is 1962. Aggrieved when Algeria is granted independence by President Charles de
Gaulle, the militant underground alliance known as the Organisation Armée Secrète botches an
attempt to assassinate him. Within months many of the conspirators, including
their top man, have been captured and executed. The remaining OAS leaders,
bereft of funds, take refuge in Austria and warily decide to contract an
outside professional to do the job for them. They settle on a British assassin
(Edward Fox), who chooses to be identified as Jackal. The OAS orchestrate
several bank robberies to cover his exorbitant fee of half a million dollars
whilst the mechanics of the plotting are left entirely to Jackal's discretion.
After capturing and interrogating another alliance member, the French authorities
learn of Jackal's existence and, suspecting another attempt on de Gaulle's life
may be imminent, they set their best man – Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel
(Michel Lonsdale) – on his tail. But Jackal is cunning and, as his carefully
formulated scheme to assassinate de Gaulle approaches fruition, he moves around
Europe seamlessly changing his guise and identity in a bid to stay one step
ahead of Lebel.
from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 bestseller of the same name, director Fred
Zinnemann's suspenseful 1973 film The Day
of the Jackal is, in my opinion, one of the finest political thrillers to
be carried over from page to screen. At its core it's an increasingly taut game
of cat and mouse which subtly persuades its audience to champion both sides; as
much as we want to see Jackal thwarted by Lebel, we can't help but admire the
cucumber cool killer as his meticulous and seemingly fool-proof plan comes
together. This ineluctable sharing of loyalties is in no small part down to the
performances of the two lead actors. Edward Fox in his first major big screen
role – arguably his best – phlegmatically dominates the proceedings. Jackal's mien
is that of an urbane, unflappable English gentleman with a winning smile, but
it can all disappear in the blink of an eye as witnessed in a moment early on
when he deals with someone stupid enough to try to cross him; two swift, savage
barehanded blows later the man is dead. Fox's performance is matched ounce for
ounce by Michel Lonsdale as the savvy, resourceful policeman tasked with
tracking him down. Aside from some unfortunate and slightly distracting
continuity oversights relating to the artificial grey in his hair (which frequently
changes in volume), Lonsdale's Lebel is a compelling screen presence and I for
one would have liked to have seen him carry the role on through a series of
the film also benefits immeasurably from a peppering of British stalwarts –
among them Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Donald Sinden, Barrie Ingham, Eric
Porter, Tony Britten, Ronald Pickup, Anton Rodgers, Maurice Denham and Edward
Hardwicke – and familiar faces from Euro cinema (Vernon Dobtcheff, Howard
Vernon). In a largely male populated narrative the sparse but nonetheless essential
female contingent appears in the shape of Olga Georges-Picot (The Man Who Haunted Himself) and
Delphine Seyrig (Daughters of Darkness).
off with some expository narration and then thrusting the audience headlong
into the bungled attempt on President de Gaulle's life, director Zinnemann
sustains high tension from the outset. Once the collaborative government forces
ascertain that Jackal intends to target de Gaulle in Paris, a palpable sense of
apprehension builds as we dot back and forth between frustrated government
officials – furrowed brows becoming increasingly sweat-sheened as they puff
nervously on their cigarettes – and Jackal going about his preparations
completely unflustered. The climax is located on the Champs-Élysées in the midst of the Liberation Day parade
and, as Lebel pushes through the hundreds of milling spectators futilely trying
to spot his man – whilst, in a nearby building, Jackal is positioning himself
to dispense the death shot – doubt begins to creep in that this will end
happily. Incidentally, these scenes were filmed during a real parade and more
than a few members of the public can be noted looking directly into camera as
Lonsdale moves among them.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Vinegar Syndrome (we love the name) is a DVD label that specializes in preserving and restoring vintage cinematic erotica and other cult films. Their most recent coup is the release of a double feature on Blu-ray consisting of Russ Meyer's 1964 adaptation of Fanny Hill along with Albert Zugsmith's bizarre 1967 Western comedy The Phantom Gunslinger. The dual package generously provides both films on DVD as well as their Blu-ray editions. Russ Meyer was already well-known as both a cheesecake photographer for "men's magazines" as well as a director of soft-cover sex films that generally showcased young women who were super-amply endowed. Ever the opportunist, he teamed with producer Zugsmith in 1964 for Fanny Hill, which was based on a notorious 18th century novel that chronicled the sexual escapades of a promiscuous young woman. Such was the book's controversial impact that when it was reprinted in the early 1960s it was banned in some quarters for obscenity. The publisher and civil libertarians contested the ruling and the subsequent court battle put ol' Fanny right in the midst of the contemporary news cycle. Zugsmith, who was a producer of some repute (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil) had by this point concentrated on low-brow exploitation fare. He reasoned that if the country was up in arms over a two hundred year old book, audiences would go wild over a film adaptation of the story. The plot centers on Fanny (Leticia Roman) as a buxom blonde farm girl who arrives in London, naive and clueless about the ways of the world. She is quickly "adopted" by Mrs. Brown (Miriam Hopkins), a seemingly benevolent older woman who is, in fact, a madame who wants to exploit Fanny's innocence by turning her into a prostitute. What she doesn't count on is just how naive Fanny is. Even when residing with numerous other ladies of the night, she fails to catch on to the fact that the place is a bordello. Mrs. Brown tries on several occasions to financially benefit from renting the young virgin to any number of eager patrons, but fate always intervenes before the act can be consummated. When Fanny falls in love with Charles (Ulli Lommel), a dashing and chivalrous young sailor, Mrs. Brown arranges for him to be kidnapped and taken out of the country. Thinking her lover has abandoned her, Fanny becomes despondent and out of grief agrees to marry a loathsome nobleman. As the ceremony begins, Fanny's betrothed manages to escape and make his way to the wedding where the film climaxes in a crazy, slap-stick filled brawl. Viewers may be puzzled by the almost complete absence of eroticism in the film, along with relatively few lingering shots of semi-dressed young women. The whole enterprise is so chaste it could be shown today on the Disney Channel. This was due to the fact that Zugsmith and Meyer clashed over the content of the film, with Zugsmith insisting that comedy should be emphasized over sexual content. Meyer finished the film but justifiably regarded it as a low-grade entry on his list of cinematic achievements. What emerged is a Jerry Lewis-like farce with zany sequences in which people swing from chandeliers, cross dress and engage in various forms of mayhem. In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that the film was deemed controversial even in 1964. Zugsmith filmed the movie in West Germany using local actors for supporting roles. Although the three leads-Roman, Hopkins and Lommel- perform admirable given the circumstances, the supporting cast is encouraged to play even the most minor moments in absurd, over-the-top manner. The result is that the film's primary legacy is as an interesting relic of a bygone era when "naughty" films could still raise eyebrow without delivering much in the way of genuine eroticism.
The second entry on the DVD "double feature" is even more bizarre and makes Fanny Hill look like Last Tango in Paris in comparison. The Phantom Gunslinger was shot in Mexico as a vehicle for Albert Zugsmith to prove he was a triple threat talent, with the erstwhile fellow producing, co-writing and directing the resulting disaster. It's clear that without someone like Russ Meyer to at least try to restrain Zugsmith's instincts for broad slapstick, the project was doomed from the start. The plot, such as it is, finds a small Western town taken over by a gang of notorious outlaws. They cause some mild mayhem but mostly seem content to gorge themselves on sumptuous feasts in between flirting with the local saloon girls. The local sheriff is terrified and runs away, turning his badge over to Bill (Troy Donahue), a hunky dimwit who sets about trying to wrest control of the town from the raucous outlaws. That's about as deep as the story line goes. Zugsmith pads the film with so much slapstick it makes the average Three Stooges skit look like the work of Noel Coward. The film is certainly one of the most bizarre of its era and its hard to know whether it was ever even released theatrically in America. There is a painful element to watching Troy Donahue at this stage in his career. Only a few years earlier, he was deemed a bankable star by major studios. Whatever desperate measures persuaded him to be involved in this enterprise will probably never be known but perhaps he was inspired by the success of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. Eastwood went to Spain and collaborated with a genius named Sergio Leone. Donahue went to Mexico and was saddled with Albert Zugsmith. Such are the cruel ironies of fate. The Phantom Gunslinger is so repetitive in its gags that one is reminded that this is the kind of film they invented the fast forward remote control feature for.
is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock's crowning achievement. Although
I'd suggest there are several other titles that could justifiably vie for that accolade,
there's no disputing that it ranks as a premium couple of hours of suspenseful
drama that still packs a punch 57 years on from its release. I can only begin
to imagine the impact the burgeoning ill-ease and kinky twist reveal had on
unsuspecting audiences back in 1960.
it's practically a given that a box office hit will result in a hastily mounted
sequel, but back then it was almost unheard of, besides which Psycho delivered a self-contained story
with a satisfying conclusion, so there really wasn't any need for augmentation.
(To be fair though, one could say that about fistfuls of superfluous sequels
today.) In any event, as follow-ups go 1983's Psycho II rubs shoulders with the best of them; yes, it's
superfluous, but director Richard Franklin's film wipes out any suspicions of a
cash-raking exercise by delivering a beautifully tailored narrative that
dovetails impeccably with its ancestor. In fact it’s such a well-considered
continuation that one could almost believe it had been planned right from the
start. It isn't just good, it's really
with a slightly pared down replay of that
shower murder from Hitchcock's film, as the camera pans to the window and comes
to rest on the edifice that is the Bates house, the image subtly transitions
from the black & white of the original to colour. And so begins a tale
bristling with devilish twists, one that's almost as thrilling as the first and
that unexpectedly weighs in with a hefty emotional payload.
ago Fairvale motelier Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was arrested following
several brutal knife murders – including that of larcenous Marion Crane – and
the discovery that as a child he'd poisoned his overbearing Mother. Due to his
state of mind he was declared not guilty of murder and incarcerated in an
institution for the criminally insane. Now, much to the ire of Marion's sister,
Lila (Vera Miles), Norman has been pronounced fit for release. He arrives back
at the family owned motel to find that an oily state-appointed manager, Toomey
(Dennis Franz), has allowed it to devolve into a dive patronised by unsavoury
clientele. Norman sacks Toomey and sets about doing the place up, intending to
relaunch it as a respectable establishment. To make ends meet in the interim he
gets a part-time job at a nearby diner where he meets and takes a shine to down-on-her-luck
waitress Mary (Meg Tilly) and he subsequently offers her lodgings. Although
she's aware of Norman's past – there's not a soul in Fairvale who isn't – she's
desperate and so, with some trepidation, accepts. As Norman's affection for
Mary warms, so the first of a series of notes from his dead Mother appears. Next
come the phone calls. And then people around Norman begin to die, each falling
victim to a shadowy, knife-wielding figure. Has the rehabilitation process not
been the success it first appeared? Are the messages from Mother all in
Norman's head? Or is someone messing with him, trying to retrigger his
insanity? Whatever the case, Norman quickly begins to unravel...
previously directed a couple of efficient chillers in his native Australia –
1978's Patrick and 1981's Roadgames – Richard Franklin's decision
to take on a sequel to one of cinema history's most venerated films for his
American debut was a bold and ambitious one. Fortunately, Psycho II proved a decent critical and box office success. It
boasts a sharp, intelligent script by Tom Holland, who would go on to helm some
fine chillers of his own (among them Fright
Night and Child's Play), and who
appears fleetingly here as a police deputy.
Perkins – slipping back into Norman Bates' loafers with such ease that it's
almost as if he never vacated them – gets the cream of the dialogue, including
some splashes of black humour, for example when Norman, former knife murderer,
nervously falters in his enunciation of the word “cutlery”. The script also rather
daringly turns Norman into a figure of sympathy as he tries to fit back
into civilised society, struggling valiantly to quell the re-emergence of
his former homicidal impulses whilst external forces seem to conspire against
him. There's a wonderful scene which finds Mary comforting Norman and he tells
her that she smells like toasted cheese sandwiches, kindling one of the few
happy memories of his mostly bereft childhood; if it sounds a bit corny on
paper, it's actually remarkably poignant.
With a screenplay penned by an
otherwise obscure advertising copywriter named Ceri Jones (adapted from an
original story by director Gary Sherman), the premise of Death Line is rather simple.Late night travelers on London’s famed underground tubes have been
disappearing with alarming regularity from the Russell Square Tube
Station.Two young, unmarried collegians,
Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), unwittingly get
themselves entangled into the mystery when they find an unconscious, well-dressed
fop lying comatose on the lower steps of the station.They alert a wary and hesitant policeman to
investigate, but the slumped body – whose wallet had earlier identified the
body as Sir James Manfred, O.B.E. - is suddenly nowhere to be found.
We soon learn that Manfred (James
Cossins) is merely the latest delicacy in the supper plans of a gruesome character
billed only as “The Man.” Even putting
his cannibalistic appetite aside, “The Man” (Hugh Armstrong) still cuts a
pretty morbid figure. Filthy, ragged,
and with skin tone that’s both beyond the pale and ravaged with festering sores
(think of the iconic and disheveled – but still healthier appearing - figure that
graces the cover of Jethro Tull’s seminal Aqualung
LP), this mostly mute subterranean has – somewhat reluctantly - become the last
surviving offspring of a band of tunnel dwellers.
There’s a back story here,
of course. It seems that during the
construction of the South London tube in 1892, there was an unfortunate cave-in
that entombed a team of construction workers. The company contracted to build that particular section of this nineteenth
century subway went immediately into bankruptcy, coldheartedly making no
attempt to rescue those (apparently) mixed-sex workers trapped in the dank and
rat infested arc-shaped tunnels.
This was unfortunate as some
of those abandoned not only managed to survive, but to reproduce and flourish
(more or less) by eating the flesh of their less fortunate comrades. It’s never adequately explained why in the
eighty years between the tunnel collapse of 1892 and the film’s current date of
1972, the youngest and last surviving of the mining offspring has lost all of
their language skills aside from a grunting, guttural mimic of the rail line’s oft-repeated
conductor’s phrase “Mind the Doors.” Likewise, it’s never explained why – while searching out potential
future meals on the underground platforms - the “trapped” tunnelers simply didn’t
walk up the stairwells and out into the sunshine. Of course, if they had, there
would be no drama. Certainly romancing University
students Campbell and Wilson wouldn’t have been begrudgingly dragged into the
on-going police investigation – much in the manner of Fred and Daphne from the
old Scooby Doo cartoon series. To some degree it hardly matters. They’re
window dressing. British actor Donald
Pleasence is the true star of this vehicle, bringing more than a dollop of
churlish intensity to his blue collar character, Inspector Calhoun. Pleasence is a decidedly old-school policeman,
a cantankerous, prudish sort who continually badgers his secretary for cups of
tea. He also relishes belittling and
sneering at young Campbell and his generation’s immoral lifestyles, live-in
girlfriends, and hippie mindset. He’s
particularly disdainful of privileged middle-class kids dabbling in the
political protest movements of the day.
To be fair, Calhoun shows
little regard for the more well-heeled citizens of Britain either, tossing more
than a few cynical barbs at the newly deceased snob James Manfred, O.B.E. He also possesses an almost pathological
antipathy toward M.I.5. He views the
organization not as an ally but more as a smug, self-important competitor in his
street level fight against crime.
Though horror film icon
Christopher Lee gets a feature billing in Death
Line, his role is relatively small and the single scene he does appear in does
little to move the narrative forward. Producer Paul Maslansky had previously worked with Lee on a number of
films (including the very atmospheric and spooky black and white chiller Castle of the Living Dead). It was through Maslansky that Lee was cast as
Pleasence’s smirking antagonist, the condescending and derby-topped
Stratton-Villiers of M.I.5.
Though the two actors would
only share a single scene together – oddly, the pair would only share the
briefest of moments seen together on the big screen – Maslansky recalled Lee gladly
accepting the small role if only to work with Pleasence, an actor he much
admired. The young American actor, David
Ladd, was also duly impressed by Pleasence, describing him as the consummate
“actor’s actor.” He found working
alongside him somewhat “intimidating.” Ladd is the younger brother of Oscar-winning producer Alan Ladd, Jr.,
and was certainly no leading man in Britain. He had previously worked mostly in the U.S. as a child actor. Though Ladd’s role of Alex Campbell was
originally purposed for a British actor, the producers thought having an
American in the part might make the film an easier sell in the States.
about troubled cops or ex-cops still have a foothold in movies and TV shows --
almost to the point where you wonder why so these emotionally vulnerable men
and women chose a stressful career in law enforcement in the first place. Private eyes, on the other hand, are almost
an extinct species on the screen, after great media popularity in the 1950s and
intermittent periods of audience demand since then. Maybe, as fantasy figures who embody power,
personal integrity, and social conscience, trenchcoated PIs have been displaced
and replaced by superheroes. The hero of
Hal Ashby’s “8 Million Ways to Die”
(1986), Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges),
begins as a policeman but becomes an unlicensed, free-lance gumshoe in the
course of the story. A detective with
the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, Scudder serves a warrant on a
suspected drug trafficker in the opening scenes of the film. When the suspect attacks another deputy with
a baseball bat, Scudder fatally shoots him in front of his wife and
children. Either out of remorse for
killing the suspect or out of anger for being raked over the coals by Internal
Affairs for using his gun (the movie is a little hazy on this point), Scudder
quits the force and becomes an alcoholic. Deciding to clean up his act after his wife and daughter move out, Scudder
joins Alcoholics Anonymous, where another attendee at a meeting, an attractive
woman, slips him a note with a name and phone number. These developments all take place within the
first few minutes of the picture.
the staging, the audience initially thinks that the woman is flirting with
Scudder and giving him her personal information. (Nowadays, she’d Tweet -- were the 1980s
really that long ago?) But it turns out
that the name and phone number belong to the woman’s friend, Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a prostitute. Sunny offers a job to Scudder as a go-between
with her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks). Sunny wants out of the life but she’s afraid to approach Chance herself.
Scudder agrees to represent her. Chance tells
him that Sunny is free to go: he doesn’t control her and she can do what she
wants. But then Sunny is abducted off
the street and brutally murdered while Scudder watches helplessly. Scudder goes on a bender, but revenge gives
him a motive for going on the wagon again. He’s convinced that Chance was the murderer, and he wants to bring him
to justice, but as he confronts Chance and gathers other clues, his suspicions
turn to Angel (Andy Garcia), a high-living Colombian cocaine kingpin. Scudder enlists another hooker, Sarah
(Rosanna Arquette) to help him get close to Angel. The previous tragedy of a woman horribly
murdered while under Scudder’s care threatens to repeat itself. Sarah, a shotgun held under her chin, becomes
leverage for Angel as Scudder tries to entrap him by instigating a raid on his
multi-million dollar cache of coke.
story behind “8 Million Ways to Die,” (1986) Ashby’s final, troubled film,
arguably is more interesting than the movie itself. The initial script by Oliver Stone, adapted
from a 1982 novel by Lawrence Block, went through at least two rewrites, one by
an uncredited Robert Towne. As director,
Ashby encouraged the actors to improvise many scenes. Some accounts say that Ashby did so in a
spirit of creative collaboration, others contend that he’d simply lost interest
in the job after ongoing interference by the producers. Many of the scenes stumble around with the
actors improvising dialogue that sounds like what might emerge from
drama-school tryouts where hopefuls are encouraged to “talk about your character’s
feelings.” In a showdown between Scudder
and Angel, Bridges and Garcia set a record for the number of F-bombs shouted in
a given time period. Ashby’s supporters
claim that “8 Million Ways to Die” would have been a good film, rather than an
exasperating but sometimes interesting failure, if he’d been allowed to oversee
post-production, choose the best of multiple takes from certain scenes, and
rearrange the story to better frame it as a journey of redemption as seen
through Scudder’s eyes.
Lorber’s Blu-ray edition of “8 Million Ways to Die” is rich in special
features, including an informative audio commentary by film historians Howard
S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and new interviews with Garcia, Paul,
Arquette, and Block. All three actors
are collegial and engaged, but Garcia, especially, reminisces about the movie
eloquently and warmly; it’s unfortunate that most younger viewers, now,
probably know the handsome actor best for his commercials with George Clooney,
hawking Nespresso. Block talks about
meeting with Stone early on, and wryly notes that the producers had concerns
about the logic of retaining the title of the novel. The book had been set in New York City, and
the title had been a play on the tagline for the classic, NYC-based Naked City TV series (“There are eight
million stories . . .”). But the script
relocated the action to Los Angeles, where the population falls short of eight
million people. The producers decided to
keep the title when they calculated that, if you counted the number of
residents in the entire LA metro area, you’d come up with about eight million.
and Thompson note that the film was a commercial flop in initial release (I
remember seeing it in a nearly empty theater, the first week it played), but
gradually picked up an audience from VHS and pay-cable through the late
‘80s. Is it sexist to wonder whether
many of those home-video watchers were guy teens who sneaked the cassette to
fast-forward and freeze-frame to Alexandra Paul’s brief, full-fontal nude
The Kino Lorber
Blu-ray includes a reversible cover sleeve with alternate poster art on both
sides. The main side reproduces the
poster showing Bridges and Arquette against a pastel-neon sunset and a waving
palm tree. The color scheme, I’m
certain, was designed to entice fans of TV’s “Miami Vice,” the hottest ticket
in pop culture at the time.
The good folks at the esteemed boutique video label First Run Features are generally known for making available films that relate to important and usually sobering social issues. Every now and then, however, they delve into areas that are considerably more light-hearted in nature. First Run has recently overseen the theatrical release of the acclaimed new documentary "Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" by directors Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards. The film has now been released on DVD. Giordano may not be a household name but he's a living legend among jazz purists who are devoted to the music of the 1920s and 1930s- the kind of upbeat, immortal tunes popularized by Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Giordano plays to packed houses at Manhattan venues where he performs with his band, the Nighhawks, which he formed decades ago. Like many creative types, he is eccentric, to be sure. The film's glimpses into his personal life reveals that he lives modestly in two adjoining houses in a middle class neighborhood of Brooklyn. Giordano bought the house next door many years ago to accommodate his ever-increasing collection of sheet music and memorabilia that has obsessed him since childhood. The collection is meticulously cataloged in so many filing cabinets that his house resembles the Library of Congress. Floor-to-ceiling paperwork pertaining to his musical heroes permeates the place. You won't find any evidence in Giordano's abode that indicates the existence of rock 'n roll or even the glory days of crooners like Sinatra and Crosby. He is completely devoted to the golden era of jazz and works tirelessly to keep up with finding gigs that will help him keep his sizable band employed.
The film opens with the band delighting in audiences at their long-time Manhattan home, the nightclub Sofia's which was located in the historic Edison Hotel off of Times Square (the same venue where Luca Brasi made the ominous walk to his doom in "The Godfather".) For many years the Nighthawks performed here in the cozy venue, filling the room with the joy of the big band sound. I had seen them there several years ago and, despite not being a jazz enthusiast myself, I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer exuberance of the band. The film follows Giordano's travails as the leader of the Nighthawks- including informing the band members on camera that Sofia's is being forced out of business by landlords who have raised the rent to $2 million a year. Ever-resourceful, he finds them a new home at a club called Iguana- but there are countless other frustrations involved in moving so many people to so many gigs far and wide. Many band members have been with Giordano for many years, some for decades. They relate how the sheer challenges of keeping on top of all of his responsibilities has sometimes caused him to break up the band, only to reunite them shortly thereafter. Giordano seems to have no other interests in his life than jazz and the Nighthawks. He is like an Evangelist in terms of spreading the word about the music and artists that he so reveres. His efforts are clearly paying off. We see him attract young people at the Newport Jazz Festival and at New York's famed private club for the arts, The Players, where he is one of the headline acts at the New York Hot Summer Jazz Festival. Giordano is part mother hen and part drill instructor to his band members. He refers to himself as "The King of Schlep" in regard to the fact that at age 65 he still loads and unloads the vast amount of equipment necessary for every show, carrying it all around in a rather weather-beaten van. He's like a modern version of Willie Lohman, feeling his age perhaps, but ever-devoted to his profession. He relies on his right arm, Carol Jean Hughes, to help him keep track of the enormous amount of paperwork and logistical support that goes into running the band. Giordano shows a grumpy side when things go wrong: a misplaced mouthpiece or a miscommunication that sees him setting up the entire band at the Players only to be told to dismantle everything because another band is scheduled to go on before him. But he's clearly in his element and delighting when playing in front of appreciative audiences. The band's prominence hit new heights with their Grammy-winning work on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" and the film includes clips from one of the segments in which the Nighthawks appear on camera. There is also extensive footage of David Johansen rehearsing with the band for the series. Giordano also coordinates a triumphant celebration of the 90th anniversary of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and performs it at the same venue in which it premiered on the exact date of the anniversary in front of a cheering audience. The film also mentions that Giordano has worked with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, appearing on camera in musical scenes in their films.
"Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" is a sweet-natured movie that was funded by grants and private donations. Directors Davidson and Edwards wisely allow ample screen time to show the Nighthawks performing- and the interviews with band members are especially interesting, giving a perspective of people who have not gotten rich but clearly enjoy what they do. Vince Giordano comes across as a New York original- the kind of guy you would like to sit down with at a bar for a few hours. However, that seems unlikely since the workaholic musician strikes me as the kind of obsessive who couldn't bring himself to stop studying and playing music long enough to drain down a couple of cold ones. The documentary is terrific on all levels- just like any performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
The DVD boasts an excellent transfer and a trailer gallery of other First Run features available on DVD, though strangely it does not include the trailer for the Giordano film.
In the 1960s European cinema went mad for a style of filmmaking called portmanteau, which is a movie that consists of several short stories united by a common theme. One such film was the 1964 release "Les plus belles escroqueries du monde", released in English language nations as "The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers". The charm of such movies was that they generally gathered diverse, well-known filmmakers who contributed individual segments in their own unique style. The Olive Films Blu-ray edition of "Swindlers" showcases the work of four directors in generally whimsical tales that involve men and women who circumvent the law for their own personal gain. First up is a tale set in Tokyo, directed by Hiromichi Horikawa. Future James Bond girl Mie Hama plays a young woman who is frustrated by her "career" of working as a hostess in a bar where her duties are to keep male customers engaged in conversation. When she meets a middle-aged, wealthy eccentric (Ken Mitsuda), who walks around with a fortune in cash in a black bag, she sees an opportunity to exploit him using her sexual charms. She convinces him to allow her into his apartment where the lonely man is immediately entranced by her. However, he is embarrassed when she discovers he wears false teeth- and he makes the mistake of informing her they are extremely valuable because they are made of precious metals. When he conveniently succumbs to a fatal heart attack, the girl realizes that absconding with his cash would make her the obvious perpetrator of a crime, so she steals his dentures before calling the police to report the death. The "sting in the tail" ending, however, may be about dentures but it lacks sufficient bite when the young woman gets her just desserts in an unexpected way. Hama is a charming screen presence and its nice to see her in an early role. Director Horikawa squanders the opportunity to showcase the visual splendors of Tokyo by largely confining the action to interiors. However, the segment is reasonably entertaining.
Japanese poster that played up the charms of Mie Hama.
The second episode is directed by Ugo Gregoretti and is probably the most satisfying of the lot. Set in Naples, it involves a prostitute (Gabriella Giorgetti) who has been dumped by her lover and who is now homeless and desperate for money. She is befriended by one of her clients, a shy, kindly law student who devises a scheme in which she can legally marry a poor, elderly man who lives in a city-run shelter. This will provide her with the legal protections she needs to ply her trade and no longer be harassed by police. (The segment dwells on the archaic codes of morality that affected every man and woman who lived in Naples at the time). Things seem to go well until she jilts her ancient "groom" and her slavish law student in order to reunite with her cruel ex-boyfriend, who uses the marriage scheme to set up his own business. Before long, it is thriving as he acts as a manager to set up prostitutes in sham marriages to poor old men. The ironic ending in which poetic justice is meted out to both the hooker and her lover is rather clever and amusing. The third segment, directed by Claude Chabrol involves a team of young, good-looking swindlers ( Jean-Pierre Cassel and Catherine Deneuve among them) who have a chance encounter with a rich, obnoxious German (Francis Blanche), who has an obsession with the Eiffel Tower and who maintains a collection of memorabilia relating to the legendary edifice. They convince him to come to Paris, where they have set up an elaborate phony corporate operation under the pretense that they have been solicited by Parisian officials to find someone suitable to sell the Eiffel Tower to. The gullible German is giddy with glee at the prospect of owning the landmark building. There are some funny moments in which he is guided around Paris by his "business partners" and wined and dined by them, even though he ends up paying the tab for everyone. The segment shows a lot of promise but fizzles out with an abrupt and completely unsatisfactory ending that makes one wonder if Chabrol had run out of film or a brisk wind swept away the last few pages of the script. In any event, the bland finale compromises the amusing scenes that precede it. The final segment, set in Marrakesh, Morocco, is directed by the estimable Jean-Luc Godard and features Jean Seberg as an American journalist who comes into possession of counterfeit money. The police inform her that a counterfeiting ring is wreaking havoc on the local economy. Intrigued, she manages to track down the culprit, who agrees to an being interviewed by her (not a very smart move if you're a wanted man). The counterfeiter (Charles Denner) is a local peasant with a somnambulistic personality who justifies his actions by explaining that he uses his ill-gotten gains to help poor people. The segment starts off intriguingly with some exotic shots of Marrakesh but quickly devolves into pretentious, nearly incomprehensible blather. Godard keeps the entire latter half of the story confined to a back alley and presents the counterfeiter in a series of boring closeups. One can only assume that Godard simply wanted a free holiday in Morocco, as the segment is a complete snooze and ends the film on a bland note.
It is only in the
stories others tell about us, the legends they create, that we can achieve any
sort of immortality. And even though the stories may not be completely true, it
is better to keep them alive than to let them die. For when they die, we die
with them. Such seems to be the theme of “Barbarosa” (1982), a sly, subtle film
from director Fred Schepisi and screenwriter William D. Witliff, about two men
on the run in the desert in Old Mexico. One is Karl Westover (Gary Busey), a
young farm boy running from an old man who is determined to shoot him on sight
in revenge for killing one of his sons. Karl insists it was an accident. The
other is a legendary outlaw who has been at war for years with a Mexican family
that gave him the name Barbarosa (Willie Nelson), which means Red Beard in
No sooner do the two
men meet than a Mexican with a gun charges Barbarosa. The grizzled, bearded
outlaw stands calmly as a bullet marks his cheek and puts a hole in the brim of
his sombrero. He coolly shoots and kills his assailant, a member of the Zuvalla
family. Barbarosa explains he’s managed to survive by killing at least half a dozen
male members of the Zuvalla family over the last 15 years. The two men—the farm
boy and the outlaw—are in the same predicament, both hunted men. Barbarosa
reluctantly decides to take the young, inexperienced fugitive under his wing
and teach him the tricks of the outlaw trade.
The pairing of Busey
with Willie is unusual casting to say the least, and watching them play off
each other is quite a treat. The mercurial Busey, even then notorious for
cutting up on the set, manages to keep himself in check long enough to make his
farm boy turned outlaw believable, and Willy is just laid-back Willie,
perfectly suited to play the laconic bandido.
One of the first things Barbarosa teaches him
is how to kill a man with a gun. First, he says, point it like you’re pointing your
finger. Second squeeze the trigger gently “like you’re holding your sore
pecker.” Third: “Always stand still until you’re done shooting,” he explains.
“Nothin’ scares a man more than for you to be standin’ still when you should be
runnin’ like a spotted-assed ape.” Barbarosa is a font of such outlaw wisdom. When Carl tells him
about his trouble back home, he says, “Well, the Mexicans got a saying – ‘What
cannot be remedied must be endured.’”
Meanwhile back at the Zuvalla Rancho, Don Braulio Zuvalla (the great
Gilbert Roland in his last film), after learning of the death of the man
Barbarosa killed, selects another young member of the family to seek out and kill
Barbarosa “Bring me his cojones,” he
says. “Bring them to me on a stick.” Young Eduardo (Danny De La Paz) accepts
the task, vowing not to return until he’s done as the don has asked.
Screenwriter Witliff, whose other work for the screen includes the
“Lonesome Dove” TV series, “The Black Stallion,” and “Legends of the Fall,” slowly
pays out Barbarosa’s backstory in small pieces as the action moves forward. It
isn’t until midway through the film we hear the Don’s version of what happened
between the two men. Barbarosa had been a Texas Ranger who saved the Don’s life
and became a family friend but then married the don’s daughter without his consent.
Barbarosa’s wife, Josephina, is played by Mexican actress Isela Vega, best
known for playing Elita in Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece “Bring Me the Head of
Alfredo Garcia” (1974). Karl and his outlaw partner sneak into the rancho to
give Josephina some money. Karl overhears the Don telling the assembled
children the story, and learns that Barbarosa had cold-bloodedly shot off the
Don’s leg at the knee, and slashed the throats of two of his sons. The Don says
the once honey-colored beard was now red with blood. “Barbarosa!” one of the
children cries. The Don tells them Barbarosa is the devil himself and as long
as they live they must hunt for Barbarosa and one day finally kill him.
When Don Braulio later discovers Barbarosa within his hacienda,
the two men face each other. “Damn you for all the misery, you’ve caused,”
Barbarosa mutters. “All I ever wanted to do is be a part of this family.” Don
Braulio tells him: “And are you not part of this family?” The bitter feud, the
endless killing, has bonded the Don and the outlaw together forever.
The second half of the film deals with Karl’s problems with the
old man who is gunning for him. Karl returns home to find his father and sister
alone and in bad health. There is a confrontation with his pursuer and later
Barbarosa shows up and the two team up once again. But young Eduardo is still
in pursuit and there is a final showdown with Barbarosa. I won’t reveal the
ending, except to say that before the film is over we learn Barbarosa’s version
of what happened with the Zuvalla family and we come to understand the violence
that happened so many years ago. By the end of the film, Karl has grown from
naïve farm boy to experienced outlaw in his own right. The events that transpire
at the story’s conclusion give him no choice but to become part of the legend
of Barbarosa himself.
Scorpion Releasing has done an excellent job presenting the film
in its first-ever wide screen release in the U.S. The 1080 p transfer to
Blu-Ray displays the movie in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The
picture is sharp and clear and does justice to director Schepisi’s fondness for
long-distance shots of the Mexican landscape in which the characters sometimes
appear as mere dots on the screen. The disc contains several bonus features,
including interviews with Schepisi, and cast members Alma Martinez and Danny De
La Paz. There is also a trailer and a separate audio track for listening to Bruce
Smeaton’s music score. “Barbarosa” is highly recommended.
The year 1967 marked the high point of Sidney Poitier's screen career. He starred in three highly acclaimed box office hits: "To Sir, With Love", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night". The fact that Poitier did not score a Best Actor Oscar nomination that year had less to do with societal prejudices (he had already won an Oscar) than the fact that he was competing with himself and split the voter's choices for his best performance. "In the Heat of the Night" did win the Best Picture Oscar and immortalized Poitier's performance as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who finds himself assigned to assist a redneck sheriff (Rod Steiger, who did win the Oscar that year for his performance in this film) in a town in the deep south that has experienced a grisly unsolved murder. When Steiger's character, resentful for having to work with a black man, refers to Tibbs as "boy" and asks what they call him back in Philadelphia, he replies "They call me Mister Tibbs!", thereby uttering what would become one of the cinema's most iconic lines of dialogue. In the film, Poitier plays Tibbs as a man of mystery. Little is unveiled about his personal life, which adds immeasurably to his mystique. He proves to be highly intelligent, logical and courageous, though refreshingly, not immune from making mistakes and misjudgments. The reaction to the movie was so good that, Hollywood being Hollywood, United Artists became convinced that Tibbs could be brought back to star in a "tentpole" series of crime thrillers. Kino Lorber has released both sequels to "In the Heat of the Night" as Blu-ray editions.
First up is the 1970 release, "The Call me MISTER Tibbs!" Aside from Poitier's commanding presence as the same character, there is virtually no connection between this Virgil Tibbs and the one seen in the previous film. The screenplay by Alan Trustman, who wrote the winners "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt", softens the Tibbs character to the point that he resembles one of those unthreatening TV gumshoes. When we first see him, he is now in the San Francisco Police Department, though Trustman doesn't provide even a single line of dialogue to explain how he got there. He's apparently been there for some time, too, because Tibbs has suddenly acquired a wife (Barbara McNair) and a young son and daughter. The movie opens with the brutal murder of a call girl who lived in a pricey apartment. Evidence points to Tibbs' old friend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau), a firebrand street preacher and activist who enjoys a wide following and who is galvanizing the community to vote in a politically controversial referendum. Sharpe professes his innocence and Tibbs sets out to acquit him and find the real killer. The trail quickly leads to a confusing mix of motley characters and red herrings, among them Anthony Zerbe and Ed Asner. Poitier is never less than impressive even when playing a watered-down version of a once gritty character. However, his impact is diminished by the sappy screenplay which allocates an abundance of time showing Tibbs dealing with day-to-day family living. He flirts with his wife and offers life lessons to his son that border on the extremes of political incorrectness. When he catches the lad smoking, Tibbs decides to teach the pre-teen a lesson by inviting him to join him in smoking Churchill cigars and drinking some scotch. (Most of our dads would probably have employed methods that were slightly more "conventional".) This domestic gibberish reduces the character of Tibbs to a big screen version of Brian Keith's Uncle Bill from the "Family Affair" TV series. Director Gordon Douglas, normally very underrated, handles the pedantic script in a pedantic manner, tossing in a few impressive action scenes including one in which Poitier chases Zerbe on foot seemingly through half of San Francisco in the movie's best sequence. The scenes between Poitier and Landau bristle with fine acting but they only share a limited amount of screen time. Quincy Jones provides a lively, funky jazz score but the film never rises above the level of mediocrity.
Poitier returned to the screen for the last time as Virgil Tibbs in 1971 in "The Organization". Compared to the previous outing, this one is superior on most levels. The script by James R. Webb is just as confusing but there is a grittiness to the production and the character of Tibbs is toughened up a bit. Thankfully, the scenes of his home life with wife and kids are kept to a minimum. The film, well directed by Don Medford (his final production), begins with an inspired caper in which a group of masked men stage an audacious and elaborate infiltration of an office building owned by some shady mob characters. They abscond with millions in cocaine. Tibbs is assigned to the case and is shocked when the culprits secretly approach him and admit they stole the drugs. Turns out they are community activists who wanted to prevent the cocaine from hitting the streets. However, they want Tibbs to know that they did not commit a murder that occurred on the premises of the office. They claim someone else did the dirty deed and is trying to pin it on them. Tibbs believes their story and goes against department protocols by keeping the information secret from his superiors while he works with the activists to crack the case. At some point the plot became so tangled that I gave up trying to figure out who was who and just sat back to enjoy the mayhem. Tibbs' withholding of information from the police department backfires on him and he ends up being suspended from the force. Predictably, he goes rogue in order to take on organized crime figures who are trying to get the drugs back. "The Organization" is fairly good Seventies cop fare capped off by a lengthy action sequence imaginatively set in a subway tunnel that is under construction. The supporting cast is impressive and includes reliable Sheree North, scruffy Allen Garfield and up-and-comers Raul Julia, Ron O'Neal and a very brief appearances by Max Gail and Damon Wilson. Barbara McNair returns as Mrs. Tibbs but her sole function is to provide attractive window dressing. Gil Melle provides a hip jazz score.
The Kino Lorber Blu-rays look very good indeed. Bonus extras on both releases consist of the original trailers for the three Tibbs films.
(This article has been updated to correct the music credit for "The Organization". The composer was Gil Melle. We appreciate the correction from eagle-eyed reader Naresh Putra).
S'more Entertainment has released two rare 1965 interviews with Jerry Lewis that appeared on David Susskind's "Open End" chat show. The B&W videotaped broadcasts are shown in their entirety sans original commercials. According to the informative liner notes by Susskind biographer Stephen Battaglio, Susskind, a successful TV film producer of "highbrow" content, and Lewis had a previous relationship: Susskind had been the agent for Martin and Lewis in the 1950s. Their relationship soured in later years partly because Susskind was critical of actors in general, especially those who dared to produce and direct their own movies. None of that tension comes across in the interview but it still makes for a rather riveting experience. "Open End" was one of many talk shows during the 1960s that appealed to viewers' intellect. The primary objective wasn't to make news, get laughs or have a guest promote his or her latest venture. This is obvious in the Lewis shows- he isn't asked about what he is currently working on nor does he attempt to insert a plug for anything into the interview. Rather, Lewis- who was never lacking in self-esteem when it came to his career accomplishments as a filmmaker- seems to relish the opportunity to show his serious, personal side. Susskind proves to be the perfect interviewer- he asks intelligent questions then shuts up and gives his guest ample time to answer them, uninterrupted. Notably, the camera is rarely on the host and most often on the guest. Such techniques may seem quaint today but one wishes more of them were being employed.
In the first interview Susskind never questions Lewis about his films and only discusses the Hollywood aspect of Lewis's life in big picture terms. Lewis opines that he isn't part of the Hollywood party scene because he was obsessed with it as a young man. Instead, he says he prefers to simply go home and be with his family after leaving the studio. Lewis does defend Hollywood against its bad reputation, pointing out that the industry is filled with kind and generous people who devote their lives to bringing entertainment to millions of people. It's clear that family was always of paramount importance to Lewis. At the time he had six sons ranging from an infant to 19 year-old Gary, who had recently launched a successful career with Gary Lewis and the Playboys rock band, Jerry stresses in the interview how he and his (then) wife Patty attempt to provide a normal life for them. Susskind challenges him in that regard, pointing out Lewis's penchant for excessive spending and the fact that the family is living in Louis B. Mayer's former home, a 33-room estate that Lewis paid for with a check for $500,000. Lewis grapples with the paradox but admits that it's hard to try to explain why 33 rooms are necessary even for a big family. He says that much of his penchant for big spending is probably a psychological need to rebel against his humble past. Raised in a very modest home in New Jersey, Lewis's mom and dad (both alive at the time of this interview) were hard-working show business people who had a vaudeville act. Lewis remembers the pain of what that lifestyle meant: long hours, constant travel and little money because his father was a poor businessman. Most poignantly, Lewis recalls having attended fifteen schools in his childhood and the on-going pain he still feels from his humiliation at being left back one year in grammar school. (He describes a system that seems intentionally designed to psychologically wound such children.) He confesses to owning hundreds of suits and pairs of shoes but tries to mitigate his compulsion by pointing out he ultimately gives many of his possessions away to charity. At times Lewis comes across as a human paradox. He's humble, he's a bragger, he admits to being an egomaniac but at other times comes across as a sincere, down-to-earth husband and father who ascribes to an old-fashioned ethic of working hard to provide for those who are dependent upon him. Susskind asks him about the challenges of living in an interdenominational marriage (he's Jewish, his wife Catholic). Lewis responds with candor and explains that both he and his wife were patient and understanding with the other's beliefs and try to objectively expose their kids to both religions. (He also makes some comments about his parents' lack of tolerance for the situation which they probably didn't appreciate being broadcast on national television). Given the social mores of the era, it's probably not surprising that Lewis held to a traditional view that the man is the head of the household. He confesses to being insecure about letting his wife be alone for any length of time with another man and prohibiting her from even dancing with anyone but him. "Leave her alone- she belongs to me!" is how he would address any man who dared to inquire about a dance with his wife. Such misogynistic statements would seem outrageous today but in Lewis's defense, they were much more the norm in 1965.
Bronson portrays a veteran secret service agent tasked with protecting the
First Lady in “Assassination,” now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Jill Ireland is
Lara Royce Craig, the First Lady under the protection of Jay “Killy” Killian
(Bronson). His assignment to protect her is a bit of a demotion and
a disappointment for Killian, but he makes the best of it along with his
partner, agent Charlotte Chang (Jan Gan Boyd), who also happens to have a serious
crush on Killian.
believes someone is trying to murder the First Lady, but nobody believes him, including Lara. She takes an instant dislike to “Killy” in spite of his saving
her life on several occasions, one of which results in her suffering a black
eye after a would-be assassin disguised as a motorcycle cop tries to shoot her.
Making matters worse for Killian is Lara’s habit of trying to slip away from
his protection. Veteran TV and movie actor Michael Ansara is on hand as Senator
Bunsen, who may be able to help Killian find the killers.
and Charlotte find time to rendezvous, but their love affair is brief as they continue
their search for those trying to murder the First Lady. Eventually Lara comes
around and starts to trust Killian after it becomes obvious her life is in
jeopardy and the clues may lead all the way to her husband. She departs with
Killian to hide out in the country in order to buy a little time and ferret out
the killers who also happen to be part of a terrorist conspiracy. The mayhem
that ensues includes a motorcycle chase, a helicopter and surface- to- air
missiles. In the end, the head of the conspiracy is revealed and the movie
comes to a satisfying, if predictable conclusion.
may not be one of the classics in Bronson’s long list of movie credits, but it
is typical of the movies that would define the later part of his career in the 1980s.
Bronson is unique among movie actors in that he represented his own genre. It
must be said, however, that prior to being an action movie icon, he distinguished
himself as a supporting actor in prestigious productions such as “The Magnificent Seven,” ,“The Great Escape,” “Battle
of the Bulge,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
Bronson was busy throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s making dozens of
action and crime thrillers starting with “Rider on the Rain” (1970) and
continuing through the final movie in the "Death Wish" series, “Death Wish V: The
Face of Death,” in 1994. Many of these movies- “Chato’s Land,” “The Mechanic,” “Mr.
Majestic,” “Death Wish,” “Hard Times” and “Breakout Pass” (to name just a few
highlights)- defined action thrillers and westerns during this period and
continue to do so to this day, while cementing Bronson’s reputation as one of
the actors of the period whose movies garner repeat viewing and discussion.
also worked with several great and often overlooked directors during this
period including Michael Winner, J. Lee Thompson, Peter Hunt, Richard
Fleischer, Walter Hill, Richard Donner and Don Siegel. Bronson and the filmmakers he worked with proved to be the right combination for his fan base during this
prolific period, even if critics rarely saw much merit to these populist productions.
is the final feature film by Peter Hunt, director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret
Service” and “Shout at the Devil,” who also worked with Bronson and Lee Marvin
on “Death Hunt.” This is also the last of 14 movies Jill Ireland co-starred in
with her real life husband, Bronson. Sadly, she died three years later in 1990.
The Kino Blu-ray
looks and sounds very good with an 88 minute running time. The disc features
trailers for this and three other Bronson titles. “Assassination” is comfort
food for Charles Bronson fans and is recommended for fans of 80s action movies.
McDormand and Brian Cox reveal a “Hidden Agenda” in the political thriller
about British brutality in Northern Ireland. The movie opens during a
pro-British parade in Belfast as two men describe the details of their torture
at the hands of local police. Human rights activists Paul Sullivan (Brad
Dourif) and Ingrid Jessner (McDormand) have just completed their investigation and
about to return to America after releasing their report. In the early morning
prior to their departure, Paul returns a call and meets secretly with a
possible IRA terrorist who has evidence of police brutality and a British
cover-up. Paul is murdered by members of a British security team who then cover
up his death and steal the evidence in his possession, a tape containing
details of a conspiracy.
the shooting death of Paul makes the news along with the possibility that
illegal police tactics were used, the British government sends an internal investigative
team from England to investigate the local Belfast police. Kerrigan (Brian Cox)
leads the investigation and is confronted by local police who are everything
but cooperative. He works with Ingrid to unravel the conspiracy which leads
back to the British government and the missing tape recording with confessions
by those involved.
Agenda” was released in 1990 and the viewer is informed that the time and place
is “Belfast: A few years ago.” The movie makes brief references to the “Birmingham
Six” and “Guildford Four,” innocent people who were recipients of brutal police
interrogation techniques in order to obtain what were later revealed as false
confessions in the aftermath of a 1974 London terrorist bombing which killed 21
and injured 182. The “Guildford Four” case was dramatized in the 1993 movie “In
the Name of the Father” featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon. They were
all released just prior to and shortly after the release of “Hidden Agenda”
which may be why “a few years ago” was included in light of recent actual events
in 1990 which unfolded while the movie was in production and prior to its release.
movie has an almost documentary feel by using what appear to be non-actors in
various on-location scenes throughout the film. As the story unfolds, the
action sometimes feels like its part of a live news broadcast. The movie was
directed by Ken Loach, who is known for using a naturalistic style and
encouraging improvisation between his actors to give his films a realistic feel
that I think works to great effect.. Much of his work throughout the 1980s
prior to “Hidden Agenda” was directing documentaries and those techniques are
only when Cox and McDormand appear on-screen that the movie feels less
improvised and more like a standard mainstream film. Maybe that’s partly because
both actors, while relatively unknown back in 1990, are very recognizable to
movie audiences today. “Hidden Agenda” arrived a few years before McDormand’s
breakthrough role as Marge in the 1986 thriller “Fargo.” Brian Cox was well
known to TV audiences in the UK and as the first actor to play Dr. Hannibal Lector
in director Michael Mann’s under-rated 1986 thriller, “Manhunter.” After a
memorable supporting part in 1975s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dourif
remains one of the great underrated character actors.
24-hour cable news cycle was also relatively new back in 1990 and maybe that
has an effect on the way we view a movie like “Hidden Agenda” today, given that
we have become accustomed to watching events unfold in our living room on a
daily basis. Whether one appreciates Loach’s technique is ultimately for the
viewer to decide.
108 minute thriller looks and sounds very good and features an understated
score by Stewart Copeland. This Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber also includes
may have directed The Paradine Case,
the 1947 adaptation of Robert Smythe Hichens’ 1933 novel, but the film is most clearly
a David O. Selznick production. It was his coveted property, he wrote the
screenplay (with contributions from Alma Reville, James Bridie, and an
uncredited Ben Hecht), and the movie itself discloses far more of its
producer’s temperament than it does its director’s. The Paradine Case was, in fact, the last film made by the
British-born master as part of his seven-year contract with Selznick, and by
most accounts, Hitchcock’s heart just wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, it shows.
But this is no
slipshod motion picture. Selznick spared no expense—the completed film cost
almost as much as Gone with the Wind—and
the entire project is built on quality and class. Set in London, in “the recent
past,” The Paradine Case stars an
always-dashing Gregory Peck as Anthony Keane, a renowned English barrister enlisted
to defend the enigmatic Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, in her Hollywood unveiling).
Accused of poisoning her wealthy husband, Maddalena accepts the indictment with
what Charles Laughton’s sleazy Judge Lord Thomas Horfield calls a “mystic
charm.” Mystic or otherwise, her charm certainly works its magic on Keane. Much
to the uneasy chagrin of his kindly and patient wife Gay (Ann Todd, in a
radiant and undervalued performance), Keane grows obsessed with the case and
inordinately besotted with Maddalena; she is “too fine a woman” to be capable
of murder. He vainly tries to pin the homicide on the family’s servant, André
Latour (Louis Jourdan, also his American debut), but that tactic doesn’t stick.
Eventually, Maddalena comes to the defense of the shadowy André (he is
literally concealed in shadows during his introduction) and the complex
backstory of all involved comes to light.
Starting in a
realm of elegance, wealth, and refined manners (before settling mostly in a flavorless
courtroom), Valli plays Maddalena with an unnervingly unaffected reserve,
suspiciously never losing her composure until the very end. Her inscrutable
face reveals little more than trouble, especially for Keane. She is one of the
finer ambiguous characters to come from a Hitchcock film; referred to as “no
ordinary woman,” Maddalena may not be a classically cool blonde, but she is as icy
as they come. By contrast, Peck descends from jovial and spontaneous to fixated
The Paradine Case is a very talky film, and
subsequently, much of its success depends on the aptitude of its cast. While
Ethel Barrymore received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for her
disturbing/disturbed supporting turn as Lady Sophie Horfield, the actorly
spotlight ultimately falls on Valli and Peck, neither of whom were first
choices. Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo for Maddalena (the actress was also
apparently Hichens’ inspiration), but she declined the offer. As did Laurence
Olivier, first pick for Keane. Other names for each part were bandied about;
Selznick settled on Valli, based on her burgeoning international stardom, and
Hitchcock suggested Peck, based on their achievement two years prior with Spellbound.
Hitchcock felt the
film suffered from miscasting across the board, yet in the end, among The Paradine Case’s strongest points of
praise is the interplay between Valli and Peck. It’s a tragically malicious
one-sided infatuation, but to watch his blind emotional descent and her shrewd
manipulation is astonishing, particularly when one realizes as much as he may
be shaping her testimony, directing her alibi as it were, it is she who holds
the guiding hand. However, because The
Paradine Case is at its best when focusing on this one-on-one interaction,
that there is a murder mystery developing becomes something of an afterthought.
Character behavior, as curious as it sometimes is, often usurps the overriding
crime at the core of the picture.
Given the ample
budget, Hitchcock and cinematographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning DP of the
stunning Shanghai Express, 1932)
fashion a handsomely lit and impeccably framed series of events; close-ups are
luxurious, wider shots are perfectly balanced. But while there are moments of
devious Hitchcockian touches—cunning glances and jarring movements—the film
evokes less filmic tension than his more engaged work. Though he used four
cameras during the court sequences, enabling him to experiment with long single
takes from a variety of angles, his technical inventiveness is largely
restricted, by the scenario and the settings. He wouldn’t let enclosed spaces
hinder him in the future (see Rope
and Rear Window), but here, even when
Keane just goes to visit rural Cumberland, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
The Paradine Case was not a box office hit, and it’s
fairly easy to see why. Any Hitchcock film is worth watching, but there are
only select titles that demand to be seen. Hampered by glaring issues (an overbearing
score by Franz Waxman) and minor annoyances (one character’s needless cross
examination play-by-play), this is not one of them.
Featuring a solid
audio-visual transfer, The Paradine Case
is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The disc also includes a
commentary with film historians Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn, excerpts from
the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, an interview between Hitchcock and
Peter Bogdanovich, a short piece with Peck’s two children, and “The Paradine
Case: Radio Play.”
Explosive Media, the German based boutique video label, has released the 1975 Charles Bronson crime thriller "Breakout" on Blu-ray. Bronson was riding high at the time, coming off the sensational success of "Death Wish". The film was originally supposed to star Kris Kristofferson under the direction of Michael Ritchie but those plans soon fell apart. Bronson took over the lead role with veteran director Tom Gries at the helm. The film finds Bronson well-cast as Nick Colton, a shady businessman/con man/grifter who operates a variety of small time business ventures on the Mexican border with his partner Hawk Hawkins (pre-kooky Randy Quaid.) Nick is living hand-to-mouth when he is approached by Ann Wagner (Jill Ireland) with a proposition to help her husband, Jay (Robert Duvall), escape from a Mexican prison where he has been sentenced after being framed for a murder. Time is of the essence because Jay is in declining health and may well be too weak to help effect his own escape. Colton and Hawk's first attempt to spring him ends disastrously and they barely escape back to America. Colton concocts an audacious plan for a second escape attempt that involves split-second timing. He will arrange for a helicopter to land in the courtyard of the prison and in the inevitable confusion, Jay is to make his way on board and presumably fly away to freedom. In order to pull off the caper, Nick enlists the help of a professional helicopter pilot as well as Myrna (Sheree North), a married ex-call girl who will be used to distract some of the guards when the copter lands inside the prison. When the pilot gets cold feet, Nick is forced to fly the chopper himself despite the fact that he only has minimum experience doing so. Another complication ensues when Jay is confined to the prison hospital and doubts he will be able to be in the courtyard at the precise moment Colton lands.
"Breakout" was inspired by an incredible 1971 real life escape in which an American was indeed rescued by helicopter from a Mexican prison. The screenplay has some other sub-plots that are poorly developed and quite confusing, but some of which are obviously related to the actual escape including some rumored involvement by the CIA. In the film, Jay Wagner's frame-up takes place at the behest of his evil tycoon grandfather, Harris Wagner (John Huston) for reasons that never become clear. Apparently, Harris is concerned that Jay may inherit some control over the company Harris runs with an iron fist, though these plot points remain murky as does the involvement of some CIA characters. Another potential plot device, which finds Nick and Ann obviously attracted to each other, also goes nowhere. The film has a rushed look to it and there are some unsatisfying aspects caused by the movie's rather abrupt ending. The movie studio, Columbia, apparently felt the film was a rather weak production and thus gambled on a massive ad campaign that probably cost more than the film's modest budget. Ads for "Breakout" were everywhere: in newspapers, on TV and on radio. Additionally, the film opened wide in 1,000 American theaters, which was a big number in 1975. The movie was dismissed by critics with Variety calling it a "cheap exploitation pic", and indeed the main poster artwork and graphics looked surprisingly amateurish considering this was a golden age for film poster designs. Nevertheless, Bronson's appeal seemed to override these negative factors. "Breakout" proved to be a major hit and helped cement his status as a top boxoffice attraction though his clout would gradually diminish henceforth.
Like a lot of older movies, "Breakout" probably plays better today than it did at the time of its initial release. Bronson is in top form and gives an unusually energetic performance that allows him to stress his rarely-used talent for light comedy. The only other standout member of the cast is Sheree North, as the epitome of the sexy cougar. She's a fast-talking, tough cookie who parades about in sexy lingerie in an attempt to seduce Bronson. (Surprisingly, Bronson's character does not engage in any sexual action throughout the movie.) Robert Duvall is largely underutilized in a low-key role and performance that could have been credibly played by almost any other competent actor. Huston's presence in the movie is disappointing, also. His role is confined to a few scattered cameo appearances that probably don't last more than two minutes. Some other familiar faces include Paul Mantee, Alejandro Rey, Roy Jenson and the Mexican cinema's favorite bad guy, Emilio Fernandez. As for Bronson teaming for the umpteenth time with real life wife Jill Ireland, the gimmick was wearing thin. Some screen couples could team without wearing out their welcome. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made many films together but they were always playing entirely different characters in entirely different scenarios. Bronson and Ireland, despite being competent actors, were no Liz and Dick. It became clear that their films together were largely made possible by Bronson's clout with the studios. Although Ireland always gave credible performances, she never lit up the screen. After a while the sheer predictability of their on-screen teamings probably undermined Bronson's popularity because it constrained him from interacting with other actresses. It was a trap Clint Eastwood also fell into for a period of time when he cast Sondra Locke in the female lead in six of his movies over a period of only seven years. Despite these gripes, it must be said that director Tom Gries keeps the pace moving briskly and there isn't a dull moment. He also knows how to milk some genuine suspense out of the helicopter escape scene, which is exceptionally well photographed by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Jerry Goldsmith also contributes a typically fine score. The movie was shot in a wide number of locations including California, Mexico, Spain and France, where the impressive edifice that serves as the prison is located.
Scene stealer: Sheree North in posed cheesecake publicity photo for the film.
The Explosive Media Blu-ray looks terrific and contains the original trailer and an impressive stills gallery. The film is presented in either the English or German language versions. The region-free Blu-ray can be ordered through Amazon Germany or through Amazon UK.
The tagline for the 1971 crime movie The Last Run reads "In the tradition of Bogart and Hemingway..." That would probably seem preposterous to assign to an action film with most of today's soft-boiled leading men, but it seemed perfectly appropriate at the time for a movie starring George C. Scott. The script by Alan Sharp, who also wrote such underrated gems as The Hired Hand, Night Moves and Ulzana's Raid, is perfectly tooled to Scott's persona. With facial features that look like they were chiseled out of granite, the actor, who had just won the Oscar for Patton, is well-suited to the tough-as-nails character of Harry Garmes. Harry has forsaken a life in crime for a seemingly idyllic retirement in a small Portugese fishing village. Happiness, however, does not follow him. Shortly after their young son died, Harry's wife left for Switzerland to have her breasts lifted only to run off with another man. In one of the film's most amusing lines, Harry says he thought she was having them lifted as part of a surgical procedure. He finds that old adage "Be careful what you wish for- you just might get it" has special pertinence to his life abroad. He has succeeded in establishing the low-key, no risk lifestyle he so badly desired. However, he is now bored and feels out of place. He has a friendship with a local fisherman (Aldo Sanbrell) and a middle aged hooker who genuinely likes him (Colleen Dewhurst), but he feels he'll die of boredom. Thus, he decides to take on one more simple crime run, a seemingly low-risk job that involves transporting an escaped convict over the border to France.
The escape is cleverly planned and goes well, but Harry immediately gets a bad vibe from his passenger, a smart-mouthed, often manic career criminal named Paul Rickard (Tony Musante in a truly unnerving performance.) Ignorant of what the caper is actually all about, Harry is soon disturbed to learn he has to pick up Rickard's sexy young girlfriend Claudie (Trish Van Devere) to accompany them. Harry is the kind of man who doesn't like unexpected developments and his instincts prove correct. Before long, he finds himself wrapped up in a complex situation defined by double crosses and deathtraps. To say much more would ruin some of the more surprising elements of Sharp's gritty script, which is punctuated by smart dialogue. Director Richard Fleischer and the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist fully capitalize on the exotic scenery (the film was actually shot in Spain) and eschew studios to shoot even the interiors in actual locations. The decision adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the movie, which is tense and engrossing throughout.
The film also benefits from a wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith and fine supporting performances. From a trivia standpoint, the movie afforded Scott to star on-screen with then-present wife Dewhurst and future wife Van Devere.
The Last Run is an atmospheric crime thriller. It may not have looked like a work of art in its day but today it approaches that status, basically because when it comes to stars like George C. Scott, they just don't make 'em like that anymore.
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Kino Lorber has been doing yeoman work by releasing first rate Blu-ray editions of obscure films that have largely been lost to time. Case in point: the little-seen "Wolf Lake", shot in 1979 by veteran director Burt Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay. The production was an oddity for Kennedy, who was primarily known for working within the western movie genre (among his gems: "Hannie Caulder", "The War Wagon", "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "The Train Robbers".) Apparently, Kennedy had an enthusiasm to make this low-budget ($1 million) contemporary suspense thriller. Through his friendship with aspiring producer Lance Hool, Kennedy was able to get the film off the ground with Rod Steiger as the only "name" actor at the time. The story opens at the titular location, a sleepy benign remote location deep in the Canadian wilderness (filming actually took place in Mexico because of investments made by the Mexican government). A group of old friends led by Charlie (Steiger) arrive by seaplane for their annual hunting trip but for reasons never explained, their guide is not waiting for them. As they are helpless to move about the area without him, the men are confined to the lake area and several log cabin lodges that are built to house hunters. The only other people on hand are the new caretaker David (David Huffman), a long-haired, bearded young man that the ultra conservative Charlie takes an immediate dislike to. He taunts the quiet, intense David with typical anti-hippie wisecracks from the era. The vacationing men also discover that David has a live-in girlfriend, Linda (Robin Mattson), whose job is to cook for the men. The situation becomes increasingly tense when the four older men make overtly insulting and sexist remarks about Linda within earshot of the attractive young woman. A confrontation follows and things go downhill from there. Making matters worse, Charlie learns that David is a deserter from the American military- a fact that gnaws at him because he is still mourning his own son who was killed in Vietnam. Charlie and his friends are all WWII veterans and have little sympathy for David's situation, even when he tries to explain that he did not desert because of cowardice, but rather, because of disillusionment when he participated in a massacre of innocent Vietnamese civilians. The briskly-paced script sees Charlie becoming increasingly incensed at David's presence as he attempts to goad him into a violent confrontation. Initially, the other three men are able to keep Charlie from resorting to violence but after a while, he induces them to follow his lead. After encouraging the men to get extremely drunk, he has them break into David's cabin, knock him unconscious and then violently gang rape Linda. In the aftermath, Charlie correctly assumes that David will want vengeance. A shootout occurs in which one of Charlie's friends is killed by a stray bullet. With the gloves now completely off, Charlie and his two surviving partners-in-crime ruthless try to hunt down their younger prey. The finale of the film finds the couple trapped in a hunting lodge as their stalkers try various ways to gain entrance and kill them.
At first glance "Wolf Lake" is a low-budget rip-off of Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs". The film recreates the Peckinpah movie in many key aspects: the slow-to-anger protagonist, the sexual degradation of his lover and the finale that finds the heroes holed up in an confined space while under relentless siege. However, Burt Kennedy's script does try to introduce an original angle that was very much in the American psyche at the time: the aftermath of the recently-concluded Vietnam War. The character of Charlie is like a combination of Archie Bunker and the title character played by Peter Boyle in the movie "Joe", a hardcore, old-time conservative who laments the changing face of America and increasing tolerance of diversity. Although Charlie is clearly a venomous personality (he's even nasty to his friends), there at least is some legitimate nuance in that one can understand his resentment of David since he has lost his own son in the war. The movie does have some aspects that stretch reality. Would the sight of a single attractive young women turn a group of otherwise "normal" middle-aged men into sex maniacs? Also, while there is no doubt that mixing drunken men and guns can result in dire consequences, it seems hard to believe that Charlie could turn his gullible companions into cold-blooded murderers. Nevertheless, this is a tightly-scripted thriller that generally works. Steiger, who often has a tendency to chew scenery, never goes over-the-top and gives a genuinely chilling performance. David Huffman is very fine as the object of Steiger's rage (tragically, Huffman was killed in real life in 1985 while trying to thwart a minor crime), and the sparse supporting cast is also very good: Mattson and character actors Paul Mantee ("Robinson Crusoe on Mars", "A Man Called Dagger"), Jerry Hardin and Richard Herd (best known for playing George Constanza's boss, Mr. Wilhelm, on the "Seinfeld" TV series). Director Kennedy doesn't provide anything original in terms of concept or execution but he does wring enough suspense out of the tired premise of humans hunting humans to make the film reasonably entertaining.
My earliest introduction to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s
immortal Faust was not through the
original work of the revered German playwright. Perhaps original work is not
the best description of Goethe’s exploratory tragedy. The premise behind its conception – the
selling of one’s soul to the Devil for personal rewards and glorified ambition
- were based firmly in the tradition of austere Germanic folklore and accompanying
Teutonic condemnation. This allegorical fable
has formed the basis of so many subsequent films, books, and television scenarios,
that the concept has now passed into cliché.
My earliest encounter with a Faustian fable was likely Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1936 celebrated
short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. Benét’s tale transported the misguided and
tragic exchange of souls from Goethe’s grim, decaying German village to the
rugged hills and blue skies of New Hampshire. Benét’s short story was simply one more link in a long tradition. His tale was inspired by an earlier (1824) Washington
Irving short story also inarguably Faustian in execution.
One of my favorite films from childhood was RKO’s Academy
Award winning production of The Devil and
Daniel Webster (1941), which featured Walter Huston as the titular demon. If the fresh air setting of The Devil and Daniel Webster was
filtered almost completely through a prism of Americana, F.W. Murnau’s silent
epic Faust: a German Folktale (1926) is
most certainly its grim progenitor, one mirroring the darkest impulses of pre-War
Weimar Republic Germany. Working closely
from the storyboard charcoal sketches and ink and pencil concept drawings of his
imaginative expressionistic set designers Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig, his
production of Faust Murnau would effectively
create a visually sodden and nightmarish world.
The film begins with a brilliantly choreographed
celestial argument between a gleaming, white-winged Archangel and a series of
Devils (the “Three Scourges of Hell”). The former champions the notion that man is essentially righteous and of
good will. The Devil’s cynically counter
– sadly, perhaps more realistically - that “No man can resist evil.” Choosing to test their argument, the Devil’s
wager they can tempt and transform a good man such as the humble, learned Faust
into a selfish, self-interested individual, motivated only by his personal
Faust (played by Swede Gösta Ekman) is a doctor and a
well-intentioned man of science, frail, elderly, and long-bearded. He is spending his golden years in a humble
garret, warmed by a hearth and surrounded by the piles of books accumulated over
a lifetime. These books, essentially,
signify the collective knowledge of man. Though he is also a dabbling alchemist, there’s no notion he’s
interested in the accumulation of gold in pursuit of riches and comfort. He’s more interested in the exacting exercise
of scientific formula.
There was a time once, in the far long ago, when
a kid, on any given Saturday, could take a quarter from his allowance and spend
an entire afternoon at his local neighborhood movie theater. The “Saturday Matinee”,
as it was called, was a weekly event that usually included the showing of a
couple of cartoons, a bicycle race, a Three Stooges short, a double feature, a serial
and a popcorn fight or two. Serials, in case you don’t know, were short,
two-reel chapters of a story that usually ran for 12 chapters, each chapter
ending in some kind of a cliffhanger in which the hero of the story seemed to
face imminent doom. You’d have to come back the next Saturday to learn how the
he got out of it.
Several studios produced serials during the Cliffhanger’s
heyday, which spanned the period from the 1930’s to the 1950s. They leaned
heavily on newspaper comic strips for their sources. Universal brought Flash
Gordon to life in perhaps three of the best serials ever made with Buster
Crabbe in the starring role. Columbia released a couple of Batman serials as
well as Superman, the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician. But the studio that
produced more serials than any other—and some would argue the cream of the crop—was
Republic Studios. In terms of production values, scripts, stunts, and clever
cliffhanger chapter endings, no one else came close. And without doubt, one of
Republic’s best was “Daredevils of the Red Circle” (1939).
“Daredevils of the Red Circle.” What a great
title. Has certain ring to it, doesn’t it? You might wonder how they came up
with a title like that. Well, first of all, you need to know that as the story
begins a deranged criminal has escaped from prison. Harry Crowl, who refers to
himself only by his prison serial number, 39013 (pronounced Thirty
Nine-Oh-Thirteen) was sent to prison by millionaire philanthropist Horace
Granville (Miles Mander). Crowl has vowed revenge on Granville, and has
dedicated himself to destroying all of the wealthy industrialist’s various
properties. Crowl is played by none other than Charles Middleton, best known as
Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon chapter plays. Said to be a really nice
guy in real life, Middleton’s craggy face, hollow eyes and deep menacing voice
kept him in demand as one of the best movie villains ever to appear on the
As the story opens he has already set his sights
on the Granville Amusement Center as his next target. It so happens that a trio
of circus daredevils is appearing there, including aerialist Gene Townley
(Charles Quigley), escape artist Bert Knowles (Dave Sharpe), and strong man Tiny
Dawson (Herman Brix). Quigley is a barely known actor who never gained much of
a reputation but he does a good job here as a true blue hero. He probably could
have been cast as Captain Marvel if he’d had a better agent. Dave Sharpe was
one of Republic’s best stunt men, and although he was doubled for some of the
more dangerous stunts this time around, in this one he took quite a few flying head-first
leaps and had an abundance of fist fights. Herman Brix played Tarzan in an
earlier serial filmed in Guatemal and later had a fairly distinguished acting
career after he changed his name to Bruce Bennett.
But let’s get back to explaining how they
came up with the serial’s title. Thirty Nine-Oh-Thirteen’s men set fire to the
Granville Amusement Center which results in a personal tragedy for the trio of
acrobats. Now out of a job anyway, they offer their services to Granville to
help track down Thirty Nine-Oh-Thirteen
and bring him to justice. Granville has a daughter, Blanche, (Carole Landis)
who lives in the Granville Mansion with her father. Granville is a sickly old
man who can only communicate with visitors by telephone from inside a sanitized
room on the other side of a glass barrier. (Did you know Blake Edwards wrote a
character like that in one of his scripts for an episode of “Peter Gunn”? Guess
he was a Daredevils fan.) There are a couple of big surprises in the first
chapter alone, including the fact that Granville isn’t exactly who he appears
to be. As the story progresses chapter by chapter, the Daredevils receive help
from a mysterious, cloaked, and hooded figure who creeps around the Granville
mansion leaving cards with clues and hints written on them, all of them signed
by someone calling himself The Red Circle. Thus the title “Daredevils of the
For 12 thrilling chapters, the daredevils,
using their individual skills and strengths, manage to escape Thirty
Nine-Oh-Thirteen’s fiendishly clever machinations and death-dealing devices. Among
other perils, they avoid drowning in a flooded tunnel, being burned alive, gassed
to death, blown up, and disintegrated by a death ray. Will they finally capture
Thirty Nine-Oh-Thirteen and discover who is the mysterious Red Circle? You won’t
find out until Chapter 12, “Flight to Doom,” where all is revealed.
“Daredevils” was directed by William Witney
and John English, the team that turned out 17 of Republic’s 66 serials. This
was number 14 for them. Witney handled the action scenes, English did the
dialog scenes. The script was by written by five screenwriters including Barry
Shipman, Franklin Adreon, and Ronald C. Davidson, all veteran serial writers
who were adept at devising clever and believable cliffhanger chapter endings.
Kino Lorber has done another terrific
restoration job on the Blu-ray of “Daredevils of the Red Circle,” just as they
did with Roy Rogers’ “Sunset in the West,” reviewed earlier. The picture
quality of the 1080p transfer from a 4K scan is outstanding. A lot of the
serial was filmed outdoors in various locations around Los Angeles, all of
which look great in high def. It’s a fascinating look at LA before it was
ruined by the freeways, over-development, traffic congestion and
Informative and entertaining commentary on
several of the chapters is provided by film historian Michael Schlesinger on a
separate audio track. The disc also includes some trailers for other KL Studio
Classics releases. I recommend you get this one. Just make sure you have plenty
of popcorn and soda pop on hand. I guarantee once you start Chapter One, “The
Monstrous Plot,” it will be hard to switch it off. Thirty Nine-Oh-Thirteen and
the Daredevils will keep you hooked for the whole three and half hours.
Olive Films has released the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy "Who's Minding the Store?" on Blu-ray. The film was made at the peak of Lewis's solo career following the breakup of Martin and Lewis some years before. The movie was directed by Frank Tashlin, who collaborated with Lewis on his best productions. It can be argued that, with the exception of Lewis's inspired "The Nutty Professor" (released the same year as "Store"), his work never reached the heights that he achieved by working with Tashlin, a talented director and screenwriter who never quite got the acclaim he deserved. "Store" is one of Lewis's best movies because it's also one of his funniest. He plays Norman Phiffier, a nerdy manchild who fails at even the most elementary of careers. When we meet him he's trying to make ends meet by running his own dog-walking service, which provides some amusing sight gags as Norman attempts to control about twenty dogs at the same time. Despite being a loser in terms of career, he's landed the right girl: sexy Barbara Tuttle (Jill St. John), an heiress to the famed Tuttle department store chain. Barbara shuns her heritage largely because she is estranged from her overbearing and dominating mother, Phoebe (Agnes Moorhead) and wants to make a career on her own instead of relying on her mother's bribes to live life under her terms. Barbara works at a Tuttles store in the innocuous career of being an elevator operator, working under an assumed last name. Her nice guy father John (John McGiver) plays along with the charade though he, too, suffers from his wife's constant nagging and insults. When Phoebe learns that Barbara is dating a common man with no financial resources, she devises a plan to break up their relationship before they can get married. She instructs her sniveling store manager Quimby (Ray Walston) to hire Norman and then assign him a series of humiliating and seemingly impossible tasks with the intention of having him fail and therefore lose Barbara's respect. However, despite a series of chaotic mishaps, Norman perseveres and frustrates Quimby by using some inventive methods of carrying our his assignments. These scenes are the highlights of the film, with Lewis in top form whether he is inching out on a horizontal flag pole on a skyscraper in order to fulfill a minor paint job or dealing with obnoxious customers who make extravagant demands. (Among them is Nancy Kulp as a legendary female big game hunter whose dictatorial demeanor results in Norman destroying an entire department). In the finale, Norman has to contend with an errant super vacuum cleaner that goes out of control and sucks up everything from women's furs to their pet dogs. It's a marvelously funny and inventive sequence that feature some highly impressive special effects work.
"Who's Minding the Store?" finds Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin in top form. The cast of esteemed "second bananas" are all wonderful, especially the great John McGiver who finally gets to find his mojo at the movie's climax. Other familiar faces from the era include Lewis's favorite foil, Kathleen Freeman and Richard Deacon. Francesca Bellini is memorable as Walton's sexpot secretary who is intent on sleeping her way to the top. Most of the comedic scenarios are highly predictable (once you see Lewis handling an appliance, there's no doubt he's going to wreak havoc with it) but predictability is an asset in a Lewis film. Not having seen the movie in many years, I was pleasantly surprised that it still made me laugh out loud.
The Olive Films Blu-ray looks very good indeed but the release continues the company's rather frustrating trend of almost never including any bonus material. C'mon guys, throw in at least a trailer (we'll provide one for you here). Highly recommended.
Kino Lorber has released a Blu-ray edition of "Tough Guys", the 1986 crime comedy that is best remembered for being the final screen team-up between old friends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. The film had unusual origins. In the early 1980s, Lancaster and Douglas made a very funny joint appearance on an Oscars broadcast and joked about being beyond their years as matinee idols. Up-and-coming screenwriters James Orr and Jim Criuckshank were greatly amused and began to ponder the possibility of pairing both actors for the first time since 1963, when they co-starred in the Cold War classic "Seven Days in May". Both actors were enthused about the project and Disney gave the film the green light. The movie opens at a penitentiary where Harry Doyle (Lancaster), age 72 and his partner in crime Archie Long (Douglas), age 67, are preparing to enter the free world for the first time since they were convicted in 1956 of committing the last train robbery in American history. Upon being released, they are told by their sympathetic probation officer Richie Evans (Dana Carvey) that they are prohibited from seeing each other for a period of three years, an edict that the men promptly ignore. They find a new world has come about during their years of confinement and getting used to the new technologies and more liberal social attitudes takes quite a bit of adjusting. Both men are committed to staying on the "straight and narrow" but things quickly go awry. Archie lands some menial jobs but balks at the abuse he is forced to take by both employers and customers. Harry ends up being forced to live in a senior citizen home where the meek residents are routinely exploited and belittled by the cruel staff. Before long he gets a reputation as a trouble-maker for instigating the residents to stand up for their rights. Both men do have success in resurrecting their romantic lives. Harry reunites with Belle (Alexis Smith), a former flame who coincidentally also lives in the same senior citizen home. Archie gets picked up by Skye (Darlanne Fluegel), a sexy twenty-something who finds novelty in bedding a much older man who is in such superb physical condition. A running gag in the plot finds Harry and Archie being stalked by Leon B. Little (Eli Wallach), a once-feared hit man who is now virtually blind. Leon was hired thirty years ago by a gangster to carry out a contract on the men but he can't remember why. Nevertheless, he's determined to carry out the task. Archie and Harry also have run-ins with Deke Yablonski (Charles Durning), the obnoxious detective who had them jailed thirty years ago and now stalks them like Javert, warning everyone that he suspects they will resort to crime once again. Ultimately, he's right. Fed up with being disrespected, Harry and Archie decide to live life on their own terms- and this includes pulling off an audacious caper by robbing the old time train they had originally targeted in 1956.
"Tough Guys" exists solely for the purpose of reuniting two Hollywood legends. If not for the presence of Lancaster and Douglas it would probably have been made as a TV movie. While the screenwriters deserve praise for bringing this reunion to fruition it must be said that their script is never quite as funny as you might expect it to be. The situations tend to be predictable and some of the scenarios play out in an overlong fashion, such as when Archie ends up working in an ice cream parlor and has to contend with an obnoxious kid. While the entire enterprise is consistently amusing, we never get the belly laughs that the various scenarios seem to promise. There's plenty to like about the film, however. Just seeing the gracefully-aged Lancaster and Douglas, dressed to the nines in their suits and fedoras from the 1950s, is a true pleasure- especially when we realize that both men would suffer terribly debilitating health problems in the years to come. The film benefits from the light touch of director Jeff Kanew, who had previously worked with Douglas on "Eddie Macon's Run". Kanew doesn't go over-the-top in a quest for a yuck and allows the charisma of his two stars to shine brightly. The supporting cast is very good across the board but it's Eli Wallach who steals every scene he is in and provides the funniest moments of the movie. I should point out that the opening credits (remember when movies had them?) are terrific. We see the camera glide over the relics of Archie and Harry's past, frozen in time: custom-made suits, expensive liquor, newspaper clippings of their capers, fine cigars, etc. As the credits unfurl, the sequence is set to a marvelous song, "They Don't Make Them Like They Used To", written by Henry Mancini and Carol Bayer Sager and nicely crooned by Kenny Rogers. It evokes a real sense of past glories even before we're introduced to the characters. The musical score by James Newton Howard is not nearly as impressive, relying on dated synthesizer sounds that sound cheesy today. Some of the more amusing aspects of the movie find our heroes getting used to "modern" society in 1986 when the era looks like ancient history today: girls with big hairdos in spandex involved in the new aerobics craze, not a cell phone in sight, slam dancing and the shocking novelty of accidentally walking into a gay bar.
In 1973 film critic Roger Ebert described Michael Winner’s The Stone Killer (1973) as a ‘superior example of its type - tough cop against the mob - and probably the best violent big-city police movie since Dirty Harry.' The Stone Killer certainly does have a lot working in its favour. The film arrived during a period where the tough cop drama was arguably at its peak. One could perhaps argue that, most would follow a particular formula or style, but they fulfilled a demand. The police vs the mob was certainly nothing new but the subject matter was still trending successfully during the early to mid-Seventies. As a police sergeant proclaims to Bronson’s character, ‘nothing changes, only the names.’
Director Michael Winner had certainly turned a corner after completing the western Lawman in 1971. The decision towards making American movies is one that Winner adapted to well. Bronson was considered by some as an awkward actor to work with, but by the time of The Stone Killer, Winner and Bronson had already completed two films together, the revisionist western Chato's Land (1972) and the action thriller The Mechanic (1972). Clearly there was a happy medium between both director and star and the partnership was also proving to be lucrative.
The Stone Killer doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. If 95 minutes of tough, no nonsense action is something you seek, then Bronson delivers the goods - hard and fast. Bronson plays Detective Lt. Lou Torrey an ex-New York City cop who is side-lined to the L.A. Police Department following criticism over his style of law enforcement. In L.A. he begins investigating a mysterious chain of events involving a violent campaign of murder. The trail eventually leads Torrey to the Mafia and Al Vescari (Martin Balsam). Vescari has hired an outfit of Vietnam veterans to stage an ambush that will wipe out the entire Italian mob leadership, thereby gaining revenge for a series of assassinations of Sicilians on April 10, 1931.
In general, the plot is somewhat thin, so it’s perhaps not worth spending too long examining it or dissecting it to any major degree. In short, it’s Bronson in a cop thriller with plenty of great action pieces, some great stunts and a whole lot of gun play. Winner’s direction is fast-paced and tight and the whole thing is wrapped up in a superb Roy Budd score which undoubtedly provides extra bite and attitude. The supporting cast also seem to relish their roles, no more so than Paul Koslo as Alfred Langley, a super character actor and the bad guy we all love to hate. Koslo had a knack of carving out these niche roles for himself, appearing in Joe Kidd (1972) and cult classics like Cleopatra Jones (1973), Freebie and the Bean (1974) and reuniting opposite Bronson again in Richard Fleischer’s Mr. Majestyk (1974).
Indicator’s region free Blu-ray marks its UK premiere and an impressive package it is, too. The Stone Killer is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in 1080p. Sourced from Sony’s HD remaster, the picture quality stands up incredibly well, there is an especially well defined and vivid look about the film, especially in the daylight scenes of which there are plenty. It is an extremely clean picture, with a minor amount of original grain. Its colour retains a nice natural and consistent look which works well. It appears that Sony have appeared to resist the temptation of tinkering and adjusting too much and as a result, the film holds on to its 70s taste and texture. The same can be said for the audio department, which is both clean and true. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is punchy and free from any form of distortion or defects.
Indicator’s bonus material is led by an audio commentary from journalist and film programmer Nick Pinkerton who examines the history and production of The Stone Killer. It’s an interesting walk through in which Pinkerton clearly demonstrates he has done his homework and keeps the viewer engaged. Keeping with the audio delights, the disc also includes composer Roy Budd’s complete isolated score in stereo. Licensed by way of the Twilight Time Blu-ray release, Mike Matessino’s efforts to make these scores available is always welcome, and of course, appreciated a great deal by soundtrack enthusiasts in general. Roy Budd’s work here is regarded as one of the great retro scores and its inclusion here is close to essential.
Also included is an audio only recording of Michael Winner’s John Player Lecture. Recorded on September 13th, 1970 and with a running time of 65 minutes, Winner is interviewed by Margaret Hinxman at the National Film Theatre, London. The interview finds Winner in a relaxed, confident and incredibly humorous mood. Always with a plenty to say, he speaks without hesitation and with a ‘take it or leave it’ honesty. He is both entertaining and engaging throughout and often has his audience breaking out in spontaneous laughter. It’s a super find and entirely worthy of inclusion.
it was actually his second film, 1988’s Stormy Monday marked the big screen debut of Mike Figgis; his
earlier feature, four years prior, was made for television. Given that it
was essentially a debut, though, the cast that the director managed to assemble
was quite remarkable; Tommy Lee Jones, Melanie Griffith, Sting and Sean Bean
(who looks about 18 but was actually 29) headline in a grim tale of corruption
set against the nightclub scene in Newcastle. With almost every frame screaming
1980s – from the neon-tube title emblazoned across the screen to Bean’s
trousers and Griffiths’ hairdo – the blend of jazz and sax-infused score
affords the proceedings a vaguely noir vibe. Unfortunately little of the above
provides sufficient grist to save the resulting film from the morass of
midst of a week of festivities celebrating everything American, drifter Brendan
(Bean) gets a job as a cleaner at the Key Club, a successful jazz nightspot
owned by Finney (Sting). Brendan clicks with his employer who quickly identifies
the lad as someone he can trust, with more worth to him than someone sluicing
vomit off the toilet floor. Finney is currently being harassed by shady
American businessman Cosmo (Jones) to sell him the club. As a man whose first
tactic is to send in the heavies to mete out a little physical persuasion, Cosmo
will clearly stop at nothing to get what he wants. Brendan meets and enters
into a relationship with waitress Kate (Griffith), but he's unaware that she's
affiliated with Cosmo…
Now, I accept
that I’m in the minority, but I should say upfront that I've never been able to
engage with Stormy Monday on any
significant level. Its pacing is just that little too sedate and it's gloomy to
the point of depressing. There’s also a serious dearth of likeable characters;
in a film of this ilk there should always be someone to root for, and the absence of sympathetic characters
completely undermines a climactic sting (lame pun intentional), robbing it of
the dramatic weight and emotional heft it desperately cries out for.
real stumbling block for me is the insipid performances. Sting is a terrific
musician, but I've never found him a particularly compelling screen presence
and his dialogue delivery here is shallow and unconvincing. Injuriously though,
he's only one among a number of surprising offenders. Jones too – a marvellous
actor with a bevy of splendid character performances under his belt – exudes
disinterest and proves frustratingly bland. Most disappointing in this respect,
however, is Griffith, who I absolutely adored back in the 80s; the same year as
Stormy Monday she appeared in The Milagro Beanfield War and Working Girl, the latter for which she
was Best Actress Oscar nominated; such a lacklustre turn sandwiched between two
such outstanding ones is a bitter pill to swallow. It may well be that these
underwhelming performances are a reflection of (what I consider to be) the colourless
narrative that the characters populate. I can’t decide, because Bean – in the
infancy of what would build into an impressive screen career – is decent
enough, with all the signs of a star in the making in evidence and there are
also small but memorable roles for Alison Steadman and James Cosmo (as a
deliciously simmering psychotic). Bond buffs meanwhile will want to keep an eye
open for Clive Curtis, Dulice Liecier (fresh off her glam CIA agent spin in The Living Daylights) and Prunella Gee.
there nothing worth dipping in to Stormy
Monday for? I honestly feel there isn’t. Roger Deakins' cinematography is
suitably moody, and those familiar with Newcastle might glean some pleasure
from the extensive location footage of the great City as it looked three
decades past. But beyond that, this one’s probably for diehard fans of the
actors within and Figgis completists only. Said
completists will doubtless be delighted with the fine new hi-definition Blu-Ray
release of the film from Arrow Video. Supplements are slender but add value; along
with a Figgis audio commentary moderated by Damon Wise, there's a 33-minute
retrospective documentary in which critic Neil Young discusses the film at
length whilst strolling around some of the film's locations, a stills gallery
and the original theatrical trailer. The release includes reversible sleeve art
and a limited edition collectors' booklet.
‘I was there; I was in that picture, fighting
the Cyclops on the beach, running from the dragon! I was enthralled. It's one
of my strongest childhood memories.’ It’s very hard to argue with director John
Landis’s vivid account of his earliest memories and the fantasy films of Ray
Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. They seemed to touch us all in an
indelible manner and took us into a fantasy realm far beyond our imagination.
Indicator has (for the first time in the UK) combined the three Sinbad
adventures in one very handsomely produced package. It’s a magical box that has
very little trouble in sending us on a journey, and back to a place called
The Seventh voyage of Sinbad (1958) was
something of a revelation back in its day. Ray Harryhausen’s pioneering stop-motion
animation had worked so well in films such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
(1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) and 20 Million Miles to Earth
(1957). However, he was about to enter a new period and face a new set of
challenges. Along with his producer Charles H. Schneer, Harryhausen was about
to embark on their next collaboration, The Seventh voyage of Sinbad, and it was
to be made in full colour.
The story of The Seventh voyage of Sinbad was
quite simple and uncomplicated. Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and Princess Parisa’s
(Kathryn Grant) plans of marriage are interrupted by the evil magician Sokurah
(Torin Thatcher). Sokurah insists that Sinbad return a lamp that he lost on the
island of Colossa. Sinbad at first refuses, which leads to Sokurah shrinking
Parisa and blackmailing Sinbad and his crew on a dangerous adventure in order
to save her.
Exciting as the story was, the real magical
elements were of course in the monsters and creatures the Sinbad would
encounter along the way and was very much were Harryhausen stepped in.
Considering its age and taking into account the combination of early colour
film and special effects techniques, Harryhausen’s work was nothing less than
miraculous. From that startling entrance of ‘the Cyclops on the beach’ that
Landis so excitingly refers to, we as an audience are hooked. The blending of
an enormous, mythical creature and real life people, seemingly in a real
location, was enough to take any child’s breath away and leave them both complexed
and in wonder. There was naturally more to come, the giant Roc, the mysterious
snake woman, the fire breathing dragon and perhaps most enthralling of all
sequences, Sinbad’s sword duel with the living skeleton. The results were not
only seamless, but utterly mindboggling.
The new 4K restoration of The Seventh voyage
of Sinbad (from the original camera negative) really brings it to life. Colours
are both rich and vivid. Certain backgrounds may occasionally look a little
grainy, but nevertheless perfectly acceptable and no doubt down to separate
film elements used in the film’s original production. The high resolution scan
perhaps highlights these limitations to some degree. It’s necessary to also
remember, this production was working to a tight schedule and an even tighter
budget. However, simply look at the level of detail in close-ups and location
shots, and the real revelation of the restoration becomes extremely clear. The
audio also sounds marvellous and is presented in both mono and DTS
Speaking of revelations, Indicator’s
collection of bonus material is exhaustive – ‘exhaustive’ in the most
complementary way I might add. Firstly, we have a commentary track (from 2008) which
not only features Harryhausen at the helm, but a whole host of industry
wizards. Producer Arnold Kunert, visual effects experts Phil Tippett, Randall
William Cook and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven Smith all provide fascinating
insights and their respect towards Harryhausen’s work is undeniable.
Also included are the original Super 8mm cut
down versions. As any serious movie fan of a certain age will recall, these
were essential, especially if you were growing up in the 70s. Before the
introduction of videocassettes, these 200ft spools contained around 8-9 minutes
of film and featured condensed sequences or key scenes from the movie. You
could buy these in different versions such as b/w silent or colour sound (which
were a lot more expensive). Four parts were released for The Seventh Voyage of
Sinbad – The Cyclops, The Strange Voyage, The Evil Magician and Dragon’s Lair –
which was the reel I owned and watched over and over again. Each of these
segments is presented in their raw state, complete with speckles and tram line
scratches, but to be honest, I wouldn’t really want them any other way. They
are a wonderful, retrospective reminder of those glorious days. I should also
point out that parts 1 and 4 are in their colour / sound versions while parts 2
and 3 are in b/w / silent. There is also an option to play individual reels or
The Secrets of Sinbad (11.23) is a featurette
with Phil Tippet (in his workshop) recollecting on how he grew up on
Harryhausen’s films. He talks about the whole period and Forrest J. Ackerman’s
Famous Monsters magazine and how this became a key influence in his own career
Remembering The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
(23.31) has Harryhausen talking about the struggle in getting the film made. He
talks about various elements including the shooting in Granada, Spain, and
Majorca. Kerwin Matthews, the building of giant props, his creature designs and
his disapproval over the English censoring of the skeleton fight are among the
many other subjects discussed.
A Look Behind the Voyage (11.52) is a TV
featurette from 1995. It looks to be from a video source, which was being used
regularly during this period. This short piece features interviews with both
Schneer and Harryhausen and looks back at the early work such as Mighty Joe
Young and his fairy tale films. It also looks at the importance of his parents
and the role they played, the difficulties in moving from b/w to colour and
working to tight budgets. It’s a nice informative, condensed piece.
Music promo (2.34) – Well this is a nice rare
little piece and the sort of thing that really grabs my interest. In 1958,
Colpix (the record division of Columbia pictures), produced this 7” 45rpm
single to be played in cinema lobbies, radio shows and for giving away as kids
competition prizes. The song ‘Sinbad May Have Been Bad, But He’s Been Good to Me’
is as cheesy as hell, but oh so wonderful. It’s presented here in beautiful,
clear sound and played over a piece of Seventh Voyage poster artwork.
The Music of Bernard Herrmann (26.52) is a
fascinating essay on composer Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann biographer Steven
Smith presents an insightful and eloquent account of the composer’s love of
fantasy films. Smith takes us through his early work including CBS radio, Orson
Welles’s Mercury theatre, his innovative instrumentation style and his use of
Theremin, Brass and electronics. All of which is fascinating.
Keeping on the subject of Bernard Herrmann,
Indicator have pulled off a real treat with the inclusion of Herrmann’s full
isolated score. Presented in Stereo, the score is rousing, clean and dynamic,
it is also plentiful as Herrmann leaves very few scenes unscored. I believe
this marks its debut as an isolated score, but 2009 complete score CD (released
by Prometheus) came with a total time of 71 minutes, so expect a lot of great
Birthday Tribute (1.00) features a short
birthday tribute to Harryhausen from Phil Tippet’s studio – complete with
The Trailer Gallery starts with the original ‘This
is Dynamation!’ trailer (3.26). This is a fascinating preview that presents the
process of Dynamation and includes some rare behind the scenes footage, effects
shots and Kerwin Mathews practising with his fencing coach for the skeleton
fight. We then have the same trailer introduced and with a commentary from
Trailers from Hell presenter Brian Trenchard-Smith (4.47). Finally, there is
the re-release trailer which I believe is from 1975 (1.46).
The image gallery is quite comprehensive and
contains approx. 75 steps. This is a little misleading as a great deal of
portrait shots are placed side-by-side, so in reality there’s a great deal
more. Here you will find original promotional material, Harryhausen drawings,
b/w stills, mini lobby cards, comic books and poster art from around the
The Warner Archive has released the 1972 MGM thriller The Carey Treatment. James Coburn has one of his best roles as Dr. Peter Carey, a rebellious but esteemed pathologist who moves to Boston to take a prominent position at one of the city's most esteemed hospitals. The charismatic Carey loses no time in gaining friends, alienating top brass and bedding the comely chief dietician (Jennifer O'Neill). However, he soon finds himself embroiled in a politically volatile investigation when a fellow surgeon is arrested for performing an illegal abortion on the 15 year old daughter of the hospital's crusty administrator (Dan O'Herlihy). (The movie was released a year before the landmark Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion in America.) Coburn believes his friend's protestations of innocence and decides to launch his own investigation into the matter. The case soon unveils a lot of skeletons that some prominent people would prefer to be kept in their closets and Carey finds himself subjected to blackmail and physically assaulted as he comes closer to discovering the shocking truth behind the young girl's death.
Dario Argento – whose directorial career has
now spanned almost 50 years, positioning him as a genuine icon of terror cinema
– is probably best associated with his clutch of intoxicatingly imaginative chillers,
each of them ornamented with brutal (and increasingly graphic) murder scenarios,
stylishly lurid lighting schemes and wildly inventive camerawork.
Throughout the second half of the 1960s
Argento had found a degree of success in writing stories and screenplays for movies;
he most famously worked alongside Sergio Leone for 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. But it was taught 1970 thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (o.t. L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo) that
marked his debut in the director’s chair and set him on the path to becoming
the Godfather of the giallo.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American
writer currently residing in Rome, walks past a brightly lit art gallery late
one night and sees inside a shadowy figure, clad in black, stabbing a woman.
Attempting to intervene, Dalmas manages to get himself trapped in the entrance
between two sets of locked sliding doors, unable to prevent the assailant from
fleeing and helpless to assist the woman left bleeding to death on the floor.
Fortunately, aid arrives and the woman – Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), wife of
the gallery's owner – survives. It transpires that Monica was the almost-victim
in a series of attacks that have left several beautiful women dead. Dalmas becomes
obsessed with the case, replaying what he saw over and over in his head,
convinced that he's missing a vital clue to solving the mystery. But in getting
involved he inadvertently sets himself up as a target for the killer.
Argento not only directed but also wrote The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (basing
it thematically on a 1949 pulp novel, “The Screaming Mimi”, by Frederic Brown).
He would go on to make better movies but for a debut feature this really is an
exemplary piece of film-making, bearing many of the embryonic flourishes – clearly
influenced by the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava – that would later
become his trademark; specifically the faceless, black-gloved killer whose
nefarious activities are often shot POV and, on a more cerebral level, the misperception
of a witnessed moment, with characters struggling to retrieve a clue buried in
their subconscious, the significance of which failed to register upon them when
initially glimpsed. These recurrent themes would play out to varying degrees of
success in many of Argento's later films, most significantly Four Flies on Grey Velvet (o.t. 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971), Cat o'Nine Tails (o.t. Il gatto a nove code, 1971), Deep Red (o.t. Profondo rosso, 1975, considered by many to be the greatest of all
the Italian gialli), Tenebrae (o.t. Tenebre, 1982), Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987),
Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (o.t. La
sindrome di Stendhal, 1996), Sleepless
(o.t. Non ho sonno, 2001), The Card Player (o.t. Il cartaio, 2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (o.t. Ti
piace Hitchcock, 2005) and Giallo
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage itself is a masterpiece of sustained
suspense. The escalating tension during a scene in which the hero's girlfriend
(Suzy Kendall) is menaced by the killer – who uses a large kitchen knife to
methodically chip away at the lock on her apartment door – is as perfect an
example as one could wish for as to why Argento is often referenced as the
Italian Hitchcock. The violence – notably an out-of-shot vaginal stabbing – was
transgressive for its day, and in spite of the fact that far more shocking
atrocities have been unflinchingly splashed across the screen in the decades
since, several moments in Argento's fledgling offering still pack quite a visceral
Few would argue that George C. Scott was one of the greatest actors of stage and screen. His presence in even a mediocre movie elevated its status considerably and his work as the nutty general in "Dr. Strangelove" was described by one critic as "the comic performance of the decade". When Scott won his well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor in "Patton" (which he famously refused), he seemed to be on a roll. His next film, the darkly satirical comedy "The Hospital" predicted the absurdities of America's for-profit health care system in which the rich and the poor were taken care of, with everyone else falling in between. The film earned Scott another Best Actor Oscar nomination despite his snubbing of the Academy the previous year. From that point, however, Scott's choice of film roles was wildly eclectic. There were some gems and plenty of misfires that leads one to believe he was motivated as much by commerce as artistic expression. One of his worst films, the 1974 crime comedy "The Bank Shot", has been released on Blu-ray with a gorgeous transfer by Kino Lorber. If only the film itself lived up to the quality of the transfer. It's pretty hard to bungle a comedic crime caper. Alec Guinness used to knock out classics like "The Lavender Hill Mob" , "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and "The Ladykillers" seemingly in his sleep. In the 1970s Hollywood studios were enamored of the works by novelist Donald E. Westlake, whose books provided ample fodder for lightweight caper comedies such as "The Hot Rock" and "Cops and Robbers", both of which had much to recommend about them. Not so with "The Bank Shot". Not having read the novel, it's possible that it had plenty of merits, but suffice it to say that the film's director, Gower Champion, and his equally estimable screenwriter, Wendall Mayes, needed to provide a light hand in transferring it to the screen. Instead, they ended up with a lead foot.
Scott plays Walter Ballentine, a notorious and famous heist master whose last caper went awry. When we first see him he's serving a life sentence in a desert prison camp run by his arch nemesis, a lawman named Streiger (Clifton James, essentially recreating his role as dopey Sheriff J.W. Pepper from "Live and Let Die", with the addition of constantly smoking foot-long Churchill cigars.) Ballentine receives a brief visit from one of his confederates in crime, Al Karp (Sorrell Booke), who informs him that he has a plan to help him break out of the prison camp with the intention of joining his new gang. He sneaks Walter the plans for an audacious caper in which the gang will put a small Los Angeles bank on a set of wheels and literally steal it by attaching it to a truck and driving it away. In the first of many preposterous scenes, Ballentine manages to break out of prison using a Caterpillar earth mover and despite the fact that the vehicle moves about fast as a real caterpillar, the police are unable to catch up with him. He meets up with El (Joanna Cassidy), a bored rich beauty who is financing the caper seemingly out of boredom. She and Ballentine meet up with Karp and several other misfits who will work together to pull off the robbery. In order for even a nutball comedy premise to work it has to have its roots in some sense of believability. However the screenplay asks us to believe so many far-fetched premises that is never remotely believable. As with all similar films, the initial stages of the caper go well only to have unexpected twists of fate threaten to thwart the best laid plans of the lovable culprits. Why George C. Scott chose to be involved in this modest enterprise is anyone's guess but it may have been the rare opportunity to work with director Gower Champion, a legend for his work on Broadway. Champion only directed two feature films in his life (the other being the little-remembered 1963 romantic comedy "My Six Loves") and its equally puzzling as to why "The Bank Shot" lured Champion back to the film industry after a full decade. In any event, Champion is the main culprit for the film's failures. He seems determined to recreate the screwball comedies of the Keystone Cops era. Supporting characters dress absurdly, wear ludicrous disguises and the actors who portray them are encouraged to chew the scenery with over-the-top performances. (Among the other talents victimized by Champion's direction is young Bob Balaban.) Even Scott doesn't emerge unscathed- he sports exaggerated eyebrows that make him resemble Leonid Brezhnev. Champion goes for belly laughs but most fall embarrassingly flat, like that drunk at a party who tries to get laughs by dancing about with a lampshade on his head. You desperately want to like "The Bank Shot" and occasionally there are a few genuine chuckles to be found amidst the debris, which is all set to a jaunty score by John Morris. However the only crime worth remembering from this caper is that people wasted their money to see it in theaters.
The Blu-ray release contains an original trailer that features original footage of Joanna Cassidy in a bathtub that plays up the sexual aggressiveness of her character in the film. There is also a trailer for the far superior "Cops and Robbers", which is also available from Kino Lorber. Kudos to the company for retaining the wonderful poster art by Jack Davis for the sleeve.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” emerged as a surprise box-office smash
in the early months of 1972, studios and distributors hustled to meet popular
demand for more movies about life in the Mob. In New York, a dubbed print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film “Le
Samourai” was hurriedly retitled and screened as “The Godson” in a masterful
example of bait-and-switch marketing. Melville’s chilly, claustrophobic picture about a hit man portrayed by
Alain Delon is a fine crime drama, but it had no connection to Coppola’s
picture or, for that matter, to any aspect of American Mafia lore at all. “The Valachi Papers,” based on Peter Maas’
bestselling nonfiction book, followed as a more legitimate successor. Rushed through production by Dino De
Laurentiis in spring and summer 1972, the film was scripted by Stephen Geller
and directed by Terence Young. Shooting
largely took place at De Laurentiis’ Rome studio. The producer claimed that he’d originally
intended to film wholly in New York, and some preliminary exteriors were shot
at Sing Sing prison. Then the production
relocated to Europe upon receiving threats from the Mafia, publicity materials
said. It’s a good story, whether or not
it was completely true. (I suspect that
De Laurentiis was motivated less by fear of the Mob than by the expediency of
getting the movie in the can as quickly as possible. That was easier done in Rome than in New York
or Hollywood.) Released by Columbia
Pictures, “The Valachi Papers” opened in U.S. theaters on November 3, 1972. The strategy of riding Coppola’s shirttail
was successful; despite largely mediocre reviews, “The Valachi Papers” earned
healthy ticket sales and became one of the top-grossing pictures of 1972.
movie follows the series of murders, double-crosses, and power struggles across
four decades of Mafia history that Maas chronicled in his 1968 bestseller,
based on accounts by informant Joseph Valachi. As a young man, Valachi (Charles Bronson) is inducted into the Mafia, or
La Cosa Nostra, after a chance meeting in a jail cell with Dominick “The Gap”
Petrilli (Walter Chiari) in 1923. Valachi works first for Gaetano Reina (Amedeo Nazzari) as the Gap’s
apprentice and partner. When Reina is
shot to death by a rival faction in a 1931 gang war, Valachi and Gap are
recruited by the big boss, Salvatore Maranzano (Joseph Wiseman). Later that year, the two join the crime
family of Vito Genovese (Lino Ventura) after the dictatorial Maranzano is
murdered in a Mob shake-up engineered by Genovese and Lucky Luciano. Valachi marries Gaetano Reina’s daughter
Maria (inevitably played by Jill Ireland), acquires a restaurant as a business
front, and dutifully toils for Genovese as a driver, collector, and occasional
hit man over the next two decades.
loyalty begins to fray when Genovese orders other minions to castrate his pal
Gap for unwisely going to bed with Genovese’s mistress. (The real Gap was the victim of a 1953
gangland murder, but not for the reason invented for the movie.) When Valachi is sent to federal prison on a charge of drug trafficking in 1959,
Genovese -- also serving time for narcotics distribution -- begins to suspect
that Valachi will rat him out for other crimes. In turn, Valachi fears for his life once he receives the “kiss of death”
from the boss during a tense meeting in Genovese’s cell. A botched hit follows in the prison shower
room, as Valachi jumps and overcomes a would-be shooter before the other man
can gun him down. Anticipating a further
attack, Valachi believes that he’s being stalked by another inmate in the prison
yard, and beats the man to death with an iron pipe. Later, he finds out that the stranger he
killed had nothing to do with Genovese or the Mafia. Facing additional time for murder and the
ongoing threat of a contract on his life, Valachi agrees to reveal the workings
of the Mafia to an FBI agent (Gerald S. O’Laughlin) and to testify at a Senate
hearing on organized crime.
script efficiently compressed Maas’ sprawling history into two hours of
camera-ready copy and added a dramatic center by focusing on the initially
respectful but increasingly uneasy relationship between Valachi and
Genovese. That it’s essentially a
two-man show revolving around those two characters, and not a solo spotlight
for Bronson, is appropriately reflected in Bronson’s and Ventura’s dual billing
above the title in the opening credits. Dramatically, the strategy of giving Valachi and Genovese nearly equal
prominence compensates for the fact that Valachi himself is largely a passive
character on a low rung in the Cosa Nostra organization. Aside from the opening sequence of Valachi
getting the jump on his would-be killer in the shower room, there’s a dearth of
physical action for Bronson. Genovese’s
Mob ambitions drive most of the plot. Too, the shared billing was probably a shrewd commercial move by De Laurentiis
and Columbia to guarantee strong box-office in the important European market,
where Ventura was immensely popular. At
that, Bronson’s star was still rising, and he’d shared top billing in other
recent movies like “Red Sun” (with Toshiro Mifune), “You Can’t Win ‘Em All”
(Tony Curtis), and “Adieu l’Ami” (Alain Delon). “The Mechanic” (released on November 17, 1972), “The Stone Killer”
(1973), and “Death Wish” (1974) put him on Hollywood’s upper tier, by himself.
Behind every ghoulish, nightmarish creature
brought to life on the silver screen, there are stories that blur the line
between history and myth. In this grey area of human history, we are forced to
question the limitations of man and contemplate the possibility of the
impossible. Two such stories are explored in the History Channel’s double
feature DVD release of Frankenstein: The
Real Story and The Real Wolfman.
The Real Wolfman (2009) follows a two man
investigation team who’ve traveled to France to search for the truth behind the
accounts of the fabled “Beast of Gevaudan.” The first half of this unlikely
pair of investigators is a cynical, retired New Jersey cop of 25 years. He plans to use modern criminal analysis to
prove it was a flesh and blood human behind 102 killings in the summer of 1764.
His partner is an experienced crypto-zoologist whose deep knowledge of the
myths and lore of lycanthropy lead him to believe that there was a supernatural
element behind the attacks. Together the two investigators suggest an
assortment of hypotheses and arguments, ranging from devil worshippers to a
well trained dog. Their inconclusive findings
ultimately cater to both believers and non-believers alike.
Frankenstein: The Real Story is actually a
collection of three separate documentaries produced by the History Channel. This, in effect, makes this double feature a generous
quadruple feature. The first
documentary, titled In Search of the RealFrankenstein (2006), focuses on the possible real world
inspirations for the character of Dr. Frankenstein as imagined in Mary
Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel. In exploring four major scientific minds
of the time, historians attempt to piece together how an 18-year-old girl could
create a story encompassing mankind, humanity, and the risks of trying to play
God. The second documentary is simply titled Frankenstein (1997), and explores Mary Shelley’s life and the men
who inspired her to write of a character who would create artificial life
through electricity. It also explores the character of the Frankenstein monster
and how the creature’s persona has evolved over the years. Ultimately, we’re forced to face the
question: is evil born or made?
The last and most inclusive documentary (also the
longest) explores nearly every interpretation of the Frankenstein legend and
the ever-evolving relationship between the monster and the media. It’s Alive: The True Story of Frankenstein (1994)
focuses heavily on the original Universal Studio’s film of 1931 and its many
sequels. But the film also goes on at
some length to talk about the Frankenstein series as imagined by Britain’s Hammer
Studios, the evolution of the monster’s makeup, Mel Brooks’ cult classic Young Frankenstein, and such modern day
spoofs like The Rocky Horror Picture
Show. This documentary also includes an impressive amount of celebrities,
historians, and fans of the Frankenstein legacy sharing their impressions,
including cameos by Eli Wallach, Sara Karloff, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Robert
DeNiro, Roger Corman, and special effects artist Rick Baker… just to name a
few. Although seemingly out of his element, It’s
Alive! is hosted by the late, great Sir Roger Moore. In light of his recent passing, Moore’s
kindly face and baritone voice will undoubtedly bring a heavy hearted sigh to
Sir Roger Moore hosts the documentary "It's Alive: The True Story of Frankenstein".
The History Channel has provided four extremely
well researched and interesting documentaries about two of the world’s most popular
and enduring monsters. Frankenstein: The Real Story and The Real Wolfman are both enjoyable and
educational investigations… but I’m a history major, so I may be a little
biased here in my opinions. With their exploration of both the folklore origins
and real life accounts of monsters and werewolves, these four thoughtful documentaries
are a “must see” for avid fans of horror film and literature… or anyone,
really, interested in the evolution of two of the world’s most famous and
enduring myths and legends.
Legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah was one of
the true believers—one of the last of the diehards. He believed that a man was
only as good as his word, and if he couldn’t keep his word, he was no good at
all. Just about all of the 14 films he made during his short career centered
around that idea. In most of them there is the man who stays loyal to his
friends and true to his code, contrasted with his opposite, the man who sells
out. “The Wild Bunch” told the story of an outlaw and his gang being pursued by
a posse led by a former friend turned Judas goat. “Pat Garrett and Billy the
Kid” recounts Garrett’s betrayal of his former saddle mate, William H. Bonney,
to the Santa Fe Ring. Even the spy thriller, “The Killer Elite,” is about a security
agent whose friend sells him out for a price.
For Peckinpah, it was more than just a good
theme for a movie. It was a way of life. Oddly enough, the tough-talking,
hard-drinking brawler, who earned the nickname “Bloody Sam,” because of the bloodshed
and violence in his films, was often labeled a cynic. But as somebody once
observed, a cynic is just an idealist who’s had his teeth kicked in too many
time. Peckinpah’s filmmaking career was one long kick in the teeth. He battled
with the suits, the studio execs, who didn’t like him or the way he made
movies. They didn’t like the way he defied them by going over budget and
schedule, or shooting scenes that they thought weren’t necessary (but which Sam
believed were the heart of the story); and they didn’t like the way he wouldn’t
buckle under. He was a man with a vision, and he would not compromise that
vision, no matter what they did to him. His films were often cut and butchered
after he finished them. Nevertheless, he persevered on, bloodied, battered, and,
in the end, clutching self-destructively at alcohol and drugs to keep going. He
came to an early end in Mexico at age 59 after suffering a heart attack.
Peckinpah started in television. He cut his
teeth on TV westerns, writing 11 half-hour episodes of “Gunsmoke,” creating “The
Rifleman,” and “The Westerner” series and contributing scripts for “Trackdown,”
“Tombstone Territory,” and other shows of that era. Even in those early efforts
you could see the embryonic formation of his thematic ideas. In one “Gunsmoke”
episode, Matt Dillon grieves after accidentally killing a friend in a gunfight.
His friend had told him that he didn’t think much of a man who notched his gun
after a shooting. At his gravesite, Matt notches his own gun for the first and
only time, as a reminder.
“Ride the High Country,” freshly released on
Blu-Ray by the Warner Archive Collection, was Peckinpah’s second feature film.
“The Deadly Companions” had preceded it, but suffered from a low budget and the
heavy-handed influence of an amateur producer. “Ride the High Country” was the
first movie where he had control over the material and could shape it the way
he wanted. It also had the added plus of having two western film legends in the
cast—Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. McCrea is Steve Judd, former lawman of
some note in his earlier years, now an old man who hires on to guard a gold
shipment from the Coarsegold Mine. He may be on in years, but he’s still the
same ramrod straight man he’d always been. He teams up with his old friend Gil
Westrum (Scott), who, in contrast, has let time bend his principles a bit. When
we first see him he is running a phony Wild West shooting gallery, posing as a
Buffalo Bill-type character. When Steve tells him about the shipment of gold
and asks if he knows anybody who’d like to sign on with him for the job, dollar
signs light up in Westrum’s eyes. He joins Judd, bringing along Heck Longtree
(Ron Starr), his young sidekick, telling him he’s pretty sure he can convince
Judd to go along with his plan to steal the gold rather than deliver it to the
bank. It’s the classic Peckinpah set-up. During the ride to the mine, Westrum
keeps working on Judd, dropping hints about how little money they had made as
lawmen. Judd admits he doesn’t have much to show for all those years. He even
has a hole in the sole of his boot to prove it. But when Westrum keeps at him,
asking him what keeps him going, Judd utters the line that everybody quotes
when they talk about this movie: “All I
want is to enter my house justified.”
In Nick Redman’s excellent featurette, “A
Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country,” included as a bonus
feature on the disc, Peckinpah’s sister, Fern Lee Peter, provides some insight
into Peckinpah’s upbringing and the hidden, more sensitive side of his
personality. Sam’s father, a lawyer and later a judge, was a huge influence on
him, and there is a lot of his father in the Judd character—a man of uncompromising
moral rectitude. Sam grew up with his brother, Denver, who was eight years
older, and used to tag along with him and his older friends, trying to put on a
tough front. But he was smaller than the other boys and more sensitive, more like
his mother, to whom he was closer. According to Peter, like her, he “was able
to tell when someone hurt.”
There’s a subplot in “Ride the High Country,”
that reveals that hidden, sensitive side. A young girl, Elsa Knudson (Marriette
Hartley), rides with the bank guards up to the mountain camp to meet her
fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury), one of the miners. Billy has three
brothers (Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler, and L. Q. Jones), and a father
(John Anderson). A scruffier, more depraved bunch of characters, you’ve never
met. (All the members of the Hammond clan, by the way, were played by actors
who had appeared in various TV episodes Peckinpah had written—an informal Peckinpah
stock company.) A nightmare wedding
scene presided over by drunken Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan) is shot entirely
from Elsa’s point of view, and anyone who says Peckinpah was misogynistic and insensitive
to women, should watch to see how sympathetically he portrays Elsa’s
The trajectory of the plot follows Judd’s
ultimate clash with Westrum and a final confrontation between them and the
Hammonds. The climax is both redemptive and apotheotic. The final shot of “Ride
the High Country” is, perhaps, one of the simplest and yet most moving images
ever put on film.
The Warner Archive Blu-Ray presents the film
in 1080p High Definition with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Sound is DTS-HD Master
Audio Mono. George Bassman’s somber score sounds good. Picture quality is first
rate and Lucien Ballard’s cinematography of locations in and around Inyo
National Forest never looked better. The disc also includes audio commentary by
the Peckinpah Peckerwoods (Paul Seydor, David Weddle, and Garner Simmons), all
of whom possess extensive Peckinpah knowledge, but tend to go overboard ooh-ing
and ahh-ing over every little thing the director did. It’s a tad annoying but
“Ride the High Country,” is a classic that
every fan of westerns must see and see again. The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is a
“must have” for the true believers out there.
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John M. Whalen is the author of "This Ray Gun for Hire...and Other Tales." Click here to order from Amazon.
Kino Lorber has released a new
DVD edition of John Wayne's late-career detective flick "Brannigan".
The 1975 film takes Wayne out of the saddle and deposits him squarely in
central London ("The Duke's in London. God Save the Queen!" read the
tag line on the film poster.). The "fish-out--of-water" crime
thriller concept began with Don Siegel's outstanding "Coogan's Bluff"
(1968), which inspired Dennis Weaver's hit rip-off TV series
"McCloud". Still, the premise works well with Wayne's tough Chicago
Irish cop Jim Brannigan sent to London to extradite a top crime figure, much as
Clint Eastwood's Coogan was shipped to New York to bring a criminal back to
Arizona. Wayne had gone the detective route the year before in "McQ".
He had originally been offered the role of Dirty Harry but correctly assumed
his fans would not stand for him playing such an anti-Establishment character.
Still, the phenomenal success of that movie made him realize that the Western
genre was in decline and that he'd better switch gears occasionally to keep his
loyal fans on board. Wayne was said to loathe "McQ". It was a
downbeat, cynical look at corruption in the police force. Ironically, for many
of his fans, it is regarded as one of the best films from the latter part of
his career. Teaming Wayne with an ace director, John Sturges, the film provided
the Duke with an intelligent script, surprising plot turns and a
less-than-larger-than-life character to portray. The movie did fairly well
despite Wayne's reservations so perhaps that is why he immediately returned to
the crime film genre with "Brannigan". In reality, Wayne had planned
to do a detective film with this title for at least a decade. A 1964 trade
industry story announced he would begin filming it in "the near East".
The project never happened. When it was dusted off a decade later, it was
temporarily titled "Joe Battle" before mercifully assuming its
"Brannigan" is a crime thriller but the two films are far apart in
terms of style. "Brannigan" is directed by the underrated Douglas
Hickox ("Theatre of Blood", "Zulu Dawn") with emphasis on
humor, as we see Wayne immediately learn that the crime kingpin he is to escort
home (John Vernon) has been allowed to escape. His counterpart is Scotland Yard
Inspector Swan, played by Richard Attenborough. This "Odd
Couple"-like teaming of two radically different acting styles is one of
the true delights of the film. Both Wayne and Attenborough are clearly enjoying
each other's company and their good natured "one-upmanship" provides
plenty of genuine laughs. As the two detectives relentlessly track down their
man, there are plenty of memorable action highlights including a well-staged
car chase that includes a jump over the rising Tower Bridge. There's also a
major, well-staged pub brawl that's right out of the John Ford playbook.
Director Hickox makes the most of London's fabulous sites, which adds
immeasurably to the film's pleasures. (This is only one of two movies to be
shot in London's ultra-exclusive private Garrick Club and Hickox makes the most
of it, showing off the elegant facility for a sequence in which Brannigan and
Swan debate police tactics over lunch.) There is also a spirited, lively
performance by Judy Geeson as a young Scotland Yard detective who enjoys a
playful but platonic relationship with Brannigan. The supporting cast is a
strong one with John Vernon and Mel Ferrer providing the villainy. Ralph
Meeker gets relatively prominent billing but his on-screen appearance lasts little
more than a minute, indicating some of his footage may have been left on the
cutting room floor. The film climaxes with an assassin trying to gun down
Brannigan from a speeding car at the old Beckton Gasworks, a ghastly-looking
industrial facility that was memorably used for the pre-credits sequence of the
1981 James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only". All of this is set to a
zippy jazz score by Dominic Frontiere that is off-beat for a film in this
genre. "Brannigan" is not a late-career Wayne classic in the way
that "The Cowboys" and "The Shootist" can be regarded. But
it is a hell of a lot of fun and provides Wayne with a role that fit him like a
glove. Nearing seventy years old, he could still at this point carry off the
action sequences credibly.
The film has been
available for many years through MGM and Twilight Time released a Blu-ray
limited edition that is now sold out. The Kino Lorber transfer is excellent
with a crisp, clean image that does justice to the London scenery. Sadly, no
commentary track but Kino Lorber does provide the original trailer along with a
gallery of trailers for other action
flicks available from the company. The sleeve also eschews the standard U.S.
artwork of Wayne in a pub brawl in favor of more offbeat artwork from the European
campaign showing the Duke firing a pistol. Recommended.
2014 interview with Robert Markowitz, Walter Hill stated ‘I think in casual
conversation I would have told anybody I wanted to direct. At the same time I
knew Hollywood was a closed off place...’ Working as a script writer, Hill
began climbing his way up after working on the script for Hickey & Boggs
(1972). He was then asked by Peter Bogdanovich
to co-write The Getaway (1972), a movie he was lined up to direct with Steve
McQueen. Whilst the script was in its early stages, McQueen fired Bogdanovich
from the project and immediately enlisted Sam Peckinpah to replace him. However,
Walter Hill was given the chance to stay on and instructed to begin rewriting
the script fresh from page one. Six weeks later the script was complete and the
film went on to become a major success. A slice of good fortune perhaps for
Hill, but he still maintains that it was the success of The Getaway that
ultimately determined how he came to be a director. Hollywood may had been
closed off, but it provided Hill with a rare opportunity. In 1973, Hill began
writing the script for Paul Newman’s The Mackintosh Man. It was also the same
year he met producer Lawrence Gordon. Following differences during the writing
of The Drowning Pool (1975), Newman’s revival of private eye Lew Harper, Gordon
invited Hill to Columbia in order to write his next film, Hard Times (1975). Gordon
also agreed that should Hill decide to write the script he would also allow him
to direct the movie.
Hill would later come to be known as a great action auteur, he made a rather
wonderful debut with this pulp triumph. Not only would it conjure an evocative
period atmosphere, but also boast memorable performances from both Charles
Bronson and James Coburn.
plays a drifter suddenly caught up in the fight game during the Great
Depression. Chaney, a down-on-his-luck loner, hops a freight train to New
Orleans where, on the seedier side of town, he tries to make some quick money
the only way he knows how - with his fists. Chaney approaches a hustler named
Speed (James Coburn) and convinces him that he can win big money for them both.
Times still holds up extremely well andBronson keeps his performance low key whilst
maintaining the strong, silent tough guy persona. Bronson was in his fifties
when he took on this role, which did concern Walter Hill to a certain degree.
Nevertheless, Bronson’s Chaney still presents an imposing figure - lean,
chiselled and certainly still got the moves. However, it’s Coburn’s Speed that
almost steals the show. It’s a wonderful, if somewhat sleazy portrayal. For
Speed it’s just about the money, Cold and ruthless, he’s a character who likes
to spend many as fast as he can get it. In many respects it is Bronson who
helps elevate Coburn’s performance – simply because he allows him so much.
Bronson was never going to outwit or outtalk Coburn in the dialogue department;
instead Bronson uses his fists or general physicality in order to convey his
talking. It’s a nicely balanced pay off that works perfectly well and shines on
screen. Strother Martin is also worthy of mentioning as Poe, the ‘cut man’ who
completes the team between hustler and bruiser. Always a classy character
actor, Martin seems to provide a magnetic quality every time he appears on
screen. Jill Ireland again plays
Bronson’s love interest, at Bronson’s request as I believe. Her character of Lucy
is rather one dimensional and adds very little to the overall narrative. It
could have arguably been eliminated completely without ever really upsetting
the nicely paced flow of the film. Hill would later comment that he removed a
great deal of her scenes in the final edit, much to Bronson’s disapproval.
Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three is perhaps the legendary
director’s most underrated film. There are several reasons for this, many having
to do with the impressively high standards set by Wilder’s own prior work. On
the heels of Some Like It Hot (1959)
and The Apartment (1960), this 1961
film seems infinitely more perceptive, but it doesn’t have that “classic
Hollywood” sheen. It is every bit as acerbic as Wilder’s other overlooked
masterpiece, Ace in the Hole (1951),
but the pointed politics of One, Two,
Three make it somewhat less popularly appreciable than the earlier film’s
media reproach (though both are supremely relevant today). More than anything,
the fact of the matter is that by 1961, Wilder’s finest hours did lay behind
him, in part evinced by more than a dozen Oscar nominations and six wins. With
everything considered, maybe One, Two,
Three doesn’t live up to Wilder’s more acclaimed predecessors, but what
films do? Forgoing that delimitation, though, this riotous Cold War comedy
deserves due credit. And now that Kino Lorber has released the picture on an
excellent new Blu-ray, this is as good a time as any.
Set in 1961
Berlin, straddling the border between East and West Germany and sitting at a
precarious cultural and political crossroads, One, Two, Three is the portrait of a divided city, where the communist
side goes about its daily business of parading, while its democratic half grows
under the influence of Western, specifically American, culture—pop (in two
senses of the word) or otherwise. And what could be more American than an
emblematic bottle of Coca-Cola? Hoping to strike a deal that cracks the Iron Curtain
and allows for the East German distribution of this iconic beverage is C.R.
MacNamara, played with great gusto by James Cagney. Balancing family with
business and patriotism with commerce, MacNamara is the quintessential “no
culture, just cash” ugly American. Angling to become a high-ranking executive
in the Coca-Cola company, he is put in the arduous position of babysitter when
his stateside boss gives him the irksome task of keeping tabs on his daughter,
the blustery ditz Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin).
Pining for a
promotion, MacNamara accepts the responsibility while also contending with his
home life—two children and his jaded wife, Phyllis (Arlene Francis)—and his
office life—some overly-disciplined desk jockeys and a sexy secretary named
Fräulein Ingeborg, played by the Swiss Liselotte (Lilo) Pulver. Things go from
better to bad to worse when Scarlett’s nighttime excursions plant her firmly in
the arms, and the bed, of comrade Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz), an ardent East
German communist who steals Scarlett’s heart and indoctrinates her bubblehead
with anti-capitalist sentiment, something very much in opposition to
MacNamara’s corporate responsibilities and her father’s livelihood. With the
Hazeltine family en route, and a baby on the way (the pregnant Scarlett is just
17, mind you), One, Two, Three
becomes a hilariously rapid race-against-the-clock skirmish over ideals,
politics, family, and, of course, soda.
barreling train on its tracks is Cagney’s MacNamara, a blustering whirlwind of fierce
mannerisms, bold proclamations, and often dubious motivations. In the biting words
of Wilder and his frequent co-writer I. A. L. Diamond, the innuendo between
MacNamara and the voluptuous Ingeborg is unexpectedly risqué (he’s fascinated
by the nature of her “umlaut”), while
the incessant banter gives His Girl
Friday a run for its rapid-fire money. MacNamara declares that the East
Germans are “shifty” people, and he should know; he’s as shifty as they come.
He’s a high-anxiety blowhard and an unscrupulous schemer, and with his terse
delivery, Cagney plays the part in a brisk nod to his wise-guy persona. At the
same time, the relentless verbal pace is amplified by star’s physical dynamism,
revealing Cagney’s dance-driven proficiency as well as his oral aptitude.
the pantheon of recorded and performance comedy, right there on the first
floor, you will find a monument to the Firesign Theater. How they began to
occupy that hallowed estate is the subject of a new DVD called Everything You Know is Wrong --The Declassified
Firesign Theater 1968-1975, released on the Bright Red Rocket label.. Like most enthusiasts, I became acquainted with
their mind-blowing material as a high school and college student who was just
learning to appreciate the wit and wisdom of these modern thespians.
those of you who were not alive in those glorious years, or were distracted by
the British Invasion called Monty Python, the Firesign Theater was our own,
100% American comedy troupe comprised of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David
Ossman, and Philip Proctor. Best known for their comedy albums on Columbia
records (including such unique titles as “Waiting for the Electrician or
Someone Like Him,” “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not
Anywhere At All,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me
the Pliers.”) The title of this DVD is taken from their 1974 Columbia record,
“Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Defined by many as “surrealistic comedy,” I
don’t think the adjective is necessary. This is comedy that puts a smile on
your face, and a laugh in your heart, and isn’t that what comedy is supposed to
do—regardless of how it gets you there.
from radio performances at KPPC-FM and KPFK in Los Angeles, they excelled in
creating images in your imagination of people, sounds, and situations—absurd,
irreverent, and downright funny. The DVD set fills in the blanks for the fans
who followed them over the years, and creates a need for all those record
albums in those who will discover them through this compilation.
one starts with an audio only program taken from “The Les Crane Show” in April
1968. This Firesign Theater performance was a live re-creation of their “Oz
Film Festival” routine (listed in the LA Times TV listing as an “Art Movie
Put-on”) –based on an improvisation from the first time they worked together on
“Radio Free Oz” in November 1966. There is no known recording of that first
performance which makes this recording hysterically important. While Crane’s
show was televised, only the audio has survived, because it was taped by a
member of the Firesign while standing in front of his television set.
Crane’s interview is especially fascinating because it sounds, at first blush,
like a serious interview with serious film artists. The nervous laughter of the
studio audience demonstrates that they were not sure either if it was an act or
not. I found their unique film techniques quite believable not only for the
time, but even today. I only wish I could have seen the production still which
Jeanclaude Jeanclaude brought with him from his film “2002” which showed golf-balls and a coffeepot in space.
also wish I knew what the viewers thought, when they watched the commercials
the troupe did for the Jack Poet Volkswagen dealership in Highland Park,
California. Wonder no longer, as you can see them for yourself in the second
section of disc one. You can view them all with commentary by the group, but
why would you want to do that? I listened to commentary because I had to. You
can just focus on their message—which was designed to sell something. I’m not
sure it was cars. I guess it only goes to prove that everything I know is
the liner notes for “The Jack Poet Volkswagen TV Ads,” the Firesign Theater
claim partial responsibility for Jack eventually losing his Volkswagen
franchise. I find that hard to believe. Those were some hot cars in those ads. They
must have sold a lot of Love Bugs to those who followed Tony Gomez’s directions
up the Pan American Freeway from South America to Highland Park.
who was the man polishing the Bugs in the background? The unknown member of the
Firesign? Will we ever find out? Well, stand-by readers! Philip Proctor reports
to me that, as this piece goes to press, “That man is Jack Poet,” himself!
Immortalized in this two disc set.
Olive Films has released the now obscure 1941 British film noir "Pimpernel Smith" starring Leslie Howard, who also directed. The movie (known as "Mister V" in the United States) was released in 1941 at a time when England was hanging on by a thin thread as Hitler dominated most of Europe. As with all of the countries involved in WWII, the British film industry relied heavily on top stars appearing in inspiring movies that would boost public morale. This was especially true in England which saw its major ally, France, capitulate to Hitler in a matter of weeks, leaving the island nation standing alone against the Nazi menace. . At the time "Pimpernel Smith" was released in July 1941 (American would not enter the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of that year), the Brits were enjoying a spate of good news. After the disastrous experience of the British expedition force in Dunkirk, the nation had been subjected to the Blitz, the daily bombing by the Luftwaffe. London was especially hard hit in what Hitler had hoped to be a strategy that would have destroyed the RAF and led to his massive invasion of England. Instead, after a year of bitter fighting, the RAF had defeated the Luftwaffe and Hitler put his invasion plans on hold as he dealt with the consequences of his misguided incursion into the Soviet Union. With the Battle of Britain now over, the Brits could catch their breath and resume normal activities such as attending the cinema without worrying about being bombed into oblivion. Apparently "Pimpernel Smith" was an especially popular boxoffice hit in 1941, though the film's reputation as faded into oblivion in the decades since.
Howard's film production is a modern, loosely-based version of the classic "The Scarlet Pimpernel"- one of the first famous tales in which the dynamic hero hides behind a meek and mild alter ego to keep his identity secret. The story is set in the months before England went to war with the Axis powers following Germany's invasion of Poland. Howard plays Prof. Horatio Smith, a tweedy, eccentric academic who teaches at Cambridge. He arranges to take a group of his male students on a field trip to Germany ostensibly to undertake an archaeological expedition to prove that an ancient Aryan culture had once existed there- a notion that appeals to the xenophobic Nazi establishment. In reality, Smith is the unlikely anonymous hero whose exploits are filling the newspapers with tales of adventure, much to the delight of the British and the consternation of the Germans. Through daring schemes that border on the outrageous, Smith has been able to rescue important political prisoners from jails and concentration camps. His latest foray into Germany is designed to rescue Sidmir Koslowski (Peter Gawthorne), a Polish intellectual who is of value to the Allies. He has been arrested by the Germans on suspicion of being a spy. As the field trip gets under way, Smith plays up his role as an absent-minded professor, much to the amusement of his students. However, when he receives a flesh wound during one of his nocturnal secret missions, the boys catch on and insist that they be enlisted into helping Smith free Koslowski. Smith reluctantly concedes to accept their help. On the surface, Smith is treated as an honored guest by the Germans but the local military commander, General von Graum (Francis L. Sullivan) strongly suspects he is actually the "Pimpernel" and is determined to prove it and arrest him before any more prisoners can be freed. Von Graum forcibly enlists the services of Koslowski's beautiful daughter Ludmilla (Mary Morris) and makes her serve as a spy, holding her father's well-being over her head as collateral. Her mission is to seduce Smith if necessary in order to get proof of his extracurricular activities. Predictably, the two fall in love and Smith now not only has to rescue Koslowski, but his daughter as well.
Despite the fact that Leslie Howard was at the height of his career coming off of his role as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind", "Pimpernel Smith" is a low-budget film that resembles a Poverty Row production. Perhaps resources and funding for films in wartime Britain were scarce even for a movie with strong propaganda value such as this. Virtually the entire film was shot on soundstages- and rather claustrophobic ones at that. City views glimpsed through windows are represented by low-grade matte paintings and there are only a few fleeting shots of actual exteriors. It's to Howard's credit as star and director as well as the screenwriters that the movie overcomes these distractions with a highly engrossing story line that builds in interest and suspense during the two-hour running time. Howard is in top form and he is more than matched by Francis L. Sullivan who makes for a larger-than-life villain in both the figurative and literal sense of the term. Sullivan uses his considerable girth and wry delivery to channel the best characteristics of Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet. The witty script allows some wonderful byplay as Smith and von Graum maintain a superficial politeness even though they both regard each other as mortal enemies engaged in a cat-and-mouse game of strategy. Mary Morris makes for a lovely leading lady though the male actors who play Smith's students are so wholesome as to come across as absurd. It doesn't help matters that the styles of the era make them appear to look older than Smith.
It's a pity that there were no further adventures of Pimpernel Smith. However, real-life tragedy intervened when Leslie Howard was flying back to England from neutral Portugal in 1943 aboard a civilian aircraft. The plane was shot down by German fighters and all aboard were killed. Germany claimed the tragedy was an error but theories persist that his may have been targeted because of rumors that Churchill was aboard. Another theory was that the Germans wanted Howard dead in retribution for an Allied propaganda campaign he had been carrying out in Spain and Portugal. (For full analysis of the conspiracy theories behind Howard's death, read this entry on Wikipedia.) Thus, one of the film industry's most popular leading men had his life cut short due to the war even though he wasn't serving in combat."Pimpernel Smith" is a modest film but one that resonates very well today and gives us a full appreciation of Howard's talents as both actor and director. The Olive Blu-ray is sans any extras, which is a pity because of the aforementioned dramatic elements of Howard's life that would make for a good commentary track. However, the picture transfer is very impressive and does justice to the fine cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum.
was a time when movies about the Vietnam War were sparse if non existent,
especially during the years when the war was raging (one of the rare exceptions
being John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” in 1968). Once popular movie genres like the
war movie and western were prolific on television and in cinemas, but were beginning
to fall out of favor in the 1970s. They were being reinvented and metamorphosed
into post modern psychological examinations of the nature of violence and war. Hollywood
commonly referenced the Vietnam War by creating characters in movies depicted
as dysfunctional or they commented on the war by setting the movie during a
different war “The Sand Pebbles” and “M*A*S*H” are outstanding examples of
Vietnam War movies in disguise).
Tell the Spartans” was part of the small tide of movies about that war released
in the late seventies and eighties. The 1978 release features a terrific
performance by Burt Lancaster as well as an interesting supporting cast of up and
coming actors. The film's opening prologue states: "In 1954, the French
lost their war to keep their Indo-China colonies and those colonies became
North and South Vietnam. Then the North aided a rebellion in the South and the
United States sent in 'Military Advisors' to help South Vietnam fight the
Communists. In 1964, the war in Vietnam was still a little one -- confused and
is war weary Army Major Asa Barker, commander of a South Vietnam outpost in
1964. A veteran of WWII and Korea, Barker commands a small group of American
advisors at the outpost on the eve of the American build-up in Vietnam. His
command also includes a few South Vietnamese soldiers and villagers as he
negotiates with the corrupt regional governor to ensure his troops receive
proper artillery cover as they engage North Vietnamese forces.
second in command is Captain Alfred Olivetti (Marc Singer), a capable junior
officer almost as jaded as Barker. They are assisted by the capable Signalman
Toffee (Hilly Hicks) who is always ready with communications to headquarters
before being asked. Replacements arrive at the outpost and they include the
usual assortment of misfits, fence sitters, thoughtful soldiers and a gung-ho
newly commissioned lieutenant. Corporal Stephen Courcey (Craig Wasson) is the college
drop-out eager to serve his country by helping the South Vietnamese. Sergeant
Oleonowski (Jonathan Goldsmith) is an experienced veteran near to reaching his
breaking point. Lieutenant Raymond Hamilton (Joe Unger) is the recently
commissioned officer a little too eager to engage the enemy and Corporal
Abraham Lincoln (Dennis Howard) is the opium addicted stoner. Cowboy (Evan Kim)
is Barker’s Vietnamese scout who is a bit zealous in his methods of enemy
interrogation. Character actor James Hong is also present as one of the
villagers assisting the Americans.
and his men are ordered on an expedition to an abandoned French military
outpost to report on enemy activity. They encounter the fort cemetery with 300
French graves from the First Indochina War where a sign written in French quotes
the Greek historian Herodotus referencing the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
Greece; "Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we are buried, obedient
to their orders." The men soon find themselves engaging an overwhelming
force of Viet Cong. The soldiers realize the similarities between their
expedition and the doomed French soldiers who died there 10 years earlier as
they make a stand against the Viet Cong. Several of the characters succumb to
their fate as happens in all war movies, but the film does this in a sincere
depiction of the futility of war in a way that honors those who serve and
on Daniel Ford’s 1967 novel, “Incident at Muc Wa,” the title was changed to “Go
Tell the Spartans” by screenwriter Wendell Mayes. Ford based the novel on his
experiences covering the war for “The Nation.” The novel covers what is historically
known as “Operation Blaze.” Mayes beefed up the character of Barker in the
hopes a major Hollywood actor could be coaxed into taking the part. After
several years in development Hell, Lancaster accepted the part under the
direction of Ted Post for Avco Embassy. The movie literally had a spartan
budget and was shot on location in California which doubled for the jungles of
Southeast Asia. “The Green Berets” suffered from a similar lack of location
filming and it’s a glaring liability in both films. If the viewer can overlook
this and accept pine trees for jungle palms, the movie works quite well as a compelling
war drama with expertly staged battle scenes.
Scorpion Blu-ray release looks and sounds terrific with a running time of 115
minutes. The new high definition transfer in widescreen is a vast improvement over
the previous 2006 DVD release. Extras on the disc include interviews with cast
members Marc Singer, Joe Unger, David Clennon, Jonathan Goldsmith and director
Ted Post. The interviews include interesting anecdotes on working with Burt
Lancaster and the process of bringing the movie to the big screen. If you own
the 2006 DVD, this Blu-ray is a worthy upgrade and recommended for fans of the
benefit of those unfamiliar with the events that preceded The Amityville Horror’s arrival on screen, I'll start with a little
backstory. In November 1974 one Ronald DeFeo murdered six members of his family
in their home at 112 Ocean Avenue on Long Island, New York. 13 months later
George and Kathleen Lutz, along with her three children from a previous
marriage, moved in; unperturbed by the gruesome events of a year earlier, they
had purchased the property at a bargain price. The family fled the premises
just shy of a month later, claiming to have experienced a succession of
terrifying paranormal events. Their experiences soon became the subject of a
book by Jay Anson, published in 1977. Following extensive studies by a number
of parapsychology experts, many of the Lutzes stories would later be debunked,
but at the time the couple became something of a media sensation. Director
Stuart Rosenberg's film – which, as movies will, played a little economical
with the facts (at least as they were laid out in Anson's book) – was released
in 1979 and not only proved to be a major hit for American International
Pictures but was one of the highest grossing ever independents to that time.
So, did any of those paranormal incidents really take place, or was it all just
canny media manipulation? George and Kathleen are dead, both having passed away
prematurely in 2006 and 2004, respectively, so the true story will probably
never be known. But that house on Ocean Avenue has changed hands five times
since the Lutzes left – with the owners having modified the building's facade
and getting the address legally changed in a bid to dissuade tourists from
pestering them – and there has never been another report of an untoward
occurrence. One can make of that what one will. In any event, back in the 70s
George and Kathleen Lutz appeared to enjoy the attention their alleged
misfortune brought them and considerable monies were generated. And at the end
of the day the possibility that, actually, it wasn't all a hoax affords the whole business an enduring appeal.
Rosenberg's film spawned a dozen spin-offs and sequels and was itself remade in
2005. On a final historical note, in a 1980 episode of the British TV series Hammer House of Horror entitled The House That Bled to Death a family are
driven out of their new home in the wake of a number of paranormal events. They
sell their story for a substantial sum and the tale ends with them living a
life of luxury and the revelation that they fabricated everything for the
money, although there's one final devilish twist in which...well, I won't ruin
it here; those interested in the Amityville phenomenon, on which The House That Bled to Death was clearly
riffing, will find it well worth seeking out.
to the 1979 film itself. I first saw The
Amityville Horror theatrically (twice) upon its initial UK release early in
1980 – six months after its US opening the previous summer. Although its
effervescence has diminished somewhat in the intervening years, back then the
belief that I was witnessing what were supposedly true events added a distinct
frisson to the proceedings.
married George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margot Kidder) move into a
large property on Long Island, the site of a familial massacre just a year
earlier. A succession of relatively minor incidents – inexplicable odours,
toilet bowls ejaculating viscous black gunge – begin to tarnish the happy
household, and George's health plummets. After priest and friend of the family
Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) is driven out by an unseen presence whilst he's in
the process of blessing the house, the abnormal occurrences intensify and it
becomes apparent that the residue of something evil is at work. When George's mood
darkens and his sanity begins to unravel, Kathy starts to fear for the lives of
her entire family.
The Amityville Horror
was co-produced by Elliot Geisinger and Ronald Saland, known primarily for a
number of behind-the-scenes shorts they directed and produced throughout the
60s and 70s. But the name that stands out here is that of executive producer
Samuel Z Arkoff, instantly recognisable to movie buffs from Vincent Price
horrors (Cry of the Banshee, The Abominable Dr Phibes and its sequel,
Dr Phibes Rises Again), through
blaxploitation classics (Coffy, Blacula, Slaughter) to clunky monster flicks (The People That Time Forgot, The
Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants);
if Arkoff's name was on it you always knew you were in for a fun ride. And The Amityville Horror is nothing if not
Stuart Rosenberg, working from a Sandor Stern screenplay, conjures up an
efficient little creepy embroidered with all the standard haunted house tropes;
bumps in the night, thunderstorms, blood-spattered dream sequences, bricked-up
cubbyholes, tormented babysitters, and at one point the hoariest of them all,
the sudden appearance of a howling cat. But there are also enough genuinely efficacious
jumps and starts throughout to keep viewers on their toes. The whole shebang
gets strong backing from a terrific Lalo Schifrin score, its haunting (no pun
intended) nursery rhyme theme – the sound of chanting children set against low
strings combining to invoke a crawling sense of ill-ease – surely ranking among
the composer's finest works. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Score of
1979 but lost out to George Delerue's A
There’s enough cross-plot evidence to suggest that some ideas
woven into World Without End (Allied
Artists, 1956) were based in part on H.G. Wells’ classic 1895 novel The Time Machine.Wells’ immortal tale would, of course, soon follow
the less-celebrated World Without End
as a lavish, big-screen Hollywood feature of 1960.Though director-writer Edward Bernds readily admitted
to familiarity with Wells’ The Time
Machine, he insisted his screenplaywas
a wholly original creation.Though the
similarities between the two works cannot be discounted, Bernds refutation has
merit. Certainly modern science-fiction’s fascinations with time and space
travel were hardly of the abstract, and most certainly predated Wells’ own
literary musings on the subject.
That said, Bernds World
Without End is of its own time and primarily a stereotypical 1950s Cold
War-era vehicle. It’s a call for a
return to reason and détente in the decade following the game-changing horrors
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The real
monsters in this film are neither the over-sized arachnids nor the ambling Cyclops-Neanderthals. Instead it’s the hawkish politicians, generals,
diplomats and scientists who recklessly helped dress the stage for earth’s inevitable
apocalypse. There’s little denying this
is a “message” film. Even before the
credits roll, the film opens dramatically with a grim, red-tinted vision of an
atomic mushroom cloud spiraling heavenward.
It is March of 1957, and the U.S. has sent a spacecraft on
mankind’s first ever flight to red planet Mars. Surprisingly, the four man crew is not scheduled to touch down on the
Martian surface; this flight is purely a reconnaissance mission in which they
are tasked to twice orbit Mars for photo-mapping. In Washington D.C., Pentagon officials,
members of the press, and distraught family members have become increasingly anxious
as contact with the spaceship has been lost. The astronauts onboard are less concerned. They realize this breakdown in communication is
merely temporary, likely the result of their spacecraft entering Mars’ magnetic
Unfortunately and unbeknownst to the crew, on the return
voyage home, the spaceship accidentally wanders into a time displacement vortex. The craft crashes into a snowy region that the
rattled astronauts – all of whom have miraculously survived – not unreasonably
assume is one of Mars’ famed polar icecaps. It’s not, as they soon recognize when exiting the craft without the
assistance of oxygen helmets or pressure suits. Journeying from the snow-capped mountain, they dimly recognize the
outline of the Rockies, believing they might have somehow landed on the border
of Idaho and Wyoming, or perhaps that of Colorado and New Mexico.
They quickly begin to have their doubts when they wander
into a cave and are attacked by giant spiders “as big as dogs!” Surviving that
sticky encounter with the assistance of their pistols, an overnight campout under
the stars is summarily ruined when they’re viciously attacked by – and barely
stave off - a gang of marauding Cyclops-Neanderthals who brandish primitive
hand weapons. Taking supposed safe harbor
in still another cave, the crew is trapped inside when a steel panel
mysteriously descends from above. Their
abductors are, to the great relief of all, friends.
They learn from a panel of paternal, subterranean elders
referred as “The Council,” that they are indeed back on earth. But it’s now the year 2508, some 551 years
since they had first been launched into orbit. They also learn that the earth was almost entirely destroyed in the
“Great Blow” of 2188. This was the year
of Armageddon when “man destroyed himself” through foolish use of atomic weaponry
and the absence of wisdom.
(1969; U.S. release, 1970), “Adios Sabata”
(1970; U.S. release, 1971), and “Return of Sabata” (1971; U.S. release, 1972)
are often referred to as “The Sabata Trilogy,” thanks to clever marketing by
MGM, which originally released the three Italian Westerns theatrically and on
home video here in the States. Technically, “trilogy” is a misnomer. As I noted in an article review on this site in 2014, “Adios, Sabata” was released in Italy
in 1970 as “Indio Black, sai che ti dico: Sei un gran figlio di...,” with
Yul Brynner as the title character Indio Black. It was rebranded for distribution in the U.S. and some European markets
when “Sabata,” starring Lee Van Cleef, turned a profit for MGM and producer
Alberto Grimaldi. Commercially, it was a
smart move, keeping the Sabata name on marquees until the true Van Cleef
tornato Sabata... hai chiuso un'altra volta!,” followed in American theaters as
“Return of Sabata” in the Watergate summer of 1972. For a longer analysis of the first Van Cleef
movie, not included in the review that follows, see the 2014 review.
Mr. Magoo would mistake Yul Brynner and Lee Van Cleef for each other, but
reviewers had an “Oh, well,” attitude about the casting, simply assuming that
Brynner had stepped in for Van Cleef between the first and third movies. Audiences didn’t seem to notice or care. Anyway, many of the same credits appeared on
all three films, ensuring some continuity of style: producer Grimaldi, director
“Frank Kramer,” actually the Americanized alias of Gianfranco Parolini,
scriptwriters Parolini and Renato Izzo, and supporting actors Pedro Sanchez,
Nick Jordan, and Gianni Rizzo. The
strategy probably benefitted the three films over the long haul, as well. With genre pictures, series tend to have more
staying power than stand-alone titles. On DVD, MGM Home Video released the three movies in 2006 both as
individual discs and as a boxed set under the “Sabata Trilogy” label. Kino Lorber Studio Classics produced a
Blu-ray edition of “Sabata” for the U.S. market in 2014, and now has completed
its set with “Adios, Sabata” and “Return of Sabata,” released simultaneously as
“Adios, Sabata,” Brynner’s title character signs up for a caper to steal the
Emperor Maximilian’s imperial gold from murderous Col. Skimmel (Gerard Herter)
and turn it over to Juarez’s good-guy Mexican revolutionaries. The “inside man” for Sabata at Skimmel’s
military post, and alternately his rival for the gold, is Ballantine (Dean
Reed), a portraitist and con artist. Lots of explosions ensue, along with chases, battles, gunfights, and
trick weaponry (like Sabata’s rifle magazine that also serves as his cigar
holder). As a “gringos south of the
border” action-fest, it’s better than any of the sequels to and reboots of “The
Magnificent Seven,” including last year’s dour remake.
“Return of Sabata,” Van Cleef’s character comes to Hobsonville, Texas, as the
star of a Wild West sideshow in a traveling circus. Sabata tells his old Army subordinate from
the Civil War, Clyde (Reiner Schöne), now the proprietor of a local
gambling house, that he plans to stick around long enough “to collect the
$5,000 you owe me.” Actually, Sabata has
a bigger score in mind, related to his reason for traveling with the circus,
and to the money being raised by town boss McIntock through exorbitant sales
taxes to fund “civic improvements” in Hobsonville. Where Van Cleef’s original Sabata was a
steely man of mystery, his character in “Return of Sabata” is more relaxed, to
the point of mugging for the camera in a couple of scenes, having a gorgeous
hooker girlfriend, Maggie (Annabella Incontrera), and indulging in
what today’s viewers might regard as a couple of sexist comments. Some reviews unfairly conclude that the plot
makes no sense. If you pay close enough
attention, it does, but “Kramer” makes the narrative hard to follow, inserting
details and events in rapid succession and seemingly at random. Only later do they pay off with verbal or
visual punchlines. It’s hard to tell if
he was being intentionally disruptive to keep viewers guessing about Sabata’s
motives along with Clyde and McIntock, or if he couldn’t resist adding every
gag that he and Izzo thought of.
Like “My Name is Nobody” (1974), the next-to-last Spaghetti
produced by Sergio Leone, “Return of
Sabata” indulges in too much noisy, surrealistic circus business for anybody
but the most avid Cirque de Soleil groupie. Where “Sabata” had one acrobat in the protagonist’s entourage (Nick
Jordan), the sequel has two (Nick Jordan and Vassili Karis). An opening “shootout” in a weirdly lit room
between Sabata and a passel of gunmen turns out to be part of the sideshow
act. It concludes as the stage lights
come on, the gunmen get up, wipe off their fake blood, and joke with each other,
and a noisy troupe of clowns runs in. Viewers allergic to clowns may be tempted to punch “stop” or “fast
forward” at that point. The first of the
gunmen “shot down” by Sabata appears to be played by actor and stuntman Romano
Puppo, Van Cleef’s stunt double in several Spaghettis, even though Puppo
doesn’t appear in the cast credits for the picture in IMDB and the Spaghetti
Western Data Base.
Licensed from 20th Century Fox and MGM, the KL Studio Classics
Blu-ray editions of “Adios, Sabata” and “Return of Sabata” have sharp hi-def
clarity and a strong color palette, nice upgrades from the previous DVD
discs. Extras are scanty, limited to
reversible case sleeves with the American poster artwork for the films on one
side and the Italian on the other, and trailers for the Sabata films and “Barquero,”
an inferior 1970 American Western starring Van Cleef. Unfortunately for aging fans, the audience
most likely to remember Van Cleef and Brynner, no SDH subtitles are
provided. The German Blu-ray editions from Explosive Media that
preceded the KL releases are superior in this respect, including both audio and
captioning options not only in English but also in Italian and other
languages. Too, it’s unfortunate that KL
didn’t spring for the rights and the costs to port over and translate the
attractive, informative insert booklets that Explosive Media’s Ulrich Bruckner
included with the German discs. Regardless, fans will appreciate Kino Lorber for making “Adios, Sabata”
and “Return of Sabata” readily accessible in the U.S. market in good hi-def
Due to disappointing boxoffice returns, "Those Fantastic Flying Fools" was re-titled and remarketed as "Blast-Off". This was not an uncommon practice during the era. "Operation Crossbow" was retitled "The Great Spy Mission" and "Star!" was reissued under the title "Those Were the Happy Times".
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Olive Films has released a Blu-ray edition of "Those Fantastic Flying Fools" although the packaging bears the film's alternate title, "Blast-Off". The 1967 production is largely forgotten by all but the most avid retro movie lovers. Clearly inspired by the success of director Ken Annakin's 1965 blockbuster "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines", "Blast-Off" is far more modest in its ambitions and the pleasures it delivers but it still offers a rare opportunity to see many great "second bananas" in leading roles. The movie apparently had a checkered history with Bing Crosby, Senta Berger and Wilfred Hyde-White having been associated with it in the early stages only to drop out for various reasons. As it is, the movie presents an impressive number of talented comic actors in a tale loosely inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. (The movie was released in the UK under yet another titles, "Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon"). The film presents Burl Ives, well cast as P.T. Barnum, making a trek to England where he encounters a the nutty Prof. von Bulow (Gert Frobe, ported over from "Magnificent Men" in an almost identical role), who is trying to convince skeptical colleagues that he can develop technology to send a manned rocket to the moon. Barnum, ever the opportunist, doesn't care whether the plan is feasible or not, but he smells a great way to attract paying crowds to see the rocket before its attempted launch. He partners with the Duke of Barset (Dennis Price), a true believer in von Bulow's ambitious plan, and before long even Queen Victoria is on board helping with the financing and providing logistical military support as von Bulow goes through an often disastrous series of experiments using high levels of gunpowder to find the perfect formula to act as propulsion for the rocket.
The story dovetails with individual side plots that present Daliah Lavi as Madelaine, a lovely but ditzy French girl, who is equally in love with two would-be husbands, Henri (Edward de Souza), a wealthy playboy and Gaylord, an American inventor who is also developing technology to bring a man to the moon. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Gaylord and Madelaine end up arriving in England at the precise spot where Barnum and von Bulow are performing propulsion tests. Madelaine ends up getting lost and falls into the hands of the lecherous Harry Washington Smythe (Terry-Thomas), a notorious con man who has convinced Barnum and the Duke to hire him as an adviser and accountant. The rambling screenplay finds Gaylord and Henri both competing to find Madelaine, who is attempting to prevent the rocket launch from being thwarted by a Russian spy(!). The movie contains some fine cinematography (it was filmed entirely in Ireland) and director Don Sharp keeps the action moving at a frantic pace without making the plot seem too confusing. Ives is as commanding as ever, Donohue has a rare opportunity to show his skills in slapstick scenarios and Lavi shines in a rare leading role that reminds us that she coulda/shoulda been a much bigger star. The real fun comes from the British actors, including Lionel Jeffries as a competing scientist who joins ranks with Smythe to undermine the rocket launch that is to take Gaylord on what may be a one-way trip to the moon. Terry-Thomas predictably chews the scenery, playing yet again another charming rogue and Dennis Price does well as the foil for the zany characters surrounding him which includes ever-reliable Graham Stark. Even Hermione Gingold pops up briefly as the matron of a school for wayward girls who has turned the charity into a classy bordello. John Scott provides the lively score and the film boasts some impressive costumes and production design elements. The Olive Blu-ray has a superb transfer and includes a work print trailer that doesn't have titles. Recommended.
I'm always in the mood to watch a James Garner movie and the Warner Archive has cooperated nicely by releasing his 1963 comedy "The Wheeler Dealers" which pairs Garner with the lovely, talented (and somewhat underrated) Lee Remick. The movie presents Garner in his signature role as a lovable rogue. This time he plays Henry Tyroon, a Texas millionaire investor in any and all business deals that might turn a fast profit for him and his partners. When we first meet Henry he has been a downward spiral. His latest speculation on an oil rig delivers about a gallon of "Texas tea" before it starts gurgling up dust. Henry's accountant warns him that he'd better start raising a couple of million dollars for new investments or he'll be flat broke. Heeding the warning, the ever-confident Henry arrives in New York and pretentiously dresses like an innocent Texas good ol' boy, complete with string tie and cowboy hat. It's all part of the charm offensive to make him look as honest and unassuming as possible. In short order he meets with Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick), an assertive young securities analyst who is part of a small group of brave females who are trying to break the glass ceiling on Wall Street. They are finding it's actually made of concrete but Molly has landed a job at a financially-challenged securities firm headed by Bullard Bear (Jim Backus), who takes a paternal liking to her. However, in order to cut costs he's been advised to fire Molly, largely because the notion of a female handling the stress of a finance job is regarded as an amusing but improbable idea. Bear can't bring himself to actually fire her so he gives her a "Mission: Impossible"-type assignment: find a buyer for some virtually worthless stock in a widget company that Bear has lost a considerable amount on. Henry charms Molly and takes on her cause, offering to help offload the stock with some loyal investors of his. These turn out to be three Texas millionaires who follow him around in their private jet (complete with built-in saunas!) in the hopes of being able to invest in his next big idea.
The movie quickly becomes "Doris Day and Rock Hudson Lite", with Henry trying to seduce savvy big city girl Molly who assures him that while she is not "pure as the driven snow", she's also not one to go for a one-night stand. In the realm of 1963 Hollywood comedies, sex was often hinted at, as it is here, but it's rarely consummated between unmarried couples. As Henry and Molly take road trips trying to unload the widget stock, they end up spending the night in the same hotel (gasp!) but when the quarters prove to be too close, Molly makes Henry sleep in his convertible (which at least is equipped in 007-style with a phone and built-in bar.) So much for the sexual sophistication of New York city female circa 1963, at least in the minds of Hollywood screenwriters. The script follows all the predictable aspects of a Day/Hudson comedy: double entendres, mistaken motives and at least one good temper tantrum on the part of the leading lady (caused here when she discovers that lovable ol' Texan Henry is actually a Bostonian with a Harvard degree). The film represents the second feature film directed by the soon-to-estimable Arthur Hiller but despite his attempts to keep the action light and breezy he's saddled with a confusing script that is far too labored with Wall Street jargon that seems confusing today let alone in 1963. It's also unclear whether Henry is an outright con man or just a guy who doesn't mind gnawing at the ethical edges of financial dealings. Indeed, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote of the film, which opened at Radio City Music Hall, "If
you're one of those people who doesn't know the difference between a 27 per
cent depletion allowance and a 50 per cent override—then you'd better not look
to this fun thing to cause you to split your sides." At times the financial aspects of the banter would seem to appeal only to people who wear green eyeshades in their professions. Fortunately, Garner (who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance) is in top form, as is Remick, who was certainly one of the most beautiful leading ladies of the era. The film also boasts an impressive cast of familiar second-bananas in amusing supporting roles: Chill Wills, Phil Harris, Vaughn Taylor, the aforementioned Jim Backus, Louis Nye (as a modern artist who makes money by selling junk paintings to pretentious millionaires), John Astin, John Marley and Howard McNear. Even Alan Sues, Bernie Kopell and James Doohan turn up in blink-and-you'll miss them roles. Patricia Crowley is funny as Molly's more sexually liberated roommate who is willing to trade a night under the sheets for a big night on the town.
The most interesting aspect of "The Wheeler Dealers" is a sociological one. The treatment of women who try to exercise their brain power through business careers comes across as a 1963 horror show. At best they are viewed in a patronizing manner by male bosses who treat them in a childlike manner. At worst they are driven from their jobs by misogynistic knuckle-draggers who advise them to stay home and cook, clean and look after the kids. Sadly this was the overwhelming sentiment of the era. Perhaps younger women should watch films like "The Wheeler Dealers" so they get a greater appreciation of what their mothers and grandmothers had to endure simply to hold down a professional job. It's also rather interesting to see the social protocols of the time- young women dress to the nines for a date (complete with those elegant gloves that stretch up their arms) and guys feel free to light up giant stogies in fancy restaurants without even earning so much as a disapproving glance from other patrons.
The movie is not exactly a gem and it's lacking in real belly laughs, but it is consistently amusing enough to recommend it largely because you can do worse than to spend 107 minutes with the engaging members of the cast. The Warner Archive Blu-ray boasts a fine transfer that does justice to the impressive opening credits and zippy title song. An original trailer is included but don't watch it until after you've viewed the entire film as it gives away a key scene in the climax.
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SS: A Portrait of Evil” is a 1986 made-for TV movie telling the fictional story
of Helmut (Bill Nighy) and Karl Hoffmann (John Shea), brothers who become a
part of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The movie opens in 1931 as we meet
the brothers, their family, friends and associates. Hoping they can sway and
minimalize the radical elements through their intellect and character, Helmut
and Karl willingly join the Nazi Party.
Hoffmann brothers are eager participants in the Nazi party early on as their
mother Gerda (Carroll Baker) provides worried commentary. Factory worker Karl
joins the SA while his university student brother Helmut is coaxed into joining
the SS by fencing instructor Reinhard Heydrich (David Warner), much to the
objection of his mentor and Jewish professor Ludwig Rosenberg (Jose Ferrer).
Tony Randall is interesting appearing as a comic performer for the Nazis known
as Putzi. Mitzi Templer (Lucy Gutteridge) is a beautiful nightclub singer and
friend of the brothers.
story of the brothers unfolds in episodic fashion through to the end of WWII covering
14 years and the inevitable fall of the Third Reich. Nighy and Shea give thoughtful
and sincere performances as brothers who support each other and Germany and attempt
to reel in the extreme elements of the Third Reich. The movie is well made, the
drama compelling and it kept my interest throughout with a cast filled by many veterans
of British television. Although their initial reason for joining is an honest
attempt for change, the old “just following orders” argument comes to mind, and
it’s hard to feel any real empathy for the brothers even when the movie comes
to the tragic conclusion.
by British television veteran Jim Goddard, best known in America for the TV
movies “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1980 and the outstanding “Reilly: Ace of
Spies” in 1983. He had a brief foray into feature films with “Bones” in 1985 and
“Shanghai Surprise” in 1986, but returned to television after their failure at
the box office. He does a good job with “Hitler’s SS” telling a story that
unfolds over 14 years in just under two and a half hours.
movie is available on several public domain labels. The copy I viewed was “The
Digital Gold” DVD, possibly released in 2002, but no details are listed on the
DVD packaging itself. The disc lists Leisure Entertainment as the manufacturer.
The movie sounds good and the picture is presented full frame as it was when
originally broadcast by NBC in 1985. The picture is framed by a thin black
stripe on the left and right side of the image area with gray filling out the
remaining area. The transfer appears to be taken from an inferior VHS master as
the colors are washed out with a few artifacts appearing throughout the
presentation. The DVD back cover list a runtime of 150 minutes, but the actual
runtime is just under 139 minutes.
are no extras on this DVD. I recommend the movie, but not the transfer which is
about as bad as it gets. The movie is watchable considering there is no other
available option and can be purchased for a few bucks on-line or in the dollar
bin at your local pawn shop.
Cinema Retro has received the following press release:
U.S. TROOPS AROUND THE WORLD, THERE WAS NO ONE LIKE HOPE FOR THE HOLIDAYS…
MAY, JOIN TIME LIFE AND THE GREATEST ENTERTAINER OF THE 20TH CENTURY FOR A TIMELESS,
STAR-SPANGLED COLLECTION OF HIS TOP-RATED HOLIDAY TV SPECIALS
BOB HOPE SALUTES THE TROOPS
This Commemorative 3-Disc
Set, Available EXCLUSIVELY at WALMART, Collects Some of Hope’s Historic
TV Specials Across Five Decades, Patriotically Packed with Memories, Laughs and
Stars, and Filmed on Location at Military Bases from Vietnam to Saudi Arabia
Bob Hope, the
greatest entertainer of the 20th century, spent nearly half of his 100
Christmases heading up USO shows as a globetrotting Santa Claus with a golf
club, a sackful of jokes, and an airplane filled with stars. Armed with a lifelong dedication to America’s
troops and a star-studded crew of performers, he performed on battleships and
battlefields, sometimes accompanied by the sound of fighter jets overhead. The missions were often dangerous, and their schedule
brutal, yet for thousands of servicemen and women far from home there
was no one like Hope for the
legendaryNBC-TV comedy and
Christmas specials – some of the most-watched programs in television history --
spanned five decades, from President Truman to Clinton. And, this May, BOB HOPE SALUTES THE TROOPS, a timeless 3-disc set from Time Life®,
collects some of the legendary performer’s greatest and most patriotic holiday
specials, including seven classic shows from the ‘60s to the ‘90s,
re-mastered from original broadcast elements for optimal viewing:
Bob Hope’s Christmas Cheer
in Saudi Arabia (Original Airdate: 1/12/91) -- During
Operation Desert Shield, Hope brought his USO Christmas show to U.S. troops
stationed in Saudi Arabia. Performances
include Marie Osmond serenading a serviceman, Hope and Ann Jillian doing a duet
and the Pointer Sisters performing “I’m So Excited”; other highlights include a
comic exchange between Hope and actress Khrystyne Haje (“Head of the Class”).
The Bob Hope Christmas
Special: Around the World with the USO (Original Airdate: 1/16/69) -- Hope
brought his USO Christmas tour to Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Midway, and
aboard the USS Hancock and the USS New Jersey in the South China Sea. Bob Hope and former professional football
player Rosey Grier trade barbs, the
Golddiggers dance on deck for the crews of two passingdestroyers
and Dick Albers performs his comic trampoline act. At Okinawa, a skydiver parachutes into the
audience and Ann-Margret exhorts members of the different services to stand up
during her performance. Hope does mail
call for the troops, inviting one service member (whose mother says he’s a good
singer) to perform and Gen. Creighton Abrams thanks the entire cast and crew
for coming to Vietnam.
Bob Hope: Memories of WWII
-- Hope looks back at World War II with his wife, Dolores Hope, and
colleagues who share their recollections about the period, including the shift
from shipping audio recordings of radio shows from the U.S. to actually
traveling overseas to perform for troops stationed abroad. Frances Langford and Bob reminisce about
their first wartime tour. Footage includes historic clips of Bob, Jerry Colonna
and Frances Langford doing a radio show for the Armed Forces Network, Bob
onstage with Bing Crosby, and a celebrity road trip to sell war bonds.
The Bob Hope Christmas
Special (Original Airdate: 1/15/65) -- Hope and company embarked on
a 1964 Christmas tour to entertain troops stationed in Guam, Okinawa, the
Philippines, Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Along the way, the troupe went from the freezing cold of Korea to the
tropical heat of Thailand and in Vietnam experienced danger when the hotel
across the street from theirs is bombed. Jill St. John demonstrates the latest dance moves with service members,
and Anita Bryant, on her fifth USO tour, serenades two soldiers guarding the
The Bob Hope Christmas Show
(1/16/63) -- From more than a dozen military
bases in the Pacific, Bob Hope and his entourage performed the 1962 Christmas
tour in Japan, Korea, Guam, the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa, and aboard the
USS Kitty Hawk. Among the highlights:
Lana Turner and Bob Hope do the bossa nova and there’s more comedy when Bob
brings Miss USA Amedee Chabot onstage. The
show closes with Anita Bryant leading everyone in Silent Night.
The Bob Hope Christmas
Special: Around the Globe with the U.S.O. (Original Airdate: 1/17/72) – In 1972, Hope brought his USO
Christmas tour to Hawaii, where Don Ho and His Wahinis perform Tiny Bubbles. Then, the company head to Wake Island and
Okinawa and on to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Spain, and Cuba. Along the way Bob delivers his topical
stand-up, and jests with Jill St. John, pitcher Vida Blue, and astronaut Alan
The Bob Hope Christmas
Special (Original Airdate: 1/17/73) -- Hope made his 22nd Christmas
tour of U.S. military bases to entertain troops, starting with a send-off from
Santa Claus (actor and pro football player Merlin Olsen) as the group departs
for the Aleutians, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Diego Garcia, the
Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and the USS Midway. Highlights include Bob
doing his custom-tailored monologues (with departing fighter jets drowning out
his act in Thailand), a “fatigue version of Sanford and Son” with Redd Foxx,
and Rudy Cardenas’ show-stopping juggling. Bob brings a star-struck service member onstage to sing to Miss World
Belinda Green, dances and sings with Lola Falana, and jokes with L.A. Rams
quarterback Roman Gabriel.
the picture takes place a couple of months after the end of World War II in the
year 1945, Bad Day at Black Rock is
really a western. The setting is a desert town that’s barely a whistle stop for
a train that hasn’t halted there in four years; the main street looks as if
it’s right out of Dodge City, and the
opening credits are designed in big, colorful, bold words that spread across
the wide CinemaScope screen. Even director John Sturges is primarily known for
his many westerns.
Guy Spencer Tracy rides into town—on that train—and is met with inexplicable
hostility from everyone he meets. All he wants is to find a guy named Komoko—a
Japanese farmer who supposedly lives just out of town. Most of the residents
seem afraid to help Tracy. The ones who aren’t scared are bullies who attempt
to intimidate Tracy into leaving town. It doesn’t take long for Tracy to figure
out that Black Rock is run by Bad Guy Robert Ryan. Even the alcoholic sheriff
(Dean Jagger) is in Ryan’s pocket, as well as the young female mechanic (Anne
Francis), the telegraph operator (Russell Collins), and the hotel clerk (John
Ericson). Ryan has a couple of bruisers (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin) who do
most of the threatening. The only civilian seemingly willing to extend an ounce
of courtesy to the stranger is the undertaker (Walter Brennan).
why is Tracy so unwelcome? Why is Black Rock so paranoid? What secret in its
past are the citizens obviously protecting? Tracy—not one to back down
easily—decides to try and get the answers before the gang puts him in the
are classic western trappings. It’s High
Noon, only Tracy has come to town
to find everyone against him, rather than the other way around. Ryan is the
archetypal greedy, mean cattle baron, and Marvin is his six-shooter-slinging
henchman. The only difference is that everyone in Black Rock gets around in a car
instead of on a horse.
film historian Dana Polan states in the accompanying audio commentary, Bad Day is a B-movie disguised as a
prestige picture. The studio is MGM. The CinemaScope/color photography is
impressive. The star is Spencer Tracy, adding “respectability” to the film.
And, in the end, it’s a “problem picture,” in that the movie is about racism. All
that spells “importance.”
of that really matters, for Bad Day at
Black Rock is simply solid entertainment. It is suspenseful, full of
tension, has action—a car chase, hand-to-hand combat, a shootout—and admirable
performances. Tracy was nominated for an Oscar Best Actor. Sturges was
nominated for Director, and the adapted screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard
Kaufman received a nod.
Warner Archive Collection release presents a 1080p High Definition transfer
with DTS-HD Master Audio.
include the aforementioned commentary and the theatrical trailer.
a few-frills package, but Bad Day at
Black Rock is a no-frills thriller that packs a raw and gritty punch.
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It goes without saying that Kirk Douglas is a
Hollywood icon. From his first role as Walter O’Neill in “The Strange Love of
Martha Ivers,” (1946) to “Spartacus” (1960) and beyond that until his last, so
far, appearance in a made for TV movie, he remains—even in retirement after a
stroke and a helicopter crash— one of those larger than life movie stars, the
kind they just don’t make any more. He
had a look and a style. Those shiny white teeth could as easily smile
charmingly at you or snarl like a barracuda. His bright blue eyes could be full
of tenderness one minute, as in his love scenes in “Spartacus,” or fierce and
mean as in “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” He played complex characters that were always
a mix of good and bad, but never evil.
Such a character is Johnny Hawks, the
frontier scout he plays in “The Indian Fighter” (1955), made in the middle part
of Douglas’ career. He had moved up from tough guy film noir roles by then and
this was the first film made by his own production company, Bryna Productions. The
film was made on location in Oregon by Hungarian-born director Andre de Toth, who
wore an eye patch, had seven wives and 19 children (talk about the kind of man
they don’t make anymore!). It tells the story of Hawks, who is brought in by
the Army to lead a wagon train of settlers through Sioux Indian territory. Rather
than the peerless good guy who has no flaws, Johnny has one major hang-up. He
is easily distracted. When, in the opening scene he spies Onahti (Elsa
Martinelli) the beautiful daughter of Chief Red Cloud (Arthur Franz), bathing
in a river sans clothes, he can hardly keep his mind on his job. His ogling is
interrupted by Sioux brave Grey Wolf (Harry Landers) who says, if he lays one
more eyeball on the fair Indian lass, he’ll set him up for a quick scalp
treatment. Nevertheless, Johnny during negotiating safe passage for the wagon
train and trying to establish peace terms between the tribe and the soldiers at
Fort Benham, manages to make a few passes at Onahti, who resists at first, but
soon surrenders to Johnny’s virile charms.
Plot complications come in the form of two
shifty ne’er-do-wells, Lon Chaney and Walter Matthau, who spend most of their
time getting the Indians drunk enough to tell where they can find the gold said
to be located on Sioux land. When Johnny abandons the wagon train for a night
to have a little dalliance with Onahti, all hell breaks loose. Several braves
are killed by the gold hunters and the tribe goes on the warpath. The wagon
train narrowly makes it back to the fort, and everybody wonders, where the heck
is Johnny Hawks ? Johnny wakes up that morning under a tree lying next to the
Indian chief’s daughter. He had a great night, but, boy, is he in trouble.
The film climaxes with the Indians besieging
the fort in a scene that resembles something out of “The Vikings” (1958), one
of Douglas’s later films, The Sioux set the fort on fire by lobbing balls of
flame at it from long poles cut from saplings. I don’t know if that has any
historical authenticity, but in his commentary, provided on a separate audio
track, Western film historian Toby Roan, makes note of the scene’s uniqueness,
and gives credit to the filmmakers for at least coming up with a different
approach to the old Indians-attacking-the fort scene.
Incidentally, Roan is the proprietor of a
highly-recommended blog on western films,https://fiftieswesterns.wordpress.com/, where you will find
all kinds of interesting info on older westerns. I had seen “The Indian Fighter”
before, but I wasn’t aware, until Roan pointed out that beloved character actor
Hank Worden ("Old Mose" in “The Searchers”) actually plays two parts in this
movie. He’s a jail house guard, and also Crazy Bear, one of the Indians that
Chaney and Matthau ply with liquor, trying to find out where the gold is. Roan
provides a ton of other insights into the making of the film. He knows which
construction company built the full-sized Fort Benham out there in the Oregon
wilderness and even what kind of lumber was used.
Kino Lorber presents “The Indian Fighter” in
a 1080p transfer on Blu-ray in Cinemascope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Colors are bright and clear, and Wilfred M. Kline’s cinematography of the
Oregon forests and the snow-covered Cascade Mountains in the distance are a
treat for the eye. It was de Toth’s first Cinemascope film, and he used the
wide-angle lens in several scenes to do a full 360 degree pan of the beautiful
vistas surrounding the actors. The inestimable Franz Waxman contributed a very
colorful score for the film, and it’s too bad this release is not in stereo.
“The Indian Fighter” is an entertaining
movie, but it’s not without problems. De Toth’s direction seems to be focused
more on the scenery than the bloody frontier action taking place, resulting in
an overall lack of intensity. Douglas, however, and his supporting cast acquit
themselves well. Douglas displays a lot of physicality, doing quite a bit of
stunt work himself. In fact Roan points out that doing a horse fall, he ended
up with a broken nose.
It’s also definitely a film of its time. It’s
not likely that you could make a film today entitled “The Indian Fighter” unless
it was about a boxer in Bombay. And Johnny Hawks’ forceful seduction of Onahti
in the river bed might be protested by feminists today as nothing more than a
glorified rape. However, the movie gets points for a sympathetic portrayal of
the Sioux (even though there are no native Americans in the cast), whose Chief
Red Cloud tells Johnny his concern about the white men coming into the
territory is not the loss of the gold they are after, but the pollution of the
air and water they will bring. Nice environmental touch. “The Indian Fighter” is a mixed bag, good but
not without its flaws, just like Johnny Hawks.
Fifteen years after co-producing and directing the British Victorian-era war classic Zulu, Cy Endfield brought an epic prequel to the story to the screen with Zulu Dawn. Unlike the original film, however, this 1979 release suffered from a bungled and scatter shot North American release that ensured that very few Yanks or Canadians ever had the opportunity to see the film in theaters. Botched release notwithstanding, the movie is in many ways as good as its predecessor, even if the screenplay falls short on presenting the main characters in a fully developed way. The story pertains to the greatest British military defeat of its era as the Victorian penchant for colonialism extended into South Africa. Initially the indigenous Zulu tribes had a cordial relationship with the British, but a foolish change in political strategy saw increasing incursions onto Zulu territory. The Zulu king went to great lengths to avoid confrontation until it became obvious that the local British officials were intent on taking their land by military force. The British expeditionary force led by Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole) is well-armed with the latest weaponry and feels completely confident about a quick victory over the tribesmen, who are largely relegated to using primitive weapons. Like his American contemporary, General Custer, Chelmsford is an egotist with an overblown sense of self-confidence. He makes Custer's mistake of dividing his army into smaller units, spaced far apart. When the Zulu warriors mount a massive, surprise attack in what became known as the Battle of Isandlwana, the British are quickly overwhelmed. Like the original film, Zulu Dawn treats the native tribesmen with full respect and the script is clearly sympathetic to their cause. The British soldiers are depicted as courageous and gallant, but their superiors are generally seen as pompous snobs. A notable exception is the true life character of Col. Dumford (Burt Lancaster), a maverick Irishman who leads a contingent of African troops fighting with the British. Dumford tries to convince Chelmsford that his military strategies are flawed but his pleas fall on deaf ears. By the time Chelmsford and his reinforcements arrive at the battlefield, they find a seemingly endless plain of thousands of dead bodies, as only a handful of British troops managed to escape.
Zulu Dawn is a genuine epic with first rate production values with a sterling cast that includes such prominent actors as Simon Ward, Anna Calder-Marshall, John Mills, Denholm Elliott, Nigel Davenport and Bob Hoskins. The latter half of the film is devoted entirely to the battle sequences and they are stunningly staged and photographed, with Elmer Bernstein providing the stirring score. The movie is very well directed by Douglas Hickox, who is primarily remembered for Theatre of Blood and John Wayne's Brannigan. However, one must acknowledge that on a film of this scale, much of the credit must go to the second unit team as well.
Original British quad poster
Severin Films, which recently released a terrific special edition of another great '70s British war flick The Wild Geese (click here for review), has presented Zulu Dawn as a special edition Blu-ray/DVD dual package. The quality is outstanding on the Blu-ray but I'm always even more impressed by Severin's bonus extras. In this case, they include a fascinating history of the Zulu conflicts with scholar and author Ian Knight, who talks seemingly endlessly about every facet of the battle. The word "endlessly" here is meant as a compliment. Although I consider myself a military history buff, Knight's segment is like attending a master class and I realized how little I actually knew of the events depicted in the film. Knight explains that, although the Zulus won the battle, they suffered tremendous losses in the process and their victory was short-lived, as Lord Chelmsford ultimately sent their king into exile. The Severin crew also flew Knight to the actual battle locations in South Africa and it's truly amazing to see how untouched they remain to this day. (Crudely constructed above--ground grave sites for the soldiers still dot the battlefield.) There are also raw footage outtakes and some deleted scenes including several variations of Bob Hoskin's character's death. Another interesting segment features an extensive interview with historical and military consultant to the film, Midge Carter. Carter was an unemployed Brit with an in-depth knowledge of the film who just phoned the production company and ended up getting hired to ensure accuracy. Carter makes for an engaging interview, telling interesting tales about how he prevented historical inaccuracies from being included in the film. He also trashes director Hickox as a snobby elitist with a less-than-impressive work ethic. He also shares his scrapbook of on-set photos which had been autographed by every member of the cast. Severin interviews are always excellent to watch, thanks to producer David Gregory and Carl Daft's determination to let them go on as long as necessary and not worry about the length of the pieces. I only wish this was the case with some of the documentaries I produced for major studios, where there was always a bizarre determination to trim everything to the bone. Severin also doesn't indulge in gimmicky special effects or camera work. They simply turn on the camera and let the subject talk. Not fancy in terms of technique, but a wonderful throwback to how interviews used to be presented. Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer included in the set.
Chances are you haven't seen Zulu Dawn. You're in for a real treat with this superb presentation of an excellent film.
The little-seen 1983 thriller Double Exposure has been released on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome as a special edition. The film has an interesting background. It was originally filmed in 1971 under the title of The Photographer by director William Byron Hillman with Michael Callan cast as a photographer of beautiful women who also turns out to be a serial murderer. Hillman and Callan were frustrated that the movie received only a limited release. Twelve years later, they collaborated on a remake of the movie using the title Double Exposure. This time around, Callan served as an uncredited screenwriter on Hillman's new script and he also produced the movie, as well. Major script changes included having the main character, Adrian Wilde (Callan), not certain if he actually is a murderer. He's a generally kind and decent man who eeks out a modest living photographing models. He resides in a mobile home in L.A. which serves as his business office and bachelor pad. He is haunted by recurring nightmares of him committing horrendous murders of some of the women he photographs. When they actually start turning up dead, he is convinced he must be the culprit. He seeks guidance from his shrink (Seymour Cassel) and warns his new girlfriend, sexy Mindy (Joanna Pettet) that he has doubts about his sanity. He also seeks comfort from his brother B.J. (James Stacy) , a rather belligerent, bitter man who nevertheless has not allowed the loss of an arm and a leg prevent him from making a career of stunt driving. He also proves to be quite a lady's man and in one memorable sequence mud wrestles a bikini-clad girl in a bar. As the body count builds, Adrian slides further into madness.
The film is definitely of "B" movie caliber, but it's generally engrossing and well-made. Callan delivers a very fine performance in the lead role and he is more than matched by Stacy. Pettet does well as the female lead, and exposes a lot of flesh in a fairly graphic bedroom scene. There are other familiar faces who pop in and out of the film including Pamela Hensley as a detective assigned to track down the killer, Cleavon Little (largely wasted) as her perpetually grouchy superior officer and Robert Tessier as a skid row bar manager. Sally Kirkland and future Saturday Night Live star Victoria Jackson also have early career roles. Hillman directs efficiently, though the ending veers into cliched "woman in jeopardy" territory and the final few frames of the movie, in which the killer is unveiled, boasts some fine acting but disintegrates into a confusing and frustrating scenario in the last hectic seconds. Nevertheless, Double Exposure is a good thriller, well-made on a modest budget.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo has several impressive bonus features that vary from the previously issued DVD 2013 edition from Scorpion. They include:
New transfer from the original camera negative
Commentary track with director William Byron Hillman
Scorpion has released a Blu-ray edition of the 1979 Canadian disaster movie "City on Fire". If you've never heard of it, don't feel bad- neither had this writer and I thought I was quite familiar with the genre which arguably began with the release of "Airport" in 1970. The success of that film spawned similarly-themed adventures that generally found all-stars casts threatened by water, fire, animals and other forces of nature. Producer Irwin Allen hit two home runs with "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno", the latter representing the artistic and commercial peak of the short-lived but highly popular genre. At its height even second-grade disaster flicks could make sizable profits (a low-grade Japanese import titled "Tidal Wave" was a hit after it was "Americanized" with some brief footage of Lorne Greene included.) By the late 1970s, however, fickle audiences had tired of the sheer predictability of the disaster movie premise. The release of "Star Wars" incited a new interest in sci-fi but there were still some attempts to pump life into disaster flicks even if most of the passion and creativity had been drained from these productions. "City on Fire" is about, as you might have guessed, a city on fire. The unnamed city (actually Toronto) is the setting for a catastrophic blaze that starts as an act of sabotage caused by a disgruntled employee at a large chemical plant that has been foolishly located in the center of the urban metropolis. The seemingly minor act of mischief quickly escalates when raw fuel pours unchecked into the city's water supply. A spark ignites a huge inferno that rapidly isolates a major part of the city in a ring of fire that makes it almost impossible for firefighters to penetrate, thus leaving it to the potential victims to find their own methods of escape. Most of the action takes place inside a major hospital which is being evacuated even as the flames make it unlikely that many of the staff and patients will be able to reach safety. In order to do so they must navigate a deadly gauntlet of fire.
"City on Fire" lacks the big budget production values of the more successful disaster movies but director Alvin Rakoff and production designer William McCrow get around that obstacle in very commendable ways. Rakoff does utilize the old stand by of using actual disaster footage from news broadcasts in certain instances and uses a jittery camera to provide a sense of impending danger to otherwise stagnant buildings, at times making it look like Don Knotts was the cameraman. However, the production design is quite good and Rakoff handles the action scenes very commendably. There are some cheesy special effects, primarily scenes of the skyline burning, but the up-close action footage is spectacular at times and the movie features some of the best stunt work I've seen including many instances of the stuntman's worst nightmare: the full-body burn. The biggest star in this budget-challenged production is Henry Fonda, then in the winter of his career and seemingly content to play characters of authority who sit around offices and control rooms barking orders over telephones (i.e "Meteor", "Rollercoaster" and "The Swarm"). Old Hank would prove he still had his mojo with his final film, "On Golden Pond", that saw him win an Oscar, but in the years leading up to that he was happy to pick up quick pay checks with supporting roles in populist fare. Here he plays the stalwart fire chief trying to cope with the loss of an entire city. Barry Newman is the playboy physician who is trying frantically to save his hospital which is in the direct line of fire. He's also juggling a strained relationship with old flame (pardon the pun) Susan Clark, a glam socialite who had once been his lover. Meanwhile, she is involved in an illicit affair with the mayor (Leslie Nielsen) and is unaware that there are incriminating photos that are about to be used to blackmail both of them. Shelley Winters is wasted in a throw-away role as a bossy nurse who acts a lot like Shelley Winters and James Franciscus is a TV news producer who is trying to keep wall-to-wall coverage on the air despite that the fact that his star anchor, an aging diva (Ava Gardner) has turned up drunk right before the broadcasts. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is that it affords meaty roles to actors who are generally relegated to second-tier status. They all perform admirably but it's impossible to view any of Leslie Nielsen's pre-comedy career performances objectively. He became such a master of brilliantly spoofing his own acting style that when you view his dramatic work you keep waiting for punchlines and slapstick gags that never materialize. The film follows all the conventional elements of the standard disaster movie (i.e children in peril, a pregnant woman who goes into labor during the crisis, lovers reunited, etc.) I half expected the climax to feature the heroes trapped aboard an upended ocean liner while being menaced by a shark. However, I must say that I very much enjoyed "City on Fire". It boasts an intelligent script, fine direction and reasonably good performances. There is also an almost complete lack of humor, so you won't see Fred Astaire as a charming con man or an unbilled Walter Matthau getting soused in a bar in the midst of an earthquake. The sense of gravitas is in keeping with the dramatic scenario of people stranded within a ring of fire. The movie came a day late and a dollar short to capitalize on the disaster movie trend. It's not as slick or polished as the best entries in the genre but it's better than many others including Irwin Allen's career-ending turkeys, "The Swarm" and "When Time Ran Out".
The Scorpion Blu-ray contains a notice that the transfer was put together from various sources. There are a few blotches here and there but the Blu-ray generally looks fine. Bonus features include a TV spot for the film and a trailer gallery of other Scorpion releases. Recommended.
The blending of two disparate but popular film genres –
in this case, the horror/sci-fi film with the saddle opera - was hardly new
when The Valley of Gwangi hit the big
screen in 1969. This film’s most identifiable
predecessor, one pitting cowboys against a prehistoric monster, might be The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), but
truth be told Hollywood had been combining these two genres almost from the very
beginning. In the 1930s and ‘40s,
audiences thrilled to the ghostly monochrome exploits of such western serial heroes
as Ken Maynard, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Buster Crabbe with such films as Tombstone Canyon (1932), The Vanishing Riders (1935), and Wild Horse Phantom (1944). Universal’s Curse of the Undead (1959) was a later but no less interesting experiment
for Hollywood’s preeminent fright factory. The studio removed the vampire from the usual atmospheric Gothic
trappings of old Europe and dropped him onto the sagebrush plain.
On the far loopier end of the spectrum, the notorious director
William “One Shot” Beaudine, provided us with the ultimate in old west
weirdness with his legendary twin-bill of 1966, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse
James vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter. 1973
brought to movie houses two of the more memorable big-screen blends: the
sci-fi/western Westworld and Clint
Eastwood’s prairie ghost saga High Plains
Drifter. This combining of westerns
and fantasy films continues, more or less, to this very day… as anyone who
caught the lavish CGI-fest Cowboys and
Aliens (2011) can attest.
Director James O’ Connolly’s The Valley of Gwangi is set mysteriously at the turn of the century
somewhere “South of the Rio Grande.” (Principal photography on The Valley of Gwangi was actually shot on
various locations throughout the deserts of Spain). The locals are enjoying a parade through a
dusty town. The parade has been staged
to promote K.J. Breckenridge’s wild and wooly Cowboys vs. Indians Wild West
Show. K.J.’s rodeo, not-politically
correct by today’s standards, is set to be held at an equally non-PC
bull-fighting arena. Contemporary
political activists needn’t grab their picket signs. The stadium is hardly filled to capacity, and
we soon learn Breckenridge’s rodeo is in dire financial straits. The show simply hasn’t been pulling in the
crowds of late, and even main attraction “Omar, the Wonder Horse,” whose equally
non-PC stage-jump from an elevated platform into a murky pool of water isn’t
enough to save this sad affair.
Suggesting the writing is on the wall, the sultry Breckenridge
(Gila Golan) is approached by smooth talking Tuck (James Franciscus), a
self-absorbed rodeo cowboy and former lover of T.J. Tuck now makes his living by booking acts for
a big entertainment consortium back east. He wants K.J. to sell off the rights to her semi-popular diving horse
act, but his ex-paramour is still bitter over their estrangement and not
interested in selling. Besides she
believes newly found prosperity is just around the corner. She agrees to show him the still-secret
attraction that she’s certain will reverse her rodeo’s downward spiral.
The budding impresario is stunned when she unveils “El
Diablo” a miniature horse that Tuck recognizes is no horse at all. It’s actually an Eohippus, a fifty-million year old ancestor of the equine. This was not a lucky guess, nor is the
startled ex-cowboy an expert on prehistoric beasts. Ten minutes earlier in the film Tuck had
gleaned this morsel of knowledge after stumbling upon a scotch drinking
Paleontologist camped in the scrub brush desert in search of fossils. Tuck responsibly alerts the amazed scientist (Laurence
Naismith) about the Eohippus (“The
greatest scientific discovery of the age!”) and together they learn the Eohippus was captured on the frontier outskirts
of the grimly named “Forbidden Valley.”
late Sergio Corbucci (1926-1990) had a long, prolific career in the Italian
film industry as a screenwriter and director, but little exposure in U.S. theaters
by comparison with his total output.IMDB credits him with sixty-three titles as director.By my count, eleven arrived on Stateside
screens, none of them earning Corbucci any real notice at the time.All were genre films -- first sword-and-sandal
movies, then Westerns -- before it was cool for critics to treat such products
seriously, especially dubbed imports.Three toga-and beefcake pictures -- “Goliath and the Vampires” (1961),
“Duel of the Titans” (1961), and “The Slave” (1962) -- were released on
drive-in and double-feature bills in the Hercules era.“Minnesota Clay” (1964) had a 1966 run
disguised as an American B-Western.“Navajo Joe” (1966) passed through theaters in 1967, earning a typically
dismissive review from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times (“results aren’t
worth a Mexican peso”).You had to use a
magnifying glass to see Corbucci’s name on the movie poster.In his 1994 autobiography, Burt Reynolds said
he only took the offer to star in the picture because he thought the director
would be the other Sergio . . . Leone.“The Hellbenders” (1967) came and went, also camouflaged as an American
production and promoting Joseph Cotten’s starring role.Cotten was a fine actor but hardly big
box-office in ’67.
Mercenary” (1968) enjoyed a higher profile in a 1970 release, but “Alberto
Grimaldi Presents . . .” dominated the credits, including the cover blurb on a
paperback novelization that touted the movie as “the bloodiest ‘Italian’
Western of them all . . . by the producer of ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’
” “Companeros” (1970) didn’t open in the
U.S. until 1972, and then only with limited distribution. “Sonny and Jed” (1972) followed in 1974. Neither made much of an impression as the
Spaghetti cycle waned here. “Shoot
First, Ask Questions Later” (1975), a sad attempt at comedy in the Spaghetti
twilight, loped through rural drive-ins. “Super Fuzz” (1980; U.S. distribution, 1982) was a Terence Hill police
comedy that the Times’ Herbert Mitgang said had “one funny gag a few minutes
before the end.” At least Mitgang noted
Corbucci and Hill by name as “longtime makers of spaghetti westerns.”
you were nostalgic for Italian Westerns in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, after the
cycle had come and gone in the States, you could read about Corbucci in
Laurence Staig and Tony Williams’ “Italian Western: The Opera of Violence”
(1975) and Christopher Frayling’s “Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans
from Karl May to Sergio Leone” (1981). There you would learn that one of Corbucci’s Westerns that never made it
to the States, “Django” (1966), was as wildly popular and influential overseas
as Sergio Leone’s movies. But good luck
in ever seeing it or Corbucci’s other Westerns, unless you might catch “The
Hellbenders” in a pan-and-scan, commercial-infested print on local TV.
to the advent of home video, cable, and streaming internet -- and in
particular, DVD and Blu-ray in which his films can be seen in the proper aspect
ratio and definition -- both the committed and the curious now have access to
virtually all of Corbucci’s thirteen Westerns, even the obscure “Grand Canyon
Massacre” (1964), his first powder-burner, co-directed with Albert Band. Is Quentin Tarantino justified in praising Corbucci
as “one of the great Western directors of all time”? Today, you don’t have to take Tarantino’s
word for it, or not; you can judge for yourself.
most accounts, a Corbucci Top Five would include “Django,” The Great Silence,”
“The Mercenary,” “Companeros,” and “The Specialist” (1969). The first four are all in relatively easy
reach in various formats and platforms. “Django,” “The Great Silence,” and “Companeros” have had domestic DVD
releases. “The Mercenary” hasn’t, but it
shows up periodically on cable channels, albeit in an edited version, and you
can find good DVD and Blu-ray editions with an English voice track through
Amazon and import dealers on the web.
Specialist” remains more elusive. Written and directed by Corbucci during his peak period, originally
titled “Gli specialisti” and also known as “Specialists” and “Drop Them or I’ll
Shoot,” this Western never played in U.S. theaters, has never had an American
video release, and is hard to find even on the collectors‘ market in a print
with an English-language option. Not to
be confused with other, unrelated films of the same name, including a mediocre
1994 Sylvester Stallone crime drama and an obscure 1975 B-movie with Adam West,
it is past due for official U.S. release on DVD. Or, better yet, on hi-def Blu-ray to give Corbucci’s
compositions and Dario Di Palma’s rich Techniscope and Technicolor
cinematography their due sharpness and color on home screens.
There is an immediate appeal in the very premise of Alfred
Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), a
curiosity that stems from how exactly this story will play out and how the
Master of Suspense is going to keep the narrative taut and technically
stimulating. It was a gimmick he would repeat with Rope (1948), Dial M for
Murder (1954), and Rear Window
(1954), similar films where the drama is contained to a single setting. But
here, the approach is amplified by having the entirety of its plot limited to the
eponymous lifeboat, an extremely confined location that is at once anxiously restricting
and, at the same time, placed in a vast expanse of threatening openness.
Following a German U-boat attack that sinks an allied
freighter and creates the cramped, confrontational condition, a cast of nine
diverse, necessarily distinctive characters are steadily assembled aboard the
small vessel (and their variety is indeed necessary so as to tackle singular
themes and disparities). Starting with journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead,
in the film’s featured and much-hyped performance), the improvised squad
includes: a member of the freighter’s crew, Kovac (John Hodiak), the radioman,
Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a steward, Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), seaman, Gus Smith
(William Bendix), a U.S. Army nurse, Alice (Mary Anderson), the wealthy
industrialist, Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the shell-shocked Mrs. Higley (Heather
Angel), an Englishwoman who arrives with her already deceased infant child,
and, adding instant and inherent tension, Willi (Walter Slezak), a survivor
from the enemy German sub.
Connie is the most incongruous personality for such an
occasion. Initially adorned in a fine mink coat, accompanied by her camera, her
cigarettes and suitcases, all of which seem miraculously dry, she sure doesn’t
look like someone who has been torpedoed, as another character is quick to
point out. She and Rittenhouse will together serve as half of the film’s
embodied class consciousness, which is one of several social divisions alluded
to as explicit points of contention or simply hinted at as latent cultural
conflicts (“Do I get to vote too?” asks the African American Joe). Though
generally cordial and cooperative to start, the spirit of critical
collaboration doesn’t last. How could it? For a film like this, there needs to
be a breeding ground for consistent opposition, beyond the predictable clash
between Willi and the rest.
What develops is multi-leveled, ever-fluctuating suspicion,
a leery and fascistic survival of the fittest that hangs in the balance as the
winds of authority and hysteria blow. With his famously elaborate set-pieces
made impossible by Lifeboat’s scenario,
Hitchcock narrows his focus to the dynamic landscape of the human face, and the
film is nothing if not a revelatory study in human nature, especially when
individuals are in strained situations. There are constant disputes about the
best path forward, often grounded in ideological motivations derived from
political, religious, or national beliefs—whatever is needed to prevail and
retain a semblance of composure in the face of an extraordinary dilemma.
In a swift 97 minutes—its riveting progression a testament
to how the tension outweighs its spatial and dramatic limitations—the
characters endure assorted trials and tribulations, just enough to keep
everyone on edge, but not too many to seem unnatural. This ranges from the
unique (Gus’ impending leg amputation), to an issue that affects just a few
(cheating at cards), to something upon which all involved are invested (the
bliss of fresh rainwater to drink and the disappointment when the passing storm
doesn’t last). There are lingering doubts about motivation, the debatable
course of progress, and turn-on-a-dime behavioral shifts. Two passengers even
find time for romance.
To express all of this, and to keep the viewer engaged when
the actions and visuals, at least in a broad sense, are relatively reduced, the
writing of Lifeboat is tremendously
vital. While Hitchcock came up with the idea for the picture, the basic story
was written by John Steinbeck (after Hitch’s first choice, Ernest Hemingway,
passed). It was Steinbeck’s first fiction film, though he had written a
documentary in 1941. What he completed, however, resembled something more like
a novella. Subsequent writing and rewriting duties went to everyone from Harry
Sylvester and MacKinlay Kantor, to Jo Swerling, Ben Hecht, Hitchcock’s wife,
Alma Reville, and others. Ultimately, only Swerling gets the screenplay credit
(Steinbeck, who was so unhappy with the deviations in the final film that he
tried to have his name removed from the picture, gets original story).