Monday, August 31, 2020

Sharpe's World: Love, Courage, and Respect

Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.
In 1993, ITV launched a series of television movies based on Bernard Cornwell's novels about a British officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Sean Bean starred as Richard Sharpe, a sergeant who is promoted to lieutenant after he saves the life of the Duke of Wellington. During the series, which consisted of sixteen films, Sharpe rises to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In Sharpe's Rifles (1993), though, he struggles with being accepted as an officer. He is put in charge of a small unit of riflemen and clashes immediately with Corporal Patrick Harper (Daragh O'Malley). Harper considers himself the equal of Sharpe and butts heads often with the newly-minted lieutenant. It culminates in Sharpe charging Harper with mutiny--a charge he later drops when Harper saves their mission.

Sharpe also grapples frequently with his fellow officers. Unlike most officers, who bought their commissions, he does not hail from a well-to-do family and lacks a formal education. However, Sharpe possesses more battlefield experience than most of his superiors--and seldom refrains from expressing his opinions.

As the series progresses, Sharpe becomes accepted by his subordinates, who admire his courage and intelligence. However, he forms few friendships with fellow officers, preferring to fraternize with his soldiers. Put another way, he favors a hearty mug of ale over a glass of fine wine.

Daragh O'Malley as Harper.
The ruggedly handsome Sharpe has several romantic relationships throughout the series and eventually marries (one of the most interesting storylines). However, his strongest relationships are with two men: Patrick Harper and the Duke of Wellington. Indeed, Sean Bean and Daragh O'Malley (as Harper) are the only two actors to appear in every film. Their characters' mutual respect is the one constant during the chaos of war. Wellington (played initially by  David Troughton and then Hugh Fraser) also admires and trusts Sharpe. Still, he occasionally takes advantage of the younger officer--though he bales out Sharpe on several occasions.

Sean Bean perfectly captures the blue-collar ethic of the titular hero. An ongoing joke during the series is that the enemy and rival officers expect Sharpe to fight like a gentleman--while Sharpe fights to win. The beauty of Bean's performance, though, is that he also conveys Sharpe's innate kindness toward women and his insecurity in regard to his education.

Abigail Cruttenden as Jane.
The supporting cast includes several actors who appear in multiple episodes. The standouts include Pete Postlethwaite as a psychotic sergeant and Abigail Cruttenden as Sharpe's wife. If the chemistry between Bean and Cruttenden seems real, then that's because it was--they were married for two years.

The majority of the Sharpe films are above-average, though the plots start to get a little repetitious toward the end. There are also lots of battle scenes. Still, the strong characters carry the day with the only truly bad episode (Sharpe's Justice) being one that's not based on a Cornwell novel. All of the films except the last two revolve around the Napoleonic Wars and were produced during 1993-97. Sharpe's Challenge (2006) and Sharpe's Peril (2008) shift the action to India.

John Tams, who plays Rifleman Daniel Hagman, also sings occasionally on the show. Most episodes end with the traditional folk song "Over the Hill and Far Away" with additional lyrics written by Tams. In fact, the music was popular enough to result in an album, Over the Hills and Far Away: The Music of Sharpe, featuring Tams and others.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Clint Eastwood in Hang 'Em High

Clint Eastwood's first American film after achieving international stardom in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy was predictably a Western. What is surprising is that Eastwood chose to ignore the qualities that made Leone's Western pictures unique. I wouldn't call Hang 'Em High (1968) conventional--it's a downright odd mix of revenge drama, political statement, and uncomfortable romance. And yet, it's all Hollywood--no Spaghetti.

Eastwood plays Jed Cooper, a rancher on the trail with his small herd of cattle. He is confronted by an unofficial posse who suspects him of murder and theft. Despite producing a bill of sale, Jed cannot convince the posse of his innocence and he is hanged and left for dead. Jed doesn't die, though, and is rescued by a federal marshal who takes him to Fort Grant. 

Pat Hingle as Judge Fenton.
Judge Adam Fenton (Pat Hingle) aims to enforce law and order over the entire Oklahoma Territory with a small team of marshals. Learning that Jed was once a lawman, the judge convinces him to pin on the tin star again. Jed's motive is driven by revenge--he wants to track down the nine men that hanged him. In the meantime, he also takes note of a young attractive woman named Rachel Warren (Inger Stevens). Strangely, she is given the opportunity to view every new prisoner brought to Fort Grant. As Jed later learns, her motives are also driven by revenge.

There's a lot--indeed, too much--going on in Hang 'Em High. Jed's quest for revenge is overshadowed by Judge Fenton's relentless pursuit for justice. The judge resides over so many trials that there's just no time to get into the details of every case. That gets under Jed's skin when a teenage boy is hanged instead of given an opportunity to reform. Likewise, Jed can't tolerate how the mass hangings are turned into entertainment spectacles that attract almost every resident of the community.

Inger Stevens as Rachel.
There are the makings of an interesting political Western here, perhaps along the lines of Kirk Douglas's clever Posse (1975). However, just as it gets interesting, Hang 'Em High changes direction and focuses on the awkward romance between Jed and Rachel. Their relationship allows her to overcome her need for vengeance, but Jed still jumps at the chance to capture or kill the men who wronged him. I'm sure the screenwriters intended to make some major statement on this plot development, but I totally missed it.

The cast is adequate, with Pat Hingle taking over the film by the sheer force of his personality. Clint  grimaces and looks irritated, but lacks the humor that made his Westerns with Sergio Leone so entertaining. As Clint's love interest, Inger Stevens has a better-developed role than her usual ones. The Swedish-born actress with the compelling eyes was wasted in many films during her short career. She died at age 35 of an apparent suicide.

In fact, my recommendation is to skip Hang 'Em High and opt for any of Clint's Spaghetti Westerns or later quality efforts like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Doris and Rock Engage in Pillow Talk

Doris Day as Jan.
Interior designer Jan Morrow shares a party line with composer Brad Allen--and that's a problem. You see, Brad (Rock Hudson) is a lothario who uses the telephone to woo his admirers. When Jan (Doris Day) complains to the telephone company, it sends a female representative, who immediately succumbs to the handsome Brad's charms.

Brad is equally frustrated with Jan until he sees the pretty professional at a nightclub. Knowing that she would never give him the time of day, Brad invents a new persona: a naive Texan named Rex Stetson, who is visiting New York City. Sparks fly between Jan and "Rex." She believes she may have found the perfect gentleman. Brad thinks he can make Jan one of his conquests within five days (at most).

Rock Hudson as Brad.
Made in 1959, Pillow Talk is a smart, well-written comedy that benefits from brilliant casting. It was the first of three films made with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The two were already big stars, but their on-screen chemistry is far greater than the sum of its parts. Hudson, who had made over a dozen dramas during the previous five years, was not known for his comedic skills. However, his funny side blossoms alongside Doris Day. That works to her advantage because she doesn't have to carry the comedy all by herself, as she did in later films with Rod Taylor (The Glass Bottom Boat) and Richard Harris (Caprice).

Brad goes drinking with Alma.
It helps, of course, to have Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter in the supporting cast. The typically delightful Ritter actually has a small role, but it includes a wonderful scene in which Brad unwisely tries to get her drunk. Randall has a field day as a quirky millionaire pursuing Jan while trying to mount a Broadway musical with his good friend Brad. He also gets many of the best one-liners. Upon learning that Brad has been rejected by Jan, he quips: "The great Brad Allen, chopped down to size, floating down the river with the rest of us logs."

Director Michael Gordon injects Pillow Talk with a playful sense of humor. He uses split screens periodically throughout the film to show Jan and Brad talking on the party line. The technique is especially effective in the opening scene in which we see Jan, Brad, and one of Brad's girlfriends all at different locations talking on the phone. In a later split scene, Jan and "Rex" seem to touch feet romantically as they talk on the phone. However, an even more effective technique is allowing the audience to hear the thoughts of Jan and Brad as voiceovers (check out the clip at the end of this review).
Interestingly, Michael Gordon specialized in serious dramas early in his career (e.g., An Act of MurderCyrano de Bergerac). His career was interrupted when he was blacklisted in the early 1950s. Pillow Talk (1959) was his first feature film in eight years. He directed Doris Day again in Move Over, Darling (1963). He was the grandfather of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, 500 Days of Summer).

Pillow Talk earned five Oscar nominations, with its writers winning the award for Best Screenplay. Doris Day was nominated for Best Actress and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress. Doris, Rock Hudson, and Tony Randall reteamed for two more comedies: Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). The best of their three films is the sparkling classic Lover Come Back. But if it's their #1 film, then Pillow Talk is #1a!

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (1950s Sci Fi 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!

1. Alien Nuptials.

2. Don't Go to Sleep!

3. When the Elevator Stopped.

4. Escape to Zyra.

5. Hooray for Bacteria!

6. Help Me! Help Me!

7. Infinitesimal.

8. Swimming With Kay.

9. Alien Desert Crash.

10. Don't Water the Rocks.

11. Carrot Creature.

12. Id Monster.

13. They Live in the Storm Drain!

14. Big Grasshoppers.

15. Gertrud (or Gertrude) the Duck.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Les Diaboliques: Murder with a Twist

Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret.
Michel Delassalle, the headmaster at a second-rate French boarding school, is not a nice person. He treats his frail wife Christina with disdain, openly engages in an affair with fellow teacher Nicole, and buys bad fish because it’s cheap. He even waters down the wine served to the staff at dinner!

The strong-willed Nicole, who wears sunglasses to hide her recent black eye, is fed up with her abusive lover. She convinces Christina that murder is the only way to get rid of Michel permanently. The two women devise a seemingly foolproof scheme that provides them with solid alibis. And everything works according to plan—except, of course, that Michel’s corpse disappears.

Made in 1955, Les Diaboliques is the forerunner to the twisty psychological thrillers, like Psycho and Homicidal, that became prevalent in the 1960s. Even Hitchcock was interested in adapting the novel She Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac. However, filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot purchased the rights after his wife Vera recommended the book.

Simone Signoret as Nicole.
Vera Clouzot also stars as Christina, infusing the role with vulnerability and timidity. Even the boys in her classes recognize her fragility (though she is easily the most popular teacher). Filled with doubt from the outset, Christina needs a strong conspirator and finds one in Nicole. Simone Signoret plays the role with authority and an almost masculine flavor. While her fellow teachers struggle with unruly boys, Nicole’s students march out of their classroom in single file. (The very nature of Nicole’s personality provides a clue to the twist ending.)

Paul Meurisse as Michel.
Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose previous film was the acclaimed Wages of Fear, directs with a sure hand. He fills his frames with shadows and furtive looks. He builds tension effectively, especially in a scene in which a frightened Christina watches from her classroom as a swimming pool—which should contain Michel’s corpse—is drained. Clouzot also adds a touch of dark humor, such as when some upstairs neighbors complain about the noise in Nicole’s apartment, not realizing that a bath tub is being filled to drown a drugged Michel. 

Les Diaboliques has been remade multiple times. Curtis Harrington’s Games is a loose variation starring Simone Signoret again. Tuesday Weld, Joan Hackett, and Sam Waterston appeared in a 1974 TV adaptation called Reflections of Murder. Another notable version was the 1996 theatrical film Diabolique with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.

We recommend just sticking with the original, though. Clouzot's taut direction, combined with strong acting by the lead actresses, make Les Diaboliques an influential thriller that has stood the test of time. That said, if you're a fan of twist endings, don't expect to be blown away. It's really not that surprising by today's standards, but that's only because the format has been replicated so many times since its release.