Thursday, February 27, 2020

Seven Things to Know About Angie Dickinson

1. Angie Dickinson's favorite film role was as the sexy housewife who is brutally murdered after an adulterous encounter in Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980). She told Vanity Fair in a 2008 interview: "I’m good in it, and it’s a great part. I’m sorry I didn’t try to go for an Academy Award for that role. I think I could have won it. But the studio didn’t want to put up the campaign, and I felt that I didn’t want to go for a supporting-actor award, because I’d always thought of myself as the lead, even though by then I wasn’t getting starring roles. I regret it now. Of course, De Palma is to blame for the great performance."

2. She played Sergeant Pepper Martin for four years on Police Woman (1974-78). She received three Emmy nominations for Best Actress (Drama) and four Golden Globe nominations, winning the award in 1975. According to People Magazine, Police Woman was President Gerald Ford's favorite TV series--he once rescheduled a White House press conference because of it. Angie's then-husband Burt Bacharach turned down the opportunity to compose the theme for Police Woman...because he didn't think the show would last long.

3. Angie Dickinson and Frank Sinatra had a ten-year affair. She told Vanity Fair: "Frank and I stayed friends for all those years, and it was just one of those great, comfortable things, where you always desire somebody, but you can live without them."

4. Her 1965 marriage to Burt Bacharach was the second for each of them. Their daughter, Lea Nikki, was born prematurely and later diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. She committed suicide at age 40. Dickinson and Bacharach divorced in 1981. In a 2019 interview that aired on CBS, she said of Bacharach: "He never loved me, I can tell you that right now, the way one loves. He loved in his own way, which is not too good. And so, he had no respect for me."

5. Howard Hawks cast her in Rio Bravo (1959) after watching her in an episode of Perry Mason ("The Case of the One-Eyed Witness").

Angie as "Feathers" in Rio Bravo.
6. Angie Dickinson returned a $75,000 advance on her planned autobiography in 1989. She said the publisher wanted her to address a rumored affair with President John F. Kennedy. She refused to do it and shelved the book after completing 100 pages. In recent years, she has expressed a renewed interest in writing her life story.

7. During one of her many guest appearances on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson noted her outfit and asked Angie Dickinson if she dressed for women or for men. She famously quipped: "I dress for women. I undress for men."

Monday, February 24, 2020

Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu

This sequel to 1965's The Face of Fu Manchu is an unexpected improvement on Christopher Lee's debut as the Sax Rohmer's supervillain. Stylistically, it reminded me of an Avengers episode during the Mrs. Peel era--though it could have benefited from the presence of Steed and Mrs. Peel, of course.

The Brides of Fu Manchu opens with the closing scene of the original film, revealing that the criminal genius and his daughter Lin Tang survived the destruction of their lair. It's not long before Fu Manchu has hatched a new plot to dominate the world circa the 1920s.

His archnemesis Nayland Smith suspects a diabolical plot is afoot when the wives and daughters of the world's leading industrialists and scientists start disappearing. To be precise, eleven women from ten countries have been kidnapped in eighteen months. The women--the "brides" of the title--are being held captive by Fu Manchu so that their fathers or husbands will help him build a energy transmission device capable of destroying entire cities.

Douglas Wilmer as Smith.
As in Sax Rohmer's books, Scotland Yard detective Nayland Smith and his associate, Dr. Petrie, are sort of a poor man's Holmes and Watson. Still, it's entertaining to watch Smith match wits with Fu Manchu. The detective makes the first move by disguising one of his men as one of the girls' fathers. Fu Manchu gets the upper hand later when he sets up a reception antenna as a deception, causing Smith to be in the wrong place--resulting in the deaths of 123 people.

Dressed in elegant silk robes, Christopher Lee makes a menacing figure as the supervillain. Yes, it's easy to criticize the casting of a British actor as an Asian character. However, the reality is that the Fu Manchu movies would never have been made without Lee's star power. Douglas Wilmer co-stars as Nayland Smith, replacing Nigel Green who played the hero in The Face of Fu Manchu. Although Green is a fine actor, Wilmer is an upgrade as he's far more convincing as an intellectual man of action.

Producer Harry Alans Towers wrote the script under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck. His screenplay is also an improvement on the first film, interweaving plot elements such as a pit of poisonous vipers, hypnosis, the Foreign Legion, a chase between a roadster and a biplane, and, yes, the BBC.

Tsai Chin as the evil daughter.
A prolific filmmaker, Towers produced a total of five Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee as the diabolical title character and Tsai Chin as his daughter: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965); The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966); The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967); The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968); and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). If memory serves, the quality drops off significantly after Brides. Douglas Wilmer returns as Nayland Smith for Vengeance, but is replaced by Richard Greene in the last two entries in the series. (For good measure, Towers produced two movies featuring Shirley Eaton as Sax Rohmer's female villain Sumuru.)

You may recognize some familiar faces in the supporting cast. The aforementioned Tsai Chin is still active today, guest starring in TV series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. She also appeared in the 1993 hit The Joy Luck Club, one of the few Hollywood films with an all Asian cast. Burt Kwouk, who plays Fu Manchu's No. 1 henchman, is best known for his comedic skills. He played Cato, Inspector Clouseau's valet, in several Pink Panther films.

Here's a clip from The Brides of Fu Manchu, courtesy of our YouTube Channel:

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hour of the Gun: After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

James Garner as Wyatt Earp.
A decade after directing the Western classic The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), director John Sturges returned to the Earp-Clanton saga with Hour of the Gun. In narrative terms, it's a sequel; indeed, the opening is the shoot-out at the famed corral in Tombstone, Arizona. However, the two movies are distinctly different in terms of cast, tone, and accuracy. Sturges emphasizes that last point by ending the opening credits with: "This picture is based on fact. This is the way it happened."

In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, villain Ike Clanton was gunned down in the climax. Hour of the Gun reveals--accurately--that Clanton wasn't involved the gunfight. Only three men died that day at the O.K. Corral, all of them at the hands of the Earp Brothers (Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil) and Doc Holliday. Although Virgil Earp was the Tombstone marshal, Ike Clanton arranges for the Earps and Holliday to be charged with murder.

When the four men are acquitted during a trial, Clanton takes matters into his own hands. He has one Earp brother maimed and another one murdered, leading Wyatt Earp and Holliday to seek vengeance--and try to stay within the bounds of the law.

Hour of the Gun is a grim Western and, for most of its running time, that's a good thing. James Garner, whose natural humor was always a strength, leaves that levity behind. He portrays Wyatt Earp as an man torn between upholding the law and enforcing retribution. Boasting a mustache and black duds, he transforms into an angel of death wearing a silver badge.

Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.
Garner is wisely paired with Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, who serves as Wyatt's conscience. Robards almost steals the film with his portrayal of the bigger-than-life Holliday, a gambler, alcoholic, and tuberculous-inflicted gunfighter who (in this narrative) values friendship and loyalty above all else. It's the kind of performance that should have earned him an Oscar nomination (he did subsequently win Supporting Actor Oscars for Julia and All the President's Men).

The two leads are backed up by Robert Ryan as Clanton and a bevy of strong supporting players: William Windom, Frank Converse, Steve Ihnat, Jon Voight, Monte Markham, William Schallert, and Albert Salmi. It's interesting to note there are no significant female characters in the film.

Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton.
Despite its claim that "this is the way it happened," the screenplay boasts a few historical inaccuracies. The most obvious is the way it depicts Ike Clanton's demise at the climax. However, compared to previous film versions, to include John Ford's My Darling Clementine, it's much closer to the facts.

James Garner later portrayed a much older Wyatt Earl in Blake Edwards' Sunset (1988), a fictitious tale that had Earp teaming up with cowboy star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) to solve a mystery in L.A. in 1929. Hollywood's fascination with the legend of Wyatt Earp peaked in the 1990s, with two films about the famous marshal being released within a year of each other:  Tombstone (1993), starring Kurt Russell as Earp, and Wyatt Earp (1994) with Kevin Costner.

Here's the opening scene of Hour of the Gun (1967), courtesy of the Cafe's YouTube Channel:

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 3)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic movie and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it! Note that the alternate title may be a variation of the original title or plot description.

1. Unwanted Guest With an Octopus.

2. While the Big Town Stays Awake.

3. The Bubblegun-colored Jungle Animal Visits Again.

4. Hole of Vipers.

5. Authentic Hot Breakfast Food.

6. I Was Rudolf's Double.

7. Pint-sized Roman.

8. Joe & Jerry & Daphne & Josephine.

9. The Kidnapping of Hank McKenna.

10. Incident in Bodega Bay.

11. The Mysterious Dr. Frail.

12. Mystery Writer and the Killer Dentist.

13. Cooler King and the Tunnel King (a really easy one!).

14. Expensive Gems Last a Long Time.

15. Captain Spitfire and The Hawke.

Friday, February 14, 2020

"Marty" and the Precision of Dialogue

Ernest Borgnine as Marty.
Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a lonely 34-year-old butcher who lives with his mother in The Bronx. He has made sacrifices for others, especially his family, at the expense of his own happiness. He has all but given up hope of finding a meaningful relationship with a woman. As he tells his mother, he is tired of being hurt.

Marty's life takes a turn for the better when he meets Clara (Betsy Blair) at the Stardust Ballroom. Clara, a quiet school teacher, has been jilted by her date because she's a "dog." Marty asks her to dance and the two wind up spending the night together. They confide the most intimate secrets to one another. At one point, Marty is so excited at talking with Clara that he literally can't stop.

The next morning, Marty is giddy with the seeds of love. However, his mother and best friend both express reservations about Clara, implying that she's not good enough for Marty. When it comes time to call her, he isn't sure what to do.

Made in 1955, Marty is one of those personal dramas that Hollywood used to excel at making before space adventures and superheroes dominated the boxoffice. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, one of the great television dramatists of the 1950s, expanded his own 1953 teleplay. In the book The Craft of the Screenwriter, Chayefsky explained the secret to his naturalistic dialogue: "My dialogue is precise. And it’s true. I think out the truth of what the people are saying and why they’re saying it. Dialogue comes because I know what I want my characters to say."

Marty and Clara.
A great example is a lengthy scene in which Marty starts talking about everything and anything as he and Clara exit the ballroom. Realizing he has been dominating the conversation, he tries to stop only to continue again. It's not just what Marty says, but the way he says it and how Borgnine delivers it that make the scene ring true.

Marty provides Ernest Borgnine with the role of a lifetime and he deservedly won a Best Actor Oscar. He had already established himself with strong supporting performances in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Still, it's safe to say that Marty elevated Borgnine to bigger parts (co-lead in 1956's Jubal) and paved the way for an enduring career.

Betsy Blair and Gene Kelly.
Sadly, his co-star Betsy Blair did not fare as well. Actually, Blair almost wasn't cast as Clara due to her left-wing political views. She lobbied hard to co-star in Marty, but gained little ground until her then-husband Gene Kelly got involved. In her autobiography The Memory of All That, she recounts a conversation in which Kelly told MGM executive Dory Schary that he wouldn't make It's Always Fair Weather if Schary didn't help Blair. She wrote: "(Schary) called the American Legion in Washington right there and then, in front of Gene, and he vouched for me. And so I was in Marty."

Although nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Blair lost to Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden. That's a shame for Blair is every bit as good as Borgnine. Her post-Marty career is pretty much forgettable, although there were a few bright spots. Interestingly, both she and Borgnine appeared in variations of Othello:  Blair was in the contemporary jazz drama All Night Long with Patrick McGoohan and Borgnine co-starred in the aforementioned Western Jubal with Glenn Ford.

In addition Borgnine's Oscar, Marty won for Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Chayefsky). Rod Steiger originated the role of Marty Piletti in Chayefsky's live TV drama with Nancy Marchand as Clara.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Missing Billy Wilder in "Cactus Flower"

Goldie Hawn as Toni.
I.A.L. Diamond co-wrote some pretty amazing screenplays--his work includes The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Of course, his writing partner on those films was a guy named Billy Wilder. Mr. Diamond also occasionally branched out on his own. That was the case with the 1969 comedy Cactus Flower, which was based on a French stage play.

Walter Matthau stars as Julian Winston, a New York City dentist who has avoided marriage by telling his much-younger girlfriend Toni (Goldie Hawn) that he's married with three children. When Julian misses a date, Toni assumes he has chosen his wife over her and attempts suicide. A concerned Julian decides to marry Toni. The only problem is that Toni now wants to meet Julian's wife!

Goldie and Walter Matthau.
A desperate Julian tries to convince his highly-efficient nurse, Stephanie (Ingrid Bergman), to pose as his wife. Initially, Stephanie bluntly refuses and advises Julian to tell the truth. However, she has second thoughts and meets with Toni to explain she wants a divorce from Julian. Stephanie is too convincing, however--perhaps because she truly harbors some feelings for Julian?

After watching Cactus Flower for 15 minutes, it's obvious how the movie will end. Therefore, it's just a matter of execution: Can Diamond and the cast make the situations funny enough to justify the predictable plot? The answer is no for most of the film's running time. 

Even the usually delightful Walter Matthau displays an atypical lack of energy--though his lethargy succeeds in counteracting the excessive effort that Goldie Hawn puts in her performance. Amazingly, Goldie not only was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she won! (For the record, I don't dislike Goldie. I enjoyed her immensely in Overboard...until it began popping up on television every week.)

Jack Weston with Ingrid Bergman.
There are a handful of amusing scenes and Ingrid Bergman makes Stephanie an appealing character. Rick Lenz also scores as Goldie's next-door neighbor, Igor, in the kind of role typically played by Jim Hutton in the 1960s.

As mentioned above, Cactus Flower originated as a 1964 French stage play, Fleur de cactus, written by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy. Abe Burrows adapted it for Broadway in 1965 where it was an immediate hit and ran for almost three years. The Broadway leads were Barry Nelson (Julian), Lauren Bacall (Stephanie), Brenda Vaccaro (Toni), and Burt Brinckerhoff (Igor). Vaccaro and Brinckerhoff were nominated for Tony Awards in the Featured Actress and Actor categories.

As for screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, he teamed up again with Billy Wilder for his next four films, including the offbeat Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and the underrated Avanti. He then retired from the movie business.

Monday, February 3, 2020

William Holden Leads the Devil's Brigade

Holden as the brigade commander.
A year after the boxoffice hit The Dirty Dozen (1967), David L. Wolper produced another World War II action film about a band of misfits transformed into an efficient combat unit. The differences are that The Devil's Brigade (1968) was based on fact and paints its story on a larger canvas.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Frederick, who is tasked with forming a special forces brigade consisting of both American and Canadian soldiers. While the Canadian battalion is already combat-ready, the American unit is saddled with former prisoners and AWOL candidates. Plus, friction forms almost immediately between the disciplined Canadians commanded by Major Crown (Cliff Robertson) and the rambunctious Americans led (sort of) by cigar-crunching Major Bricker (Vince Edwards).

Robertson as Major Crown.
To Crown's puzzlement, Frederick encourages the rivalry between the two battalions. Learning that the Canadians were handpicked, one American soldier (Claude Akins) quips: "Where I come from, the only thing we pick by hand is little yellow daffodils."

However, as sometimes happens in action pictures, a barroom brawl--this one started by local lumberjacks--requires the two sides to work together. Having bonded, the men form a cohesive fighting unit. That's a good thing because the Brigade is soon tasked to take a Nazi-occupied mountain in Italy that no one else has been able to capture.

Even with the real-life Robert Frederick (who retired as a Major-General) as a consultant, it's hard to tell what was fact-based and what was created for dramatic intent in The Devil's Brigade. It is worth noting that, according to the book The Devil's Brigade (co-written by one its members), the barroom brawl incident actually took place and did contribute to team-building. The only significant difference is that the instigators were miners and not lumberjacks.

Claude Akins and Andrew Prine as two
of the American soldiers.
The cast is solid, though they are mostly saddled with stereotypical characters (e.g., Carroll O'Connor's blustery general, Jack Watson's straight-arrow corporal). That may be a result of trying to introduce the audience to too many members of the Devil's Brigade. Holden gets the most screen time, which affords him the opportunity to add some nuance to his mission-focused commander.

It's worth noting that Richard Jaeckel appeared in both The Devil's Brigade and The Dirty Dozen. Also, some non-actors of note make brief appearances: Green Bay Packers football star Paul Hornung, champion middleweight boxer Gene Fullmer, and stunt man/future film director Hal Needham.

Veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen (Victor's son) handles the large-scale action scenes with precision. He also make maximum use of the spectacular mountain scenery in Italy and Utah (which stands in for Montana, where the brigade actually trained).

The Devil's Brigade doesn't rank with the best World War II action movies, but it's a respectable effort that won't disappoint fans of this genre. As for the real-life 1st Special Service Force--the official name for the brigade--its surviving members were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.