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.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Joan Crawford Triple-feature: Johnny Guitar, Mildred Pierce, and The Women

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, and Scott Brady.
This one-of-a-kind Western is dominated by two strong-willed, pistol-packing women: Crawford as a cynical saloon owner and McCambridge as a sexually-repressed cattle owner. The plot has been frequently described as an indictment of McCarthyism, with McCambridge inciting a “witch hunt” against Crawford’s progressively-minded businesswoman. However, the film’s classic status can be attributed to its rich characters, the over-the-top (but effective) performances, and Philip Yordan’s crackling, contemporary dialogue (one of Joan’s employees comments about his boss: “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel that I’m not.”). With the exception of Crawford’s lovers (Hayden and Brady), the males are portrayed as weak and ineffectual: when it’s time to lynch Crawford, the men of the posse turn to McCambridge to play hangmen; Brady’s gang is indecisive and weak, consisting of a sick man, a hothead, and a wet-behind-the-ears punk. It’s fitting that the climatic confrontation is between the women. Watch for Hayden’s speech on the virtues of “a good smoke and a cup of coffee.” This picture and Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, which stars Marlene Dietrich as an outlaw leader, would make a fine double-feature.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Eve Arden.
Joan Crawford won an Oscar in the title role as a mother-turned-entrepreneur who dotes on her older daughter, ignores her younger one, and has little use for the men in her life. Unfortunately, older daughter Veda (Blyth) is thankless, materialistic, and focused only on herself—and blames her mother for everything (“It‘s your fault I’m the way I am!”). The film’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the fact that it works on several levels. It’s a first-rate soap-opera with strong female characters that dominate the film (in addition to Mildred and Veda, Eva Arden has a field day as Mildred’s wisecracking friend Ida). It’s part murder mystery; the film opens with Zachary Scott’s good-for-nothing playboy being shot four times in a shadow-filled beach house.  And, best of all, it features some psychological undercurrents worthy of in-depth discussion (e.g., what was the true motivation behind Mildred’s second marriage and what did she think was going to happen?). Crawford gives one of her most finely nuanced performances and gets strong supports from the rest of the cast. Carson, in a change-of-pace from his usual comedic roles, delivers the goods as a would-be wolf always interested in a quick buck.  Although Mildred Pierce earned six Oscar nominations, the highly versatile Curtiz was ignored.

Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and
Rosalind Russell.
The Women (1939) 
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and Mary Boland.
Who needs men? Not this quintessential women’s picture about female friendships, feuds, and fashions among New York’s upper class. Based on Claire Booth Luce’s Broadway play, The Women features an all-female cast and a screenplay adapted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. George Cukor, who was sometimes labeled a “women’s director”, made the only significant male contribution. (It’s important to note that Hollywood did not embrace female directors until a decade later when pioneers like Ida Lupino entered the ranks.) Norma Shearer headlines The Women as Mary Haines, whose seemingly ideal marriage takes a hit when she learns of her husband’s affair with ambitious sales clerk Joan Crawford. Mary’s mother tells her to forget her husband’s indiscretion if Mary still loves him. But others advise her that a Reno divorce is the proper response. While many individual scenes ring true emotionally (especially the ones between Mary and her young daughter), The Women simmers dramatically without reaching a full boil. Part of the blame can be attributed to the large cast and subplots that bloat the story. For example, during the first half-hour, it’s a chore just to learn all the characters and how they’re related. The success of the ending also depends on one’s perception of a character that’s never seen nor heard—Mary’s husband. I didn’t like the guy and, as a result, I didn’t care for the film’s resolution. Still, The Women is an ambitious, unique movie that was embraced by both critics and the public when originally released. In contrast, a 2008 remake starring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, was universally panned by critics and ignored by moviegoers. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Murder in the Monastery

Khigh Dhiegh as Judge Dee.
Before The Name of the Rose and Cadfael, Judge Dee--a seventh-century Chinese detective--investigated  homicide within the sacred walls of a monastery in the appropriately-titled Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders. Author Nicolas Meyer (Time After Time, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) adapted Robert Van Gulik's mystery novel The Haunted Monastery for this unusual 1974 made-for-television movie.

During a raging storm, Judge Dee's carriage suffers a broken axle and the magistrate and his three wives seek shelter in a nearby monastery. The abbot is pleased to entertain a guest of Judge Dee's personage, especially since the Taoist monks are celebrating their order's 200th anniversary. However, the visit gets off to a disconcerting start when a shutter blows open and Judge Dee spies a man carrying a one-armed, naked woman in a room across a courtyard. When Judge Dee describes what he saw, the monastery's prior dismisses it with a tale of ghosts that appear to "sensitive" people.

Keye Luke as one of the suspects.
Later, after being entertained by a traveling troupe of actors, Dee is approached by Tsung Lee, a young man who feigns intoxication. Tsung Lee confides to Dee that the recently-deceased, previous abbot thought he was being poisoned. Dee also learns that three young women recently met untimely deaths: one committed suicide; one fell from a window, and a third died from an illness. Following a blow on the head from a shadowy figure, Judge Dee becomes convinced that evil dwells within the holy walls.

Miss Ting (Susie Elene) has a frank
discussion with Judge Dee.
As if that weren't enough, Judge Dee also has to: advise a young woman with possible lesbian feelings; seek refuge in a closet from a nosy bear; navigate the maze of hallways and pass through the monastery's "gallery of horrors" (initially intended to punish "disobedient monks"); tend to an ill wife; and recover from a very bad cold. It makes for one busy night!

In the title role, Khigh Dhiegh appears in almost every scene and holds the film together nicely. Best known as super-villain Wo Fat on the original Hawaii Five-O, Dhiegh comes across as an intelligent man fully aware of his social status (Dee is shocked to learn that he and his spouses will have to share a single room in the monastery). He shows tenderness in the scenes with his wives and convincingly wields a staff in a fight against a swordsman. He receives strong support from an almost all-Asian cast, especially Mako as his assistant and Keye Luke as retired minister from the Imperial Court that resides in the monastery.

Dee (on right) with one of his wives.
For a made-for-TV movie, the colorful costumes look expensive and the settings are impressive (it helps that the hallways are steeped in shadows). Indeed, the only significant flaw lies with the film's lack of suspects. By the time Dee reveals the identity of the murderer, there is only one likely person remaining.

Robert Van Gulik, who penned the Judge Dee mysteries, based his character on Di Renjie, a real-life magistrate of the Tang Dynasty who lived from 600 to 700. Van Gulik wrote several Judge Dee novels and short stories from 1949 to 1969.

Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders was nominated for a 1975 Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Television Feature or Miniseries. It was intended as a pilot for a television series. Despite its virtues, it's easy to see why a regular series never materialized. The lesbian discussion, the nature of the crimes, and Judge Dee's disposal of the killer would have challenged network censors on a regular basis in the 1970s.

Judge Dee has been portrayed by other actors: Michael Goodliffe starred in a 1969 British TV series and Andy Lau played him in 2010's Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (though it was based on the historical figure and not Van Gulik's character). Still, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the role than Khigh Dhiegh.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Alan Alda Investigates Small Town Murders in "Isn't It Shocking?"

Alan Alda in Isn't It Shocking?
Three deaths in one week isn't unusual...even in a quaint New England town like Mount Angel where the population is 1325 and the police department consists of four people. But when all three victims die of the same cause at the same age--and they graduated from the same high school class--that's enough to get the chief of police thinking it's more than coincidence.

There are no surprises in Isn't It Shocking?, a nifty murder tale originally broadcast on ABC's Movie of the Week in 1973. Indeed, the culprit is revealed in the creepy opening scene, in which the killer (Edmond O'Brien) methodically prepares a slumbering elderly woman for electrocution. Yet, unlike Columbo, this film isn't about a cat-and-mouse game between detective and murderer. In fact, the candy bar-eating killer disappears into the background except for occasional glimpses and a car chase through a a cornfield.

What we have here is a non-mystery in which the viewer knows the villain's identity, his modus operandi, and eventually who will be murdered next. So why is Isn't It Shocking? such a delightfully offbeat film? The answer lies in the charms of Mount Angel and its wonderfully-detailed characters. 

Louise Lasser--but not as Mary Hartman.
Dan (Alan Alda), the chief of police, is a middle-aged bachelor toying with the idea of taking the sheriff's job in a bigger town (the nearby Horse Creek). His primary interests are birds and, well, women--though eligible ones are in short supply locally (his deputy Jesse maintains that all the female residents in Mount Angel are 47). Dan sleeps with the owner of the local motel, but he's clearly not ready to be a father to her three young sons. He's intrigued when he learns that the coroner's assistant, "Doc" Lovell, is a single attractive woman. In contrast, he pays little attention to the police department's office manager (Louise Lasser) until she displays a keen interest in solving murders.

As for Mount Angel, it reminded me of Highwater, Vermont, another quiet hamlet interrupted by murder in Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. Although Isn't It Shocking? is less tongue-in-cheek than Hitchcock's black comedy, it still revels in quirky touches such as the cab used to transport corpses because the funeral home's 1954 Packard hearse requires repairs.

Nolan discussing the crimes with Alda.
Alda, who had started his incredible run in M*A*S*H the previous year, slips comfortably into the role of the easygoing small-town police chief. Both Louise Lasser (looking just like Mary Hartman) and Lloyd Nolan (as Jesse) add strong supporting performances. Will Geer and Ruth Gordon round out the central cast, appearing in the kinds of roles that made them famous.

Director John Badham hit the big time four years later with Saturday Night Fever and forged a solid career in the film industry. Composer David Shire, whose playful score is a highlight, also had a very successful career. He was married to Talia Shire from 1970 to 1978 and has been with his current spouse, actress Didi Conn, since 1984. Finally, if the tone of Isn't It Shocking? seems a little familiar, it may be because you've seen They Only Kill Their Masters--both films were written by Lane Slate. They Only Kill Their Masters starred James Garner as another small-town police chief investigating murder.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Twitch Upon a Star: A New Elizabeth Montgomery Biography

There are two kinds of movie star biographies: those featuring startling revelations and those that affectionately portray the lives of their subjects. Herbie J. Pilato's entertaining Elizabeth Montgomery biography Twitch Upon a Star falls into the latter category. Pilato, who has written two previous books about the classic TV sitcom Bewitched, knows he has a highly likable subject in the spunky Montgomery. In addition to creating a beloved, nose-twitching, contemporary witch, she also earned acclaim in some of the highest-rated television movies of the 1970s. It also doesn't hurt that her father was a popular star of Hollywood's Golden Age and her mother a respected Broadway actress.

Pilato describes Elizabeth's relationship with her father, Robert Montgomery, in great detail (he was a staunch Republican, she became a Democrat). Her father supported her acting career, which included attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and appearing frequently in the anthology TV series Robert Montgomery Presents. In contrast, Pilato provides little insight into Elizabeth's relationship with her mother, Elizabeth Bryan Allen, despite the fact that she and Robert Montgomery were married for 22 years.

When Elizabeth Montgomery turned 20, she married Fred Cammann, a Harvard graduate with aspirations of working in the entertainment industry. The union lasted a little over a year, with Pilato asserting that Cammann wanted "an old world wife and Lizzie wanted to be a newfangled actress." A six-year marriage to Gig Young followed, but it was doomed by Young's alcoholism and jealousy--he once accused Elizabeth of sleeping with Elvis while Young and Presley were making Kid Galahad! Prior to and between marriages, Elizabeth Montgomery had other alleged lovers, too, to include Gary Cooper (her film debut was in Cooper's The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell) and Dean Martin (her co-star in Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?).

Montgomery in The Untouchables.
By the early 1960s, Montgomery had developed a reputation as a promising actress, earning kudos for her performance in The Twilight Zone episode "Two" (with Charles Bronson) and receiving an Emmy nomination for playing a prostitute in The Untouchables ("The Rusty Heller Story" episode). She also starred in the 1963 gangster drama Johnny Cool, where she met director William Asher--who became her third husband.

Shortly after their wedding, Asher and Montgomery approached 20th Century-Fox producer William Dozier (Batman) with an idea for a series called Couple. However, Dozier steered them toward a new series already in development about a witch who marries a mortal. Thus, Bewitched was born.

With co-star and friend Dick Sargent.
Pilato's work on his previous Bewitched books shows in his entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the classic sitcom. Among the highlights for Bewitched fans:  Dick Sargent and Richard Crenna were considered for the role of Darrin before Dick York was cast; York was "smitten" with Montgomery; Agnes Moorehead and Montgomery overcame personal friction between each other to forge a professional relationship; Paul Lynde adored Montgomery, but displayed a "different attitude" when she portrayed Samantha's mischievous lookalike cousin Serena; and, though Montgomery had praise for both of her leading men, she became good friends with Dick Sargent. After Sargent revealed he was gay in 1991, Montgomery served as co-Grand Marshal with him for the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade.

After eight seasons of Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery decided to end the series although ABC tried to convince her otherwise. Pilato quotes television executive Peter Ackerman, who noted that "with it (the cancellation of Bewitched), more to the point, because of it, Bill and Liz ended their marriage." The couple had three children by then.
Playing accused murderer Lizzie Borden.

Elizabeth Montgomery's post-Bewitched acting career included Emmy nominations for two made-for TV movies: the potent drama A Case of Rape (1974) and the fact-based The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975). On another television movie, Mrs. Sundance, Montgomery met actor Robert Foxworth, who became her partner and eventual husband until her death in 1995 from colon cancer. (Pilato also relates the story of Montgomery and Emma, the Labrador Retriever, who starred together in my favorite of her made-for-TV movies, Second Sight: A Love Story.)

Author Herbie J. Pilato's sources include new interviews with Montgomery's friends (e.g., Cliff Robertson, Sally Kemp), magazine articles, TV interview transcripts,  interviews conducted with his subject, and unused materials from his Bewitched books. He lists Montgomery's complete professional credits and includes an index and a nice selection of photographs.

Pilato's claims may occasionally be exaggerated (it's a stretch to call I Married a Witch "one of the best English-language motion pictures of its time"). On one page, he labels Montogomery's Twilight Zone performance as her best pre-Bewitched work. Elsewhere, he bestows that honor on her guest stint in The Untouchables. He also italicizes the proper names of all fictional characters, a small editing quirk perhaps, but one that becomes annoying.

Still, Twitch Upon a Star is an engrossing look at a strong-willed actress whose career spanned five decades. It will satisfy Elizabeth Montgomery's fans, as well as Bewitched buffs interested in learning more about that series' leading lady--and even how the famous twitch was "invented."

The Classic Film & TV Cafe received a review copy of this book.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Five Best Charles Bronson Performances

During the early 1970s, Charles Bronson was the biggest star in the world--well, pretty much everywhere except the U.S. However, he quickly attracted the attention of American studios and became a boxoffice attraction stateside with films like Death Wish, St. Ives, and Telefon. Before his unexpected international stardom, he headlined quality low-budget efforts (Machine Gun Kelly) and made memorable impressions in supporting roles in movies like The Magnificent Seven. Sure, he starred in some stinkers in the 1980s, but let's forget about those and focus on the five best starring performances from the underrated Charles Bronson:

The original Death Wish.
1. Death Wish.  Morally repugnant? No. Ethically questionable? Probably. Highly manipulative? Definitely. This 1974 controversial vigilante drama may be difficult to watch at times, but it's well-made and acted with conviction. Film critic Judith Crist noted Bronson's "superb performance" as the everyman who gradually evolves into a one-man jury. Even Rex Reed wrote: "People who are tired of being frightened, endangered and ripped-off daily in New York City are going to love Charles Bronson in Death Wish as much as I do." The less side about the Death Wish sequels, the better.

Mr. & Mrs. Bronson in From Noon Till Three.
2. From Noon Till Three. Playwright Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) wrote and directed this clever satire about celebrity. Bronson plays Graham Dorsey, a minor outlaw who spends an afternoon with an attractive widow (Jill Ireland--Bronson's wife). Her later account of their romantic interlude--imaginatively enhanced--spawns a bestselling book, play, and song. She becomes wealthy and he winds up in prison where no one believes that he's the famous Graham Dorsey. Bronson creates one of his best characters in Dorsey, who is equally charming and conniving. Ireland gives her best film performance.

3. Once Upon a Time in the West. Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western masterpiece is an ensemble piece about the final days of the Old West (though, with its three-hour length, each of the four main characters get plenty of screen time). Bronson is a standout as the enigmatic Harmonica, whose motive for seeking vengeance against Henry Fonda's nasty villain isn't revealed until the film's grand showdown.

Remick on the phone in Telefon.
4. Telefon. Bronson portrays a KGB agent who teams with an American spy (Lee Remick) to uncover a network of programmed assassins--apparently normal people who turn into killers after listening to Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." Sounds preposterous? Perhaps, but it's immensely entertaining and Bronson hits all the right notes as the dogged pursuer with a photographic memory.

5. Hard Times. Bronson plays a drifter during the Great Depression, who meets a hustler named Speed (James Coburn) and becomes a successful bare-knucled fighter. It's a quiet Bronson performance, but he and the fast-talking Coburn (along with Strother Martin as their "cut man") make a fine team. TIME critic Jay Cocks called the film "a tidy parable about strength and honor" with Bronson's "best performance to date."

Honorable Mentions:  The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven (two excellent films included here only because Bronson's screen time is limited); Red Sun (an international Western more fun than it has a right to be); and Breakheart Pass (a Western mystery set on a train).