Thursday, October 31, 2019

Kung Fu and Vampires! It's the Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires!

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
I watched The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) for the fifth or sixth time recently. During this latest viewing, I studied it carefully. When it was over, I reviewed my notes, analyzed the plot and themes, and researched the production history. And still, my friends, I have no clue as to why this wacky hybrid of vampires and martial arts is so entertaining!

For those who have never seen it, here's a plot summary. In Transylvania in 1804, an evil Asian monk named Kah journeys to the tomb of Count Dracula. His goal is to ask Dracula to help him revive the seven Golden Vampires in his homeland. Now, it should come as no surprise that the Count doesn't grant his wish. Instead of kindly lending a hand, Dracula assumes Kah's appearance and heads to Asia to revive the Golden Vampires for his own bloodsucking purposes.

One of the Golden Vampires.
A century later, we find Professor Van Helsing (apparently a descendant of the original Van Helsing) giving a guest lecture on vampires at Chungking University. His audience is unimpressed--except for a young man named Hsi Ching who visits Van Helsing that night. Hsi Ching explains that his ancestral village has become a feeding ground for the seven Golden Vampires. He wants Van Helsing to help him--along with his six brothers and his sister--to destroy the bloodsuckers.

The professor is intrigued, but lacks the financial resources for the long journey. That's when a wealthy, attractive widow offers to finance the expedition on the condition that she gets to experience a little excitement, too.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has an 89-minute running time, but it seems even shorter. Veteran director Roy Ward Baker enlivens the plot with four major action sequences, each one longer and better staged than the one preceding it. We are treated to an attack on the town by the vampires, an ambush on Van Helsing's expedition by criminals, and a surprise vampire assault in a cave. Those scenes are just the appetizers that set up the big battle at the climax.

The golden bat medallion--I want one!
As with any respectable 1970s kung fu flick, there are plenty of bone-crunching punches and high-flying kicks. The Golden Vampires do a respectable job of defending themselves...considering they look like decomposing corpses with fangs and move pretty slowly. Their supporting army of the undead are dispatched quickly with a punch to their rotting chests. A flashback story suggests that a Golden Vampire can be destroyed by removing the golden bat medallions from around their necks. Oddly, none of our heroes ever attempt to do that!

David Chiang as Hsi Ching.
There are other muddled plot points, too. Hsi Ching's village appears to be pretty small. So, over the span of a century, wouldn't the Golden Vampires have drained it dry--especially since they routinely nab most of the young women from the village? And why do Van Helsing and the brothers choose to fight the vampires at night? It seems more logical to look for their headquarters during the day and destroy them before dusk. Of course, then we wouldn't have any kung fu fights, would we?

To his credit and the film's benefit, Peter Cushing delivers a serious, persuasive performance as Van Helsing. It grounds The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires and keeps it from devolving into camp. David Chiang is respectable as Hsi Ching, which is impressive considering he's acting in a second language. I quite like that the rich widow (Julie Ege) becomes attracted to Hsi Ching while Van Helsing's son falls for the latter's sister (Szu Shih).

John Forbes-Robertson.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was the last of Hammer's nine Dracula movies that began with 1958's Horror of Dracula. It is the only Hammer film to feature an actor other than Christopher Lee as Count Dracula. His replacement, John Forbes-Robertson, only has a couple of scenes at the beginning and end. His voice was dubbed and his make-up makes Dracula look like he's been embalmed.

A co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was shot in Hong Kong. Both studios surely hoped the combination of kung fu  and vampires would generate big international profits. However, that didn't happen and Hammer was unable to even secure a U.S. distributor when it was released. It finally reached American screens, albeit in re-edited form, in 1979. Seventeen minutes were trimmed and the title was changed to The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula. Avoid this version!

Instead, grab your golden bat medallion (if you have one), settle into your easy chair, and throw logic out the window. And remember what a film critic for Melody Maker magazine wrote after skewering 7 Vampires for several paragraphs: "Don't let me indicate that I'm trying to put you off seeing this film, because I'm going to see it again tomorrow!"

Monday, October 28, 2019

Hayley Mills in The Truth About Spring

Hayley as Spring Tyler.
When naming the biggest stars of the 1960s, Hayley Mills may not spring to mind. But the young actress had a remarkable decade, starring in huge Disney hits (The Parent Trap), scoring critical raves (Whistle Down the Wind), and making future cult films (The Chalk Garden). One of my favorite Hayley pictures of this period is the seldom-shown, but highly entertaining The Truth About Spring (1965).

Hayley plays Spring Tyler, a tomboyish teenager who lives with her father Tommy (John Mills) aboard a small boat in the Florida Keys. Tommy is a sly hustler--and a very successful one. In the opening scene, he passes his daughter off as a boy dying from thirst so an ocean liner will provide enough provisions to last a week (including some juicy steaks!). 

Spring's world gets turned upside down when Tommy invites William Ashton, a handsome Princeton grad (James MacArthur), to spend a few weeks aboard the Sarah Tyler to do some fishing. There's an instant attraction between Spring and Ashton, but neither one quite knows how to handle it.

A scruffy John Mills as Tommy.
Meanwhile, Ashton quickly gets caught up in Tommy's latest scheme to recover $250,000 in gold from a sunken wreck with the help of his "partners." Tommy's pals (Niall MacGinnis and Lionel Jeffries) would just as soon murder him except that Tommy knows the location of the loot. Meanwhile, some playful frolicking between the young folks takes a serious turn when Ashton gives Spring her first kiss (and gets promptly slapped).

The Truth About Spring is a breezy lighthearted affair with John Mills having a grand time as a crafty old dodger. Excluding Hayley's appearance as a baby in So Well Remembered (1947) and John's cameo in The Parent Trap, she and her father made five movies together. They seem to be having a ball playing off each in The Truth About Spring. John gets the better role, hamming it up as Tommy and playfully threatening to marry a "good woman, clean and antiseptic" if Spring continues to defy his (questionable) parental authority. 

James MacArthur as Ashton.
The film gets a huge lift from the breathtaking locations off the Spanish coast, which double for the Caribbean. Additionally, almost every scene appears to have been shot aboard a boat or on the beach. 

Director Richard Thorpe was surely one of the most prolific filmmakers in the history of Hollywood, with over 180 credits to his name and a career that spanned the silent film era to the late 1960s. He was versatile as well, working comfortably in costume pictures (Ivanhoe and the underrated Quentin Durward), musicals (Fun in Acapulco with Elvis), and Thin Man mysteries.

If The Truth About Spring seems like a Disney film at times, it's likely because of the cast and the ultimately harmless villains. Hayley Mills, John Mills, James MacArthur, and David Tomlinson (who plays Ashton's uncle) were under Disney contracts at various times during the 1960s. John and James work together earlier on Swiss Family Robinson in which they played father and son. Incidentally, Niall MacGinnis, who plays a crook here, was a much more chilling villain as Karswell in Curse of the Demon.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Patrick Wayne as Sinbad.
Released in 1977, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger isn't as well regarded as the other two installments in Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy. Personally, I find it as good as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), but not as magical as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).

The story begins with powerful sorceress Zenobia turning Prince Kassim, the heir to the throne of Charak, into a baboon. If he's not restored to human form before the end of seven moons, he will remain a monkey--and Zenobia's son will become the caliph. Thus, Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) and Princess Farah (Jane Seymour) set off to find the legendary Melanthius, the one person who may be able to help the prince.

Jane Seymour and the baboon.
It's a slight plot, but it provides an adequate canvas for Harryhausen's special effects. Sinbad battles demons with skeleton-like bodies and bug eyes, a giant walrus, a sabre-toothed tiger, and a giant wasp. The latter is identified as a giant mosquito by one of the characters and on the film's soundtrack, but Harryhausen calls it a wasp in his Film Fantasy Scrapbook and it certainly looks like one. There's also a bronze minotaur-like creature called the Minaton and a troglodyte that battles the big tiger. Harryhausen also animated the baboon, which looks amazingly real.

Sinbad tries to help Trog fight the sabre-toothed tiger.

Taryn Power.
Patrick Wayne, one of John's sons, seems a bit wooden in the opening scenes, but he gets better as the movie goes along. The supporting cast includes Tyrone Power's daughter, Taryn, as Melanthius's telepathic daughter. As her father, Patrick Troughton adds some class and provides an interesting Doctor Who connection. Both Troughton and Tom Baker, who played the villain in Golden Voyage, portrayed Doctor Who on British television.

 At a budget of $3.5 million, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was Harryhausen's second-most expensive film (surpassed only by the later Clash of the Titans). Despite that, some of the routine special effects (e.g., close-ups of the actors in exotic places) look subpar. The stop-action animation doesn't disappoint, though the giant walrus may be my least-favorite Harryhausen creature (Ray considered using a Yeti in that scene--an idea that appeals to me!).

As trilogies go, the three Ray Harryhausen-Charles Schneer Sinbad films still hold their appeal as colorful, fantastical adventures. I'm sure there are cinephiles who prefer modern digital special effects, but I'll take a Harryhausen stop-motion creature over a Jurassic World  dinosaur anytime. They just have more personality!

Monday, October 21, 2019

An Interview with Constance Towers

Born in Whitefish, Montana, Constance Towers became interested in show business in the first grade—when talent scouts visited her schools looking for young radio performers. She appeared in radio plays as a child and later studied music at the Juilliard School in New York City. Constance Towers made her film debut in the 1955 Blake Edwards comedy Bring Your Smile Along. She subsequently appeared in major motion pictures such as The Horse Soldiers (1959), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Naked Kiss (1964), and Fate Is the Hunter (1964). She has acted alongside actors such as John Wayne, William Holden, Glenn Ford, and Raymond Burr. Constance Towers also gained acclaim working on Broadway and on television. Her stage roles include a revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner. On television, she has won numerous awards for her performances in the daytime dramas Capitol, CBS Daytime 90, and General Hospital. Ms. Towers married actor and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Gavin in 1974; they remained together until his death in 2018. Constance Towers has been passionately involved in many charities, to include the Children’s Bureau of California, the National Health Foundation, and the Blue Ribbon of the Los Angeles Music Center.

Café:  You worked with two of the greatest auteurs of American cinema: John Ford and Samuel Fuller. How would you describe your experiences with each of them?

The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne.
Constance Towers:  The experiences were very different. Both were gentlemen, but John Ford was the epitome of being a gentleman until you really got to know him and then his sense of humor came through. He was bawdy in his own way. Sammy Fuller was totally uninhibited and so much fun because he communicated on a raw level. He really knew how to find the right words to help you find where you were trying to go emotionally as an actor. And because he was the writer, he knew the intent of the writing. Because he was the director, he knew what he wanted to bring out of the actor. He just understood the complete arc of what he had written. That was a treasure. As I said, he was totally uninhibited so he had a way of reaching those children in The Naked Kiss. He sat on the floor and just became a kid and worked with them. Both John Ford and Sammy were great directors in their own way. John Ford was a communicator on a different level. He certainly knew what he wanted from his actors and sometimes played a trick on an actor to get just the right emotion. There's the famous story of Victor McLaglen in The Informer, when he took him out and got him drunk the night before his big scene. The next morning, McLaglen sat down, found himself in front of the camera, and said: "Oh, my god." And then he gave an Academy Award performance. So, John Ford and Sammy Fuller were very different, but both were brilliant and great artists in their own way.

Café:  Our favorite of your movies is Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss and you recently discussed it at the Niagara Falls International Film Festival. What are some of your memories of starring in that cult classic?

In Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss.
Constance Towers:  Sam got truly honest performances out of the children, creating some of the most charming and touching moments in film. It was hard work. We did it in 21 days. It was a lot of filming and a lot of emotion to cover in that short time. I have great memories of working with Sam, because he was this wonderful director who communicated with you--and sometimes shocked you. If he felt he didn't have everyone's attention on the set, he shot off a gun he had. The bullets were blanks, of course, but can you imagine that today? Back then, you could do it without people leaving the studio and running back down the street. He had a way of communicating with everybody on a very human level, giving approval to you on what you were doing. It was a very enjoyable experience.

Café:  What was your reaction when you first read the script?

Constance Towers:  I sat and read the script with Sam and he explained every scene as we came to it. It was a different experience because I could discuss it with the director and the writer. As you envisioned each scene as an actor, he was there to help explain anything you didn't understand. I was concerned about the subject matter because child molestation was not a buzzword at that time. It was a whispered and dark secret that people were aware of, but unwilling to talk about it. Sam Fuller was very courageous. You've seen all of his movies and you know the subject matter of his films has a strong moral and message to it. Certainly, The Naked Kiss had a strong message. Today, child molestation and pedophilia are something that people readily talk about. It's on the front page of our papers practically every day, but it was not back then.

Café:  You guest-starred on Perry Mason five times. We’ve interviewed other actresses (e.g., Julie Adams, Jacqueline Scott, Ruta Lee) who enjoyed their time on that series and spoke highly of producer Gail Patrick. Was your experience similar?

With Raymond Burr in
"The Case of the Ugly Duckling."
Constance Towers:  I loved it. I had such fun on that show. Gail Patrick was a wonderful lady, such an intelligent woman. I'd have to go back and research to be sure, but I think she was one of the first female producers of successful TV series. Raymond Burr was intelligent and such a good actor.  Working with him was a handful, though, because he was so much fun. One of the stories about him is that he was having abdominal surgery around Christmas time. So, the nurses prepared him for the operation, which involved shaving the area. They got him all ready for the operation, sedated him, and sent him into the operating room. When they removed the sheet, printed across his stomach were the words: "Do not open until Christmas." He had this sense of humor that people weren't aware of because Perry Mason was very serious. Working with him was just a joy because he was such fun and was a brilliant actor.

Café:  How did you come to be cast in the 1977-78 Broadway revival of The King and I with Yul Brynner?

With Lillian Gish in Anya.
Constance Towers:  My career started in New York and I went back there after doing The Horse SoldiersThe Naked Kiss, and other films. I went there at the request of Edwin Lester, who was the director of the Civic Light Opera in Los Angeles. He thought I was right for the lead in the stage musical Anya, which was the play Anastasia set to the music of Rachmaninoff. I opened in it, but unfortunately there was a newspaper strike at the time and they were building the subway on Sixth Avenue near the Ziegfeld Theatre. So, we opened under a lot of problems at Christmas time. Frank Loesser, who was the producer of Anya, withdrew, so a golfing friend of George Abbott's--the great Mr. Abbott, the director--took over as producer. So, the show lacked a certain amount of support, even though Hal Prince was sitting there during rehearsals, helping Mr. Abbott. We were open for just three weeks, but I was fortunate that Richard Rodgers saw Anya and took me under his wing and cast me in his production of Show Boat at Lincoln Center in New York that summer. I just had one of those great experiences playing Julie, which was the Helen Morgan role. I sang the song "Bill" and had standing ovations every night, which was a great thrill. I continued to work for Richard Rodgers. I probably did more of The Sound of Music around the country for Mr. Rodgers than I did The King and I. Anyway, when they were casting The King and I revival with Yul Brynner, Mr. Rodgers called and asked if I would play Mrs. Anna and, of course, I said yes.

Café:  You recently reprised your role of Helena Cassadine for a couple of flashback episodes of General Hospital. You’ve made numerous appearances over the last 20 years as GH’s most famous villain. Why do you think Helena remains so popular?

As Helena Cassadine.
Constance Towers:  It's very interesting. When I first took the role, I thought: "Oh, what have I just done?" This is the villain of all villainesses and people hate the villain. I always played characters who were as pure as driven snow. Maybe they ended up on Perry Mason as the one who did it, but the least suspected of all characters. Suddenly, here was a character who was a magic marker villainess, over-the-top evil, and the richest woman in the world. Other actors didn't want to have a scene with me, because when I left their office, they were dead! So, I thought what am I doing to myself. But the character proved to be popular. People walk up to me wherever I go and say: "I just love to hate you!" And I say: "You don't mind that I'm so evil?" And they say: "No. Do more. We love it." We found the vulnerability in Helena Cassadine, which makes people feel a little sorry for her. She loved her grandson, Prince Nikolas, and he was her Achilles heel. She made mistakes because of him. That made her human and people loved that. Now, even though I've died four times on the show and managed to come back, I'm appearing in everyone's nightmares. They wake up and think, oh god, I thought she was really here! The writers keep the character alive that way, which is a very clever device. I just love playing Helena and however they write her, it's great to go back and play the character.

Café:  You probably can’t tell us, but is Helena Cassadine really dead?

Constance Towers:  She's coming back and they always talk about her. One time, my grandson Nikolas pushed me off a cliff and killed me. I came back and one of the characters said: "How did you survive?" And Helena said: "Just one mighty burst of adrenaline." Then, she walked away. The audience just accepted that she was alive. As Helena, I once killed my son Stefan and had him thrown off the back of a yacht. He was totally drunk, having consumed poison and a lot of wine. About three weeks later, he walked in on me. The first line I had after seeing him was: "I knew I shouldn't have taught you how to swim." So, other characters come back just like Helena. Who knows what they have in store for her?

Café:  How did you and your late husband John Gavin meet?

Constance Towers:  His godfather was Jimmy McHugh, the songwriter. He wrote "Don't Blame Me," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and many other classic songs. We met in New York when I was singing in the Plaza Hotel. He told me I should call him if I went to Southern California. So, when I came out to California, I did. He invited me to a big party and took me out on the porch and introduced me to John Gavin. My impression was that he was just an absolutely gorgeous man. But he was engaged to someone else and just went off into the sunset. About five years later, I was married and my then-husband said that a very good friend of his was coming to dinner and John Gavin walked in the door with his wife. We became good friends. When we both divorced, we started going out and then we married. That's how that happened.

Café:  You sang on albums such as The King and I and Constance Towers Sings to The Horse Soldiers.  Did you ever consider a concurrent career as a singer?

Constance Towers' first film.
Constance Towers:  Well, I always had a career as a singer. I started out in New York, singing in the Maisonette in the St. Regis Hotel, which was one of the two rooms one could appear in as a cabaret kind of singer. I also sang at the Plaza. Both were big venues. I've been in musicals on Broadway for ten years. I've always been concurrently a singer as well as an actress. I've only sung in films a few times. I did in my first film, Bring Your Smile Along, which was Blake Edwards' first directorial effort at Columbia Pictures. Surprisingly, the first song I sing in the movie is "Don't Blame Me," which was written by Jimmy McHugh. I had not met John Gavin yet. I sang a song named "Lorena," which was an old Civil War song, in The Horse Soldiers and it ended up on the cutting room floor. I also sang with the children in The Naked Kiss.

Café:  Didn't you also sing during one of your guest appearances on Perry Mason?

Constance Towers:  That's right. I forgot that. That was my first one hour show and they had me play a cabaret singer and I sang in it.

Café:  You have been actively involved with many charities over the years. How did Project Connie come about and what is its mission?

Constance Towers:  In 1985, my husband John Gavin was U.S. ambassador to Mexico. And Mexico had that very tragic, horrible earthquake. I went into the streets with the Red Cross and tried to help wherever I could. I was just confronted by so many children who were either orphaned or seriously injured. One boy, a soccer player, had lost both legs at the hip. I brought him to UCLA. His one dream was to walk again. People contributed money and the UCLA rehabilitation center worked to help him walk on prostheses, which proved to be impossible for him. But at least, we gave him the opportunity to try. The staff then gave him a really hotshot skateboard. He could put his body on that skateboard and zip around to wherever he wanted to go, giving him mobility. He's now an older man and has a computer business in Mexico City. We did a lot of rehabilitation like that. Another little boy lost both arms at the elbows. I happened to have a friend in Mexico City, who lost both arms when he was taking down a kite on the Fourth of July and it hit in an electrical wire. He was a very successful businessman. So, he took this little boy under his wing and helped him emotionally as well as physically. He helped him get prostheses, so he had arms and hands that worked. It just changed the world for this little boy. We then decided to start Project Connie. We chose the name because it made it easier to raise money when people knew it was me. I think it would have been harder to do on my own if we were just living in Mexico without all the power of the United States. It was wonderful to be able to reach out and leave a lasting mark as the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. ambassador's wife. When my husband was no longer ambassador,  I put this project under the umbrella of the United Peace Movement and that's where it has remained. It has the people to watch the money and find situations that need it.

Café:  Last year, you starred in the family fantasy The Storyteller. Do you have any upcoming projects or appearances you’d like to share with our readers?

Rita Hayworth--the subject of
a new documentary.
Constance Towers:  At the moment, I'm doing a documentary on the 100th birthday celebration of Rita Hayworth. When I was at Columbia Pictures, Rita Hayworth was making the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. I didn't know her. I was just the young starlet on the lot and she was the big star. In the documentary, I'm going to take people onto the Columbia lot, which has retained some of the original buildings, where I met people like John Ford and Gregory Peck for the first time. Mr. Cohn was the big mogul of Columbia Pictures. His dining room is still there. I will be taking people around the Columbia lot and talking about Rita Hayworth and her contributions to film and why she's still one of the great film goddesses. I'll also be talking about Columbia as I knew it back in those days. It should be fun.

 Thank you so much, Ms. Towers, for taking time out of your day to speak with us.

Constance Towers:  You're welcome.

You can follow Constance Towers on her Facebook page and Instagram.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Wild Bunch - Looking Back on Peckinpah's Classic After 50 Years

William Holden in The Wild Bunch.
Fifty years ago, two of American cinema's most influential Westerns were released: the revisionist Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Neither film staved off the decline of the Western genre, but each impacted Hollywood in significant ways. The former may not have been the first "buddy picture," but the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford revitalized those kinds of films. As for The Wild Bunch, while more violent and bloody films preceded it, they weren't mainstream movies with big stars and a major director. Many critics and filmgoers considered its violence shocking at the time.

Indeed, The Wild Bunch opens and closes with beautifully choreographed and edited scenes of carnage. It was enough, according to one Peckinpah biographer, for some audience members to walk out of the film when it was first released. However, sandwiched between those bloody scenes, Peckinpah presents a carefully-crafted tale of family loyalty and changing times.

Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton.
The Wild Bunch opens with Pike Bishop and his gang riding into a bustling town to rob a railroad office. Bishop (William Holden) has no idea that it's a trap set by a former pal, Deke Thornton, whose permanent release from a brutal prison hinges on his capture of Bishop. By the time, the outlaws realize it's a set-up, it's too late and their only option is to shoot their way out of town. The ensuing gunfight leaves the streets littered with dead bodies, including many innocent townspeople caught in the hail of bullets.

When Bishop regroups after a narrow escape from the town, his gang has been reduced to just five members. Moreover, their loot from the robbery turns out to be bags of worthless metal washers and Thornton is leading a gang of bounty hunters in pursuit. With few alternatives remaining, Bishop and his men journey to Mexico, where they make a deal with a ruthless revolutionary leader to steal guns and ammunition from a heavily-guarded train for $10,000. It's a decision that will ultimately result in the demise of the quintet.

Except for the bookend shoot-outs and a splendid train robbery scene in the middle, The Wild Bunch is a dialogue-driven film. Bishop repeatedly emphasizes the importance of family loyalty, for make no mistake that these outlaws are a family. They bicker, threaten each other, and talk of splitting up, but ultimately they abide by Bishop's code: "When you side with a man, you stick with him." It's enlightening when Bishop reveals to Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), his closest companion, that he feels responsible for Thornton's capture in the past. For his part, Thornton has nothing but respect for Bishop--although he's willing to capture or perhaps kill him to avoid returning to prison.
Pike's gang leaves a poor village that provided them with a moment of peace.

Set in 1913, The Wild Bunch also explores one of Sam Peckinpah's favorite themes: the end of the Wild West. Bishop and his gang marvel when they see an automobile and talk about machines that can fly in the air. The days of horse-riding outlaws are coming to an end and Bishop knows it: "We got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." It's a theme that Peckinpah visited earlier in his elegant classic Ride the High Country (1962) and would return to again in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).

Peckinpah wanted Lee Marvin to play Pike, but Marvin instead chose Paint Your Wagon (1969), which offered a hefty payday. That was fortunate for The Wild Bunch, for William Holden gives one of his finest performances as the weary, gritty Pike. According to most accounts, the star and the director clashed often on the set, arguing about issues such as whether Holden should wear a fake mustache (he initially refused, but finally agreed...and it's hard to imagine his character without it).

Ernest Borgnine as Dutch.
The supporting cast is exceptional, especially Borgnine, Robert Ryan as Thornton, and an unrecognizable Edmond O'Brien in his last great role as an old-timer who is fiercely loyal to Pike. The camaraderie between Holden and Borgnine seems so genuine that the two were paired again in the 1972 Western The Revengers (which is strictly a standard oater).

Sadly, the graphic violence in The Wild Bunch doesn't seem as horrifying as it once did. Slow-motion shots of bullets entering into bodies and blood spurting everywhere have become too commonplace on the silver screen. However, it is still jarring to see children participate in the violence, whether they're playfully reenacting the opening gunfight or actually picking up guns and shooting people in the climax. One has to wonder what will become of these desensitized youngsters as they grow into adults.
The Wild Bunch makes their final walk.

While The Wild Bunch may be Sam Peckinpah's most famous film, it's not his best (that would be The Ballad of Cable Hogue). But fifty years later, one can appreciate The Wild Bunch as a landmark motion picture that showcases its director's visual flair and love of the Western genre. It also contains one of the most iconic images of 1960s cinema:  the shot where Thornton's men are seemingly suspended in air for a split-second when Pike blows up both ends of a bridge. It's a brilliant metaphor for the end of the Old West, which is literally slipping away from men like Thornton and Pike. It's also a reminder that--when he wanted to be--Sam Peckinpah could be a truly great director.
The bridge collapses out from under Thornton's men.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's (CMBA) Anniversary Blogathon. Click here to check out all the other great entries as the CMBA celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Movie-TV Connection Game (October 2019)

Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.
If you're new to this game, here are 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. The TV series Superman and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

2. The TV series Lost in Space and Sky King.

3. Banacek and Longstreet.

4. Bonanza and Lost in Space (this one is a stretch...but still a connection).

5. The TV series Star Trek and The Love Boat.

6. Tales of Manhattan and The Yellow Rolls Royce.

7. The Music Man and the TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

8. Dead of Night (1945) and Spellbound.

9. Raquel Welch and Grant Williams.

10. Lee J. Cobb and Stewart Granger.

11. Rebecca and The Birds (No, it's more than Hitchcock!).

12. Peter Lorre and Doris Day (an easy one!).

13. Ava Gardner and Kim Cattrall.

14. Robert De Niro and Robby Benson.

15. George Hamilton and Sissy Spacek.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Christopher Lee Battles Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out

Christopher Lee as the hero.
Upon his return to London, Rex Van Ryn learns from the Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) that their mutual friend Simon has been a mysterious recluse for the last three months. The duo motor over to a country estate recently purchased by Simon and interrupt what their friend claims is an astronomical society meeting. It's apparent that something else is going on and de Richleau confirms his suspicions when he finds satanic symbols on the observatory's floor and animals awaiting sacrifice.

It turns out that Simon and a young woman named Tanith are about to be baptized into a satanic cult led by a powerful black arts practitioner named Mocata (Charles Gray). Knowing that the following night is a sacred one for the satanists, de Richleau tries to devise a rescue plan while Rex struggles to understand what is happening.

Nike Arrighi as Tanith.
Set in the 1920s, The Devil Rides Out (aka The Devil's Bride) ranks as one of Hammer Films' finest motion pictures. Richard Matheson--an acclaimed writer in his own right--adapted Dennis Wheatley's 1934 supernatural novel. The result is an intelligent script with Hitchcockian overtones.

Hammer's best director, Terence Fisher, ramps up the suspense with three thrilling scenes. The first is when de Richleau and Rex interrupt Mocata's bloody ritual to nab Simon and Tanith from his clutches. The following morning, a dapper-looking Mocata visits the house where Simon and Tanith are being guarded. In a scene straight from Hitchcock's playbook, Mocata exudes charm as he chats politely with the house's owner...and slowly bends her to his will. Charles Gray, who gives a masterful performance as Mocata, uses his penetrating eyes and smooth, controlling voice to great effect.
Charles Gray as Mocata, looking dapper and then in his ceremonial robes.

Fisher's final big flourish occurs in the climatic scene where Mocata uses all his tricks--and the Angel of Death--to lure de Richleau and his friends from a circle of protection. The scene is hampered slightly by merely passable special effects. A giant spider doesn't look all that big--the result of the film's modest budget, no doubt. However, as de Richleau, Christoper Lee's ominous warnings create a general air of unease.

It's no surprise that Christopher Lee considers The Devil Rides Out one of his best films. The sets are convincing and the English country houses--connected by narrow, empty roads--add to the feeling of isolation. Perhaps author Dennis Wheatley gets the credit here, but the decision to stage the satanic baptism ceremony in the woods at night was a brilliant one.

Christopher Lee and Charles Gray give commanding performances as powerful figures at opposing ends of the good-and-evil spectrum. The supporting cast is convincing in their roles, especially British TV veteran Sarah Lawson, who plays the woman who confronts Mocata in her home.

No review of The Devil Rides Out would be complete without mentioning one of the greatest shots in Hammer history. When Tanith is driving a car, Mocata appears to her--with only his eyes visible in the rearview mirror. It's an incredibly creepy image that lingers from one of the best horror films of the 1960s.

Charles Gray's eyes in the rearview mirror.

Monday, October 7, 2019

A Circus with Acrobats, Animals, and...Vampires!

Anthony Higgins is about to bite!
After a highly-successful decade in the 1960s, Hammer Films faced a crossroads in the early 1970s. Their Gothic horror films were no longer considered scary. In fact, they appeared rather tame compared to other movies playing at your local movie theater. Thus, the studio made a concerted effort to make their horror pictures sexier (well, with more nudity) and more violent. One of its most interesting movies during this period was Vampire Circus (1971).

A long pre-title sequence lays the groundwork for the plot. After a headmaster sees his wife take a young girl into the woods, he follows them to the castle of Count Mitterhaus. When he's prevented from entering the castle, the headmaster gathers a group of villagers who are convinced that Mitterhaus is a vampire. They force their way into the castle and kill the bloodsucking nobleman with a stake. With his last words, the count proclaims that the town will die and the villagers' children will die to give him back his life.

Adrienne Corri runs the circus.
Fifteen years later, the village is rife with plague and neighboring towns have created blockades to prevent anyone from leaving or entering. Yet, somehow a traveling circus gets through the roadblocks (when asked how, the troupe's headmistress says nothing). While the circus provides a pleasant distraction for the townspeople, its activities mask the motives of its bloodsucking performers. Their goal is to kill the children of the men that destroyed Count Mitterhaus.

As Hammer vampire movies go, Vampire Circus is an above-average entry with some intriguing ideas, most of which aren't fully developed. The male vampires are not just irresistible to the village women...they're almost sexually addictive. When a mother initially refuses to let her daughter secretly meet with one of them, the girl breaks down in tears and pleads frantically. Some of the vampires are shapeshifters, including one that can transform into a black leopard. But the most original aspect of Vampire Circus is its combination of vampires (scary) and circuses ( know they are!). 

Robert Tayman as the Count.
With one exception, the low-wattage cast is solid and features actors associated with Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Who, and TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The one weak link is Robert Tayman as the villainous Mitterhaus (the actor's voice was dubbed by David de Keyser). He projects an effeminate quality that negates his effectiveness. Perhaps, it's the combination of his chest-baring costume, gold choker, hair, and make-up. In any event, he never comes across as sexually powerful nor especially threatening.

As I watched Vampire Circus recently, I was reminded of another movie about a traveling carnival that delivers evil to a small town: the 1983 film version of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's a flawed movie, too, but, like Vampire Circus, it projects an unusual fairy tale-like quality. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Margaret Rutherford Goes for a Ride at the Gallop Hotel

Margaret Rutherford.
The best way to approach Margaret Rutherford's four "Miss Marple" films is to forget that she's playing Jane Marple. Rutherford's films are comedies with a little mystery and her character bears only a slight resemblance to Agatha Christie's spinster sleuth. The best of Rutherford's movies may be the second one, Murder at the Gallop (1963), which boasts a charming setting, a strong supporting cast, and a decent mystery. Surprisingly, the plot is adapted from a Hercule Poirot novel called After the Funeral.

It opens with Miss Marple and her friend Mr. Stringer (Stringer Davis) witnessing the death of a wealthy eccentric named Enderby. The police quickly conclude that the old man died of natural causes. However, Miss Marple suspects foul play based on finding a cat lurking around Enderby's residence. The old man had a deathly fear of cats. Thus, his heart attack could have been triggered by the sudden appearance of a feline.

Robert Morley as a suspect.
An eavesdropping Miss Marple learns that Enderby's fortune will be split among four relatives. Well, make that three because one of them is murdered shortly after the reading of the will. Now determined to find the culprit, the elderly sleuth checks into the Gallop Hotel, which is run by Enderby's nephew Hector (Robert Morley). The hotel's other guests include the remaining relatives who will share Enderby's fortune. Surely, one of the them must be the killer--but can Miss Marple expose the murderer before there's another homicide?

The villain's identity seems pretty obvious, though the mystery does incorporate one of Agatha Christie's patented tricks. It just strikes me as odd that the producers chose not to adapt one of the Miss Marple novels. There's even one that takes place at a hotel (At Bertram's Hotel).

The Gallop Hotel.
Still, the English countryside settings exude quaint charm, even in black-and-white. If there was really a Gallop Hotel (it was actually a farm in Aldenham, Hertfordshire), I'd certainly be interested in booking a holiday there--murderer or not!

As for Dame Margaret Rutherford, her performance is a matter of taste. I'm not a big fan, but I have film friends who find her delightful. For non-fans like me, at least her antics are nicely balanced by Stringer Davis, Rutherford's real-life husband, whose quiet presence provides a calming contrast. Robert Morley tops the supporting cast, though James Villiers and Katya Douglas have fun as a distrustful couple.

If you're in the mood for a crackling Agatha Christie mystery, then Murder at the Gallop will not be your cup of tea. However, if you're just seeking out a light comedic mystery with a short running time, then you may find it amusing. Of course, you'll need to be able to tolerate the irritating, "playful" Miss Marple music that crops up every few minutes. Unfortunately, it seems to be a staple throughout all four of Margaret Rutherford's Marple movies.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hercule Poirot Discovers Death in the Clouds

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.
When a passenger sitting across from him on a Paris-to-London flight is murdered, Hercule Poirot becomes determined to find the killer. It's not just a matter of bringing the criminal to justice, the timing of the crime is a personal affront to the famed Belgian detective!

Cathryn Harrison as Lady Horbury.
The victim, the mysterious Madame Giselle, turns out to be a moneylender (and blackmailer) to affluent society members on both sides of the Channel. The suspects consist of:  Lady Horbury (one of Giselle's clients), her friend Venetia, an archaeologist, a dentist, a mystery writer, and the two flight attendants. The murder weapon appears to be a poison dart shot from a blowgun. But how could anyone have committed the crime within the confines of the first-class cabin with no one noticing? As for Hercule Poirot, he was napping!

Death in the Clouds was one of three feature-length episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot that aired in 1992 during the series' fourth season. It's a mostly faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1935 novel of the same title. A few characters are omitted, but the murderer's identity, method, and motive remain unchanged. In its simplicity, Death in the Clouds is one of Dame Agatha's most ingeniously-plotted  Poirot books.

Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp.
Although Poirot's friend Captain Hastings (wonderfully played by Hugh Fraser) is sadly absent, Philip Jackson's Inspector Japp takes up the slack. The beauty of Jackson's performance is that he makes a believable Scotland Yard inspector while also supplying a light dose of comic relief. For Poirot fans familiar with Jackson's work in the series, I recommend seeking out Raised By Wolves, an offbeat family sitcom in which the veteran actor is hilarious as Grampy.

Of course, the highlight of every episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot is David Suchet's portrayal of the title character. Agatha Christie didn't live to see Suchet as her Belgian detective, but her family approved his casting. Indeed, Christie's daughter Rosalind Hicks once told Suchet: "My mother would have been absolutely delighted with what you've done." Interestingly, prior to playing Poirot, Suchet was cast as Inspector Japp opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot in the 1985 made-for-TV movie Thirteen for Dinner.

Death in the Clouds is one of the best episodes in the Agatha Christie's Poirot series. Boasting a great setting, a clever mystery, and an impeccable cast, it's a fine introduction for newcomers and a certain delight for Agatha Christie fans.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced

Joan Hickson as Jane Marple.
For many Agatha Christie fans, Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Jane Marple in the 1984-1992 British TV series is considered the definitive one. It's difficult to disagree, although I'm also fond of Julia McKenzie in a later television series. But whereas McKenzie showcased Miss Marple's soft side, Hickson admirably captures the elderly amateur detective's sharp intelligence and subtle interrogation skills. Her Marple can be warm and understanding--while simultaneously probing for a crack in a suspect's alibi.

Samantha Bond as a suspect.
The highlight of the Hickson series may be A Murder Is Announced, which aired in 1985 as a three-part episode. It begins with a most unusual premise:  A notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn newspaper announcing that a murder will take place at Little Paddocks at 7:00 that evening. Little Paddocks is the home of Letitia Blacklock, a elderly woman who lives with two younger cousins, a dear friend, a widow who serves as gardener, and a housekeeper. Anticipating the arrival of curious villagers, Letitia opens a bottle of sherry and prepares to receive her guests.

The drawing room is full of people when seven o'clock arrives. Suddenly, the room goes dark, the door is opened, and a man with a flashlight shouts: "Stick 'em up!" Three gunshots are fired amid much screaming. When the lights are restored, there is a corpse on the floor.

Letitia's friend Bunny recognizes the victim as a foreign lad who worked as a clerk at the local hotel. Apparently, he was the man with the flashlight. But who was he firing at and why did he kill himself? Or, if it wasn't suicide, who at Little Paddocks would want to kill a stranger and announce the murder beforehand in the newspaper?

Chipping Cleghorn (not a painting!).
In addition to Dame Agatha's crackerjack mystery, A Murder Is Announced makes excellent use of its rural 1950s setting and benefits from an exceptional teleplay. Powerstock, a village in Dorset, England, stands in for Chipping Cleghorn. Its quaint stone buildings and rolling hills provide a charming backdrop for murder and deceit.

The teleplay by veteran British writer Alan Plater remains remarkably faithful to the 1950 novel. Moreover, it captures the atmosphere of a post-World War II England where foreigners still drew suspicion and food rationing was a way of life. Miss Marple hardly appears in the first episode, in which Inspector Craddock (well played by John Castle) takes lead on the investigation.

Kevin Whately, prior to Morse,
as a Detective Sergeant.
When Craddock requests her assistance, based on the advice of his superior, Miss Marple confides that suspects will tell an elderly spinster things they might never confide to a police inspector. One of the series' best scenes has Miss Marple ever-so-subtly introduce the topic of family photos during a conversation with suspects. It's her way of gaining access to a family album that might contain an old photo of the killer.

As with many Agatha Christie mysteries, there are numerous red herrings and the key to unraveling the murderer's identity hinges on an incident in the past. That makes it a hard puzzle for the audience to solve, but armchair detectives likely won't mind. In this version of A Murder Is Announced, the joy lies in watching the investigation being conducted by Joan Hickson's Miss Marple.