Monday, September 30, 2019

The Five Best Agatha Christie Movies

For this list, we are omitting the numerous telefilms that appeared as part of TV series based on Agatha Christie's works (e.g., the shows starring David Suchet, Joan Hickson, and others).

Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton.
1. Witness for the Prosecution (1957) - Based on a short story and stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution is justly famous for its twist ending--which is flawlessly executed. However, its success can be attributed to those old basics of good acting and good script writing. Charles Laughton, who had a tendency to ham up some of his later roles, finds the perfect blend of seriousness and humor as the barrister defending accused murderer Tyrone Power. He is matched by Marlene Dietrich and his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester. The latter portrays Miss Plimsoll, a nurse charged with the unenviable task of caring for Laughton's Sir Wilfred. The duo make a delightful comic team, one savvy enough to generate laughs out of the contents of a thermos. Dietrich has a more difficult role, especially since her character is a conundrum for much of the film. However, when it comes to her big scenes, she exceeds all expectations.

Peter Ustinov as Poirot.
2. Evil Under the Sun (1982) - Playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) adapted Dame Agatha's 1941 mystery classic. He reduces the number of suspects by merging two into one and eliminates two minor characters altogether. However, he maintains the central plot and captures the spirit of the novel. I know some Christie purists are not fan's of Peter Ustinov's Hercule Poirot. Personally, I think his interpretation is second only to David Suchet's definitive portrayal in the TV series. The rest of the delightful cast delivers splendid performances, especially Maggie Smith, James Mason, Roddy McDowall, and Diana Rigg. Evil Under the Sea also gets a boost from its stunning locations in Spain and a score comprised of Cole Porter songs (even if the tunes become a bit repetitious).

Shirley Eaton as a murderer?
3. And Then There Were None (1941) and Ten Little Indians (1965) - It's hard for me to separate these adaptations of arguably Agatha Christie's most famous novel. Rene Clair's 1941 film retains the island setting and features a stellar cast of Hollywood veterans (e.g., Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson, C. Audrey Smith). However, I'm also a big fan of the 1965 version, which takes place in a isolated, snowbound villa. There are some weak links in the cast (e.g., Fabian, but he's murdered quickly). Wilfrid Hyde-White and Stanley Holloway provide a touch of class and Shirley Eaton keeps us guessing whether her icy blonde will be a victim or the murderer. Plus, it features the Murder Minute--whereby the stop pauses for 60 seconds to provide the audience with time to guess the killer's identity.

Bette Davis as suspect.
4. Death on the Nile (1978) - Peter Ustinov's first appearance as Hercule Poirot is smooth sailing--except for the murders that take place aboard the S.S. Karnak. It's a colorful, expensive production that won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. There's a touch of "Old Hollywood" in this, too, with the presence of veteran stars such as Bette Davis, David Niven, and Angela Lansbury (who would go on to play Miss Marple). Yes, Ustinov plays Poirot too broadly at times, making the sleuth more humorous than he should be. However, there's also a winking intelligence behind his performance that works well. Dame Agatha's mystery is first-rate and requires careful attention, especially at the beginning of the film.

Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple.
5. The Mirror Crack'd  (1980) - Angela Lansbury's sole outing as Miss Marple is a good one that finds the spinster detective up to her neck in suspects when a devoted fan of a film star is poisoned. Like the Ustinov films, this one boasts first-rate production values and an all-star cast that includes Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak as rival divas. Lansbury signed a three-picture deal to play Jane Marple, but when The Mirror Crack'd underperformed at the U.S. boxoffice, the film series was sadly nixed. Although I like Angela Lansbury as Agatha's Christie sleuth, my favorite portrayals are by Joan Hickson and later Julie McKenzie in British television series.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

One Fan's List of the Best Hitchcock Films

On September 5, 2009 at 4:56 p.m., I published my first post for the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Suffice to say, there was a lot I didn't know about blogging. But here I am, 968 posts and ten years later, and I must say that I've had a wonderful time writing and managing the Classic Film & TV Cafe. To commemorate  the last decade, I thought it'd be fun to update my first post about my picks for Alfred Hitchcock's ten best films. To my surprise, other than re-ranking two films, I made few changes. Please note that there are spoilers in my write-ups!

1. Vertigo - This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. What we see at the bell tower is initially false, but ultimately true. I could go on and on…but, hey, whole books have been devoted to this film. I think it’s Hitch’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Hermann, and a nifty Saul Bass title sequence.

2. Rear Window – My wife would rate this as No. 1, but she’s not writing this post! As with Vertigo, there are multiple layers to Rear Window. Taken alone, there’s nothing interesting about the mystery of the missing salesman’s wife. The movie is really about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Though she is rich, beautiful, and loves him (Stella describes her as “perfect”), Jeff refuses to commit to Lisa. He fears that doing so will cause him to sacrifice his exciting, globetrotting life as a magazine photographer. It is only when Lisa becomes his “legs” and joins in the investigation of the missing wife that Jeff realizes how bright and exciting she truly is. It’s part of the film’s offbeat humor, because, to the viewer, Grace Kelly's Lisa looks stunning and exciting from the moment she walks into Jeff’s apartment. To provide contrast to Jeff and Lisa’s evolving relationship, Hitchcock lets us spy—with Jeff—on his neighbors in the apartment complex. Their stories are effective mini-dramas that are funny, sad, and murderous: Miss Lonelyhearts (that’s what Jeff calls her) dresses up and sets a table nightly for an imaginary date; Miss Torso practices dancing routines in her underwear, but rejects all suitors when she throws a party (later we learn why); the composer struggles to finish his compositions at the piano in his studio apartment; and an older couple, with their little dog, sleep on the balcony because the nights are so warm. Technically, the film is one of Hitch’s finest achievements. Almost every shot is from the viewpoint of Jeff’s apartment, an amazing feat but also one that’s not distracting (unlike the ten-minute takes in Hitchcock’s Rope). Even the stagy sets work to the film’s advantage, for the apartment complex seems like its own artificial world.

3. Marnie – When I first saw Marnie as a teenager, it made no impression at all. I thought Tippi Hedren was miscast and Sean Connery dull. The plot--what there was of one--seemed thin and the characters lacked interest. Decades later, I watched it again and, to my complete surprise, I loved it! Tippi Hedren's subtle detached performance made Marnie a vulnerable, intriguing character. The progressively complex relationship between Marnie and Sean Connery’s character generated suspense--in its own quiet way--worthy of Hitch’s best man-on-the-run films. I was captivated by Hitch's finest use of color (especially during the opening scenes). And finally, there was Bernard Herrmann's incredible score (which, for me, ranks second only to Vertigo among his Hitchcock soundtracks). I've often wondered how I missed all of this the first time around?

4. The Birds – This one functions on two levels for me. It is, of course, a masterfully directed thriller about unexplained bird attacks in a small California seaside community (I love the playground and gas station sequences). But it’s also a well-acted 1960s relationship drama about three women and their interactions with the bland, but likable, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). Mitch’s mother (wonderfully played by Jessica Tandy) fears losing her son to another woman—not because of jealousy, but because she can’t stand the thought of being abandoned. Young socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) views Mitch as a stable love interest, something she needs as she strives to live a more meaningful life. And Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) is the spinster schoolteacher, willing to waste her life to be near Mitch after failing to pry him from his mother. These relationships are what the film is about—the birds are merely catalysts. That’s why the ending works for me; when the relationships are resolved, the bird attacks end.

5. Strangers on a Train – One of the cleverest (and most disturbing) premises of all Hitchcock films. The carousel climax is justly famous, but I favor the cigarette lighter in the drain. It’s a perfect example of how Hitch could generate suspense from a simple situation—with potentially disastrous consequences. I think Farley Granger and Robert Walker are pretty good in the leads, but not as strong as other Hitchcock stars.

6. Shadow of a Doubt – It took this one awhile to grow on me, but that makes sense in hindsight. Shadow of a Doubt is all about gradual realization. Charlie (Teresa Wright) slowly evolves from disbeliever (those accusations toward her beloved uncle could not be true!) to one who suspects the truth to believer to would-be victim. It’s a chilling tale, all the more so because it’s set against the backdrop of a friendly Thorton Wilder town.

7. North by Northwest – I think of this as something of a lark for all involved, but that’s partially why it’s so much fun. It’s my favorite of Hitch’s man-on-the-run films and James Mason, who plays the villain straight, is the perfect foil for Cary Grant. I only wish the Mount Rushmore scenes looked a little more realistic and Roger’s mother had more scenes.

8. Psycho – It’s hard to gauge the impact of Psycho now, but I can remember how shocked I was when I first saw it. I knew Janet Leigh was a major actress and so I was more than a little shocked to see what happened to her character of Marion Crane. (By the way, I was equally shocked when Arbogast was killed…filmed from that disorienting overhead camera angle). It’s really a fine film--more than a shocker--and also offers good performances, great Hermann music, and (once again) memorable Saul Bass titles. And I guess that shower scene turned out to be a little influential.

9. Rebecca - It’s too bad that David Selznick and Hitchcock didn’t get along better, because this collaboration is an excellent, atmospheric adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. I love how the cheeriness of the opening scenes between the future Mrs. De Winter and Maxim contrast with the later scenes at Manderley. The cast is pitch perfect with Judith Anderson and George Sanders standing out in supporting roles. Like many people, my favorite scene is when Mrs. Danvers suggests that maybe the second Mrs. De Winters should just end it all.

10. Young and Innocent and Stage Fright (tie) – I am now officially in trouble with fans of Notorious, The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Frenzy. Those are all fine films and I would list them in my top 20. But I must confess that I enjoy the two listed in my #10 spot more than those movies. The seldom-shown Young and Innocent is a fine early man-on-the-run film with sweet performances and its share of great scenes (e.g., carving meat at the dinner table, the great tracking shot leading to the killer’s twitching eye). As for Stage Fright, I’ll say upfront that the controversial flashback doesn’t bother me at all; I don’t understand the big fuss. Stage Fright makes this list on the basis of sheer fun and a delightful cast (Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Todd, Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, and Michael Wilding at his most charming). I saw it late among Hitch’s films and I never fail to be entertained when I watch it again.

Honorable Mentions: Those mentioned in No. 10 that will get me in trouble for omitting…plus To Catch a Thief, Secret Agent, Blackmail, the underappreciated I Confess, and Sabotage (with the controversial bomb scene).

Monday, September 23, 2019

Kapow! Batman: The Movie

The Caped Crusaders board a yacht.
Sarkoffagus, who wrote for the Classic Film & TV Cafe for its first five years, penned this special guest blogger review.

As the Cafe celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, someone else has reached a prominent anniversary in 2019. The DC Comics character, Batman, is now 80 years young. He’s been featured in numerous films, including the 1966 movie based on the TV series.

The Caped Crusaders try to rescue an inventor--and his invention--aboard a yacht. As they approach in the Batcopter, the yacht suddenly vanishes. Batman soon deduces that a sinister plot is unfolding, courtesy of not one villain, but four: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman. Unfortunately, their scheme of global proportions also entails targeting Batman and Robin, to ensure the crime-fighters won’t interfere. Catwoman poses as Russian journalist, Kitka, and seduces Bruce Wayne (to draw out Batman, as the villains are unaware of the irony); and Penguin attempts to infiltrate the Batcave. All the while, Batman and Robin must thwart the nefarious plan already underway.

Bruce Wayne has dinner with...Catwoman.
This feature film, released in the summer between the TV show’s first and second seasons, retains all the colorful campiness of its television source. While some of it may seem dated, the filmmakers were undoubtedly aiming to make an entertaining romp. In one scene, Batman sprints around a dock, looking for a safe place to dispose of a bomb with a burning fuse. It’s a lengthy bit played mostly for laughs, much like the ending, in which the resolution has a surprising hitch.

Robin and Batman in the Batmobile.
The classic Batmobile makes several appearances, of course, as do the Batcopter, the Batcycle, and the shockingly fast Batboat. It’s great fun to see all four villains on the big screen, though their diabolical plot is somewhat muddled; it isn’t easy to tell if it’s all been planned, or if they’re making some of it up as they go along. Still, watching their egos clash is an interesting turn.

Catwoman, the Joker, and the Penguin plot deviously.
Everyone reprises their respective TV roles with panache, save Julie Newmar, who was unavailable to play Catwoman in the movie. Lee Meriwether does an admirable job portraying the feline villain, even if she’s not quite as charming as Newmar or as playful as Eartha Kitt, who took the Catwoman reins in Season 3.

The film makes sure to hit a few of the TV series’ trademarks: ballooned onomatopoeia in fights; the occasional moral lesson (drinking is bad); Batman’s preference for milk (this time, in a brandy snifter at a fancy restaurant); and Batman and Robin’s unhurried rope ascent.

I have enjoyed numerous portrayals of Batman throughout the years, but Adam West remains my favorite. The 1960s Batmobile is likewise my favorite version. One of my dearest memories is my brother and I, many years ago, repeatedly attempting the TV theme song. It was a horrid and cacophonous endeavor that no one in proximity appreciated, especially the hive full of bees that retaliated by stinging us without remorse.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire are Baffled!

Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire.
Plagued with psychic visions, race car driver Tom Kovack ignores them until he sees himself plunge off a cliff into the ocean--and wakes up drenched in salt water. Accompanied by psychic authority Michelle Brent, Tom travels to Cornwall to learn why he senses evil at a country manor-turned-hotel.

The guests at the coastal hotel include a famous actress and her daughter, with the latter undergoing a sudden personality change. On a dark evening, Tom follows the young woman down a treacherous path along the cliffs. A loose railing sends Tom (are you ready?) plunging into the icy waters just like in his vision. When a mysterious van almost runs Tom and Michelle off the road, the duo get serious about uncovering the source of evil.

Hampshire as Michelle.
Made in 1972, Baffled! is a 90-minute made-for-TV movie that doubled as a pilot for TV series that never materialized. Leonard Nimoy stars as Tom Kovack, having departed from Mission: Impossible after a two-year stint. British actress Susan Hampshire plays Michelle Brent in what was a change-of-pace from her other television work. She had already won Emmys for her performances in the classy British dramas The Forsyte Saga and The First Churchills. She would win a third Emmy in 1973 for Vanity Fair.

Neither Nimoy nor Hampshire take their parts too seriously. While their playful banter is amusing enough, it seems out of place with the rest of Baffled. One senses that the intent was to make a mystery with supernatural undercurrents similar to Gene Roddenberry's first-rate TV movie Spectre (1977). I suspect it was this incongruent tone--plus low ratings--that doomed the chances for a Baffled! TV series (well, to be honest, I also think the title leaves a lot to be desired).

Rachel Roberts as a villain?
For a telefilm, Baffled! boasts an impressive supporting cast. The standout performance belongs to Rachel Roberts, a one-time Oscar nominee for This Sporting Life (1963). As the hotel's owner, she channels Mrs. Danvers but adds an intriguing touch of middle-aged sexuality. Her fellow actresses don't fare as well in underwritten parts, with Vera Miles being wasted as the former movie star and Angharad Rees (Demelza in the original Poldark) relegated to a bit part.

Despite its shortcomings, Baffled! offers enough to keep one's interest for an hour-and-a-half. The rocky coastal setting adds to its atmosphere. There's a nice twist at the climax (though it's not too hard to figure out). And Susan Hampshire is always a pleasure to watch, even when she just has to be her charming self.

Here's a scene from Baffled!, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel:

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Seven Things to Know About James Franciscus

1. James Franciscus met Jane Fonda in 1956 when they were working at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. In the biography Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman, she said: "He was blond, blue-eyed, and movie star handsome...I was smitten. My previous inarticulate philanderings had not prepared me for true romance."

2. In a 1964 interview that appeared in Motion Picture Magazine, he explained the origin of his nickname: "Goey has been my nickname since I was a kid. My middle name is Grover, but when I arrived on the scene, my brother couldn't pronounce it--it came out sounding like Goey. So, I've been Goey to my family and friends ever since."

3. James Franciscus graduated magna cum laude from Yale University in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theatre Arts. One of his classmates was Dick Cavett. He was offered two movie contracts his senior year, but turned them down. He was also the first choice to play Dr. Kildare, but that didn't work out and the role went to Richard Chamberlain.

A young detective in Naked City.
4. Soon after his graduation, he starred as Detective Jimmy Halloran opposite John McIntire in the half-hour version of The Naked City. When the show was cancelled after one season, Franciscus headed to Hollywood where he would become a familiar face in movies and on television.

5. Of his five television series, the two most successful ones were Mr. Novak (1963-65) and Longstreet (1971-72). The former cast him as a new idealistic English teacher at a Los Angeles high school. Although the series was cancelled after just two seasons, it earned numerous accolades--including a prestigious Peabody Award in 1963. According to the Peabody Awards website, the award was given "for restoring dignity and honor to the popular image of the American schoolteacher, for reminding our young people that there is no grander pursuit than the pursuit of knowledge, and for daring to insist—without preachment or piety—that the uneducated man is an incomplete man."

With Pax on Longstreet.
6. On Longstreet, Franciscus was cast as an insurance investigator that lost his wife and sight during an explosion intended to kill him. Determined to become self-sufficient, Longstreet convinces a young Asian man (Bruce Lee) to teach him martial arts. Lee only appeared in four episodes, but they were memorable--as was Longstreet's seeing-eye dog Pax, a white German Shepherd. In between TV series, James Franciscus also had starring roles in diverse motion pictures such as Youngblood Hawke, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Valley of Gwangi, and Cat O' Nine Tails.

7. James Franciscus married Kathleen "Kitty" Wellman, the daughter of director William A. Wellman, in 1960. They had four children, but divorced in 1979. The following year, he married Carla Ankney. They were married when he died in 1991, at age 57, from emphysema.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Happy Anniversary, Café – I Left My Heart Again…

On September 13, 2009, I published my first post as a contributor to Rick Armstrong’s newly inaugurated classic film blog, The Classic Film & TV Café!  That first piece of mine was titled, “I Left My Heart…Five San Francisco Favorites,” and in it I proceeded to list and discuss five of my favorite films set in my favorite American city, a town just south of where I live now and where I once lived for many years. As part of my congratulatory return to the Café in tribute to its impressive tenth year, I thought it might be fun, for old times’ sake, to revisit the subject of that first blog post. So, here I offer, exactly ten years later, five more San Francisco-set favorite films.

Cleverly titled After the Thin Man (1936) this second - after The Thin Man (1934) - in the six-film series is the one I like best of all. It begins with stylish, martini-sipping, wisecrack-swapping Nick and Nora Charles returning home by train to San Francisco from the New York sojourn where the first film took place. The pair arrives at their mansion-with-an-amazing-view  (which looks like it’s either on Telegraph Hill or in Pacific Heights, both ultra-toney ) to find a “welcome home” party that’s already far past full swing. And poor Asta, their irrepressible fox terrier, comes upon an even more startling scene when he discovers that “Mrs. Asta” has, in his absence, been consorting with the Scotty next door. Pretty soon, once the party winds down and the Scotty is driven out, there’s trouble brewing, and murder, involving lots of shenanigans and tomfoolery until Nick reveals the killer in the final minutes of the third act. The plots don’t matter that much in Thin Man movies, they follow a pretty standard whodunit pattern. The attraction is in the characters – Nick, Nora and Asta – and the sophisticated, witty-banter-filled world they inhabit. It doesn’t hurt at all that Powell and Loy and Skippy (as Asta) are loaded with charm and chemistry and are, thus, entirely irresistible. Always interesting in the Thin Man films is the Runyonesque cast of characters Nick and Nora encounter on each case. Among the supporting folk in After the Thin Man is a very young James Stewart with a central role in this murder mystery. It’s interesting to watch him before he became a star and fully developed his onscreen persona.

The final scene, as Nick, Nora and Asta depart San Francisco by train, is quite cute but the change it portends will ultimately have the effect of taking some zing out of the series.

"...and you call yourself a detective..."


Out of the Past (1947), Jacques Tourneur’s quintessential noir, is only partially set in San Francisco. Truthfully, among the film’s key locations – the others are rural Bridgeport, California, Acapulco, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe – it’s not the most alluringly depicted of the lot. But San Francisco has gotten so much limelight in so many other movies that I won't quibble.

It makes sense, considering Out of the Past’s convoluted plot, that a convoluted series of locations is part of the story. The opening is set in rural Bridgeport, California, a small town in the Sierras, where Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is leading the low-key life of a gas station owner/operator. Jeff’s tranquil idyll will be interrupted when an old acquaintance happens to catch a glimpse of him and then come looking for him. Jeff has a past. And into the past Out of the Past will go, in flashback, with voiceover narration. Back to New York, where Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) hired Jeff, then a private eye, to find the woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot him and took him for $40,000 (close to $500,000 in 2019 dollars). Jeff will track her to Mexico and once there he will find her…and fall for her and not care when she tells him she didn’t take Whit’s money. Jeff will lie to Whit and say he couldn’t find her, then he and Kathie will steal away to San Francisco, hoping to escape the past together. This, of course, doesn't happen in film noir. So, when Kathie nastily double-crosses Jeff and leaves him holding the bag with a potential murder rap, he heads for the hills. Literally. And in Bridgeport he will open his gas station and meet Ann, a nice girl, and once more try to leave the past behind. But that will never be possible, and he will trek to Lake Tahoe to face Whit. And he will go to San Francisco once more, this time at Whit’s behest. And, finally, in the Sierra Nevada, he will meet his fate.

Some San Francisco locales depicted in Out of the Past were filmed on a backlot...

the fictional "Mason building" in San Francisco

But there are also some nice location scenes, too.

on Broadway in San Francisco

Even more evocative - to the point of transporting - are the Lake Tahoe and Mexico settings, some of it studio work and some of it shot on location. Credit for this goes to Tourneur, the art director and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (1948 Oscar nomination for I Remember Mama). 

Kathie's bungalow in Mexico

Whit's estate in Lake Tahoe

Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey
Pal Joey (1957) began as a 1940 Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hart. The story, by John O’Hara, followed the exploits of a conniving Chicago nightclub performer, primarily a dancer, who gets involved with a wealthy married woman. Gene Kelly starred, and it was the part and the show that would launch him to stardom and send him to Hollywood. When Pal Joey was adapted to the screen 17 years later, Joey would now be a so-so lounge singer newly arrived in San Francisco. With Frank Sinatra in the leading role, adjusting the character’s forte was not only logical, but necessary. The 1950s Joey would be nicer and more likable than the 1940s Joey, and the wealthy woman (Rita Hayworth) would now be an ex of his, formerly a stripper known as “Vanessa the Undresser” who’d married money and is now a rich widow. Kim Novak was third on the bill as the naïve chorus girl Joey falls for. San Francisco would play a  supporting role, providing locales like the ferry building, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Jackson Square, the Marina and Pacific Heights as a dreamy backdrop for all the drama and romance. It doesn’t stop there, though. Nelson Riddle would also be on hand taking care of musical arrangements, notably Sinatra’s renditions of “The Lady is a Tramp,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “There’s a Small Hotel” and the medley, "What Do I Care for a Dame"/"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered"/"I Could Write a Book." These performances alone would be worth the price of admission. The music, the racy elements (for the time) of the story, the glamour of Rita and Kim, and the tarnished charm of Ol’ Blue Eyes as Joey combined to make Pal Joey a very big hit that would go on to earn four Oscar nominations.

The Spreckels mansion served as the site for Chez Joey, Joey's club

Bullitt (1968) provied Steve McQueen, already an A-lister when he filmed it, with his defining screen role. As maverick San Francisco police detective Frank Bullitt, McQueen is  the epitome of late '60s cool. The film was a monster hit and would turn out to be a precursor to the Dirty Harry franchise. In fact, McQueen was offered the Dirty Harry role (along with other renegade cop roles, like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection), but turned it (and them) down to avoid typecasting.

As James Stewart did in Vertigo, McQueen makes his way up, down and around the many streets of San Francisco in Bullitt, though in a hotter car at a higher speed. Location footage includes scenes in neighborhoods as diverse as Nob Hill,  Pacific Heights, the Embarcadero, North Beach, Potrero Hill, The Mission, South of Market (aka/SOMA) and downtown. McQueen, who produced, would choose Brit Peter Yates to direct because of his experience shooting on location for Tony Richardson and because of a film he’d made in 1967, Robbery, that featured an exciting car chase. Of course, the most famous sequence in Bullitt, it’s centerpiece, is a 10-minute car chase that winds through all parts of the city and climaxes in a takedown race over Mount San Bruno that ends in a deadly crash in Brisbane, a small town south of the city. That particular route was part of my daily commute for many years and every so often I’d think of that sequence when I reached the crest of the mountain and started down the other side. But I was never inspired enough to accelerate. Bullitt is another film in which the plot is incidental – a sort of MacGuffin. The real “story” is Steve McQueen’s character, Bullitt, and that tale is enhanced by the iconic chase scene – the “granddaddy of them all" – and the breathtaking city of San Francisco. For my full review of Bullitt on its 50th anniversary last year, click here.


What’s Up, Doc?  (1972) was the second of the three films that made Peter Bogdanovich’s reputation as one of the top New Hollywood directors of the early 1970s (along with Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and others). Before it had come his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show (1971), and following would be Paper Moon (1973). Bogdanovich’s standing - and career - as a director would suffer a dizzying plunge in the mid-'70s, but this was before that, and What’s Up, Doc? is an effervescent delight of a tribute to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal share a fine chemistry and are supported by a dazzling ensemble cast including Madeline Kahn (in her film debut), Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, Michael Murphy, Mabel Albertson and more.

Four identical bags...
What’s Up, Doc? has been referred to by some as a re-make of Bringing Up Baby (1938). It’s not. It’s not even a “loose re-make,” but it is a superbly crafted homage. The plot follows the confusion that is unleashed when four identical plaid suitcases arrive at the same San Francisco hotel at the same time. One bag belongs to musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal, wearing a pair of glasses a la Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby), and contains a set of important “musical rocks.” Another bag belongs to Judy Maxwell (Barbra Streisand), a wacky perennial college student who leaves chaos and trouble in her wake wherever she roams. Her bag is packed with her clothes and a dictionary. A third bag belongs to “Mr. Smith” (Michael Murphy) and contains confidential government documents. The fourth bag belongs to wealthy Mrs. Van Hoskins (Mabel Albertson) and holds her vast collection of expensive jewelry. As you might expect, an incredible mix-up occurs and madcap escapades ensue.

One of the highlights of What’s Up, Doc? is a riotous car chase through the city involving, first, a delivery bicycle and then a decorative VW Beetle. The sequence is a wild parody of the legendary Bullitt chase and ends with a splash in the San Francisco Bay. Written by Buck Henry (The Graduate), David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde) and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, who won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart) and based on a story by Bogdanovich, the film also features a soundtrack filled with songs, sung or just heard in the background, by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and others of that golden age of popular music. This is one film that deserves a whole lot more love and attention than it gets.


Curious about my original five picks of 10 years ago? Click here. And if you have favorite San Francisco-set movies, tell me about it.


Congratulations, Rick, and thank you for everything!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Notorious Landlady Wastes a Sterling Cast

Kim Novak as the title character.
With such a prestigious pedigree, I expected more from The Notorious Landlady (1962). Here's a British comedy headlined by Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, and Fred Astaire with a screenplay penned by the writers who were responsible for The Pink Panther movies (Blake Edwards) and the M*A*S*H TV series (Larry Gelbert). We're talking about some talented people! But, making movies is a joint endeavor in which all the pieces need to be carefully shaped to fit together--and that doesn't happen in The Notorious Landlady.

Lemmon plays Bill Gridley, a U.S. diplomat recently assigned to London and in need of an apartment close to the embassy. He thinks he has found the ideal location, but the flat's housekeeper (Kim Novak) works very hard to dissuade him from taking it. She turns out to be the owner, who was posing as a housekeeper solely to screen potential renters.

Jack Lemmon looks worrried.
Gridley insists on moving in partially because of the proximity to the embassy, but mostly because he is smitten with his new landlady. It's not until later that he learns she is suspected of murdering her husband--whose body has never been found. Believing her incapable of such a crime, Bill sets out to prove her innocence.

It's shaky plot for a movie that runs a full two hours. However, the film's biggest problem is it doesn't know whether it is a sophisticated comedy, a light mystery, or a farce. At times, it could fit into any of those categories. The climax, which involves Lemmon chasing an wheelchair-bound woman shoved down a rocky path, is a manic, farcical scene (obviously written by Edwards). It doesn't belong in the same movie with sweet, flirtatious scenes between Lemmon and Novak.

Fred looks concerned!
The actors try their best, though we've seen Lemmon and Novak in these kinds of roles before. Fred Astaire comes off best as Lemmon's boss, who is deeply troubled about his employee's involvement with a potential murderess--until he meets her and also succumbs to her charms.

Sadly, Astaire wouldn't appear in another movie for six years until he was convinced to appear in Finian's Rainbow (although he appeared several times on television in the mid-1960s). Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak remained in demand, though Lemmon had a much longer silver screen career ahead of him. Larry Gelbert and Blake Edwards survived The Notorious Landlady to experience their biggest career successes.

The Notorious Landlady isn't a dreadful film, but neither is it a good one. And it should have been a great movie with all the talent that was involved!

Here's a clip, courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube channel, in which Jack and Kim flirt over dinner. The stranger who wants to talk with Kim in the fog is played by Henry Daniell, who played some great villains earlier in his career.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Our 10th Anniversary Giveaway!

It's been a decade since we launched the Classic Film & TV Cafe back in October 2009! To commemorate our tenth anniversary and thank our readers, we're hosting a giveaway. The grand prize will be a $25.00 Amazon (U.S.) gift card with two runner-ups each receiving a $10.00 Amazon (U.S.) gift card.

You can enter for a chance to win by sending an e-mail with your full name to: Please enter only once per household. Duplicate entries from the same e-mail address will not be accepted. Only e-mail entries will be accepted; you cannot enter by leaving a comment below.

The deadline for entering is 5:00 P.M. EDT on Friday, 27 September 2019.

The winning entries will be determined by a random drawing. If you win, you will be contacted by e-mail and asked to provide a mailing address. We will mail out the prizes via the U.S. Postal Service and are not responsible for lost, stolen, or misdirected mail. The prize cannot be replaced if it is not received by the winner.

If you're a regular visitor to the Classic Film & TV blog, we thank you for sharing your love of classic movies and television with us! If you're checking out our blog for the first time, please view the one-minute video below that explains what we're all about.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

An Interview with Barbara Bain

Barbara Bain was born in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she studied sociology and philosophy. After graduating in 1952, she moved to New York to study dance with acclaimed dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. She became interested in acting, studied with Lee Strasberg, and was cast in stage roles, including a touring company of Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. That led to guest star roles in TV shows such as Adventures in Paradise, Perry Mason, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. In 1966, producer Bruce Geller cast Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter in the hit TV series Mission: Impossible. She won three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. She left Mission: Impossible after three seasons and appeared in acclaimed made-for-TV films such as Goodnight, My Love (1972) and A Summer Without Boys (1973). From 1975-77, Barbara Bain starred in the science fiction TV series Space: 1999. She has continued to act in films and television and on the stage for the last four decades. She won Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and DramaLogue Awards for her work in Arthur Kopit's Wings, Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, and Eugène Ionesco's The Chairs.

Café:  I have read where Bruce Geller created the role of Cinnamon Carter on Mission: Impossible for you. How did that come about? And were you and then-husband Martin Landau cast at the same time?

Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.
Barbara Bain:  Martin was teaching an acting class. We were all there trying to become better actors. We were young back then--and awfully cute (laughs). Bruce Geller was a writer who had been brought out from New York. Martin wanted writers to see the actor's process. Bruce was quite captivated with watching us, so he wrote the part of Rollin Hand--the man of a thousand roles--for Martin. When he got to the part of "the girl," as Cinnamon was then known, he wrote it for me--although he wasn't clear about that in the beginning. He had to deal with the network and various folks because I was an unknown actress. Even though I had done a number of guest-starring roles, they kept saying: "Who is she? Who is this girl?" Bruce didn't tell me about any of that. So, I had to keep going in for auditions until the last person who needed to see me was Lucille Ball (who ran Desilu Productions), which, of course, was terrifying at the time. I walked in and she took one look at me. "Looks okay to me," she said in her very deep voice. And there I was on the show. So, Martin and I weren't cast exactly at the same time. He was cast first and then me. It was a very exciting, extraordinary time. I was fortunate to work with Bruce Geller. He told the writers: "Write anything. She can do it." That was handing me something golden on a plate, a dream for any actress.

Café:  You mentioned Bruce Geller was in your acting class. Did he aspire to be an actor at one time?

Barbara Bain:  Never, never. Bruce Geller could hardly say three words in a row. He was the most taciturn human being I have ever known. He was in the class solely as a writer. There were a number of writers in the class. At the time, Martin and others had this idea to try to get the writers to understand and develop a relationship with the actor's process. The same thing for directors. Directors are looking for results and actors are going through a process to get those results. The writer, director, and actor have to all try to understand each other in some way to create something. That was the intent. Chinatown writer Robert Towne--Bobby Towne, we called him at the time--was in that class. Nicholson was, too. It was quite a wonderful time for all of us. We would talk through the night after class. We were just so full of ourselves at the time, if you know know what I mean (laughs).

Cinnamon disguised as
a blind princess.
Café:  In her book Tough Choices: A Memoir, Carly Fiorina noted that Cinnamon “neither hid her intellect nor her beauty…she was a full partner to the men on the team.” Were you aware of your character’s impact on young women when you were playing the role?

Barbara Bain:  There wasn't a woman in that regard on television at the time. Young women were writing to me and saying: "I never thought of becoming a so-and-so, but because of watching you on Mission: Impossible, I'm going to get my degree." As the years have gone on, I have gotten a lot of comments like that. For example, I just received a letter from a woman who has retired from NASA and said that she was inspired to pursue her dream because of watching me on Mission: Impossible. I'm just extraordinarily moved by all of this. You're not sure of the impact you have while you're doing it. I'm forever being stopped in markets and told these stories, which is just great.

Café:  What was your favorite episode of Mission: Impossible and why?

The "racy little costume."
Barbara Bain:  You can't have a favorite. They're all like my kids. Certainly, I'm rather fond of the three episodes I won an Emmy for. One of them was called "Illusion." In another, I played a blind Russian tsarina ("The Heir Apparent"). And then there was one that I was captured in. I don't know the name of that one. I think those were the three, but it's been a long time. In "Illusion," which was kind of a take-off on Cabaret, I played a Marlene Dietrich-like character. I sang three songs and did a little dance in a supposedly East German nightclub wearing--for the time--a racy little costume. It had to be approved by CBS. Those were different times. (Click here to watch one of Cinnamon's nightclub numbers on our YouTube Channel.)

Café:  I also liked "The Seal," in which a cat was used to steal a jade seal from the bad guys.

Barbara Bain:  That was brilliant. This person had a trained cat that would do what he wanted him to.

Café:  Why did you and Martin Landau leave Mission: Impossible at the end of three highly-successful seasons?

Barbara Bain:  It's a sad and very difficult thing to explain. It had nothing to do with us leaving together. Some new people took over the show and they wanted to cut down the shooting schedule. They were very eager to have Bruce Geller leave, who was the heart and soul of the show. Martin had a year-to-year contract. The studio didn't like that and wanted to sign him to a longer contract. He did not want to sign one once he knew Bruce was leaving. He wanted to stay for a year and see who was taking over the show. He had that option. I had no option. I had a contract to fulfill. There was extraordinary confusion and misunderstanding on the part of "them"--a long list of names. So, I was caught up in this mess that had to do with Martin's contract. So they put out a lot of publicity that the two of us were standing at the studio gates and holding out for more money. It was never a money question. It was a contract question with Martin. I got caught in it...and it was totally awful. But the true story was only told once, about a year later in a TV Guide article. That's about as much as I want to talk about it. I did want to clarify that it never had to do with money.

Café:  Although the last four years of Mission: Impossible still featured some good episodes, the series was never the same after you and Martin Landau departed.

Barbara Bain:  They removed Bruce Geller from it. Bruce was the center of it. He was the one that understood every single moment of it. He was the one who wrote most of the scripts for the first year. You can't remove that person and expect it to remain the same. And, of course, the two of us departed and it was a different show.

Café:  Before we move on to another topic, I want to ask about the replacement of Steven Hill with Peter Graves as the IMF leader after the first season.

The IMF Team in the second
and third seasons.
Barbara Bain:  Steven had his difficulties that first year. Bruce did want him. He knew the various limitations Steven had in terms of shooting time and he was good with all that. We were all careful not to upset Steven or cause any incidents. It wasn't an easy first year, but we got through it. Of course, Peter was a grown-up; he wasn't like a silly kid. He was a very reliable, wonderful person and we didn't have to be skittish about offending him.

Café:  It always seemed like such a tight team.

Barbara Bain:  It was. And we kept it tight even in that first year, though it was more difficult to do so.

Café:  How would you describe your experience starring as Dr. Helena Russell with Martin Landau in the British science fiction series Space: 1999?

As Dr. Russell in Space: 1999.
Barbara Bain:  It was wonderful. It was very different obviously. The offer that came to us was very posh. One of the things that attracted me were the work hours. To do another U.S. television series, I would have missed a lot of time with my kids. In England, we were told that we would be finished at 5:20 every night--an odd number, but that was the number. That meant I could have dinner with my kids. I'm not so sure my kids were dying to see me at the time (laughs), but I did not want to miss those years. That was one of the considerations. Also, the idea for Space: 1999 was very exciting. The producers came here for some meetings and they really wanted us, which was nice. There was the adventure of going to England. We packed up and took the kids, of course, though the Brits thought that was unusual. Everything about it had appeal. We were there for almost four years; it was intriguing, wonderful, and exciting in so many ways. That group of people from Space: 1999 are still passionately connected to the show. In fact, I will attending a convention in Pennsylvania this month to celebrate Space: 1999. It has been exciting to remain connected to that show.

Café:  Your 1972 made-for-TV movie Goodnight, My Love, co-starring Richard Boone, has become something of a cult film. What was it like playing a femme fatale in a throwback 1940s film noir?

A publicity still with Richard Boone
and Michael Dunn.
Barbara Bain:  I'm just tickled. I didn't know that Goodbye, My Love had become any kind of cult film. I just loved doing that movie with Richard Boone and Michael Dunn. It was interesting to play this woman about whom we find out all kinds of things by the end. She's all "poor me" in the beginning and not so "poor me" by the end of it. I received extraordinary compliments about my performance. I spent some time with (director) Peter Hyams in the last year or two and we recalled making the film. Lee Strasberg (the famous acting teacher) said I was just wonderful. I can't even say it. I can't quote somebody else talking about me without being a little embarrassed. But after all these years, it was very nice to hear that from one's master teacher.

Café:  I recall it being a very good film. It's hard to see these days, as I don't believe it's been released on DVD. There's currently a print on YouTube, although the quality isn't great.

Barbara Bain:  It's nice to know that the things you did a long time ago still resonate. It feels good.

Café:  You have been actively involved in children’s literacy for many years. How did the non-profit Storyline Online ( come about and what is its mission?

Reading The Kissing Hand for
Storyline Online.
Barbara Bain:  It's something that happened out of playing a board game with my younger daughter Juliet. It was called "Personal Preference" and you were given a card with three topics. Another player challenged you and you had to pick your most favorite thing. One of my cards had to do with reading to children and I hadn't picked it. And Juliet said: "Wait a minute. You always love to read to kids." I said: "Well, I do, but you all grew up in two minutes so I didn't get to read to anybody." She wanted her game point; that's what it was all about. But the next day, I got to thinking about it. I thought, wait a minute, why don't I go somewhere and read to kids? I considered a library, but then decided that kids in a library probably have someone reading to them. So, I went to a park, a sort of summer day camp for kids. And I asked the person in charge if I could read to the kids. We sat on the grass and I read stories to all different ages. That was where it started. Then, I went to Tom Bradley, our mayor (in Los Angeles) and to the Screen Actors Guild. I said: "Here is this enormous population of actors that can read...we have to read to get roles. It's a large population that likes an audience. And we have an awful lot of time on our hands." So, it was a a perfect fit for the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, which at the time was looking for some kind of project that had to do with the city and some kind of giving back. Within three or four weeks, it all happened. It was very fast for a specific project. That was the beginning of it almost twenty years ago.The actors went to the schools and to the kids' rooms and read. I went to a neighborhood called Watts and read for one day a week to kindergarten and first-grade students for 15 years. Ultimately, it morphed into an online program known as Storyline Online. It's enormously successful and involves actors from all over the globe. You pick a story and an actor reads it. It's a wonderful way to get kids interested in literature. I am a reader. I have been a reader my entire life. I love reading. It was just something I cared about tremendously. I find it exceedingly rewarding. Every time I would leave that kindergarten or first grade class, I was all excited and happy as well as the kids. There is something about that connection.

Café: It's a wonderful way to promote children reading.

Barbara Bain: It was so important to me. I remember getting my first library card and it had my name on it. It made me a very important person.

Café: You have been involved in the Los Angeles theater scene for many years—as an actress, director, and mentor to drama students. Which do you find more fulfilling:  your stage work or your work in film and television?

Barbara Bain:  You know, I love it all. I love the process. All these years later, I'm enamored with this ephemeral thing where you're trying to grab air all the time. In so doing, you're coming together with all these people and trying to make something. It's my second love affair. My first love affair was dance. I'm still dancing and taking classes. There are still things about dance class that I just love.

Café: Didn't you go to New York to study with choreographer Martha Graham?

Barbara Bain:  Yes. My first love was dance. And then, I segued into acting, which became my life, which was wonderful. I don't have a complaint in the universe. I've just had an extraordinary time and I'm still doing what I want to do.

Café: What can you tell us about your forthcoming appearance in Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, co-starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones?

Barbara Bain:  You know as much about it as I'm allowed to speak about it. I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say anything until they start releasing press about it. Before I spoke with you, I asked if I could talk about it. And they said: "No. Not yet." So, my lips are sealed. But yes, it was great fun. Sofia Coppola is just a darling person. It was a wonderful experience.

Café: Are there other upcoming projects you’d like to share with our readers?

Barbara Bain:  I have a short film we did last summer, which is in a festival this weekend. It called Take My Hand, and will probably start hitting the festival circuit. I find short films very interesting to work on because they're mostly made by young people trying to get a feature film made. So, you can get a sense of what's on their mind, what they've written, and what kinds of things they're cooking up. Take My Hand stars Sondra Currie and Eileen Grubba and is directed by Alan J. Levi, who probably directed 500 television shows. He's a very knowledgeable director. We all know each other by working in The Actors Studio. It was something that Eileen started writing there for the two of us. It's great.

Café:  We look forward to seeing it. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us and for sharing your love of acting and your passion for children's literacy.

Editor notes:

1.  The Mission: Impossible episode in which Cinnamon was captured may have been "The Exchange" from the third season.

2.  Breakaway: 2019, a Space: 1999 convention, will take place September 12-15, 2019, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Click here for details.

3.  Reference the Mission: Impossible shooting schedule during the first season, Steven Hill left the set early on Friday afternoons and did not work on Saturday because he was an Orthodox Jew.