Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top Ten Posts of 2016

It's a tradition at the Classic Film & TV Cafe to close out the year with a countdown of our ten most viewed posts. We published a total of 105 in 2016. Naturally, the countdown is a little skewed, since those posts that out at the start of the year will have more views. But that won't stop us...we love year-end lists!

We included only posts that were originally published during 2016. If we had not, The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes would have crushed the competition (as always). To build a little suspense, we'll begin at No. 10 and work our way to No. 1.

But before we get started, we want to thank each of you who visited this blog this year and send some extra love to those who took the time to leave comments.

Jane Randolph in The Cat People.
10. Last August, we listed Five Swimming Pools in Classic Movies--no doubt inspired by all that swimming in the Olympics. Our picks included many obvious ones (e.g., The Cat People, The Swimmer), but also some lesser known pools that deserve more recogition (e.g., the creepy pool in Hammer's Taste of Fear).

9. The highest charting regular film review was something of a surprise: The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It just proves that the Gill Man still has his fans--as does the enchanting Julie Adams.

8. Following an enthusiastic response to a post about foreign films, we hosted a panel discussion on acclaimed filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut. If you're unfamiliar with Truffaut, the panel members recommended checking out his films The 400 Blows and The Story of Adele H. as an introduction.

Billy Mumy as Will Robinson.
7. Last July, a friend gave me his boxed set of the Lost in Space TV series when he upgraded to Blu ray. That led to a review of Lost in Space: The First Episode, which chronicled how the show evolved from its original premise.

6. In one of our regular Cafe features, we reminiscence about forgotten TV series. Last July's Seven (More) Obscure TV Series That I Curiously Remember included oldies such as Harold Robbins' The Survivors, The Silent Force, and The Pruitts of Southampton.

5. Last June, we pondered why foreign-language films aren't more popular among American classic film fans. It was a question that sparked a lot of discussion on the Cafe's social media platforms and led to the panel discussion listed at #8.

Jacqueline Scott & David Janssen.
4. Back in March 2016, I attended the Williamsburg Film Festival and was fortunate enough to interview actress Jacqueline Scott. She told some marvelous stories about acting alongside stars like Walter Mathhau and about her guest appearances in TV series such as The Fugitive (she played Richard Kimble's sister) and Perry Mason.

3. I also got to interview actress Audrey Dalton in Williamsburg, Virginia. She discussed her amazing career, which ranged from starring in My Cousin Rachel with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton to appearing in William Castle's cult classic Mr. Sardonicus.

2. For National Classic Movie Day 2015, we hosted the Five Movies on an Island Blogathon. It asked participants to list what five movies they would watch over and over if stranded on a deserted island. It proved to be a popular topic that trended nationally on Twitter for a couple of hours.

1. However, our most popular blogathon was also our most popular post of the year: The TV Sidekick Blogathon. Twenty bloggers, many of them from the Classic TV Blog Association, wrote about their favorite sidekicks. The line-up included the obvious (Kato in The Green Hornet), the obscure (Dyna Girl in Electra Woman and Dyna Girl), and the downright odd (the Corvette on Route 66).

Monday, December 26, 2016

Breakheart Pass: Murder on the Western Express

A murder mystery set aboard a train cruising through snow-covered mountains? Add Charles Bronson and an Old West setting and you've got Breakheart Pass. As discussed previously at this blog, I'm a big fan of mixed genres and, in particular, the Western mystery (see 5 Card Stud). This 1975 adaptation of Alastair MacLean's 1974 novel proved to be one of Charles Bronson's better 1970s films and has aged surprisingly well.

Bronson as the outlaw Deakin.
Bronson plays John Deakin, a minor outlaw who's arrested by a federal marshal (Ben Johnson) after cheating at cards in a tiny mining town. The marshal plans to transport Deakin to Fort Humboldt aboard a military train carrying a physician and medical supplies to the diphtheria-infected post. Odd things start happening before the train even departs. Two officers, tasked with decoding a message for the governor (Richard Crenna), disappear without a trace.

Once the train heads toward the snowy peaks, the plot thickens when the physician turns up dead. Deakin, a former lecturer on medicine, recognizes foul play when he sees it: "It's hard to believe, Major, we have a killer aboard." The audience also learns that there is no diphtheria at Fort Humboldt. Instead, a notorious outlaw has taken over the military post and plans to link up with a renegade band of Paiute Indians and attack the train.

Jill Ireland as the only woman aboard.
Breakheart Pass is one of those films that doesn't give you time to process the narrative. That's a good thing, because the plot--once it's fully unveiled--doesn't withstand close scrutiny. Deakin's presence aboard the train ultimately doesn't make any sense and the same applies to the governor's fiancee portrayed by Jill Ireland (Mrs. Bronson). Additionally, those viewers familiar with Alastair MacLean's earlier works, particularly Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, will recognize some of the author's recycled plot twists.

Nothing of that matters, though, as Bronson's Deakin works to expose the killer, clashes with Archie Moore atop the speeding train, and participates in a wild climatic shoot-out. Hercule Poirot had a much easier time aboard the Orient Express!

Ben Johnson as the marshal.
Bronson is well cast as the sardonic hero. It's a less violent variation of the kind of roles that made him an international star in the early 1970s. The supporting cast is peppered by veteran character actors like Crenna, Johnson, Charles Durning, David Huddleston, and Ed Lauter. Look quick and you might spot future Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp.

One of my favorite stories about Breakheart Pass is from Roger Ebert's book Awake in the Dark. He describes the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's visit to the film's set:

BERGMAN (to BRONSON):  Please explain to me what you're doing.

BRONSON:  Well, this is a scene where I get shot. So I'm wearing these squibs with fake blood under my shirt, and--but you know all this stuff. You're a director.

BERGMAN:  No, no. Please continue. This is all new to me.

BRONSON:  You mean you don't use guns in your pictures?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kate Nelligan Shines in "Without a Trace"

The poster for the 1983 kidnapping drama.
When I reviewed Eye of the Needle (1981) earlier this year, I heard back from a number of Kate Nelligan fans via social media. It was refreshing to discover that the talented Canadian actress remains popular today. It also inspired me to dig out an old review of one of her best films, Without a Trace, which I penned during my film critic days. I've updated and re-edited it for this blog, but my original assessment of this well-crafted, seldom-shown film remains the same.

Beth Gutcheon adapted the screenplay from her novel Still Missing, which was inspired by a true case involving a six-year-old boy's disappearance in Manhattan in 1980. Gutcheon could have easily stressed the suspenseful aspects of her story and made the movie another crime thriller. Instead, she concentrates on the people involved and their relationships.

Kate Nelligan as the mother.
Kate Nelligan stars as Susan Selky, a Columbia University professor whose son disappears after leaving for school one morning. When the case attracts local media attention, both Susan and her estranged husband come under scrutiny (e.g., she is criticized for allowing her young son to walk to school by himself). As leads continue to fizzle, the senior detective's bosses apply pressure to scale back the investigation, leaving Susan to wonder if her son will ever be found.

Much of the film's tension can be attributed to its realistic portrait of an upper middle-class, urban neighborhood. From the downtown delicatessen to the children's playground in the park, the world created in Without a Trace is one considered safe by the families who live there. It's why Susan doesn't hesitate to let her son walk three short blocks to school. When a crime does occur in this "safe" world, it is all the more horrifying. As one of the policemen says: "If it happened here, it could happen anywhere."

Nelligan conveys courage, frustration and determination in every frame of the movie. It is a bravura performance in a critical role. One simply has to watch her face when a telephone rings, her eyes filled with a mixture of hope and terror.

Director Stanley R. Jaffe employs sound and silence to great effect throughout the film. He uses a tea kettle whistling in a silent apartment to convey the mother's growing alarm as she slowly realizes that something has happened to her son. The sounds of a clicking toy, a whimpering dog, and police sirens are all deftly used to complement the action. Jaffe skillfully reminds us that movies can do more than move and that there is more to sound than just dialogue. Amazingly, it was his only directorial effort, despite a successful career producing films such as Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Bad News Bears, and Fatal Attraction.

Nelligan, David Dukes, and Judd Hirsch.
The fine supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as the caring police detective, David Dukes as the boy's father, and Stockard Channing as Susan's neighbor and friend. Still, it's Nelligan's superb performance that holds the film together. I was certain she would receive a Best Actress nomination, but that was not to be (it was the year that both Shirley MacLaine, the eventual winner, and Debra Winger were nominated for Terms of Endearment).

Without a Trace is a carefully crafted film that represents Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Kate Nelligan's performance is worth the price of admission. The rest of the movie is simply frosting on the cake-- but it is all very tasty indeed.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Movie-TV Connection Game (Dec 2016)

Bing Crosby and Tyrone Power.
'Tis the holiday season and time for making connections! 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. Charlton Heston and Clark Gable.

2. Michael Caine and John Saxon.

3. Shelley Winters and Burt Lancaster.

4. Jason Robards, Jr. and Shirley Jones.

5. Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.

6. E.G. Marshall and Arthur Hill.

7. Veronica Lake and Agnes Moorehead (an easy one!).

8. Montgomery Clift and Bing Crosby.

9. Ray Milland and Patrick McGoohan.

10. Joan Fontaine and Kirk Douglas.

11. Gregory Peck and Robert Lansing.

12. Tyrone Power and Bing Crosby.

13. Ronald Colman and Danny Kaye.

14. Charles Laughton and Gene Hackman.

15. Robert Stack and Dana Andrews.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Blanche Fury" and "High Anxiety"

Blanche Fury (1948).  Poor Blanche. In a short span, she improves her social station by progressing from servant to governess to the wife of wealthy landowner Laurence Fury. Unfortunately, on her wedding night, she realizes that she's passionately in love with the estate's bitter steward, Philip (Stewart Granger). He believes Clare Hall rightfully belongs to him as the only son of its former owner. The problem is that Philip is illegitimate--well, he believes his parents were married in Italy, but a five-year search has provided no proof. Philip hates Laurence Fury, hates the fact that the Furies claim ownership of Clare Hall, and hates that his lover, Blanche, is married to Laurence. It would be so convenient if something unpleasant happened to Laurence and his father....

Valerie Hobson.
This British-made Victorian drama principally serves as a showcase for the under-appreciated Valerie Hobson and a young Stewart Granger, who acting career was on the upswing. Hobson is particularly effective as the female lead, constantly finding depths in her character that keep the story interesting. If not for her name, I never would have known it was the same actress from Bride of Frankenstein. Granger has an easier time as Philip, but there's no doubting his charisma and he displays a sharp edge that he would refine later in his best performances (e.g., Scaramouche).

While never as gripping as it should be, Blanche Fury holds interest with just enough unusual touches. Examples include the weird story about the Fury coat of arms (which features an ape) and the fact that Philip's family took the name Fury when they moved into Clare Hall (their actual name was Fuller). I watched a muted print, but have read where the film's color photography was rather impressive. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who photographed the exteriors, would later win Oscars for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979).

A little Vertigo?
High Anxiety (1977).  Typically, Mel Brooks runs hot and cold for me--which makes this Hitchcock parody an anomaly. It's often amusing without being laugh-out-loud funny. I like it, but I'm always left with the feeling that it should have been so much better.

Mel stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new administrator at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. It's quickly evident that Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman) and Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman) are harboring secrets. But before Thorndyke can uncover what's happening at the institute, he's off to San Francisco to attend a psychiatric convention. He is soon framed for a hotel murder and, with the help of Victoria Brisbane (Madeleine Kahn), must prove his innocence.

The killer impersonates Thorndyke.
The best parts of High Anxiety are trying to identify which Hitchcock classic is being parodied. Some are obvious (the playground scene from The Birds, the mental hospital from Spellbound), while others are more subtle (e.g., a long tracking shot that recalls Rope). Surprisingly, one of the best scenes has nothing to do with Hitch, but consists of Mel doing a Sinatra tribute as he sings the title song in the hotel's lounge.

The hotel bellboy, who has one of the funniest scenes, was played by Barry Levinson. He co-wrote the script with Brooks, Ron Clark, and Rudy De Luca. Five years later, Levinson would write and direct the critically acclaimed Diner, the first of several big screen successes (e.g., Rain Man, The Natural).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Five Weirdest and Worst Movie Titles

Kreski, Newley, and Collins.
1. Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969) - Anthony Newley co-wrote the songs, co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced, directed and starred in this X-rated vanity musical about a middle-aged, sex-obsessed singer. The bizarre cast included Joan Collins (then Newley's wife) as Polyester Poontang, Milton Berle, and Playboy Playmate Connie Kreski as Mercy Humpe.

2. Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (1996) - One would hope that Mom's response to the title question was: "No, dear daughter, you may certainly not." Tori Spelling plays a college student who meets a nice young man--who is actually a possessive, psycho killer. This made-for-TV movie has become something of a cult film due to its unintentional camp quotient.

The memorable graphic from the LP.
3. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1967) - Rosalind Russell plays an overbearing mother who takes her husband and son (Robert Morse) on a vacation to the Caribbean. By the way, her husband is dead, stuffed, and in a coffin. The film was based on an Off-Broadway stage farce written by three-time Tony-nominated playwright Arthur Kopit.

4. Hawmps! (1976) - James Hampton, best known as Dobbs on F Troop, stars in this Western comedy about an attempt to replace horses with camels in the U.S. Cavalry. It was produced and directed by Joe Camp, the man that made Benji a 1970s canine icon. As for the film's title, what in the heck was Joe thinking?

Star Cash Flagg was Steckler.
5. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964) - There is no way I can write a better summary than this one from the IMDb: "Jerry falls in love with a stripper he meets at a carnival. Little does he know that she is the sister of a gypsy fortune teller whose predictions he had scoffed at earlier. The gypsy turns him into a zombie and he goes on a killing spree." Filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler didn't make good movies--but they were original and had great titles. The alternate title for this one is the equally memorable Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.

Honorable Mention: Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, another Steckler "classic." When asked about the odd title in an interview on The Incredibly Strange Film Show, Steckler explained that the title was supposed to be Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. However, there was a mix-up with the title company and Steckler couldn't afford to get the title corrected.

Friday, December 9, 2016

"The Fury" Ups the Ante on Teenage Alienation

Kirk Douglas watches his son get abducted.
Brian DePalma has made better movies than The Fury (1978), but none that can match it for pure entertainment and craftsmanship. It shows a director, at the peak of his powers, layering science fiction and teen alienation over a conventional suspense plot. As if to make the film even more robust, DePalma integrates some unexpected humor and a shock ending that stunned audiences.

For most of its running time, The Fury follows two parallel stories. In the first, Peter (Kirk Douglas), a retired government agent, searches desperately for his kidnapped teenaged son. An early scene between father and son reveals that Robin (Andrew Stevens) is “special,” though his unique talents remain a mystery throughout much of the film.

Amy Irving as Gillian.
The second plot revolves around Gillian (Amy Irving), a teenage girl who inadvertently discovers she may possess extrasensory powers. Eager to learn about herself, Gillian enrolls at the Paragon Institute, which studies ESP and telepathy. She soon learns that she has a psychic connection with a former Paragon resident—a boy named Robin.

Thematically, the connection between Gillian and Robin is that they’re both isolated from a “normal” society. When Robin’s father discusses returning to the U.S. to attend school, Robin replies: “I won’t fit in; I’d feel like some kind of freak.” Likewise, Gillian knows she is different. Except for one friend, her classmates treat her cruelly or ambivalently (not unlike the title character in DePalma’s earlier Carrie). It’s no wonder that Gillian becomes anxious to meet Robin—to finally talk with someone like herself.

Tragedy strikes during the escape.
Stylistically, DePalma engages in some of his trademark directorial flourishes. There are plenty of foreboding overhead angles and a shot where the camera revolves around Gillian on the stairs as she has a vision. But The Fury also features my favorite sequence in any DePalma film: a stunning, five-minute, slow-motion scene in which Gillian escapes from the Paragon Institute. Manipulating the soundtrack to maximum effect, DePalma avoids dialogue and filters out all natural sounds except for screeching tires and gunshots. He then uses John Williams’superb music score to alter the scene’s mood from light to dark in a matter of seconds.

Although the climax to The Fury goes over-the-top and turns excessively gory, the film’s virtues easily outweigh its faults. Amy Irving turns in a winning, vulnerable performance, while Carrie Snodgress provides great support as a nurse who befriends her. DePalma keeps the plot moving smartly, while visually reminding us this is a film about people reaching out to one another. Watch for his many shots of hands: Gillian grabbing the doctor’s hand on the stairs; Gillian’s and Robin’s finger tapping in unison; and Peter holding onto his son’s hand near the end.

Carrie Snodgress and Kirk Douglas.
Kirk Douglas appeared in movies for three more decades after The Fury. I'd rate this among the best of his late-career performances. He and Snodgress share some winning scenes and he forges an effective paternal relationship with Irving. The Fury is really an ensemble piece and Douglas, the film biggest star, accepts that knowingly.

Trivia fans should note that two of Gillian’s classmates are played by Daryl Hannah and Laura Innes (Carrie on the television series ER). The off-duty cop with the new Cadillac is Dennis Franz, long before NYPD Blue. For the record, my second favorite DePalma film is the equally underrated Body Double, an entertaining, slightly sleazy homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

This post is part of the Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin. Click here to check out the complete blogathon schedule.

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Diggstown" and "The Idolmaker"

James Woods as a con man.
Diggstown (1992).  "A hustler has to get out of town as quick as he can. A good con man...he doesn't have to leave town until he wants to." Those words of wisdom are uttered by Gabriel Caine (James Woods), who--as you may have guessed--is a pretty good con man. Still, he's made mistakes, such as employing an artist that used acrylic paint on 18th century landscape forgeries. That landed Gabe in a Georgia County prison where he hatches the grand con that comprises Diggstown.

The root of the con is a million-dollar wager with the villainous John Gillon (Bruce Dern) that "Honey" Roy Palmer, a little-known retired boxer, can defeat ten men in the boxing ring in a single day. Gabe and Gillon both work hard to outsmart each other. They bribe people, spy on the competition, and manipulate the rules. It's like a chess game played by two grand masters of the "art of the con." In the end, though, only one of them turns out to be a good con man.

Gossett, Jr. as Honey Roy.
A recent viewing of Diggstown reminded me that James Woods was one of the best actors of the 1980s. He could turn on the charm in lighthearted films like this, while also delivering first-rate dramatic performances in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Salvador (1986), and My Name Is Bill W. (1989). Of course, Woods gets a great assist in Diggstown from Lou Gossett, Jr., who injects his own subtle brand of humor as "Honey" Roy, who trades barbs with his old pal Gabe.

Woods and Gossett, Jr. are the primary reasons to see Diggstown, although this caper film also has an easygoing appeal in its favor. There is one misstep in the film's tone (an unnecessary death), but the script somehow manages to get back on track before the climax. The ending, which features a nifty little twist, will leave you with a smile on your face.

Ray Sharkey in the title role.
The Idolmaker (1980). This little-known sleeper starred Ray Sharkey, in what should have been a star-making performance, as a hard-working music producer who transforms two young singers into pop music idols in the 1960s. If the story sounds familiar, then that's because The Idolmaker was based on the life of Robert Marcucci, the man behind the success of singers Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

Marcucci gets a credit as "technical advisor," although his imprint is all over this slightly fictionalized biography. Part of the fun is figuring out which character represents what real-life person. Sax player Tommy Dee is obviously based on trumpet player Frankie Avalon. The perfectly-coifed Caesare is Fabian. Magazine writer Brenda Roberts is Rona Barrett and the hard-charging Vincent Vacarri is Marcucci.

Peter Gallagher as Caesare.
I'm a sucker for music biographies set in the rock 'n' roll era, whether fact-based (the excellent Buddy Holly Story) or fictionalized (the underrated Grace of My Heart). The Idolmaker is not as good as either of those movies, but it's still a diverting story about an ingratiating hustler who creates stars because he doesn't think he's got the talent to be one. One of the film's best scenes has Vacarri singing and dancing in the wings, in perfect unison with his pop idol performing on the stage.

Sadly, The Idolmaker didn't open many doors for the talented Ray Sharkey. He battled drug addiction through much of his career and died in 1993 at age 40 from complications due to AIDS. His best post-Idolmaker performance was as gangster Sonny Steelgrave in the excellent first season of the 1987-90 TV series Wiseguy.