Monday, November 12, 2018

Sean Connery Stages the Great Train Robbery

Sean Connery as Edward Pierce.
In addition to writing bestselling novels like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton also found time to moonlight as a film director. One of his most successful efforts was The Great Train Robbery (1978), based on his own popular novel--which was inspired by a real crime.

The plot concerns the heist of a gold shipment being transported by train to pay British troops fighting in the Crimean War in 1855. The challenges are substantial. Not only must the gold be stolen while the train is moving, but it must be removed from two safes locked with four different keys. Two of the keys are stored in the railway offices in the train station and the other two keys are retained by company executives.

Sutherland as the pickpocket.
None of that is enough to sway Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) from tackling the crime of the century. With the aid of his mistress (Lesley-Anne Down), a pickpocket (Donald Sutherland), and a railway guard, he develops a complex scheme to steal the four keys and make wax impressions of them. His efforts, though, attract the attention of the police, which makes the actual robbery exceedingly more difficult than Pierce's original plan.

The Great Train Robbery is lighthearted escapist fare for most of its running time (thus, a scene where Pierce strangles a crony seems out of place). Sean Connery has a grand time as the heist's mastermind, never taking the plot too seriously but also refraining from winking figuratively at the audience. One of his most amusing scenes is a conversation with one of the executives' wives that's filled with enough double-entendres to make James Bond proud.

Lesley-Anne Down.
Donald Sutherland, one of the busiest actors of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is well cast as Connery's partner-in-crime. However, the most surprising performance comes from Lesley-Anne Down, who spent much of her career stuck in superficial roles. In The Great Train Robbery, she gets to masquerade as an upper-class French prostitute and a cockney lass in addition to playing Connery's plucky mistress.

Naturally, the film's highlight is the robbery aboard the moving train. It requires Connery's character to run along the tops of the railcars, ducking periodically to avoid being decapitated by bridges and tunnels. Incredibly, Connery does most of his own stunts, which include jumping from the tops of the cars. He actually fell off the train doing one stunt. In The Films of Sean Connery, the actor mentions that his wife Micheline was furious when she saw The Great Train Robbery and learned the risks he had undertaken.

Yes, that's actually Sean Connery atop the moving train.

In case you're wondering, the real-life robbery did indeed involve stealing four safe keys and hijacking the gold from a speeding train. The similarities pretty much end there. Edward Agar, one of the thieves, was arrested after the robbery for passing a bad check. While in prison, he learned that one of his fellow criminals kept the portion of the gold intended for Agar's mistress and illegitimate son. Agar then cooperated with the police, provided all the details on the heist, and all the train robbers were eventually captured.

The Great Train Robbery was released as The First Great Train Robbery in Great Britain to avoid confusing it with the Great Train Robbery of 1963. There was an excellent 2013 miniseries made about that train robbery; you can read a review of it at our sister blog British TV Detectives.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Fairs, Carnivals, and Amusement Parks in Classic Movies

Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Fairs on film have evoked a nostalgic atmosphere of Americana, as typified by the three film versions of State Fair.  Will Rogers starred in the original 1933 film about a family’s adventures at the Iowa State Fair, but the 1945 version, boasting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s only film score, remains the best remembered.  The turn-of-the-century musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) ended with the opening of the 1903 World’s Fair and also provided Judy Garland with one of her biggest hits “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Elvis in It Happened at the World's Fair.
Elvis Presley attended the Seattle World’s Fair in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair.  A belly dancer caused quite a sensation at the 1890’s Chicago Fair in Little Egypt (1951). Jean Simmons’ brother mysteriously disappeared without a trace at the 1889 Paris Exposition in the intriguing mystery So Long at the Fair (1950).  And The World of Tomorrow (1984) provided a retrospective look at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Fairs on a smaller scale provided the settings for comedy in Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952) and romance in the Dan Dailey musical Meet Me at the Fair (1953).

Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley.
In contrast to frivolous fairs, carnival films have tended to offer a darker view of life.  Spencer Tracy played a ruthless carnival promoter who has visions of Hell in the 1935 curio Dante’s Inferno.  Tyrone Power, in a change-of-pace role, was a heartless carny hustler who hits the big time in the spiritualism racket in Nightmare Alley (1947).  He gets his comeuppance, however, and eventually winds up as a sideshow freak.  Linda Lawson played a sideshow mermaid who actually believed herself to be a descendant of the murderous Sea People in Curtis Harrington’s minor cult favorite Night Tide (1961).  A spooky carnival run by the mysterious Mr. Dark invaded a quiet, Midwestern town in the underrated 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s chilling Something Wicked This Way Comes. Elvis returned to the scene, this time working for Barbara Stanwyck, in Roustabout.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Less human monsters seem to prefer amusement parks over carnivals. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was toying with the Coney Island Cyclone rollercoaster when Lee Van Cleef shot him up with radioactive isotope.  Godzilla battled his archnemesis Ghidrah, along with several other creatures, in a children’s amusement park in Godzilla on Monster Island (1971), one of Toho’s sillier pictures.  The amusement park in Gorilla at Large (1954) featured a murderous ape who turned out to be Anne Bancroft (!) in a gorilla suit.

George Segal tracked a madman specializing in sabotaging rollercoasters throughout the nation in 1977’s Rollercoaster.  It was filmed in real amusement parks (e.g., King’s Dominion in Virginia) and presented in “Sensurround,” a sound system which simulated rumbling vibrations during key scenes.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 classic Strangers on a Train featured several amusement park scenes, including the thrilling merry-go-round climax.  Likewise, the famous hall of mirrors showdown in Orson Welles’ Lady from Shanghai took place in an amusement park crazy house.

The cinema’s most famous amusement park is Coney Island, which provided the setting for Sinner’s Holiday (1930), Coney Island (1943), its remake Wabash Avenue (1950), Little Fugitive (1953), and the aforementioned Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953).

Joseph Cotten at ferris wheel.
The Third Man featured a tense conversation between Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles atop a ferris wheel, while Luv opted for an awkward ferris wheel love scene.

The rollercoaster rumbles in Rollercoaster may have been deafening, but the most stomach-churning rollercoaster footage still belongs to 1952’s This Is Cinerama , which projected its speeding dives and turns on a 165-degree curved movie screen.

Below is a a representative list of classic movies about fairs, carnivals, and amusement park:

Sinner’s Holiday (1930)
The Half Naked Truth (1932)
Take a Chance (1933)
State Fair (1933)
Whirlpool (1934)
Dante’s Inferno (1935)
Strike Me Pink (1936)
Road Show (1941)
Coney Island (1943)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
State Fair (aka It Happened One Summer) (1945)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Are You With It? (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
Wabash Avenue (1950)
So Long at the Fair (1950)
Texas Carnival (1951)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Little Egypt (1951)
Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)
Lili (1953)
Meet Me at the Fair (1953)
Little Fugitive (1953)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Gorilla at Large (1954)
The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage) (1955)
Dance With Me, Henry (1956)
All at Sea (1958)
Night Tide (1961)
State Fair (1962)
It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
Roustabout (1964)
Luv (1967)
She Freak (aka Alley of Nightmares) (1967)
Godzilla on Monster Island (aka Godzilla vs. Gigan) (1971)
Rollercoaster (1977)
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978 TVM)
Carny (1980)
The Funhouse (1981)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
The World of Tomorrow (1984)
Slayground (1984)
Breaking All the Rules (1985)
Funland (1986)
Ghoulies II (1987)
Two-Moon Junction (1988)
Kansas (1989)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Classic Movies on Amazon Prime in November 2018

Aubrey Hepburn has breakfast.
It's been a couple of months since we last explored what Amazon Prime had to offer in the way of classic movies. Its current line-up includes a nice mix of popular fare, a rare Stanley Kubrick movie, a quartet of first-rate Westerns, and some cult classics.

If you gravitate toward big stars, then you're in luck with films featuring: Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany's), Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Humphrey Bogart (Dead Reckoning), Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint (Exodus), Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole (Becket), Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck (Meet John Doe), Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), and Ginger Rogers (The Groom Wore Spurs).

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly.
Frank Sinatra stars in three movies that boast some of his finest acting: The Man With the Golden ArmThe Manchurian Candidate, and Suddenly. The latter two share some intriguing similarities.

Stanley Kubrick gets the "director spotlight" with a trio of his works: the visually dazzling Barry Lyndon, the superb World War I drama Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas, and Kubrick's first non-documentary Fear and Desire (1953).

There are some choice Westerns from Howard Hawks (Red River), Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), William Wyler (The Big Country), and Anthony Mann (Man of the West). Mann's picture is a tough drama with Shakespearean overtones and powerhouse performances from Gary Cooper and Lee J. Cobb.

Charlton Heston has a revelation.
Charlton Heston's sci fi drama Soylent Green and The Conversation, my favorite Francis Ford Coppola film, are the best known of the cult movies. But there are two delightful thrillers featuring nifty twists: Henri-Georges Clouzot's French classic Diabolique and Hammer Films' underrated Scream of Fear with Susan Strasburg and Christopher Lee. Ray Harryhausen fans can rejoice with one of his best-known fantasy adventures, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

Finally, there are several lesser-known films that are worth a look. Beat Girl (1961) is a British teen drama with an above-average cast (e.g., David Farrar and Christopher Lee again). However, it's now best known as composer John Barry's first big break. And if you're looking for some truly unusual fare, you won't want to miss Samuel Fuller's remarkable "B" picture The Naked Kiss. It features a brothel called Candy a La Carte, a telephone receiver used as a murder weapon, and a really bizarre scene of hospital ward children singing in pirate costumes.

Keep in mind that Amazon Prime sometimes changes its schedule without notice, so some of these movies may disappear without notice.