog, the eternal little amphibian who sings and dances, but only when nobody but his owner is listening.  Michigan's singing voice is provided by Bill Roberts, popular '50s nightclub singer, in a series of great old songs, including "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."  His most famous is "The Michigan Rag", which sounds old but was actually written for this cartoon.
Interesting Fact:  Due to the cartoon, "Dancing Frog" is now computer terminology for a computer problem that will not appear when anyone else is watching.  (Quoted from IMDB.)  Happens to me all the time!

"That's strange.  All of a sudden I don't quite feel like myself."
(3)  Duck Amuck (1953).  Who else? ... Chuck Jones and Mel Blanc.  Daffy Duck finally got the starring role he always dreamed of when he had to play second banana to Bugs.  This is a most unusual cartoon short, spotlighting the ability of the invisible cartoonist to make Daffy do anything he wants, and tearing down the usual "fourth wall" between film and audience.  Poor Daffy.  He just goes through hell in this hilarious cartoon.  In one burst of extreme frustration, he screams, "... I've never been so humiliated in all my life!", only to realize that his invisible nemisis has taken away the sound. 
Interesting Fact:  This cartoon nearly didn't get made because there was resistance to the idea of using Bugs Bunny in such a limited role near the end.  (Quoted from IMDB.)  Poor Daffy ... he just can't get out from under Bug's shadow!

(4)  Long-Haired Hare (1949). (I won't even bother to name them again.)  Bugs Bunny at his tormenting best, this time bedeviling an opera singer trying to practice at home, while nearby, Bugs is playing the banjo and singing at the top of his voice.  Bugs even follows the enraged and nervous singer to the Hollywood Bowl for his performance.  With hair and tuxedo disguise, Bugs appears to the orchestra.  He says nothing, but the musicians whisper "Leopold!" in awe, convinced that Bugs is the great Leopold Stokowski.  Bugs' conducting style and what he does to that poor man on the stage is no less than comedy at its best.  The voice of singer Nikolai Shutorov is heard as the opera singer belting out the longest one-note in cartoon history.
Interesting fact:  Leopold Stokowski never conducted with a baton. This is the reason why Bugs Bunny breaks the baton before conducting.  (Quote from IMBD.)

These guys look even creepier when they walk!
(5)  Popeye In Goonland (1938).  Directed by the marvelous Dave Fleischer, and with the unforgettable voice of Jack Mercer, I just plain love this one from my days as a kid watching cartoons on TV.  Even then, my favorite Popeye cartoons were the old black and whites, with the credits displayed behind ship cabin doors that open and bang shut.  Nobody could mutter like Popeye, and it is imperative to listen carefully to his hilarious mumbling to really get the fun that is Popeye.  In this story, Popeye is forced to go to Goon Island to rescue his Pappy.  Those goons just creeped me out when I was little.  Actually, they still do!
Interesting Fact:  This short marked the first animated appearance of both Poopdeck Pappy and of the Goons, both of which Popeye comic strip creator 'Elzie Segar' introduced in the late nineteen thirties. (Quote from IMBD.)

All of these cartoons are available on Youtube. I have the best versions of each saved in my Favorites, and would be happy to provide the links to anyone who is interested. 

    (Th-that-th-that-th-that-that's all, folks!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

3 on 3: Film Noir

Each week this month, the Cafe will present a "3 on 3 panel" in which three experts will answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions on film noir to: Gary Cahall from MovieFanFare!; Dorian from the blog Tales of the Easily Distracted; and Sheri Chinen Biesen, author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir.

1. What is your definition of a film noir and what film do you consider the prototype--the one that best exemplifies the genre?

Stanwyck and MacMurray in
Double Indemnity.
Gary: Film Noir is the accidental love child of German silent expressionist cinema and Warner Bros.’ 1930s crime dramas, raised in an atmosphere of World War II heroism and Cold War paranoia. Along with the requisite shadowy streets (big city or small town) and shadowy deeds (premeditated or accidental), a successful noir picture often has a protagonist who is walking the fine line between good and evil, and who--if it’s a male--is just as likely to kill or be killed by the female lead as he is to kiss her at the movie’s close. And no matter how many characters are in the film, the one constant presence is Fate.

I know it’s not the most daring of choices, but to me the picture that best captures these elements is director Billy Wilder’s 1944 thriller Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. A seemingly smart guy in over his head, a seductive and amoral temptress, and a “fool-proof” murder plot that’s not as simple as it appears...all with whip-smart dialogue from Wilder and co-scripter Raymond Chandler, of Philip Marlowe fame.

Dorian: I’d define a film noir as a story in which the bleakest aspects of humanity keep trying to get the upper hand, and the protagonist(s) keep trying to thwart those aspects against all odds. Those “bleakest aspects” can range from one character’s problem to an overall tough situation affecting many characters.

Peter Lorre in Stranger on
the Third Floor.
Sheri: The antihero in Stranger on the Third Floor complains, “What a gloomy dump. Why don't they put in a bigger lamp?” Paul Schrader defines noir as “Hollywood films of the 1940s and early 1950s that portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.” Film noir is a series of atmospheric black-and-white wartime-postwar Hollywood crime films known for shadowy style, doomed antiheroes, lethal femme fatales and cynical hardboiled worldview. Literally, “black film” or “dark cinema,” film noir was coined in 1946 by French critics discovering dark wartime Hollywood films they were seeing for the first time. This dark film trend was recognized in the U.S. In my book Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir, I explain how wartime Hollywood blackouts and censorship influenced film noir. Double Indemnity is an exemplar of noir style.

2. If you had to single out one director that influenced film noir than any other, who would it be?

Gary: Austrian-born Fritz Lang, who presaged the noir style with such films as M and the Dr. Mabuse movies in Europe before fleeing to America when Hitler came to power. His first Hollywood project, the 1936 lynch mob drama Fury with Spencer Tracy, contained a number of noir sensibilities, as did his 1941 “let’s kill Hitler” thriller Man Hunt. Within the noir demimonde itself, Lang’s resume includes The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, and a picture that’s my answer to question #3.

MacMurray and Robinson in
Wilder's classic film noir.
Dorian: Of all the talented directors who’ve influenced film noir, I’d single out Billy Wilder because of his gleefully jaundiced view of humanity. Even Wilder’s comedies have a strong undercurrent of cynicism, so it’s only natural that his dramas and suspense films would fit so well in the noir universe, including Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), and of course, my personal favorite, Double Indemnity (1944).

Sheri: So many fine noir directors. Tough choice. . . .While Fritz Lang is very important, as is Robert Siodmak, one of the most influential noir auteurs was émigré writer-director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Lost Weekend, Ace in the Hole).

3. What is your favorite underrated film noir, the one film that doesn't get the attention it should?

Gary: While the City Sleeps, a later (1956) genre entry that’s part “psycho killer” suspenser and part hard-boiled newspaper drama. A serial murderer dubbed “The Lipstick Killer” is preying on women in New York City, and Vincent Price, the ne’er-do-well son of a deceased media mogul, offers a promotion to whoever among his top newsmen can break the story and bring the maniac to justice. The suspense comes not so much from trying to guess the murderer’s identity (we see him “in action” before the opening credits), but from watching how far reporter Dana Andrews, photo editor James Craig, city editor Thomas Mitchell, and wire service head George Sanders will go—from office politicking and backstabbing to using their wives/girlfriends (Rhonda Fleming and Ida Lupino, among others) as “bait”—to win Price’s contest. Oh, and Lang clearly shows that one of the things driving the “mama’s boy” madman into his flights of homicidal rage is EC horror comics.

Dorian: I’ve always felt that Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner (1946) was an underrated noir. It covers so many classic tropes that it’s almost like “Film Noir’s Greatest Hits,” in a good way! One of the things I like most about it was Lucille Ball’s character Kathleen. She’s warm, loving, and practical, yet also strong and able to think on her feet and help save the day when hero Mark Stevens is up against it.

Elisha Cook, Jr. in Phantom Lady.
Sheri: Many underrated noir films. . . . Double Indemnity is more influential than many realize in spurring the film noir trend recognized in the U.S. film industry during the war. More modest early underrated noir include Stranger on the Third Floor and Phantom Lady (which needs to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray). Lang's Ministry of Fear is underrated with beautiful noir style shot during wartime blackouts just before Siodmak filmed Phantom Lady and Wilder shot Double Indemnity. Dead Reckoning, Out of the Past, Act of Violence and Tension are also great.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Trivia Time Wannabe: Disaster Movie Edition!

While Paul and JoAnn take care of family business, I thought I'd post a trivia quiz in their honor. It won't be as good--nor as challenging, of course. But it may be enough to satiate the Cafe's trivia fans until the real quiz masters are back.

1. What classic film actress played herself in a 1970s disaster movie? Name to the film, too!

2. This Hammer film star played a character who died performing a heroic act in another 1970s disaster flick. Name the performer and the movie?

3. What's the connection between these three films:  Earthquake, Rollercoaster, and Midway.

4. What former football player was a security guard in a disaster film? Yes, you gotta name the film, too.

5. Airplane! has a funny a scene where a flight attendant borrows a guitar from a nun and sings to an ill little girl. Name the movie where a similar scene actually occurred, who played the nun, and who played the little girl. As a bonus, name the signature pop song that the "nun" turned into a culural anthem.

6. What two Oscar-winning songs were from disaster movies of the 1970s? Names the films and who sang the songs on the soundtracks.

7. Which song in #6 became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart? Who lip-sync'ed the song in the movie?

8. This disaster film featured pilots who starred in different TV series executive produced by the same person. Name the film, the actors, the TV series, and the executive producer of those TV series?

9. This British actor starred in two disaster films. One generated a lot of buzz, but was a boxoffice bust. The other was a sequel to a much more successful film. Name the actor and both movies.

10. What 1976 film about a nuclear-powered vehicle named Cyclops spoofed the disaster film genre?

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Tribute to Errol Flynn As His Own Sun Was Setting - His Performance in The Sun also Rises

Errol Flynn as Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises.

 Errol Flynn died at the age of 50, a little over two years after appearing in 1957's The Sun Also Rises.  Ernest Hemingway's novel is a story of people whose lives had been changed forever, some ruined, by the horrors of World War I.  Hemingway's characters were damaged human beings who had lost their personal centers of identity with their war experiences, and they wandered in disillusionment and disenchantment.  Flynn's character, Mike Campbell, is the most heartbreaking, and his performance was superb.  The Sun Also Rises was not his last film, but it was his last significant performance, one which should have put to rest once and for all the ridiculous question of whether or not Errol Flynn was a real actor.

Errol Flynn, Eddie Albert and Tyrone Power
My piece about this movie is not intended as a review, but as a spotlight for a wonderful actor who was never given his due by the industry to which he gave his talent, and for whose success he played a significant part.  In discussing Flynn's work in The Sun Also Rises, it should be noted that the film was criticized for the choices of actors to play the leading roles.  All were older than called for.  Tyrone Power as Jake Barnes, Flynn as Mike Campbell, and Eddie Albert as Bill Gorton were all in their late 40's.  As per the usual Hollywood double standard, beautiful 34-year old Ava Gardner, who always looked younger than she was anyway, was cast as Brett Ashley, much too young and fresh to be believable as a contemporary of the men.  Gardner did a fine job, but casting her only further pointed up the age factor.  Power and Flynn, both of whom battled alcoholism, difficult personal lives and the ravages of time, had lost the beauty of their youth, and viewers were shocked.  Inexplicably, movie audiences were apparently unaware that youth and beauty do not last forever, even for movie stars, and perhaps they could not forgive their heroes for being real men.  Hemingway's book was very challenging to transfer to screen, requiring filming on location in Paris and Spain, with the difficult filming of actual bullfights, but this was achieved beautifully.  Perhaps not a perfect movie, I believe that The Sun Also Rises is a great film.  This is due in large part to the performances of Power, Albert and especially Errol Flynn.

It has been said that the character of Mike Campbell was so much like Flynn himself that it did not require much acting on his part.  To my mind, that criticism shows incredible ignorance of acting as a craft as well as a gift.  Mike Campbell was an aging playboy, a man of great charm whose looks and money were gone, a man forced to question all of the decisions of his life.  Flynn was at this time toward the end of his life and  learning what we all learn -- the mistakes of our youth catch up with us.

Even in his older years -- always a dash of color in a drab world
(From Crossed Swords)
When he was very young with all of life before him, Flynn said "I intend to live the first half of my life.  I don't care about the rest." What young person ever truly believes he will get old and ill, or addicted to dangerous habits, or find tragedy in life?  That belief in immortality is the charm of youth, and Flynn had more charm than anyone around him.  When he matured and found that life as a movie star was not the picture of glamour most of us think, he once said  "It isn't what they say about you. It's what they whisper."  There were many whispers surrounding Flynn's life, as well as headline shouts.  When he began to age, and cruel remarks were made about him playing caricatures of himself,  he said "I allow myself to be understood as a colorful fragment in a drab world." Flynn was an enigma, charismatic and determined to live fully to the end of his life, but also a man with demons to battle.  Olivia deHavilland, who knew him well in his peak career days, said of Flynn, "He was a charming and magnetic man, but so tormented."  Most surprising to me, even Jack Warner, known to be a harshly insensitive man who didn't like actors, Flynn included, once said, "Errol Flynn was one of the most charming and tragic men I have ever known."

Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner
The complex role of Mike Campbell required the ability to play charm, frighteningly-quick anger, self-deprecating humor, passion, jealousy, disappointment and deep sadness.  This was not an easy part, and despite his personal problems, Flynn was magnificent.  The character of Mike carried much of the movie's pathos on his shoulders, and Flynn's many scenes are some of the best.  He received critical praise for his performance.  So he was obviously nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, right?  No.  According to daughter Rory Flynn's website devoted to her Dad:  A recent Australian documentary on his life and career, narrated by Christopher Lee, included a film clip of Errol Flynn being interviewed on his being nominated for the Academy Award for his critically acclaimed performance in The Sun Also Rises. We are then told that the nomination "disappeared".  (http://www.inlikeflynn.com/.)  That is all I could find out.  You know, I'm sure that the incredibly handsome, don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think type of man like Flynn grated a lot of people the wrong way.  I'm quite sure he could be very difficult to deal with, as are many people.  I'm certain men felt a jealous hate because their women wanted him -- women felt similar emotions because they couldn't have him exclusively.  And I would bet the farm that many of these were the very people in the movie industry who had the ability to deny him a well-deserved chance at an award. 

He might have not have won because he would have faced stiff competition that year -- Red Buttons, who won for Sayonara, and Sessue Hayakawa, nominated for The Bridge On The River Kwai, both gave fantastic performances.  Vittorio de Sica was wonderful in A Farewell To Arms.  But do you know who the the other nominees were?  Russ Tamblyn and Arthur Kennedy for Peyton Place!  No disrespect intended to those actors, but for that movie and those performances, it was an absolute joke. Somebody wanted to be sure Flynn was left out, and did so in such a manner that they may as well have knocked on his door and slapped his face.  Shameful.

Even today, when our culture is supposedly more tolerant and open, and when Flynn is more loved than ever before by classic film fans, his loving daughter Rory has been trying to get a tribute to her Father from the Oscar people, and recently had to post on her aforementioned website:  Dear supporters, We have all struggled to have the Academy of Motion Pictures award a posthumous Oscar to Errol Flynn.  I am sad to share with you that the academy will not be able to do so.  The president of the Academy, Mr. Sid Janis has informed me that the academy will not and has not given the award posthumously.  It is a  sad moment for me personally and I know to the many who share with me the joy and happiness that Errol Flynn brought to the screen and to our hearts.  Thank you for your support.  Rory.   What the hell?  But then, Flynn himself probably would have said, "What the hell - I lived a man's life and loved it all.  They know what they can do with their award."  (I made that up, but it sounds plausible!)

I am providing a link to Youtube so that any interested readers who have not done so, can see first-hand the quality of  Flynn's performance in The Sun  Also Rises.  Actually, the link is to the entire movie, which surprised me to find.  I am providing here 3 particular scenes in which Flynn just shines, with the exact places for you to forward to to find them.  If you choose to watch these, I hope you enjoy them.  It is worth every second.


(Opening credits with composer Hugo Friedhofer's magnificent score:)
   From the very beginning to the director's credit.

Cafe scene after bullfight:
   1:16:20 - 1:19:16

Outdoor cafe after the fiesta:
   1:34:20 - 1:37:10

Flynn's best small scene, very short, shows Mike as he is in private
   1:51:20 - 1:53:22