Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You

Subtitled The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s, Charles Taylor's new book contains sharply-written essays on fourteen "B" classics from what he calls "the third--and, to date, last--great period in American movies." I'll just say upfront that any book that praises Walter Hill's under-appreciated Depressive-era drama Hard Times is going to get a good review from me.

In his introduction to these films, Taylor points out that, unlike the blockbusters that dominate today's screens, these 1970s pictures captured the "small towns, gas stations, and two-lane highways" (e.g., Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop) and the "seamy views of American cities" (e.g., Prime Cut, Hickey & Boggs). There's a genuine grittiness in these pictures, almost as if one can feel the grain on the film stock.

Lee Marvin in Prime Cut.
Taylor's best essays focus on movies featuring two of the most iconic stars of their era: Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. In Prime Cut (1972), Marvin plays a Chicago mobster sent to the Midwest to settle a debt. The joke, notes Taylor, is that a "big-city mob enforcer is in much more danger in the Kansas City heartland than any Kansan would be in Chicago." The film's real villain is a slaughterhouse owner named "Mary Ann" (Gene Hackman), who sells women and makes sausage out of his enemies. Yet, these atrocities are performed against a backdrop of "county fairs...amber waves of grain, (and) white clapboard houses in the beautiful countryside." Prime Cut is not an easy film to watch, but Taylor makes a convincing case that it's a film true to its convictions and characters.

Bronson in Hard Times.
In Hard Times (1975), Charles Bronson plays a Depression-era drifter in New Orleans who earns money by participating in bareknuckle fights arranged by small-time hustler James Coburn. Taylor not only recognizes Hard Times as a quietly efficient "beautifully directed film," he also sings the praises of the underrated Charles Bronson. He notes: "Throughout his film career, Bronson was most at home in the realm of the stoic and the taciturn. But at least until the success of Death Wish trapped him in one vigilante role after another, he possessed an instinctive sense of how the camera magnifies gestures and changes of expression."

It's these insights that make Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You a quick, absorbing read. Some of the other films reviewed include: Foxy Brown and Coffy (a Pam Grier double-feature!), American Hot Wax, Ulzana's Raid, Winter Kills, and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s is 199 pages and contains no photos. It was published by Bloomsbury USA, which provided a courtesy copy for this review.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Movie-TV Connection Game (April 2017)

Patrick & Ray: What's their connection?
Along with April showers comes a new edition of one of our most popular features! 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.  Patrick McGoohan and Ray Bolger.

2.  The TV series The Virginian and Laredo.

3.  David Hedison and William Shatner.

4.  Rachel Ward and Gene Tierney.

5.  Florence Henderson and E.G. Marshall.

6.  Robert Reed and Roy Thinnes.

7.  Chuck Connors and George C. Scott (could be a toughie).

8.  Michael Landson and Alan Hale, Sr.

9.  Cary Grant and Michael Landon.

10. The Thomas Crown Affair and The Thief Who Came to Dinner.

11. The made -for-TV movies Something Evil and Duel.

12. James Garner and the TV series Mission: Impossible.

13. Chill Wills and Rocky Lane.

14.  Humphrey Bogart and Elliott Gould.

15. Gene Barry and Patrick Macnee.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder found his career at the crossroads in the 1960s. Successes such as The Apartment and Irma la Douce were offset by flops like Kiss Me, Stupid and the under-appreciated One, Two, Three. It's almost as if he couldn't quite grasp what appealed to the public. I'm not suggesting that Wilder ever intentionally tried to appeal to mass audiences, but his aesthetic seemed to align with movie audiences for most of his career.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau would become one of the great teams.
Made in 1966, The Fortune Cookie was Billy Wilder's last mainstream hit. It's an uneven dramedy that perfectly encapsulates Wilder's challenges during the decade. It's also notable for pairing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau for the first time.

Lemmon doing his wheelchair dance.
Lemmon plays cameraman Henry Hinkle, who suffers a concussion when a Cleveland Browns football player accidentally plows into him during a game. Henry recovers with no side effects, but his brother-in-law--an ambulance-chasing lawyer nicknamed Whiplash Willie--wants to sue CBS, the Cleveland Browns, and Municipal Stadium for $1 million. Initially, nice guy Henry rejects the idea, but he falters when Willie (Matthau) convinces him it may be a way to win back his ex-wife Sandy.

The Fortune Cookie works best as a comedy, with Matthau's shyster pulling out all stops to keep the scam going. In one scene, Willie has an Oriental lunch delivered to the hospital so the "delivery man" can administer drugs to numb Henry's leg so he can pass tests given by the insurance company's doctors. When Henry asks if the delivery man can administer drugs, Willie confirms that the man is a doctor...a veterinarian who lost his license to practice.

Judi West as the self-centered Sandy. 
The film's other subplots deal with Boom Boom Jackson, the guilt-stricken football player who believes he's paralyzed Henry, and Henry's ambitious ex-wife Sandy (Judi West). In a perfect scene, Wilder tells us all we need to know about Sandy. When she calls Henry, we see her laying in a bed with disheveled hair, smoking a cigarette, in a squalid apartment with a man in the shower behind her. Her compassionate comment to Willie about Henry: "Poor bastard...I just hope he winds up with a little money."

Willie in his cluttered office.
Despite effective turns from Lemmon and West, The Fortune Cookie belongs to Walter Matthau. After years as a supporting player in dramas and comedies, he had perfected his rascally on-screen persona. He won a best-supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Whiplash Willie and would graduate to lead roles beginning with his next film A Guide for the Married Man (967). It helps, of course, to have Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond write your dialogue. And, of course, Willie is a great character, because he's not only devious, he really is a smart attorney.

The Fortune Cookie earned three other Oscar nominations, including one for original screenplay for Wilder and Diamond. It hasn't aged as well as other Wilder films and it's too leisurely at 125 minutes. Still, Matthau, Lemmon, and West (this was sadly her only major role) are three fine reasons to watch it. It was Wilder's last film for four years. He would return to the screen in 1970 with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a different spin on the famous sleuth.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Visual Splendor of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty

When originally released in 1959, Sleeping Beauty was a major critical and financial disappointment for Walt Disney. The film cost a then-hefty $6 million and failed to break even on its original release in the U.S. Critics were unkind, too, calling it ponderous and lacking in memorable characters.

Having just watched the digitally remastered 55th anniversary edition of Sleeping Beauty, I think the critics were perhaps a little harsh. While it doesn't rank with Disney's finest, it's still superior to most animated films. The only memorable characters are the three fairies--Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather--who become Princess Aurora's de facto parents. Dressed in bright red, green, and blue outfits, they dominate the story. Aurora, Prince Phillip, and even the evil Maleficent could have been better developed with more time on the screen.

The plot is based on--but also simplifies--French author Charles Perrault's version of the fairy tale. Fairies Flora and Fauna bestow the gifts of beauty and music on the baby princess at a joyous celebration. But before Merryweather can give her gift, Maleficent appears and curses the child. She states that before the sun sets on Princess Aurora's 16th birthday, she will prick her thumb on a spinning wheel and die. Following Maleficent's departure, the King asks if the fairies can reverse the curse. Their magic is not strong enough to do that, but Merryweather changes Aurora's death to a deep sleep from which she can be awakened only by a kiss from her true love.

The strength of Sleeping Beauty lies not with its narrative, but with its visuals. It was Disney's second widescreen animated feature film (after Lady and the Tramp) and the larger frame is filled with detail. Artist Eyvind Earle is generally given credit for the film's overall look. He won a 1953 Oscar for the Disney widescreen animated short Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. However, Sleeping Beauty was undoubtedly the product of many gifted animators given the resources to create a visual masterpiece.

I don't think the images below capture the vivid color and rich facets of the film. So, I encourage you to view a copy of the new Sleeping Beauty "Diamond Edition" DVD. Thus, I'll end this review here and let the pictures do the talking.

The colorful Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.
Aurora walking in the woods. Note how the leaves are used to add depth.

Maleficent--could she have influenced Cruella in 101 Dalmatians?
With the reflection in the water, this looks like a painting.
Aurora cries in her room, thinking she has lost her love. I love the details--
such as how the fire lights part of the tapestry on the wall.
The fairies try to find Aurora before she pricks her thumb. Note the almost
Expressionistic angles, especially the archway.
Maleficent's castle--reminding me a little of the one from The Wizard of Oz
The dragon sequence is breath-taking--always the film's highlight for me.

This shot reminds me of one used many years later for Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Working with Steve McQueen on "Le Mans": An Interview with Don Nunley

The new book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror, which arrives in stores today, chronicles the making of McQueen's 1971 cult classic about the famous international endurance race. It was written by Don Nunley, who worked as the film's property master, and Marshall Terrill, who has written biographies about McQueen, Elvis Presley, and Pete Maravich. Filled with over 400 fabulous photos, this book will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about the making of motion pictures. Co-author Don Nunley--who purchased, acquired, manufactured, and placed props in over 30 motion pictures and television series--took time out of his busy schedule to stop by the Café for an interview. 

Café:  What inspired you to follow in your father's footsteps as a property master? 
Don Nunley on the Le Mans set.
Don Nunley:  My father did not encourage me to follow him into the film business. He knew how hard it was on your personal life. Long hours, and travel away from home and family. And the need to deal with personalities and huge egos on a regular basis. I started in 1960. There was an opening at Universal Studios in the Labor Department. It was to be a summer job until school started again in the fall. I was already enrolled at UCLA. It turned out I liked working at the studio. Later I moved into the prop department and that's where I stayed for my entire career. Call it serendipity. 

Café:  How did you first meet Steve McQueen?
Steve McQueen in 1971.

DN:  I met Steve McQueen on the set of Wanted: Dead or Alive. We weren't formally introduced. It was more of an acknowledgment of each other while I was working as part of the set-dressing crew for the series.

Café:  When production designer Phil Abramson fell ill, you replaced him on Le Mans. What additional duties did that involve? Was any there discussion of you receiving a credit for your production design work?

DN:  When Phil left the picture, we were well into production. Most of the locations had already been chosen since most of the film was shot on the Le Mans circuit itself. There were still a few sets to dress and, of course, the big one was the paddock that had to be re-created after Steve's refusal to be filmed walking through it on the actual day of the race. I never asked, nor did I expect, to take Phil's credit from him. I know the studio appreciated what I did and that was enough.

Café:  What led to the two-week production shutdown on Le Mans and the departure of director John Sturges?

Director John Sturges.
DN:  Nobody could come up with a script that everybody liked. We had been shooting for several weeks without a leading lady or one word of recorded dialogue. Steve did not give John Sturges the respect he deserved. The studio was watching its money evaporate. John Sturges told (executive producer) Bob Relyea he was going home, and Relyea thought John was going back to the hotel. But John got on a plane the next day, flew to LA, and never looked back. That's when the studio took over. Within two weeks they brought in a new director, Lee Katzen, and took away all control from Steve's company, Solar Productions.

Café:  Next to Steve McQueen's erratic behavior, what was your biggest challenge with making Le Mans?

DN:  I would say matching the cars for the particular hour of the race we were shooting each day. The cars changed dramatically from hour one to hour 24. We wouldn't get our marching orders until the night before as to what we would be shooting the next day. This picture had no shooting schedule as a normal picture would have had.

Café:  You mention in your book that one of the Heuer watches worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans fetched $800,000 at an auction many years later. What was your role in those watches being featured in the film?

The Heuer Monaco.
DN:  One of my duties as a prop master was to supply the personal effects an actor used in the film. Steve wanted to look like one of the top drivers on the circuit. He liked the way (auto racing drivers) Joe Siffert, Derek Bell, and Brian Redman looked. I always needed to offer options. Ray Summers, the costumer on the film, and I put together a variety of choices for Steve to pick to wear on his uniform and on his person. One of the patches Steve choose to wear on his driving suit was the patch for the Heuer watch. He then selected, from the several brands of watches I provided, the Omega Moon watch. I tactfully pointed out to Steve that he wouldn't wear an Omega watch and a Heuer watch patch.  I had several choices of the Heuer chronograph for him to choose from. I thought he would pick one that was more subtle and mainline, but to my astonishment he chose the now famous square, blue-faced Monaco. Now, it's perhaps better known as the Steve McQueen watch.

Café:  Looking back over his career, what is your final assessment of Steve McQueen--both as an actor on the silver screen as well as a person you worked with on the set?

Steve McQueen and Don Nunley (center).
DN:  I was never one to hang around with actors. Steve had a lot of buddies, people who rode motorcycles and raced cars with him. When we started Le Mans, Steve was the number one box office star in the world. He was not the most difficult actor I worked with, but he certainly wasn't the easiest. He was careless with his props and required one of my staff to shadow him to make sure we got back what we gave him each day. He did not demand special treatment, at least not from my department. For me, Steve was always interesting and made the kinds of movies I wanted to see. 

Café:  You were involved in a host of other famous films, including Little Big Man, The Scalphunters, and The List of Adrian Messenger (one of our faves). What was your favorite movie that you worked on and why?

Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man.
DN:  I would have to say Little Big Man. Working with Dustin Hoffman very early in his career, and Arthur Penn, one of the top directors in Hollywood, was both a great challenge and a delight. With Arthur's support, I was able to spend the money, and do things right. I am very proud of my work on the film. In 2014, Little Big Man was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

Café:  Finally, your filmography includes one acting credit as "Doctor" in the 1983 Kirk Douglas movie Eddie Macon's Run. There's got to be a story there, right? 

DN:  In Eddie Macon's Run, I became an actor by default. It turned out that the actor chosen to play a doctor could not remember his lines. Out of frustration, the director, Jeff Kanew, turned around, looked at me and asked: "Can you remember the lines?" By then, I think everyone on the set--except for that actor--knew the lines. I put on the doctor's coat, grabbed a prop stethoscope and somehow did a page of dialogue in one take. I still receive about two dollars a year in residuals. So much for my acting career. 

All photos are from the book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror (except for the one from Little Big Man). Don Nunley's book was published by Dalton Watson Fine Books.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

For Love or Money: When Kirk and Mitzi Played Rock and Doris

Mitzi Gaynor and Kirk Douglas.
Made in 1963, For Love or Money is one of those mildly suggestive 1960s romps made famous by the classic comedy team of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It even features two veterans of the Rock-Doris films: Thelma Ritter and Gig Young. Indeed, the only major difference is that For Love or Money stars Kirk Douglas and Mitzi Gaynor.

Kirk plays Deke Gentry, an attorney hired by wealthy Chloe Brasher (Thelma Ritter) to smooth over the financial difficulties that have arisen between her and her three grown daughters. Deke can also pocket an extra $100,000 if he can match up each daughter with Mom's selected suitor. Considering that Deke spends more than he earns, the extra cash sounds mighty good.

Julie Newmar as Bonnie.
The daughters are an eclectic trio consisting of: Bonnie, a fitness guru (Julie Newmar); Jan, a hippie art enthusiast (Leslie Parrish); and Kate, a motivational researcher (Mitzi Gaynor). Though it requires some elaborate planning, Deke pairs off Bonnie with an IRS agent (Dick Sargent) and Jan with a childhood friend (William Windom) who rehabilitates convicts through art. However, his plans to match up Kate with his wealthy best friend Sonny (Gig Young) keep going awry. In fact, Kate begins to suspect that Sonny is a figment of Deke's imagination.

For Love or Money is an amusing comedy that lacks the sharp wit behind genre classics such as Pillow Talk (1959) or Lover Come Back (1961). Still, it's a better movie than some of the later individual efforts by Rock (e.g., A Very Special Favor) and Doris (e.g., Do Not Disturb). It could have used more of Thema Ritter and, at 108 minutes, it's easily ten minutes too long and lumbers to the expected finish.

Mitzi in a stunning orange Jean
Louis gown with a white coat.
The film's greatest strength is its two stars. Amazingly, Mitzi Gaynor only made seventeen feature films, preferring to concentrate on television specials and her nightclub act (I saw her perform live in a 1990 touring production of Anything Goes). She comes across as a natural comedienne in For Love or Money and generates plenty of sex appeal in some stunning Jean Louis outfits. This would turn out to be her final film appearance.

As for Kirk Douglas, it's easy to forget his versatility as an actor. During his career, he starred in action films (The Vikings), Westerns (Man Without a Star), hard-hitting dramas (The Detective Story), political thrillers (Seven Days in May), and mysteries (The List of Adrian Messenger). So, it should come as no surprise that he seems completely at home in a romantic comedy. Indeed, Douglas often exhibited a playful side even in his serious roles. So, perhaps, it's surprising that he didn't make more straight comedies during his lengthy career.

For Love or Money is one of eight movies featured on the modestly-priced DVD set Kirk Douglas: The Centennial Collection. Some of the others include Spartacus, Lonely Are the Brave, Man Without a Star, and The List of Adrian Messenger.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Seven Things to Know About Raymond Burr

1. According to John Beltran's book Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, the famed director gave Raymond Burr's villain gray, curly hair and glasses to look like David O. Selznick. Hitchcock and Selznick clashed frequently during their film collaborations.

2. When the original Godzilla (1954) was released in the U.S. in 1956, it was re-edited and included new scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter. His character's name: Steve Martin.

Burr in his famous role.
3. Raymond Burr had to audition for the role of Perry Mason in the 1957-1966 TV series. Originally, he tried out for the part of private investigator Paul Drake. He was later called back for an audition as Perry. His competition for the role included William Hopper--who was eventually cast as Paul Drake. Other actors allegedly considered for the famous attorney included Fred MacMurray, Richard Carlson, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Burr as Robert Ironside.
4. Burr appeared in the last episode of Perry Mason on May 22, 1966. Sixteen months later, he starred in the first episode of Ironside (a pilot film had aired earlier in March 1967). Ironside ran for an impressive eight seasons, meaning that Raymond Burr appeared in 271 episodes of Perry Mason and 199 episodes of Ironside. He reprised Perry Mason and Robert T. Ironside for made-to-TV "reunion movies." The former telefilm, Perry Mason Returns (1985), spawned a series of 30 TV movies. Burr starred in 26 of them, with Paul Sorvino and Hal Holbrook playing other attorneys in the last four films following Burr's death.

5. Raymond Burr was nominated for eight Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series: five times for Ironside and three times for Perry Mason. His only wins were for Perry Mason in 1959 and 1961. Just to show that nobody can always be successful in television, Burr's 1976 series Kingston Confidential--in which he played a powerful, crime-solving publisher--only lasted for 14 episodes.

6. In 2008, Raymond Burr was one of four Candian actors to be honored on postage stamps. The others were Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, and Chief Dan George.

7. Actress Jacqueline Scott worked with Raymond Burr while guest starring on Perry Mason (multiple episodes) and Ironside. When we interviewed her in 2016, she described him as the consummate professional: "Raymond was a very special man. We shot court scenes on Perry Mason for two days. And on those days, he would have someone there to cue him the day before or else they worked at night. When he shot his scenes, he never used a script or a teleprompter. He knew his lines like the back of his hand...every single episode."