Thursday, August 29, 2013

John Mills, Jane Greer, and Richard Basehart: It's Triple Feature Time at the Cafe!

Jim--haunted by memories of the tragedy.
The October Man (1947). A bus accident on a dark, rainy night leaves Jim Ackland (John Mills) with a skull fracture--and the tragic memory of a friend's young daughter who died while under his care. After spending a year in a hospital, Jim emerges a fragile man who still battles suicidal thoughts. He resumes his work as an industrial chemist and takes a room in the nearby Broadhurst Common Hotel. He makes no friends at the hotel, but finds love with a co-worker's sister. But, just as his life begins to brighten, darkness falls again when he becomes implicated in the murder of a hotel resident.

The luminous Joan Greenwood.
Hitchcock might have crafted a classic suspense film had he adapted Eric Ambler's novel. However, in its current form, The October Man remains a tidy "B" movie with quality performances and atmospheric direction. John Mills is ideally cast in the lead, giving a nuanced performance as a man who finally gains a foothold in society, only to begin to doubt himself again. As his fiancee, Joan Greenwood--she of the marvelous voice--projects quiet strength and determination.

The October Man marked Roy Ward Baker's directorial debut. Baker, who befriended producer/writer Ambler during World War II, never gained acclaim as a director. Still, he had a solid career behind the camera with films such as A Night to Remember (about the Titanic) and Quatermass and the Pit, the best of Hammer's three Quatermass pictures.

There's nothing surprising about the outcome in The October Man. Indeed, in Hitchcock fashion, the killer's identity is revealed well before the climax. That works well enough, but the plot falters with how Ackland's innocence is ultimately confirmed. Still, The October Man is an intriguing, well-done effort worthy of a viewing.

The alluring Jane Greer.
The Falcon's Alibi (1946). The twelfth installment in the long-running Falcon "B" detective film series has one thing the previous installments didn't have: Jane Greer. In just her fifth movie, Ms. Greer plays Lola, a nightclub singer secretly married to a disc jockey called Nick the Night Owl (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Both Lola and Nick work in a hotel building that has been the site of several jewel robberies. Rita Corday (Joan Meredith) works as a secretary to one of the robbery victims. Fearing that she may be implicated in what turns out to be a jewelry scam, she enlists the aid of Tom Lawrence, aka The Falcon. And when has the handsome and suave Falcon ever passed on an opportunity to help out a pretty lady?

Tom Conway as The Falcon.
Of the three actors who played The Falcon--George Sanders, his brother Tom Conway, and John Calvert--my favorite is easily Conway. He approached the role with a light touch, yet never mocked these "B" mysteries. He also possessed a harder edge than his brother, implying that The Falcon could get his hands dirty if he wanted to--he just didn't desire to do so.

The Falcon's Alibi is a solid mystery, but lacks the sparkle of the series' best entries (e.g. The Falcon and the Co-eds). There's also too little of Jane Greer, who sizzles softly in every frame in which she appears. Finally, the picture stretches credibility: Really, Wilbur from The Maltese Falcon (a different bird altogether) married to Kathie from Out of the Past? I don't buy it!

The Extra Day (1956). Shortly after a film production wraps and its cast members go their separate ways, the film's final reel falls out of the back of a truck and goes rolling into the English countryside. Faced with a movie with no climatic scenes, the egotistical director sends production manager Joe Blake (Richard Basehart) to round up the extras so the footage can be reshot the next day. Over the next 14 hours, Joe rescues an elderly couple from an uncomfortable living arrangement, poses as a gangster to prevent an extra from being pummeled in a boxing match, and enlists groupies to kidnap a pop singer to prevent a marriage.

Colin Gordon and Richard Basehart.
This pleasant British comedy starts slowly, but steadily improves en route to its ironic ending. The appealing cast has much to do with the film's charm, especially Simone Simon as an actress romantically interested in one of the extras (George Baker) and Colin Gordon as the uncle of the extra about to be married. Gordon was a familiar face in British cinema and television in the 1950s and 1960s. His film credits range from The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness to The Pink Panther and Burn, Witch, Burn. On television, he appeared twice as Number Two in The Prisoner and also guest starred in UFO, Doctor Who, and The Baron.

Simone Simon--pretty in pink.
American audiences probably remember Simone Simon best as Irena in Val Lewton's Cat People and Curse of the Cat People. However, Simon spent most of her long career appearing in French films, to include Jean Renoir's 1938 classic La Bête Humaine (later remade by Fritz Lang as Human Desire). At age 46--but not looking it--Simon gives a bewitching performance in The Extra Day. She subsequently retired from acting, though she returned for one final role in the 1973 comedy-drama The Woman in Blue.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Five Best Cary Grant Performances

One of the most beloved classic film actors, Cary Grant charmed audiences for four decades, co-starred with brilliant actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, and Deborah Kerr, and worked for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and George Cukor. Is it even possible to sift through his impressive filmography and select his five best performances? Well, yes, it is--because we have done so! As with all of our "Five Best" lists, we look forward to reading your dissenting opinions.

1. The Bishop's Wife.  While this film--required Christmas viewing in our house--has its share of magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), its greatest asset is Cary Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn't get the girl! Furthermore, his angel Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this portrayal of an often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley immensely likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.

2. Bringing Up Baby.  One of the highlights of this delirious screwball comedy is watching uptight paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Grant) slip deeper and deeper into increasingly madcap situations--until he just accepts them. While Cary Grant has played his share of free-spirited characters (e.g., Holiday), he's content in Baby to play off Katharine Hepburn's wacky character. He proves to be the perfect yin to her yang. It's a shame they made only four movies together and just this one true farce.

3. Notorious.  If I listed my favorite Cary Grant movies, then North By Northwest would get this slot. However, this is a list of Cary's best performances and so Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious gets the nod. As espionage agent T.R. Devlin, Grant comes mighty close to playing an unlikable character. In the name of patriotism, he recruits a confused young woman (Ingrid Bergman), falls in love with her, convinces her to spy on a Nazi leader, and then allows her to marry the bad guy. In the end, Devlin does the right thing--but the only reason we "forgive" him is because Grant convinces us that his tainted hero is also a pawn in a global game against evil.

4. An Affair to Remember. Leo McCarey's remake of his earlier Love Affair (1939) is too often dismissed as a first-rate romance with soap opera overtones. In fact, it's an extremely well-acted character study of two people who unexpectedly find true love aboard a cruise ship. The clever screenplay, co-written by Delmer Daves, plays with stereotypes--especially Cary Grant as wealthy playboy Nickie Ferrante. Grant peels back his character's public persona gradually, revealing Nickie's warmth, sincerity, and insecurities. The film also provides Grant with one of his finest acting scenes--when Nickie concludes that Terry (Deborah Kerr) has rejected him by not appearing for their Empire State Building rendezvous.

5. North By Northwest. Cary Grant excelled at playing unflappable characters, with the finest example being this classic Hitchcock picture about an innocent man mistaken for a spy and later framed for murder. Thrust into an espionage plot, Grant's advertising executive never seems out of his depth--even when being pursued by a crop duster. When examined on its own, the plot stretches credibility, but that never crosses my mind when watching North By Northwest thanks to Hitchcock's direction and the strong cast--in particular, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and, of course, Cary Grant.

Honorable Mentions:  People Will TalkArsenic and Old Lace; His Girl Friday; Holiday; Gunga Din; Charade; and The Awful Truth.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Walter Matthau Negotiates Over "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three"

It's a testament to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) that it has been remade twice in the last 29 years--as a made-for-TV movie and a big-budget action picture. However, the decision to produce those remakes remains questionable, because how do you improve on a practically perfect urban suspense film?

The premise is a simple one: Four men hijack a New York subway and hold the passengers for ransom, demanding that $1 million be delivered within an hour. One passenger will be executed for every minute that the money is late.

Garber (Matthau) stalls for time.
Of course, Pelham's success has nothing to do with its familiar "hostage situation" plot and everything to do with its cast, screenplay, and setting. At a time when movie audiences were used to young, intense cops like Al Pacino's Serpico, Walter Matthau's Pelham hero must have been quite a shock. As Lieutenant Garber of the New York Transit Authority Police, Matthau wears a light brown jacket to cover his red-yellow-green plaid shirt and yellow tie. He spends most of the film in the transit's office (I love the little touches like the Bayer aspirin on his desk). And no one would ever call Garber intense. In fact, his coolness and ability to make quick decisions is his greatest attribute.

Mr. Blue (Shaw) prepares to follow
through on his threats.
In contrast, Robert Shaw displays a muted, ruthless intensity as the leader of the hijackers. When he flatly states he will kill the passengers if required, his tone leaves no doubt. One of my favorite parts of the film is how it subtly compares Shaw's Mr. Blue with Lt. Garber. While Garber struggles to get decisions on his end, Mr. Blue has to cope with a gang of misfits, including the reluctant Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) and the psychotic Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo). Garber and Blue may have nothing in common--except they are the decision-makers trying control the situation, each from his own end.

Peter Stone earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, which was adapted from John Godey's 1973 novel. To offset the film's violence, Stone brilliantly incorporates humor, derived from the most unlikely sources (e.g., the city's indecisive mayor, a tour of the Transit Authority by Japanese businessmen). The mayor, played as a whiny politician by Lee Wallace, tries to use a case of flu as an excuse for not handling the situation. As the deputy mayor pressures the mayor to make any decision about the eighteen hostages, the mayor turns to his wife (nicely played by Doris Roberts) for advice:

Mayor's Wife: I know a million dollars sounds like a lot of money. But just think what you'll get in return.

Mayor: What?

Mayor's wife: Eighteen sure votes.

Still, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film and it certainly delivers in that department. Its most stunning sequences are a runaway subway and a race against time through the crowded streets of New York to deliver the ransom money. Director Joseph Sargent takes advantage of the on-location filming, which gives the film an appropriately gritty look. In 2005, National Public Radio's "resident film music buff" Andy Trudeau listed David Shire's pulsating, jazzy score as one of his all-time top ten.

And, as you might have suspected, writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In fact, he paid homage to it in Reservoir Dogs by having the gang members refers to themselves as colors--just as Shaw's gang does in Pelham.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Five Best James Bond Theme Songs

He's lunched with Cubby Broccoli--the late 007 film producer--and has a James Bond memorabilia collection that would be the envy of Auric Goldfinger. Today, guest blogger TerryB counts down his picks for the five best Bond theme songs.

Twenty-three official James Bond films. I’ve been a fan of the 007 films since my college roommate encouraged me to join him at a James Bond Film Festival on campus. Seeing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in a very cold auditorium amplified the film’s snowy setting. The projectionist cranked the film’s sound after Bond’s wife Tracy is killed in the final moments. The counter-point of the James Bond theme over the film’s emotional ending was a sort of sneer to emotion and reminded us that Bond was an agent first. I fell in love with Bond music that night.

I’ve always said that when *I* win the lottery, one way I’d love to spend the money is mount a one-night concert of all the Bond theme song artists, each performing their theme(s), in order of release. Until that concert can be arranged, here’s a different sorting--my choices for the five best 007 theme songs:

5.  Casino Royale – “You Know My Name,” performed by Chris Cornell.  Written by Chris Cornell and David Arnold. Perhaps the most gritty of all the James Bond themes, this song was meant to be a reflection of the new James Bond (Daniel Craig) and that his Bond was conflicted and not the seemingly indestructible agent played by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. The lyrics describe James Bond’s world this way: I've seen diamonds cut through harder men/Than you yourself/But if you must pretend/You may meet your end/The coldest blood runs through my veins/You know my name.

4.  A View to a Kill – “A View to a Kill,” performed by Duran Duran. Written by John Barry and Duran Duran.  Although Barry had never collaborated with a band for a Bond song, the fast-living, hyper-successful Duran Duran somehow seemed a natural choice to join him in 1985, and the result remains one of the biggest hits of any 007 track. The first Bond theme song to chart #1 in the U.S., it’s lyrically loony: A sacred why/A mystery gaping inside/The weekend's why/Until we dance into the fire/That fatal kiss is all we need. Still, it has a stomping, throbbing beat that was a perfect marriage for James Bond and one of the biggest bands of the time.

3. Live and Let Die – “Live and Let Die,” performed by Paul McCartney and Wings.  Written by Paul and Linda McCartney. Probably the only Bond theme song that has little to do with the film, except sharing a title, this song’s piercing flute notes and eccentric bridge were quite effectively married to the film’s many chase sequences. Turning an innocent into a world-weary cynic (or killing them) is often the path of many Bond heroines. The song lyric captures their journey so well: When you were young and your heart was an open book/You used to say live and let live (You know you did, you know you did, you know you did)/But if this ever changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die.

2. The Spy Who Loved Me – “Nobody Does It Better,” performed by Carly Simon. Written by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Carole Bayer Sager (lyrics). A fitting type of theme for nearly all of the Roger Moore-era 007 films, romantically-inclined, but painting Bond with equal palettes of love and vengeance. And both are deadly. The lyric wins for working in the film’s title smoothly and keeping the song palatable for Top 40 radio: I wasn’t looking, but somehow you found me/I tried to hide from your love light/But like heaven above me, the spy who loved me, is keeping all my secrets safe tonight. The title yielded a phrase used in marketing later Bond films: the 13th 007 opus Octopussy ("Nobody does it better…thirteen times") and the 2006 release Casino Royale (the commercials used the song's title, "Nobody Does It Better", as a catch phrase).

1. Goldfinger – “Goldfinger,” performed by Shirley Bassey. Written by John Barry (music) and Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse (lyrics). This was the film that perfected the 007 “formula.” Director Guy Hamilton was purported to have suggested the song “Mack the Knife” to John Barry, “a gritty and rough” song on which to model this film’s theme song. Shirley Bassey tops the list with her gutsy, machine gun delivery of the lyric, enunciating every word sharply. And what words would befit a villain’s theme better? For a golden girl knows when he's kissed her/ It's the kiss of death from Mister Goldfinger. At the 2013 Academy Awards, in tribute to 50 Years of James Bond Films, Dame Shirley Bassey performed the song to wide acclaim and a standing ovation.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bad Movie Theatre: I Should Have Heeded the Title of This Doris Day Film

I had been warned. Last May, fellow classic movie blogger Java Bean Rush reviewed Do Not Disturb and called it "difficult to watch." Apparently, I was looking for a challenge because I watched this 1965 clunker last night. The real reason, of course, is Doris Day--whose 1961 comedy Lover Come Back ranks among my favorite films.

With Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back.
Looking back over Doris's films of that decade, the sudden drop in quality is astonishing. In the first half of the 1960s, she made the aforementioned classic, That Touch of Mink, The Thrill of It All, Move Over Darling, and Send Me No Flowers. All five films are entertaining comedies that pair Doris with charming leading men (e.g., Cary Grant, James Garner, and Rock Hudson) capable of generating their own laughs. 

That's a stark contrast to the rest of the 1960s, in which Doris followed Do Not Disturb with The Glass Bottom Boat (which has some decent laughs) and then subpar pictures like The Ballad of Josie, CapriceWhere Were You When the Lights Went Out?, and With Six You Get Eggroll. By the end of the decade, she had retired from the movies and moved on to television. (Several books blame Doris's then-husband and manager Martin Melcher for committing her to these less-than-stellar pictures.)

Janet (Doris Day) and Mike (Rod Taylor) get lost (note the unimpressive rear screen).

Janet with the handsome antiques
dealer (Sergio Fantoni)
But let's get back to Do Not Disturb, which stars Doris and Rod Taylor as Janet and Mike Harper, Americans who have moved to Great Britain so he can work for a wool clothing company. The Harpers are a dysfunctional couple: he wants to live in an apartment close to work, so she buys a house in the English countryside without his consent. He spends more time with his younger, attractive secretary than with his wife. She suspects him of having an affair with his secretary; he suspects her of having an affair with a French antiques dealer. There's a lot of mistrust in this marriage--but, after several lame misunderstandings, it all ends happily.

Janet mistakes a fox for a dog.
Along the way, Doris's character saves a fox from hunters, plays soccer in the Parisian streets with children, gets drunk on wine, and is mistaken for her husband's mistress at a "business convention." The only time she appears to be having fun is when she's frolicking in Paris--without her husband. And that is the fatal flaw with Do Not Disturb: this couple rarely seems happy together...when they are together. They're just not a likable pair and that's saying a lot when one of them is played by Doris Day.

The lack of production values boggles the mind. Poor rear-screen shots combine with stagy sets to create the Harpers' country estate and the streets of Paris. Even the instantly forgettable title song, warbled by Doris, sounds off-key.

My advice to you is not to make the same mistake I did. When a movie's title is Do Not Disturb, heed the advice and don't bother with it!

Monday, August 12, 2013

50 Great Classic Movie Quotes (Not on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes)

Back in 2005, the American Film Institute (AFI) took on the arduous task of compiling its list of the 100 best movie quotes of all time. Such lists are subjective by nature, but I've always thought that the AFI did a pretty good job. Of course, it omitted many favorite classic movie quotes...and thus, we have come up with our own list of 50 additional movie quotes. We focused on films from the classic era, so don't look for quotes from films released after the mid-1980s. The quotes below are not listed in any specific order. We also reserve the right to publish a sequel post in the future. Please add your favorite quotes in the comments section of this post!

1. "That's the way it crumbles... cookie-wise." - C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in The Apartment

2. "Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body." - Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) to Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) in Ball of Fire

3. "I am Spartacus!" - Antoninus (Tony Curtis) and others in Spartacus (1960)

4. "He was my dog. I'll do it." - Travis (Tommy Kirk) to his mother in Old Yeller

5. "What I am trying to say is--only I'm not a poet, I'm an ophiologist--I've always loved you. I mean, I've never loved anyone but you." - Charles (Henry Fonda) to Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Lady Eve

6. "Feed me!" - Audrey Jr. (the plant) in The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

7. "I never knew fear until I kissed Becky." - Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

8. "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles." - Scotty (Douglas Spencer) in The Thing from Another World

9. "Klaatu barada nikto." - Helen (Patricia Neal) to Gort the robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

10. "And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!" - Mildred (Bette Davis) in Of Human Bondage (1934)

11. "And remember, my sentimental friend, a heart is not judged by how much you love--but by how much you are loved by others." - The Wizard (Frank Morgan) to the Tin Man (Jack Haley) in The Wizard of Oz

12. "And I offer myself to you, all of me. My heart. My lips. My legs. My calves. Do what you will. My love endures. Beat me. Kick me. I am yours." - Hawkins (Danny Kaye) in The Court Jester

13. "They seek him here, they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Or is he in hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel!" - Sir Percy (Leslie Howard) in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

14. "Lordy, we got to have a doctor. I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies." - Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) in Gone With the Wind

15. "Eric Von Zipper adores you. And when Eric Von Zipper adores somebody, they stay adored." Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) in Beach Blanket Bingo

16. "Alone: bad. Friend: good!" - The Monster (Boris Karloff) in The Bride of Frankenstein

17. "Not to run on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?" Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

18. "When it comes, I won't even notice...I'll be too busy looking good." - Williams (Jim Kelly) on the subject of defeat in Enter the Dragon

19. "You know, you've got the brain of a four-year old child, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it." - Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marz) in Horse Feathers

20. "You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?" - Clara Thornhill (Jessie Royce Landis) to the bad guys in North By Northwest

21. "I met a whole lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you--you're twenty minutes." - Lorraine (Jan Sterling) in Ace in the Hole

22. "Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!" Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) to Maid Marion (Olivia de Havilland) in The Adventures of Robin Hood

23. "Attaboy, Clarence." - George Bailey (James Stewart) in It's a Wonderful Life

24. "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." - Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride

25. "You're tearing me apart! You, you say one thing, he says another, and everybody changes back again!" - Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause

26. "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" Mr. Osborne (Robert Benchley) in The Major and the Minor 

27. "The old man was right, only the farmers won. We lost. We'll always lose." - Chris (Yul Brynner) in The Magnificent Seven (1960)

28. "Help me!" - The Fly (1958)

29. "Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool." - Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) in The Hustler

30. "They're coming to get you, Barbra." - Johnny (Russell Streiner) in Night of the Living Dead (1968)

31. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." - Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

32. "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that." - HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey

33. "Well, come see a fat old man sometime! Hyah!" Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) in True Grit (1969)

34. "Chance is the fool's name for fate." Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) in The Gay Divorcee

35. "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." - Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca (1940)

36. "My mother--a waitress!" Veda (Ann Blyth) in Mildred Pierce (1945)

37. "I'm his brother-in-law, Sister. And this is his mother, Sister, and this is my wife, his sister, Sister." - Willie (Walter Matthau) in The Fortune Cookie

38. "We looked for the good in them, and we found it, didn't we?" Reverend Ford (Karl Malden) in Pollyanna

39. "Confound it, madam, my language is most controlled. And as for me morals, I lived a man 's life and I'm not ashamed of it. And, I can assure you no woman's ever been the worse for knowing me and I'd like to know how many mealy-mouthed bluenoses can say the same." - Captain Daniel Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

40. "All right then, run, lady, and you keep on running. Buy yourself a bus ticket and disappear. Change your name, dye your hair, get lost--and then maybe, just maybe, you're gonna be safe from me." Ben (Paul Newman) to Clara (Joanne Woodward) in The Long, Hot Summer

41. ""I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." - Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) in Laura

42. "Stand up. Your father's passing." - Reverend Sykes (William Walker) in To Kill a Mockingbird 

43.  "You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man." - Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) in Body Heat

44. "It must have been tough on your mother, not having any children." - Ann (Ginger Rogers) in 42nd Street

45. "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known." - Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

46. "Sir Wilfred, you've forgotten your brandy." -  Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester) in Witness for the Prosecution

47. "I steal." - Paul Muni's haunting final line in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

48. "Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin'." - Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter

49. "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." - Maleva the gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya) in The Wolf Man

50. "If any of you are ever in trouble, no matter what, you just dial 'O' for O'Malley." - Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) in The Bells of St. Mary's

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"People Will Talk"...about Cary Grant

People Will Talk (1951) is rarely included in the discussions about Cary Grant's best films. That's puzzling given its pedigree and entertainment value. Perhaps, it's because Grant's career was in a minor lull in the early 1950s with films like Crisis (1950) and Room for One More (1952). It certainly doesn't help that People Will Talk is shown on television less frequently than other Cary Grant pictures. Whatever the reasons for its near anonymity, People Will Talk deserves its day in the spotlight.

Grant plays noble physician Dr. Noah Praetorius, who runs a clinic for women and teaches at a university. Praetorius' patient-first philosophy ("Patients are sick people--not inmates") earns him a reputation for being unconventional. It also makes him hugely popular among his patients and students as well as financially successful. That leads to some professional jealously, principally on the part of rival professor Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn). Of course, Praetorius doesn't hold Elwell in high regard either, describing him as the "only person I know who can say 'malignant' like other people say bingo."

Grant and Jeanne Crain.
While Elwell delves into his colleague's murky past to look for a flaw, Praetorius beomes involved in the case of an unmarried pregnant woman named Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain). Concerned with her emotional state, Praetorius first lies to her about her pregnancy. Later, he visits her at her uncle's home and proposes marriage. I did say he was an unconventional doctor, didn't I?

In the hands of a less gifted actor, Praetorius could have come off as an oddball. Cary Grant, though, imbues the physician with nobility, charm, and compassion. He also always seems in control, as if Praetorius  knows what is coming next  and is already prepared for it (at one point, Deborah even calls him a "pompous know-it-all"). At times, Grant's performance reminded me of Dudley the angel from the earlier The Bishop's Wife.

Finlay Currie as Shunderson.
The standout among the supporting cast is Finlay Currie as Shunderson, Praetorius' imposing and often-silent chauffeur and companion. Praetorius introduces Shunderson simply as his friend, not an employee. The mysterious Shunderson lurks in the background throughout the film, his personality revealed gradually as we see his admiration for Praetorius, his concern for Deborah, and his kindness toward an unhappy collie. Although Scottish actor Finlay Currie was 53 before he made his first film in 1931, he had a long screen career that extended into the late 1960s. He is best remembered as the convict Magwitch in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), as Peter in Quo Vadis (1951), and, of course, as Shunderson.

Hume Cronym as Elwell.
People Will Talk was writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's immediate follow-up to All About Eve. Mankiewicz based his screenplay on a 1932 stage play by German playwright Curt GoetzInterestingly, some critics view People Will Talk as an attack against the Communist "witch hunters" of the McCarthyism era. The timing certainly seems right and Elwell's obsession to dig up dirt on Praetorius could be described as a witch hunt. However, the subplot involving a jealous rival can be traced back to Goetz's original play. I think Mankiewicz's goal was to make a statement about the importance of compassion and human dignity in medicine. After all, in his opening prologue, he states: "This film is dedicated to one who has inspired man's unending battle against Death, and without whom that battle is never won....the patient."

Prior to starting the film, Mankiewicz encountered difficulties with the Production Code, which refused to approve the script because of its frank discussion about abortion and unwed pregnancy (as well as an incident in Shunderson's past). Mankiewicz eventually gained approval in 1951 after minor rewrites (e.g., Praetorius and Deborah discuss abortion, but the word "abortion" is never used).

If you have never seen People Will Talk, I strongly recommend seeking it out. It's an interesting, entertaining drama that deserves serious consideration when discussing its star's best movies.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Susan George Chats with the Café about "Straw Dogs," Her Arabians, and the Love of Her Life

Best known for the controversial Straw Dogs (1971) and the drive-in classic Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Susan George has acted in film and television for six decades. She met fellow British actor Simon MacCorkindale (Death on the Nile) at a charity event in 1977 and the two became best friends. Seven years later, the "best friends" married in Fiji. In 1993, Susan George, a lifelong horse lover, and her husband founded Georgian Arabians, a stud farm in Exmoor, England. Sadly, Simon MacCorkindale died in 2010 after a five-year battle with cancer. Susan George has carried on with their stud farm and still occasionally appears in films. She was gracious enough to stop by the Café today for an interview.

Café:   You made your stage debut at age 12 in The Sound of Music and was a regular in the family TV series Amazons and Swallows a year later. What led to your interest in acting at such a young age?

Susan George:  My mother was the one who thought that an acting career was the profession for me. My father, on the other hand, was terrified at the thought, as he believed that my heart was way too soft for the industry.

Café:   You were 21 when you played the female lead opposite Dustin Hoffman in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. How would you describe your relationships with Hoffman and Peckinpah?

Dustin Hoffman and Susan in Straw Dogs.
SG:  I had a love-hate relationship with Sam, but he was a brilliant director and a genius of his time. Dustin was a generous actor to work with, who could be intense at times but had a great personality and an incredibly mischievous sense of humour. Making the film was a fantastic experience and one that I cherish to this day.

Café:  Forty-three years after it was made, Straw Dogs remains a controversial, potent film. What is your assessment of it today?

SG:  I think even years on, it hasn’t lost one ounce of its power.

Café:   You gave one of your best performances in the entertaining car chase classic Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. How did an actress from London come to be cast as the film's "white trash heroine"?

Susan in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).
SG:  It was English director John Hough who was adamant that I should play Dirty Mary. We had worked together on several films before and when he called me in the States to offer me this zany part, I didn't think twice and loved the challenge. The film was such fun to make and became a cult hit over the years. It was a backpack movie and made for next to nothing, but turned out to be a huge financial success for Twentieth Century-Fox.

Café:  You've appeared in several British TV series, such as EastEnders, The Castle Adventure, and Cluedo. Do you have a favorite and, if so, what made it a fave?

Kirk Douglas as Mr. Hyde.
SG:  In terms of television projects, there were several dear to my heart. One was the musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had a fantastic cast and a great score. Kirk Douglas was our Dr. Jekyll and we filmed it all in England at Shepperton studios for NBC. My memories of that time are all of laughter.

Café:  You've acted with the likes of Charles Bronson, Michael Caine, Dustin Hoffman, Peter Fonda, Ralph Richardson, and Boris Karloff. Who were some of your favorite leading men and why?

SG:  I have been fortunate to work with some really great actors over the years and there are no favourites. Although playing Michael Caine’s daughter in the The Jigsaw Man was a real treat and spending hours of time in Sir Laurence Olivier’s company was something I will never forget.

Café:  How did you meet your future-husband Simon MacCorkindale and what was your first impression of him?

Simon MacCorkindale and Susan.
SG:  I met my Simon for the very first time at a charity benefit and we became the best of friends for years after. So I married my soul mate and hand through life. He was a stunning-looking man, but the true essence of Simon was his heart, acres wide and full of jewels. He loved me more than he loved himself and put me first in everything. I remain devastated at losing him but am also aware that some people in a lifetime never touch upon the love and happiness we found in each other. I am the luckiest, to have shared with him for 26 wonderful years.

Café:  What led the two of you to take the plunge and pursue your dream of breeding Arabian stallions?

Susan with one of her Arabians.
SG:  I had been gifted an Arabian horse by a boyfriend at 23 when living in California. At the time, working a lot and never in one place for long, I would come home to her after months away and she’d see me at the gate of her field and come running. It hurt so much at times to realise that she lived for my visits and they were becoming so sporadic. Arabian horses are particularly loyal and she was always there for me, but I didn't feel I was for her. So eventually, I made a heartfelt decision to give her away to a good friend, a great home. My husband knew this story and promised me that when the time was right, I would again have my Arabian horse. We moved home to England to run our production company, Amy International, and within months, we found a gorgeous chestnut mare that later became the foundation mare of my stud farm in England, Georgian Arabians.

Café:  We read where you were working on your autobiography. Is there a projected publication date?

SG:  I am working on my autobiography and it’s expected to be published in 2014. However, I am penning it myself and with the breeding season and full time running of the stud farm, it’s a huge undertaking, but I’m chapters deep.  It’s an exciting project that Simon, more than myself, wanted me to complete. He used to say that there were so many incredible stories within my lifetime that I needed to share and they were just too good not to.

Café:  You still continue to appear in films. What kinds of roles draw your attention these days?

SG:  I have always said that what would encourage my return to the screen would be a role offering a true challenge. I love music and comedy and would like to be able to combine the two. It’s by no means out of the question that a special something might come along. I have a fabulous agent who “yearns to get me out of Georgian Arabians barns” and doing what he feels I do best !!!

You can learn about Georgian Arabians online at You can "like" Susan George on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @TheSusanGeorge.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cliff Richard and Susan Hampshire Lead a Wonderful Life

Singer Cliff Richard never achieved huge success in the U.S. despite scoring three top 10 records on the Billboard pop chart in the 1970s and 1980s. In contrast, he ranks as the third best-selling singles artist in Great Britain history--topped only by The Beatles and Elvis Presley. He also achieved movie stardom and hosted several television series in his homeland. Despite knowing all this, I wasn't sure what to expect when I recently watched Wondferful Life, a 1964 musical starring Cliff Richard and Susan Hampshire (a favorite since I saw her in The Pallisers a few years back). 

The nominal plot casts Richard and his pals as out-of-work waiters dumped in the Canary Islands after they cause damage to a cruise ship. Johnnie (Richard) gets a job as a stunt man on a desert "epic" being made by a washed-up director (Walter Slezak) hoping for a big comeback. As he romances his leading lady (Hampshire), Johnnie decides to secretly make his own movie with his chums as the crew.

Susan Hampshire.
By this point in his career, Cliff Richard had evolved from a rock star to a pop singer. His smooth voice wraps around the easygoing songs that frequently interrupt the story. The best tune--the spunky "On the Beach"--was the only hit from Wonderful Life, peaking at #7 on the British charts. However, the best musical number is "We Love a Movie", an affectionate ten-minute tribute to cinema that starts with Richard dressed as Chaplin and ends with he and Hampshire recreating a famous scene from Dr. No. Amid dozens of costume changes and numerous sets, there are clever homages to Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, The Jazz Singer, Greta Garbo, the Marx Brothers, Tarzan, Fred & Ginger, Shirley Temple, West Side Story and more. It's more entertaining than many of those clip-laden tributes shown during the Oscar telecast!

Cliff Richard as Connery and Susan Hampshire as Ursula Andress in Dr. No.
As a film star, Cliff Richard lacks the comedic charms of Frankie Avalon--but then Wonderful Life is a musical with a little comedy whereas Frankie's Beach Party films were comedies with music. Susan Hampshire, who would become a fine actress, relies mostly on her natural charm. She displays an agreeable singing voice in her duet "In the Stars" with Richard.

At 113 minutes, Wonderful Life (also known as Swingers' Paradise) overstays its welcome. The final musical number with Richard and Slezak seems especially labored. Overall, though, it's a pleasant 1960s musical and a nice introduction to the singing talents of Mr. Richard.