Monday, March 30, 2020

Cinema '62: A Book Review

In their new book Cinema '62: The Greatest Year at the Movies, authors Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan set out to dispel the popular notion that 1939 was the best year for movies. Farber, a former president of the Los Angeles Critics Association, and McClellan, a former senior executive for Landmark Theatres, make a compelling case that 1962 was a landmark year for motion pictures.

They contend that 1962 "stands out as a pivotal year in film history," as it signaled the end of the studio era and the "full-blown emergence of the New Hollywood." They support their argument with chapters devoted to topics such as: the growth of international cinema; the rise of new American auteurs such as John Frankenheimer, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Peckinpah; the continuing popularity of established stars like John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda; strong female roles in films such as The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; the popularity of literary adaptations; and the emergence of more films that examined racial conflict (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird and The Intruder). These chapters serve as a potent reminder that the early 1960s were indeed a turning point in global cinema.

However, the authors are less successful when championing 1962 as an important year for psychological dramas and films with strong sexual themes. Otto Preminger had already knocked down sexual barriers in the 1950s, dealing frankly with the topic in popular films such as The Moon Is Blue and Anatomy of a Murder.  Likewise, psychological dramas were common in the decades prior to the 1960s, with subtle ventures such as Black Narcissus (1947) and more blatant ones like White Heat (1949) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

Of course, as filmmaker Bill Condon states in the foreword to Cinema '62: "Choosing the best year in movies has always been fun sport, for film critics and fans alike." Keeping that in mind, Cinema '62 sparks an interesting, entertaining debate. One cannot deny that a proliferation of classic movies was released in 1962. In addition to films mentioned earlier in this review, the list of significant motion pictures includes: Lawrence of Arabia, The Music Man, Ride the High Country, Jules and Jim, Birdman of Alcatraz, Lolita, Victim, Lonely Are the Brave, David and Lisa, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Advise & Consent.

Farber and McClellan briefly address "Other Films of 1962" in an appendix that covers everything from Elvis Presley's popularity to Disney's reign at the box office to imported sand-and-sandal pictures like Damon and Pythias. Another appendix lists accolades and box office figures for major 1962 releases. Cinema '62 also contains a comprehensive index, although it would have been nice to include a handy list of all the major films released in the U.S. in 1962.

Note: We were provided with a digital review copy of this book.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Kirk Douglas's Lonely Are the Brave

Of all the films he made, Kirk Douglas listed Lonely Are the Brave (1962) as his favorite. Yet, this unusual contemporary Western was not a box office hit and rarely gets mentioned among his best movies. It has its admirers, though, to include Steven Spielberg and Kirk's son Michael.

It's easy to see what inspired Kirk to pursue adapting Edward Abbey's novel The Brave Cowboy. Its protagonist, Jack Burns, is a middle-aged cowboy who has refused to adapt with the times. He has no family, no street address, and no steady job. He prefers to live alone, converse mostly with his horse Whiskey, and sleep under the New Mexico stars. He is a good man who values independence above all else.

Jack also values friendship. He decides to take action when he learns that his best pal, Paul, has been sentenced to two years in prison for hiding illegal immigrants. Jack's solution is to get thrown into jail, so he can break out Paul. It's a flawed plan for many reasons, the most problematic being that Paul has a wife and son. The end result is that Paul stays behind and Jack becomes a hunted fugitive as he and Whiskey try to cross the mountains into Mexico.

Gene Rowlands as Jerry.
Kirk Douglas enlisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. The two had worked together previously with Spartacus (1960), the first film to credit, by name, the formerly blacklisted Trumbo in over a decade. The brilliance of Trumbo's screenplay for Lonely Are the Brave is the way in which it paints an in-depth portrait of its introverted protagonist. The audience learns about Jack from his scenes with Paul's wife Jerry (who knows him better than anyone else), the sheriff chasing him, and--yes--his horse Whiskey.

The film's finest scene may be Jack's farewell to Jerry (Gena Rowlands). Their love of one another, buried deeply by both, surfaces briefly when he reveals that he sometimes wishes he could have settled down with a family. It's a fleeting confession because Jack knows it's much too late to change his way of life. The relationship between Kirk Douglas and Gena Rowlands, in her first major film role, is electric. Their parting kiss is one filled with passion and regret.

Matthau as the gum-chewing sheriff.
Sheriff Morey Johnson provides an outsider's view of Jack. As the search for the fugitive continues, he develops a sort of respect for his quarry. At one point, Morey even admits to himself that he wishes the "cowboy" would escape. It's a perfect role for Walter Matthau, whose lawman bares more than a passing resemblance to the transit authority police officer he'd play in the later Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Finally, there's Jack's horse Whiskey, a young frisky mare who accompanies him on his trek over the hills. Jack's periodic conversations with Whiskey allow the cowboy to voice his inner thoughts for the audience. It's a clever narrative device, though Kirk Douglas once said that Whiskey also stole the film!
Jack talking with Whiskey the horse.
The supporting cast includes a bunch of familiar faces: George Kennedy as a sadistic police officer, William Schallert as Morey's deputy, Bill Bixby as a helicopter pilot, Carroll O'Connor as a truck driver, and Bill Raisch, who has a violent barroom brawl with Douglas. (Raisch achieved fame later as the true killer of Dr. Kimble's wife in The Fugitive). With its impressive cast, breathtaking B&W outdoor photography and Jerry Goldsmith's superb score, Lonely Are the Brave stands out as a unique, compelling film that deserves far more recognition.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Neil Simon's Murder By Death

Peter Falk as Sam Diamond.
Wealthy eccentric Lionel Twain has invited the world's six greatest detectives to his isolated mansion for "dinner and murder." Once his guests have been assembled, Twain reveals that a murder will take place at midnight and the first detective to unveil the killer will receive $1,000,000.

That's the premise for Neil Simon's Murder By Death (1976), a modestly amusing comedy that pays homage to some of literature's most famous detectives. Of course, the names and the characters have been tweaked for comedic purposes. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot has become Milo Perrier (James Coco) and her Miss Marple transformed into Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester). Likewise, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles have been turned into private eye Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and socialites Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith). Finally, there's Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), a thinly-veiled version of Earl Derr Bigger's Charlie Chan.

Simon's affection for these characters and the mystery genre is apparent throughout Murder By Death. However, that's not to say that he's above poking fun at the detectives' best known traits. For example, Twain constantly expresses irritation at Sidney Wang's broken English and his wise sayings ("Conversation like television set on honeymoon--unnecessary"). Simon also delights to sending up some of the mystery genre's best-known conventions, such as revealing new information just before the culprit is unmasked.

Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang.
Simon's script for Murder By Death is filled with one-liners and sight gags. His strategy is one of quantity over quality, so that when a funny line falls flat, there's another one--hopefully more amusing--on the way. No topic is off limits, with Simon spinning jokes about Asian stereotypes, blindness, and gay people. Indeed, in this day of increased political awareness, one can envision Murder By Death being labeled as controversial  (especially for Sellers' portrayal of an Asian character).

The all-star cast appears to be having a grand time, especially Alec Guinness as the blind (or is he?) butler. The best detective portrayal belongs to James Coco, who would have made a fine Poirot in a serious mystery (with less emphasis on eating!). Neil Simon liked Peter Falk's hard-boiled private eye so well that he wrote The Cheap Detective (1978), a follow-up starring Falk in a similar role and with his Murder By Death co-stars James Coco and Eileen Brennan.

Alec Guinness as the butler.
There are multiple versions of Murder By Death due to outtakes being reinserted to increase its running time for broadcast television. The additional scenes include an appearance by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at the end of the film.

In an interview on one of the DVDs, Neil Simon expressed his admiration for Alec Guinness. During a break on the set, he said that Guinness was reading a script called Star Wars: "I said 'What's that about, Alec?' He said 'The future. Good stuff, I think. We'll see.'"

Monday, March 16, 2020

David Janssen in Birds of Prey

The KBEX traffc helicopter.
One of the first "water cooler" movies I can remember is the 1973 CBS telepic Birds of Prey. I'm not sure if the term "water cooler" had even been invented in regard to a movie everyone was talking about the next day. But regardless, many of the students in my high school--particularly the guys--were discussing this unusual made-for-TV action film on the morning following its broadcast.

David Janssen stars as Harry Walker, a former combat pilot who flies the traffic helicopter for radio station KBEX in Salt Lake City. During his daily flyover routine, he spots a bank robbery and reports it to police. When the culprits duck into a parking garage, Harry assumes that they will be captured, their hostage freed. and the $203,500 recovered. So, he is understandably surprised when a helicopter lands on the garage's roof and whisks away the bad guys. Without hesitation, Harry takes off in pursuit in his chopper.

David Janssen as pilot Harry Walker.
Except for a talkative interlude at its midpoint, Birds of Prey is a non-stop chase film featuring impressive aerial footage of its two helicopters. Like other well-done chase pictures, such as Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey, dialogue is kept to a minimum.

However, it's that dialogue-filled interlude that gives Birds of Prey its heft. When Harry picks up the robbers' hostage, a bank employee named T.J. (for Teresa Janice), their situation forces two very different people to share close quarters. T.J. is a naive 22-year-old who plans to get married in a few days. Harry is a middle-aged man with multiple ex-wives and a lonely future. For him, the chase is a reminder of times gone by--when he was a pilot during the war. For T.J., the entire situation, to include Harry, is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. These two people talk, flirt, kiss briefly (three times), and part from one another on Harry's insistence.

Elayne Heilveil as T.J.
David Janssen doesn't have to stretch much to play Harry; he specialized in playing world-weary figures with a quiet charm and an inner strength. Still, it's one of his best post-Fugitive performances, especially coming on the heels of his dull O'Hara, U.S. Treasury TV series (1971-72). As T.J., Elayne Heilveil gives an incredibly natural performance, which had me wondering why I'd never heard of her. Her filmography includes just thirty acting credits, though she appeared multiple times on the TV series Family and Beauty and the Beast.

Much of the background music consists of big band standards like "Moonlight Serenade" and "I'll Get By." Due to copyright issues, most prints of Birds of Prey include different music. You can tell if you watching a print with the original score by noting whether you can hear Janssen singing to the opening song or not.

Birds of Prey is not a made-for-television classic, but it's still an absorbing action film that also works as a character study. Be forewarned that the closing scene is a shocker!

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Volume 4 - Disney Edition)

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! Good luck.

1. The World's Greatest Island Treehouse.

2. The Dirigible and the Vikings.

3. The Glad Game--and How to Play It.

4. Businessman Without Shoes.

5. Timothy Q.

6. Monstro!

7. Tropical Forest Novel.

8. The Rascally Scottish Outlaw.

9. The Scientist Who Missed His Wedding.

10. A Lot of Dots.

11. Ascent on the Citadel.

12. The Ugly Bug Ball.

13. James Bond and the Banshee.

14. I Was a Teenage Were-Creature.

15. Money for Pigeons (and Your Kites for Free).

Monday, March 9, 2020

Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters

Mildred Natwick and Helen Hayes.
Over a decade before Angela Lansbury starred in Murder, She Wrote, Helen Hayes played an elderly mystery author and amateur detective in The Snoop Sisters. The series co-starred Mildred Natwick as Hayes' sister and ran as a 90-minute installment on The NBC Tuesday Mystery Movie during the 1973-74 season. Originally, it shared the time slot with Banacek, Faraday and Company, and Tenafly.

The premise has bestselling writer Ernesta Snoop (Hayes) sharing a large apartment in New York City with her sister Gwendolyn (Mildred Natwick), known to friends simply as G. In the 1972 pilot film, The Female Instinct, Art Carney played the sisters' live-in chauffeur/cook Barney and Lawrence Pressman was their nephew, police Lieutenant Steve Ostrowski.

Lou Antonio as Barney.
By the time the regular series debuted in December 1973, Carney and Pressman had been replaced (Art Carney subsequently won a Best Actor Oscar for 1974's Harry and Tonto). Lou Antonio took over as Barney, transforming the character from a grumpy, elderly ex-con to a younger man who is occasionally befuddled by his employers. Veteran actor Bert Convy assumed the role of the sisters' nephew.

Both cast changes were for the better, especially Antonio whose personality meshes better with Hayes and Natwick. If he looks familiar, you may remember him from Cool Hand Luke or the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."

As a comedy, The Snoop Sisters is a modestly successful TV series that relies heavily on its two stars. Helen Hayes tries a little too hard as Ernesta, stopping just short of playing the part tongue-in-cheek. However, Mildred Natwick finds the perfect balance as G, eliciting chuckles while still making her character believable. Her performance earned her an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Limited Series, beating out co-star Helen Hayes among others.
G as the Bride of Frankenstein and Ernesta--minus mask--as the Monster.
As a mystery, The Snoop Sisters falters badly. The murderer is always easy to guess (though in one episode, no one is murdered). Additionally, some episodes have so much comedy that the mystery comes across as an afterthought. Ironically, the best one--"The Devil Made Me Do It!"--is not really a mystery at all, but an interesting tale about a secret witches' coven.

Vincent Price as a suspect.
The guest stars comprise the most delicious aspect of the series. The list includes a number of highly-respected film and stage stars such as Vincent Price, Paulette Goddard, Roddy McDowall, Victor Buono, Cyril Ritchard, Sam Jaffe, Walter Pigeon, Geraldine Page, and Joan Blondell. Most of them have brief appearances, though Price as a hammy actor and Ritchard as a warlock play major parts. Other guest stars include then-promising newcomers like Jill Clayburgh and William Devane. And, in a most unusual choice, Alice Cooper plays a coven leader called Prince and performs a complete song!

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Author-Movie Blogger John Greco Discusses His New Book "The Late Show"

John Greco--author, movie blogger, and photographer—just published his third collection of short stories, The Late Show and Other Tales of Celluloid Malice. This latest book incorporates his love of classic cinema into eight twisty, provocative tales of murder and mayhem. John recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us.

Café:  What inspired you to start writing?

John Greco:  Simply put, movies and TV. I first became an avid reader because of movies, reading novels based on films I liked as well as books on films and filmmaking. TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, both of which my parents hated so watching became a challenge, but both shows were big influences and inspiration.  I didn’t try to write a story though until the early 1990s. My first attempts were dreadful.  After writing a few stories I stopped, mostly because work and life in general got in the way. Surprisingly, some of them still exist. After I retired, I started writing once again, even bringing back from the dead one or two of those early efforts though extremely made over. 

Café:   Are there any autobiographical elements to your stories? I wondered if the boy in "Six-Shooter," the story of a movie theater owner in a small New York town, was based on you.

John Greco:  There are always some elements that are biographical, but they get merged in with pure fiction. For example, I grew up in New York City, not a small town like the character in "Six-Shooter," but yes, I did watch a lot of Western movies and TV shows as a kid. Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry were staples at the time. That’s about as autobiographical as it gets, the rest is fiction. Ideas come from many sources: newspaper articles, conversations you have with others or overhear, things you see in the street, and even photographs. My own photography has inspired a few ideas. I think there are times you can’t help but toss in a bit that is biographical.

Café:   Many of the films referenced in The Late Show are film noir (e.g. Double Indemnity, Out of the Past). How has that film genre influenced your writing?

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
John Greco:  As you know from my movie blog, I love film noir. Besides the Westerns that I previously mentioned, I watched plenty of gangster films early on. Warner Brothers films were a staple on one of the NYC stations on Sunday afternoons. As you know. Warner’s produced a lot of crime films. Many wintry Sunday afternoons were spent watching Bogart, Cagney, Garfield and company. I believe The Maltese Falcon was the first noir to really knock me out. True, at the time I first watched it I was too young to understand what film noir was. What I liked was Bogart’s Sam Spade character. Sam Spade was the perfect anti-hero. Unlike Cagney, whom I love, many of Bogart’s characters were tough guys who walked both sides of the mean streets. Spade lived on the edge, he lived by his own rules. He was one of the good guys, but in noir even the good guys were complicated. That’s what I found attractive, that along with the dangerous women who sometimes led them astray. Noir characters sometimes do bad things for the right reasons like the young character in "The Butcher’s Kid."

Café:   Who are some of your literary influences?

John Greco:  Joseph Heller was my first literary hero. I still regard his Catch-22 as a masterpiece. But it was James M. Cain who was the first crime writer whose work I fell in love with.  Both his The Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity definitely influenced me.  Then there is Elmore Leonard whose work is on a level all its own. He was a master of setting up a situation and twisting it in both a deadly and humorous way.  His characters are insanely unique and cool, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guys from the bad. I am also longtime admirer of Lawrence Block, Robert B. Parker, and Donald Westlake among many others. For me though, there is Elmore Leonard and then there is everyone else.

Café:   I know this is a tough question, but which story is your favorite and why?

Author John Greco.
John Greco:  Wow! That is tough. I don’t know if I could pick one, in fact, I know I can’t. In my new collection I would say "The Movie Club" and "The Butcher’s Kid." The latter came to me one day thinking about growing up in Brooklyn. There was a butcher shop called Castellano’s. One of the owners, I think they were two brothers, had a daughter I went to school with and I had a small crush on her at the time. Those small thoughts triggered my idea for the story which is completely fictional. I really like "Good for Nothing" from my short story collection Bitter Ends. It has both the noir quality and dark humor that I strive for in many pieces, though I don’t know if I always succeed at it. I have to mention a few other favorites like "We All Got What We Want," also from Bitter Ends and "Holcomb Bridge" from Devious Tales, both of which have a definite Hitchcockian twist.

Café:   Which of your stories would work best as a movie adaptation and who would you cast in it?

John Greco:  I don’t know about a movie, but some would work as an episode on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. "The Green Light" for example or "Holcomb Bridge." "Make it Right" would work as a Twilight Zone episode. Casting is tough, but I will say for "The Green Light," I always imagined a young Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in the roles of the seductive wife and her chump lover.

Café:   What did your wife think of The Late Show? I mean, there is a lot of killing and one tale is about a husband obsessed with old movies…..

John Greco:  Overall, it didn’t bother her. She reads a lot of mysteries--though one or two of the stories may have been more rough than she likes. As for the title story, when I first gave it to her to read, I thought she would say something like this is an exaggerated version of you and me. That’s the way I saw the story as I was writing it. As you know, I love movies, but I’m not as fanatical as the character in the story and my wife isn’t going to shoot least I hope not! (laughs)

Café:   What are your future publishing plans?

John Greco:  Well, another book is in the works, but it is some time off, maybe toward the end of the year. I am also looking to submit a few stories to both on-line magazines and print magazines.

Café:   Where can interested readers purchase your book?

John Greco:  The Late Show is currently on Amazon. I’m looking to add it to both Barnes and Noble and Kobo in the near future like my other books.

You can learn more about John Greco at his blogs Twenty Four Frames and John Greco-- Author/Photographer.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales

While Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) racked up the critical accolades, I still maintain that the best Eastwood-directed Western is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Made 15 years earlier, Josey Wales is an unflinching portrait of a man coping with the loss of his family as the U.S. tries to heal from the wounds of its Civil War.

In the opening scene, farmer Josey Wales (Eastwood) loses his wife, his young son, and his home when a band of pro-Union "Redleg" marauders attack without provocation. Wales survives and joins a group of Confederate guerrillas led by a Captain Fletcher (John Vernon). Following General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Fletcher negotiates an agreement with a U.S. senator to gain amnesty for his men. Wales is the only one that refuses to participate.

Unknown to Fletcher, the amnesty is meaningless and all his soldiers are massacred. Wales opens fire on the Union troops, but eventually flees after being able to save only a young man named Jamie (Sam Bottoms). Wales is branded an outlaw with a bounty on his head. Fletcher and a Redleg named Terrill (Bill McKinney) are tasked with bringing Josey to justice. What Fletcher doesn't know is that Terrill is the man responsible for killing Wales' family.

Sondra Locke as the daughter.
For most of its running time, The Outlaw Josey Wales chronicles its protagonist's unlikely journey. I'm not talking about his trek from Missouri to Texas but rather his emotional journey as he gradually forms a new "family" consisting of an elderly Cherokee, a young Navajo woman, and a pioneer woman and her adult daughter. He provides and protects them while their reliance, gratitude, and friendship help him find peace and eventually a new home.

Eastwood has described The Outlaw Josey Wales as an anti-war film...and it's that, too. Josey avoids an expected showdown with the Comanches by reasoning with their leader. He explains that government leaders cannot be trusted and that treaties must be formed by men who live by their word. (This point is emphasized earlier in the film when the senator reneges on the amnesty agreement made with Fletcher).

Philip Kaufman co-wrote the screenplay and started out directing The Outlaw Josey Wales. However, Kaufman (perhaps best known for The Right Stuff) clashed with Eastwood. At the latter's insistence, Kaufman was removed as director and Eastwood took over. The Directors Guild of America was not pleased with Eastwood's treatment of Kaufman. Subsequently, it implemented what has come to be known as the "Eastwood rule," which prohibits an actor or producer from firing the director and then becoming the director himself.

Chief Dan George.
The standouts in the supporting cast are Chief Dan George as Josey's friend and Paula Trueman, who plays an elderly, opinionated, surprisingly resilient Kansas woman. The latter also appeared with Eastwood in the earlier Paint Your Wagon. Dan George was 74 when he did Josey Wales (he gets most of the good one-liners). He didn't start acting professionally until he was 60, but had already been Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Little Big Man (1970).

It was on the set of The Outlaw Josey Wales that Eastwood met Sondra Locke. The two would become romantically involved for fourteen years. Following their breakup, Locke filed a palimony suit against Eastwood. They eventually settled out of court, but it was a long, complex legal battle. Still, one of their films made when they were together was Bronco Billy (1980). Although a very different film, it's also about the forming of an unlikely family of outcasts. It would make an interesting double-feature with The Outlaw Josey Wales.