Monday, September 20, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Gregory Peck Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Gregory Peck film 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.  A Day With Anya.

2.  The Other Son.

3.  Savage Command.

4.  Queequeg and Me.

5.  Maddalena.

6.  The Man Who Forgot Himself. (This one works for two movies!)

7.  The Cipher.

8.  Maycomb.

9.  The Big Muddy.

10. Ghost Town.

11. Black Hair, Blue Eyes. (This one might be tough!)

12. Flag.

13. The Final Days.

14. Cady's Vengeance.

15. Ward 7.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Best Seller and Alien Nation: Cop Buddy Films with a Twist

James Woods and Brian Dennehy.
Best Seller (1987).  Cleve is a professional killer who feels he never got the respect he deserved from his ex-employer, a powerful corporate executive. To gain revenge, Cleve (James Woods) approaches Dennis Meechum to write an exposé about the corrupt businessman who used Cleve's services. A police detective who once authored a non-fiction bestseller, Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is skeptical at first. Gradually, Cleve persuades Meechum that his tale is true; it "helps" that suddenly both men become the targets of murder attempts.

Made in 1987, Best Seller is mostly a study of the relationship between Cleve and Meechum. Granted, there are the requisite action scenes and a climax filled with multiple corpses, but that's not the focus. Instead, Larry Cohen's screenplay explores the rocky "friendship" between a smooth, charming, vicious killer and an honest cop struggling to be a single parent. The strength of Cohen's script is that it dupes into believing that Cleve may not be so bad, then shows him performing a cold-blooded, needless murder. Like the audience, Meechum eventually becomes intrigued with the engaging killer--but he's smart enough to never fully trust his new ally.

Coming off a Best Actor nomination for Salvador (1986), James Woods pulls in the audience with his riveting portrayal of Cleve. Brian Dennehy provides an effective foil, but his role is less showy. Best Seller belongs to Woods and his compelling, creepy character.

It's not a brilliant film. There are too many gaps in logic, such as when Meecham--whose life has been threatened--leaves his teenage daughter home alone. My recommendation is that you overlook its faults and watch Best Seller to see Woods at his best.

Mandy Patinkin as Francisco.
Alien Nation (1988).  In 1991, Los Angeles is the home to 300,000 aliens who arrived three years earlier when their spaceship crashed on Earth. Labeled Newcomers, the aliens are humanoid in appearance and have been partially assimilated into American society. Treated as slaves on their planet, the Newcomers have embraced their new freedoms. Still, they are viewed by many humans as a race to distrust and even fear.

Police detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan) loses his partner when they intervene during a convenient store robbery in Slagtown, the slang name for a Newcomer community. Determined to find his partner's killer, Sykes volunteers to team up with Sam Francisco (Mandy Patinkin), the first Newcomer to be promoted to detective. The prejudiced human gradually realizes that his new partner is intelligent and dedicated, even if he does have a propensity to follow the rules.

James Caan as Sykes.
With Alien Nation, screenwriter Rockne O'Bannon (Farscape) goes to great lengths to create a new world--and then does little with it. He litters the story with fascinating tidbits about the Newscomers: their favorite foods include raw beaver; they can breathe methane; they can master the English language in three months; and consuming too much sour milk makes them drunk! Alas, none of these revelations factor into what is essentially a boring a plot about a businessman trying to start a drug racket.

Mandy Patinkin is entertaining as Sam Francisco (whom Sykes calls George...an inside joke since the producers were not allowed to use the name George Jetson). James Caan provides a nice foil, but he has played roles like his independent, grumpy cop far too often in his career. In the end, they make Alien Nation watchable, but not especially memorable.

The film did spawn a short-lived TV series and five follow-up television movies starring Eric Pierpont as Francisco and Gary Graham as Sikes (now spelled differently).

Monday, September 6, 2021

Cold War Thrills in The Bedford Incident

Richard Widmark as Captain Finlander.
The 1960s was a grand decade for top-notch Cold War thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and Fail Safe (1964). Although it falls a little short of those aforementioned films, The Bedford Incident (1965) remains a first-rate drama that crackles with tension from start to finish.

Richard Widmark stars as Captain Eric Finlander, who commands the U.S.S. Bedford, a destroyer whose purpose is to monitor Soviet submarines and "prevent by threat a certain course of action by the enemy." The Bedford's new chief physician, a reserve officer named Potter (Martin Balsam), clashes almost immediately with Finlander. The captain belittles Potter by stating he did not request a new medical officer and holds reserve officers in low regard. 

Potter and Ben Munceford, a journalist on board to write a story about Finlander, soon detect on a pervasive atmosphere of apprehension aboard the ship. The crew works long hours, remains constantly on high alert, and are discouraged from going to sick bay. Munceford (Sidney Poitier) also picks up on Finlander's unbridled excitement when the Bedford discovers a Soviet submarine patrolling near Greenland. The captain insists that his mission is only deterrence, but Munceford begins to wonder if Finlander is obsessed with destroying the Soviet vessel.

Sidney Poitier as Munceford.
The Bedford Incident is a slow burn that methodically builds suspense to its unexpected climax. There are no action scenes. Rather, James B. Harris--in his directorial debut--is content to let the screenplay do the heavy lifting. Harris, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several films (including Paths of Glory), directs with an unobtrusive, sure hand. The film's most memorable scenes--when Potter confronts Finlander and when Munceford interviews the captain--could have been lifted from a stage play. That's meant to be a compliment as it shows Harris's total trust in his actors to deliver the drama.

Veteran screenwriter James Poe's adaptation of the novel by Mark Rascovich wisely avoids turning The Bedford Incident into a contemporary Moby Dick. Yes, Finlander is obsessed with the Soviet submarine, but his sense of duty keeps him from pursuing personal goals at the expense of imperiling his country. This internal dilemma is what makes the final outcome in The Bedford Incident so devastating.

It's easy to see why Richard Widmark, who also served as one of the producers, was drawn to The Bedford Incident. It provides him with one of the best roles of his distinguished career. I love the aforementioned lively interview between Munceford and Finlander in which one can see the latter trying to dampen his temper and choose his words carefully because of his distrust of the press. It's a master class in acting.

Martin Balsam and (far right) Wally Cox.
Sidney Poitier is content to play Munceford as a catalyst. We never learn much about the journalist, but through him, we learn a lot about Finlander, Dr. Potter, and a former German U-boat commander on board as a NATO observer (the excellent Eric Portman). James MacArthur and Wally Cox are also present in small but pivotal roles. Look quickly and you may be able to spot Donald Sutherland and Ed Bishop (UFO) as crewmen.

The Bedford Incident was the third teaming of Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, following No Way Out (1950) and The Long Ships (1964). When Widmark died in 2008, his friend Poitier said: "His creative work is indelible on film and will be there to remind us of what he was as an artist and a human being."

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Seven Things to Know About the Emmy Awards

1. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awarded the first Emmys in 1948. However, the first winner for Best Dramatic Show was not bestowed until 1950. That honor went to Pulitzer Prize Playhouse, which featured 60-minute adaptations of Pulitzer Prize-winning works such as You Can't Take It With You, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Mary of Scotland. The series aired on ABC and was sponsored by the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company.

2. Kelsey Grammer is the only actor to be nominated for playing the same character in three television series. He first appeared as Dr. Frasier Crane in Cheers and was twice nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. He earned another nomination for playing Frasier in a guest-starring role on Wings in 1992. He capped it off with ten nominations and four wins for playing the title role in his Frasier TV series from 1993-2004. (And for the record, Kelsey also won for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for The Simpsons in 2006.)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was nominated for each of its first four years, but failed to win an Emmy thanks to All in the Family and M*A*S*H. However, it then won three consecutive times for Outstanding Series--Comedy. By the time it finished its seven-year run in 1977, it had racked up an amazing 41 wins in various categories. That was the record for the most Emmys won by a single TV series until Frazier passed it 25 years later.

4. Television shows developed for streaming services and cable networks dominate the prime time Emmys these days--but it wasn't always that way. The Sopranos became the first cable TV series to win Outstanding Drama Series in 2004. It was nominated in 1999, 2000, and 2001--losing to, respectively, The Practice and The West Wing (twice).

Belafonte and Emmy.
5. Harry Belafonte was the first Black performer to win an Emmy. His episode "Tonight with Belafonte" on The Revlon Revue won for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program in 1960. Belafonte and Sammy Davis, Jr. were the first Black actors to be nominated for an Emmy in 1956. The first Black actress to win an Emmy was Gail Fisher for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Mannix in 1970.

6. As Erica Kane on All My Children, Susan Lucci was nominated 21 times for the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. She finally won an Emmy with her 19th nomination. It was her only win out of 21 total nominations. Don't feel sorry for her, though, as Susan Lucci became daytime television's highest-paid star in the early 1990s, earning $1 million annually.

7. Dick Van Dyke once said: "I've won several Emmys, a Tony and a Grammy so maybe somebody will let me have an Oscar, and then I'll have a full set."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Seven Things to Know About Roger Corman

1. Roger Corman produced Martin Scorsese's second feature-length film Boxcar Bertha (1972). In Corman and Jim Jerome's book How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Scorsese recalled: "He once said, 'Martin, what you have to get is a very good first reel because people want to know what's going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it turns out.' Probably the best sense I have ever heard in the movies."

2. Corman offered the lead role in his motorcycle gang picture The Wild Angels (1966) to George Chakiris, an Oscar winner for West Side Story. However, Chakiris could not ride a motorcycle and withdrew from the film, so Corman promoted Peter Fonda to the lead role. Fonda accepted on the condition that his character's name be changed from Jack Black to Heavenly Blues (a type of Morning Glory flower). Fonda's previous role, that of the doomed gang member Loser, went to Bruce Dern. The Wild Angels cast also included Nancy Sinatra, Dern's then-wife Diane Ladd, Michael J. Pollard, Gayle Hunnicutt, and Corman regular Dick Miller.

A young Tom Selleck in Terminal Island.
3. In the mid-1960s, Roger Corman interviewed several UCLA and USC graduates for an assistant position. He eventually hired Stephanie Rothman, who had a master's degree in film from USC. She later became a producer, writer, and director responsible for drive-in cult classics like The Student Nurses (1970) and Terminal Island (1973). Corman interviewed UCLA grad Julie Halloran, but didn't hire her. He did start dating her and they were married in 1970. Julie Corman became a successful film producer, too.

4. Corman tried working for a major Hollywood studio on a couple of occasions. His year-long deal with Columbia Pictures in the 1960s proved fruitless. Corman wanted to produce an adaptation of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Columbia wasn't interested. However, his deal with Twentieth Century-Fox yielded The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967). The one million dollar budget was the largest of Corman's directorial career. The director originally wanted Orson Welles for the role of Al Capone, but the studio convinced him otherwise. So, he had Jason Robards switch parts from Bugs Moran to Capone.

5. One of Roger Corman's most cost-effective hits was Tidal Wave (1973). It was originally a three-hour Japanese movie called Submersion of Japan. Corman bought that film, had it edited down to 72 minutes, dubbed the dialogue, and included new footage of Lorne Greene as a United Nations ambassador. Corman said: "It surprised all of us and made money...Tidal Wave was probably the most outrageous example of re-editing a film for domestic release."

Jack Nicholson in The Terror.
6. The Terror (1963) is often described as a horror film made by Corman in two days with the leftover sets from The Raven (1963). The reality is that it was the longest film ever made by Roger Corman. With barely a script and Boris Karloff available for only two days, Corman shot as much footage as he could. Then, over a period of several months, he had five different directors shot sequences of the film. Those directors included Francis Ford Coppola and Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop). Jack Nicholson, who co-starred in The Terror, commented to Corman that "everybody in this whole damned town's directed this picture" and asked if he could direct the last day. Corman said: "Sure, why not?"

7. Today, Roger Corman is 95. His last film credit was as executive producer of Death Race: Beyond Anarchy in 2018. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave Roger Corman an honorary Oscar "for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers."

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith.
"Running was always a big thing in our family, specially running away from the police. It's hard to understand. All I know is that you've got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post's no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That's what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like."

Those words are spoken over the opening scene of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by its protagonist Colin Smith. A young man from a working class background, Colin (Tom Courtenay) has recently arrived at Ruxton Towers Reformatory after his conviction for robbing a bakery. Colin struggles to suppress his defiant attitude until his athletic ability unexpectedly changes his fortunes at Ruxton.

Michael Redgrave as the governor.
It turns out that Colin can run faster than any of the other lads. That draws the attention of the reformatory's governor (Michael Redgrave), who is obsessed with winning a cross country running competition with a private school. Colin's new privileges include being able to run alone outside the reformatory's walls. As he does so, he reflects on his life, his hazy future, and the events that led to his present situation.

Made in 1962, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner initially resembles the "angry young men" films popularized in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the working class young protagonists in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Colin has a chip on his shoulder. He wants a job with good pay, but he doesn't want to work for anyone and lacks the initiative to start his own business. It's easier to commit small-time larceny. 

Yet, by conventional accounts, Colin is the type of juvenile delinquent that can be reformed. One could reason that he just needs some direction, some discipline, and a goal. The reformatory's governor believes that the rigors of long distance running can instill the discipline and that winning a championship cup for the school can provide a goal. Yet, what the governor doesn't grasp is that his goal may not be Colin's goal. 

In the end, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is not about Colin's transformation. That might have made an interesting, inspirational movie. Instead, screenwriter Alan Sillitoe and director Tony Richardson choose to paint a portrait of Colin's life inside and outside the reformatory. It's a similar approach to the duo's earlier Saturday Night and Sunday Morning--except that Colin is much more appealing than Albert Finney's self-absorbed protagonist. Additionally, Colin's defiant attitude and independent spirit just might provide him with the strength to better his life.

While the cast includes veterans such as Michael Redgrave and Alec McCowen, this is Tom Courtenay's film. He's in almost every frame, fully inhabiting the complex character at the heart of the story. His performance earned him a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.

In the same year he made The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, director Tony Richardson married Michael Redgrave's daughter, actress Vanessa Redgrave. The couple, who were married for five years, had two children who also became actresses: Natasha and Joely.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Jamie Lee Boards a Terror Train; The Animals Have Their Day

Jamie Lee Curtis.
Terror Train (1980).  When a cruel college prank goes awry, its victim, Kenny, seemingly has a nervous breakdown. Three years later, the prank's perpetrators have become senior pre-med students, one of whom has hired a steam-driven train for a masquerade party. After almost everyone has boarded the train, a student named Ed is secretly murdered. The killer rolls the corpse under the caboose and dons the disguise—a Groucho Marx mask—worn by Ed. Thus, all the party attendees think that “Groucho” is Ed…and not a revenge-minded homicidal psycho.

The killer in disguise.
The Canadian-made Terror Train was one of the first slasher films made in the wake of Halloween’s box office success. Helmed by veteran Roger Spottiswoode, it’s an efficient thriller that generates a reasonable amount of tension. A key plot point has the killer donning the disguise of his latest victim. It also features an effective twist at the climax, which—while not original—nevertheless comes across as a mild surprise.

In her third "slasher film", following Halloween (1978) and Prom Night (1979), Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a surprisingly tough heroine. Her character may regret her role in the ill-fated prank and even feel sympathy towards Kenny, but she's willing to take on the killer at the end. The supporting cast is stronger than usual for this type of film with Ben Johnson as the train conductor, Hart Bochner as a manipulative student, and David Copperfield in his only dramatic role as...a magician. If actress D.D. Winters looks familiar, that's because she became Prince's protégé Vanity.

Terror Train isn't an undiscovered gem. It's an average thriller made on a modest budget, but by people that know how to make this sort of thing.

Christopher George as Steve.
Day of the Animals (1977). When the Earth's ozone layer starts depleting, it has an inexplicable effect on both domestic and wild animals living in high altitudes. It transforms them into bloodthirsty killers!

That's bad news for a group of vacationers participating in a two-week wilderness trek through the mountains led by guides Steve (Christopher George) and Daniel (Michael Ansara). After the group fends off an attack by a single wolf, it begins to splinter. Matters get worse when one of the hikers, a bigoted executive (Leslie Nielsen) with a huge ego, convinces some of the group to follow him instead of Steve. Pretty soon, the humans are fighting for their lives as they face mountain lions, bears, birds, snakes, wild dogs--and each other.

Leslie Nielsen.
Made two years after Jaws (1975), Day of the Animals is often mentioned with other ecologically-themed films where Mother Nature rebels against humans (e.g., Grizzly, Frogs, Food of the Gods, The Pack, etc.). That's a shame, because it's better than those drive-in efforts; indeed, for most of its running time, Day of the Animals is a tidy suspense film with solid acting. 

Unfortunately, it starts to unravel when Leslie Nielsen's bizarre executive strips off his shirt and starts acting like a mad man. Sure, Nielsen has a field day overacting and spouts some memorable dialogue (to a young boy: "You little cockroach! You gonna tell me about survival?"). However, his performance ruins the second half of the movie (for a more serious take on a similar character, see Sands of the Kalahari).

Lynda Day George and hair.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves satisfactorily and it's fun to see: Lynda Day George (Chris's wife) as a reporter whose blonde hair always looks perfectly coiffed; Ruth Roman as an overbearing mother; Richard Jaeckel as a well-meaning professor; Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) as a former football player; and a young Andrew Stevens.

The animals prove to be adequate thespians, too, especially the bear and a pack of wild dogs that attack near the climax. The latter scene does leave one with a lingering question: Why are all the wild dogs in the pack German Shepherds?

Monday, August 2, 2021

If a Man Answers: Treating Your Husband Like a Dog

Sandra Dee as Chantel.
Romantic comedies were box office gold in the early 1960s with hits like Lover Come Back and Come September (both 1961). Therefore, it was inevitable that a Hollywood studio would make one aimed at the young adult crowd. That's what Universal had in mind when it cast Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin as the leads in If a Man Answers (1962).

Dee and Darin met on the set of Come September, fell in love, and were married in 1960. By 1962, Sandra Dee was the ninth biggest draw at the U.S. box office and Bobby Darin had a #3 hit record on the Billboard Top 40 chart with "Things."

In If a Man Answers, Sandra Dee stars as a young socialite named Chantel, who has rejected numerous suitors. Her attitude toward men changes when she meets Eugene (Darin), a smooth-talking fashion photographer. He asks her to pose for him for a calendar shoot and--after some minor obstacles--the two get married.

Bobby Darin as Chantel.
However, Eugene doesn't want to photograph his wife in risqué outfits, so he hires Chantel's "friend" Tina (Stefanie Powers) as a model. That creates its own problems for the newlyweds. Chantel turns to her mother for advice and receives an unexpected response. Her mother "trained" Chantel's father using lessons from a dog obedience book. At first, Chantel is incredulous, but when she tries one of the dog training techniques on Eugene, it works like a charm.

Micheline Presle.
It's a silly premise, but works surprisingly well thanks to the agreeable cast. While Dee and Darin hold their own as the stars, it's the older supporting cast that shines. As Chantel's mother, French actress Micheline Presle adds elegance, intelligence, and a touch of sparkle. It's easy to see why her daughter confides everything to her and why her husband is devoted to her. Cesar Romero is her equivalent as Eugene's playboy father, who makes an appearance late in the film. Romero was born to portray charming lovers who are more playful than dangerous. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The other "star" of If a Man Answers is costume designer Jean Louis. The Hollywood veteran makes Sandra Dee, Micheline Presle, and Stefanie Powers look fabulous in tailored dresses in vibrant colors such as red, orange, and blue. Jean Louis is especially successful at enhancing Dee's sexiness after the actress was all but stereotyped as a tomboy in movies such as Gidget (1959) and Tammy Tell Me True (1961).

If a Man Answers continued Sandra Dee's string of hit movies. Bobby Darin's next film was a dramatic change-of-pace with him playing an Air Force gunner suffering for post-traumatic stress disorder in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963). Darin's performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1965, husband and wife teamed up again for another romantic comedy, That Funny Feeling.

By the late 1960s, however, Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin had divorced and each began to experience a decline in popularity. Darin died in 1973 following open heart surgery; he was 37. Sandra Dee appeared sporadically on television, but essentially retired from acting in 1978. She died in 2005 at age 62 from complications of kidney disease. Their son, Dodd Mitchell Darin, wrote a biography of his parents in 1994 titled Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (James Stewart Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred James Stewart 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 Undressed Boot Object.

2. The Wyoming Male.

3. The Model Airplane Designer.

4. Voyeur.

5. The Manion Case.

6. What Pyewacket Knows.

7. My Pooka Friend.

8. Mattie's Eye.

9. Vindicator.

10. Frenchy and Tom.

11. The Sycamore Family.

12. Bell on the Saddle.

13. The Last Boy Ranger.

14. Madeleine.

15. The Art of Murder (this may be a toughie).

Monday, July 19, 2021

Michael Caine Meets a Billion Dollar Brain

Michael Caine as Harry Palmer.
It was assuredly no easy task to follow in the footsteps of two of the best spy thrillers of the 1960s: The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. So, one must cut a little slack for Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Michael Caine’s third outing as thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. 

Since we last saw Palmer, he has become a low-rent private eye working out of a dimly-lit office filled with half-empty food containers. He turns down a offer to spy again for his former boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and accepts a job from a computerized voice on the phone. His assignment is to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki. Palmer learns that his cargo consists of six eggs containing a deadly virus. The recipient is an old Palmer associate named Leo (Karl Malden), who works for a Texas billionaire intent on ending the spread of Communism.

Karl Malden as Leo.
It's a promising opening, but the plot soon goes off the rails with a detour to Latvia, a trip to Texas to see a giant computer, and a brief climatic confrontation on the frozen Baltic Sea. The film's biggest mistake, though, is in relegating Palmer to a pawn in these shenanigans. Part of the fun of the earlier Palmer pictures was that his foes constantly underestimated the intelligent, if reluctant, spy. No one manages to manipulate Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain (unless he wants to be by a beautiful Russian agent). However, he has little impact on what happens in the story.

As Palmer's double-crossing one-time friend, Karl Malden looks lost in a poorly-written role. It's hard to believe that his over-eager, seemingly desperate former CIA agent could survive so long in the espionage business. Malden, an exceptional actor in the right part, was prone to occasional bouts of ham (see also Parrish) and that's sadly the case in Billion Dollar Brain.

 Françoise Dorléac as Anya.
His castmates have little to do, with Françoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve's sister) being wasted in an under-developed part. (Alas, that was a problem with many of the male-driven spy thrillers of the decade.) At least, Oskar Homolka has a grand time reprising his Russian army general from Funeral in Berlin in a couple of scenes with Caine. Also, look quickly and you may spot future film stars Donald Sutherland as a computer technician and Susan George as a young girl on a train that interacts with Palmer.

It's interesting to note that Billion Dollar Brain was directed by the frequently flamboyant Ken Russell. At that time in his career, Russell was primarily a television director who wanted to get established in films. Thus, Billion Dollar Brain was basically a "for hire" assignment and, as a result, doesn't bear his usual trademarks. To his credit, Russell makes good use of his outdoor locations shot in Finland and he keeps the plot moving along at a reasonable pace.

Billion Dollar Brain isn't a disaster, but it's a horrible letdown from Caine's two previous Palmer movies. If you enjoyed those, you should probably seek out Billion Dollar Brain so you can complete the original Palmer trilogy. Otherwise, there are better ways to spend your time.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Michael Asimow Discusses His New Book on Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies

What movie fan doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?

In Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies, co-authors Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman dissect over 200 movies that “take place in a courtroom, defined broadly enough to include pretrial discovery, plea negotiations, jury deliberations and appellate court arguments.” Michael Asimow is a professor at Santa Clara Law School and a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School. Paul Bergman is a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School.

The films in their book range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird to fact-based dramas (Judgment at Nuremburg), comedies (My Cousin Vinny), and intriguing lesser-known fare such as Never Take Candy from a Stranger. Each film review includes a synopsis, an analysis of the courtroom events that “distinguishes truth from trickery,” and production notes. The authors also provide extensive details on the actual cases that served as the basis for fact-inspired films.

We had the opportunity to recently discuss Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies with co-author Michael Asimow.

Café:  What inspired you and your co-author Paul Bergman to embark on the fascinating endeavor of analyzing the courtroom scenes of over 200 movies from their legal and ethical perspectives?

Michael Asimow:  Paul and I love old movies and we love the law. We’ve had long and great careers as law professors. And we thought we’d bring our passions together by providing a guidebook to courtroom movies. It will enable our readers to find courtroom movies from the 1930s to the present that they’ve never seen or to revisit the ones they saw years ago. We provide a rating scheme (of one to four gavels) for each film to help readers select the best ones. We hope our discussions will help answer the questions viewers might have after watching the films. 

Café:  Aside from tracking down all the movies, what was the most challenging aspect of writing Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies?

Michael Asimow:  One challenge was to provide a gentle analysis of the films that would be fun for non-lawyer readers to think about without getting too technical, yet not oversimplifying serious issues. Another big challenge was dealing with "reality." Of course, courtroom films aren’t "realistic." If they were, they would last for eight days and be indescribably boring. These films aren’t documentaries, they are entertainment vehicles. Filmmakers have to select the best bits of the trial process and make them as dramatic as possible. We don’t want to criticize the filmmakers for taking those necessary shortcuts, yet we wanted to let readers know when the films depart too far from courtroom procedures or legal ethics. That was a serious challenge. 

Café:  Based on your analyses, which movies feature the most believable lawyers or do the best job of presenting a case realistically?  

George C. Scott and Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder.
Michael Asimow:  Our all-time favorite is Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the classic film starring Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott. Almost all of it is a gripping murder trial, with two great lawyers going after each other, full of twists and turns and with an ambiguous ending. Watch this movie—you’ll be amazed at how good it is.  

Café:  I know you teach a course on "Law and Popular Culture," but have you ever used a movie’s courtroom scene to emphasize a point or stimulate discussion in other law school courses?

Michael Asimow:  Oh, sure. Paul uses courtroom scenes in teaching evidence and trial practice and I use them in teaching contract law. When students see the great actors entangled in legal problems and procedure, they remember it long after they’ve forgotten what the professor said. 

Café:  One of the most interesting aspects of your book is where you describe the actual cases behind fact-based films such as Compulsion, Inherit the Wind, and Marshall. What are your favorite fact-based courtroom dramas and why?

Humphrey Bogart in Marked Woman.
Michael Asimow:  So many of the films we discuss are based on actual trials like the three ones you name. We love the recent ones like The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), which is closely based on the famous Chicago conspiracy case of 1969, and Denial (2016) which retells the story of Holocaust-denier David Irving’s libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt who had called him out. But some oldies are equally good. Marked Woman (1937) is based on the trial in which crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey puts away gangster Lucky Luciano, who controlled New York rackets and prostitution.   

Café:  You note that the lawyers in many films violate certain principles of law or ethics—such as when James Stewart’s defense attorney coaches the defendant (Ben Gazzara) in Anatomy of a Murder. Are you surprised that more movies don’t have legal experts who review the screenplays for inaccuracies?  

Michael Asimow:  They often have experts, but filmmakers love ethical dilemmas. These aren’t inaccuracies, they are deliberate attempts to tell great stories. We try to identify ethical lapses in our discussions, but we don’t criticize the filmmakers for putting them there. Lawyers often find themselves in terrible ethical positions as in And Justice for All (1979), in which lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is stuck with a client who confesses his guilt, but insists that Kirkland give him a full defense complete with testimony that Kirkland knows will be perjured. 

Café:  What are your five favorite courtroom movies and why?

Paul Newman in The Verdict.
Michael Asimow:  It’s a tough call as there have been so many great ones. Besides Anatomy of a Murder, which we already talked about, I’d have to choose: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), which has the best twist ending; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) which will tear your heart out; My Cousin Vinny (1992) which is by far the best comedy; The Verdict (1992) for best lawyer epiphany; and A Few Good Men (1992) for best military justice movie and terrific cross-examination.  

Café:  You’ve also written Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television, so I must ask your opinion on one of my favorite legal shows: The Defenders.

Michael Asimow:  Me too! The Defenders (1961-65) involved a father and son law firm (played by the great E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed). Each week they took up another big social or legal problem and framed it in the context of a trial.  Some especially memorable shows concerned the anti-Communist blacklist, defending Nazi protestors, and abortion. The first season of The Defenders is available on DVD.  Well worth watching! 

Café:  Thank you so much, Michael, for taking the time to talk with us.

Michael Asimow:  My pleasure, Rick!  

You can purchase Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies from booksellers such as Amazon.

Monday, July 5, 2021

The Delphi Bureau

Glenn Garth Gregory is a reluctant spy.
Laurence Luckinbill.

He believes he was hired to do research for a government agency called the Delphi Bureau. Of course, the bureau has no street address and possibly no other employees. Glenn (Laurence Luckinbill) receives his assignments from Washington, D.C. socialite Sybil Van Loween (Celeste Holm). Unlike the men from U.N.C.L.E. and even Maxwell Smart, Glenn doesn't carry a weapon of any sort. He relies on his photographic memory--which he employs in McGyver-like fashion to get out of tight spots.

Cameron Mitchell as a baddie.
In the 1972 pilot film, the theft of surplus government jets sends Glenn to the small town of Lotus, Kansas, to investigate Buttercup Farms. Glenn suspects that the farm's owner, a former arms dealer, is using a feed-the-hungry program as a cover for the illegal sales. It's not long before the Delphi Bureau agent gets framed for murder and chased through cornfields by Cameron Mitchell on a tractor. Yes, there's a little bit of North By Northwest in The Delphi Bureau--just no Hitch and no Cary Grant.

The Delphi Bureau is a watchable made-for-TV adventure that relies heavily on Laurence Luckinbill’s charms and its supporting cast of familiar faces. Fortunately, those are two good reasons to view it. While never achieving major stardom, Luckinbill forged a moderately successful acting career on stage (the original Boys in the Band), film (playing Spock’s half-brother in Star Trek: The Final Frontier), and television. He has been married to Lucie Arnaz since 1980.

Dub Taylor as a farmer.
The supporting cast features Bradford Dillman (one of TV's busiest actors in the 1970s), Cameron Mitchell (Buck on The High Chaparral), and Bob Crane. Dean Jagger and Dub Taylor, who appeared together in the 1961 Troy Donahue soap Parrish, have small roles. Taylor has a delightful cameo as an applejack-drinking farmer who picks up Gregory while the latter is trying to elude a posse.

The female lead is Joanna Pettet, another TV veteran, whom I have always found a bit lacking in warmth. Her cool demeanor is used well in The Delphi Bureau as it prevented me from ascertaining if she was duplicitous or not until the closing scenes.

Joanna Pettet.
Pettet led an interesting life offscreen. She visited her close friend Sharon Tate on the day of Tate's murder. Pettet was married to Alex Cord for 21 years; their adult son died of a drug overdose. She and British actor Alan Bates became close friends in the mid-1960s and lived together as companions during the last years of his life.

As for The Delphi Bureau, it spawned a 1972-73 television series which became one of the three rotating elements of The Men (what an awful title!). The other two series were Assignment Vienna with Robert Conrad and Jigsaw starring James Wainwright. Celeste Holm, who was used sparingly in The Delphi Bureau pilot, did not appear in the series.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Alternate TV Series Title Game (Volume 4)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a classic television series and ask you to name the actual show. 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. A Town in Wyoming.

2. A Very Difficult Assignment.

3. Bruce the Ocelot. 

4. Urban Cowboy Detective.

5. Sterling Ladles.

6. Three Men, Technology, and the Man Who Was Penguin.

7. A Lot of Frosty Money.

8. Amanda and the Guy from Oz.  

9. The Mrs. Beasley Show. 

10. Sally and Husband.

11. Not Spying...Stealing.

12. Malloy & Reed.

13. No Brag, Just Fact.

14. Groovy Cops.

15. Texan Attorney.

Monday, June 21, 2021

James Stewart Sings--and Plays the Accordion--in Night Passage

Night Passage (1957) should have been the sixth Western starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann. The duo's earlier collaborations included some of the finest Westerns ever made (e.g., Winchester '73, Bend of the River). However, according to Jeanine Basinger's biography Anthony Mann, the director withdrew from the picture at the last minute because he felt the script was weak. Mann's decision created a rift between James Stewart and him, and the pair never worked together again. Journeyman director James Neilson took over the movie.

The opening scenes of Night Passage play like a classic Mann Western. Stewart stars as Grant McLaine, who makes his living by playing the accordion after being fired by the railroad five years earlier. It turns out that Grant, who was responsible for the railroad's security, let an outlaw named The Utica Kid ride away. Now, however, the railroad's boss (Jay C. Flippen) wants to re-hire Grant to stop a gang that's been stealing the company's payrolls on a regular basis.

De Wilde, Stewart, and accordion.
As in earlier Mann Westerns, colorful characters abound. Miss Vittles (Olive Carey) is a sly old lady who follows around gold prospectors like a mobile chuckwagon business. Paul Fix plays a worker sandwiched between his wife (Ellen Corby) and one of the "professional ladies" in the railroad camp. Brandon De Wilde, who played the youth Joey in Shane, plays another Joey here.

Alas, most of these characters are quickly forgotten when Grant agrees to guard the latest payroll train. To no one's surprise, the outlaw gang attacks the train, but can't find the money. So, they kidnap the railroad boss's wife and hold her for a ransom of $10,000. Grant, who has cleverly hidden the payroll with Joey, gets hit on the head and left for dead. He's just fine, though, and sets out to recover the money and free the hostage.

Night Passage is a solid Western, but it's also not a very memorable one. Although written by veteran Western screenwriter Borden Chase, it lacks the overarching themes (e.g., redemption, family, civilization, etc.) that elevated the Mann-Stewart films. There are also too many characters jammed into the story, leaving some of the cast stuck with stereotypes--in particular, Dianne Foster as the "good girl" and Dan Duryea's as the psychotic outlaw leader.

Audie Murphy as Utica.
Then, there is the miscasting of Audie Murphy as The Utica Kid and James Stewart's accordion. Murphy was at the peak of his acting career, so his hiring probably made sense from a box office perspective. However, The Utica Kid is an ambitious, quick-witted cynic with conflicted morals. That clashes with Murphy's established earnest on-screen persona and he lacks the acting chops to pull off the role. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't appear until 35 minutes into the 90-minute movie.

That brings us to the aforementioned accordion. James Stewart plays the accordion (as he did as a youth) and sings in Night Passage (although his accordion playing was dubbed over by a professional). If you want to hear Stewart crooning songs like "You Can't Get Far Without a Railroad" (with music by Dimitri Tiomkin), then Night Passage is required viewing. To be honest, the legendary star can carry a tune, though it's understandable why he didn't become a singer. The accordion, though, is another matter. Stewart's character has to lug it all over the Wild West--on his horse, on the train, on his back. The only reason seems to be so he can play a familiar family tune for Utica--who turns out to be his brother.

The challenge with a movie like Night Passage is imagining how good it could have been. With Anthony Mann's directing, a key casting change, a better screenplay, and less accordion playing, it might have ranked with the best Westerns of the 1950s.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The 1970s was a fantastic decade for gritty, urban crime dramas. Audiences were treated to fine films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Seven-Ups, The French ConnectionDirty Harry, and, of course, The Godfather. A lesser-known movie that could be included in that group is Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, featuring Robert Mitchum in his best performance of the '70s (though he's also excellent in The Yakuza).

Richard Jordan as an ATF agent.
Mitchum plays Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a mid-tier criminal in Boston who's facing a 3-5 year prison sentence for driving a truck of stolen goods. A weary middle-aged thug with a family, Eddie will do almost anything to avoid another jail term. Looking for a way out, he meets with an ambitious ATF agent (Richard Jordan) who promises to "do something" for him if Eddie will turn informant.

There's not a lot of plot to The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is more concerned with its characters and its portrait of the Boston underworld. Mitchum portrays Eddie as an experienced criminal, aware of his limitations, who operates within his own ethics. For example, Eddie is willing to snitch on a gun dealer, but he won't provide evidence on the man who hired him to drive the truck. You just don't squeal on the guy that gives you a job.

Steven Keats as a gun dealer.
Mitchum receives exceptional support from his castmates, especially Jordan, Peter Boyle, and Steven Keats. Jordan portrays his ATF agent as an opportunist whose morals are marginally better than the bad guys he pursues. While Peter Boyle appears in just a handful of scenes, he commands the screen as the criminal equivalent of a double agent--he sells out his fellow felons to Jordan while concurrently working as a hired killer for clients like "The Man." However, the film's best supporting performance belongs to Steven Keats, who plays a bottom-of-the-heap gun dealer named Jackie Brown. An ambitious hustler, Jackie is smarter than he first appears--though that doesn't save him in the end. Surprisingly, Keats' work didn't further his career in terms of major movies, though he was a busy TV actor. As you may surmised, Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name "Jackie Brown" for his 1997 movie.

Director Peter Yates lovingly captures the bars, dives, bowling alleys, and deserted buildings where Eddie and his fellow criminals operate. He imbues the film with an urban urgency that lingers after the final scene. (My only issue with the settings is one that's not unique to Eddie Coyle--I'm always flummoxed when characters discuss crimes in public places where they could be easily overheard!) Yates also inserts two tense bank robbery sequences that nicely offset the film's more dialogue-driven scenes. Still, it's one of those talky scenes that provides a memorable exchange between Mitchum and Keats, in which Eddie tries to share his experiences with the younger "operator."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle had been on my "watch list" for many years. I only recently discovered a DVD copy at a local library. I was concerned that my expectations would lead to disappointment--but that was not the case. It's a well-written, well-acted crime drama that falls just short of being included among the best of the 1970s. Still, that's high praise considering the quality of crime genre films during that decade.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Burt Reynolds' Unofficial Remake of a Film Noir Classic

Burt Reynolds as Sharky.
After placing a civilian in harm's way, big city detective Tom Sharky is "demoted" from narcotics to vice. It's intended to be a humdrum assignment, but that changes quickly when Sharky (Burt Reynolds) confiscates a list of seven coded phone numbers from an affluent pimp. One number belongs to a murder victim; Sharky is directed take no action on a second number. That's the one that interests him, of course, and it belongs to a high-class prostitute named Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Sharky and a fellow vice detective bug Dominoe's apartment and learn she is having an affair with a politician running for state governor. Convinced there is a link to the earlier murder, Sharky conducts 24-hour surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. He also begins to follow her and slowly develops an infatuation with the beautiful call girl. That comes to an end, though, when she answers the doorbell one morning and is shot in the face with a shotgun.

If you don't already recognize the plot to a famous 1940s film noir, then stop reading this review now because spoilers lie ahead.

Although it was based on a 1978 novel by William Diehl, Sharky's Machine borrows its premise largely from Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). In both films, a detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is believed to be murdered--only to turn out to be alive. The key difference is that Dana Andrews' detective in Laura falls for a woman he believes is dead. At least, Sharky's obsession is about a "real" woman.

Rachel Ward as Dominoe.
Sharky's Machine could have been a dark mystery with disturbing overtones. Let's be honest, Dana Andrews' character in Laura wasn't that far removed from James Stewart's over-the-edge protagonist in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The problem with Sharky's Machine is that its star--who also directed--doesn't know how to make anything but a Burt Reynolds movie. With his trademark mustache and sly smile, Burt portrays Sharky as a conventional detective who plays tough with the boys and tough-tender with the ladies. The scene where a coy Sharky flirts with Dominoe and then carries her to bed is painful to watch.

Bernie Casey as Sharky's pal.
Reynolds surrounds himself with a capable supporting cast, but gives most of them little to do. It's sad to see a fine actor like Brian Keith relegated to a bit part (but it's also likely he wasn't in demand at that point in his career). Rachel Ward is gorgeous as Dominoe but struggles in a poorly-written part. She showed off her acting prowess two years later in The Thornbirds miniseries. As Reynolds' vice squad partner, Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) delivers the most believable performance.

To his credit, Reynolds tries to tweak his standard formula by setting the action in Atlanta (instead of NYC or Chicago) and incorporating a jazz soundtrack with songs by Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, and others. Personally, I didn't care for the score, but I chalk that up solely to personal taste.

Burt Reynolds initially asked John Boorman to direct, but the filmmaker was still working on Excalibur. Based on his earlier success in the crime movie genre (see Point Blank), I am sure Boorman could have delivered a far superior film. It's easy to speculate on what Sharky's Machine might have been. The reality is that Reynolds' variation on Laura is nothing more than a passable time-filler if you've got nothing else to do.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Jack Lemmon Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Jack Lemmon film 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. Meltdown.

2. Tenderfoot.

3. Homage.

4. Enter!

5. The Witches of Greenwich Village.

6. Josephine and Daphne.

7. The Legend of Whiplash Willie.

8. Some Days You Win, Some Days You Lose. (This might be a hard one!)

9. Love and Gin Rummy.

10. Lobsters on a Train!

11. The Disappearance of Flight 23.

12. Ex-Presidents.

13. New York Ain't For Everyone!

14. The Leslie Special vs. The Hannibal Twin-8.

15. Father Tim.