Monday, May 30, 2016

My Five Favorite Clint Eastwood Movies

Note that this list isn't comprised of the five best Eastwood films. Rather, it's just one fan's personal faves. And since this is a classic movie blog, I've focused on Clint's work through the 1980s.

1. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Eastwood's fifth film as a director spotlights two of his favorite themes: the bonding among outcasts and personal redemption. Set after the Civil War, Eastwood portrays the title fugitive, a former farmer who rediscovers his humanity as an assortment of outcasts join him on his quest for revenge. Eastwood skilfully blends action, comedy, and character development. I think this one also ranks near the top of any list of his best movies.

2. The Gauntlet (1977). Because Clint plays a tough police detective in The Gauntlet, it often gets lumped in with the Dirty Harry movies. It's a very different picture, with Clint playing Ben Shockley, an alcoholic, none-too-bright detective assigned to protect a witness (Sondra Locke) testifying against the Mob. When she makes Shockley realize he's being used, he finally digs down inside to find the man he could have been...or, perhaps, still could be. The Gauntlet is fast and funny (especially when the two leads are sparring) and the ending is delightfully over the top.

3. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). It's hard to imagine a more unlikely duo than Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine. Perhaps, that's what makes them such a perfect pair in this lighthearted Don Siegel Western. Clint portrays a soldier of fortune who rescues a nun from bandits and helps Mexican revolutionaries fight against the French. Things get complicated when the grizzled cowboy finds himself attracted to the whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking Sister Sara. Budd Boetticher wrote the original story and intended it as a vehicle reuniting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison co-stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Clint with Sondra Locke.
4. Bronco Billy (1980). It took awhile for me to appreciate this low-key comedy about a traveling band of misfits that performs Wild West shows. It was a critical failure and most fans probably discount it. But Eastwood once said: "If, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you'll find it in Bronco Billy." It certainly has plenty of old-fashioned charm, a sincere message, and shares some common themes with The Outlaw Josey Wales. Locke, who lived with Eastwood offscreen at the time, made six movies with him.

5. For a Few Dollars More (1965). My favorite of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone collaborations pairs Clint with fellow bounty hunter Lee Van Cleef. They are both pursuing the notorious outlaw El Indio--though for very different reasons. Clint wants the bounty, while Van Cleef's reason isn't revealed until the climax (a trick used by Leone even more effectively in the later Once Upon a Time in the West). The success of this Spaghetti Western has as much to do with Van Cleef as Clint, but the two make a great pair.

Honorable Mentions:  Where Eagles Dare is a near-perfect action film, but Clint isn't really the star; Kelly's Heroes; and Magnum Force (Dirty Harry may be a better movie, but Magnum is more fun).

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Cult Movie Theatre: John Carpenter Channels Howard Hawks in "Assault on Precinct 13"

When Los Angeles police officers execute six gang members for stealing guns, the local gangs join together and swear a blood oath to retaliate against the city. That afternoon, a gang member randomly shoots a young girl. Her father, overcome with grief and rage, pursues and kills his daughter's murderer. But then, the hunter becomes the hunted and the father seeks protection inside a police station with the gangs in pursuit.

Austin Stoker as Lt. Bishop.
What he doesn't know is that Precinct 9, Division 13 has been replaced by a new police headquarters. Only a skeleton crew, led by a new highway patrol lieutenant, remains inside the old building. Of course, there are also some unexpected prisoners--to include death row killer Napoleon Wilson--who arrived when a prison bus had to make an unplanned stop. It's shaping up to be a long night for Lieutenant Ethan Bishop, as he battles hundreds of gang members assaulting the police station, copes with the prisoners inside, and deals with power outages and severed phone lines that keep the precinct building isolated.

Following the success of his debut film, the sci fi satire Dark Star (1974), writer-director John Carpenter wanted to make an homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. His limited budget of $100,000 prevented Carpenter from making a Western, so he transplanted the action to modern-day L.A. and titled his script The Anderson Alamo. Running a crisp 91 minutes, Carpenter's film jettisons Hawks' well-defined characters, but still retains the central premise of an unlikely group of misfits fending off an attack on a jail against all odds.

After a slow build-up, the last half of the film is almost wall-to-wall action as the gang members make varied attempts to capture the police headquarters. In addition to Rio Bravo, Carpenter has a grand time paying homage to other genre classics such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Thing from Another World (1951). In regard to the latter, there's a long hallway that will look mighty familiar to sci-fi fans. As for Night of the Living Dead, Carpenter has acknowledged that Romero's ghouls inspired the gang members, who become nameless, nondescript creatures once the siege begins. In addition, Night fans will pick up on subtle references like the brief discussion on the merits of the basement as a safety haven.

Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson.
The use of little-known actors, which was a financial necessity, works to the film's advantage. While there were never any concerns about John Wayne's John T. Chance dying in Rio Bravo, the fate of Austin Stoker's Ethan Bishop remains in doubt until the film's closing scenes. The three leads--Stoker, Laurie Zimmer as a police employee, and Darwin Joston as the death row killer--acquit themselves nicely. Joston, a quirky screen presence, comes across as an early version of Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken from Carpenter's later Escape from New York (1981). One of the running gags in Assault on Precinct 13 has people asking Napoleon Wilson how he got his first name. (He replies that he'll tell them later...but never does.)

Kim Richards then and now.
Laurie Zimmer.
The only cast member to achieve any kind of stardom was Kim Richards, who played the young girl Kathy. She starred in Disney's Escape from Witch Mountain and its sequel. Decades later, she gained fame (of a sort) playing herself on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Of the three leads, Laurie Zimmer, who conveyed brains and beauty, seemed like the one most likely to succeed. However, she made only three more films and retired from acting. Twenty-seven years after Assault on Precinct 13, filmmaker Charlotte Szlovak tracked her down for the documentary Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer? It revealed that Zimmer was a teacher who was married and living in San Francisco.

Although the film takes place in Precinct 9, Division 13 headquarters, the film's backers thought the title Assault on Precinct 13 was more memorable (and rightly so). The movie only did so-so business in the U.S., but performed very well in Europe and led to Carpenter making Halloween (with a budget that tripled the one for Assault). Halloween (1978) went on to gross $70 million at the boxoffice (yes, that's 233 times its budget).

A respectable remake of Assault on Precinct 13 appeared in 2005 with Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishbourne, and Maria Bello. It retains the 1976's film's basic plot, but changes the characters.

Finally, John Carpenter's memorable, minimalist score for the original film--which was written in just three days--was unavailable as a soundtrack until 2003.

Monday, May 23, 2016

23 Paces to Baker Street (or, Van Johnson's Rear Window)

Van Johnson and Vera Miles in lieu of Stewart and Kelly.
Although based on a 1938 novel by Philip MacDonald, this 1956 London-set mystery owes a lot to Rear Window (1954). In Hitchcock's classic, James Stewart was a wheelchair-bound photographer who enlists the aid of his girlfriend and house-keeper when he believes a murder has occurred. In 23 Paces to Baker Street, Van Johnson plays a blind playwright who overhears what he believes may be a kidnapping. He enlists the aid of his former fiancee (Vera Miles) and manservant (Cecil Parker) to help solve the crime.

In both films, the investigation redefines the relationship between the film's central couple. Unlike Stewart's character, who was only temporarily incapacitated, Johnson's playwright is permanently blind and determined to rely on no one. His bitterness and stubbornness apparently caused his break-up with Miles in the past. However, as he becomes more involved in solving the crime, he realizes how much he needs her.

Van Johnson overhears the plotting of a crime.
Despite its derivative premise, 23 Paces to Baker Street is a dandy mystery. It retains the central plot from MacDonald's novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared. While sitting in a pub, Johnson's character overhears a man and a woman, who may be a nursemaid, discussing what sounds like a kidnapping. Johnson memorizes the conversation and records it later, playing it over and over as he searches for clues. Considering that Philip MacDonald also wrote The List for Adrian Messenger--in which a man's final words provide an invaluable clue--it should come as no surprise that the conversation warrants careful listening.

Scene-stealing Cecil Parker.
Johnson and Miles are fine as the leads, but acting honors go to scene-stealer Cecil Parker as the resourceful butler, cook, chauffeur, and amateur detective. The film also gets a fine boost from the atmospheric foggy London exteriors and sounds.

By the way, the title comes from a quick scene where Johnson gives directions to a stranger in the fog. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie--nor Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Signpost to Murder: A Tidy Thriller

The Milhampton Asylum.
Alex Forrester, an inmate at the Milhampton Asylum for the Criminal Insane, is under-standably perturbed when the institution's board denies his release. However, he hatches an escape plan after his psychiatrist, Dr. Fleming, mentions an unusual law which entitles a fugitive to a new trial if he evades capture for 14 days.

Forrester (Stuart Whitman) seeks refuge at the isolated home of Molly Thomas (Joanne Woodward). Molly appears to be a lonely woman no longer in love with her husband Evan. She confesses that she married him because she wanted to become someone else. For her husband's part, Molly tells Forrester: "It's having a wife that Evan loves."

Forrester senses Molly's vulnerability and she is surprised by his innocent nature. He doesn't seem like a man who may have slit his wife's throat. The couple draw closer together as the police dragnet closes in. But the police are only one of Forrester's problems--especially after he sees a male corpse with a slit throat on the water mill located in the middle of Molly's house.

Joanne Woodward, Stuart Whitman, and the water mill visible through window.

Made in 1964, Signpost to Murder has become nothing but a footnote in the careers of its stars. However, that doesn't negate the fact that it's a tidy thriller that holds interest and takes advantage of a brilliant set. Most of the action takes place in Molly's house and around the aforementioned river mill. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest a number of film fans know it simply as "the river mill house movie." (Click here to see a clip on our YouTube channel.)

The water mill is located under the three windows in the roof.

Signpost to Murder was based on a 1962 London play by Monte Doyle. That comes as no surprise, given the limited number of sets. You'll likely figure out the plot's big revelation before the climax. Still, with a running time under 80 minutes, you won't get bored.

Stuart Whitman makes Forrester a sympathetic character, no small feat considering that the escaped inmate may be a murderer and is holding a woman hostage with a shotgun. Whitman earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 1961 for The Mark, in which he played another emotionally fragile individual. He also played a man posing as an asylum inmate in 1964's Shock Treatment.

The 1960s were an uneven decade for Joanne Woodward, who balanced critically-acclaimed performances (Rachel, Rachel) with misfires (e.g., The Stripper). She and Edward Mulhare (as Dr. Fleming) give solid performances in Signpost to Murder. However, from an acting standpoint, it's Whitman that holds the movie together.

The view from Forrester's perspective as he watches Molly and Dr. Fleming.

I first saw Signpost to Murder on The CBS Late Movie in the mid-1970s. It was one of those movies that stuck with me over the years. I recently had the opportunity to watch it again and, while it could use the Hitchcock touch, it remains a compelling thriller. And, yes, I still love that "river mill house."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon in Support of National Classic Movie Day

Happy National Classic Movie Day!

To celebrate this day devoted to classic movies from the silents to the 1970s, we're hosting the 5 Movies on an Island Blogathon. As it name implies, the intent is for participants to write about the five classic movies they'd want to have with them if stranded on a deserted island. (Yes, you can assume the island has electricity, a projector, big screen, and popcorn!) These choices might be one's all-time five favorite movies or a mix of some comfort films desired to give one's tropical habitat that desired "homey feel."

Thus, the selections have been wonderfully varied so far, ranging from the haunting 1973 Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive to Hitchcock's celebrated North By Northwest. The 32 participating blogs (with links) are listed below. If the blog's title appears in blue, then the blogger's 5 Movies post has been published.

We hope you can check back with us throughout the day and read each blogger's selections!

B Noir Detour
Back to Golden Days
Caftan Woman
Christmas TV History
CinaMaven's Essays from the Couch
Cinematic Scribblings
Classic Film & TV Cafe
Classic Movie Hub Blog
Classic Reel Girl
Critica Retro
The Flaming Nose
Films from Beyond the Time Barrier
Hometowns to Hollywood
In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
Java's Journey
Journeys in Classic Film 
Lady Eve's Reel Life
Little Bits of Classics
The Movie Night Group's Guide to Classic Film
Movies, Silently
Old Hollywood Films
Once Upon a Screen
Outspoken and Freckled
A Person in the Dark 
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
Prowler Needs a Jump
Shadows and Satin
Silver Scenes (Constance and Diana)
Silver Screen Modes
Spellbound by Movies
30Hz Rumble
Taking Up Room
Twenty Four Frames
Virtual Virago
Wolffian Classic Movies Digest

Our Picks for the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon

To celebrate the second annual National Classic Movie Day, the Cafe is hosting and participating in the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. The idea behind this blogathon is simple: If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only watch five movies over and over, what would they be?

I pondered this question with Toto, my fellow Cafe contributor and editor extraordinaire. Each of us focused on identifying comfort movies--as opposed to our favorite movies. A major criterion was how well a film still entertained us after repeated viewings.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone in
The Court Jester.
Toto's fine selections, in no particular order, are:

1. The Court Jester.
2. 101 Dalmatians (1961).
3. Lover Come Back.
4. Pollyanna.
5. The Bishop's Wife.

I had a tough time narrowing my choices to just five. I knew there had to be a Hitchcock picture and a Hammer film in my list. It was difficult to omit at least one guilty pleasure, such as the island-friendly Beach Blanket Bingo, but there just wasn't an available slot. Again, in no particular order, my choices are:

The courtyard in Rear Window.
1. Rear Window – Vertigo is my favorite Hitchcock classic and Marnie and The Birds are right up there, too. But, when it comes to "repeatability," it's hard to match Rear Window. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter are a terrific trio and Raymond Burr makes a memorable villain. Thematically, it's one of Hitch's finest (e.g., the hero is a peeping tom and fears commitment). However, my favorite element is that wonderful courtyard and the "stories" featured in the other apartments.

2. Brides of Dracula – My Hammer friends may be shocked I didn't select a film with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. For that reason, I seriously contemplated The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). In the end, though, I went for a vampire flick and this is the best of Hammer's Dracula series, pitting Van Helsing (Cushing) against a handsome vampire (David Peel) taking advantage of a girls' boarding school. An added bonus: I never get tired of watching the windmill climax.

Kirk Douglas in disguise!
3. The List of Adrian Messenger – For this slot, I contemplated choosing Green for Danger or Ten Little Indians (1965). However, they were bumped in favor of John Huston’s gimmicky 1963 mystery, in which several famous stars make cameos in heavy make-up. While trying to spot the stars is undeniably fun, the gimmick disguises the fact that The List of Adrian Messenger is a highly-entertaining, crafty film that starts as a mystery and evolves into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game. The revelation of the murderer's motive is only part of the fun. It’s the “how” that differentiates it from other mysteries. Among his many skills, the murderer, played delightfully by Kirk Douglas, is also a master of disguises!

4. The Andromeda Strain – As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a sucker for movies in which the protagonist forms a team (the prototype of this kind of movie is The Adventures of Robin Hood). The Andromeda Strain is a great "get the team together" film, but it's also a superior science fiction outing that pits four dedicated scientists against a microscopic menace capable of destroying all life on Earth. I find it intellectually exciting. Its thrills come not from action sequences (though there’s a doozy at the climax), but from the time-sensitive need to determine: What is the Andromeda Strain? How can it be destroyed? Why did a 69-year-old man and a six-month-old baby survive when Andromeda wiped out a New Mexico town of 68 people? 

Jane Powell and Howard Keel.
5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – You may think I selected this movie just to drool over the most excellent breakfast that Jane Powell prepares for husband Howard Keel and his rowdy brothers in the Oregon Territory in 1850. Well, I can't deny it--I've often thought of that tempting breakfast! However, this colorful musical features a memorable score by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, Michael Kidd’s spectacular choreography, and charming performances from the cast.

Be sure to check out other bloggers' choices for the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. You can see the full schedule by clicking here. Also, don't forget to wish your favorite movie fans a Happy National Classic Movie Day!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Introducing Our New Blog: British TV Detectives

On April 22nd, the Classic Film & TV Cafe's staff launched a new blog called British TV Detectives. Over the last few years, our love for British television detective and mystery series has grown exponentially.

We've covered some of the older shows, like Lord Peter Wimsey, here at the Cafe. However, many of these TV series were made after the 1980s and thus can't be categorized as classic television (at least, not yet). Since they don't "fit" at the Cafe, we came up with the idea of a new blog dedicated solely to British television sleuths.

We've reviewed the following seven TV series to jump-start our blog:
Michael Kitchen in the excellent
Foyle's War.
For each show: we describe the premise, provide its broadcast history and availability in the U.S., include any interesting production notes, and offer a critical review (complete with letter grade).

Our goal is to review a new show weekly. We already have a backlog of intriguing series waiting to be reviewed (e.g., Dalgliesh, Midsomer Murders, George Gently, etc.). If you're interested in watching any of these shows, we recommend checking out your local public library or streaming services like Acorn TV.

We invite you to visit our British TV Detectives blog and let us know what you think of it. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (May 2016)

What do Tony and Veronica have in common?
National Classic Movie Day is May 16th! That's got nothing to do with this game--we just wanted to give it a plug. Now for the rules: 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. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) and The Jokers (1967).

2. Walter Pidgeon and Ronald Colman.

3. Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.

4. Tony Curtis and Veronica Lake.

5. Short Cut to Hell (1957) and Beware! The Blob (1972).

6. Enter the Dragon and the TV series Mission: Impossible.

7. Gardner McKay and Charlton Heston.

8. Stephanie Beacham and Deborah Kerr.

9. Quartet (1948) and Mary Poppins.

10. Lana Wood and Lee Remick.

11. The TV series Sapphire and Steel and Goldfinger.

12. Christopher Reeve and Vincent Price.

13. Vincent Price and Ray Milland.

14. Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins.

15. The Hayley Mills movie The Family Way and the 007 picture Live and Let Die.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Seven Things to Know about Bill Bixby

1. Bill Bixby starred in five prime-time television series: My Favorite Martian (1963-66); The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-72); The Magician (1973-74); The Incredible Hulk (1977-82); and Goodnight, Beantown (1983-84).

2. Bixby became life-long friends with Ray Walston, his "uncle" on My Favorite Martian, and Brandon Cruz, who played his son on The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Cruz guest starred on a 1978 episode of The Incredible Hulk. He named a son after Bixby (Lincoln Bixby Cruz).

3. Bill Bixby actually was a magician--an amateur one--and belonged to the exclusive Hollywood magicians club The Magic Castle. He hosted several TV specials featuring magicians and appeared in a supporting role in the 1976 TV movie The Great Houdini (with Paul Michael Glaser in the title role).

Bixby, as an assassin in disguise, in a
1974 Streets of San Francisco episode.
4. He was nominated for three Prime Time Emmys. His first one was in 1971 for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Both of his other nominations came in 1976. He earned one for lead actor in a guest starring role on The Streets of San Francisco (the episode "Police Bluff"); it was his second guest stint on San Francisco. He earned his second 1976 Emmy nomination for supporting actor in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.

5. Bixby played the part of alcoholic writer Willie Abbott in Rich Man, Poor Man. The following year, he receive a nomination from the Directors Guild of America for directing one of the "chapters" in the sequel Rich Man, Poor Man - Book II.

With Kathryn Hays in Ride Beyond Vengeance.
6. Bill Bixby usually played "nice guys"--but the 1966 Western Ride Beyond Vengeance was an exception. In its review of this film, Wildest Westerns Magazine states: "Bill Bixby shines as a psycho-sexual pretty boy who plunges a branding iron into his own stomach in a hysterical fit of remorse." The film's star, Chuck Connors, recommended Bixby for the role.

7. Bill Bixby, who died from cancer at age 59, became a highly successful television director. His credits included 30 episodes of the 1992-94 sitcom Blossom. He died six days after completing his final episode in 1993.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sam Peckinpah Goes Kung Fu in "The Killer Elite"

At the outset of The Killer Elite (1975), Mike and George appear to be two happy-go-lucky mercenaries that work for a CIA contractor. That changes when George (Robert Duvall) kills a defector they're protecting--then shoots Mike (James Caan) in the knee and elbow. As George stands over his bleeding pal, he states flatly: "(You) just retired. Enjoy it."

As Mike recovers from extensive surgery, his two bosses (Arthur Hill and Gig Young) visit him to deliver good news and bad news. The good is that he will receive $1500 in disability a month (a tidy sum compared to government employees). The bad news: "Given a year, maybe you'll be able to walk up a flight of stairs. That leg of yours will never be anything but a wet noodle."

George (Duvall) and Mike (Caan)
prior to Mike's "retirement."
Fueled by determination and perhaps a little revenge, Mike makes an impressive recovery, but now wears a brace on his left arm and walks with a cane. However, he still wants to get back in the business. Mike gets his opportunity when he's asked to protect an Asian diplomat from an assassination attempt by none other than George.

Unlike most of his films, Sam Peckinpah was not involved with The Killer Elite from the beginning. He joined it when his plans for a thriller called The Insurance Company hit a snag. In fact, in the book Peckinpah, author Garner Simmons includes this telegram sent by studio executive Mike Medavoy to Peckinpah: "I am confirming to you, per your note of January 27th that you are not to do any writing on the script."

The Japanese poster emphasized
the kung fu!
Instead, Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) and Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) penned the screenplay. Although Robert Hopkins' source novel Monkey in the Middle took place in England, the film's locale was shifted to San Francisco. Silliphant, a martial arts enthusiast who trained under Bruce Lee, added several kung fu elements. Caan's character practices martial arts as part of his rehabilitation and Ninja assassins also try to kill the Asian diplomat played by Mako. Silliphant even wrote a role for his wife Tiana Alexandra, who held a brown belt at the time (and also studied under Lee).

Given his lack of involvement in the script, it's surprising that The Killer Elite comes across as a typical Peckinpah film. In fact, it works as a thematic sequel (of sorts) to my favorite Peckinpah movie: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). In both films, the protagonists are betrayed by a friend (or friends) and left to die (one could argue that Mike "dies" when his profession is apparently taken away from him). And both films focus on the rehabilitation and, ultimately, reinvention of their protagonists. In the concluding scene of The Killer Elite, it's obvious that Mike has undergone a life-changing transformation.

Director Sam Peckinpah.
While The Killer Elite doesn't rank with Sam Peckinpah's best films, it remains an interesting outing that makes outstanding use of the San Francisco locales. Plus, Caan gives one of his best performances. My only real criticism centers on the martial arts fight sequences. While I love a good kung fu fight, Peckinpah's attempts come across as pedestrian--especially compared to the action films being made during the same period by Bruce Lee and others in Asia. Peckinpah should have mandated the substitution of a couple of good shootouts. With this film, though, he probably didn't have the clout to do that.