Monday, November 30, 2020

Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer

The first murder victim and Lou.
Following the huge success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Universal Pictures was anxious to make another horror-comedy with its top stars. The studio purchased the rights to a screenplay titled Easy Does It, which was originally intended for Bob Hope. It then cast Boris Karloff as one of the heavies and bestowed the film with the awkward title of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. The on-screen title, though, is just Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, with Karloff's name listed under the title as one of the film's stars.

Karloff as a suspect.
Abbott plays Casey, the house detective at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel. It's a pretty easy job until a famous attorney registers as a guest and winds up murdered before he can unpack. The chief suspect is Casey's bellboy pal Freddie (Costello), who lost his job because of the attorney. There are plenty of other more likely killers, to include a hypnotist (Karloff) and a femme fatale named Angela (Lenore Aubert). To make matters worse, additional hotel guests start turning up as a corpses--which keep disappearing and reappearing in the most unlikely places.

There aren't a lot of new comic routines in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, but that hardly matters. Lou Costello was a comedy genius in terms of his timing, facial expressions, and voices. As for Bud Abbott, he was a perfect set-up man, always willing to let Lou get the laughs. Many comedy teams have performed the "moving body" gag, but A&C do it with a precision that deserves praise. They were--and are--truly underrated as comedians. 

Lou Costello and Lenore Aubert.
The duo's best films--which include Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer--feature solid plots with a bevy of one-liners. The scene with the most zingers is the one where Angela tries to convince Freddie to sign a confession.

Freddie (to Angela): Gee, you're pretty!

Angela: I bet you say that to all the girls.

Freddie: Yes, it don't go over so well with the boys.

Later, Angela pleads with Freddie to take a sip of champagne--which may be poisoned:

Angela: Just one teeny weeny sip...for little Angela.

Freddie:  I wouldn't drink it for big Angela.

Bud and Lou play bridge with corpses.
There are fine visual gags, too, such as Casey and Freddie (dressed as a hotel maid) playing bridge with a pair of corpses as Percy Helton's character flirts with Freddie. The climax in the caverns and Freddie trapped in a steam machine also generate some laughs. 

However, there are some missed opportunities, especially with Karloff. He only has one significant scene with Costello, in which the Swami tries to hypnotize Freddie into committing suicide. In fact, Boris Karloff is in very little of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, which is a shame. As he proved on stage in Arsenic and Old Lace and later in films like The Raven (1963), Boris could be very amusing.

As a follow-up to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, A&C Meet the Killer must have seemed disappointing when first released. It still turned a nice profit at the box office, though, and paved the way for additional monsters and mystery pairings with the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (with Karloff again). In hindsight, A&C Meet the Killer is a tidy, above-average comedy-mystery and easily one of Bud and Lou's best films.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Danger: Diabolik

John Phillip Law as Diabolik.
Made in 1968, Danger: Diabolik is both a psychedelic ode to the movie industry's grooviest decade and one of the first big-budget adaptations of a comic book. The title character was the subject of hundreds of popular comic books in Italy, with the first volume being published in 1962. Diabolik was not a superhero, but rather a master thief who typically stole from criminals. When working, he wore a skintight black suit that only exposed his eyes. He drove a black Jaguar, which was housed in an elaborate gadget-filled hideout. And he was assisted by his lover, the beautiful Eva Kant.

Marisa Mell as Eva Kant.
All those elements are on display in Mario Bava's movie version, which stars John Phillip Law as Diabolik. It opens with his ingenious theft of $10 million, which he accomplishes by using a fog machine and stealing the car containing the money on a dockyard pier. After Diabolik snatches an invaluable emerald necklace right out from under police protection, Inspector Ginko takes desperate measures. He applies pressure on underworld kingpin Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) to broker an agreement in which the gangster will deliver Diabolik to the police. Valmont focuses on Diabolik's only weakness:  His love for Eva Kant.

Producer Dino De Laurentiis had to overcome numerous challenges to bring Diabolik to the screen. His first choice for director was Seth Holt, who made two fine suspense films for Hammer: Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny (1965). However, De Laurentiis did not like Holt's completed film, which starred French actor Jean Sorel as Diabolik and Gilbert Roland as the villain (he replaced an ailing George Raft). So, he fired Holt, commissioned a new screenplay, and hired Mario Bava as director. He couldn't have made a better choice.

Bava's masterful use of color is on full display in Danger: Diabolik and the supervillain's  elaborate lair inside a mountain is a visual wonder. Bava occasionally goes over the top, as exemplified by a bizarre drug-fueled sequence inside a nightclub. Still, it's a small price to pay for such visual delights as Diabolik and Eva cavorting on a bed covered with $10 million or Diabolik scaling the wall of a castle tower with suction cups.
Diabolik and Eva covered in millions!
In place of Sorel, De Laurentiis cast John Phillip Law as Diabolik. Law was considered an up-and-coming actor, having co-starred with Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in Hurry Sundown (1967). Knowing that only his eyes would be visible in many scenes, due to Diabolik's costume, he practiced conveying emotions using only his peepers. The result is one of his best performances. Personally, I found Law a bit bland in later, better-known roles in Barbarella (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). It's too bad he didn't get a chance to reprise Diabolik for a sequel or two.

Catherine Deneuve was initially cast as Eva Kant opposite Law. However, she and Bava allegedly clashed and she was replaced by Austrian actress Marisa Mell. Looking fabulous in colorful outfits, the blonde-haired Mell projects the required "cool factor"--even if Eva doesn't have much to do in the film. By default, she is the strongest female character in what comes across a chauvinistic film by contemporary standards.
Diabolik scaling the castle wall.
Danger: Diabolik was not a commercial or critical success at the time of its release. It has even been the subject of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Still, it has gained fame over the years and now holds a "fresh rating" on Rotten Tomatoes. We thought it was wacky fun, right down to the Europop theme song composed by--of all people--Ennio Morricone.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Alternate Movie Title Game (7th 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.  The Crooning Sister with a Habit.

2.  A Western Fairy Tale.

3.  Wonder in the Lawn.

4.  The Guy That Didn't Say Much.

5.  Paraffin Abode.

6.  Alphabet Scientist.

7.  As Planets Bump into Each Other.

8.  Ape Man and His Mrs.

9.  The Hunt Portrait.

10. Battlin' Buckboard.

11. 1.25 Months With a Lot of Hot Air.

12. The Nonexistent Male Human.

13. One Can Only Die Two Times.

14. The Giant Caterpillar That Transformed into a Moth.

15. A Story About London and Paris.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Two

Since Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted on Peacock TV last spring, we've been working our way through the show's entire run. Last July, we reviewed the impressive first season. We recently finished the second season, which--by comparison to season one--was a disappointment. Too many episodes felt like filler material and there seemed to be a disproportionate emphasis on comedic episodes. The low point was a three-parter called "I Killed the Count," which would have been boring at a single episode--much less three! Plus, it wasted the dryly amusing John Williams (once again playing a police inspector).

Still, there were some bright spots among the 39 episodes, with the highlights being:

William Redfield as the murderer.
The Manacled - As a detective sergeant escorts a convicted killer on a train ride to San Quentin, the latter tries to negotiate his freedom. Like several episodes, this is essentially a two-character play, but it's extremely well acted by Gary Merrill as the detective and especially William Redfield as the intelligent criminal who seeks out human weaknesses. The teleplay features dialogue by the great Stirling Silliphant, with my favorite passage being when the killer explains he already knew everything about the man who would escort him:  "I thought whoever it was would be wearing a ready-made suit off of a basement rack, his heels would be run down. Be the kind of man who was living on the installment plan. Doesn't really own anything, just pieces of things. A piece of a cheap car, a piece of an ice box, a piece of a bedroom set. And all the stuff he has pieces of is already falling to pieces. But he'll keep paying on it and paying on it, month after month because that's the kind of man he is. Just a piece of a man."

One More Mile to Go - During a violent argument, a man (David Wayne) kills his wife in a rage. Instead of calling the police, he cleans up the crime scene and puts her corpse in the trunk of his car. His goal is to dump the body, but a malfunctioning tail light and a persistent highway cop cause persistent problems. Directed by Hitchcock, this tense episode opens with an mesmerizing sequence without dialogue as we view the crime through a window from outside the house. 

Jessica Tandy and Robert H. Harris
Toby - Albert Birch (Robert H. Harris) is shocked when his former flame Edwina (Jessica Tandy) contacts him out of the blue. Upon meeting again, their romance is rekindled and Edwina agrees to marry Albert. She also reveals that she has custody of her dead sister's baby, Toby. However, she refuses to let Albert--or anyone else--see Toby. The climatic twist is not unexpected, but that doesn't negate the impact of this low-key, unsettling episode. Jessica Tandy gives a haunting, disturbing performance--seven years before she appeared in a pivotal role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Evelyn Rudie and Cedric Hardwicke.
A Man Greatly Beloved - A young girl named Hildegarde (Evelyn Rudie) befriends a grumpy recluse (Cedric Hardwicke), who may be a famous retired judge. Through his friendship with Hildegarde, the man gradually becomes an esteemed member of the community. Again, the twist is not surprising, but this episode is elevated by charming, natural performances--especially young Evelyn Rudie. The supporting cast includes Robert Culp in an early role. Based on a short story by Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne. Incidentally, Evelyn Rudie earned an Emmy nomination the same year for an episode of Playhouse 90