Monday, December 31, 2012

The Cafe's Top Ten Posts of 2012

Is Poldark among the Cafe's Top 10?
I've always enjoyed year-end countdowns, even though they are somewhat arbitrary by nature. When determining the year's most popular songs based on sales, those tunes released at the beginning of the year have an obvious advantage. The same applies to blog posts...though that won't stop us from listing the Cafe's Top 10 Posts of 2012!

We determined our top 10 based solely on the number of unique views between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012. The use of "unique views" reduces the likelihood of including instances where one person viewed a post multiple times. If a post was reprinted from a previous year, it was excluded (otherwise Toto's Muscle Beach Party review would have been high on this list). Also, I didn't include a couple of posts just because their titles probably caused them to pop up on a lot of search engines (e.g., The Beach Boys Harmonize While Kookie Stays in Orbit).

The list below contains hyperlinks, so just click on the title if you want to read the post. Starting from #10 and working our way to our most-viewed post of the year, here we go:

Richard Bradford from Man in a Suitcase.
10. Our Favorite Celebrity Autograph Collector Talks About His Fascinating Hobby

9.  Classic Movie Dogathon: Greyfriars Bobby

8.  Man in a Suitcase: The Best Spy TV Series You May Have Never Heard Of

7.  CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon: A Shot in the Dark

The Foxy post was read a whole lot.
6.  Poldark: Romance, Adventure, and First-Rate Drama in 18th Century Cornwall

5.  The Five Best "Outer Limits" Episodes

4.  Classic Movie Dogathon: 101 Dalmatians

3.  The Reckless Moment (1949)

2.  Foxy Brown: "She's a Whole Lotta Woman!"

1.  The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes

That's a wrap for this year! Thanks to everyone who visited the Classic Film & TV Cafe in 2012. We look forward to more discussions on classic cinema and television in 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bad Movie Theatre: Clint and Bo vs. a Skier-eating "Snowbeast"

As Will Shakespeare might have said: "We come not to criticize bad movies, but to appreciate them for providing a contrast to good movies." Lest we not forget, the line between intentional and unintentional humor can be a fine one. With these insights in mind, we introduce Bad Movie Theatre, a new occasional feature at the Cafe.

Bo Svenson--not to be confused with Bo Derek.
Before discussing Snowbeast, I want to clarify that the "Clint" and "Bo" of this post's title do not refer to Eastwood and Derek. Alas, we are talking about Clint Walker and Bo Svenson. The confusion is understandable: Both Clint's are tall (though Walker towers four inches above Eastwood) and both Bo's are blonde (Svenson is a guy, Derek is not).  For the record, Bo Svenson is fourteen inches taller than Bo Derek and that's if the latter's height is rounded up. Yes, our Clint and Bo are both 6' 6"--which is good if you're fighting an equally tall carnivorous Bigfoot.

Yvette Mimieux, who has little to do.
Bo Svenson plays Gar Seberg (no relation to Jean), a former Olympic skiing gold medalist making a promotional appearance at the 50th Winter Carnival at Rill Lodge. Gar and his wife Ellen (a dark-haired Yvette Mimieux) have a rocky marriage, mostly because of Gar's mid-life crisis. She wants him to ask lodge manager Tony (Robert Logan) for a job. Tony, incidentally, still has a thing for Ellen, who jilted him for Gar years earlier.

As if the big celebration and his former flame weren't enough, Tony has to deal with the mutilated corpse of a skier found near the slopes. The scene where he informs his preoccupied grandmother (Sylvia Sidney), who owns the lodge, is a personal favorite:

TONY (referring to the skier's death):  "This wasn't an animal...and it wasn't human either."

GRANDMOTHER:  "Well, that certainly narrows it down."

Snowbeast peeking through the gym window.
You can't fault Grandma's logic. Her focus, naturally, is ensuring that nothing stops the carnival since its financial success is critical to avoiding bankruptcy. Despite Tony's pleadings, Grandma moves ahead with the beauty pageant and other festivities at the high school gym. Just when the townsfolk are packed in there like sardines, the Snowbeast attacks. Following its rampage, Sheriff Paraday ("special guest star" Clint Walker), Gar, and Tony set out to track the monster down.

Since Snowbeast is a low-budget affair, the monster is only glimpsed in its few appearances--which is a good thing since it's not very impressive-looking. Instead, we get a lot of first-monster camera views, hear growls, and see tracks in the snow.

If the plot of Snowbeast sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because its premise--a monstrous creature attacking a resort during tourist season--was lifted from Jaws (Spielberg's film adaptation was released two years earlier). Sadly, the script was written by Joseph Stefano, who--earlier in his career--wrote the screenplay for  Hitchcock's Psycho and twelve episodes of The Outer Limits (including the classic "The Zanti Misfits").

Clint Walker, who fared better as Cheyenne.
For the record, both Clint and Bo fared better in other movies with large terrifying creatures. The Night of the Grizzly may be Clint's best theatrical film in which he received star billing. It used to be a TV staple, but its showings have become scarce over the last 15 years. As for Bo, he played the Monster to Robert Foxworth's Dr. Frankenstein in a two-part TV adaptation of Frankenstein (1973). And while Bo may not be a champion skier in real life, he has won several judo championships.

Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 Grand, Deluxe, Year-ending Classic Movie Quiz!

I know what you're thinking--you'd sure like an intellectually challenging classic movie quiz to end the year. You're in luck! Below we have described the plots of 25 classic films; all you have to do is identify the movie. Actually, many of these are pretty easy--but there may be a few challenging ones.

If you answer a question, please include its number in your response. Please don't answer all the questions at once--let other people have fun, too! Use of references is allowed--but I didn't use any to write the questions.

If you're grading yourself:  22-25 correct answers means that your huge brain is filled with massive amounts of movie knowledge. If all the Jeopardy categories were movies, you'd be rich! 18-22 means you're a classic film authority who routinely amazes your friends. Any score over 12 is pretty impressive; pat yourself on your back and give yourself a heart hip-hip-hooray. Good luck to all!

1.  Young man's girlfriend dresses inappropriately at social event.

2.  Unmarried couple finds creative use for bed sheet.

3.  Middle-aged man's girlfriend visits his hometown and makes a spectacular entrance.

4.  Young Jewish man of few words has show biz aspirations.

5.  Man falls in love with brother's widow--only he knows she's not a widow!

6.  Leopard escapes and roams countryside; laughs ensue.

7.  Leopard escapes and roams city; terror ensues (but the leopard isn't to blame).

8.  Spy uses light bulb cord to reveal secrets.

9.  Famous cook can't cook; Felix comes to the rescue.

10. Vampire learns windmills are bad news.

11. Writer finds kidnapped victim in windmill.

12. Big party on a boat turns into a bust.

13. Dog becomes private eye to pursue his murderer.

14. Dog suffers from stress caused by World War II.

15. Nun plays tennis.

16. Couple has splashing fun in a fountain!

17. Police captain and nightclub owner forge new friendship.

18.  A guy's friends claim to be him--because they admire him.

19. Ruthless criminal loves his mother a lot.

20. A visit to the Magic Mirror Maze turns into a real bummer.

21. Couple eats candy and winds up married.

22. Non-human couple adopts a whole bunch of youngsters.

23. Cat narrates the story of her life.

24. Mean plants don't like sea water.

25. Pia Zadora helps St. Nick defeat some baddies.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

ABC Movie of the Week: Tierney & Milland Team Up; Doug McClure Plots an Incredible (Fact-based) Escape!

Ray Milland as the grieving father.
Daughter of the Mind (1969).  Ray Milland stars as a guilt-ridden scientist responsible for his young daughter Mary's death in a car accident 13 weeks earlier. After visiting her memorial in a cemetery, he hears Mary's voice while driving home and sees an apparent apparition of her in the road. Is he imagining his daughter's ghost? Is someone trying to affect his mental state? Or has his daughter really returned from the dead? Enter parapsychologist Don Murray, who is determined to discover the truth.

Written by Luther Davis from a Paul Gallico novel, Daughter of the Mind unravels too quickly for its own good. When Murray hears Mary's voice, that eliminates the possibility that Milland may be imagining Mary's appearances. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of a federal agent, nicely played by Ed Asner, steers the plot toward an espionage scheme. The film quickly evolves from "what's happening" to "how was it done." That's a different sort of mystery altogether and, in this case, the explanation is revealed in what amounts to an epilogue.

Gene Tierney in a rare TV appearance.
Still, there are two good reasons to watch Daughter of the Mind. The first is is the opportunity to see Milland and Gene Tierney (who plays his wife). Tierney has a minor role, but Milland gives one of the better performances of the latter part of his career (certainly superior to Frogs and The Thing With Two Heads!). The second reason to watch this film is a delightful cameo from John Carradine, who plays a former charlatan who advises Murray not to concentrate on how the tricks were done...but rather how he would do them.

Das Dodo gets ready for flight.
The Birdmen (1971).  This fact-based tale stars Doug McClure as a POW in 1943 Germany who comes up with the idea of building a glider to escape from Colditz Castle and fly ten miles across enemy lines to Switzerland. Incredibly, most of the film is true: fourteen POWs really did build a glider after discovering a book on aeronautical engineering in the prison camp's library. They really did build a false wall to hide their work from the German guards. And they constructed a glider with a fuselage of 19 feet and a wing span of 32 feet. However, the glider never took flight--the prisoners were liberated before it was launched.

The real Colditz Cock.
Screenwriter David Kidd takes a couple of liberties with the facts to build dramatic tension. Whereas the original glider was built to keep up the prisoners' morale, Kidd has intelligence agent/aviator McClure building the glider to break out a nuclear physicist captured by the Germans. And, of course, this glider (dubbed Das Dodo instead of the real-life Colditz Cock) actually takes flight in The Birdmen.

Basehart as the German commandant;
he played Hitler in a 1962 film bio.
The cast is peppered with familiar faces: Chuck Connors as the senior American officer; Tom Skerritt as an aeronautical engineer; Max Baer, Jr. (with no trace of Jethro's accent) as a gruff soldier; and, best of all, Richard Basehart as the prison camp's German commandant.

Indeed, the only weak spot in this above-average telefilm is ten minutes of stock footage that's tacked onto the opening for no good reason. It consists mostly of explosions and gunfights--dull stuff compared to the audacious escape plot that inspired The Birdmen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Five Best Steve McQueen Performances

McQueen & motorcycle.
1.  The Great Escape (1963). Steve McQueen probably would have become a superstar anyway, but his charismatic performance as "The Cooler King"--along with a terrific, fence-jumping motorcycle chase--hastened his fame. Although this classic POW action film features a fine ensemble cast (featuring James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, etc.), McQueen stands out thanks to a distinctive, immensely likable character and the actor's unique brand of offhand humor.

McQueen and Natalie Wood.
2.  Love With the Proper Stranger (1964). This dramedy co-stars Natalie Wood as a sales clerk who seeks out McQueen's musician when she becomes pregnant following a brief fling. He doesn't even remember her--but agrees to help raise the money for an abortion. Wood earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, but McQueen steals the film with his realistic transformation from schmuck to suitor. Career-wise, it opened the door to more dramatic roles for the young actor.

3.  Bullitt (1968). On the one hand, you could argue that San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt is a one-dimensional character that hardly warranted his own film--and I'd agree. However, it's a moot point because Bullitt is responsible more than any other film for defining the "McQueen cool." Think of Steve McQueen and chances are the first image will be of him wearing the black turtleneck, with shoulder holster, from Bullitt. And, of course, the shots of McQueen driving his dark green Mustang over the streets of San Francisco are so iconic that the film was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in 2007.

4.  The Sand Pebbles (1966). 
Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination playing a Naval engineer who falls in love with a missionary in war-torn China in 1926. It's a good movie, but I wouldn't rank it among McQueen's best. Still, this is a list of his best performances and New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted this was "the most restrained, heartfelt, honest acting he (McQueen) has ever done."

5.  The Magnificent Seven (1960). This popular Western remake of the Akira Kurosawa's classic The Seven Samurai is my favorite McQueen film and features my personal favorite of his performances. As with The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven boasts an incredible ensemble cast peppered with engaging actors (e.g., Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, etc.). McQueen makes every effort possible to steal all his scenes (a documentary once pointed out the numerous times he touches his hat to draw attention to himself). None of that is necessary as McQueen hits all the right notes as Brynner's de facto second-in-command.

Honorable Mentions: Hell Is for Heroes (a highly effective, modestly-budgeted war film with Fess Parker, Bobby Darin, James Coburn, and Bob Newhart); The Reivers (a change-of-pace role as Boon Hoggenbeck, a Faulkner character); and The Getaway.

What are your picks for Steve McQueen's best performances?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shane: Can a Reformed Gunfighter with a Mysterious Past Find a Role in the "New West"?

Ladd in perhaps his most famous role.
Although Alan Ladd made several Westerns prior to Shane, I initially thought he’d be ill-suited for the role of a reformed gunslinger. Short in stature and with an urban demeanor, Ladd had his biggest success playing contemporary tough guys (e.g., This Gun for Hire). But Ladd proved me wrong, channeling his quiet coolness and low-key charm to create a classic Western hero.

Shane dances with Marion.
That works well since there’s more character study than story in Shane. Van Heflin plays Joe Starrett, a hard-working man trying to make a home for his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) on the frontier. Starrett and his fellow farmers are embroiled in a dispute over land rights with cattle baron Riker (Emile Meyer). Shane, a stranger passing through, decides to hang around when the Starretts welcome him into their home with generosity.

Joe and Shane cement their friendship.
Shane fills a void in the life of each family member. For Joe, Shane is a “man’s man” willing to work or fight beside him—whether it’s a barroom brawl or the war against Riker. For Marion, Shane is the attentive suitor, who notices the little things that her reliable, but bland husband never does. And for little Joey, Shane is a substitute father who takes time to bond with him—something his busy father has had little time to do.

Shane’s gunfighting past is never in question. When Joey cocks his little rifle, the ever-ready gunslinger spins around to draw his pistol. In a later scene, the two have this brief, but memorable, exchange:

JOEY:  Bet you can shoot.
SHANE: A little bit.

Brandon de Wilde as Joey.
There’s never a doubt as to how Shane will end, but director George Stevens slowly and effectively builds to the climax. His best scenes offer visuals to complement the dialogue. My favorite is Shane’s first dinner at the Starrett farm, a scene in which the dialogue hardly matters. What does matter is what we see: Joe thrilled to have a man to talk with; Marion laying out the good china and an extra fork; and Joey admiring Shane’s guns.

Ironically, Shane shares more in common with Riker than with the Starrett family. Indeed, they may have been friends, or partners perhaps, in the earlier days of the West. However, Shane recognizes that the tough men who tamed the West are no longer in demand. Instead, the frontier now needs men like Starrett that will raise families, build communities, and shape commerce. It's not an uncommon Western theme (and one explored more symbolically in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West). However, director Stevens conveys it subtly and never strays from the film's strength: its characters and the actors who play them.

Jack Palance as the ruthless Wilson.
Most of the cast is in top form, especially Ladd, Heflin, and Jack Palance as a rival gunfighter so mean that dogs move out of his way. Jean Arthur, not one of my favorite actresses, never convinces me that Marion is the kind of woman who could reform Shane. On the other hand, I found Brandon de Wilde to be exceptionally believable as Joey. But, to offer a counterpoint, little Brandon is one of the reasons that a good friend of mine has never cared for Shane.

Personally, I rank it as one of the great Westerns. It may be too stately at times and, surprisingly, the production values are variable (ranging from scenic snow-covered mountains in the background to hokey stagy sets--though Loyal Griggs won an Oscar for cinematography). But it’s a well-done, entertaining film that has inspired its share of imitators. Some of those semi-remakes are enjoyable in their own right, especially Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Soldier with Kurt Russell.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ivanhoe and The Black Shield of Falworth: A '50s Swashbuckler Double-feature

Ivanhoe (1952)
Robert Taylor as Ivanhoe.
MGM mounted this colorful adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's tale of a noble Saxon knight trying to restore the throne of England to King Richard, who has been kidnapped by his brother Prince John. This popular, trendsetting film earned a Best Picture nomination and fueled other 1950s medieval actions films. The impressive action scenes include a thrilling jousting tournament, a large-scale assault on a castle, and a brutal climatic duel in which Robert Taylor and George Sanders whale on each other with axe and mace, respectively.

Elizabeth Taylor and George Sanders.
But what separates Ivanhoe from its peers is its low-key realism: Ivanhoe may be a nobleman, but he can't read; Ivanhoe's father is a kindly lord, but his servants still wear metal collars; and Elizabeth Taylor's Rebecca is shunned by Saxons and Normans alike because she is a Jew. The cast is in fine form, except for Joan  Fontaine--she brings no fire to her character, leaving one to wonder why Ivanhoe prefers her over the intelligent, gorgeous Rebecca.

Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca.
Sanders provides surprising depth to his villain, whose lust--and eventual love--for Rebecca causes him much internal conflict. Emlyn Williams, who gives a delightful performance as a servant-turned-knight's squire, was also a successful playwright with stage hits such as Night Must Fall.  Robert Taylor and director Richard Thorpe teamed up for two other 1950s costume dramas, Knights of the Round Table (1953) and Quentin Durward (1955), also based on a Scott novel. The latter is the more entertaining of the two and features a nifty swordfight with the opponents swinging on ropes in a burning bell tower. Anthony Andrews played Ivanhoe in an above-average 1982 made-for-TV movie.

The Black Shield of Falworth (1954)
Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
This modestly-budgeted, by-the-numbers swashbuckler was clearly intended as a training ground for rising stars Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (appearing in the second of their six films together). The radiant Leigh, draped in stunning gowns, is clearly more at home than Curtis. He struts around in tights like he was getting ready for a Brooklyn rumble. Still, he gets ample opportunity to display his athletic prowess and, considering that the film's hero is a hothead, his vigorous performance ultimately gets a passing grade.

Torin Thatcher and Curtis.
Set in England during the reign of Henry IV, the plot follows Myles (Curtis) and Meg (Barbara Rush), two peasant orphans who don't know that their noble father was unjustly branded a traitor. The local vicar sends them to live in the castle of the Earl of Mackworth, with Meg to attend the earl's daughter Lady Anne (Leigh) and Curtis to be trained as a squire. Once Mackworth realizes Myle's true identity, he hatches a plot to use him to defeat the evil Earl of Alban--who is plotting to overthrow the king and also happens to have been responsible for the death of Myle's father.

David Farrar (right) as the villain.
The Black Shield of Falworth gets a huge boost from an outstanding supporting cast:  Herbert Marshall as the fatherly Mackworth; Dan O'Herlihy as Prince Hal, who plays the fool to deceive the bad guys; David Farrar as the villainous Alban (decked out in black from head to toe); and Torin Thatcher as the eye-patched, staff-wielding taskmaster that transforms Myles into a valiant warrior.  One wishes that these fine performers received more screen time, but their presence is reason enough to spend 99 minutes with The Black Shield of Falworth. Plus, at the risk of sounding shallow, the two leads are easy on the eyes.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Questor: Gene Roddenberry's Link Between Mr. Spock and Data

Between the demise of the original Star Trek TV series in 1969 and 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Gene Roddenberry attempted to launch several new TV series. The one that came the closest to production was Questor; its pilot was broadcast by NBC as the 1974 made-for-television film The Questor Tapes.

The incompleted Questor.
Robert Foxworth stars as the title character, an android assembled by a team of scientists from plans designed by Dr. Emil Vaslovik, a scientific genius who has suddenly disappeared. When Questor fails to function due to missing programming code, the project is abandoned. Later that day, the android "comes to life," completes its design (e.g., adding facial features and hair), and escapes from the laboratory.

Farrell (left) and Foxworth as the android.
Determined to find his creator, Questor searches Vaslovik's home, where he has an awkward encounter with his first human. Realizing that he will need assistance to move undetected among the human race, he seeks assistance from Dr. Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell), Vaslovik's most trusted assistant. While Questor and Robinson try to find the missing scientist, the authorities--who have become concerned about the android's true purpose--pursue the duo. There's an additional complication: Questor will self-destruct via nuclear explosion in three days if he does not find his creator.

Data from Star Trek: The
Next Generation.
It's easy to recognize Questor as an early version of Data, the popular android from Roddenberry's later TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like Data, Questor has trouble understanding human idiosyncrasies and wants to feel emotion. He openly ponders: "Is it possible that I was meant to feel?"  Yet, while Mr. Spock occasionally struggles with his human half and Data eventually acquires an emotion chip, Questor has only an intellectual understanding of what he is missing. He confides to Robinson: "It must be satisfying to be human and know the reason for one's existence." (Interestingly, in comparing Questor and Data, Star Trek fans have even pointed out that a scene where Questor compensates for weighted dice in a casino is repeated by Data in an episode of The Next Generation called "The Royale".)

The climax of The Questor Tapes also boasts another Trek connection. When Questor's true purpose is revealed, it closely approximates that of Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), a character that appeared in the "Assignment: Earth" episode of the original Star Trek. Ironically, that episode served as the pilot for a Roddenberry TV series that never came to fruition.

In contrast, NBC ordered 13 episodes of Questor following the telefilm's ratings success. According to some sources, Roddenberry rejected NBC's offer because it was conditional on making changes such as dropping Farrell's character.

Taken as a stand-alone telefilm, The Questor Tapes is an imaginative, well-acted science fiction tale with some sly humor (e.g., Questor tells Dana Wynter's character that he is "fully functional"). A series might have been interesting, but the premise could also have run its course rather quickly. In regard to TV pilots, sometimes less is indeed better.

Monday, December 3, 2012

From the Cafe's Bookshelf: "Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard"

While typically not a fan of coffee table books, I recently quite enjoyed  Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard, an updated edition of Matt Taylor's exhaustive collection of fascinating photographs and anecdotes surrounding the making of the 1975 blockbuster. What makes Taylor's book unique is that--instead of a bunch of publicity photographs--it consists of:  photos snapped by Martha's Vineyard residents; extensive insights by the film's crew; the locals' recollections of the film's production (many of them appeared as extras); newspaper articles from island publications such as the Vineyard Gazette and The Grapevine; and, of course, a foreword by some guy named Spielberg.

A young Spielberg.
Although Spielberg's challenges with the mechanical shark are legendary, author Taylor highlights other significant obstacles that threatened Universal's $3.5 million production (yes, that was the cost of a blockbuster in the 1970s!). Initially, the islanders were hesitant about a big Hollywood film being shot in their backyard. Five years earlier, the media had descended on the area in the aftermath of the Chappaquiddick incident and that left a bad flavor in the mouths of some residents. There was also concern that the film's production, scheduled to start in May 1974, would create traffic and lodging problems impeding the tourist season that typically began in July. A potential Screen Actors Guild strike, which could have compressed the production schedule, was narrowly avoided. And, on the eve of the filming's start, Universal had to reach last-minute agreements to resolve local zoning problems.

Working on Bruce the shark.
The most entertaining chapter in Taylor's book naturally focuses on "Shark City," the nickname given to the corner of Oak Bluffs Harbor that belonged to the special effects crew. Although the mechanical sharks weren't built there, that's where they were maintained and continually rebuilt during the filming. One of the biggest challenges was repairing the damage caused by salt water electrolysis. Eric Ropke, a 27-year-old local carpenter, remembers: "After the initial problems of electrolysis had been solved, corrosion wasn't so much of an issue as learning how to get the shark to run through all its motions in a coordinated fashion. It would come up, break the surface, the jaws would start snapping, but maybe the eyes wouldn't roll the way they were supposed to. Or only one eye would roll and the head would move too slowly from side to side."

Roy Scheider takes a break.
By the time the production ended in late September, prop construction foreman Marty Milner noted: "There was a real psychological crash in everyone's lives after the movie ended. It had almost been a military campaign, like a band of brothers who had lived through this incredible experience together. It took everyone's complete attention, every minute of every day through the entire spring and summer."

Jaws fans will love Jaws: Memories from Martha's Vineyard, but it's also recommended for any film buff interested in learning about the creativity and hard work behind the magic of cinema.

Titan Books provided a review copy of this book. The photographs appearing in this post cannot be reproduced and are included here solely as representative content of Matt Taylor's book.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

ABC Movie of the Week: Tribes, Duel, and The Cat Creature

Jan-Michael Vincent and Darren McGavin.
This incisive 1970 film about a tough Marine drill sergeant and a hippy recruit remains one of the best-remembered telecasts on the ABC Movie of the Week. Darren McGavin, in his finest pre-Christmas Story performance, stars as Gunnery Sergeant Drake, who informs his raw recruits: "I will be your father, your mother, your legal guardian, and your sister for the entire period you are here." His biggest challenge is Adrian (Jan-Michael Vincent), a high school drop-out who was drafted. To his surprise, Drake learns that Adrian is in the best physical condition and scored the highest on the aptitude tests of anyone in his platoon. While always respectful, Adrian remains a free spirit and--to Drake's dismay--even teaches meditation to his fellow recruits. Still, Drake sees potential in Adrian while the young Marine begins to struggle with his own identity. Made during the Vietnam War, Tribes straddles the fence politically by portraying both Drake and Adrian in a positive light. Indeed, the film's only misstep is the inclusion of another drill instructor (Earl Holliman), who takes an instant dislike to Adrian and becomes obsessed with "breaking" the young man. Holliman's character provides Tribes with a villain--when the movie doesn't need one. Tracy Keenan Wynn (Ed's grandson) and Marvin Schwartz won an Emmy for their original screenplay. A big ratings hit, Tribes was later released overseas as The Soldier Who Declared Peace.

Dennis Weaver (with truck behind him).
This effective, if slightly overrated, 1971 made-for-TV thriller launched Steven Spielberg's career as a feature film director. The bare-bones plot concerns a businessman (Dennis Weaver) who encounters a crazy trucker while driving across the California desert. The trucker reacts angrily when Weaver passes him on the highway. One little retaliation leads to another, escalating to a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. By showing only glimpses of the big rig's driver, Spielberg turns the truck into the villain. In fact, much has been written about the similarities between the truck in Duel and the Great White shark in Jaws. Screenwriter Richard Matheson, who adapted his own short story, has said his inspiration was a real-life incident of "road rage." Weaver is adequate in the lead role; he's pretty much the only human character with any significant screen time. The story is by nature episodic, but the short running time helps hold viewer interest. Ironically, when the film earned critical raves, Universal had Speilberg shoot additional footage so a bloated 90-minute edition could be released overseas. Speilberg's follow-up was another telefilm, a haunted house tale called Something Evil (1972) with Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin. It's not very good, though still interesting to compare to the later Poltergeist. After directing Savage, a TV pilot with Martin Landau, Spielberg moved to the big screen with Sugarland Express.

The Cat Creature
A shadowy feline presence.
When a thief removes an emerald amulet from an ancient mummy, he unknowingly releases a blood-seeking creature from 450 BC. A follower of Bast, the Egyptian goddess of cats, the creature drains humans of their blood as it seeks the amulet that will ensure immortality. This 1973 telefilm serves as an affectionate homage to the atmospheric Val Lewton thrillers of the 1940s. Director Curtis Harrington opts for subtle shadows instead of outright frights (though the close-ups of the creature's hypnotic cat eyes are rather disconcerting). The proceedings get a boost from the presence of classic-era performers who specialized in mysteries and thrillers: Gale Sondergaard (The Spider Woman); Keye Luke (The Charlie Chan films); John Carradine (House of Dracula); and Kent Smith (The Cat People). Heck, even Peter Lorre, Jr. has a small part. Of the contemporary cast, a brown-haired Meredith Baxter fares best as a young woman hired to replace one of the victims in Sondergaard's creepy store, The Sorcerer's Shop. Prolific author Robert Bloch, perhaps best known for writing the novel Psycho, penned the screenplay. Director Harrington made several interesting films, such as the offbeat Night Tide and What's the Matter With Helen?, but never achieved mainstream success on the screen. The Cat Creature is a modest, but enjoyable, horror film that earns kudos for taking a different approach. Perhaps I was a little sleepy when I watched, but I didn't figure the obvious twist until the final half-hour.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Love in the 1970s: Avanti, The Goodbye Girl, and Harold and Maude

Lemmon and Mills = great chemistry.
Avanti! (1972)
Director: Billy Wilder   
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Juliet Mills, and Clive Revill.
One of Wilder’s last films stars Lemmon as an uptight American businessman who journeys to a small Italian town to retrieve the body of his father, who died in a car accident. To his surprise, Lemmon learns that his father was having an affair—secretly meeting his lover in the same hotel every August for the past ten years. Furthermore, Dad’s mistress died in the same accident and her daughter (Mills) shows up for the funeral. After a very leisurely opening, this quirky love story turns on the charm…helped immeasurably by the scenic setting, memorable music, the two leads, and Clive Revill’s delightful performance as a hotel manager who can solve any problem. Juliet MillsHayley's sister and John's daughteralso shines in a rare lead role (although it's a bit jarring to see the former star of TV's "Nanny and the Professor" go for a swim in the buff). The instantly hummable song “Sensa Fine” (translated as “Never Ending”) has been played in numerous films before and since, but it’s hard to imagine it being put to better use. The film’s title is Italian for “proceed,” the response given when someone requests to enter one’s room. It’s the same response you should offer if given an opportunity to see this delicious postcard from one of the cinema’s most versatile filmmakers. 

Dreyfus (and the back of Mason's head).
The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Director: Herbert Ross
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, and Quinn Cummings.
Playwright Neil Simon penned this winning romantic comedy as a vehicle for his then-wife Marsha Mason. She plays the title character, a single mother recently jilted by her latest lover. To make matters worse, she learns that her NYC apartment has been subleased to Dreyfuss, a struggling actor. Once they reluctantly agree to share the flat, it’s only a matter of time before love blossoms. Simon wisely keeps sentiment to a minimum, while allowing his outwardly brash characters to reveal their inner insecurities. Mason is good, if a bit too theatrical, but Dreyfuss hits all the right notes in his Oscar-winning performance. Quinn Cummings, as Mason’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter, delivers most of Simon’s trademark zingers. She, Mason, Simon, and the film all earned Oscar nominations. David Gates, formerly of the rock group Bread, wrote and performed the memorable title tune, which peaked at #15 on the Billboard chart.

Harold and Maude (1971) 
Director: Hal Ashby
Cast: Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles, and Charles Tyner.
Harold, a 20-year-old man obsessed with death, befriends and eventually falls in love with Maude, a 79-year-old woman with a zest for life. This offbeat blend of dark comedy and romance tries much hard to be quirky, which may account for its commercial failure when originally released. But it became a midnight movie favorite with college crowds by the late 1970s and has subsequently enjoyed status as a classic cult film. Ironically, the movie’s funniest scenes—Harold’s fake suicides and the blind dates arranged by his mother—don’t even involve Maude. Cort, looking as pale as humanly possible, and Gordon give likable performances, but director Ashby drags the film down with too many montages set to Cat Stevens songs. Harold’s Jaguar hearse rates among the cinema’s most memorable automobiles. Gordon essentially reprised her character in Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose. A year earlier, Cort starred in the genuinely bizarre Brewster McCloud as a young man obsessed with building wings and taking flight in Houston's Astrodome—a plot with cult film potential written all over it, though the picture sank into obscurity.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gift Ideas for the Classic Film and TV Fan (2012 Edition)

It's back! The Cafe's annual list of recommended gift ideas for the classic film and TV fan returns for this fourth edition. And remember, if you are the only classic film and TV fan in your family, you can drop hints--or even buy yourself a present.

1. The Forsyte Saga (1967). James Galsworthy’s three novels about the Forsytes, a nouveau riche Victorian family, have been adapted for both film and television. Errol Flynn and Greer Garson starred in 1949’s That Forsyte Woman (derived from the first book, A Man of Property) and a popular 2002 adaptation of the trilogy appeared on Masterpiece Theatre. However, the most renowned version remains the 1967 26-episode series starring Eric Porter (simply sensational as Soames), Nyree Dawn Porter (a stunning Irene), Kenneth More, and Susan Hampshire. Yes, it's in black-and-white, but the costumes and settings are splendid. The Soames and Irene story dominates the first 8 episodes--and is the series highlight--but The Forsyte Saga holds interest throughout its running time.

2. Man in a Suitcase.  One of the best--and least-known--spy TV series of the 1960s, this sharply-played, well-written series stars American actor Richard Bradford as a disgraced former espionage agent called McGill. Branded a traitor by U.S. intelligence, McGill makes a living doing free-lance work in Europe and Africa--dealing with blackmailers, protecting stool pigeons, finding kidnapped victims, recovering lost art treasures, etc. He charges $300 to $500 a week, depending on the job, plus expenses. When a potential client gripes about the high fee for a "disgraced American agent with a gun for hire," McGill quips: "I'm expensive...I call it my self-respect bonus."

3. Columbia Best Pictures Collection. Even at a discounted price of $79 or less, this 11-film collection may seem pricey. Still, it's an impressive collection of Oscar winners covering six decades--from It Happened One Night (1934) to Gandhi (1982). There's something for everyone in the family whether their film tastes gravitate toward comedy (Capra's You Can't Take It With You), social drama (On the Waterfront), sweeping historical drama (Lawrence of Arabia), or Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach.

4. Preston Sturges - The Filmmaker Collection. This seven-film boxed set from Universal includes: Christmas in July; Sullivan's Travels; The Lady Eve; The Great McGinty; The Palm Beach StoryHail the Conquering Hero; and The Great Moment. Sturges' fans may be disappointed that The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is missing (it's sold separately) and the DVD "extras" are just the trailers. Still, this boxed set is a fantastic introduction to Sturges, a true "auteur" that worked within the confines of the Hollywood studio system.

5. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Season 1). One of the Cafe's most popular posts in 2012 was a list of our five favorite episodes of this classic series. True, you can watch selected episodes on the web and it's still broadcast on television. However, for $14.99 or less, season 1 of AHP is a great stocking stuffer. You get 39 episodes, including one of the best in "Revenge" starring Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker.