Monday, July 29, 2013

The Five Best Sidney Poitier Performances

One of the most biggest stars of the 1960s--and a personal fave at the Café--gets our "Five Best" treatment. It wasn't easy culling through Sidney Poitier's impressive array of performances and it was harder still to relegate the immensely likable Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to honorable mention status. However, the task here was to pick out his best performances, not to list our favorite Sidney Poitier movies. (Of course, to be honest, we love all five of the films below!)

1. Lilies of the Field.  Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for playing Homer Smith, a drifter who stops to get water for his car at a southwestern farm run by German nuns. What Homer doesn't know is that the nuns believe he is the answer to their prayers--that he will build a chapel for them even though they have no money nor materials for the building. Often described as a feel-good movie, Lilies of the Field far exceeds that simple label with its inspirational message about faith and finding meaning in one's life. Poitier is at his most charming as Homer, a stubborn man who resists building the chapel initially. When he finally relents, he doesn't want anyone to help him. His scenes with the equally firm Mother Maria (beautifully played by Lilia Skala) are not to be missed.

2. The Defiant Ones. This 1958 classic helped define the term "high concept film" with a terrific premise about two escaped convicts--still shackled together--trying to escape a posse in the South. Not only do these men hate each other, but one is white (Tony Curtis), the other is black (Poitier), and racism is rampant around them. Poitier gives a dynamic performance as the persevering Noah Cullen and his hard work seems to inspire Curtis, who turns in one of the finest acting jobs of his career, too.

3. In the Heat of the NightThis racially-charged mystery, 1968’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, has aged gracefully over the years. The secret to its success can be attributed to its many layers. Peel back the mystery plot and you have a potent examination of racial tension in the South in the 1960s. Peel that back and you have a rich character study of two lonely police detectives, from completely different backgrounds, who gradually earn each other’s respect. Sidney Poitier has his most famous best role as the intelligent, proud, (and perhaps somewhat prejudiced) police detective Virgil Tibbs. He skillfully underplays the part, so that when Tibbs strikes a rich white man (a controversial scene at the time) or flashes his anger toward Rod Steiger's redneck sheriff, those scenes catch fire. Amazingly, Poitier was not Oscar nominated, perhaps because his votes were split among three memorable 1967 performances: In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. He reprised the Tibbs role twice in the lesser efforts They Call Me MISTER Tibbs and The Organization.

4. To Sir, With LoveIn a role seemingly tailored for him, Sidney Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a young engineer looking for a job. Unable to find one in his chosen profession, he accepts temporary employment as a teacher in an inner-city London school. It’s a bleak situation—the students are out of control, most of the teachers are burned out, and the school reflects the poverty of the surrounding neighborhood. Cynics criticize To Sir, With Love as simple-minded and obvious. Perhaps it is, but Poitier helps put the story across with such conviction and professionalism that it’s impossible to ignore its many charms. In particular, a subplot involving an attractive student (Judy Geeson) who develops a crush on Thackeray is handled impeccably.

5. A Patch of Blue. A constant thread throughout these five films is that a focal point of each is the relationship between two characters of starkly different backgrounds. In A Patch of Blue, Poitier plays an educated working man who befriends a blind young woman (Elizabeth Hartman) who lives with her abusive prostitute mother (Shelley Winters). A Patch of Blue could have easily veered into a "message picture" showing that love is literally blind. However, Poitier and Hartman bring a genuine quality to their performances, making their growing friendship believable and pulling us into their world. Just watch Poitier's face when Hartman's character confesses her love for him. That is the kind of scene that made Sidney Poitier a star.

Honorable Mention:  Edge of the City; A Raisin in the SunBlackboard Jungle; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and Brother John.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

James Cameron, John Sayles, and John-Boy? It Must be "Battle Beyond the Stars"

Hoping to capitalize on the enormous popularity of 1977's Stars Wars, producer Roger Corman turned to John Sayles to craft an outer space adventure about another young man destined to become an unlikely hero. Sayles was on the verge of achieving critical success for his reunion comedy-drama Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), the unofficial inspiration for The Big Chill. In the meantime, though, he paid the bills by writing witty screenplays for Corman and other budget-minded producers. His writing credits during this period include Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling.

Richard Thomas as John-Boy...I mean, Shad.
Battle Beyond the Stars is one of Sayles' lesser efforts. His intent seems clever enough: Transplant the premise of Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai (remade as the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven) to a science fiction adventure. To that end, Richard Thomas stars as Shad, a young lad whose planet is under siege by the evil Sador (John Saxon). After inflicting some random killings, Sador promises: "I will return in seven risings. You are mine."

Not wanting to be "his," the village elders send Shad on a mission to find some mercenaries ("To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence"). Aboard his talking, smart-aleck ship Nell, Shad scours the galaxy and returns with six companions--only one of which could be described as a mercenary. Still, they prove to be a formidable force when Sador and his army return.

They are Nestor.
The first hour of this galactic hodgepodge has its share of amusing moments, such as the five beings that share a single conscience.

NESTOR: We are Nestor...these five facets. Four of us are required to operate the shop.

SHAD: What about the fifth?

NESTOR: We always carry a spare.

Alas, once Sador returns for the big showdown, Battle Beyond the Stars drops into a black hole. The spaceship battles drag on for over 20 minutes, leaving plenty of time to realize that special effects aren't special when you're working on a tight budget. Many of the effects were devised by a young crew member named James Cameron (and, yes, it is that James Cameron). Don't expect any amazing, innovative special effects, though. It's apparent that Cameron was a novice and had much to learn before developing the stunning visuals in Avatar (and, of course, benefiting from an exponential  budget increase and three decades of technological advances).

Cult fan favorite Sybil Danning.
Richard Thomas is adequate in the lead role, though John-Boy Walton still looks out of place on a spaceship. Robert Vaughn, who played one of the mercenaries in The Magnificent Seven, pays homage to his earlier film (though, oddly enough, Vaughn's role this time around shares many similarities with Charles Bronon's in Magnificent Seven). George Peppard seems bored with his part as the rascally gun-runner Cowboy (think Han Solo). Sybil Danning looks physically imposing, as always, but has nothing to do. Ditto for Marta Kristen, which is sure to disappoint her Lost in Space fans.

It's easy to dismiss Battle Beyond the Stars as a routine Star Wars rip-off. Indeed, that may be an apt description, but it's still worth viewing as a training ground for Cameron, Sayles (who later earned two Oscar nominations for screenwriting), and composer James Horner (who teamed up with Cameron on Titanic and Avatar).

Monday, July 22, 2013

From the Café's Bookshelf: "My Lunches With Orson"

The most addictive film book in recent memory, My Lunches With Orson portrays Orson Welles at his unvarnished best during his twilight years. From the cinematic splendor of Citizen Kane to his Paul Masson wine commercials, Welles was always an enigma--a brilliant filmmaker, theater producer, and actor who appeared in his share of dreadful movies (e.g., 1967's Casino Royale) and even considered a Love Boat appearance. This new book, edited by Peter Biskind, consists of highlights of recorded conversations between Welles and independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom between 1978 and 1985. Talking off the record, Welles provides rare insights into his own works, amusing anecdotes, frank assessments of other films and performers, and the reasons why some of his projects never came to fruition.

In his pithy introduction, Biskind describes how Welles and Jaglom met while the latter was writing and directing his first film, 1971's A Safe Place. After learning from mutual friend Peter Bogdanovich that Welles was in NYC, Jaglom tried to convinced his filmmaking idol to appear in his debut film. Jaglom piqued Welles' interest by offering him a role as "The Magician" (Welles was fascinated with magic in his youth). After several questions, Welles asked his most important one: "Can I wear a cape?" When Jaglom responded yes, Welles agreed to appear in the young man's film.

The two men reconnected in 1978 when Jaglom ran into Welles at Ma Maison, a French restaurant in West Hollywood. Welles and Jaglom met almost weekly for lunch for the next seven years, until Welles' death in 1985. With Welles' permission, Jaglom began recording the conversations in 1983 and those discussions are the basis for My Lunches With Orson. The conversations are not 100% Welles; editor Biskind notes that he added or subtracted phrases "for the purpose of making the conversations more concise and intelligible" and that he altered some of Welles' comments "with an eye to furnishing context."

Readers who expect a series of in-depth interviews focusing on Welles' films, like Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, will be disappointed. These are literally "lunch conversations" that jump from topic to topic--it just happens that one of the men talking ranks with the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. A running thread throughout the conversations is Welles' inability to gain financing for a new film. By this point in his career, his friend Jaglom had also become his de facto agent.

With Jaglom's encouragement, Welles wrote a screenplay for a political drama called The Big Brass Ring. He even secured $8 million in financing with a guarantee of total control of the film. There was just one caveat: He had to get a major star--from a list of "six or seven A-list actors" to agree to play the lead. Unfortunately, Welles was rebuffed, for various reasons, by Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds (!), and even his friends Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. (Interestingly, The Big Brass Ring was eventually made in 1999 by another director, with a revised screenplay, and starring William Hurt.)

Although the conversations portray Welles as a frustrated artist, he rarely sounds bitter. That doesn't mean that he holds back on his assessments of other films and performers. His unadorned comments are surely the most entertaining aspects of My Lunches With Orson. Here's a sample:

Joan Fontaine: "She's just a plain old bad actor. She's got four line readings, and two expressions, and that's it."

John Ford: "I recently saw what I've always been told was Jack [Ford's] greatest movie, and it's terrible. The Searchers. He made many very bad pictures."

Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion: "Probably one of the three or four best ever. I burst into tears at Grand Illusion every time."

W.C. Fields: "Nobody who didn't see him in the theater will ever know how great W.C. Fields was. He was a shadow of himself in films. A shadow! A tenth as funny as he was on stage."

John Huston: "His first picture, The Maltese Falcon, was totally borrowed from Kane. It was made the next year, you know."

The Third Man: "It's a hell of a picture."

Rear Window: "Everything is stupid about it. Complete insensitivity to what a story of voyeurism could be. I'll tell you what is astonishing. To discover than Jimmy Stewart can be a bad actor. But really bad."

In addition to his introduction, editor Peter Biskind includes a descriptive list of Welles' unfinished projects (e.g., King Lear), brief biographical sketches of selected people, and an epilogue written by Jaglom. There are a handful of photographs of the two filmmakers. Unfortunately, there is not an index, which is perplexing.

My Lunches With Orson is a must-read for any film buff. You may not agree with what Welles has to say. In fact, sometimes you may think that he's just being contrary for the fun of it. But there is no denying that these conversations are highly entertaining and never dull. In short, this book is the next best thing to being one of Orson's guests at Ma Maison.

Metropolitan Books provided a review copy of this book.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The 5 Best “Mission: Impossible” Episodes

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to to learn more about Me-TV and its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

My wife and I compiled this list of favorite episodes of Mission: Impossible, the TV series created by Bruce Geller and which ran for seven seasons. For those unfamiliar with the series, it details the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), a secret agency enlisted for more sensitive assignments, both domestic and foreign. The following selections do not include any episodes from either season of the 1988-90 series update.

1. “The Seal” (Season 2, Episode 9/Written by William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter; Directed by Alexander Singer) The team is tasked to recover a jade seal from a tycoon (Darren McGavin). Cinnamon (Barbara Bain) as a TV reporter and Rollin (Martin Landau) as a psychic provide a distraction as Barney (Greg Morris) and Jim (Peter Graves), the latter in a rare position of handling grunt work, pilfer the seal. The real star, however, is Rusty the cat, who is coaxed by Barney to walk across a makeshift plank and carry the item back to the IMF agents. The always reliable Barney must bypass a sonar alarm and pressure-sensitive floor, a seemingly impossible burglary that’s reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s 1996 feature film. (For dog lovers, Season 4 offers “Chico”, in which the four-legged titular hero has to squeeze himself into a small air duct to recover an item and has to return it. Interestingly, the bad guys are after a list revealing agents’ names, which is legible only when two separate lists are placed together, another plot device taken for the ‘96 movie -- though they’re the names of IMF agents in the film, not in the episode.)

2. “The Heir Apparent” (Season 3, Episode 1/Written by Robert E. Thompson; Directed by Alexander Singer) To stop a villain from taking power, Cinnamon poses as a long-lost blind princess. To prove that she is who she claims, she must solve a complicated puzzle box. Barney and Willy (Peter Lupus) dig and crawl through walls to reach the puzzle box, which Barney has to solve and mark for Cinnamon mere moments before the woman is asked to open the box. Equally impressive is Rollin, who alters his disguise and changes identities while sitting in a crowd of onlookers.

3. “Old Man Out: Parts 1-2” (Season 1, Episodes 4-5/Written by Ellis Marcus; Directed by Charles R. Rondeau) Acrobat Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley), who has history with team leader Dan (Steven Hill), is recruited for a mission to extract an 80-year-old priest from a high security prison. The team poses as circus performers who set up just outside the prison walls, while Rollin gets himself arrested and subsequently imprisoned. Though Landau was still only credited as “guest star” in Season 1, this two-parter is a showcase for Rollin, who not only skillfully escapes his cell, but, due to the priest being moved without anyone’s knowledge, must sneak back into the cell and execute the jailbreak again.

4. “Hunted” (Season 5, Episode 10/Written by Helen Hoblock Thompson; Directed by Terry Becker) While freeing a man from captivity in Africa, Barney is critically injured and left behind. After ensuring that the hostage is safe, the team returns to save Barney, who has been taken in by a deaf-mute seamtress (Ta-Tanisha). The scenes shared by Barney and his savior, Gabby, including one in which Gabby digs a bullet out of Barney’s leg, are wholly engaging and sweetly romantic. Suspense is heightened when Paris (Leonard Nimoy), acting as a decoy (to mislead authorities on the search) and feigning an injury similar to one which Barney sustained, is genuinely wounded in the process. The episode is an expression of both Barney’s versatility and the team’s loyalty. Other members, such as Cinnamon and Paris, have been captured or hurt during assignments, but, despite the knowledge that they will be disavowed if caught or killed, there’s never a debate as to whether or not a team member will be forgotten. It quite simply becomes another mission.

5. “Encore” (Season 6, Episode 2/Written by Harold Livingston; Directed by Paul Krasny) The team makes an aging gangster, Thomas Kroll (William Shatner), believe that he’s 30 years younger and in 1937, all to obtain any evidence linking him directly to an unsolved murder. Each member portrays a figure in Kroll’s life, including Casey (Lynda Day George) as the murdered man’s sister and Doug (Sam Elliott) as the murdered man, with the hopes that the gangster will lead them to the body. One of the team’s more elaborate missions, it thrives on the atmosphere and surroundings (there’s a great moment when Jim removes an extra’s too-modern sunglasses), and the episode has an appropriately apocalyptic ending.

Honorable Mentions: “A Spool There Was” (S1, E9) -- Cinnamon and Rollin work an assignment with just the two of them, searching for a wire of recorded audio well hidden by a murdered agent. A solid pairing of the couple, made all the more watchable knowing that actors Landau and Bain were husband and wife. “Charity” (S2, E10) and “The Mercenaries” (S3, E4) -- Both of these episodes feature an immensely entertaining and memorable method of theft, as well as ingenious ways to deceive the villains who have just been robbed.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Fugitive: A Classic Kimble-Gerard Episode

Lt. Philip Gerard and Dr. Richard Kimble.
The similarities between The Fugitive's detective Lieutenant Philip Gerard and Inspector Javert from Les Misérables were there from the beginning. Mel Proctor, author of The Official Fan's Guide to The Fugitive wrote that series creator Roy Huggins intentionally borrowed from Victor Hugo's novel: "Huggins described Kimble's pursuer as a man from the state attorney's office and said the chase would embody the characteristics of Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean."

Barbara Rush as Marie Gerard.
Some of the series' best episodes are those that pair Richard Kimble (David Janssen) with his dogged pursuer (Barry Morse). Sometimes, their interaction is centered around another member of the Gerard family. In the excellent season 3 two-part episode "Landscape with Running Figures," Kimble comes to the aid of Mrs. Gerard (Barbara Rush), who has become temporarily blind following a bus accident. And in "Nemesis," Kimble steals a sheriff's car in which Philip Gerard, Jr. (a young Kurt Russell) is hiding in the backseat. These episodes and others cause Gerard to reflect--if only for a moment--that Kimble may indeed be innocent of murdering his wife. But in the end, that's a moot point, for Gerard is only concerned with capturing the man that escaped while in his custody.

The best episode that focuses solely on the Kimble-Gerard relationship is "Corner of Hell" from season 2, which William Conrad describes in his opening narrative as a "grim encounter with truth and irony." The episode starts with Gerard in hot pursuit of Kimble (who's driving a truck, perhaps his most frequent occupation during the series' run). When Kimble comes upon a police barricade, he smashes through it, drives down the road, and runs off into the woods. He doesn't see a rickety wooden sign stating: "Keep out! This means you."

The sheriff refuses to pursue Kimble any further, explaining to Gerard that the woods are full of moonshiners, whom the local law officials choose to ignore. When Gerard insists on a manhunt, even if he goes on it alone, the sheriff replies: "Them people hate a stranger. They hate a lawman. They hate a man in a store-bought suit. You're all three."

Guest star R.G. Armstrong.
Meanwhile, Kimble encounters a family of moonshiners led by the tobacco-chewing Tully (R.G. Armstrong). When Cody (Bruce Dern), the clan's resident trouble-maker, gets injured in a fight with Kimble, the former physician tends to Cody's wound. That earns him a little respect, which only grows when Tully learns that Kimble is running from the law (it helps too that Tully's daughter has taken a shine to the good doctor).When Gerard appears at the moonshiners' camp, Tully assures Kimble: "You'll be safe. You can watch how we get shed of somebody we don't really want around here."

The moonshiners scuff up Gerard and vandalize his car, but the real trouble starts when the detective is falsely accused of assaulting Tully's daughter (the real culprit is Cody, of course). The moonshiners are prepared to lynch Gerard, when--in a touch of brilliant irony--Kimble has to intervene to save his pursuer.

Barry Morse and Bruce Dern.
GERARD (who's tied to a chair and sounding desperate):  Our system of justice may not be perfect, but it does give every man a fair chance to defend himself.

TULLY:  How 'bout that, Doc? You get a fair chance in court?


TULLY:  You mean he's speakin' the truth. You're a killer?"

KIMBLE:  No, I couldn't prove my innocence--but they let me try.

The outcome of "Corner of Hell" is obvious, not only from a practical series standpoint, but also because the viewer knows Kimble to be a noble man. Still, the episode turns the tables for once and lets Gerard experience the horror of telling the truth when no one will listen.

In the episode's closing scene, Gerard proves that--despite this experience--nothing has changed. His final words to Kimble are: "The truth is you're still guilty before the law."

And Kimble understands what that means, that Gerard will continue his relentless pursuit--just like Javert. "He'll keep trying," Kimble confides to Tully. "As long as there's a chance, he'll keep trying."

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to to learn more about Me-TV and its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jacques Tourneur's Final Film: War-Gods of the Deep

Star Susan Hart later married AIP
founder James H. Nicholson.
When a solicitor's body washes up on the Cornish coast, mining engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) goes to the local hotel to see the dead man's employer, fellow American Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart). Jill only knows that Mr. Penrose, the solicitor, went missing. When Ben enters the dead man's room--darkened due to a power outage--he discovers a human-like creature that seemingly disappears. A short time later, Jill is kidnapped and Ben and hotel guest Harold (David Tomlinson) discover a secret passage that leads from the hotel to (pause for effect) an underwater city.

It's a fabulous start to what promises to be a rollicking turn-of-the-century adventure in the vein of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Unfortunately, War-Gods of the Deep (also known as the more obvious City in the Sea) fails to deliver on its promise. One can't fault a game cast and a fine director working on his final film at age 61.

After directing such classics as Out of the PastCat People, and Berlin Express, Jacques Tourneur turned to television for employment in the late 1950s and 1960s. He directed episodes of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and other series. He still helmed occasional films, including the 1958 gem Curse of the Demon, but he was more likely to be offered pictures such as the Italian import Giant of Marathon (1959).  Then, in the mid-1960s, American International Pictures (AIP) signed him to do the funny horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors and War-Gods of the Deep.

A glimpse of the creature!
Tourneur makes War-Gods look much more expensive than its budget. He also infuses the opening scenes with a mysterious atmosphere, with the whistling seashore winds and overhead shots of the steep cliffs. He employs careful lighting that provides a perfect glimpse of the creature that kidnaps Jill (reflecting mentor Val Lewton's contention that showing less is always scarier). The underwater city's sets, bathed in orange, blue, and red, are fairly impressive, too. It helped no doubt that Daniel Haller was one of the film's producers. Haller spent much of his career as an art director, working with Roger Corman on films such as The Pit and the Pendulum. Haller built his reputation on creating expensive-looking sets on a dime.

Vincent Price as the ruler of the
city under the sea.
With a better script, Tourneur might have made a "B" movie classic--but it's the script that dooms War-Gods of the Deep. The original screenwriter was Charles Bennett, who worked on several Hitchcock films (The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent) as well as Curse of the Demon. However, Bennett wasn't used to working under AIP's short production schedules, in which a script had to be written from start to finish in under three weeks. Additionally, the only source material was Edgar Allan Poe's poem The City in the Sea, which doesn't have a plot (of course). In Tom Weaver's book Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes, screenwriter Louis M. Heyward recalls:

War-Gods was being shot in England and they ran into problems with the then-producer....I called, and he said, "Dear lad, the script's impossible." I said, "Most of our scripts are impossible!" (And the ones that weren't impossible were improbable!) He said, "I can't possibly shoot."

The beautiful Cornish coast.
AIP executive Sam Arkoff asked Heyward to rewrite the screenplay and, according to actress Susan Hart, the script was tweaked as Tourneur shot the film. Heyward's contributions, including a humorous character played by Tomlinson (who totes around a pet chicken!), don't salvage the film. There are far too many scenes where the characters just stand around and talk once they reach the underwater city. There are hints that the city's denizens are immortal, but that angle is never fully explored. Finally, the climax--which takes place largely underwater--looks like slow motion and is practically incomprehensible because (except for the close-ups) you can't tell who is who. (In general, I am not a fan of protracted underwater scenes; I have similar issues with Thunderball.)

As for the cast, Vincent Price makes a believable villain, Tab Hunter is an acceptable hero, and Susan Hart looks stunning in what is actually a small role. Hunter and Hart also appeared together (as a couple no less) in the much more enjoyable Ride the Wild Surf.

War-Gods of the Deep is not a dreadful film. It's a frustrating film--with a great opening that leads nowhere.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On a Clear Day You Can See (and Hear) Barbra

Barbra as Daisy Gamble.
This colorful adaptation of the 1965 Broadway musical is neither a delight nor dud. On the plus side, it earns kudos for originality--really, a musical about reincarnation? Barbra Streisand, still basking in the glow of Funny Girl, sounds terrific, especially on the soaring title tune. Yet, despite those virtues, On a Clear Day is ultimately that promising date that doesn't pan out--not a bad experience...but no one is interested in exchanging phone numbers.

Barbra as Melinda.
Barbra plays Daisy Gamble, a free-spirited young woman with an uptight fiance (Larry Blyden) and a touch of extra sensory perception. She seeks out college professor Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) to help her quit smoking through hypnosis. When under a trance, she recalls a previous life as Melinda Tentrees, a British socialite who rose from the lower classes. As the hypnosis sessions continue, Marc realizes that his growing admiration for the strong, confident Melinda may be turning into something more. He also becomes frustrated with the insecure Daisy, lamenting privately that she is the caterpillar and Melinda the butterfly.

Yves Montand as Marc.
Streisand and Montand make an odd couple, especially with the age difference (he was two decades older). That may be one of the reasons that the film's ending differs from the stage musical (and for the better, I think). When Paramount signed Richard Harris to a three-film contract in 1967, its intent was to pair him with Streisand in On a Clear Day. I'm not sure that would have worked better; frankly, I can't imagine him singing Montand's big song, the catchy "Come Back to Me."

Barbra in a chair-matching dress.
The songs by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner are forgettable except for the title song, the aforementioned "Come Back to Me," and Streisand's delightful rendition of "Go to Sleep." For the latter song, she duets with herself--with both Streisands wearing outfits that blend into the furniture. (Lane and Lerner added this song for the movie; it has since appeared in some of the stage revivals).

Nicholson in his trimmed role.
Director Vincente Minnelli's original version ran over three hours and was intended as a "roadshow" attraction. But with musicals on the decline, the film was shortened by an hour, eliminating several musical numbers and much of Jack Nicholson's performance as Daisy's half-brother.

In the end, one's appreciation for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever depends on one's affection for Ms. Streisand. Personally, I've always enjoyed her comedies more than her dramas, as evidenced by her delivery of this line after finding out about Marc's infatuation with Melinda: "He wasn't interested in me. He was interested in me." And, of course, no one can deny that the woman can sing.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Classic Movies about Reincarnation

In The Undead , a call girl remembers
her past as an accused witch.
The definitive film on this intriguing subject has yet to be made. In the past, reincarnation has been chiefly employed in comedies and low-budget efforts that emphasized its sensationalistic values. The first of these latter films was 1956’s The Search for Bridey Murphy, an adaptation of Morey Bernstein’s allegedly fact-based best seller about a housewife who reveals under hypnosis that she led another life 200 years earlier. 

This dreary, uninvolving tale captured the public’s fancy and imitations followed in rapid succession. Spell of the Hypnotist (1956), Roger Corman’s The Undead (1957), and the Bowery Boys’ Hold That Hypnotist (1957) all concerned people who learned of previous existences through hypnotism. Corman’s movie, shot in a refurbished supermarket, was the best of the bunch, mixing witch trials and time travel elements with its reincarnation plot. 

Hypnotism also played a prominent role in the only reincarnation musical comedy, Barbra Streisand’s On a Clear Day You Can Forever. Men were reincarnated as women in Goodbye, Charlie (1964), Cleo/Leo (1989), and Switch (1991). 

No discussion on celebrity reincarnation would be complete without mentioning Shirley MacLaine, who espoused her beliefs in Out on a Limb, a TV-movie based on her autobiographical best seller In Defending Your Life (1991), Shirley introduced people to their past lives at the heavenly Past Lives Pavilion. 

Finally, I'd be remiss not to mention to The Mummy movies, in which reincarnation is often a recurring theme. Here's a representative sample of reincarnation films:

She (1935)
Corridor of Mirrors (1948)
You Never Can Tell (1951)
The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956)
I’ve Lived Before (1956)
Hold That Hypnotist (1957)
The She Creature (1957)
Spell of the Hypnotist (aka Fright) (1956)
The Undead (1957)
Curse of the Faceless Man (1958)
Goodbye, Charlie (1964)
She (1965)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)
Night of Dark Shadows (1971)
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)
Audrey Rose (1977)
Oh, Heavenly Dog! (1980)
All of Me (1984)
Déjà Vu (1985)
Out on a Limb (1987 TVM)
Chances Are (1989)
Manika:  The Girl Who Lived Twice (1989)
Cleo/Leo (1989)
Identity Crisis (1990)
Switch (1991)
Defending Your Life (1991) 
Hi Honey, I’m Dead (1991 TVM)
Dead Again (1991)
Dying to Remember (1993 TVM)
Fatally Yours (1996)
The Demolitionist (1996)
Kundun (1997)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (1998 TVM)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and "The Boys from Brazil"

When a young man learns of a secret meeting of Nazi war criminals in modern-day Paraguay, he contacts veteran Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier). Lieberman's response is less than enthusiastic: "It may be a blinding revelation to you that there are Nazis in Paraguay, but I assure you it's no news to me."

However, when a second phone call is abruptly cut off and the young man disappears, Lieberman's suspicions grow. Between the two phone calls and a package of photos from the assumed-dead man, the elderly Nazi hunter knows only this: Nazi "butcher" Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) is at the center of a mysterious plot that requires ninety-four men, aged 65, to be murdered on or near the same date. All of the would-be victims are "minor authority figures" such as postmasters, tax collectors, etc. They are all married to women significantly younger than them.

Laurence Olivier as Lieberman and
Lilli Palmer as his sister.
When Lieberman and a colleague compare notes after visiting the homes of two of the widows, they uncover a striking oddity. Each family has only one child, a male, age 13 and with black hair--and the boys look and act alike.

The Boys from Brazil was based on the bestselling 1976 novel by Ira Levin, the acclaimed novelist/playwright who wrote Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and Deathtrap. Although there are broad thematic connections between The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, the latter plays out as a straightforward mystery (i.e., what is Mengele up to?) before sharing its revelation en route to a suspenseful climax.

Peck as Josef Mengele.
The plot moves almost fast enough to disguise two major flaws. First, with very few resources at their disposal, Lieberman and his sister cull through a tremendous amount of data and somehow discover a handful of the assassination targets. Given the number of men globally who fit Mengele's criteria, it's an incredulous feat. Secondly, during the climax, Lieberman and Mengele arrive at the same home in Pennsylvanian Amish country--at the same time! It's a convenient coincidence, to say the least, but probably a necessary one if Lieberman and Mengele are going to have a showdown.

The casting of Hollywood greats Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck delivers mixed results. As the Jewish Lieberman (based on the real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal), Olivier creates an unlikely, effective hero: a sly, cranky, sometimes humorous old man steadfast in his pursuit of Nazi criminals despite dwindling resources and interest. It's a performance that earned Olivier an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

In contrast, Gregory Peck struggles with portraying a larger-than-life villain. For an actor who was often masterful playing understated characters, he goes over the top in Mengele's big scenes, shouting dialogue emphatically and waving his arms like a fire-and-brimstone evangelist. His extremist villain seems incapable of masterminding a large-scale plot to "fulfill the destiny of the Aryan race." Interestingly, the real-life Josef Mengele allegedly died in South America shortly after the film's release.

James Mason co-stars as one of
Mengele's Nazi colleagues.
In addition to Olivier's Oscar nomination, composer Jerry Goldsmith also earned one for his score. His title theme brilliantly intersperses a grand, flowing waltz with an ominous melody. Thus, his soundtrack underscores the film's theme of potential evil lurking in the most common, unexpected places.

Levin's ingenious premise, Olivier's performance, and Goldsmith's score are three good reasons to watch The Boys from Brazil. Admittedly, it's hard to watch a talented actor like Peck struggle and it's equally difficult to overlook some of the coincidences that drive the plot. But, in the end--just as in The Boys from Brazil--the good (reasons to watch) triumphs over the bad (reasons not to watch).