Thursday, January 31, 2013

1960s Twin Bill: "The Rare Breed" and "Blackbeard's Ghost"

James Stewart.
The Rare Breed

With the exception of The Flight of the Phoenix, James Stewart didn't get a lot of worthy roles in the 1960s. He was in his mid-fifties when the decade began, so instead of his typical romantic leads and loner heroes, he played a lot of patriarchs in lukewarm fare like Dear Brigitte, Shenandoah, and Take Her, She's Mine (I admit having a soft spot for Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation). Stewart also continued to appear frequently in Westerns, where his now-graying hair only added to his tough exterior. One of his better horse operas of the period was The Rare Breed, a modest effort bolstered by a strong cast and an offbeat premise.

Maureen O'Hara.
Maureen O'Hara stars as a (typically) spunky, yet refined, English woman who's intent on realizing her deceased husband's dream of cross-breeding longhorn steers with Herefords. When she sells a prized Hereford bull named Vindicator, Stewart's crusty ranch hand agrees to deliver the bull to its new owner. Along the way, O'Hara, Stewart, and Juliet Mills (as O'Hara's daughter) spar with a pair of crooks, who--along with Stewart's character--plan to steal the bull. The plot changes direction at the mid-point when the trio arrive at the ranch of a Scottish rancher (played by an almost unrecognizable Brian Keith), who takes a romantic interest in O'Hara.

Yes, that's Brian Keith!
The film's first half is a lazy hodgepodge that shifts back and forth from a lighthearted Western (with big barroom brawls) to a more serious film (where people are killed in cold blood). Still, The Rare Breed settles down in its second half, becoming more of a character study, with Stewart's loner--having lost O'Hara's trust and affections--finally finding meaning in his life.

The three veteran leads are solid, with Keith having a grand time with his Scottish brogue. Yet, Juliet Mills (Nanny and the Professor) comes off best as a young woman with true grit. (It's fun to see O'Hara, Keith, and Mills together, since the first two starred with Juliet's sister, Hayley, in The Parent Trap.)

From a production standpoint, the film's scenic landscapes are undermined by poor-looking rear screen shots and stunt doubles that barely resemble the stars.

Blackbeard's Ghost

Peter Ustinov and an atmospheric coastal setting make Blackbeard's Ghost one of Disney's better live action comedies of the late 1960s. Disney regular Dean Jones stars as Steve Walker, the new track coach for Godolphin College. Steve arrives in the quaint seaside town on the night of the Buccaneer Bazaar, a fund-raising effort for the elderly Daughters of the Buccaneers. The nice old ladies are in financial trouble, because a local gangster has bought their mortgage and wants full payment. His plan is to boot them out of their inn so he can replace it with a casino.

That night, Steve, who is staying at the inn, inadvertently calls forth Blackbeard's ghost when he recites a spell from a witch's book. Blackbeard (Ustinov) explains that he's been caught in "limbo," destined never to join his ghostly crew until--as Steve later discovers--the pirate performs a good deed. This will obviously be a challenge for the whiny, surprisingly sensitive, rum-drinking buccaneer.

Peter Ustinov and Dean Jones.
Though based on a children's novel by Ben Stahl, Blackbeard's Ghost recycles many familiar elements from earlier Disney films. In lieu of a wacky basketball game (The Absent-Minded Professor) or football game (Son of Flubber), we get a track meet where Blackbeard--who's invisible to everyone but Steve--helps Godolphin College's unimposing athletes earn an unlikely victory. Predictably, Steve's eventual love interest (played by the always likable Suzanne Pleshette) dates the gruff football coach who dislikes Steve. The gangsters are a thick-headed bunch except for their leader, the appropriately-named Silky Seymour (well played by Joby Baker, another Disney regular).

Suzanne Pleshette.
While it may all sound rather predictable, Blackbeard's Ghost gets a huge boost from Peter Ustinov, who transforms the bloody pirate into a reluctant and amusing hero. Ustinov even keeps in check his tendency to play some roles too broadly. Of course, a little blustering seems appropriate for a famous pirate. The end result is that, despite the film's derivative aspects, Ustinov makes Blackbeard's Ghost a diverting way to spend an evening.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Five Best Rock Hudson Performances

Following a recent less-than-flattering review of Magnificent Obsession (1954), someone on Twitter asked why I didn't like Rock Hudson. Nothing could be further from the truth! Over the last decade, I have become a Rock Hudson fan, which prompted the following list of what I consider his five best performances:

Doris mistakes Rock, fresh from a
fishing trip, for a scientist.
1. Lover Come Back - After mostly dramatic roles in the 1950s, Rock Hudson developed into a gifted comedian with Pillow Talk (1959) and this delightfully delirious follow-up. Rock stars as Jerry Webster, an unethical Madison Avenue advertising executive who will do anything to beat his rival, Carol Templeton (Doris Day). When Carol mistakes the womanizing Jerry as a nerdish inventor, he plays along--even to the point of emphasizing he's "never been with a woman." This leads to Rock's best scene, as Jerry tries to encourage Carol to seduce him in her apartment--during which a convenient phone call enlightens her about his true identity. While Lover Come Back is sometimes described as a variation of Pillow Talk, it's actually a superior film, with clever jabs at the advertising industry and sparkling supporting performances (especially from Tony Randall and Edie Adams).

Rock as Brad playing "Rex Stetson."
2. Pillow Talk - That's not to say that Pillow Talk isn't a first-rate--and very funny--film about a swinging bachelor (Rock) and a conservative interior decorator (Doris) who share a party line...but have never met. Brad (Rock) exploits the situation by posing as Rex Stetson, a sincere Texas millionaire rancher, who takes an interest in Jan (Doris). This wacky scenario allows Brad to disparage Rex when talking on the phone with Jan--and then later have Rex act in exactly the same manner as Brad predicted. The brilliance of Rock's performances in both Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back is that he makes unlikable characters likable, long before the love of a good woman makes them better men. Simply put, without his innate charm and expert comic timing, neither of these comedy classics would work.

Yes, that's Seconds.
3. Seconds - Rock Hudson's best dramatic performance can be found in this seldom-shown, disturbing 1966 film about a wealthy middle-aged man dissatisfied with his life. An organization called the "Company" approaches him and promises him a fresh start. It fakes his death, makes him look younger through plastic surgery, and gives him a new identity. But all is not what is seems and his "new" life is not what he expected. Directed by John Frankenheimer, Seconds is a downbeat film, which may account for its infrequent appearances on cable TV. Still, it's well-done and creepy and Hudson skillfully captures the conflict of an older man living in the body of a younger one.

With Liz Taylor in Giant.
4. Giant - I am not a huge fan of this sprawling Texas family saga, but I still admire Rock's performance as Jordan "Bick" Benedict, a wealthy rancher who marries an East Coast socialite (Elizabeth Taylor), clashes with a former friend, and struggles to develop relationships with his children. He allows us to see both the good and the bad in his strong-willed character. That's the only reason it's listed here in lieu of All That Heaven Allows, an immensely likable film about the romance between a middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) and a younger gardener (Rock).

5. Send Me No Flowers - In a great change-of-pace role, Rock plays a hypochondriac who becomes convinced he's going to die and sets out to find the ideal husband for his wife (Doris Day). It's a nice contrast to the suave bachelors portrayed in earlier comedies, though overall, the film is not on the same level as Lover Come Back and Pillow Talk.

Honorable Mentions:  a friend of mine is a huge fan of The Spiral Road (I'm gradually beginning to appreciate it); World War III (a now-obscure TV movie featuring Rock as a U.S. president trying to thwart a war with the Soviet Union); and Ice Station Zebra (one of his better action film outings).

If one of your favorites is missing (and I'm sure there are some Written on the Wind fans), please leave a comment!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

How My First Fan Letter Yielded Childhood Treasures from "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"

It was inevitable that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea would become my favorite TV series in 1964. It had two big things going for it: a futuristic submarine and a never-ending variety of monsters. I knew this was a fact because I'd seen the 1961 theatrical film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and it featured the submarine Seaview, a giant octopus, spies, and--for good measure--a "burning sky." (Cost-conscious producer Irwin Allen recycled all these plot elements into the TV series and even included stock footage of dinosaurs from his 1960 film The Lost World.)

I'm not sure where I heard about people writing fan letters to get autographed photographs, but the idea greatly appealed to me. Having not yet learned how wonderful reference librarians are, I sought guidance from my most reliable source of information outside of our Compton's Encyclopedias (which were of no help in this endeavor). I asked my Dad where I should send my letter.

My father worked for a large Western Electric plant, which had a small library and an enterprising librarian who probably used one of the business indexes to track down the address to 20th Century-Fox. I typed my letter on the family's old Underwood typewriter...and waited for what seemed like years.

Then one day, I discovered a large envelope in the mail containing a small black-and-white photograph of the Seaview and a rough blueprint of its interior. I was ecstatic! Those two items would be displayed in my bedroom for the next three decades (long after my departure); they would become an integral part of show-and-tell at school for the next four years. Today, I still keep them in my box of childhood treasures.

The actual size of my photo is 3" x 2-1/2".

In the TV series, it was the SSNR Seaview, the "SSNR"
standing for Submarine Seaview Nelson Research.

Having always responded well to positive reinforcement, I followed up with another fan letter. This time,  I requested an autographed photo from star Richard Basehart, who sent the picture below (note it was signed with a felt-tip pen vs. a "stamped" signature):

My "friends" at 20th Century-Fox subsequently enrolled me in the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Fan Club. I received a membership card (shown at the start of this post) that made me an Honorary Admiral (like thousands of other kids) and the color postcard below:

Left to right: Basehart, David Hedison, Allan Hunt,
Terry Becker, and Bob Dowdell.
As the years passed, my letter-writing interests went in other directions (e.g., trying to convince a local TV  station to keep airing Dark Shadows instead of a local kids show). I did write 20th Century-Fox a few more times and have some nice Batman photos to show for my efforts. 

However, nothing can compare to the joy of my first fan letter and my beloved photo of the Seaview. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bad Movie Theatre: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I'm afraid I can't agree with the trailer.
Let me begin by stating that I hold big screen soaps in great affection (I'm always game to revisit A Summer Place). And while I favor director Delmer Daves over Douglas Sirk in this genre, I admire Sirk's classy Imitation of Life  (1959) and his quintessential sudser All That Heaven Allows (1955). So, it's with heavy heart that--after recently rewatching Magnificent Obsession--I must pronounce it a dreadful way to spend 108 minutes.

The film's promotional spots highlighted
Douglas's novel (and Jane's hand).
The plot owes more to the 1935 film version than to Lloyd C. Douglas' best-selling 1929 novel. Rock Hudson, in his first starring role in an "A" picture, portrays irresponsible, millionaire playboy Robert Merrick. Following a reckless boating accident, Merrick is revived with the hospital's only resuscitator. Without that critical piece of medical equipment, philanthropist Dr. Phillips dies from a heart attack. Merrick tries to purge his guilt by writing a $25,000 check to Phillips' widow, Helen (Jane Wyman)--but she refuses the money.

Merrick (Hudson) begins to get serious.
After a drunken Merrick crashes his car, he meets Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a close friend of Phillips, who shares a common "pay it forward" philosophy. Inspired by Randolph, Merrick tries to make amends with Helen, but inadvertently causes her to be struck by a car...and lose her sight.

One day, Merrick encounters Helen by the lake and the two begin talking. He calls himself Robinson (Robby for short) to avoid revealing his identity. As love begins to grow, Merrick starts pursuing his medical studies again and vows to do all that he can to restore Helen's sight.

Lana Turner in the superior
Imitation of Life.
It's easy to see why a Magnificent Obsession remake appealed to Douglas Sirk. The novel and the earlier film adaptation were character-driven dramas that focused on changing the course of one's life for the better. That's a theme that Sirk explores in later (better ) films. In Imitation of Life, Lora (Lana Turner) progresses from a low-income single parent to a Broadway star--with the help of African American best friend Annie (Juanita Moore). In All That Heaven Allows, affluent widow Cary (Jane Wyman) eventually realizes that true happiness lies with the simple life espoused by Ron, her young, handsome gardener (Rock Hudson). Incidentally, both these films also tackled the challenges of being a social outcast: Ron is rejected by Cary's friends and family; in Imitation of Life, Annie's daughter tries to pass herself off as white.

Alas, while Magnificent Obsession has good intentions, it never comes close to becoming a good film. The screenplay condenses Lloyd C. Douglas' philosophical underpinnings to a ten-minute conversation that sounds like a paid ad for a self-help book. The banal dialogue doesn't help, with my favorite line being Merrick's response to a comment about painting: "As far as I'm concerned, art is just a guy's name." But the script's biggest problem is that nothing much happens after Helen reveals she has known Robby's identity for a long time. There's no conflict in the film's final 40 minutes as it lumbers toward its obvious conclusion.

Hudson and Wyman share an embrace.
Jane Wyman (who was Oscar-nominated) does what she can with her character, but Rock Hudson struggles to get a handle on the playboy-turned-surgeon. I also think he was still honing his skills as an actor, especially given some of his wooden line readings. Magnificent Obsession catapulted Hudson to bigger and better parts (he made Giant two years later)--although I believe his success with this film had more to do with his good looks and earnestness than to his performance.

From a production standpoint, Magnificent Obsession is a blotch on Sirk's otherwise stellar career as a celluloid craftsman. While the color scheme is interesting, the use of painted backdrops and rear screens give the film a cheap look (that said, there are some stunning outdoor shots at the beginning of the film). However, the biggest distraction is the overly melodramatic score by Frank Skinner, which opts for sweeping violins and a chorus of "ah"'s at the tiniest whiff of emotion.

Magnificent Obsession has its share of admirers...and you may be one. (Heck, it was even released in a deluxe edition by Criterion). If you're among its fans, I encourage you to leave a dissenting comment. However, I was obsessed to write this review and state how magnificently lame I found it to be.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

TV Westerns A to Z

Robert Horton, as Flint on Wagon
, and Ward Bond.
A - Amnesia. Robert Horton left Wagon Train at the peak of his popularity to pursue movie stardom--but eventually returned to television as an amnesiac trying to discover his identity in A Man Called Shenandoah.

B - The Barkley family in The Big Valley (hey, that should really count as two B's).

C - Cheyenne, which debuted in 1955 and became a huge hit for Warner Bros. television. Some sources claim it's the first hour-long, dramatic TV series to last longer than a season (although it was originally part of an umbrella series).

D - Death Valley Days, the long-running half-hour anthology hosted by (in order) Stanley Andrews, Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson. Sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax!

Hoss says: "Don't call me Eric!"
E - Eric Cartwright...yep, that was Hoss's actual first name in Bonanza.

F - F Troop. The antics of Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) made life interesting for the somewhat-clumsy Captain Parmenter, who commanded Fort Courage.

G - Gunsmoke, the granddaddy of them all. 'Nuff said!

H - The High Chapparal, the name of the ranch in the other Western family saga created by David Dortort (see "P"). Incidentally, the ranch was named after a bush--you probably knew that already, but I didn't until recently watching the pilot episode again.

I - The Iron Horse, the 1966-68 series with Dale Robertson as a railroad owner. Dale fared better in the earlier Tales of Wells Fargo.

J - Jesse James, who was turned into a good-looking nice guy in The Legend of Jesse James starring Christopher Jones.

K - The knight chess piece that appeared on the card of Paladin on Have Gun--Will Travel.

L - The Loner, an offbeat Western created by Rod Serling and starring Lloyd Bridges as a former Union officer trying to figure out the meaning of life.

M - Maverick, the lighthearted series about poker-playing brother Bret (James Garner) and Bart (Jack Kelly). After Garner's departure, cousin Beau (Roger Moore) and later brother Brent (Robert Colbert) joined the cast.

N - Nichols was James Garner's ill-fated return to the TV Western genre. Although the title character was similar to one he played in the hit film Support Your Local Sheriff, the TV show flopped. The producers tried to save the series by killing off Nichols and having Garner plays his more likable twin brother.

Hugh O'Brian as Marshal Earp.
O - Hugh O'Brian, who became one of the big TV Western stars when he headlined The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61).

P - Ponderosa, the name of the Cartwrights' ranch in Bonanza (which was also created by David Dortort).

Q - Quest. Several Westerns revolved around characters on a quest, such as Will Sonnett (Walter Brennan) and his grandson Jeff (Dack Rambo) searching for Jeff's father in The Guns of Will Sonnett. A more traditional choice for "Q" is Quint, the blacksmith on Gunsmoke played by Burt Reynolds.

R - The Rifleman, the popular series about a widowed father (Chuck Connors) and his young son (Johnny Crawford). Crawford was popular enough to score five Top Ten hit songs on the Billboard charts.

Silver...with his sidekick The
Lone Ranger.
S - Silver, the Lone Ranger's white stallion. Also, the Lone Ranger used silver bullets to always remind him that life is precious.

T - Trampas, the ranch hand played by Doug McClure in The Virginian. McClure and James Drury (see below) were the only actors to remain with the 90-minute series through its nine-year run.

U - Uncle Buck (Cameron Mitchell), Billy Blue's surrogate father on The High Chapparal; Blue's actual dad, Big John, showed only tough love for his son. (Really, if you can think of a better "U", please leave a comment).

V - The Virginian, as played by James Drury. Just as in Owen Wister's novel, we never learn the ranch foreman's name.

W - Johnny Western (great name, huh?), the singer who croons "The Ballad of Paladin" at the end of many Have Gun--Will Travel episodes. There are a lot of good "W" choices, to include Wagon Train, Wishbone from Rawhide, and James T. West.

Yancy and sidekick Pahoo (played by X. Brands).
Y - Yancy Derringer (played by Jock Mahoney), a dandy who owned a riverboat and sometimes worked as a sort of secret agent. I thought he was cool because of the four-barreled derringer up his sleeve. Another choice for "Y" might be Johnny Yuma (Nick Adams) from The Rebel.

X - I'm sure there were cattle in some Westerns that had "X" branded on their butts. Yes, that's lame, but I'm claiming it for this tough letter.

Z - Zorro, as played by Guy Williams. Annette Funicello had a crush on him, so for her birthday, Walt Disney cast her as a guest star opposite Guy in an episode of Zorro.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hugo Haas: "B" Movie Auteur

Unless you're an aficionado of "B" movies, you've probably never heard of Hugo Haas. His films aren't considered underrated classics nor have they attracted cult followings among movie buffs. However, there are a handful of us who remember Haas with affection. Saddled with micro-budgets and typically low-wattage casts, Haas churned out a dozen films in the 1950s as producer, director, writer, actor, or some combination thereof. He even composed the score to one of his movies. The quality of his output was undeniably inconsistent, but personally I've always admired the man's determination to get his vision on the silver screen.

Hugo Haas in Pickup.
According to Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia, Hugo Haas was born in Czechoslovakia in 1901 and became a leading comedy star in his native country. He also directed a handful of films in the 1930s. However, when Hitler's forces occupied Czechoslovakia, Haas immigrated to the U.S. He made his American acting debut in Jacques Tourner's Days of Glory in 1944. Throughout the rest of the 1940s, Haas appeared as a supporting player in movies such as A Bell for Adano (1945), Merton of the Movies (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), and King Solomon's Mines (1950).

Beverly Michaels pouting as the femme fatale.
In 1951, Haas launched his career as a writer-director-star with Pickup, a tawdry tale reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Haas plays Jan "Hunky" Horak,  a middle-aged railroad dispatcher who meets Betty (Beverly Michaels), a blonde bombshell interested only in his life savings. After their marriage, Hunky goes deaf and Betty becomes interested in Steve, who is a hunk in more than just name. Meanwhile, Hunky miraculously regains his hearing--but decides not to tell Betty after overhearing her unpleasant plans.

A minor hit, Pickup earned a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for "Best Low-Budget Screenplay" (it lost to Samuel Fuller's The Steel Helmet). Alas, Pickup would be the high point of Haas's career as a film auteur. Several of his follow-ups featured similar plots with a middle-aged gentleman (played by Haas) getting involved with a younger, beautiful woman. One of his best efforts, Bait (1954) is a clever variation in which an old prospector (Haas, of course) pushes his younger, beautiful wife ("B" film goddess Cleo Moore) into the arms of his partner (John Agar). Why? So the old man can gain sole control of their gold mine!

Sultry Cleo Moore appeared in
seven Haas pictures.
My favorite Haas film is another Cleo Moore-John Agar pairing called Hold Back Tomorrow (1955). It tells the quietly effective tale of a death row inmate (Agar) granted one last wish before his execution. When he asks for the company of a woman, the only one available is a suicidal prostitute named Dora (Moore). After trading insults, the two begin to talk earnestly with one another and fall in love before the night is over. Essentially a two-character play, Hold Back Tomorrow is an interesting effort, marred only by Agar's ineffectual performance.

Not all of Haas's films featured "B" movie casts. Lizzie (1957), based on a novel by Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), starred Eleanor Parker, Richard Boone, and Joan Blondell. It also marked the only big screen acting appearance of Johnny Mathis, who plays a piano singer. One of Mathis's biggest pop hits, "It's Not for Me to Say," originated in this film (as did "Warm and Tender" written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David).

Hugo Haas directed his last film, Paradise Alley, in 1958, although it wasn't released until four years later. He made a few guest appearances in TV series such as Bonanza and Adventures in Paradise. His filmography seems to end there; he died in Austria in 1968 at the age of 67. Hugo Haas's legacy can be viewed as a series of average low-budget potboilers or as a testament to the spirit of independent filmmaking. I prefer the latter.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Pair of Poirots: Suchet and Ustinov Discover "Evil Under the Sun"

Peter Ustinov.
David Suchet.

The case of the preferred Poirot is an easy one to solve. I suspect that most Agatha Christie purists favor David Suchet over Peter Ustinov as the Belgian (not French!) detective. Personally, I adore them equally. Ustinov may place a little more emphasis on Hercule Poirot's humorous traits, but he can deliver an accusation just as crisp as Suchet.

Peter Ustinov first appeared as the famed detective in Death on the Nile (1978), an all-star follow-up to 1974's Murder on the Orient Express (which starred Albert Finney). Ustinov played Poirot five more times in two theatrical films and three movies made for American television. In contrast, David Suchet, who made his debut in the role in 1989, has starred in dozens of one-hour TV episodes and 90-minute movies for both the British network ITV and A&E. Interestingly, prior to playing Poirot, Suchet appeared opposite Ustinov's Poirot as the detective's Scotland Yard colleague Inspector Japp in 1985's Thirteen for Dinner.

The hotel in the 1982 film.
Both actors starred in adaptations of Agatha Christie's 1941 Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun (the title was derived from a verse in Ecclesiastes). After a prologue involving a seemingly unrelated murder, Hercule Poirot journeys to a secluded island hotel where all the guests share one thing: a hatred of wealthy, former actress Arlena Marshall. When her corpse is discovered on the beach, the Belgian detective sets out to uncover the identity of the murderer. At the climax, he assembles all the suspects, confronts the culprit, and explains (aided by flashbacks) how the ingenious crime was committed.

Diana Rigg as Arlena.
Both adaptations have their virtues and both make significant deviations from Christie's novel. The superior version is Ustinov's film, which was written by Anthony Shaffer, a playwright (Sleuth) and screenwriter (Frenzy) who understands how to condense a character-heavy book. Shaffer reduces the number of suspects by merging two into one and eliminating two minor characters altogether. This makes it easier for viewers to distinguish between the suspects and also allows Shaffer to flesh out their personality traits better. It helps that many of the characters are played by well-known performers: Maggie Smith, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, and Diana Rigg.

Poirot observes the crime scene.
The 1982 film also gets a boost from its stunning locations and a score comprised of Cole Porter songs. While the novel takes place in Devon, England, the movie shifts the action to an island in the Adriatic Sea. It was actually shot in Majorca, Spain, which features breathtaking landscapes and crystal blue waters. As for the score, it's a matter of taste, but Cole Porter tunes such as "You're the Top" give the picture a nice period feel (even if the songs become a bit repetitious).

Louise Delamere as Arlena.
David Suchet's 2001 version of Evil Under the Sun keeps the mystery in England, sending Poirot to the Sandy Ridge Hotel after being pronounced "medically obese." In addition to retaining more of the novel's suspects, it includes a drug smuggling subplot and expands the roles of Poirot's colleagues: Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon. In the end, it's just too much plot and too many characters to track given a running time of 100 minutes.

The Sandy Ridge Hotel in the 2001 film.
The island setting, while not as beautiful as in the earlier film, is still lovely (and perhaps not as distracting). As with Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, the isolated locale is central to the plot (though it's easier to reach a nearby village than in Ustinov's film). A cove, a ladder along the rocks leading to the beach, and the many island paths play a crucial part in a crime where impeccable timing is mandatory.

As for the mystery, it's clever enough--though Christie often seems to delight in straying from detective fiction conventions (if you've never read S.S. Van Dine's short essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories," I strongly encourage it...Agatha breaks a couple of key "rules"!).

In the end, one's preference for Suchet or Ustinov may tip the scales toward one version or the other of Evil Under the Sun. For me--assuming parity among the Poirots--I'll stick with the 1982 adaptation.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Lightness and Darkness: The Two Sides to Hitchcock's "Secret Agent"

Spoiler alert: This review reveals a key plot twist.

Made between the lighthearted The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and the dark Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent reflects elements of both. The combination is not always a successful one, but that doesn't keep Secret Agent from securing its place as an important work in the Hitchcock canon.

John Gielgud portrays an Army officer who agrees to undertake an important espionage mission during World War I. After a fake funeral, he is given a new identity as Richard Ashenden and is paired with a veteran agent simply known as The General (Peter Lorre). Their mission is to travel to Switzerland, uncover the identity of an enemy agent staying at the Excelsior Hotel, and ensure the spy does not reach Constantinople--even if it means murder.

John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll.
Upon his arrival at the hotel, Ashenden discovers that he has a "wife." She turns out to be Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), another British agent with even less experience than him. Although part of her job is to enhance Ashenden's cover, Elsa has been flirting extensively with Robert Marvin (Robert Young), an American businessman. Unfortunately, she has failed to discover any information about the German spy's identity.

Ashenden and The General gain a valuable clue when they uncover a corpse in an Alpine church, the dead man's hand clutching a button apparently ripped from the murderer's clothes. That evening, Ashenden meets Mr. Caypor, a British tourist traveling with his mother and who is missing a familiar-looking button. Unable to confirm that Caypor is their man--but aware that he will soon leave Switzerland--Ashenden and the General murder him in the mountains. That evening, Ashenden receives a telegram that reads: "Your message is received. You are after the wrong man. Look elsewhere." Guilt stricken over having helped kill an innocent man, Ashenden also realizes he has failed in his mission.

Peter Lorre and Gielgud.
The first half of Secret Agent reflects the light tone of The Thirty-Nine Steps. After Ashenden's death is faked and he has received his mission, his superior asks: "You love your country?" "I just died for it," quips Ashenden. Likewise, the playful banter between Elsa and her two suitors--Marvin and later Ashenden--reflects the earlier film (which also starred Ms. Carroll). Even The General is portrayed as a slightly humorous character as the screenplay plays up his fondness for the opposite sex. But this good-natured approach is tossed out the window once Ashenden and The General murder Caypor.

Ashenden's view through the telescope.
The murder sequence is a Hitchcock tour-de-force. Ashenden accepts the role of accomplice, but cannot do the dirty deed himself so he watches through a telescope as The General pushes Caypor off the mountain. Hitchcocks intercuts this scene with Elsa and Marvin visiting with Caypor's mother and dog. As The General edges his victim closer to the precipice, Caypor's little dog goes to the door and begins to whine. Hitchcock doesn't show us the actual murder, opting to letting us see:  Ashenden's shock as he pulls back from the telescope; a long distance shot of The General standing alone in the snow; and Caypor's dog as it begins to howl with grief.

The second half of Secret Agent reflects the dark tone of Sabotage, as Ashenden and (especially) Elsa struggle with the guilt over the death of an innocent man. Elsa wants no further involvement with the espionage mission, one she undertook naively for "excitement and danger." The General, on the other hand, is prepared to do whatever is required and if there's some collateral damage, then so be it. That leaves Ashenden in the middle, torn between his guilt and his sense of patriotic duty.

The chase through the chocolate factory.
Like other great directors who made the transition from silent films to talkies, Hitchcock uses sound creatively. During a key scene in a chocolate factory, Hitchcock drowns out important dialogue with the sound of the chocolate-making machines. The scene's revelation--the identity of the real spy--is revealed later in a written note. Likewise, Hitchcock exploits natural sounds to great advantage: the dog howling in response to its owner's death and bells sounding in a tower where Ashenden and The General are hiding, almost deafening the two men.

Thematically, many familiar Hitchcock plot devices can be found in Secret Agent:  the amateur thrust into an espionage plot (e.g., Saboteur, North By Northwest); the use of false identities (e.g., Spellbound, Stage Fright, Vertigo); the outwardly charming villain (e.g., Notorious); and moral dilemmas (e.g., Vertigo,  I Confess).

In conclusion, Secret Agent may not be top-tier Hitchcock, but it's a thought-provoking film and required viewing for any fan of the Master of Suspense.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fred MacMurray and Alligators Can't Save "The Happiest Millionaire"

Fred MacMurray as the title character.
The most baffling thing about The Happiest Millionaire is its intended audience. It's hard to imagine many youngsters sitting through a 172-minute musical (though there were multiple versions, including a "shorter" 116-minute edition). The leading characters are a middle-aged millionaire and his 20-year-old daughter. And the plot is basically a love story with some eccentric characters added for flavor. Ultimately, The Happiest Millionaire is too childish for grown-ups and too grown up for children.

Steele dancing in the streets.
Despite such challenges, the film gets off to a perky start with Tommy Steele singing and dancing to "Fortuosity"  along the streets of 1916 Philadelphia. Steele plays John Lawless, an Irish immigrant fresh off the ship, who hopes to work as a butler for the wealthy Biddle family. What John doesn't know is that the Biddles, especially father Anthony J. Drexel Biddle (Fred MacMurray), are a bit eccentric. Mr. Biddle keeps pet alligators in the conservatory and teaches bible classes that incorporate boxing. Indeed, all the Biddle children--to include the only daughter, Cordy--are well versed in the pugilistic arts.

Warren and Davidson duet.
Cordy's aunt suggests that the young woman attend the Wingfield School for Girls to learn the finer social graces. Surprisingly, Cordy (Lesley Ann Warren) agrees, much to her doting father's dismay. While attending a dance, Cordy meets Angier "Angie" Buchanan Duke (John Davidson) and it's love at first sight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that neither set of parents approve of a possible marriage between their children.

On paper, The Happiest Millionaire must have resembled a boxoffice winner. MacMurray, who was still popular thanks to My Three Sons, had appeared in some of Disney's most successful live-action films (e.g., The Absent-Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog). Newcomer Warren had charmed television viewers in the lead role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Greer Garson and Geraldine Page headed an impressive supporting cast. And composers Richard and Robert Sherman were just three years removed from their monster hit Mary Poppins.

Steele dancing with alligator.
Alas, a strong pedigree doesn't result in a good movie. Yes, there are a handful of inspired musical numbers: the previously-mentioned "Fortuosity"; Warren and Davidson's pretty duet "Are We Dancing?"; and Davidson and Steele in a barroom production number called "Let's Have a Drink on It." However, for most of its lumbering length, The Happiest Millionaire vainly tries to turn on the charm. Steele, who can be too energetic (e.g., Finian's Rainbow), tries to inject life into the proceedings, often talking to the audience or offering a sly wink. Unfortunately, his butler character fades to the background for most of the film.

A colorful look is one of the film's virtues.
From a production standpoint, The Happiest Millionaire offers a feast for the eyes. It earned an Oscar nomination for its costumes, but equally impressive are the elaborate sets, the recreated period look, and the bright autumn colors.

Interestingly, there really was an Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, who was indeed an eccentric Philadelphia millionaire interested in boxing and alligators. And, as portrayed in The Happiest Millionaire, his daughter Cordelia married Angier Buchanan Duke (whose family established an endowment to Duke University). In 1955, Cordelia co-wrote a biography about her father, which was adapted as a play starring Walter Pidgeon. Apparently, no live alligators were in it!