Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Accidental Tourist: A Wistful Tale of Emotional Healing

William Hurt as Macon Leary.
Tragedy still looms over Macon and Sarah Leary a year after the sudden, violent death of their 12-year-old son. The introspective Macon (William Hurt), never one to express his feelings easily, has built a cocoon around his pain. With no emotional support, the still grieving Sarah (Kathleen Turner) informs Macon that she is leaving him.

Macon, an author of tourist books, plods though the routine of life until two separate events change his world. First, he meets a force of nature known as Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), a single mother and dog trainer who takes an instant interest in Macon. Around the same time, he has a freak accident in his basement and breaks his leg. During his recovery, he moves into the old family home occupied by his three siblings, whose eccentricities make Macon look normal (they store their groceries in alphabetical order).

Kathleen Turner as Sarah.
Based on Anne Tyler's 1985 award-winning novel, The Accidental Tourist (1988) is a wistful film filled with quiet surprises. It's a decidedly sharp change of pace from the first collaboration between William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, and director Lawrence Kasdan. That would be 1981's sexy film noir Body Heat, in which Turner played a murderer and Hurt her easily-deceived lover. Like Body Heat, though, The Accidental Tourist benefits from an excellent cast from top to bottom, a sense of time and place, and an unforgettable music score.

Trying to avoid social interaction.
William Hurt is clearly the star of The Accidental Tourist, for the story centers on how Macon learns to live again. His tourist books are written for travelers who don't want to leave home. They aren't about enjoying new experiences, but rather about how to avoid them (one of his tips is to always carry a book on planes, so you can read and not have to interact with other passengers).

Thus, Hurt has the challenge of playing someone who is "emotionally muffled" (as his wife puts it), but also one who must appeal to the audience. To his credit, Hurt gives a beautiful performance. It reminded me of why he was one of my favorite actors in the 1980s. (It's too bad later roles somewhat sidetracked his career, though he gained attention again this year with a creepy turn in the TV series Goliath).

Geena Davis as Muriel.
While Kathleen Turner is second-billed, Geena Davis has more screen time as the quirky Muriel. It's an energetic, heartfelt performance that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Equally enjoyable are Ed Begley, Jr. and David Ogden Stiers as Macon's brothers and Amy Wright as his sister. The latter is involved in the film's only major subplot when an unlikely romance develops between her and Macon's publisher (nicely played by Bill Pullman).

Director Lawrence Kasdan lovingly captures the old homes and the low-rent neighborhoods of Baltimore. His feel for the city almost matches that of two of the city's most beloved filmmakers: Barry Levinson and John Waters.

The Accidental Tourist also features one of the finest soundtracks of the 1980s. John Williams' melodic love theme--featuring strings, piano, and french horn--is both poignant and hopeful. It's truly one of the famous composer's finest works. To this day, I'm baffled as to how it could have lost the Oscar for Best Music Score to Dave Grusin's The Milagro Beanfield War.

Macon's scene-stealing Corgi.
On a personal note, I hold fond memories of my first viewing of The Accidental Tourist. Back in the 1980s, when my wife and I were younger, we would sometimes make the 45-minute drive from our home to Louisville, Kentucky, and catch multiple theatrical movies in an afternoon. On one day in 1989, we watched Mississippi Burning, The Accidental Tourist, and Lair of the White Worm--three very different movies, to be sure, but also each memorable in its own way. That day still ranks as our favorite theatrical "triple feature."

Monday, March 27, 2017

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Albert Finney as Arthur.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one of the many working-class social dramas that proliferated throughout British cinema during the late 1950s and the 1960s. These films were inspired, in part, by the "angry young men" genre that began with John Osborne's 1956 stage play Look Back in Anger. That play was adapted for the screen by Tony Richardson, with Richard Burton in the lead role, in 1959. The following year, Richardson produced Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which earned numerous awards and made a star of Albert Finney.

Rachel Roberts with Finney.
Finney plays Arthur Seaton, a young factory worker in Nottingham, who escapes his mundane existence by routinely getting drunk on the weekends and sleeping with a married woman named Brenda (Rachel Roberts). Arthur scoffs at colleagues who try to further their careers and admires co-workers who "know how to spend money like me." He still lives with his parents and occasionally goes fishing with his cousin. He also takes delight in making life miserable for a straight-laced neighbor (to the point of shooting her in the bum with a BB rifle).

Doreen and Arthur flirt.
Two events occur that nudge Arthur off the road to nowhere. First, Brenda gets pregnant--which is a serious problem considering she and her husband (who have a son) have not engaged in sexual activity for several months. Around the same time, Arthur meets an attractive young woman named Doreen, who also works in a factory.

Screenwriter Alan Sillitoe, who adapted his own novel, creates a memorable--if not always likable--character in Arthur. His young protagonist is filled with self-importance and considers himself something of a rebel without a cause. Yet, he's not quite the uncaring, fun-loving bloke he thinks he is. He gives part of every paycheck to his Mum to cover lodging and food. He genuinely cares about Brenda, although he certainly doesn't love her. And, in a rare moment of true reflection, he admits: "God knows what I am."

Rachel Roberts as Brenda.
It's easy to see why Albert Finney's energetic performance catapulted him to fame. However, Rachel Roberts dominates much of the film. She hits all the right notes as the carefree Brenda who cavorts with Arthur when her husband and son are away. That sets the stage for a remarkable transformation when her life is turned upside down with the unexpected pregnancy. Crestfallen and looking as if the weight of the world is upon her, Brenda confesses to a befuddled Arthur that her best course of action is to tell the truth to her husband and hope for the best. It's a remarkable scene and no doubt helped secure her the 1960 Best Actress Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also won as Best Picture that year. I can see how its realism, social criticism, and stark black-and-white world (the cinematographer was the great Freddie Francis) seemed like a breath of fresh air. Personally, while I found it a worthwhile viewing, I prefer other "angry young man" pictures such as Room at the Top (1959) and another one based on an Alan Sillitoe work, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). I also have a soft spot for the more cynical British satires of the 1960s, such as Georgy Girl (1966), Nothing But the Best (1964), and I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967).

By the way, be forewarned some of these films end rather abruptly by conventional standards.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (March 2017 Edition)

The connection between Jiminy and Gregory?
Spring is almost here! And what better way to celebrate than with the return of the Cafe's most popular game! 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. Sharon Tate, Stella Stevens, and Ann-Margret.

2. Leo G. Carroll and Richard Anderson.

3. Elsa Lanchester and Veronica Carlson.

4. David Hasselhoff and Jerry Van Dyke.

5. Ronald Colman and Ray Milland.

6. Warner Oland and Michael Landon.

7. Otto Preminger, Anne Baxter, and Art Carney.

8. Sandra Dee, Lesley Ann Warren, and Karen Valentine.

9. Judy Garland and Moira Shearer.

10. Spencer Tracy and Errol Flynn.

11. Jiminy Cricket and Gregory Peck.

12. Christopher Lambert and Jock Mahoney.

13. Faye Dunaway, Buddy Ebsen, and James Dean.

14. Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood.

15. Elizabeth Taylor and Dumbo.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is "Green for Danger" one of the Greatest Detective Films?

It's a nifty, though misleading, poster.
In his book The Detective in Film, William K. Everson touts Green for Danger (1946) as one of the three best detective films ever made (the others being The Maltese Falcon and The Kennel Murder Case). I not only concur, but will add that it may be the best Hitchcock film not made by Hitchcock. That’s a bold statement, I know (and fans of Charade may be aghast), but Green for Danger could easily have been directed by Hitch during his late British period that produced The Lady Vanishes. In fact, the two films bare an obvious connection: both were written by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. Gilliat also directed Green for Danger.

Alastair Sim as Inspector Cockrill.
Based on the 1944 novel by Christianna Brand, the film takes place during World War II at an “emergency” hospital in the English countryside. Emotions are running high at the hospital due to the constant air raids and a love triangle with two of the doctors (Trevor Howard and Leo Genn) vying for the affections of one of the nurses (Sally Gray). After another nurse announces that a patient’s accidental death was really murder, she is found dead. Scotland Yard is summoned and arrives in the form of cinema’s most offbeat detective, Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim).

Gilliat and Launder make brilliant use of time and place. Random explosions from the German bombs create both tension and humor (in the masterful hands of Sim). Equally atmospheric are the isolated hospital’s shadow-filled rooms, the tight hallways, and the white operating theater. It’s a spooky place, especially in the eerie, brilliantly-lit scene where Sister Bates is killed. People sometimes die in hospitals due to natural causes—so what better place to stage a murder?

But what separates Green for Danger from other mysteries is its seamless integration of subtle humor in the form of its detective. In the midst of a homicide investigation, the Inspector and the head of the hospital have this exchange:

Dr. White: I do hope everything can be arranged discreetly.

Inspector Cockrill: Hmm, shouldn't think so for a moment.

Dr. White: Why not? Press? Do they have to be seen?

Inspector Cockrill: Can't keep ’em out.

Dr. White: Oh, dear.

Inspector Cockrill: I don't mind. They always give me a good write-up.

Cockrill also narrates the film from time to time, which allows him to offer amusing commentary like: “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall…I found it all tremendously enjoyable."

Inspector Cockrill nicely interrogates Nurse Linley (Sally Gray).

What makes Cockrill so interesting is that he can turn off the flippant humor like a switch and demand an answer to a probing question. It’s a credit to Sim’s acting ability that he pulls this off so effortlessly. It’s also a shame that Sim, Gilliat, and Launder didn’t make any follow-up films featuring Inspector Cockrill.

Sim gets excellent support from the actors portraying the suspects, especially Howard and Genn as the rival doctors. They are so convincing that the identity of the murderer is a well-kept secret throughout the film, even though the title provides a vital clue before the credits even roll.

Green for Danger was on my want-to-see list for about 15 years. One day I came from work and my wife seemed a little excited. She had made a lovely dinner, served me in front of the TV and VCR, and turned on Green for Danger—which she had taped off USA Network during that day (back when USA showed quality movies!). Sometimes, expectations result in disapppointment, but I’m glad to say that Green for Danger exceeded all expectations and remains a movie that my wife and I continue to show any acquaintances who haven’t seen it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Five Best Vincent Price Performances

A little devil provides bad advice!
1. Champagne for Caesar (1950). It's a shame that Vincent Price didn't make more straight comedies because he's hilarious as a business tycoon in this underrated gem. He plays Burnbridge "Dirty" Waters, owner of the Milady Soap company ("the soap that sanctifies") and sponsor of a popular quiz show called "Masquerade for Money." When Burnbridge doesn't hire an overqualified genius (Ronald Colman), the latter gains revenge by winning big on the quiz show. My favorite scene is when Burnbridge contemplates killing Colman's character, getting advice from a little devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other (both played by Price, of course).

Gene Tierney and Vincent Price.
2. Laura (1944). In another atypical role, Price is perfection as Shelby Carpenter, a worthless playboy that lives off older women but somehow manages to get engaged to Gene Tierney's title character (one of the true mysteries in the film!). He and Clifton Webb steal the movie...and get all the good lines, such as: "I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes."

3. The Baron of Arizona (1950). I'm not sure why Samuel Fuller's fascinating fact-based tale of one of the greatest American scams isn't better known. It provides Price with a dandy role as a meticulous con artist who masterminds an incredible scheme to claim ownership of the Arizona territory (prior to it becoming a state). Like the best villains, Price's character has his good points (he truly loves his wife). In fact, I found myself rooting for him to succeed (despite knowing that he wouldn't).

Price as stage actor Edward Lionheart.
4. Theatre of Blood (1973). Several of Vincent Price's later performances skewed toward being hammy. In this black comedy, he plays a ham--a Shakespearean actor who attempts suicide after being skewered by the critics and ignored at the awards once too often. He survives, though, and with help from his daughter (Diana Rigg), he exacts revenge on those pompous theatre critics. Price is a delight, reenacting death scenes from Shakespeare with relish. It was one of Price's favorite films and, ironically, earned some of the best reviews of his career.

5. House of Usher (1960). Price gave fine performances in several of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. In fact, one could plug Pit and the Pendulum (1961) or The Masque of the Red Death (1964) into this slot and you'd find no argument from me. I opted for this one because Price is compelling as Roderick Usher and because it was the first of the Price-Poe-Corman collaborations.

Honorable Mentions:  The Last Man on Earth (1964), in which Price plays the lone human survivor after a plague of vampirism.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Birds--A Matter of Misdirection

Alfred Hitchcock’s most divisive thriller finds the Master of Suspense in magician mode. On the surface, The Birds is a traditionally-structured horror film, in which the bird attacks build progressively to three of Hitchcock’s most intense sequences. However, this is just Hitchcock performing a little playful sleight of hand with the audience. Our feathered friends play a strictly peripheral part in moving the plot along. In actuality, The Birds is a relationship movie about another memorable Hitchcock mother, her adult son, and the women who threaten to come between the two—a theme explored by Hitchcock earlier in Notorious and Psycho.

In The Birds, the son is the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother.

Mitch's mother places herself between the lovebirds,
turning her back to ignore Melanie.
These characters come together when Melanie follows Mitch to his home in Bodega Bay after a flirtatious exchange in a pet store. Melanie’s arrival coincides with the beginning of the bird attacks. It’s almost as if the birds arrive to prevent any potential love between Mitch and Melanie, perhaps an extension of Mitch’s mother’s anger at having to defeat another rival for her son’s love. (Taken to the extreme, there could a parallel between the birds and the creature created by Morbius in Forbidden Planet).

However, although the birds initially come between Mitch and Melanie, they eventually have a very different impact. They allow Melanie, who first appears spoiled and shallow, to show her courage and vulnerability. In the end, Mitch’s mother no longer sees Melanie as a threat, but as a woman worthy of her son. Once the friction between those two characters is resolved, the bird attacks stop and the movie ends. Hitchcock’s conclusion—often criticized as ambiguous—is perfectly logical.

Hitchcock goes to great lengths to misdirect his audience by disguising The Birds as a conventional thriller. Always concerned with audience expectations, the Master of Suspense told French director/film critic Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, a brilliant collection of interviews: “I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story….” For that reason, the first bird attack comes at twenty-five minutes into the film and occurs toward the end of a playful scene in which Melanie races her boat while Mitch drives along the lake road trying to beat her to the dock.

Mitch, with all the women in his life, looks
concerned after the birthday party bird attack.
From that point on, the birds become progres-sively more menacing and their appear-ances more frequent: Mitch sees them on the power lines after Melanie visits for dinner; a bird crashes into Annie’s front door and dies; birds swoop down to break up a children’s birthday party; they fly through the open flue into Mitch’s house; and Mitch’s mother finds the first human victim in a farmhouse. (I love how Hitchcock uses broken teacups in this scene to foreshadow the impending horror. Earlier, he shows Mitch’s mom picking up broken teacups after the birds-in-the-flue incident. Then, when she visits the apparently empty farmhouse, she sees broken teacups hanging on their hooks—just before discovering the bloody, eyeless body.)

Melanie trapped in the phone booth, a metaphor for
her previously sheltered, empty life.
The remainder of the film consists of the three major set pieces: the bird attack outside the school-house; the attack after the gas station blows up; and Melanie’s struggle with the birds in the attic. Again, following the classic horror film structure, Hitchcock separates each sequence with a transition scene that allows the audience to relax and catch its breath. The scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist is one of Hitch’s rare missteps in The Birds; as Truffaut points out, it goes on too long without contributing to the narrative structure. I won’t dissect the birds’ attack on the school children—it’s an iconic sequence—but I strongly recommend that Hitchcock fans seek out Dan Auiler’s Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which includes the director’s hand-drawn storyboard and notes.

Though less famous, the burning gas station sequence is no less impressive. In the midst of the terrifying chaos, Hitchcock shows Melanie protected—and trapped—inside a phone booth. This “glass cage” is a marvelous metaphor for her previously sheltered life (also symbolized by the lovebirds in the birdcage) from which she is rescued by Mitch (literally…when he pulls her from the phone booth).

The three years between Psycho and The Birds (1963) comprised the longest gap between Hitchcock films up to that point. Much of that time was spent dealing with the technical difficulties in bringing Daphne du Maurier’s short story to the screen. In Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock admits that he discovered narrative weakness in The Birds as he was shooting it. A compulsive pre-planner, who storyboarded every shot in every film, Hitchcock began to improvise during the shooting of The Birds: “The emotional siege I went through served to bring out an additional creative sense in me.”

That creative genius is captured for all to see in The Birds. From its use of bird sounds in lieu of music to its disturbing closing shot, The Birds is an atypical Hitchcock film which finds the director in a mischievous mood. He gives us a classic chiller, but then reveals that it’s all wrapping paper and that’s what inside is a relationship drama. It’s an unexpected gift and, hey, Hitchcock even includes a birthday party for us—although it’s disrupted by those darn birds!

There's nothing ambigious about the ending--the real
conflict has been resolved.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Liquidator: "Life is not all sex and sun lamps"

One of the first spy spoofs in the wake of Goldfinger (1964), The Liquidator stars Rod Taylor as Boysie Oakes, a reluctant secret agent--or assassin, to be more precise. Boysie enjoys the swinging bachelor pad, the expensive sports car, and the ladies that come with the job. He just doesn't like the killing. So, he sub-contracts out his targets to Mr. Griffen, an efficient blue-collar contract killer. This arrangement works out well until a weekend vacation in Monte Carlo reveals that someone is using Boysie as a pawn in an espionage plot to steal an experimental aircraft.

The Liquidator is an amusing film that borders on satire, a contrast to later (and more financially successful) spoofs like Our Man Flint (1966) and the Matt Helm movies. British intelligence head Wilfrid Hyde-White creates Boysie's job because red tape is preventing his department from catching enemy spies legally. Wouldn't it just be easier to have them killed? His second-in-charge, Mostyn (Trevor Howard), has understandable reservations:

Mostyn:  Chief, this is tantamount to murder.

Chief: Then go find a murderer.

Trevor Howard as Mostyn.
Mostyn remembers Boysie from a World War II incident in which the latter saved the former's life by shooting two spies. What Mostyn doesn't know is that Boysie's gun fired when he tripped on some rubble. He finds Boysie in a rural cafe called the Bird Cage (a probable pun since Taylor had appeared in Hitchcock's The Birds two years earlier). The diner actually features colorful birds in a cage, setting up the film's best double entendre involving a buxom young woman and another word for "bird." Boysie is reluctant to leave his current situation, but once he sees his pad--and the pretty interior decorators--he signs all the government documents without reading them.

Rod Taylor and Jill St. John.
Rod Taylor is the perfect choice for the capable, but not always intelligent, Boysie. Indeed, one of my few qualms with The Liquidator is that I wish the hero had been given a few more heroic things to do. I was surprised to learn that MGM considered making a series of Liquidator films. Unless Boysie evolved into a more realistic spy, I couldn't imagine his character sustaining additional installments.

Of course, there were eight Boysie Oakes novels written by John Gardner between 1964 and 1975. Gardner portrayed Oakes as a cowardly anti-Bond who succeeded as a spy in spite of himself. That may have worked on the printed page (and Gardner is a good writer), but I doubt if movie audiences of the 1960s would have embraced the literary Boysie in a film series.

Jill St. John as Iris.
Speaking of 007, The Liquidator shares some interesting connections with the Bond films. Rod Taylor's co-star Jill St. John would portray Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. Lalo Schifrin's theme song to The Liquidator is sung by Shirley Bassey, who recorded the Bond title tunes for Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker. Finally, Ian Fleming's publisher selected author John Gardner to write new 007 novels, starting with 1981's Licence Renewed. Gardner went on to write 13 additional Bond books.

The Liquidator lacks the style and wit of my favorite spy spoof--Our Man Flint--but it's a colorful diversion with a good cast and a decidedly different hero. If you're a fan of 1960s cinema (as I am), then you will likely enjoy it. Plus, you can't dislike a movie in which Trevor Howard wisely notes: "Life is not all sex and sun lamps."

Monday, March 6, 2017

Dark of the Sun: Mercenaries with Mixed Motives

Rod Taylor as a mercenary.
This 1968 Rod Taylor action picture can count Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino among its admirers. That's pretty good for what Variety described at the time as "a raw adventure yarn with some glib philosophizing."

Taylor plays Curry, a mercenary who has accepted $50,000 to rescue some people--and $50 million in diamonds--from a town in northern Congo that's under threat of an attack from the rebel Simbas. Curry and his Congo-born crony, Ruffo (Jim Brown), must complete their mission in three days. They recruit 40 Congolese soldiers, an alcoholic doctor (Kenneth More), and an ex-Nazi German officer named Heinlein (Peter Carsten).

Jim Brown as Ruffo.
Their journey, via an old steam train, is fraught with perils from the outset. The cavalcade is attacked by a United Nations peacekeeping plane. Curry and Heinlein, who dislike each other immensely, almost fight to the death. And Curry and Ruffo's "secret" mission seems to be common knowledge to everyone they meet. Worst of all, though, they arrive at their destination three hours early and have to wait until a safe's timelock opens so they can get the diamonds. Meanwhile, an army of ruthless Simbas are fast approaching the town.

Yvette Mimieux has a small role, reteaming
her with her Time Machine co-star.
This last plot point turns into an action-packed sequence in which Ruffo and Heinlein hold off the enemy as Curry boards the train at the last second with the diamonds. Unfortunately, their escape is short-lived when an explosion disconnects the caboose from the rest of the train, sending the train car --along with its screaming passengers and the precious stones--backwards into the hands of the enemy. In the film's most harrowing scene, Curry and Ruffo return to the captured town to retrieve the diamonds. Ruffo, posing as a Simba, carries Curry like a trophy on his back as they navigate through burning streets where innocent people are being tortured and killed.

This scene, plus a brutal fight at the climax, has earned Dark of the Sun a reputation as a grim, violent film. To be sure, the atrocities, which are implied more than they are shown, are not for squeamish viewers. There was no rating system when the film was released, but it was subsequently given a PG rating in 1973 (there was no PG-13 at the time). Director Jack Cardiff cut several gruesome scenes in order to secure the film's release.

Cardiff is best known as one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema, having photographed Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The African Queen (1951). He only directed 13 feature films, including two 1960s adventures with Rod Taylor: Dark of the Sun and the tongue-in-cheek The Liquidator (1965). Surprisingly, there's nothing visually striking about Dark of the Sun, although Cardiff makes one believe the film takes place in Africa (in reality, the locations were the Caribbeans and a British studio). He also handles the impressive action scenes with aplomb.

Curry and Ruffo discuss what makes them tick.
Still, it's that "glib philosophizing" that separates Dark of the Sun from other action films of the same period. In between the fight scenes, Curry and Ruffo debate their motives for what they do. At the outset, Curry makes it clear that he's a "paid man doing a dirty job" whereas Ruffo wants to maintain the freedoms his country has only recently earned. Driven by his friendship with Ruffo, Curry evolves as the film progresses--as evidenced by his decision to ultimately pay for his crimes. And yet, one can't help but think that Curry doesn't regret his violent actions...that he is still a mercenary at heart. Perhaps, it's his desire to reflect his friend's honor that drives his moral actions.

Dark of the Sun provides Jim Brown with one of his best roles as Ruffo. The former football great was typically typecast as macho men of action (e.g., Ice Station Zebra, Slaughter). But he brings sensitivity and intelligence to Ruffo, while still looking comfortable with an automatic weapon in his hand. He also gets to deliver the film's best-known line of dialogue, stating that he came from a tribe that believed: "If you eat the heart and brain of your enemy, his strength and wisdom will be added to your own."

Surprisingly, that sums up Dark of the Sun pretty well: It's a violent adventure film with more heart and a little more intelligence than you might expect.

This review is part of Rod Taylor Week at the Cafe, our week-long tribute to the Australian actor. Click here to read more reviews of his films.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Dirk Bogarde Cultivates the Seeds of Friendship in "The Spanish Gardener"

Dirk Jose?
British filmmakers practically cornered the market on quiet, personal dramas in the 1950s. A prime example is The Spanish Gardener (1956), an unassuming film that subtly hooks its audience with a tale about a shattered man, his lonely son, and a part-time gardener that changes their lives.

Harrington Brande (Michael Horden) is a minor, lifelong diplomat who learns in the opening scenes that he has been bypassed for a prestigious British consulate post. Even worse, his new job is replacing the man who got his desired post. Brande is an unhappy man who remains convinced his wife left him "without cause and on her own volition." His best friend (perhaps his only friend) knows otherwise. He recognizes that Brande is an insecure, needy man who wants love, but has trouble giving it. This is most apparent in his relationship with his young son Nicholas.

Michael Hordern as Brande.
Brande loves his son, but it's a selfish love. Nicholas is expected to spend time with his father--but it's difficult when Father travels frequently and is often absorbed in his work. Brande wants quality time with his son--but only on his own terms. The lonely lad needs a friend and finds one in Jose (Dirk Bogarde), a local laborer who has been hired to tend to the garden. Brande quickly grows to resent Jose and inadvertently begins to drive a wedge between his son and himself.

Although The Spanish Gardener unfolds like a stage play adaptation, it was based on a 1950 novel by A.J. Cronin. Best known for writing The Citadel, Cronin also penned The Keys to the Kingdom and The Green Years. The latter, which also features a young protagonist, shares a common theme with The Spanish Gardener. In The Green Years, an orphan overcomes an unsteady relationship with his grandparents (or de facto parents) by bonding with someone else (his great-grandfather).

There are also similarities to Enid Bagnold's later 1955 stage play, The Chalk Garden (which was adapted into a marvelous 1964 film starring Deborah Kerr). Both works use a weed-filled garden as an analogy for children that need caring in order to grow and embrace life.

One of the most recognizable faces in British cinema, Michael Hordern worked steadily as a supporting actor from the 1940s through the 1980s. He rarely got leading roles, but he more than holds his own in The Spanish Gardener opposite rising star Dirk Bogarde. Initially, Bogarde seems an odd choice to play a Spanish gardener (and he doesn't even try for a fake accent). However, his natural warmth shines through in his scene with young Jon Whiteley.

Jon Whiteley.
Whiteley gives an incredibly natural child performance. He only made five films, but one was an earlier pairing with Bogarde in the 1952 chase melodrama The Stranger in Between. He co-starred with Stewart Granger in the entertaining 1955 adventure Moonfleet. And he won an honorary Oscar for "outstanding juvenile performance" in The Kidnappers (1955).

Whiteley's parents ended his acting career at age 11. As an adult, he earned a Ph.D. from Pembroke College, Oxford, and became curator of the Christ Church Picture Gallery. When asked about his Oscar statuette in a 2013 Oxford Times interview, he said: "It is at home somewhere, but I don’t think it is a particularly attractive object. It has no great charm."

Hordern, Bogarde, and Whiteley are three excellent reasons to watch The Spanish Gardener. As a whole, the film lacks the mystery and passion that drives The Chalk Garden. Still, it manages to grip the audience's emotions and delivers a satisfying, well-told story.