Thursday, August 29, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (August 2019)

What's the connection between Jerry
Lewis and Robert Wagner?
The 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. George Sanders and Val Kilmer.

2. Hobson's Choice and The Wizard of Oz.

3. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and James Mason.

4. Gloria Swanson and Gary Cooper (this one may be hard).

5. The directors Billy Wilder and Robert Aldrich.

6. Bing Crosby and Ray Milland.

7. Claude Rains and James Mason.

8. Jeans Simmons and Ellen Burstyn.

9. Charlton Heston and James Caan.

10. Rex Harrison and Lou Costello.

11. Jerry Lewis and Robert Wagner.

12. Kirk Douglas and Lee Majors.

13. Clu Gulager and Kris Kristofferson.

14. William Conrad and Clu Gulager.

15. Joanne Woodward and Steve McQueen.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Truffaut's Homage to Hitchcock: The Bride Wore Black

Jeanne Moreau as Julie.
French director and critic Francois Truffaut originally published his extensive Alfred Hitchcock interviews in 1966. The book, which has come to be known as Hitchcock/Truffaut, is a brilliant look into the mind of a master filmmaker. So, it comes as no surprise that Truffaut would eventually make a film that pays tribute to Hitchcock's themes and style.

The Bride Wore Black (1968) looks and sounds like a Hitch picture. It was based on a 1940 novel by Cornell Woolrich, who also penned the short story that inspired Rear Window. The film's tense score was composed by Hitchcock's longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann.

Julie and her victim on the balcony.
It opens with Julie Kohler (Jeanne Moreau) bidding farewell to her young niece at a train station...only to pass through the train and depart in another direction. She then tries to see a man named Bliss, but his building attendant will not allow her into the man's apartment. Later, when Bliss is hosting a party with his fiancee, Julie appears in a white evening gown. She lures Bliss onto a balcony to flirt mysteriously with him. When she apparently loses her scarf in the breeze, it catches on a tree branch near the railing. She asks Bliss to retrieve it for her and, as he precariously straddles the railing, Julie pushes him off the balcony to his death. She then quickly and silently exits the party.

Julie and a glass of poison.
On a train to her next destination, Julie opens a small black book and crosses off one of five mens' names. Her goal, it appears, is to murder each of them.

The motive behind Julie Kolher's vendetta isn't revealed until less an hour remains in the film's 107-minutes running time. The big reveal isn't particularly surprising, but that's not a detriment to The Bride Wore Black. In Hitchcock lingo, the reason why Julie commits the murders is the film's "McGuffin." In other words, her motive propels the plot, but really serves no other purpose. The Bride Wore Black is an exercise in style, with each murder comprising a mini-narrative.

Michael Lonsdale as the father.
The best scene has Julie infiltrating a household by posing as the five-year-old son's kindergarten teacher. By quizzing the child earlier in the day, she knows just enough to pull off the ruse. The child, of course, states that Julie is not his teacher multiple times. But she laughs it off and the father doesn't take his son seriously. It makes sense, of course, to believe an adult over a child. The father, whose wife has been called out of town on an emergency (thanks to Julie), also becomes interested in the attractive woman who is suddenly alone with him once his son goes to bed.

Indeed, Julie's most powerful weapon in her revenge scheme is her allure. Four of her five targets are drawn to her out of lust, loneliness, or perhaps even love. In The Bride Wore Black, the males are most certainly the weaker sex.

As Hitchcock did in Marnie (1964), Truffaut uses color and lighting to create contrasts. Moreau, whose character is a victim as well as a killer, wears only black or white outfits during the entire film. Her first murder takes place on a bright, sunny day whereas her third murder occurs during a dark thunderstorm. The Bride Wore Black was only Truffaut's second color film and he had numerous on-set altercations with cinematographer Raoul Coutard on how to light the film. Their disagreements became so numerous that Moreau has stated that she was forced to direct some of the scenes.
An arrow protrudes from the back of Julie's fourth victim.
It's still uniquely a Truffaut film, even if it lacks the warmth associated with his most celebrated works. I am sure I'm in the minority, but having viewed it twice now, it may be my favorite Truffaut film despite its flaws (I wish Julie's motive was revealed later in the film). Incidentally, if the plot reminds you of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, you are not alone--though Tarantino claims to have never seen The Bride Wore Black.

The plot closely follows Cornell Wooldrich's novel, though Truffaut changes the ending. In fact, it's one of my all-time favorite film endings and cleverly explains what seems like two horrible mistakes on Julie's part. There are many Hitchcockian films, but none quite like The Bride Wore Black. It pays tribute to the Master of Suspense, but never stoops to imitation as the bride efficiently eliminates the men who shattered her dreams of happiness.

This review is part of the Vive La France Blogathon hosted by The Lady Eve's Reel Life and Silver Screen Modes. Click here to check out all the marvelous posts in this blogathon. Below is a scene from The Bride Wore Black, courtesy of our YouTube channel:

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine Execute a Gambit

Shirley MacLaine as Nicole.
This review contains a spoiler. 

In  the first 29 minutes of Gambit (1966), we see art thief Harry Dean (Michael Caine) execute the perfect heist with the aid of dance hall girl Nicole (Shirley MacLaine) and his partner Emile (John Abbott). Of course, it turns out that the entire sequence is merely Harry describing his plan to Emile. When it comes time to actually pull off the robbery, almost nothing works out as Harry envisioned.

In Harry's plan, he and Nicole, disguised as a wealthy British businessman and his wife, are met at the airport by the hotel's limo. They are given the royal suite and invited by the hotel's reclusive owner to dinner in his rooms. Later, Harry steals the most valuable piece in the hotel owner's art collection.

Michael Caine as Harry.
When it comes to execute the caper for real, there is no limo (the hotel no longer sends one for VIP guests), they don't get their desired suite, and the hotel's owner--already suspicious of them--invites them to lunch on his yacht. Furthermore, Harry's target, an invaluable bust, is protected by a new electronic security system.

A playful caper film, Gambit has plenty of twists, so knowing the first one doesn't negate the enjoyment of the others. Still, it's the first twist--the 29 minute "planning" sequence--that the film is known for. It has fooled me both times I watched it (albeit my viewings were several decades apart). And there are plenty of clues that something is amiss during the sequence. First, Shirley MacLaine's character doesn't speak a word of dialogue, which struck me as peculiar. Secondly, it's apparent that Harry isn't a first-class thief, so it seems odd that everything goes so smoothly.

The most amusing part of Gambit is the role reversals between the plan and the execution. In Harry's plan, he is totally in charge and Nicole follows his every instruction. During the execution, Nicole's quick thinking and knowledge of art saves Harry and his plan on multiple occasions.

Herbert Lom as Shahbandar.
Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine are a delightful duo. It's a shame that this was their only movie together (other than a few scenes in the anthology Woman Times Seven). However, the unheralded star of Gambit is Herbert Lom, who plays the reclusive art collector. Lom was a highly versatile performer, appearing in horror films (The Phantom of the Opera), historical epics (Spartacus), and comedies (A Shot in the Dark). His surprising flair for physical comedy resulted in his best-known work, as Peter Sellers' nemesis, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, in the best Pink Panther films.

On of Nicole's gowns.
Gambit was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Set Design, Best Costumes and Best Sounds. The film, Shirley MacLaine, and Michael Caine were all nominated for Golden Globes. MacLaine lost to Lynn Redgrave for Georgy Girl while Alan Arkin nabbed Best Actor in a Comedy with The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

The screenplay for Gambit was based on a story by Sidney Carroll, who penned scripts for The Hustler and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (which also features a famous twist). The Coen Brothers adapted Carroll's story for a 2012 version of Gambit starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, and Alan Rickman.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Frenzy--Hitchcock's Penultimate Film

Hitchcock's cameo at the begining.
In 1972, Hitchcock was coming off one of the least successful periods of his long career. His last three films--Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz--had fizzled with moviegoers and critics. Still, there was much anticipation surrounding the release of Frenzy. It was a return to a familiar Hitchcockian premise, with an innocent man being pursued by the police while a murderer roams free. It was the famed director's first movie to be made in his native Britain in two decades. And it also marked Hitch's first, and only, film rated "R" for nudity and violence.

Jon Finch as Blaney.
Jon Finch stars as Richard Blaney, a self-pitying former RAF pilot who drinks too much and can't hold a job. After being fired from a London pub, he visits his successful ex-wife and berates her twice in front of other people. When he goes to see her the following day, her office door is locked. What Blamey doesn't know is that the notorious "necktie killer" has strangled his ex-wife. When he is seen leaving the office building, he becomes Scotland Yard's quarry in the manhunt to find the serial murderer.

Hitchcock reveals the identity of the necktie killer early in Frenzy. Thus, he merges two of his favorite plots: the one in which an innocent man has to elude the police (e.g., Young and Innocent, North By Northwest) and the one in which the killer takes center stage in the film (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train). It's a clever structure and Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) merge the two storylines seamlessly.

Barry Foster as a Blaney friend.
Hitch is less successful at balancing the tone of Frenzy, which shifts awkwardly from extreme violence to black comedy. Hitchcock is not one to shy away from violence...the shower scene in Psycho proved that. However, the rape and strangulation of Blaney's ex-wife is shown in explicit--and needless--detail. In a DVD interview, Anthony Shaffer called the scene "disgusting" and recommended that Hitchcock delete it--to which the director allegedly replied: "Nonsense, my boy." Fortunately, Hitchcock refrains from showing a second murder in the same fashion, opting instead to use the more potent power of suggestion.

The best scenes in Frenzy are the comedic ones, which range from darkly humorous to intentionally amusing. The latter scenes focus on the Scotland Yard inspector (a first-rate Alec McCowen) and his wife (a delightful Vivien Merchant). As they discuss the case, she serves him visually revolting meals, which are the result of her cooking classes. The best example of black comedy occurs when the killer dumps a victim's corpse into a potato truck, only to realize later that the victim grabbed a lapel pin from his jacket. As the truck careens down the highway, the killer desperately struggles to find the right potato bag, pull out the corpse, and retrieve the lapel pin from the clutches of a clinched rigor mortis-laden hand. It's physical comedy at its best, in a disgusting sort of way!

Vivien Merchant as the
inspector's wife.
Although the two main characters are male, the best performances come from the actresses in the cast. In addition to the aforementioned Vivien Merchant, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (as the ex-wife) and Anna Massey (as Blaney's girlfriend) stand out. French filmmaker and critic Francoise Truffaut noted this was one of the few later Hitchcock films to "turn away from glamorous and sophisticated heroines (of whom Grace Kelly remains the best example) toward everyday women...and they bring a new realism to Hitchcock's work."

Frenzy doesn't rank with Alfred Hitchcock's best films, but it stands out as the best among his post-Marnie works. It would have been a fitting end to his career, but, alas, he went on to make Family Plot. Like many great artists (and athletes), the Master of Suspense didn't know when to quit.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Seven-Ups: More Than a Great Car Chase

Roy Scheider as Manucci.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a banner period for gritty, urban cop pictures. Philip D'Antoni produced three of the best, which all incidentally featured nail-biting chase sequences: Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. The least famous of that trio is The Seven-Ups (1973), which serves as a sort of follow-up to The French Connection (1971) and also stars Roy Scheider.

He plays Buddy Manucci, a single-minded detective who heads a secret police unit called the Seven-Ups. He and his three team members focus on mobsters who commit major crimes...and earn sentences of seven years or more. Buddy's success hinges in large part on his childhood friend Vito (Tony Lo Bianco), an undertaker with mob connections who serves as an informant.

Tony Lo Bianco and Scheider.
Vito needs money--a lot of it. His wife may have tuberculosis and his day job isn't paying all the bills. He gleans information from Buddy to hatch a scheme to kidnap notable mob bosses and hold them for ransom. It's a profitable venture until one of the kidnappings results in the death of one of the Seven-Ups and Buddy makes it a personal vendetta to find the killer.

The character of Buddy Manucci is based on real-life NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, who also served as the inspiration for Scheider's character in The French Connection. In a 1971 interview in The New York Times, producer D'Antoni stated that Grosso told him a "weird and fascinating story" that became the basic plot of The Seven-Ups.

Roy Scheider, who always excelled at playing obsessive characters, is convincing as a driven cop willing to cross the line to get the job done (e.g., he withholds oxygen from a severely injured criminal to get information). However, Tony Lo Bianco nearly steals the film as the too-smooth-for-his-own-good Vito. When he uses his wife's illness as justification for his crimes, it's unclear whether he's sincere or just using his family tragedy as an excuse.

A shotgun blasts removes the hood from Scheider's car.
The famous car chase occurs almost an hour into the film and lasts for ten minutes. Unlike Bullitt, there are no muscle cars involved, as Scheider drives a Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe and the bad guys are in a Pontiac Grand Ville sedan. That doesn't mean there is any less suspense as the cars careen through crowded streets at high-octane speeds. In my opinion, it's the best car chase in movie history. Much of its impact can be attributed to the facial expressions of Scheider and Richard Lynch (as one of the villains). There's a great sequence showing a group of kids playing in the street who scream and scatter as the first car zips through them. They reconvene in the street only to go running for the sidewalks again as Scheider zooms past.

Richard Lynch and Bill Hickman.
Stunt driver extraordinaire Bill Hickman helped choreograph the car chase and also plays the unflappable baddie behind the wheel of the speeding sedan. Hickman also served as a stunt driver in Bullitt and The French Connection. Jerry Greenberg, who won an Oscar for editing The French Connection, likely had a hand in the editing though he's listed solely as an associate producer for The Seven-Ups.

In addition to his producer duties, Philip D'Antoni also directed The Seven-Ups--it was his only directing job. He obviously learned a lot from watching William Friedkin (French Connection) as he makes superb use of his New York locales. The snowy streets, whistling winds, and frosty breaths all contribute to the film's realism. It's a shame that D'Antoni didn't make more gritty action pictures. Instead, he moved to television where he co-created the 1974-76 TV series Movin' On, with Claude Akins and Frank Converse as truckers. He also produced a TV series pilot movie called Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside starring Tony Lo Bianco (again) and Hal Linden as big city cops.

Incidentally, if one of Scheider's Seven-Ups team members looks familiar, then you must have recognized the late Ken Kercheval. He would achieve his biggest success five years later as Cliff Barnes in the long-running Dallas TV series.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

James Stewart is The Man From Laramie

James Stewart as Lockhart.
Shortly after Will Lockhart delivers a load of supplies in the small town of Coronado, he runs afoul of Dave Waggoman. The son of a wealthy rancher, the psychotic Dave punishes Will for inadvertently trespassing on Waggoman land. Dave burns Will's wagons and kills several of his mules.

The elder Waggoman (Donald Crisp) reimburses Will (James Stewart) for his losses and even offers him a job. However, Will has no intention of working for anyone nor leaving town. He is driven by revenge, having arrived in Coronado to find out who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches that killed his younger brother. It's inevitable that Will will clash again with Waggoman, his out-of-control son, and the foreman (Arthur Kennedy) who runs their ranch.

Made in 1955, The Man From Laramie is the last of five Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. It's also the least memorable of the quintet, but keep in mind that three of the other four are among the best Westerns made in the 1950s (Winchester '73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country). The Man From Laramie pales in comparison only because it's a more conventional tale of revenge, as opposed to a treatise on the civilization of the Old West and the importance of family.

Arthur Kennedy as Vic.
Of course, there's nothing conventional about any Anthony Mann Western. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many critics view The Man From Laramie as a Western retelling of King Lear. To be sure, there are thematic similarities: Waggoman bequeaths his ranch to his son Dave and to his foreman Vic (Kennedy) and then has second thoughts about his decision. Although one could say it's inspired by Lear, The Man From Laramie is not really based on it. (For a better Shakespearean Western, check out Delmer Daves' Jubal).

Arthur Kennedy, who also teamed with Stewart and Mann in Bend of the River, portrays the most interesting character. Vic, the foreman, has invested his life in the ranch under the impression that he's a "son" to the elder Waggoman. However, when Waggoman makes it clear that Dave is his only true son, Vic starts to have other ideas. A couple of bad decisions place him into an uncomfortable position and we get to watch as he tries to squirm out of it. Kennedy is very convincing, almost to the point that one wishes that Vic will succeed with his plan.

Cathy O' Donnell.
The supporting cast is inconsistent. Alex Nichol makes Dave so unhinged that it's difficult to fathom why anyone--even a loving parent-- would leave him in charge of the Waggoman ranch. Cathy O'Donnell doesn't have a lot to do as the female lead, but she and Stewart are appealing together while never sharing a romantic scene (his character is more interested in her than she in him). Frankly, it's refreshing to not inject a love triangle in a Western already packed with subplots about revenge, family discord, and dynasty-building. O'Donnell didn't appear in a lot of movies, though she held her own in quality films like Detective Story and The Miniver Story.

The Man From Laramie may not be required viewing, but it's a worthwhile Western. It's also notable for one of the most violent scenes in a 1950s Western when Stewart gets his hand shot at close range. No details are shown, but Stewart's acting is so good that you'll cringe throughout the scene. Don't say I didn't warn you!

Here's a clip from The Man from Laramie, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Monday, August 5, 2019

Spy Game: Mr. Palfrey of Westminster

Alec McCowen as Mr. Palfrey.
His enemies call him a rattlesnake. His boss compares him to a terrier. And his assistant describes him as "prissy." They all agree, though, that Mr. Palfrey is an extraordinary spy hunter--though he claims that he is simply a civil servant.

Set in the 1980s, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is a first-rate, cerebral espionage drama that aired for two seasons on Thames Television in Great Britain and on PBS in the U.S. Star Alec McCowen first appeared as Palfrey in an episode of the anthology show Storyboard called "The Traitor."

In the opening episode of the Mr. Palfrey, our protagonist learns that his department has been reorganized and he has a new boss--known only as the Coordinator--who answers directly to the Prime Minister. The Coordinator is a woman, a fact which has no bearing to Palfrey, but which irks many of his sexist male colleagues.

Caroline Blakiston.
Under the reorganization, Palfrey has a new (smaller) office, a secretary (for three days a week), and a "legman" named Blair to perform tasks such as surveillance. Initially, the Coordinator directs Blair (Clive Wood) to spy on Palfrey and report back to her. That's a short-lived directive, though, as Blair develops loyalty to his new boss and the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston) learns why Palfrey has such a stellar reputation.

The plots revolve around defectors, suspected spies, blackmail, and cover-ups. Palfrey and the Coordinator frequently clash over how to handle their assignments. He isn't afraid to challenge her (always politely) and often chooses his own path to achieve the desired outcome.

For example, in the episode "Return to Sender," Palfrey is directed to convince a former defector to return to the Soviet Union. If the man is unwilling to leave, then Palfrey is to silence him permanently. It is an official act of murder that Palfrey and Blair are willing to do--grudgingly. Fortunately, the resourceful Palfrey employs another equally effective method to get the job done.

Clive Wood as Blair.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is how it develops its characters slowly, revealing snippets here and there about their background. We know that the gentlemanly Palfrey has a dog (a Golden Retriever named Jess), likes to fish, has few close friends, and respects women. He may occasionally enjoy the company of a certain female defector. Other than that, Palfrey seems focused solely on his job. Blair is even more an enigma, though one episode reveals a serious relationship in his past. Rough around the edges, Blair does have aspirations of career progression.

Alec McCowen, with his quick wit and intelligent eyes, is perfectly cast as Palfrey. A highly-respected stage actor, American audiences may remember him best as the Scotland Yard inspector in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, as Q in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, and opposite Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt.

Following the cancellation of Mr. Palfrey, Clive Wood played Blair again in a episode of Storyboard called "A Question of Commitment." It served as a TV series pilot, but a regular show was not commissioned. Blair--without Palfrey--didn't prove to be interesting enough.