Wednesday, June 27, 2012

William Wyler's "Detective Story"

Sandwiched between two period dramas, The Heiress (1949) and Carrie (1952), William Wyler's contemporary Detective Story may be the famed director's grittiest drama. Based on Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play, it takes place during a single day at New York City's 21st precinct police department.

Kirk Douglas stars as Jim McLeod, an uncompromising police detective intent on waging a one-man war against crime. ("We're your army," he tells a victim. "We're here to protect you.") His personal vendetta focuses on Karl Schneider, a former physician accused of operating a "baby farm." When McLeod loses his two witnesses against Schneider--one is paid off and one dies--his anger turns to violence. He beats Schneider severely, turning the would-be criminal into a victim of police brutality. Yet, McLeod can cope with a potential assault charge hanging over his head. He is totally unprepared, however, when his actions set into motion a revelation that destroys the one thing that brings stability to his existence.

Many directors have struggled with transforming a static play to the more flexible medium of cinema. Never known as a visual stylist, Wyler avoids dramatic camera shots and elaborate editing tricks. Instead, he creates a canvas on which the performers can play out the story. Still, that's not to say that he doesn't subtly enhance the setting and performances with his use of close-ups and deep focus. 

Parker and Douglas.
Wyler conveys the chaos of the police station by employing deep focus to show three detectives in one shot, each "stacked" behind the other, talking over one another about different cases. In a key scene between McLeod and his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker), Wyler frames them so that McLeod faces the camera in the foreground while his wife (unable to see her husband's face) struggles to choose her words in the background. And, in another scene between the two, Wyler shows Mary in close-up, while McLeod's clenched fist--symbolically containing his about-to-explode emotions--lurks, barely visible, on the right side of the frame.

Even with Wyler's enhancements, Detective Story's stage origins are obvious--and that's not a bad thing. A large room where the detectives write their reports serves as the principal set as a wide array of characters enter and leave during the day: an eccentric woman who believes her neighbors are making an atomic bomb; a young man accused of embezzlement; a couple of hoods; a nice-guy reporter; and  an apologetic shoplifter (Lee Grant) who observes the proceedings while awaiting her fate. The intertwining subplots add to the film's realism (as does the lack of background music) while never distracting from the portrait of a man precariously on the edge.

Douglas with William Bendix.
The cast is uniformly fine, with several performers (e.g., Lee Grant, Horace McMahon, Joseph Wiseman) repeating their stage roles. Kirk Douglas gives one of his most compelling performances, though it helps that it's a riveting part with memorable dialogue (e.g., "Take a couple of drop-dead pills" and "I'm drowning in my juices"). Ralph Bellamy played McLeod when the play debuted on Broadway in 1949.

Wyler encountered significant censorship challenges in adapting Detective Story from stage to screen. In the play, Schneider is accused of illegal abortions, which would have violated the motion pictures industry's Production Code, which stated "abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures." 

Joseph Wiseman (the future Dr.
No) with Kirk.
A more serious problem--involving the death of one of the characters--was averted when the Production Code was amended in March 1951. From 1938 to 1951, the Code stated: "There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcement officers dying at the hands of criminals." That was fortunately amended to: "There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcement officers dying at the hands of criminals unless such scenes are absolutely necessary to the development of the plot."

With its themes of forgiveness and self-righteousness in judging others, Detective Story fits nicely among Wyler's works. What makes it one of his best movies is Wyler's ability to provide a sympathetic portrait of a a violent man hanging by a thread that he cuts himself.

This review of part of the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. To read reviews of other William Wyler films, click here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

DVD Spotlight: Love in a Cold Climate (1980)

Fans of the the 1980 version of Love in a Cold Climate can rejoice that the British miniseries has been finally released on DVD in the U.S. The eight-part series, produced by Thames Television and shown on Masterpiece Theatre, starred Judi Dench and her real-life husband Michael Williams. Simon Raven, who penned teleplays for The Pallisers and Edward & Mrs. Simpson, adapted it from two Nancy Mitford novels.

The first episode, set in 1924 in the English countryside, introduces the Radlett family and its relatives. You'll be tempted to reach for a notebook to jot down all the characters, but resist the urge and focus on Sadie Radlett (Dench) and three teenage girls: Sadie's daughter Linda Radlett (who becomes the principal protagonist); Linda's cousin Fanny (the narrator); and Polly (one of Fanny's distant relatives).

The Hons discuss "it."
The Radlett household proves to be an eccentric one. A popular family game consists of Linda's blustery father, Matthew, hunting the children--fox hunt-style--on their vast estate. Linda and Fanny head the children's "secret society," known as The Hons (short for "honorables"), that meets in the linen cupboard. The family refers to Fanny's absent mother solely as The Bolter--a name bestowed due to her notoriety for leaving husbands.

Lucy Gutteridge as Linda.
With the second episode, the focus shifts to Linda, who has grown into a lovely, but self-centered, young woman. Shallow and dramatic, Linda never lends a hand to help anyone (which has no impact on her enduring friendship with the practical Fanny). Naively believing herself in love, Linda marries a handsome banker despite her father's initial objections. However, by the time their daughter has been born, Linda has become bored with her husband and has no desire to become a mother. She is perfectly content to let her in-laws raise her daughter.

Meanwhile, Fanny weds a low-key university professor and Polly returns with her family from India, where her father served as viceroy. The unnaturally-reserved Polly resists her flighty mother's pressure to get married, although her reasons aren't revealed until after a family member's death.

The unhappy Polly (Rosalyn Landor).
Spanning a period of about 16 years, Love in a Cold Climate is a faithful adaptation of Nancy Mitford's novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Interestingly, both books cover roughly the same time period, with The Pursuit of Love centering on Linda and Love in a Cold Climate on Polly. As the narrator, Fanny plays a major role in both, as do supporting characters such as Polly's mother, the outrageous Lady Montdore, and Linda's father Matthew (who proclaims that "foreigners are fiends"). Mitford wrote a third novel, Don't Tell Alfred, in 1960 which focuses on Fanny and her husband Alfred. It takes place later chronologically and those events are not include in the miniseries.

Lifelong friends Fanny (Isabelle
Amyes) and Linda.
There were certainly major obstacles in adapting Mitford's first two books, namely how to make viewers care about the self-absorbed Linda and broad characters like Lady Montdore. However, screenwriter Simon Raven and the cast navigate these waters impressively. Despite her flaws, Linda is likable, as evidenced by her strong friendship with Fanny. Actress Lucy Gutteridge does a fine job of providing subtle shades to Linda as she gradually grows more mature. As for those characters prone to excess dramatics--Lady Montdore, The Bolter (yes, we do meet her!), and the Montdore heir Cedric Hampton--they appear sparingly and typically as comic relief. Raven also "leads" the viewers by using Fanny's narration to foreshadow what is to come. In response to a thoughtful gesture by Linda's eventual husband, Fanny says: "It was the one romantic gesture of Tony Koesig's life."

Michael Williams as Davey.
Although there are several fine performances, the standout one is provided by Michael Williams as Fanny's step-uncle (and father, for practical purposes) Davey Warbeck. A hypochondriac prone to bizarre health "remedies", Davey is nonetheless the Radletts' "go to" person when it comes to resolving family crises. Williams captures Davey's eccentricities, but also his warmth and kindness. A classically-trained actor, Williams worked steadily in British television, but was best known for his stage work during 14 years with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He and Judi Dench married in 1971 and remained a couple until his death from cancer in 2001.

That year, the BBC produced its own two-part adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate. It starred Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as Linda, Rosamund Pike as Fanny, and Alan Bates as Matthew.

With its solid cast and smart writings, the 1980 Love in a Cold Climate will appeal not only to the Masterpiece Theatre crowd, but to any fan of first-rate literary drama.

Acorn Media provide the Cafe with a review copy of this DVD boxed set, which will be released on June 26th.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Drive-in Theatre: Trinity Is Still My Name

This engaging Spaghetti Western romp represents the career peak for the unlikely comedy team of Terence Hill (Mario Girotti) and Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli). The blonde, handsome Hill and the dark, burly Spencer first appeared together in the 1966 Western God Forgives, I Don't (aka Blood River), which mixed comedy with violence. That formula spawned a moderately-successful trilogy starring Hill as a shady character called Cat Stevens (no relation to the singer!).  

In 1970, writer-director Enzo Barboni toned down the violence, shifted the emphasis to physical comedy, and renamed the Hill and Spencer characters for his Spaghetti Western spoof They Call Me Trinity (My Name Is Trinity). The result was a European smash that demanded an immediate sequel.  Two years later, Barboni, Hill, and Spencer combined talents again to produce the spirited follow-up Trinity Is Still My Name. It replicated the first film's success overseas, but generated only moderate business in the United States, where interest in the Spaghetti Western genre was waning. Still, it drew enough moviegoers to justify a re-release in which the two Trinity pictures were paired as a double-feature.

Bambino and Trinity (lounging
in his saddle).
Trinity Is Still My Name improves on the original film by wasting less time on plot.  As in the Marx Brothers' best comedies, the storyline serves as a framework for the comic bits. There's nothing humorous in the central plot about crooked businessmen who use a mission as a "trading post" for laundering stolen goods. Instead, the film's humor is derived from the relationship between the two principal characters and their nonconformist attitudes toward life in the Wild West.

Hill plays Trinity, a lazy, dirty, small-time outlaw sporting a bounty of only $50.  He rides around in torn clothes and bare feet, lounging on a litter pulled by his horse or leaning back in a chair mounted on his saddle. He's an embarrassment to his older brother, Bambino (Spencer), who's trying to make an honest living as a horse thief. However, the boys' father convinces Bambino to take on Trinity as a partner.

It's hard to see Hill's "Paul Newman"
eyes in this photo.
In traditional comedy terms, Spencer plays the straight man in this "odd couple" comedy team. His character initially appears to be the one with the brains (Bambino certainly thinks he is). However, we soon learn he's no match for the quick-witted  Trinity, who subtly ignores his befuddled brother's plans. It's an interesting twist for the funny man to also be the smart one. In such an arrangement, there's the potential for the straight man to become expendable. Yet, Spencer makes the gruff Bambino likeable, in part because he seeks a simple life of crime, even though he's not very good at it.

The film's funniest scene sends the two brothers into a posh restaurant to spend some of their poker winnings on a good meal. Writer-director Barboni sets up the sequence by showing us an earlier "family dinner" in which Trinity, Bambino, and their parents fight over food as they chomp, grunt, and guzzle like a bunch of pigs. Hence, we know what's in store for the snobbish restaurant patrons as soon as the two brothers enter the high-class establishment. This scene, like most of the comic routines, relies very little on dialogue--an approach which probably contributed to the film's success when dubbed into other languages.

At almost two hours in length, Trinity Is Still My Name runs out of inspiration with a half-hour to go (amazingly, the original Italian cut runs seven minutes longer). Still, it ends on an upbeat note with a zany climax in which Trinity and Bambino play football with a bag of gold as a dozen bad guys chase after them.

Bud Spencer.
Hill and Spencer followed up the Trinity films with less-popular contemporary comedies such as All the Way, Boys! (1973) and Watch Out, We're Mad (1974). The 1974 Western My Name Is Nobody paired Hill with Henry Fonda in an entertaining yarn about a retiring gunfighter. Three years later, Hill took a shot at stardom in the U.S., teaming up with Gene Hackman for the Foreign Legion film March or Die and with Valerie Perrine in the comedy Mr. Billion. Both films flopped miserably and the blue-eyed Terence Hill returned to Italian comedies. Spencer has enjoyed a solid career as a supporting actor in such films as The Five Man Army.  He even played the lead in the contemporary Italian films Charleston and Flatfoot (aka The Knock Out Cop).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

You're a Film Buff if....

"I didn't mean to be late for's
just that High Noon was on and..."
Let's dispense with any formal definition of "film buff." I suggest that you're a film buff if any of the following criteria apply to you:

1. While channel surfing, you join a good movie in progress, and watch the rest of the movie (even though it may require you to adjust your plans for the rest of the day).

2. After you watch a movie, you go look up its cast and crew to learn more about them.

3. While reading about the cast and crew, you see they were in another interesting movie, and start reading about that one. Then, while reading about that movie, you're diverted to another and so on. (This happens to me far too frequently...I sometimes forget what film I was reading about in the first place.)

4. You browse through the TCM schedule as soon as it's published and set your video recording device to ensure you don't miss any desired movies.

5. You're willing to give a famous movie a second chance even though you didn't like it the first time around. (I was proud of my wife for giving Shane another try; she still didn't like it...though I do!)

6. You keep a list of movies you want to see, but haven't. (These may not even be famous films. Joseph Losey's Finger of Guilt with Richard Basehart is on my list of want-to-see movies.)

7. You provide family members and friends with a list of DVDs as gift ideas for you.

8. You make family and friends watch classic movies with least the ones you feel are required viewing.

Name 15 of his movies!
9. You play movie games with family and friends on long trips. My wife and I play a variation of 20 Questions with movies and then challenge each other to list a specified number of movies starring a particular actor or about a particular subject (e.g., name 20 dog movies, 15 films with Cary Grant, all the James Bond films--bonus if in chronological order, etc.).

10. You read movie blogs--like you're doing now!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Drive-in Theatre: Stop Me Before I Kill! and The Flesh Eaters

Alan tries to resist his impulses.
Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

A year after a high-speed collision with an eighteen-wheeler on his wedding day, all is not well with former Grand Prix driver Alan Colby (Ronald Williams). Even as he and his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) head to southern France for a vacation, Alan struggles to overcome sporadic compulsions to...strangle his wife.

At their hotel, the Colbys meet David Prade (Claude Dauphin), an inquisitive psychiatrist who lives in a nearby villa. During a dinner with Prade and others, Alan has a violent outburst, punches the doctor, and leaves. Later that evening, Denise express her deep concerns about Alan to the psychiatrist, who astutely observes: "Your husband is in a state of acute anxiety."

Dr. Prade watching Denise.
Stop Me Before I Kill!, also known as The Full Treatment, is one of those films in which it's obvious from the start that all is not what it seems. But director and co-writer Val Guest does an admirable job of keeping the viewer guessing. Is Dr. Prade to be trusted...especially after spying on Denise as she skinny-dips (her reflection in his binoculars is one of the creepiest shots in the film)? Is Denise really the loving wife? What's up with that mention of her brother, who died in a auto race at Le Mans? As for Alan, there's no doubt that the lad needs serious therapy for his murderous tendencies.

One of several Hammer suspense films produced in the 1950-60s, Stop Me Before I Kill! lacks the cleverness of The Snorkel and Scream of Fear. Still, Guest, an underrated director, squeezes the last ounce of tension out of his plot. He also creates a visual uneasiness by filming through vertical bars (implying that Alan is trapped in his mental state?) and using extreme close-ups of wringing hands, quivering lips, and troubled eyes. The only flaw in his direction is a too-long sequence where Alan undergoes the kind of psychiatric therapy that causes doctors to lose their licenses.

Despite some plot issues (e.g., Alan was never in therapy before?) and its lengthStop Me Before I Kill! remains an entertaining suspense picture. It boasts good performances and enough red herrings to keep you fishing for more all the way to the climax involving a chair lift (which you knew was going to be important as soon as you saw it earlier in the film).

The Flesh Eaters (1964)

En route to Provincetown, an airplane pilot experiences engine trouble and lands on a supposedly deserted island with his passengers, an alcoholic actress and her assistant. The island is, of course, anything but deserted. The only human inhabitant is the creepy Professor Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck). Note I said human, because the other inhabitants are the shiny flesh-eating microbes that Bartell has released into the ocean.

A legitimate cult classic, The Flesh Eaters is a virtual textbook in how to make an effective low-budget horror film. Director Jack Curtis pulls out all the stops in creating a sense of unease: a whistling wind sweeping across the beach, a swinging light bulb casting weird shadows, a man in a scuba suit unexpectedly emerging from the ocean, and a skeleton washing up on the beach.

Curtis's best work may be the opening scene in which two teens on a boat disappear down into the ocean as an expanding circle of blood forms in the water (an effect repeated in later movies). Indeed, the tiny monsters turn the ocean into a surrounding wall of water that traps the protagonists on the island. It's a clever premise--and helps the budget, too, because it minimizes the number of times the flesh eaters need to be shown. (Unfortunately, an unimpressive large version of the flesh eaters made an appearance at the climax).

Kosleck as Bartell...would you
trust this man?
The cast standouts are Kosleck as the baddie and Rita Morely as the hungover actress ("I drink...not polite cocktails...I drink!"). Byron Sanders plays the dull, hunky hero, Barbara Wilkin is the pretty assistant, and Ray Tudor pops up as a beatnik who meets a gory demise.

The Flesh Eaters is certainly not a brilliant film, but there's no denying the talent behind the camera. Sadly, director Curtis never helmed another movie. He did, however, provide the voice for Pops Racer on the cartoon series Speed Racer (1967-68).

Thursday, June 7, 2012

10 Classic Movie Things to Do This Month

1. Watch a classic foreign-language film, such as Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (TCM, June 18, 10:00 PM EDT), which features a moving, charming performance by Giulietta Masina (aka Mrs. Fellini).

2. Listen to Bernard Herrmann - The Essential Film Music Collection. You get to experience the rapturous themes of Vertigo, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and others.

3. Watch a cult movie, such as The Horn Blows at Midnight (TCM, June 8, 11:30 AM EDT). Jack Benny made fun of it for years, but it's surprisingly amusing.

4. Read Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, an incredible series of in-depth interviews with the Master of Suspense. Even if you're not a Hitchcock buff, you'll be fascinated by the insights shared by these two great filmmakers. And if you are a Hitch fan...well, you probably own this book already.

5. Watch a movie with a non-Beatles soundtrack by Paul McCartney. Well, there aren't many choices here, but you're in luck! TCM is showing The Family Way with Hayley Mills on June 27th at 6:00 PM EDT. By the way, Hayley went on to marry director Roy Boulting, who was 33 years her senior.

6. Host an Inspector Clouseau party, show A Shot in the Dark, and require all guests to talk like Clouseau. I recommend placing a stuffed monkey somewhere in the room just so a guest can make a remark about the "min-key."

7. Watch a famous movie that you don't like, but haven't seen for years. Then, re-evaluate it to determine if you like it now. I call this the "Marnie experiment," because I went from a Marnie detractor to a big fan over the span of several years.

Susan Hamphire in The Pallisers.
8. Watch one of the classic British TV miniseries of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While that's not technically movie-related, you'll see lots of past and future British stars such as Derek Jacobi, Roger Livesey, Susan Hampshire, Patrick Stewart, and Jeremy Irons. My personal recommendations include Poldark, The Pallisers, and Lord Peter Wimsey (start with "The Nine Tailors").

9. Support feminine Japanese monster equality by watching Mothra (TCM, June 15th, 11:00 PM EDT). She proves she's just as tough as Godzilla...but still loving enough to raise two offspring. You may want to break out the mothballs, however.

10. Build an elaborate tree house like the one in Disney's Swiss Family Robinson (the only tree house that can rival it is the one in the 1999-2002 TV series The Lost World).

You may need a big backyard!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dial H for Hitchcock: Torn Curtain (1966)

Under the pretense of attending a conference in Copenhagen, Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist, defects to East Germany. His fiancee and assistant, Sarah (Julie Andrews)--confused by his suspicious activities in Copenhagen--follows Michael behind the Iron Curtain. He tries to persuade her to return to the U.S. It is only when Sarah refuses that Michael reveals his true intent: to steal information about an atomic formula from a Communist scientist and somehow escape.

Hitchcock hatched the idea for Torn Curtain after reading about the defection of two British diplomats. In Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut's superb book of interviews with the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock said that he began to wonder what the wife of one of the diplomats thought of the defection. The premise of a wife questioning her husband's true motives can be seen as a variation of Suspicion. The difference is that Torn Curtain dispenses with this plot in the film's first third. All that is left is the quest for the MacGuffin (the secret formula) and the escape. This is familiar Hitchcock territory, but it comes off as uninspired and weary in Torn Curtain. The result is a suspense film that generates very little suspense.

In Truffaut's book, he writes that "Hitchcock was never the same after Marnie, and that its failure cost him a considerable amount of self-confidence." That lack of confidence is magnified in Torn Curtain, in which the studio influenced Hitchcock's decisions on the cast and music.

Eva Marie Saint in 1966 in The
Russians Are Coming.
By the mid-1960s, most of Hitchcock's favorite stars--James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant--had either retired from show business or moved on to different roles (i.e., instead of romantic leads, James Stewart begin playing fathers). Hitchcock had also failed to create new stars, the most famous example being Tippi Hedren, whom he once envisioned as one of his classic "blondes" (personally, I think Hedren's performance in Marnie is widely under-appreciated). According to some sources, Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint to reunite for Torn Curtain. However, Grant felt he was too old for the part and the studio nixed Saint for the same reason. In the end, the studio convinced Hitch to cast two hot, young talents in Newman and Andrews.

Unfortunately, neither seems comfortable in their roles and, as is apparent in their opening scene in bed, they dearly lack chemistry. Hitchcock implies to Truffaut that Newman's "method acting" approach hindered him in key scenes. Certainly, Newman desperately wants to make us understand Armstrong's motivations, a serious approach at odds with a movie composed of a thin framework (e.g., Armstrong undertakes this incredible mission on his own without the government's sanction). Julie Andrews tries hard as Sarah, but the script makes her character extremely naive (the audience is always ahead of her) and she is relegated to an accessory in the final the final two-thirds of the film.

Sadly, Hitchcock was also convinced to jettison the original soundtrack composed by long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for what was considered a more commercial, upbeat one by John Addison. I find Addison's title theme to be almost playful, more appropriate for a black comedy. In contrast, the Herrmann theme is punctuated and more disturbing. 

Trying to kill Gromek.
Yet, despite its flaws, there are flashes of the typical Hitchcock brilliance in Torn Curtain. The film's most famous scene is the death of Gromek, an amusing but dangerous enemy agent played by Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek confirms that Michael is a spy after following him to a rural farmhouse, Michael and the farmer's wife are forced to murder him. It's a lengthy, brutal struggle involving kitchen utensils and ending with Michael forcing Gromek's head into an oven as the gas is turned on. Earlier in the film, there's a visually stunning scene--reminiscent of Vertigo--in which Gromek trails Michael through the streets and buildings of East Berlin.

Hitchcock left a scene with Gromek's brother on the editing room floor, a decision based solely on the film's running time (a too long 128 minutes). Truffaut's book contains a description of the omitted scene: Michael visits a factory where the dead Gromek's brother (also played by Kieling) is a foreman. Gromek's brother picks a kitchen knife (like the one used in the farmhouse fight), cuts off a piece of sausage, and tells Michael: "My brother loves this kind of sausage. Would you be kind enough to give it to him in Leipzig?" It sounds like a classic Hitchcock gag, similar to one from Young and Innocent.

It's interesting to speculate what Torn Curtain might have been with a better script, more compatible actors, and perhaps a more engaged Hitchcock. Unfortunately, all that remains is a misfire with just enough interest to make one depressed over the reality that it isn't a very good film. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Drive-in Theatre: Switchblade Sisters and Thunder Alley

Switchblade Sisters (aka The Jezebels) (1975)

In the opening scene, Lace (Robbie Lee), the tough leader of the Dagger Debs, sharpens her switchblade in her bedroom and then gently dabs cologne on her neck. She's a paradox: she's loyal to her gang members but also bullies them; she's wildly violent but also writes love poems to her boyfriend Dominic, gang leader of the Silver Daggers. Lace has trust issues, but surprisingly befriends a new girl named Maggie (Joanne Nail) who shows spunk during a diner encounter and later in juvenile detention.

Unfortunately, Dominic takes an immediate interest in the pretty Maggie. Patch (who does indeed wear an eye patch) hates Maggie, who has taken her place as Lace's de facto deputy. When Patch keys in on Dominic's smoldering looks toward Maggie, she makes sure that Lace is aware of it. Yes, Switchblade Sisters is a lurid, violent, engrossing gender-reverse variation on Shakespeare's Othello with Lace as the Moor, Dominic as Desdemona, Maggie as Cassio, and Patch as Iago.

Patch turns Lace against Maggie.
Yet, there's more to this cult classic than just an unexpected dose of the Bard. It starts out as a film that exploits women--just as its male characters do--and ends as one that empowers them. The closing scene carries a wallop when one of the bloodied girls growls at a police officer: "You can beat us, chain us, lock us up. But we're gonna be back, understand? And when we do, cop, you better keep your ass off our turf..or we'll blow it off. Ya dig? We're Jezebels, cop."

Switchblade Sisters is a personal favorite of Quentino Tarantino, who re-released it in the 1990s and paid subtle homage to it in Kill Bill. Sadly, neither of the female leads, who are quite good, had meaningful film careers. Robbie Lee--who reminded me of a cross between Kristy McNichol and Tuesday Weld--later supplied some of the voices for the Rainbow Brite cartoon series. Joanne Nail guest-starred in TV series like Harry-O and The Rockford Files.

Thunder Alley (1967)

This poster makes Thunder Alley 
sound much racier than it is!
Fabian stars as Tommy Callahan, an up-and-coming stock car driver who blacks out every time he gets boxed in during a race. When that leads to the death of another driver during the Daytona 500, NASCAR suspends Callahan. The disgraced Callahan ends up working in the Madsen Thrill Circus, which features low-budget auto stunts and staged races. It's not all bad, though--Madsen's tomboy daughter Francie is played by Annette Funicello!

Thunder Alley was a transitional picture for American International Pictures. The preceding year's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini put an end to the profitable Beach Party series. The same year also saw the release of The Wild Angels, which would kick-start a series of violent motorcycle gang films. Thunder Alley lacks the innocence of the Frankie & Annette films, but it's a far cry from Peter Fonda in a black leather jacket! Thus, we get the incongruousness of Annette singing a Guy Hemric-Jerry Styner song in one scene and experiencing a hangover in another.

Diane McBain and Fabian.
While the stock footage of the stock cars holds a certain nostalgia, it's the two female leads --Annette and Diane McBain--that make Thunder Alley watchable. McBain's career got stuck in second gear while she was under contract with Warner Bros. Granted, the studio gave her a couple of juicy parts--the bad girl in Parrish, a lead role in the underrated Claudelle Inglish--but it also buried her in the TV series Surfside 6 as a flighty socialite.

In Thunder Alley, McBain plays Callahan's lover, who thinks his current gig in the thrill circus is "dullsville." She views Callahan solely as an ends in a means (i.e., a celebrity lifestyle). However, that doesn't stop her from threatening Francie when Annette's character expresses her interest in Callahan. At that point, I was hoping for a catfight, but none materialized and I surmised that perhaps Fabian wasn't worth it.

Annette singing her one song.
As for Annette, Thunder Alley was her last theatrical film--except for a cameo in Head with The Monkees--until Back to the Beach in 1987. Some reviewers try to make it sound like Annette played a slightly darker role in Thunder Alley, but that's not so. There is the hangover scene and Warren Berlinger calls her a "track tramp," but she's still the sweet innocent from the Disney and Beach Party movies. And that's just fine with her legion of fans, which includes me.