Sunday, July 28, 2019

Malden and Fraciscus Try to Solve a Cat O' Nine Tails

Karl Malden as Arno.
If you've never seen an Italian giallo film--and have an aversion to movie violence--then Dario Argento's The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) just might be your cup of tea. It's not a prototypical example of the genre (see Argento's later Deep Red), but it will give you a taste of these movies. It features several familiar giallo elements: a mysterious killer whose identity isn't revealed until the climax, a dark noirish atmosphere, plenty of red herrings, and multiple murders.

Karl Malden plays Franco Arno, a blind former journalist who lives with his young niece Lori.  During an evening walk, Arno and Lori overhear two people in a car discussing blackmail. A couple of days later, Lori recognizes a photo of one of the car's occupants in the newspaper. The man, a scientist who worked at the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research, apparently killed himself by jumping in front of a moving train. 

James Franciscus as Giordani.
Arno suspects foul play and goes to see journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), who was investigating a break-in at the Terzi Institute. Arno suggests that a photo of the "suicide" be enlarged and Giordano contacts the photographer. The enlargement reveals a hand on the side of the frame, shoving the victim in front of the train. However, by the time Arno and Giordani reach the photographer, he has been strangled and the picture has been stolen.

Could the murders somehow be linked to the Terzi Institute and involve the discovery of a chromosome that makes people prone to violent behavior?

Director Dario Argento is justly famous for his fluid camerawork and dark visual aesthetic. His camera moves less than usual in Cat o' Nine Tails, but his visual design does not disappoint. Shadow-filled streets, hallways lit with a sliver of light, and close-ups of a bloodshot eye create a pervasive atmosphere of unease. As in Val Lewton's pictures, alleys and buildings seem devoid of people--except for the victim and the killer, whose presence is often indicated by a point of view shot.

Catherine Spaak as a suspect.
Malden and Franciscus don't really mesh with the Italian supporting cast, but that doesn't detract from the story. Malden fares best as the curious former journalist who jumps at the chance to unmask the murderer ("I like solving puzzles"). However, he disappears for a long middle section as the plot focuses on Franciscus and his relationship with one of the suspects (Catherine Spaak). Their awkward lovemaking scene is the film's low point. Well, that plus placing little Lori out of harm's way only to have the killer nab her near the climax.

The title refers to an metaphor used by Malden, in which the cat is the crime and the nine tails are the leads that should result in solving it. That may not quite make sense, but then Cat o' Nine Tails is not a movie that can withstand close scrutiny. Watch for the visuals and the atmosphere. If you're intrigued--and not squeamish--then look for Deep Red (1975). It stars David Hemmings (Blow Up) as a pianist who witnesses the murder of a telepathic woman who sensed the thoughts of a killer during a parapsychology demonstration in a theater.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Davy Crockett A-fightin' Some River Pirates!

Fess Parker as Davy.
When Walt Disney's Disneyland TV series debuted its first Davy Crockett limited run series in 1954, no one could have anticipated its massive success. Not only was it a ratings smash, but it spawned an extremely lucrative line of tie-in merchandise and a hit song. It also made a TV star of then-unknown 31-year-old Fess Parker and made coonskin caps popular again (at least with the young folks). To capitalize on the overwhelming response to this three-episode Davy Crockett series, Walt Disney had an edited version released as the 1955 theatrical film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

A sequel was inevitable and in 1955, Disneyland aired two additional Davy Crockett episodes. They were also edited together and released to theaters as Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Technically, the second "film" is a prequel as it chronicles events that took place prior to the climax at The Alamo at the end of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

After several months of hunting, Davy and his chum Georgie Russel (Buddy Ebsen) plan to hire a keelboat to travel from Kentucky to New Orleans to sell their pelts. They first approach the boisterous Mike Fink, the self-proclaimed "King of the River," who wants to charge them a highly unreasonable $1000. Davy and Georgie nix that offer and decide to form their own crew aboard elderly Captain Cobb's Bertha Marie Marietta.

Jeff York as Mike Fink.
Mike Fink doesn't take kindly to the competition, so he gets a drunk Georgie to bet all the furs against two barrels of whiskey that Davy and crew reach New Orleans first. It's a lively boat race with Davy navigating river rapids, fighting Indians (more on that later), coping with sabotage, and helping out a marooned farmer.

The second half of the film finds Davy and Georgie trying to quell a local Indian uprising. They discover a band of ruthless "river pirates" are impersonating the Indians and attacking boats. Realizing they need some help, Davy turns to Mike Fink and his men.

The plot of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates is understandably disjointed, as it was comprised of  two 60-minute episodes that aired on Disneyland as Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. The keelboat race is the more entertaining of the two as it provides more screen time to Jeff York as the colorful Mike Fink. York breathes life into his loud and bigger-than-life character, providing an effective contrast to Fess Parker's incorruptible hero. Fink even has his own catchy song which describes him as "a bull-nosed, tough old alligator, and real depopulator, born too mean to die."

If Jeff York looks familiar, you may be remembering him from Old Yeller (1957), in which he played Fess Parker and Dorthy Maguire's lazy, grub-hunting neighbor. He also later appeared opposite Parker as a guest star on the Daniel Boone TV series. York briefly had a series of his own, co-starring with Roger Moore in The Alaskans (1959-60).

The other standout performances in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates belong to Buddy Ebsen and Kenneth Tobey. The former rarely got a chance to stretch himself on The Beverly Hillbillies, so it's entertaining to watch him as a humorous sidekick. As for Tobey, who famously played the hero of The Thing from Another World, he's barely recognizable as Fink's grizzled, cigar-chewing, red-headed crony.

Buddy Ebsen and Kennth Tobey.
Watching it today, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates drips with nostalgia and is strongly recommended for film and TV fans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. It's also surprisingly progressive in its treatment of Native Americans, who are not portrayed as villains.

Incidentally, Fess Parker did not benefit financially from the Davy Crockett merchandise bonanza due to the nature of his contract with Disney. When repeats of the Davy Crockett episodes sparked renewed interest in the character in 1963, Parker approached Disney about a Davy Crockett TV series. When that didn't work out, Parker and producer Aaron Rosenberg developed the Daniel Boone TV series, which ran for six years on NBC. Parker owned 30% of the show and pretty much retired from acting after its run.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (July 2019)

The proverbial rules:  You will be given a pair or trio of films or performers and will be required to 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. James Mason and Herbert Lom.

2. Hope Lange and Tuesday Weld.

3. Cliff De Young and James Stewart.

4. Richard Carlson and Rod Steiger.

5. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nigel Green.

6. Alec Guinness and James Mason.

7. Paul Newman and Robert De Niro.

8. James Stewart and Danny Kaye. 

9. Miriam Hopkins and Audrey Hepburn. 

10. Ronald Reagan and Ray Milland. 

11. The movie Leave Her to Heaven and the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis

12. The Mark of Zorro and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.   

13. Dale Robertson and Sean Flynn (Errol’s son). 

14. Sally Field and Gary Collins.

15. Tony Randall and Kenneth Branagh. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

#FaveVampireFilms - Your Favorite Vampire Films Tweetathon

What are your favorite vampire films?

Last month, we had a grand time with our science fiction films tweetathon. So, in the spirit of movie sequels, we've decided to host another tweetathon--but this time, the focus will be on vampire movies.

If you would like to participate, just go to Twitter and send a tweet with your film picks and the hashtag #FaveVampireFilms. Include our Twitter name @classic_film and we'll share your selections with over 13,000 other movie fans.

Of course, you don't need a Twitter account to participate. You can also join the fun by listing your picks on Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media platform. Or, you can just leave a comment below with your five favorite science fictions films.

Here are our #FaveVampireFilms in no particular order:

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires) (1967)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter (1974)
Vampire Hunter D (1985)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)
The Lost Boys (1987)
Fright Night (1985)
Horror of Dracula (1958)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bette Davis as Madame Sin

A TV series centered around a Fu Manchu-like villainous played by the incomparable Bette Davis? That was the idea behind Madame Sin, a TV series pilot which aired in 1972 on the ABC Movie of the Weekend.

Executive producer Robert Wagner stars as Tony Lawrence, a disgruntled former intelligence agent kidnapped by Madame Sin's henchmen and transported to her fortress in the Scottish Highlands. Madame Sin tries to convince Tony to join her evil organization by showing him film footage of his girlfriend being tortured and killed as part of an American espionage plot. It works and pretty soon Tony is helping to abduct a submarine commander so his brain can be reprogrammed to steer his sub into Madame Sin's clutches.

Denholm Elliott.
Shot in England and Scotland, Madame Sin looks more expensive than most made-for-TV movies of the era. It also features a respectable cast, with the always reliable Denholm Elliott present as Madame Sin's right-hand man.

I suspect the producers wanted to recreate the tongue-in-cheek, gadget-laden approach of the Derek Flint films. But whereas those were sophisticated fare, Madame Sin veers closer to camp. Ms. Davis, decked out in layers of light-blue eye shadow and a large black wig, utters lines like: "You're a prisoner only if you think of yourself as one." Later, when Tony finally realizes he's been duped, he yells: "You're not a woman. You're a disease!" (I thought: "No, Tony, she is a woman and a whole lot smarter than you.")

Wagner as Tony Lawrence.
Madam Sin was released theatrically overseas, but stateside its television ratings weren't strong enough for it to become a regular series. Personally, given the ending (and no spoilers here!), I can't help but wonder what the producers were thinking. I cannot fathom an American television network in the early 1970s being bold enough to build a weekly series around a villain. I suppose one could argue that Dallas became just that in 1978, but even J.R. Ewing had more redeeming qualities than Madame Sin.

Before a decision has been made on the Madame Sin TV series, Bette Davis starred in another made-for-TV movies that also served as a pilot. The Judge and Jake Wyler boasted a more conventional premise with Bette playing a retired judge who becomes a private investigator. Her titular partner is an ex-con serving probation (Doug McClure). It wasn't picked up as a regular series either.

Ironically, Robert Wagner later played another character who would work for an evil villain bent on world domination. Yes, he starred as Dr. Evil's right-hand man, No. 2, in three of the Austin Powers movies.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Jack Arnold's "It Came From Outer Space"

Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush.
On a cool evening outside Sand Rock, Arizona, amateur astronomer John Putnam and his girlfriend Ellen watch a meteor crash into the desert. The pair and a pilot friend are the first to arrive at the newly-formed crater. John ventures into the rubble and--to his astonishment--finds the door to a spaceship. No one believes his story, especially since there is no sign of a spaceship when the authorities later investigate the meteor site.

However, it's not long before some of the townspeople begin to act strangely, speaking in a robotic monotone. John learns that alien lifeforms have taken selected humans hostage and replicated their human form. The aliens claim that they pose no threat to Earth at this time. They landed on it inadvertently and just want to repair their ship and depart. But are they telling the truth?

An example of Arnold's visual flair.
Made in 1953, It Came From Outer Space is a seminal science fiction film from the mind of Ray Bradbury. It was also the first sci fi film directed by Jack Arnold, who would go on to helm other 1950s genre classics: Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the CreatureThe Incredible Shrinking Man, and Tarantula. It was also one of the most successful 3D films, back when the then-new technology was launched in response to the movie industry's fear of television. (Arnold also shot Creature and its first sequel in 3D).

Like Arnold, star Richard Carlson also became known for his many sci fi films (Creature, The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars, The Maze, and The Power). I never found Carlson to be an exciting actor, but he is well-cast as an everyman in It Came From Outer Space. He projects quiet strength as Putnam, an intelligent writer who has to ignore his detractors because he knows what he saw. (Putnam's path isn't an easy one...even the local newspaper features the headline "Stargazer Sees Martians.")

Is it Russell Johnson or an alien?
Much has been written about who deserves credit for the story and screenplay: Bradbury, who penned the film treatment, or Harry Essex, who was listed as the screenwriter. Bill Warren, who authored the superb sci fi film encyclopedia Keep Watching the Skies, makes a compelling case for Bradbury based on his examination of Ray's own archives. The story's strongest elements are its eerie desert setting (which was mostly created in a studio) and the aliens who, for once, aren't intent on taking over Earth. That doesn't mean that the aliens are friendly; indeed, one of them tries to kill Putnam even though he insists he is not a threat.

Arnold avoids showing the aliens for most of the film. Instead, he employs the now-familiar technique of showing their first-person perspective (whereby the audience sees what the aliens do). However, the studio insisted that the one-eyed Xenamorphs (the aliens were named in the advertising only) ultimately be shown. They aren't very frightening.

A well-dressed alien!
The influence of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is evident from the opening sounds of the theramin on the soundtrack. While It Came From Outer Space may be important historically in the sci fi film genre, it lacks the power and timeless quality of that earlier movie. Still, it makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking 81 minutes. 

The 1996 made-for-TV It Came From Outer Space II purports to be a sequel, but is actually an unimpressive, unnecessary remake. A more interesting 1970 TV movie Night Slaves, although based on a novel by Jerry Sohl, boasts a similar plot.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The China Syndrome—More Than a Conspiracy Thriller

Jane Fonda as Kimberly.
Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), an ambitious reporter for an L.A. television station, wants to be a serious journalist. Instead, her condescending boss has given her “puff pieces”—stories about singing telegrams and tiger birthday parties at the zoo. Another routine assignment, a documentary about the nearby Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, is at least a little more promising.

However, when Kimberly and her crew tour the plant, they observe an “event” that throws the control room personnel into a brief panic. California Gas and Electric, which owns the plant, explains away the incident as a “routine turbine trip.” Kimberly and her photographer-friend Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) are convinced they witnessed a radiation leak—which Richard secretly filmed. To their dismay, the TV station manager quashes the story on legal grounds.

Jack Lemmon as Godell.
An angry Richard steals the film, while Kimberly has an encounter with Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), one of the plant’s supervisors. Initially, Godell adamantly insists the incident was a routine one. However, the more he thinks about it, the more he becomes convinced that the plant may be in danger of a meltdown.

Made in 1979, The China Syndrome is a film that works as a “no nukes” statement, an examination of journalism ethics, and a conspiracy thriller. Not surprisingly, it was poorly received by nuclear power plant companies that felt it promoted the likelihood of a real-like nuclear incident. In actuality, The China Syndrome plays it fair by explaining all the protocols in place to prevent such catastrophes. The irony, though, is that the Three Mile Island incident occurred just months after the film’s release. As a result, the movie and the real-life accident are now forever linked and no doubt negatively impacted the growth of nuclear power stations in the U.S.

Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.
From a journalism perspective, the key issue is the public’s right to know. When Kimberly and Richard push to broadcast a story about the first incident, we see the energy company’s PR head talking with the TV station’s manager. The implication is that the company wants to kill the story. However, the station manager’s rationale is that federal law prohibits filming inside a nuclear facility. That’s a pretty good reason given the possible lawsuits and potential for criminal charges against the station and its personnel. However, from an ethical perspective, it’s a complex issue because the public surely has a right to know if it’s in danger. The station manager’s best course of action would have been to have an expert view the Richard proposes and does.

Finally, The China Syndrome turns into a conspiracy thriller during its third act. Faced with losing almost $500,000 a day, the energy company takes extreme measures to prevent Godell from exposing a cover-up during an investigation of the first accident. There are wild car chases and an intense climax in which a key character struggles to explain the truth before being silenced.

Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon bring earnestness and urgency to their performances. It’s apparent that Kimberly and Godell make a connection when they first meet in a bar. As we learn more about them, we discover that both are lonely people whose lives revolve around their professions. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards and earned top acting honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Michael Douglas produced The China Syndrome as a follow-up to his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Richard Dreyfus was originally cast as Jane Fonda’s cameraman colleague. When he had to withdraw from the production, Douglas assumed the role.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Swingin' Summer Swings No More

I suspect that many of you have experienced the disappoint-ment of re-watching a once-cherished movie that has been tarnished by time. I wouldn't classify A Swinging' Summer as a "cherished" movie, but there was a time in my youth when I found it to be a pleasing entertainment. Thus, when I recently discovered it on Amazon Prime, I was enthused about seeing it again. Oh, woe!

The plot is not the problem since many Beach Party knock-offs of the 1960s were held together with string, sealing wax, and other fancy stuff. Rick, his girlfriend Cindy, and his pal Mickey plan to work at a Lake Arrowhead dance pavilion during their college summer break. They don't even reach their destination before they hear on the radio that the pavilion will not open. Undeterred, Rick proposes that the trio take charge and run it themselves. After all, Rick happens to have a friend who is a talent agent. Surely, they have enough money between them to stage the first dance.

William Wellman Jr. & Quinn O'Hara.
As it turns out, they need a lot more cash upfront! Without telling Rick, Cindy has her rich dad guarantee the finances. However, Rick turns into a workaholic, so Cindy flirts with a lifeguard who looks like trouble. Meanwhile, Mickey encounters a pretty scholar (Raquel Welch) who decides she wants to study him. There's a big fight between Rick and the lifeguard. And, oh yeah, there's a lot of music.

Frankly, the music is pretty good, but we'll get to that in a minute. The problem is that the viewer has to suffer through 50 minutes of the picture's 80-minute running time before the rock'n'roll shifts into high gear. As the film's star, William Wellman, Jr., the famed director's son, makes Frankie Avalon look like Ronald Colman. He has no screen charisma and it's hard to fathom why Cindy doesn't dump her crappy boyfriend and just stay with the lifeguard. (Yes, I admit that I sometimes wondered why Annette didn't drop Frankie, but he had some charm...and could sing!) Wellman, Jr. even looks pathetic in the big fight scene with the lifeguard, which is horribly staged and goes on for far too long.

Quinn O'Hara.
Scottish-born redhead Quinn O'Hara is pleasant enough as the female lead. She later had a small part in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, the last Beach Party movie. She did lots of TV in the 1960s and allegedly dated Frank Sinatra and Fabian in real life. Her other co-star, James Stacy, is best remembered for the Western TV series Lancer and for marrying Connie Stevens and later Kim Darby. His acting career was temporarily derailed when he lost an arm and leg in a motorcycle accident. He staged a remarkable comeback, but it was short-lived and he was later convicted of child molestation. Stacy served six years in the prison in Chino, California. That incident casts a dark cloud over his lighthearted scenes.

Despite its amateurish build-up, A Swingin' Summer ends on a high note with musical performances by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Rip Chords, Raquel Welch, and The Righteous Brothers. I had forgotten how successful Gary Lewis's band was--it charted twelve Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That's actually the same number as The Righteous Brothers, who are better remembered today. The duo sing "Justine" in A Swingin' Summer, which was not a hit. However, its follow-up on the chart was the iconic "Unchained Melody."

A studious Raquel Welch.
A Swingin' Summer was Raquel Welch's third film and provided her biggest role to date. She wouldn't get to demonstrate her modest singing talents in another movie. However, she later earned good reviews for her Vegas act and for replacing Lauren Bacall on Broadway in the musical Applause. Incidentally, Raquel was on her way to stardom when A Swingin' Summer was released overseas. So, the film's title was changed to La Calda Notte, which translates to The Hot Night and features Raquel alone on the poster.