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.