Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Five (OK, make it seven) Best Classic TV Doctors

Change of seasons creating havoc with your allergies? Sprained an ankle from stepping in a rabbit hole while mowing (been there, done that)? Job stress causing migraines? You need to see a doctor!

To assist you in selecting the proper physician, we pick our classic TV favorites from the 1960s through the 1980s. Whether you want a brain surgeon, a family practitioner, or you're just interested in a good-looking bachelor, the right M.D. awaits you:

1. Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) - Sarcasm and wit mask the inner feelings of a deeply compassionate surgeon who can operate under the worst of conditions. Often consults with his friend "Trapper" John McIntyre, who has a successful private practice later in life.

2. Dr. James Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) - Long before Grey's Anatomy's McDreamy and McSteamy, Kildare ruled the airwaves as TV's first heart-throb doctor in the 1960s. But don't let his good looks fool you--he's intelligent and caring. Plus, if you pay an office visit to him, you can get a second opinion from Blair Hospital's senior M.D., Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey).

3. Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) - Hey, you're thinking, he's on the run from the law on The Fugitive! That's true, but he was wrongly convicted. He's also very sensitive, has a way with kids (he was a pediatrician), and still appears to be current on the latest medical procedures.

4. Dr. Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) - Looking for an obstetrician who accepts new patients? Then, try Dr. Huxtable...if you live in New York. In addition to having a good reputation as a doctor, he's funny and also great with kids! Furthermore, if you're the victim of malpractice (from another physician, of course), you can hire Cliff's wife Clair as your attorney.

5. Dr. Marcus Welby (Robert Young) - No physician has a better bedside manner than the kindly, fatherly Dr. Welby. He always goes the extra step for his patients. An added bonus is his hip young partner, Dr. Kiley (James Brolin), who can get through to the new generation.

6. Dr. Ben Casey (Vince Edwards) - This intense, idealistic surgeon needs to tone it down from time to time, but everyone says he's brilliant. It also helps that Dr. Zorba (Sam Jaffe) is around to provide a calming influence on the young Casey--and to offer second opinions.

7. Dr. Adam "Doc" Bricker (Bernie Kopell) - If you're sick or injured on a luxury liner, then Doc Bricker is your man. Be forewarned, though, he does consider himself a ladies' man and he doesn't spend a lot of time attending to patients.

Honorable Mentions: Dr. Joe Gannon from Medical Center; the staff of the Saint Eligius Hospital (aka St. Elsewhere); and Dr. Alex Stone (Carl Betz) from The Donna Reed Show. I'm sure I missed others, too, so please leave a comment if desired.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mary Rose--the Hitchcock Movie That Never Was

Alfred Hitchcock saw the original London stage production of Mary Rose in 1920--and would be infatuated with it for years.

Written by J.M. Barrie (best known for penning Peter Pan), Mary Rose opens with a soldier arriving at a desolate, decaying house where he encounters an elderly housekeeper. The housekeeper is alarmed initially, but the soldier explains that his family once lived in the house. As a flashback unfolds, he tells the story of a young girl, Mary Rose, who disappeared for four days during an island vacation with her family. When she reappears, she has no memory of those four days. Years later, she, her husband, and her young son visit the same island and, again, she vanishes. When she reappears--decades later--she has not aged a day and her grown son is now older than her. The shock is more than she can bear and Mary Rose dies from a heart attack. At the conclusion of the flashback, Mary Rose, still a young woman, returns to the house yet again...only to disappear into a white light.

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the possibility of adapting Barrie's play on numerous occasions. The closest he came to realizing the project was in the mid-1960s after Marnie. In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock explained: "A few years back it might have seemed like the subject was too irrational for the public. But since then the public has been exposed to these twilight-zone stories, especially on television." Rod Serling influencing Hitchcock's decision to make a movie--who would have thought?

Playwright-screenwriter Jay Presson Allen.
While developing Marnie, Hitchcock had worked closely with playwright Jay Presson Allen (Hitch and Evan Hunter, the original screenwriter, parted over creative differences). Hitch turned to Allen again and the two completed a screenplay for Mary Rose. Steven DeRosa, who wrote the book Writing With Hitchcock, includes a link to the complete Mary Rose screenplay at his web site; click here to peruse it. (DeRosa's book contains in-depth descriptions of several of Hitchcock unproduced films, to include Mary Rose and Kaleidoscope.)

Keir Dullea was in a 2007 Off-
Broadway production of Mary Rose.
There are several theories as to why Hitchcock never made Mary Rose, to include the failure of Marnie at the boxoffice and the falling out between Tippi Hedren and Hitch. The famed director often told people that Universal would let him make any movie under $3 million--except for Mary Rose (that was apparently a joke). Hitchcock probably provided the real reason when he confided to Truffaut: "You should make the picture. You would do it better. It's not really Hitchcock material."

Hitchcock's follow-up to Marnie would turn out to be Torn Curtain, a modest effort that makes this blogger yearn for the Hitch flick that might have been.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Studio One's "The Defender" Examines the Drama Outside the Courtroom

Shatner and McQueen.
A courtroom drama in which the verdict doesn't matter? That's the case with "The Defender," a 1957 two-part television play by Reginald Rose that was originally broadcast on Studio One. Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner play father-and-son attorneys who are appointed to defend a moody young man (Steve McQueen) accused of felony murder. As zealous prosecutor Martin Balsam explains to the jury from the outset: A "felony murder" is an unpremeditated murder or accidental death caused while performing a felony--and it can result in a death sentence.

Walter Preston (Bellamy) plays to the jury.
Walter Preston (Bellamy) is a veteran attorney nearing the end of a long career. His gut instinct is that his client, Joseph Gordon (McQueen), is guilty. Disgusted with the crime--a young woman murdered in her apartment for a small amount of money--Preston decides to mount a decent defense...but no more. When he tells his son, Kenneth (Shatner), the recent law school graduate is shocked to learn his father is unwilling to do anything to defend his client. In fact, Kenneth wants to push the boundaries of ethics by employing a courtroom trick to increase the odds of getting the charges against Gordon dismissed.

The best scenes in "The Defender" occur not in the courtroom, but in the back rooms and hallways of the justice building. Father and son each state their point of view with conviction. It's clear that Walter will do what's expected of him, but that he will stop short of exploiting all his skills as a lawyer. As for Kenneth, his win-at-all-costs approach is constrained by the law. He's willing to violate courtroom etiquette, but understands his legal boundaries.

The discussions between the Walter and Kenneth evolve into arguments that also reveal the frailty of their own relationship: Walter as a father who spent more time with clients than with his son; Kenneth as a son who aspired to be like his father without understanding why. Yet, despite their emotional confrontations, it's a key out-of-court exchange between Walter and the prosecuting attorney that changes the outcome of the case.

Vivian Nathan as McQueen's mother.
Although Bellamy, Shatner, and McQueen all deliver believable performances, acting honors go to Vivian Nathan as McQueen's simpleminded mother and Eileen Ryan as his meek girlfriend. Nathan belonged to the Studio One "repertory" from 1956-58, appearing in six other teleplays.

Writer Reginald Rose, the son of a lawyer, is best known for 12 Angry Men and the TV series The Defenders. Rose originally wrote "12 Angry Men" as a teleplay for Studio One in 1954. He later adapted it for the film version directed by Sidney Lumet and earned an Academy Award nomination (his screenplay lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Marshall and Reed in the TV series.
In 1961, Rose adapted "The Defender" into the legal TV series The Defenders. E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played Walter and Kenneth Preston for four years. The series tackled many controversial issues such as abortion, custody rights, censorship, the insanity plea, and capital punishment. The Defenders won 13 Emmys, including three for outstanding dramatic program. In 2009, TV Guide ranked it at No. 31 among its Top 50 Shows of all-time.

In 1997, Rose developed a reworking of The Defenders, with Beau Bridges and Martha Plimpton as Walter Preston's grandchildren. The series was cancelled when E.G. Marshall died after completion of the second episode.Clips from the 1961-65 series have appeared on Boston Legal and Mad Men.

Amazingly, the original Defenders TV series is still unavailable on DVD. While awaiting its eventual release, one can still enjoy its origin on Studio One. "The Defender" does for attorneys what 12 Angry Men did for juries--and that is high praise.

Monday, September 17, 2012

DVD Spotlight: David Janssen as "Harry O"

One of the most distinctive private eyes of the 1970s has finally made his DVD debut with Warner Archive's release of season 1 of Harry O. The series, which originally aired on ABC in 1974-76, starred David Janssen as Harry Orwell, a medically-retired police detective who moonlights as a private investigator. Filmed in San Diego and later Santa Monica, Harry O set itself apart from rivals with its world-weary protagonist, voice-over narration, and on-location photography. For Janssen, it marked a TV comeback after appearing in Jack Webb's glum flop O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971-72).

Harry spends each morning on the beach.
The DVD set includes the first of two pilot films, Such Dust as Dreams Are Made Of, which was broadcast in 1973. Martin Sheen co-stars as a former criminal who wants to hire Harry to find his ex-girlfriend and a former accomplice (Sal Mineo). Orwell has a personal interest in the case because, four years earlier, Sheen and Mineo were the culprits in a drugstore robbery that left Harry's partner dead and a bullet in Harry's spine. Forced to retire from the police department, Harry lives on his disability pension aboard his boat The Answer. Will Geer appears in a supporting role as a medical examiner who provides an in-depth explanation on how to make heroin. It's unlikely Geer would have been a regular had a TV series resulted--he was still playing Grandpa on The Waltons.

A second pilot movie (not included in the DVD set), Smile Jenny, You're Dead (with Jodie Foster) appeared the following year. Its ratings success convinced ABC to pick up the series. Harry O premiered in September 1974 on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. The show's only other regular was Henry Darrow (The High Chapparal), who played Detective Lieutenant Manny Quinlan. Harry now lived in a beachfront cottage, working occasionally on his boat (still called The Answer). As he explained in one of his trademark voiceovers: "A lot of cases I won't take. I don't have to."

Harry with San Diego in the background.
With his car frequently being repaired, Harry takes a lot of buses--which has its advantages when being followed ("It's hard to tail someone on a bus"). The first half of season 1 makes excellent use of its San Diego locale, highlighting both the flavor of the inner city and the stunning beaches. Even Harry emphasizes the importance of his surroundings: "You see, baseball teams win more games in their own ballpark. Now, San Diego is my ballpark. And if you name a street, I can close my eyes and tell you where the traffic lights are...that also applies to bus stops."

Linda Evans pre-Dynasty.
The guest stars included a bevy of newcomers and familiar faces to classic TV fans: Kurt Russell; Linda Evans (between The Big Valley and Dynasty); Leif Erickson (also from The High Chapparal); Stefanie Powers; Broderick Crawford; Anne Archer; Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn); Carol Rossen (a frequent guest star with Janssen on The Fugitive); and even Cab Calloway.

Farrah a year before
Charlie's Angels.
Despite modest success in its time slot, Harry O underwent signficant midseason changes. The location sadly switched from San Diego to Santa Monica and Farrah Fawcett had a recurring role as Harry's neighbor and sometime girlfriend Sue (whose Great Dane Grover wasn't a fan of Harry's). Anthony Zerbe replaced Henry Darrow as another police detective, although Darrow returned to give his character closure in "Elegy for a Cop," the next-to-last episode of the first season. The opening credits were tweaked, too, and even the theme music transitioned from a bluesy arrangement to a more uptempo one.

Anthony Zerbe.
Although Zerbe won a supporting actor Emmy for his performance in 1976, the changes had little impact on the series' popularity. Viewers watched Harry O to see Janssen, who remained a fan favorite from his days as man-on-the-run Richard Kimble in the TV classic The Fugitive (1963-67). As Harry, Janssen replaces Kimble's subtle intensity with a laid-back, cynical persona (though he still occasionally flashes his trademark quick smile, with one side of the mouth turned up). One senses that Harry's casual style and humorous quips hide a darker past.

Still, some of the best episodes were the more lighthearted ones, such as "Gertrude" with guest-star Julie Sommars as a young woman whose only clue to her brother's disappearance is a single shoe. The first season also introduced the character of Lester Hodges (Les Lannom), a young man who aspires to be a criminologist after meeting Harry. Lester appears in four episodes over the two seasons, with the last one--"Lester Hodges and Dr. Fong"--serving as a pilot for a spin-off series co-starring Keye Luke that never materialized.

Harry O faced an uphill challenge finding a regular audience amid a landscape cluttered with popular TV detectives  (e.g., The Rockford Files, Cannon, Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-OKojak, and Baretta). ABC cancelled Harry O after just two seasons. Though its demise came far too early, at least it didn't suffer the fate of overstaying its welcome. We're left with a quirky, entertaining detective series with a character perfectly matched to its star. We can only hope that Warner Archive releases season 2 of Harry O. It'd also be nice if someone would release the only season of television's other seldom-seen, quirky private eye series: The Outsider (1968-69) starring Darrin McGavin.

A review copy of this DVD was provided to the Cafe.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Alastair Sims Hosts an Evening of Revelations in "An Inspector Calls"

A well-to-do British family of four, the Birlings, is seated around a dinner table in 1912. Each is dressed to the nines and the family is celebrating the betrothal of the daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft, the fifth person present. The remaining family members include the father, mother, and son, Eric.

We receive some hints about their personalities from small comments made casually. Sheila sometimes has a bad temper. Eric drinks to excess. Gerald’s mother thinks he can better himself socially. Mrs. Birling is extremely concerned about maintaining correctness in everything. And Mr. Birling is pleased about the prosperity and progress of the times, but naïve about the potential for war. He announces to Gerald that there is a good chance for him (Mr. Birling) to receive a knighthood “so long as we all behave ourselves and don’t get into the police courts.” Gerald responds, “You seem a nice, well behaved family to me.”

Right on cue, into their midst, appears Inspector Poole, who is about to change their lives forever. He brings the news that a young woman, Eva Smith, has just died from ingesting disinfectant. The inspector wants to speak with all five people and, one by one, a complex story emerges.

He starts with the beginning of the story. In the autumn of 1910, the father opened a new machine shop at The Works. It was brought to his attention that five female employees were dissatisfied with their low pay and having trouble making ends meet. One young woman, Eva Smith, boldly asked her employer why he couldn’t increase their pay. Mr. Birling’s solution was to fire them all.

After a few months, Eva found another position but had an encounter with a customer who had a hissy fit when she tried on a hat that didn’t suit her. The rude patron also happened to be a Birling, which resulted in Eva’s second firing. The story continues with each member at the table’s history with this woman.

Inspector Poole is expertly portrayed by Alastair Sim. He is an unusual detective who seems to know everything before it is revealed. As the story unfolds in flashbacks, we see that some members of the family truly are concerned for the part they may have played in Eva Smith’s predicament.

The mystery conveys a strong message: sometimes we can impact another person’s life much more profoundly than we may realize.

All of the cast members had busy careers on film but the one I have seen most often, besides Alastair Sim, was Brian Worth (Gerald Croft). Worth appeared in a host of popular British television shows including the Quatermass and the Pit serial, Danger Man, The Saint, The Prisoner, The Champions, and The Protectors. The other five actors include Jane Wenham as Eva, Eileen Moore as Sheila, Olga Lindo as Mrs. Birling, Arthur Young as Mr. Birling, and Bryan Forbes as Eric.

Henry Fonda Uses the Phone, John Huston Gets Confused, and Shelley Winters Sports a Giant Sombrero

Henry Fonda calling his agent after
appearing in Tentacles.
Kirk Douglas did it. Ditto for Walter Pidgeon. Even John Wayne and Ray Milland got into the act. Yes, we're talking about fighting giant octopuses and squids. So, there's nothing unusual about Henry Fonda, Shelley Winters, and John Huston appearing in a movie about a giant octopus harassing a seaside community. It's just a shame that they had to choose a low-budget, Italian-made horror opus called Tentacles.

Huston and Winters play brother and sister; he's an investigative reporter and she's a single mother. Huston's writer somehow connects a series of mysterious deaths around Solana Beach with an underground tunnel being built by an industrialist played by Henry Fonda. He's right, of course...Fonda's company's excavations have unleashed a giant octopus that likes to eat people. Have I mentioned that Tentacles was made two years after Jaws shattered box office records?

Shelley Winters makes hats popular again.
Despite its budget, Tentacles had the potential to be an entertaining popcorn movie; consider what John Sayles did with Piranha one year later (and his biggest stars were Kevin McCarthy and Bradford Dillman). Unfortunately, Tentacles is drenched with cliches, such as: the diving bell that can't be pulled from the water because the mechanism malfunctions (it always does in these movies); the first-person views of the creature (which lowers special effects costs); murky underwater photography (see SFX budget again); and the regatta that places a bunch of kids in peril (a blatant rip-off from Jaws). Add one of the worst music scores ever recorded and you've got a clunker.

Huston discussing the squid--no, I mean
octopus!--with Claude Akins.
Henry Fonda apparently filmed his scenes in one day and never appears onscreen with Huston nor Winters. Huston shows minimal interest in the proceedings and, at one point, calls the title creature a giant squid--after we have clearly established it's an octopus. Shelley Winters fares the best, essentially reprising her character from The Poseidon Adventure.

There are two reasons to watch Tentacles. The first is a Fritz Lang-worthy scene near the beginning in which a mother has parked her baby carriage near the shoreline as she crosses the street to talk with a friend. The camera frames the mother in the foreground and the baby carriage (with little Billy inside) in the background. It's a disturbing scene as the viewer waits for a slimy tentacle to snatch little Billy. Cars pass by between mother and child. Then, as a final car cruises by, we see that the baby carriage is now floating on the water. It's an effective sequence and gave me hope (false hope, as you know by now).

Hopkins gives his big
a killer whale.
The second memorable scene is a camp classic. Bo Hopkins, who plays a marine biologist whose wife was an octopus victim, prepares to send one of his captive killer whales to destroy the octopus. He gives it the following pep talk:

"I guess you know now why I brought you here. I wanted to tell you more about it, but there've been many people that died... I've lost a loved one. I need your help more now than ever. I remember the times when I was training you--people used to call you killers. They used to call me that on the streets. It doesn't mean nothing. You have more, more love in your heart, more affection than any human being I ever met. But now I...I can't ask anybody else, so I'm asking you to help me kill this octopus. I hope you understand that. I know I'm in your environment. I don't want it this way, but if I release you and you go away, I want you to know I'll understand. All right, enough said. I gotta go now. If you feel anything--you talk to me. Make some noises. I know people'll think we're crazy. Maybe we are...maybe we are...."

If there's a tear running down your cheek, I'm sorry I didn't warn you about the raw emotion of that passage.   Honestly, I don't know how Hopkins delivered it with a straight face, but--to his credit--he does. He also went on to carve out a solid acting career, mostly in television series like Dynasty.

As for Henry Fonda, he weathered follow-ups like The Swarm and Rollercoaster to win an Oscar in 1981 for On Golden Pond. As a director, John Huston was Oscar-nominated for Prizzi's Honor in 1985. Only Shelley Winters missed out on an opportunity for redemption. Ditto for the giant octopus, too, of course.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ray Milland vs. an Army of Frogs

Frogs. They can be irritating if you're trying to fall asleep on a summer night with the windows open. They can be yucky, too, if you have an aversion to wet, slippery creatures. But scary? I'd be hard-pressed to anoint them with that adjective.

So, it's surprising when American International Pictures decided to make a man vs. nature horror film that the filmmakers selected frogs to be the focus. Of course, it could be that someone designed the poster first and that image of a human hand protruding from a frog's mouth was just too good to pass up. When I was a teen, it convinced me to plop down $2 to see Frogs at my local theatre. But, for goodness sakes, what inspired Oscar-winning classic film star Ray Milland to take the lead role? The answer is provided by Mr. Milland, who--when asked why he made so many questionable movies later in his career--responded: "For the money, old chap, for the money."

Ray Milland chats with Sam Elliott.
In Frogs, Milland plays Jason Crockett, the bitter wheelchair-bound patriarch of a swampy Mississippi estate. The Crockett family and friends, an unlikable bunch for the most part, have descended on "Crockett Land" to celebrate Independence Day and a month full of Crockett birthdays. Their activities are interrupted by the arrival of Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott sans famous moustache), a nature photographer almost run over by a Crockett-driven speedboat. Karen Crockett (Joan Van Ark) takes an immediate liking to the hunky Pickett and invites him to stay the evening.

Where's the famous moustache?
While exploring the estate, Pickett finds the corpse of the family's missing handyman, who has apparently been killed by a snake. The handyman disappeared shortly after spraying poison around the swamp in an effort to destroy the large frog population. Pretty soon, the family and its servants are being bumped off by spiders, snakes, birds, lizards, and alligators. Pickett wisely surmises: "I know it sounds strange as hell, but what if nature was trying to get back at us?"

As interest in ecology spiked in the 1970s, the film industry introduced a number of low-budget "eco-horror" films, such as Grizzly ("18 feet of towering fury!"), Day of the Animals, ("The terrifying movie of a world gone mad!"), and--the best of the bunch--John Frankenheimer's Prophecy. Even Godzilla got into the act with Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. As the first of this subgenre, Frogs leaves a lot to be desired. It never mounts a legitimate scare (unless you suffer from herpetophobia), wastes a decent cast, and muffs its ecology message (if, indeed, there was any intent to state one). At its best, it's silly fun if watched in the right frame of mind.

Still, I learned three things from Frogs:

Elliott, with shirt on, and Joan Van Ark.
(1) According to some sources, Frogs played a key role in Sam Elliott's acting career. His beefcake scenes may have led to his casting in Lifeguard, which featured one of his best performances and confirmed his leading man status.

(2) Lizards are the smartest of reptiles. When it comes time to kill one of the Crockett clan in a greenhouse, the lizards knock selected bottles of chemicals off the shelves and mix them into a toxic gas. Lizards as chemists--who would have imagined?

(3) Frogs aren't scary, but they must be highly intelligent because, in Frogs, they seem to convince the other animals to do all their dirty work while they get the majority of close-ups.

As for one-time Best Actor Ray Milland, Frogs ranks in the middle of his latter career filmography. It compares unfavorably to imaginative low-budget efforts like Panic in Year Zero and X--The Man With X-Ray Eyes. On the other hand, Frogs is a considerable improvement on Terror in the Wax Museum, The Thing With Two Heads, and The Sea Serpent.

And, by the way, an "army of frogs" is the proper biological term for a bunch of frogs. Who said the Cafe wasn't educational?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Five Best James Garner Performances

Yes, I know, the "Five Best" lists were supposed to end in August, but that was before I saw a James Garner movie last weekend. Surprisingly, I wasn't always a James Garner fan. It took me awhile to appreciate his unique blend of easygoing charm, toughness, comic timing, and--when required--subtlety. But he has become a favorite actor over the years...and hence I offer my picks for his five best performances:

1. The Americanization of Emily (1964) - This complex comedy-drama about a self-confessed "practicing coward" during World War II has about as many detractors as fans. That's not unusual with screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's films from the 1960s and 1970s. Count me as a fan, thanks in large part to Garner's skillful performance as Naval officer Charlie Madison, whose flippant approach to the war creates conflict with the woman he loves (Julie Andrews). Ultimately, Charlie realizes the right thing to do--even if he's convinced to do something else.

2. The Children's Hour (1961) - I know many film buffs favor These Three (1936), William Wyler's earlier version of Lillian Hellman's stage play. But I much prefer Wyler's second attempt, which benefits from carefully-nuanced performances from Audrey Helpburn, Shirley MacLaine, and Garner. His role is strictly a supporting one as Audrey's lover. Still, contrast the scenes of Hepburn and Garner at the film's beginning with their poignant last scene together--it's a heartbreaking comparison, right down to the look of defeat on Garner's face.

3. Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) - More than any other of his films, this Western comedy captures the spirit of Garner's hit TV series Maverick. Garner plays a stranger with a quick draw who cleans up a rowdy gold mine town in typically unconventional fashion. When one of the townsfolk asks why a man with such a fast gun isn't better known, Garner's character remarks (as only he can): "What would I want with a reputation? That's a good way to get yourself killed."

4. Murphy's Romance (1985) - Garner earned a Best Actor nomination as a small-town pharmacist in the twilight of his life who falls in love with a 33-year-old single mother (Sally Field). For me, it's a film that gets better with age, thanks mostly to how it charts the evolving relationship between Garner's and Field's characters. Some sources states that Marlon Brando was the front-runner for the male lead until Field and director Martin Ritt insisted on Garner. Yeah for them!

5. The Great Escape (1963) - In an ensemble piece where Steve McQueen gets many of the memorable scenes, Garner makes an impact as an American aviator who participates in a large-scale breakout from a German POW camp. As "the scrounger," Garner gets his share of amusing scenes. It was a breakout performance for the former TV star, whose previous roles were supporting in nature or as lead in modest efforts (e.g., the underrated Cash McCall).

Honorable Mentions:  The Thrill of It All (his first pairing with Doris Day); 36 Hours (a nifty Mission: Impossible thriller); Marlowe (an interesting take on Raymond Chandler's private eye); Victor Victoria (his "comeback" film after The Rockford Files ended); and They Only Kill Their Masters (a quirky small-town mystery).

Okay, James Garner fans, what are your picks?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Between Two Worlds and Outward Bound: One's a Classic, One's Not

The following review contains plot spoilers.

John Garfield learns his destiny.
Long ago, when I could still be surprised by a classic film, I discovered Between Two Worlds on a local TV station. It quickly entranced me with its tale of a mysterious ocean liner drifting through misty waters with only a handful of passengers. The steward, Stubby (Edmund Gwenn), seems to know a lot more than anyone else--and, indeed he does, for he is dead and so are all the passengers. They are sailing to their destiny and each one's personalized fate will be delivered to them by the Examiner (Sidney Greenstreet).

Greenstreet as the Examiner.
Between Two Worlds is the kind of the film Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger might have made if they worked within the studio system in 1940s Hollywood. Granted, it lacks the imaginative visual style of, say, A Matter of Life and Death. However, it creates a haunting portrait of its fateful journey, framed effectively by the despair of World War II. Its other strengths include an all-star Warners Bros. cast (John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Paul Henreid, and Greenstreet) and a stunning score from composer Eric Wolfgang Korngold.

Daniel Fuchs adapted the screenplay from Sutton Vane's 1924 stage play Outward Bound. Vane's play also served as the basis for a 1930 film version starring Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

From the day I learned about the Leslie Howard version, I was intrigued with seeing it. Little did I know it will take me over three decades. But last month, to my delight, Outward Bound popped up on TCM On Demand. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a huge disappointment.

Certainly, my expectations set the bar high, which likely impacted my assessment. I am also acutely aware of the limitations of early sound films, such as the absence of background music and the tendency to minimize camera movement. In regard to Outward Bound, those limitations emphasized its theatrical origins. Indeed, it seemed as if one was watching a filmed play--a fact reinforced by a lengthy opening narration that describes the virtues of Vane's play.

Howard as Tom Prior.
Great acting could have carried the day--after all, much of the dialogue is the same in both films. However, it's the performances that sadly doom Outward Bound. Even Leslie Howard overplays his role as Tom Prior, one of the first passengers to discover the truth. It's almost as if he was still mastering the nuances that separated acting on the stage from acting on film.

Interestingly, Howard appeared in the stage version of Outward Bound, but in a different role. He played Henry, one of the two lovers who commit suicide (a role played by Fairbanks in the 1930 film and Henreid in Between Two Worlds). I think Howard would have been fine as Henry, but suspect the producers thought Prior was a juicier part (it is--and Garfield provides the required intensity in the later film).

Outward Bound has its virtues. The fog-enshrouded darkness creates the required mysterious atmosphere. Helen Chandler, as Fairbanks' lover Ann, has a touching scene near the end where she believes Henry has been lost to her. However, there's no doubt that Between Two Worlds is a vastly superior film, a quiet, disconcerting classic that leaves a lasting impression.