Monday, September 28, 2015

An Interview with Hugh Fraser on Playing Captain Hastings, Voicing Poirot, and His New Thriller Novel

British actor Hugh Fraser brought Agatha Christie's Captain Arthur Hastings to life in 43 episodes of the British TV series Poirot, starting in 1989. His performance opposite David Suchet's Belgian detective has endeared him to mystery fans all over the world. In addition to playing Hastings, Mr. Fraser also starred in other popular television series, such as Sharpe and The Alan Clark Diaries. He has appeared in movies (e.g., Patriot Games) and on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His first novel, a thriller titled Harm, was published earlier this year. We recently caught up with Hugh Fraser during the filming of his latest movie.

Café:  How did you approach playing Captain Hastings? Had you read any of Agatha Christie's novels or short stories?

Hugh Fraser:  I read many of Agatha Christie’s novels when I was around twelve or thirteen, and I remember particularly enjoying the Poirot stories. When I came to play Hastings, I re-read the novels in which he appeared. But when I received the scripts, adapted by Clive Exton, I found that Clive had given Hastings rather more of a personality and certainly more humour than I had found in the original books and so my Hastings was really based on the character that Clive wrote, as well as the Hastings created by Agatha Christie.

Café:  Agatha Christie's Poirot aired for 13 seasons, comprising 70 episodes. What do you think was the secret to its enduring international popularity?

HF:  First and foremost, David Suchet’s performance as Poirot. His attention to detail and the way he brought the fussy little Belgian detective to life has an enduring appeal for audiences which shows no sign of waning. Also, Agatha Christie’s ability to create endless variations on the “whodunnit” formula, and her genius for creating rich and interesting characters. From the purple-faced Major to the maid who opens the door to let Poirot into the country house, each one has a personality and a manner which makes them memorable and distinctive.
David Suchet as Poirot and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings.
Café:  The friendship between Poirot and Hastings is one of the series' strongest elements. How did you and David Suchet get along off-screen?

HF:  Extremely well. David is the ultimate professional and brings a great deal of discipline to his work. It is well known that he would remain in character as Poirot between takes, and over twenty five years I never saw him forget a line or a move. Having said that, David has a great sense of humour and we always found time to share a joke or two.

Café:  After Murder in Mesopotamia in 2002, Hastings didn't appear in another episode until The Big Four in 2013. How did it feel to return to the role again after 11 years?

HF:  I approached Hasting's return with some trepidation, but as soon as I put on the tweed and began filming, it was as if I’d never been away.

Café:  What is your favorite episode and why?

HF:  I think it has to be Curtain, the final film. We see Poirot, diminished physically, but with ‘the little grey cells’ still as sharp as ever, solve a case that is perhaps one of the most challenging of his career, and commit murder in the process. Hastings, older now, and possibly slightly wiser, also contemplates murder in order to safeguard his daughter’s honour. Poirot and Hastings are forced to these extremes by one of Christie’s most fiendish and cunning villains, the stammering Stephen Norton, so brilliantly played in the film by Aidan McCardle.

Café:  You've played Hercule Poirot, too--recording all the novels as audio books. What was it like playing the Belgian detective to your own Hastings?

HF:  Slightly creepy to begin with. I felt as if David might be lurking in the shadows at the back of the studio ready to reprimand me, but once I got going it was ok.

Café:  Your impressive acting credits also include the Sharpe movies (as the Duke of Wellington), Reilly: Ace of Spies, and stage productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company. What are your favorite roles other than Captain Hastings?

Hugh Fraser as Mr. Talman.
HF:  In the theatre it was the role of Peyote, in David Hare’s Teeth’n’Smiles at the Royal Court, in which I played a drugged-out bass player to Helen Mirren’s rock singer in a play about a rock band causing chaos at a May Ball in Cambridge. It was a great show to be in, and it transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre. In film, it would be Mr. Talman, a grumpy German nobleman, in Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. This was a film made on a tiny budget which we thoroughly enjoyed making and which became an unexpected success.

Café:  Tell us about your first novel, Harm, which was published earlier this year.

HF:  Harm is a crime thriller about a female contract killer who we meet on assignment in Mexico in 1974. After she wakes to find her employer’s head on her bedside table, she is captured by a Mexican drug boss who wants her to kill a member of the government. We flash back to Notting Hill in 1956 where Rina is living in grinding poverty and struggling to support her younger siblings and alcoholic mother. When a local gangster attacks her nine-year old sister, Rina wreaks revenge and kills him. Innocence betrayed, Rina faces the brutality of the post-war London underworld. The Mexican adventure and Rina’s back story proceed in alternate chapters.

Café:  We're looking for a big scoop here: Might Rina return in a sequel? 

HF:  I’m working on it now!

Café:  You're currently on location in Kazakhstan for a movie. What projects do you have on the horizon?

HF:  Nothing in view at the moment, but hope springs eternal.

You can follow Hugh Fraser on Twitter at @realhughfraser. His new novel is available at bookstores everywhere.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

W. Somerset Maugham's "Quartet"

Released in 1948, Quartet was the first of three anthology films based on W. Somerset Maugham short stories and introduced by the author on screen. The follow-up films were Trio (1950) and Encore (1951). In each of these films, the short stories were treated as stand-alone productions, in that the directors and casts were different. Thus, it’s all the more impressive that the overall quality of Quartet is first-rate. None of the stories disappoint, though naturally some are better than others. We’ll address them as separate mini-reviews:

Mai Zetterling and Jack Watling.
The Facts of Life. As a young man embarks on his first excursion to Paris, his father offers him three pieces of advice: (1) stay away from the gaming tables; (2) don’t lend money to anyone; (3) avoid women. Once in the City of Lights, the young man proceeds to play roulette, loans part of his winnings to an attractive woman, and spends a chaste night in her apartment. The outcome is the punch line in this pleasant trifle that benefits from winning performances of a young Mai Zetterling and Jack Watling.

Honor Blackman.
The Alien Corn. George Bland (Dirk Bogarde) has been groomed his whole life to become a country gentleman and member of Parliament. However, his dream is to earn a living as concert pianist. His long-suffering girlfriend (Honor Blackman) convinces George’s parents to let the young man study the piano for two years. At the end of that period, a professional will evaluate his playing and determine if he has any potential. If he does not, he must agree to give up the piano and conform to his family’s wishes. There’s a tragic quality about this tale from the beginning, so the ending is not a surprise. Its leisurely pace (especially the lengthy piano performances) negates some of this story’s impact. However, Bogarde is strong, as always, and Honor Blackman—16 years prior to her most famous role as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger—gives a lovely, poignant performance as the girlfriend.

George Cole and Susan Shaw.
The Kite. Herbert, a  young man who still lives with his parents, is passionate about kites. Every Saturday afternoon, he and his parents fly kites together in the park. Much to his mother’s disapproval, he falls in love with a young woman named Betty and marries her. Alas, the new bride thinks that kite flying is a childish activity and—in a fit of jealousy—destroys one of her husband’s special kites. This is the story I remember best from my first viewing of Quartet several years ago. In some interpretations of the short story, the kite represents an “umbilical cord” that connects Herbert and his mother, effectively keeping him from fully committing to his marriage. My view of the film adaptation is very different—I think Maugham uses kite flying as an analogy for anything that sparks one’s passion. It’s a part of who Herbert is, even if he can’t quite explain his love of kites (though he tries). The future of Herbert and Betty’s marriage hinges on whether she can embrace his “childish activity.” Thematically, it’s not that different from The Alien Corn, although the outcome is decidedly different.

Nora Swinburne and Cecil Parker.
The Colonel’s Lady. A self-important country gentleman has little time for his wife, given his many “important” meetings…and clandestine visits with his mistress. Thus, he is surprised to learn that his wife has written a book of poetry. Moreover, her book has been published, hailed by the press and literary greats, and is “selling like hot cakes.” Although his wife gives him a copy, he doesn’t even bother to read it. Thus, he’s flummoxed when everyone—to include his mistress—starts talking about the book’s “earthy” narrative about an older woman’s passionate love for a younger man. This may be the best story in Quartet (though The Kite is a close second). Cecil Parker is ideally cast as a Colonel Blimp-type who has taken his marriage for granted for many years. He is well matched by Nora Swinburne as his wife, whose quiet exterior masks a burning love that turned to ashes long ago.

Monday, September 21, 2015

DVD Spotlight on "The Bold Ones: The Protectors"

Originally broadcast in 1969-70 as part of the umbrella TV series The Bold Ones, The Protectors made its long-awaited DVD debut last week courtesy of Timeless Media. The DVD set includes the pilot film Deadlock plus all six episodes that rotated with The New Doctors and The New Lawyers during the first season of The Bold Ones.

Deadlock, shown as a 1969 NBC made-for-TV movie, introduces the two protagonists: ambitious African-American district attorney Leslie Washburn (Hari Rhodes) and hard-nosed police lieutenant Sam Danforth (Leslie Nielsen). Racial tensions are running high in San Sebastian, a West Coast metropolis, after a white newspaper reporter is murdered in possible retaliation for a black youth killed by a cop. Washburn, who is running for the Senate, is tagged to head a special task force to investigate the journalist's death. That pairs him with Danforth and their strong personalities clash immediately.

Hari Rhodes as D.A. Washburn.
Deadlock is more social drama than mystery. Washburn, whose primary focus is to prevent a race riot, tries to enlist the aid of influential black activists. They think Washburn wants to "put a lid on the brothers and sisters" and question the affluent attorney's motives, telling him: "You think white. You look white. You dress white."

Meanwhile, Danforth has little success with the investigation, since none of the ghetto eyewitnesses are willing to talk with the police. (His inquiries do lead to one of the film's best scenes, with the marvelous Ruby Dee playing a prostitute who uses Danforth's presence to frighten away children spying on her.)

Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Danforth.
Although Deadlock could have benefited from tighter pacing, it's still an engrossing urban drama. Its plot parallels with recent events in the U.S. adding unexpected relevance. Nielsen and Rhodes are convincing as the leads. The latter is particularly effective in the kind of role that Sidney Poitier would have played if Deadlock had been a theatrical film.

Film buffs will no doubt appreciate the impressive visuals which bring the city to life, especially at night. This was one of the earliest films credited to cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who would later gain prominence for his collaborations with directors such as Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma. In a 2012 survey by the International Cinematographers Guild, Zsigmond was ranked among the ten all-time most influential cinematographers.

The Protectors TV series--which premiered in the fall of 1969--carried over the pilot film's strongest attributes, namely the actors and the emphasis on societal themes. Episodes dealt with corruption within city hall and the police department as well as the church's right to harbor a wanted fugitive. Attorney Washburn and detective Danforth (who has been promoted to deputy chief of police) remain at odds occasionally, but their mutual respect has evolved into a friendship.

Guest star Robert Drivas.
One of the best episodes, "If I Should Wake Before I Die," deals with a death-row inmate who gets a second trial when a law is changed by a Supreme Court ruling. Guest star Robert Drivas (Cool Hand Luke) gives a chilling performance as the charismatic convicted murderer who has penned a best-selling autobiography. Until the climax, one is never sure if he's an innocent victim of circumstantial evidence, a guilty man who has repented, or a master manipulator that masks the face of a heartless killer.

The Protectors rotated with the The New Doctors and The Lawyers during the first season of The Bold Ones. It was replaced by a better show, The Senator starring Hal Holbrook, the following year. The inability of The Protectors to find a viewing audience can be attributed, in part, to its sporadic scheduling and lack of episodes. Only six episodes were produced and there were occasions when it wasn't on NBC's schedule for a full month.

Rhodes and Nielsen.
The two stars remained in demand after its cancellation, especially Nielsen. He found his greatest fame as a comedian, spoofing police detectives like Danforth, in the Police Squad! TV series and Naked Gun movies. Hari Rhodes, who had previously starred with Marshall Thompson on the Daktari TV series, later appeared in Roots and theatrical films like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972).

The DVD set from Timeless Media includes Deadlock and all six episodes of the TV series on two discs. There are no extras. There's a disclaimer that the DVDs were mastered from the best sources available. Given the rarity of these prints, some scratches are to be expected. Overall, the image quality is fine.

Timeless Media provided a review copy of this DVD set.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rock and Dorothy Write It in the Dusty Wind; Leslie Caron Can't Replace Doris

Dorothy Malone may have won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Written on the Wind (1956), but Rock Hudson benefited more from the film's success. Along with Giant (1956) and his Jane Wyman pairings, Written on the Wind propelled Hudson into a major star. Thus, he was at the peak of his career while Malone's film roles were fading when they teamed up with Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset. Malone's guest appearance in a 1961 two-part episode of Route 66 signaled the beginning of her transition to a television career that eventually resulted in the hit nighttime drama Peyton Place.

In The Last Sunset (1961), Malone plays the wife of a drunken, cowardly rancher (Joseph Cotten) who unknowingly offers a job to his spouse's former lover Bren O'Malley (Douglas). A Texas lawman named Stribling (Rock Hudson) wants O'Malley for the murder of his brother-in-law. The two men encounter each other at the ranch and, surprisingly, agree to put their showdown aside to help Malone and Cotten drive a herd of cattle through dangerous territory.

Considering the talent involved, including former blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and director Robert Aldrich, The Last Sunset should have been a better film. Nevertheless, the cast keeps it interesting and Kirk Douglas makes Bren one of the most poetic cowboys in American cinema, as evidenced by the passage below:

Find yourself a nice, big boulder with the waves breaking against it. Look deep. Dream of seahorses and they'll come. Not many people know of it. Not many people care. But the sea is a place where the seamen shoe the hooves of the wild sea mare. Not many men have seen it or caught the faintest gleam of the ice green cave in the deep green sea in the heart of the cold sea stream, but the sea mare hides her young sea colt wrapped in a shy sea dream. But probably all the people know and can absolutely say that the foam on the sea is the sign that you see the mare and her colt at play.

Carol Lynley, in one of her first major roles, has the best scenes as Malone's daughter. Ironically, the two actresses share a Peyton Place connection. Carol played Allison in the film Return to Peyton Place (1961), while Dorothy Malone later portrayed Allison's mother on the 1964-69 TV series.

Malone might have improved her performance in The Last Sunset by toning down the glamour. One can almost overlook the soft blonde curls, but her heavy pink lipstick and eye shadow seem inappropriate for a woman driving the chow wagon on the cattle trail.

Finally, one can't discuss The Last Sunset without mentioning a climatic revelation that may make some viewers cringe. It's not that the revelation is surprising--I suspected it from the beginning. It's that the screenwriters insert a scene that will convince many viewers that their suspicions cannot be correct. Thus, when the "truth" (assuming Malone's character isn't lying) is revealed, the realization of what happened (and what could have happened) is an "oh my" moment. If this paragraph doesn't make sense, read it someday after you've seen the movie.

Chadwick talking with two girlfriends
at the same time.
Rock Hudson's versatility and popularity made him one of the busiest actors in the 1960s. In A Very Special Favor (1965), he trades his Western duds for a business suit as a New York-based "trouble-shooter" named Paul Chadwick. He defeats a French attorney, Michel Boullard (Maurice Chevalier), in court by sleeping with the female judge. The elderly Boullard admires Chadwick's way with the ladies. In turn, Chadwick bonds with Boullard and, feeling bad about how he won the case, offers to perform a future favor.

It turns out that Boullard is visiting New York City to spend time with his daughter--whom he hasn't seen in many years. He learns that she is a female psychiatrist (Leslie Caron) who completely dominates her fiance (a very funny Dick Shawn). Deciding that his daughter needs someone who can ignite her passion at least once, he calls in his very special favor with Chadwick.

Leslie Caron.
What follows is the kind of sex farce that Rock Hudson and Doris Day carried off so effortlessly in Lover Come Back (my fave), Pillow Talk, and Send Me No Flowers. The problem with A Very Special Favor is that Leslie Caron lacks Doris' comedic chops--and there's no Tony Randall!

It's still amusing to see Rock, who was a fine comedian, play a ladies' man masquerading as a sensitive guy who's afraid of the opposite sex. His performance, though, is just a variation of the role he played to perfection in Lover Come Back. And without Doris Day--the ying to his yang--A Very Special Favor falls flat too many times.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (September 2015)

What do Steve McQueen and Larry
Hagman have in common?
Welcome to the September edition! Once again, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman.

2. The TV series Spenser: For Hire and the movie The Sound of Music.

3. Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett.

4. George Maharis and Arthur Hill.

5. Peter Ustinov and Maureen O'Hara.

6. Rip Torn and Burl Ives.

7. Anthony Quinn and Anthony Hopkins.

8. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.

9. Raymond Burr and Burl Ives.

10. Mysterious Island (1961) and It Happened to Jane.

11. The movies Scent of Mystery and Polyester.

12. Jack Lord and Tom Selleck.

13. June Lockhart and Dorothy McGuire.

14. George Maharis and Tony Shalhoub.

15. Larry Hagman and Steve McQueen.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Adam Adamant and The Baron: Beware British TV Bad Guys!

Gerald Harper as Adam Adamant.
In the wake of the international success of The Avengers, The Saint, and Secret Agent, several inevitable imitations hit the British airwaves of the 1960s. My favorite was Man in a Suitcase, which starred American Richard Bradford as a cynical, disgraced former espionage agent. I recently sampled two other series, one which displayed a spark of promise and another that left me unimpressed.

Adam Adamant Lives! opens with our hero, the aristocratic title character, attending a royal social function at Windsor Castle in 1902. After explaining to his beloved Louise that he cannot marry her ("My love for you could be used as a weapon to destroy me by the enemies of England"), Adam pauses long enough to thwart an assassination attempt. He then receives a mysterious message from Louise, who has apparently been kidnapped by Adam's arch-nemesis, The Face. Although he suspects a trap, Adam rides off (yes, on horseback) to a deserted mansion where he is captured.

The Face, who (ironically) wears a full facial mask and whispers creepily, reveals that Louise is one of his agents. He then injects a mysterious drug into Adam, who blacks out. Sixty-four years later, construction workers discover Adam in a block of ice--and he is revived!

Gerald Harper with Juliet Harmer.
All of this happens in the first ten minutes of the first episode. If the rest of Adam Adamant Lives! had main-tained the same stylish, witty tone, then I'm confident it would have become a beloved classic like the aforementioned series. However, the creators instead opted to pair Adam with a free-spirited young woman named Georgina. She helps Adam adjust to the modern conventions of swinging London and also accompanies him on his adventures. In the series' second episode, Adam gains a manservant when former puppeteer William E. Simms joins the team.

Juliet Harmer as Georgina.
Gerald Harper makes Adam Adamant a larger-than-life character--intellectual, caring, sometimes snobbish, and supremely confident. He can handily disperse a gang of thugs with his sword cane, but modern women remain a mystery. His performance is the principal reason to check out this TV series. Alas, I never warmed up to Juliet Harmer as Georgina nor Jack May as Simms. I also kept wondering if it wouldn't have been better to leave Adam in Edwardian times. The recycled contemporary plots just aren't worthy of our intrepid hero. Yes, it would have cost more to shoot a period adventure, but I think Adam Adamant Lives! might have stood out better against the competition.

At least, the creators of Adam Adamant Lives! tried something different. In contrast, The Baron is a Saint wannabe that lacks a charismatic star like Roger Moore. It was based on a book series by prolific British author John Creasey, who wrote hundreds of novels under his own name and over 25 pseudonyms. His most popular book series was probably Gideon of Scotland, which was adapted as the 1965-66 TV show Gideon's Way.

Steve Forrest as The Baron.
The Baron was launched the following year and starred American actor Steve Forrest as John Mannering, an antiques dealer and former Army officer. When several valuable art pieces are stolen by a diplomatic courier, British intelligence enlists Mannering to retrieve them. He is given several Bondian gadgets--including a lighter that can fire a single bullet--and then told that if his mission is uncovered, the British government will disavow any knowledge of it (shades of Mission: Impossible).

A glamour shot of Sue Lloyd.
When he reaches his hotel room in the fictional country of Pamaranea, he finds an attractive woman in his bathtub (with bubbles covering enough to satisfy the TV censors). She turns out to be Cordelia Winfield (Sue Lloyd), his British intelligence contact. Originally, Lloyd was intended solely as a guest star. However, network executives thought she made a better sidekick than Paul Ferris, who played Mannering's assistant (and basically ran the antiques business). So, Lloyd returned as Cordelia in the ninth episode and Ferris was dropped from the series.

Sue Lloyd was the best part of The Baron for me. The affable actress made a good impression opposite Michael Caine in The Ipcress File (1965). She also played John Steed's partner, Mrs. Hannah Wild, in a stage adaptation of The Avengers (I might have preferred her to Linda Thorson's Tara).

Unfortunately, the title character in The Baron is played by Steve Forrest, a rugged actor who seems out of place as an antiques dealer/part-time government agent. He handles the fisticuffs with flair, but when he throws off a wisecrack--well, it just lays there like a popsicle on a hot sidewalk. I honestly think that if you kept the same scripts, retained Ms. Lloyd, and inserted Roger Moore as Simon Templar that The Baron would have been a reasonably entertaining series.

The Baron was axed after a single season. Sue Lloyd's promising career never took off, but Steve Forrest remained active in film and television for three decades. He may be best remembered as Lieutenant Hondo Harrelson on S.W.A.T. (1975-76). It was a modest hit for two seasons, but fondly remembered for its title theme, which hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Best Movies You May Have Never Seen (Sept 2015)

Have you ever finished watching a movie and found yourself wondering why it wasn't better known? Over the coming months, we want to highlight some of these "hidden gems" of classic cinema as part of a regular feature called The Best Movies You May Have Never Seen. To help us with this endeavor, we will ask some of our favorite fellow film bloggers to review one of their favorite lesser-known films. This month, our guest bloggers are Caftan Woman, Yvette from in so many words..., and John Greco from Twenty Four Frames.

Out of the Blue (1947)   (reviewed by Caftan Woman)

The story of 1947's Out of the Blue by Laura author Vera Caspary concerns a group of Greenwich Village apartment neighbours, bedeviled by the heat and frightened by the news of a serial killer at large. A put-upon husband steps out on his nagging wife and finds himself the prime suspect in a murder and with a body to hide. Prime noir territory, wouldn't you say? This story, however, is played for laughs and the director, Leigh Jason, was noted for such comedy-mystery stories as exemplified by The Mad Miss Manton (Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda), Wise Girl (Miriam Hopkins, Ray Milland) and Dangerous Blondes (Evelyn Keyes, Allyn Joslyn).

Nothing that happens in the apartment complex goes unnoticed by a couple of maiden ladies played by Elizabeth Patterson (Intruder in the Dust) and Julia Dean (The Curse of the Cat People).  From the vantage point of their terrace, they can focus all their attention on the goings-on on the terraces of the 10th floor. One is occupied by a Bohemian playboy artist David Gelleo played by Turhan Bey (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) and his prize-winning German Shepherd, Rabelais, played by Flame.  His next door neighbours are Arthur and Mae Earthleigh.  The hapless Arthur is completely under the thumb of the domineering Mae.  Heartthrob George Brent (My Reputation) plays Arthur and glamourous Carole Landis (I Wake Up Screaming) is the unpleasant spouse.

Two more of Hollywood's glamourous leading ladies are thrown into the mix when debutante Deborah Tyler played by Virginia Mayo (White Heat) proposes to our artist friend that his Rabelais would be a perfect match for her own prize-winning Shepherd. Her proposition gives David other ideas, more human in nature. David is not the only one with romance on his mind. Mae Earthleigh is out of town for the weekend and Arthur is on the loose and ready to howl. At a local tavern, he meets professional interior decorator and amateur souse Olive Jensen played by Ann Dvorak (Three on a Match). Arthur flirts with Olive. Arthur is not very good at flirting, but Olive thinks he's cute and happily returns to his abode where disapproving pictures of Mae squelch any starry-eyed notions.

George Brent and Carole Landis.
The sorts of mishaps that only happen in screwball comedies start happening to Arthur Earthleigh. He thinks he has gotten rid of Olive, but she is passed out in the guest room. Olive had told Arthur about her bad ticker and her propensity for "popping off", but Arthur does not realize the truth of her statement.  An unconscious Olive appears to Arthur to be a dead Olive. He places the body on David's terrace, more in fear of Mae than of any official condemnation. Arthur's action compounds an ongoing feud with David over Rabelais. In the midst of his burgeoning romance with Deborah, David uses Olive in a scheme to get even with Arthur. Olive is quite amenable to David's plans, after all, she gave Arthur the best years of her life!

By now you have the idea that our leading actors are playing characters well removed from their usual fare and carrying it off beautifully: Turhan Bey a sophisticate, Carole Landis a nag and Virginia Mayo the society gal. Mayo, who played her fair share of molls and dames is absolutely adorable in a scene where her dainty deb pretends to be a crook. George Brent is a riot as a man buffeted by fate. He takes one step forward in ill-conceived shenanigans and always winds up two steps back. Ann Dvorak takes the comedy crown as Olive Jenson.  Olive has no impulse control whatsoever and her stream-of-consciousness ramblings are the highlight of a very funny screenplay.

The comedy-mystery is a difficult sub-genre to pull off and this early Eagle-Lion release has everything it needs to be as memorable a screwball classic as any big name studio product with its very funny script and top-notch performances.

A New Leaf (1971)   (reviewed by in so many words...)

A New Leaf is a film of the 70s, but one of my favorites of any era--a romantic comedy featuring a splendid cast of the sort you just can’t find anymore. Henry Graham is a spoiled dilettante, obnoxious, pompous and an egocentric snob of the worst sort--in the role, Walter Matthau is perfection. He plays a man who cares for nothing but his own comfort. Fastidious to the nth degree, every whim attended to by his butler/valet, Henry lives a sybaritic lifestyle in a luxurious Manhattan apartment--until the day he is informed that he no longer has any money. Not heeding his banker’s advice, Henry has been living on the capital and not on the interest, and you know how that goes.

Elaine May and Walter Matthau.
Henry must then figure out a way to get his hands on a fortune so he can continue to live in the style to which he has become accustomed. Since, perish the thought, he can hardly be expected to get a job, another way must be found to replenish the coffers. For the misogynistic Henry, marriage offers little attraction, so marriage to an heiress or wealthy widow seems the only answer to his predicament. After several hilarious failed attempts to plunge into the 70s dating game, Henry meets Henrietta Lowell--played to equal perfection by Elaine May (who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film), a fabulously wealthy klutz and professor of botany (hence the film’s title). Henrietta is a hapless social disaster, blithefully unaware of her own inadequacies, concerned only with her botanical research. She lives alone in a huge mansion ignored by a staff of corrupt servants who barely bother with their duties and hold their mistress in contempt.

After a whirlwind courtship, Henry and Henrietta marry, while he plots to arrange for a convenient accident to befall his bride on their honeymoon.

This is a very special movie with a weird charm all its own. I’ve never forgotten it or the wonderful ending. Walter Matthau is superb; I would almost say he was born to play Henry. And Elaine May holds her own opposite Matthau, not an easy task. I’ve always wished there had been some sort of sequel.

Blue Collar (1978)   (reviewed by Twenty Four Frames)

With 1978’s Blue Collar, Paul Schrader made his directorial debut. It was based on a screenplay he co-wrote with his brother, Leonard. The result was one of the bleakest, pessimistic films to come out of Hollywood since Taxi Driver, also penned by Schrader. Fatalistic, noirish, reflecting a working class trapped, kept down in its place with no escape.

It’s the story of three Detroit auto workers, close friends Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto. Always in debt, never able to get ahead, they hatch a plan to rob the safe of corrupt union officials. It turned out to only contain $600. However, they also find a book filled with transactions on shady illegal deals. With the book in their possession, the three men take their plan one step further--to blackmail the union. The union leaders don't scare easy. For them, it time to crush these men, their friendship and their lives.

Blue Collar is the story of the have and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. Corrupt unions doing whatever possible to keep the working man in their place. A system beating you down, destroying your hopes, dreams and even your decency. In the freeze frame ending with Pryor and Keitel ready to tear into each other, we hear in voiceover Yaphet Kotto say: "They pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the black against the white, everything they do is to keep us in our place."

Richard Pryor as Zeke.
With Jack Nitzsche's bluesy song, "Hard Workin' Man" contributing to the down and out atmosphere, we see the auto plant as a hellish furnace, allegorically, a dead end. The workers are robotic, jumping at every command; move faster, tighten this piece up, straighten that piece, get it right this time. The only one with the guts to complain is Richard Pryor’s Zeke. In the end though, Zeke sells out to the man. They make him a union representative. One would have expected it to be Keitel’s Jerry, as he’s the weakest. Yaphet Kotto’s Smokey is the brains of the threesome and the most threatening to the union leaders. Subsequently, Smokey has to be eliminated. With Zeke selling out and Smokey dead, it leaves Jerry out in the cold.  Zeke offers him a buy in with a position in the union. He refuses. Jerry knows they cannot and will not leave him alone. He’s trapped.

The union corruption theme is reminiscent of Kazan's On the Waterfront. It reflects how little has changed in the twenty-five years or so between the two films. Vincent Canby in his review called Blue Collar "a poor man's On the Waterfront...a movie that often simply--sometimes primitively--describes corruption in a Detroit auto workers' local without ever making the corruption a matter of conscience. Corruption is there. It exists. It's part of the system."  Schrader makes it all seem so inevitable that you want to scream "power to the people!"

Thursday, September 3, 2015

James Stewart Leads a Fools' Parade

James Stewart behind "bars" in Fools' Parade.
James Stewart's career in the 1960s and 1970s consisted largely of paternal roles, Westerns, and occasional supporting parts. There were some notable exceptions in the 1960s, specifically The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). His final starring role in a theatrical film was in Fools' Parade (1971) and, though it pales next to his classics, it's a respectable way to close out an incredible career as a leading man.

Set in West Virginia in 1935, the film focuses on three men released from the Glory State Penitentiary. Mattie Appleyard, the trio's leader, spent 40 years in prison for killing three men (in self defense as we later learn). Mattie's hard labor as an inmate has earned him $25,000, which he and his friends plan to use to open a general store. Unfortunately, a local banker (who has embezzled Mattie's money) and an abusive prison guard plan to kill the ex-cons.

The film was later retitled, presumably
to make it sound more exciting.
Director Andrew McLaglen worked frequently in the 1960s with Stewart (Shenandoah, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!) and John Wayne (Hellfighters, McLintok!). Considering his propensity to specialize in Westerns and action films, he seems like an odd choice for Fools' Parade, which is essentially a character study of a "family" comprised of the three ex-cons. However, he quietly lets his actors carry the film, a smart decision considering they are its biggest asset. McLaglen also nicely captures the time period, his camera lingering on homeless men as the train speeds through the gray West Virginia mountains.

James Stewart is in fine form as the rational leader of the group. Kurt Russell, who was still starring in Disney comedies, gives a likable performance as the youngest and most naive of the ex-cons. However, acting honors go to Strother Martin, who may even be better here than he was in his most famous role as the Captain in Cool Hand Luke (1967). His character has survived prison by thinking about the store they plan to open--to the point that he carries around a book to jot down notes about future inventory (e.g., if a bottle of bourbon was tasty, he notes the brand).

A lobby card showing Anne Baxter, Russell, Martin, and Stewart.
Unfortunately, the film's villains are no more than caricatures not worthy of our protagonists. Martin's Cool Hand Luke co-star George Kennedy overplays his nasty prison guard as a religious zealot. Ditto for David Huddleston as the greedy banker. (William Windom and Anne Baxter, though, bolster the proceedings in their brief scenes.)

As I was watching Fools' Parade, I couldn't help but think about the challenges of making a film set in the Great Depression for 1971 movie-goers. For example, there's no way that Mattie could have made $25,000 during his 40 years of hard labor. To put it in perspective, $25,000 in 1935 equates to over $400,000 today. It's more likely that Mattie's savings would have been much less. So, I can see the dilemma faced by the script writers. Would the audiences of 1971 have accepted the villains murdering the convicts for an a more realistic amount, as low as maybe $8,000?

Fools' Parade will never be listed among James Stewart's best films. Yet, it's definitely worth a look so you can relish one last star turn from Stewart, plus Strother Martin in a signature role, and Kurt Russell showing the appeal that would make him a reliable star that's still making films today.