Thursday, June 28, 2018

William Powell as Philo Vance: The Benson Murder Case

William Powell as Vance.
William Powell made his third appearance as erudite detective Philo Vance in this loose adaptation of S.S. Van Dine's 1926 novel. 

The opening scene takes place at Anthony Benson & Co. Stocks and Bonds with Benson’s clients learning that he has “sold everyone out.” The unfazed Benson leaves town with friend Harry Gray and goes to his lodge “up the river.” His guests, all victims of Benson’s financial schemes, include: rich socialite Mrs. Paul Banning; her paramour Adolph Mohler; the flamboyant Fanny Del Roy; and Gray, a prominent bootlegger.

During a thunderstorm, District Attorney John F.-X. Markham, who owns an adjacent estate, stops by with his friend Philo Vance. While Vance and Gray discuss their theories on crime, Benson goes upstairs. A few minutes later, a loud shot rings out and Benson’s dead body tumbles down the stairs.

Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath.
Sergeant Heath takes the formal lead on the investigation, though Vance always seems one step ahead of him. Mrs. Banning confesses to the crime, but Vance recognizes it as a weak attempt to shield Mohler (Paul Lukas). Markham focuses his suspicions on Fanny, but Vance ensures him that she is innocent. Having a motive is not enough, he maintains, explaining that “everybody has a motive for murdering somebody.” 

Although poorly paced and static, The Benson Murder Case (1930) is a reasonably entertaining mystery. The killer’s identity is never in doubt. Like the previous Vance films, it plays up the humorous conflict between Vance and Heath, played again by the gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette. When the police detective hears that Vance will be arriving, he confides to another officer: “I’ll try to arrange it so I’ll be just gone by the time he gets here.”

It is unclear why the filmmakers veered from the novel’s superior plot. While the book’s detailed mystery would have required trimming for any film adaptation, its characters and setting are much more interesting than what appears on screen. Furthermore, some of the alterations make little sense, such as changing the name of Vance’s valet from Currie to Sam. Still, a handful of plot elements were retained from the book, including a subplot about stolen jewels, the distance that the lethal bullet was fired from (six feet), Benson’s toupee, and the revelation of one suspect's "secret."

William Powell's likeness on a dust jacket.
Author S.S. Van Dine (a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright) based The Benson Murder Case on the real-life murder of New York socialite Joseph Elwell. The victim's claim to fame was a how-to-play-bridge book called appropriately Elwell on Bridge. As for Van Dine's novel, it was an instant bestseller and spawned a series of Philo Vance mysteries. The Benson Murder Case has been adapted for the screen three times: William Powell's version, El Cuerpo del Delito (a Spanish language version filmed concurrently), and La Strana Morte del Signor Benson (1974), an Italian made-for-TV movie. 

Powell, who would play Vance once more in Michael Curtiz's The Kennel Murder Case, projects the proper urgency, but still fails to capture the detective's cynicism (though the script deserves equal blame). Paul Lukas, appropriately wimpy as Mohler, would make an unlikely Vance five years later in The Casino Murder Case. Having consumed all the Vance novels, I always thought that Warren William made the best Philo, with The Dragon Murder Case being his strongest film.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Seven Obscure Movies That I Curiously Remember (Volume 5)

The guy at the top doesn't look like Caine.
1.  The Destructors (1974) - As a teenager, I watched this French-British crime thriller at the tiny Club Haven Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC. (How small was it? One person could sell tickets and then swivel around to serve popcorn.) I assume the film's attraction was its cast of Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn, and James Mason. Made in the wake of The French Connection, Quinn plays an intelligence agent who hires an assassin (Caine) to kill a drug kingpin (Mason). It was originally titled The Marseille Contract--which is much less exciting than The Destructors. I don't recall it being anywhere as good as Burt Lancaster's international thriller Scorpio (1973).

Alan Bates as the "hero."
2.  Nothing But the Best (1964) - This black comedy stars Alan Bates as a young man willing to do anything to climb the corporate ladder--and that includes murder. It's a darker, funnier version of Room at the Top. Despite playing on network television in the 1970s, I don't think it has ever been released on video in the U.S. I keep waiting for someone to post the complete movie on YouTube.

3. Trader Horn (1973) - I'm not sure what inspired MGM to remake W.S. Van Dyke's 1931 African adventure as a low-budget programmer. All I can say is that I felt sorry for poor Rod Taylor, who deserved so much better than to be engulfed in cliches and mismatched stock footage. In the opening scene, we see Rod guiding some amateur hunters in what looks like a park in California. He points at a tribe of elephants--which turns out to be much lighter (stock?) footage of some pachyderms. It only gets worse from there!

Sultry Cleo Moore.
4. Bait (1954) - We've written about "B" movie auteur Hugo Haas in this blog before. Bait is one of his better efforts, featuring director Haas as a conniving prospector who tries to force his beautiful younger wife (Haas regular Cleo Moore) into the arms of his partner (John Agar). He figures that adultery will be sufficient justification for a little homicide! You would think this movie would be in the public domain on YouTube, but, no, it'll cost you $2.99 to watch it.

5. Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1969) - When a young woman (Carol White) realizes her lover is a psycho, she dumps him and aborts their unborn child. Years later, she marries a nice guy and has a baby--naturally, that's when the ex-boyfriend shows up again. I haven't seen this one since its theatrical release and was surprised to learn it was written by old pros Larry Cohen (It's Alive) and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (the Batman TV series).

Peter Lorre as the title character.
6. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) - This film noir isn't as obscure as it used to be. In fact, it probably doesn't belong on this list anymore after being "rediscovered" by noir fans a few years back. John McGuire stars as a reporter whose testimony helps convict a potentially innocent man. When he tries to find the real killer, the reporter is arrested for a second murder and his girlfriend must track down the real culprit.

7. Killdozer (1974) - So there's this evil spirit or something that takes over a bulldozer on a island and starts killing the construction crew. Hey, what's not to like about this wacky made-for-TV movie co-written by acclaimed sci fi author Theodore Sturgeon and starring Clint Walker, Carl Betz, Neville Brand, and Robert Urich? Plus, don't you just love that title?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hayley and Horst in Tiger Bay

Horst Buccholz and Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay.
It's taken me over 40 years to finally see Tiger Bay, the 1959 film debut of Hayley Mills. I first saw a preview of it on The CBS Late Movie in the 1970s, but missed the movie for reasons I can't remember. It then eluded me over the following decades until I recently discovered it on YouTube--a quality print no less.

Horst Buccholz stars as Korchinsky, a young Polish man who has returned to Wales after working many months on a freighter. Planning to propose to his girlfriend Anya, he is thus taken aback to learn that she has moved without telling him. Even worse, it appears Anya has kept the rent money that Korchinsky sent and shacked up with another man. The angry young sailor sets out to find her.

Concurrently, we follow the story of 11-year-old Gillie (Hayley Mills), a lonely girl shunned by the other children. Gillie is a deceptive child--she pockets the leftover change when her aunt sends her to buy sausages. Her aunt seems nice enough, but thinks nothing of young Gillie staying out alone late at night.

Gillie sees what happened.
Korchinsky finally tracks down Anya to the low-rent apartment house where Gillie lives. He confronts his girlfriend and strikes her. Anya grabs Korchinsky's gun from a drawer, there's a struggle, and Anya is accidentally shot. Gillie watches everything from the hallway and Korchinsky spots her as he hastily departs. Gillie then promptly snatches the gun and hides it in her aunt's apartment.

Tiger Bay is a reasonably compelling film from the outset, but doesn't gel until circumstances pair up Korchinsky and Gillie. That's when its true nature is revealed: This is a study of two lonely people who form an unlikely bond even though they both know it will be short-lived.

Hayley and John Mills.
It's quite a change-of-pace for director J. Lee Thompson, who later became best known for his action films with Charles Bronson. In Tiger Bay, Thompson captures the dark, shabby neighborhoods, which give way to grassy pastures in a scene where Korchinsky and Gillie dream briefly of a better life.

Hayley Mills gives an astonishingly natural performance for a first-time actor. She once said: "Acting is just a natural thing in my family. Other boys and girls go into the family business. So do we." In fact, her finest scene in Tiger Bay is when a Scotland Yard inspector grills her on Korchinsky's whereabouts. That inspector just happens to be played by Hayley's father, the wonderful John Mills.

After gaining popularity in his native Germany, Horst Buccholz made his English-language debut in Tiger Bay. His good looks and sensitive portrayal--especially his natural rapport with the young Mills--likely led to his casting in the following year's boxoffice smash The Magnificent Seven. Buccholz continued to have success with roles in Fanny (1961) and One, Two, Three (1961). He's very funny in the latter, though apparently he and Billy Wilder did not get along.

So, did Tiger Bay live up to my expectations after waiting so long to see it? I would say yes, for the most part. But the moral here is to never give up looking for that movie that you've always wanted to see. And do check YouTube occasionally, because you never known what you might find.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Movie-TV Connection Game (June 2018)

Walter Matthau and Steve Martin.
Welcome to the latest edition of the Cafe's most popular game. As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and challenged 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. Strother Martin, David Warner, and Stella Stevens.

2. Patric Knowles, Oliva de Havilland, and Rosalind Russell.

3. Clint Walker, Elizabeth Taylor, and Johnny Weismuller.

4. Rod Taylor, Boris Karloff, and Ronald Colman.

5. Jean Arthur and Jill Ireland.

6. David Niven, Dick Powell, and Charles Boyer.

7. Walter Matthau and Steve Martin.

8. Alec Guinness and Clifton Webb.

9. Donald Crisp and Jeanette MacDonald.

10. David Niven, Joseph Cotten, and James Mason.

11. Joan Bennett and Celeste Holm. (This might be a toughie!)

12. Rod Steiger, Spencer Tracy, and Tony Curtis.

13. Clu Gulager and Paul Newman.

14. Jerry Lewis and Fredric March.

15. Hayley Mills and Jeremy Irons.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Seven Things to Know About Anne Baxter

Anne in The Ten Commandments.
1. Producer David Selznick considered Anne Baxter for the title role in Rebecca. He allegedly deemed her too young for the part and it went to Joan Fontaine. Other actresses considered for the role were Loretta Young and Vivien Leigh.

2. Anne Baxter famously played Eve to Bette Davis' Margo in All About Eve (1950). In 1971, she played Margo in Applause, the Broadway musical version of All About Eve. She replaced Lauren Bacall.

3. Here's a more unusual All About Eve connection: In the 1983 pilot for the TV series Hotel, Bette Davis played Laura Trent, the St. Gregory's wealthy owner. When a stroke prevented Ms. Davis from becoming a regular in the Hotel TV series, she was replaced by Anne Baxter. She played Trent's sister-in-law for three seasons until her death.

4. In the book Conversations with Classic Movie Stars, Anne Baxter recalls reading for the part of Sophie in The Razor's Edge with director Edmund Goulding: "I read a scene and the world-weary Goulding said I sounded fine. He told me he'd get me an Oscar. He said, 'I did for Mary Astor and The Great Lie was junk. This is great literature.'" It did indeed earn her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

5. Anne Baxter was the granddaughter of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She and first husband John Hodiak owned a unique home in the Hollywood Hills. It was remodeled by John Launter, a well-known architect in his own right, in 1951. The residence is now known as the Baxter-Hodiak Home.

As Zelda the Great.
6. Anne Baxter played two villains on the 1966-68 Batman TV series: Zelda the Great and Olga, Queen of the Cossacks. In the latter role, she teamed up with Vincent Price's Egghead.

7. On the subject of retirement, Anne Baxter once said: "I want to go on until they have to shoot me." She died after suffering a stroke at the age of 62 in 1985.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Search: The Curious TV Series That Should Have Been Named Probe

Burgess Meredith and Hugh O'Brien.
It was like Time Tunnel without the tunnel and the time travel. That's one way to describe Search, a 1972-73 TV series that combined science fiction elements, international settings, and handsome private eyes.

Burgess Meredith plays V.C.R. Cameron, a project director that provides intelligence data to three field operatives for the World Securities Corporation. Each operative is outfitted with high-tech devices that allow two-way communication with Cameron and his staff, one-way video surveillance, and the monitoring of health vitals. By accessing a powerful computer loaded with useful data, Cameron can provide any information the operatives may need--from a street address to a biography of someone they just met.

TV Guide cover with the stars.
It's an intriguing premise that sadly grew old within a few episodes. It didn't help that the show's structure--which focused on a single operative each week--made it difficult for viewers to identify with the hero. One week, the star was Hugh O'Brien as the cynical Hugh Lockwood. The next week, it was Tony Franciosa as tough guy Nick Bianco. And lastly, there was Doug McClure, who looked like he should still be playing Trampas on The Virginian. Of course, there have been popular shows with rotating stars, such as Maverick and The Name of the Game, but they also featured better-written characters.

DVD cover for Probe.
Leslie Stevens, who created The Outer Limits, wrote the pilot for Search, which aired as a made-for-TV called Probe in 1972. It was a cut above other telefilms of the era, thanks in part to guest stars Elke Sommer and John Gielgud. It also featured Angel Tompkins as one of Meredith's assistants, who bantered playfully with O'Brien (a more lighthearted version of Lee Meriwether;s character in The Time Tunnel). Tompkins remained for the first episode of Search, but then disappeared from the series after a second appearance. (Incidentally, the original plan was to call the TV series Probe, but that idea was scrapped to avoid confusion with a public television series).

While Search may be remembered mostly for what it could have been, its catchy theme by Dominic Frontiere still has its fans--including me. Here's a clip from Warner Archive featuring the opening credits to the first episode:

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Gordon Liu.
Even film buffs who don’t normally watch martial arts movies may enjoy this 1978 classic that made a star of Gordon Liu (aka  Chia-Hui Liu).

He stars as Liu Yude, a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, a wounded Liu escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. Liu’s hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus.

The chief abbot rules in Liu's favor.
Liu is almost rejected at the outset, but the temple’s chief abbot overrules his brothers and grants the young man sanctuary because of his strength of spirit. For the first year, Liu—who is given the new name of San Te—does nothing but menial tasks like sweeping the temple. When he finally inquires about learning martial arts, he’s told that he must master 35 “chambers,” that doing so requires many years, and that most of the monks never complete this training regimen.

Undeterred, San Te starts with the 35th chamber, the most difficult one…and fails miserably. As he undertakes the other chambers, he gradually comprehends the importance of speed, balance, vision, strength, and humility. He goes from the weakest student to the best and rapidly works his way through the first 34 chambers (although it still requires several years). When the chief abbot offers him the opportunity to become the master of any chamber, San Te asks if he can create a 36th chamber—which sets into motion the final third of the film.
San Te (on right) defending a lethal blow.
There have been dozens of kung fu films where the protagonist mastered a “special technique” in order to defeat his enemy. However, I can think of no other genre movie with such extensive and engrossing training scenes. Part of the attraction lies in the training events. To learn balance, San Te must jump from floating log to floating log to cross a body of water. To strengthen his wrists, he must repeatedly strike a bell with a large stone attached to a flexible rod. I especially love the details in the scenes. As Liu tries various positions to strike the bell, we see other students waiting behind him, blue and deep red bruises covering their wrists.
San Te striking the bell using only his wrist,
Gordon Liu conveys intensity and determination as San Te. As he tries to figure out how to defeat one of the abbots in a fight, one can almost “see” him thinking. It’s no wonder his strong performance catapulted him to martial arts stardom. (Casual moviegoers may remember Gordon Liu best from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, where he played two roles. One of them was as the kung fu master who trains Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, Volume II…a sequence likely inspired by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.)

My only complaint about The 36th Chamber is that the training sequences are so good that the final third of the film is a bit of a letdown. It still includes some amazing fight scenes; the choreography is so intricate that I felt like I was watching a ballet. Director Lau Kar-Leung had extensive experience as a fight choreographer and actor. He and Gordon Liu were brothers (the latter was adopted).

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was produced by the Shaw Brothers, the studio home of many kung fu classics (but not Bruce Lee’s films). I remember watching a 60 Minutes segment in which studio co-owner and producer Run Run Shaw was interviewed. At that time, his studio was the largest in the world and almost all their films were shot there. Run Run Shaw died in 2014 at the age of 107.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Five Shaw Brothers Films (for People That Typically Don't Watch Kung Fu Movies)

Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber.
Last year, Amazon Prime added a number of high-quality prints of Shaw Brothers films to its catalog. If you're unfamiliar with the Shaw Brothers Studio (and subscribe to Amazon Prime), this is a great opportunity to sample some of their best movies.

Founded in 1925 (under a different name), the studio grew into the world's largest privately-owned film production company by the 1960s. During that decade, Sir Run Run Shaw popularized action films featuring swordplay and martial arts. Action pictures like Come Drink With Me and The One-Armed Swordsman shattered box office records in Asia.

In the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers took advantage of the international interest in martial arts and produced many of their best known classics. Every fan has his or her favorites, but I tried to pick five that might appeal to film fans not familiar with the genre. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East, in particular, are less bloody than the other films on this list. All of these films feature impressive athletic feats and fights choreographed with balletic precision.

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin - Martial arts superstar Gordon Liu plays a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, he escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. His hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus. This classic is famous for its spellbinding training sequences, but its theme of perseverance and dedication resonates strongly, too.

Liu again, this time fighting with knives.
2. Heroes of the East - The arranged marriage of a Chinese businessman's son and a Japanese friend's daughter turns out much better than anyone could have hoped. Indeed, the couple's happiness is marred only by the wife's insistence that her Japanese martials arts are superior to her husband's Chinese boxing. The couple try to find common ground, but she eventually returns to Japan. To get her back, the husband (Gordon Liu again) ends up challenging seven Japanese masters, each highly skilled in a particular style of fighting. Clever and funny, Heroes of the East also features some of the best fights you'll ever see in a movie--plus no one dies!

Jimmy Wang Yu in a snowy scene.
3. The One-Armed Swordsman - An aging teacher plans to turn over his school of sword fighting to his best pupil, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu). Kang doesn't know that and plans to leave the school because he doesn't fit in with his fellow students. The teacher's impetuous daughter challenges Kang on the night of his departure. When he refuses to fight her with a sword...she chops his right arm off! Miraculously, a young woman finds his bloody body and nurses him to health. Meanwhile, the teacher's villainous old adversary plans to kill everyone in the school. Stylish and graphically violent, The One-Armed Swordsman is an engrossing tale of transformation and determination.

4. Master of the Flying Guillotine - An old evil kung fu master--armed with the title weapon--seeks revenge in a town hosting a martial arts tournament. One of the funkiest and most popular films to emerge from the kung fu craze of the 1970s, Master of the Flying Guillotine has become a cult classic championed by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. Part of its popularity can be attributed to the tournament scenes featuring participants from different countries and with different fighting styles. Plus, we get Jimmy Wang Yu again...this time as a one-armed boxer!

5. The Avenging Eagle - An outlaw, being pursued by his former gang, encounters a mysterious stranger in the desert. As the two men travel together and fend off periodic gang attacks, their pasts--and their unique connection--are revealed through flashbacks. The best scenes in this intriguing action yarn show how a Fagin-like father figure manipulates his loyal followers, transforming them from innocent children into young men that have become ruthless criminals.
Two is better than one when our heroes confront the villain!

Other popular Shaw Brothers films include:  Clan of the White Lotus, Crippled Avengers, The One-Armed Boxer, Golden Swallow, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, and Five Deadly Venoms.