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Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sting of Death (1965)


Director: William Grefé
Writer: Al Dempsey
Stars: Joe Morrison, ‘special singing guest star’ Neil Sedaka, Valerie Hawkins, John Vella, Jack Nagle and Doug Hobart


In 2017, if anyone asks me what Facebook is for, I’ll reply that it’s clearly for sharing brief clips of bikini-clad teenagers gyrating to the groovy sounds of Neil Sedaka singing about jellyfish. Thank you, Gary, for letting me know of the existence of Sting of Death, a 1965 movie from filmmaker William Grefé, who went on to such legendary bad films as Death Curse of Tartu, which somehow got a great distribution (I own a VHS copy on PAL) and Mako: The Jaws of Death aka Killer Jaws. This one is so bad that I’d have to go back to my days writing Cinematic Hell reviews for Cinema Head Cheese to find something worse. The battle is now on to determine the worst Florida Everglades monster movie; is Sting of Death worse than Don Barton’s Zaat or is that one shot wonder out there on its own? Right now, six years adrift from my last viewing of the latter, I’d honestly plump for this one because it has the usual bad elements: horrible script, horrible monster and horrible acting, but adds in that ‘special singing guest star’, Neil Sedaka.

There’s another thing that can’t be ignored here either, which is the incredible ineptitude of the manly men protecting a bevy of beauties on Dr. Richardson’s unnamed paradise island in the Everglades. Everything will be fine, say Richardson and his assistant, Dr. John Hoyt, because they have guns. Sure, they have guns, but they also have a habit of protecting these ladies by leaving them alone so the monster can get them. At one point they even go diving with one, who’s promptly snatched away underwater by our monster, and they don’t even notice. They just get back on their airboat and return to base, sans one damsel in distress. It’s pretty bad when our educated scientists can’t even count to one. It’s very possible that the only thing that they notice at any point in the movie is a door that was open but is now mysteriously closed. How they can acknowledge such subtle plot points but not the major ones like missing girls, screams from upstairs or the most obvious villain in movie history, I have no idea.
To be fair, it’s clear right from the start, even before our good doctors show up, just what we’re getting ourselves in for. A lovely young thing by the name of Ruth is sunbathing in the shade, listening to KFUN’s award-winning news, which tells her and us that fishermen are vanishing all over the Everglades. We naturally wonder if this could be connected to the odd hand we just saw use a screwdriver and a borrowed cartoon explosion effect from the Batman TV show to destroy a radio. It’s black, smeared in red slime and there are tendrils dangling off it. That’s less impressive than the destruction, given that he stuck the screwdriver into a gizmo that isn’t even attached to anything. He must be a magical monster! Anyway, as the news ends and Ruth applies her suntan lotion, we see that this monster is wearing a wetsuit, flippers and what appear to be long strings of flexible neon light tubes. It drags her into the water and back to its lair; the latter are the best shot scenes in the entire film, which unfold behind the opening credits.

Yes, folk, it’s all downhill from here. For a start, with Ruth gone, we need new people on this island, so a boat promptly arrives at her jetty containing a bunch of bimbos in high heels, who IMDb politely list by name and hair colour, just in case we might have thought they had something beyond looks to contribute to the film. There are five of these ladies, who arrive with their hosts, Dr. Richardson and Dr. Hoyt. It’s Richardson’s island, on which these scientists enjoy their much needed seclusion to experiment with ‘sealife and evolution’. They’ve obviously given that seclusion up for a couple of weeks, while Karen, Richardson’s daughter, takes her midterm break from college in the company of her friends. What’s more, the good doctors invited the biology department too for a welcome back party. They’re already partying hard on the boat when they arrive twenty minutes later with beer bottles and dance moves and are so eager that they dance on the dock, which is hardly big enough for a couple of dozen revellers!
These scenes establish a few things. We learn that the Florida youth of 1965 want nothing more than an opportunity to jiggle their butts and the film crew want nothing more than an opportunity to capture them on camera. The cameraman occasionally feels he should have delusions of artistic grandeur, so rotates the camera so we can even watch those butts jiggling upside down! We learn that college students in Florida are a number of years older than the American norm but they all think that they’re eighteen, even if they’re thirty. We learn that Dr. Hoyt is an idiot. Sure, he’s a grad student assigned by the university to help Richardson’s work, but he honestly thinks that women can get ready for a party in a quarter of an hour. We learn that Egon has a habit of ‘appearing suddenly’, which is either a shock for the ladies because he has a disfigured face or because the disfigurement varies in severity as the film runs on. And we learn that Egon is a valuable worker but nobody listens to him, even when he’s being overtly sinister.

We learn this when Sheriff Bob pops over with a dead fisherman for the doctors to look at and suggest what might have killed him. They identify the welts on the body as just like those caused by the Portuguese man o’ war, a creature resembling the jellyfish that has venomous tentacles. They know this because they work with them every day, but these welts are far too big for creatures that never grow above eight inches. The doctors fluster around trying to reconcile the obvious with the impossible, ignoring Egon and his knowing pronouncements that it’s entirely possible to grow them to giant size. ‘You can understand it, doctor,’ he explains, ‘if you’d just listen to me.’ But no, everyone dismisses Egon, whether they think he’s a nut, a freak or a retard, or whatever term was in vogue in 1960s Florida. Soon those biology students will actually surround him like he’s a cornered animal and poke at him until he breaks free and runs away. What are they, six years old? But hey, that’s how this monster movie is built.
Well, that and Neil Sedaka. The clip that drew me in to this debacle was a dance scene featuring whichever biology students hadn’t coupled up and vanished into empty bedrooms already. They jiggle their butts just like they did in the previous dance scene and, in fact, some of the shots are exactly the same. I recognise those butts! I also realise that a couple of the girls most frequently used in close-ups aren’t actually at this party, which is surprising given that there are plenty of jiggling butts that were. What makes it so surreal, though, is the song, which has to be heard to be believed. Neil Sedaka was a pop star in the early sixties, but he peaked in 1962 with Breaking Up is Hard to Do topping the charts for a couple of weeks. His style of music was rendered utterly obsolete by the arrival of the Beatles and, as Wikipedia subtly puts it, ‘In 1964, Sedaka’s career began a sharp decline.’ Surely nobody has ever fallen faster because only a year later, biology students in bad monster movies are dancing to his magnum opus, Do the Jellyfish.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this scene now, but I’m still not convinced I’m not dreaming. There are only two lines and a chorus, repeated over and over with minor changes, but the poetry of the piece cannot be understated. ‘Well-a,’ he begins, ‘I’m saying fella, protect your Cinderella.’ Can’t argue with those rhymes, right? ‘And do the jella, the jilla jalla jella.’ OK, Neil, I’m sensing some floundering now. ‘It’s really swell-a to do the jella-jellyfish.’ I should add that a few of the dancers may be trying for actual jella-jellyfish moves here. ‘Monkey, don’t be a dunky, it’s nothing like the monkey.’ At this point, I’m not sure if Sedaka was on drugs; I have no idea what a dunky is and what lyricist would rhyme a word with itself? ‘It isn’t funky or anything you junky.’ I think we’d better go back to something safer, Neil. ‘It’s something swell-a, the jilla-jalla-jellyfish!’ No, how about you pretend it’s a dance? ‘Hey, it isn’t hard to do so you can learn it too. Hey now, let’s do it now. If you don’t know the way then I’ll show you how.’
So, do you want to c’mon and do the jellyfish now? I think I’ll pass too. How about you, ‘Louise, dark redhead’? ‘Oh, that killed me!’ she comments and we realise the level of genius that the script by Al Dempsey, with uncredited assistance from Herschell Gordon Lewis regular, William Kerwin, was working at. Guess what’s about to happen to Louise? Yep, she leaps into the pool, against every suggestion thrown at her, and is promptly stung viciously by the jellyfish man who’s been hiding in the transparent water during that dance scene. Nobody notices until the deed is done, but one bystander who stands around the pool like a lemon gets stung too before the jellyfish man escapes. What’s most hilarious is that Ben has to be taken to the hospital on the mainland immediately but Louise stays behind to be treated on the island. Why? They have the same injuries and, if they’re taking one person, why not take the other one too? I actually wondered about sixties sexism for a moment here, but the truth is a little more mundane.

You see, Grefé didn’t have much of a budget and Dempsey didn’t have much of a clue. We’re just over half an hour into an eighty minute movie and we have a substantial cast of characters clogging up the story. What better way to get rid of most of them than to send them off by boat on a serious errand and have the jellyfish man promptly hole it with an axe to spill them all out into the water? As it sinks, one of the ladies points at the various collections of balloons floating along the surface and cries, ‘Jellyfish!’ In most movies that would have been redundant, but in this one it’s actively useful because nobody in their right mind would think that these things are living creatures. They do look a little better when shot from underneath, with their trails of beads, but wow, not from the surface! I thoroughly enjoyed these hilarious scenes of mass slaughter because I was firmly with the monster at this point. These biology students are getting their just desserts. Kill them all, Portuguese Man o’ War Man! Kill them all!
Once this is done, we realise that we’re back to the core group exactly, except that Louise stays upstairs in bed while the rest eat. The actors were mostly either starting out or are known only for William Grefé movies. Jack Nagle was debuting on the big screen as Dr. Richardson after a single episode of Everglades on TV back in 1962. He’d retire in 1976 after Mako: The Jaws of Death for Grefé. He made more films than our lead, Joe Morrison, who was ending his career here after four features with only a couple of episodes of Flipper still to come. Neither are remarkable in any way, but the ladies are far more notable, if mostly because they’re wearing bikinis. Valerie Hawkins, playing Karen Richardson, did play the Texaco Girl in a series of commercials and she was able to land roles on a number of TV shows, from Get Smart to I Dream of Jeannie. This was her debut, but she’d be done by 1970. Three of her four friends started and ended their careers here, which leaves only ‘Jessica, honey blond’ to find a real place on the screen.

She’s Deanna Lund and she’s not the first to go. She and Donna accompany the doctors to Egon’s place and the latter has to return to the boat to retrieve the cigarettes she didn’t put in her dinky little purse. That allows the jellyfish man to creep up on her in the wide open space around the boat and stalk her screaming into the everglades. See, smoking kills, folks! She is game for this scene, at least, and it’s actually believable for this character to fall over every two yards for perhaps the first time in film history. It’s far less believable for John and Jessica to fail to hear her screaming herself hoarse, but they do finally catch on and head on out in the airboat to find her. They find her scarf and dive, but those incredible protectors, Drs. Richardson and Hoyt, apparently forget that Jessica is even with them. They fail to notice when the monster pulls off her mask and it’s like she was never in the picture at all. They surface when their air runs out after five minutes (huge tanks these) and eventually head back home on their own.
Lund was a busy girl as her career began. She made four thoroughly varied pictures in 1965: this monster movie; Once Upon a Coffee House, a folk singing extravaganza released on DVD under the glorious title of Hootenanny a Go-Go; an Italian comedy called Run for Your Wife; and the most expensive A.I.P. movie at the time, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, playing one of Vincent Price’s bevy of golddigging robots. She kept busy for a few years until her big break arrived, hired by Irwin Allen to play Valerie Scott on Land of the Giants. After two years of that show, she’d married Tim Matheson and cut back her roles substantially. I can’t say that she was great here, but she was clearly not only the best actor of the bunch but the only actor of the bunch. It’s not surprising to find her the only one who would go on to better things. I should add here that John Vella, who plays Egon on land, isn’t the John Vella who would appear with the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XI, whatever IMDb happens to say; he was only fifteen at this point.

There are two surprises to come and neither of them has to do with who the jellyfish man is. The island contains two doctors, one daughter and four lady guests, all four of which are killed off by the end of the picture - and Egon, the traumatised, possibly brain damaged wannabe scientist who is the only one to believe that Portuguese man o’ war can be bred larger than eight inches across. Anyone who fails to see that he’s the monster after his first ten seconds on screen hasn’t been watching enough monster movies. One surprise is that a thoroughly family friendly horror film like this suddenly decides to have Blanche Devereaux (‘Susan, frosted blond’) strip off to be murdered by the jellyfish man in the shower. Now, we only see this naked frosted blond from behind frosted glass, but still. The other is just how hilariously awful the monster costume is when it’s fully revealed. Yes, folks, the scariest thing to people in the Everglades isn’t an alligator or a venomous snake, it’s a man in a wetsuit with a plastic bag on his head.
At the end of the day, the clip from this movie that serves as a music video for Do the Jellyfish is quaintly hilarious and the trailer is horrible and funny, but the film itself is a painful experience. It’s badly acted, badly scripted and badly directed. The characters are annoying, the rules of cinema are broken and the laws of physics are ignored. The monster is laughable and his lair, which has its very own natural airlock in the floor, is even more laughable. I’m presuming that the camera didn’t record sound, so dialogue was dubbed in later and doesn’t always quite match lip movements. There’s a great deal of repetition and, dare I say it, there’s also a lot of redundancy. Most of the script doesn’t make the remotest sense if we think about it and we can only be distracted by ladies in bikinis for so long. The very last line is the most telling of all. Once the girl and the day are saved, Dr. Richardson proclaims that, ‘Someday man will find an answer!’ There’s no question in the film to answer, so he can only be talking about why Grefé made it!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)


Director: Roy Ward Baker
Writer: Brian Clemens, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stars: Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick


Watching in 2016, this film seems surprisingly timely. The last decade has seen a strong rise in the number of folk who understand what LGBT means (though it’s far from fully inclusive and I’ve seen many more letters added). However, this film, which came out (pun well and truly intended) in the year I was born, foreshadows that conversation. Yes, it’s the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story by Robert Louis Stevenson, but instead of Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s dark side, this time it’s Hyde bringing out Jekyll’s female (but not necessarily feminine) side. To make this work best, Jekyll’s transformation wasn’t achieved through make-up effects being applied to Ralph Bates, it was achieved by casting an actual woman as Hyde, Martine Beswick. The usual battle for control ensues and these two different aspects start to merge into one. There’s a vast potential here to explore the different sexualities of men and women and the film does start to walk down that road, but it’s a long road and we haven’t found the end yet.

What surprised me most about Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is that it wasn’t what I remembered at all. I saw most of the classic Hammer horrors when I was knee high to a grasshopper, watching late at night on my sister’s television, this one included and I remember their movies of the seventies as being more and more obsessed with sex. Now, that’s hardly a bad thing, says the red-blooded teen that I was when I saw these, but over time they blurred together and I tend to remember the boobs a lot more than the drama. For the iconic stories, I remember their fifties and sixties pictures instead, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee reinventing all the classics for a Technicolor age. Yet, this has surprisingly little nudity, especially given the sexual subject matter, and it’s far from a cheap excuse to show Beswick’s boobs. There has been talk of a remake and, for once, that’s a good idea as, done right, it could be fascinating. And no, neither Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (a teen comedy) nor The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckel & Ms. Hyde (a porno) count.
There are other imaginative changes here too, that make Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde forward-looking. In the 21st century, we’re used to creative concepts like the mashup, in which existing stories are transposed into a new genre; the crossover, in which multiple characters from diverse sources are combined into a new story; and remix culture, which can include both the above and also add in real people from history as well. This is nothing new as, after all, Dracula met Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello met everyone of importance on the big screen and Jesse James even met Frankenstein’s daughter, but the way that this film ties reality and fantasy without apparent comment feels a little ahead of its time. For instance, the central story is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but this ties them both to Burke and Hare and to Jack the Ripper, real British graverobbers and murderers from the Victorian era, and I wonder how innovative that felt in 1971. Jekyll as Jack? Nowadays, it just feels like an episode of Penny Dreadful.

The stage is set well. We’re in Whitechapel and a gentleman with a tall hat and black cloak follows a prostitute into the foggy back alleys away from the lively pub and its mournful street singer; the whore screams before he stabs her and the arterial spray neatly splashes the £200 wanted poster. The murderer hasn’t gone far when a policeman’s whistle blows and a blind hurdy gurdy player in trippy glasses points the pursuers in the right direction. None of this should be surprising, of course. Hammer had a long string of horror movies by this point and the folk involved knew exactly what they were doing. The screenplay was by Brian Clemens, an experienced hand in film and especially TV who also co-produced the picture; the cinematography was by Norman Warwick, who had just shot The Abominable Dr. Phibes; and the director was Roy Ward Baker, who had made a number of iconic films for Hammer, including Quatermass and the Pit, The Anniversary and The Vampire Lovers. He would have been a hundred years old today.
Unlike today, when directors often end up stuck in a particular genre, the Hammer directors were a versatile bunch and Baker was no exception. He started out for Gainsborough Pictures, moving up from teaboy and runner to assistant director in only a year. His first directorial credit was as third assistant director on the Will Hay title, Boys Will Be Boys, and his most important film there was surely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes in 1938, for which he was the assistant director (never mind ‘third’ at this point). World War II got in the way of further movement, so he joined the Army Kinematograph Unit to shoot documentaries for the war effort. One of his bosses there, novelist Eric Ambler, gave him his break after the war, insisting that Baker direct The October Man from his novel. The success of Morning Departure led him to Hollywood, where he directed Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck and Robert Ryan, but his greatest success came back in the UK: the Golden Globe winning A Night to Remember, from Ambler’s screenplay about the Titanic.

It was his television experience that got him into the horror genre, because he knew how to do a lot with a little; budgets on shows like The Baron, The Avengers and The Saint were not high but he made them go a long way. Hammer combined one of his episodes of Journey to the Unknown with another for their feature length Journey to Midnight and put him to work on original movies: Quatermass and the Pit; The Anniversary, with Bette Davis; and Moon Zero Two. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was the third of a second batch of features at Hammer, including The Vampire Lovers and Scars of Dracula, by which time Amicus wanted him too and he continued to shoot for both of them for a number of years, though he focused in on television towards the end of his career, retiring after three episodes of The Good Guys in 1992. The wildest movie he made is surely The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, which he co-directed with Cheh Chang. I was very tempted to choose that film for this project!
In the end, though, I stuck with this one because it resonates for a number of reasons. One is the choice of leads: both Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick. Bates, who had already made three horror movies for Hammer during the previous year (Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Horror of Frankenstein and, his least favourite of all his films, Lust for a Vampire) was so appropriate a choice to play Dr. Jekyll that I wonder if Clemens factored his family history into the script. You see, he was the great-great nephew of Louis Pasteur, the French scientist regarded as the ‘father of microbiology’. Beyond the process of pasteurisation which bears his name, Pasteur pioneered vaccination, which had been invented by Edward Jenner, and he created the first vaccines for both anthrax and rabies. Jekyll, in this film, is working on an anti-virus he calls the ‘universal panacea’, one cure for many diseases: diphtheria, cholera and onwards. The trigger for the plot is the observation that there are too many, so he realises he needs to create an elixir of life.

Beyond extrapolating neatly on Pasteur, Bates looked the part. He had dark hair and a pale complexion, which makes it easy to see him as a member of a goth band. That look continues down the cast; his bandmates could easily be Byker, the necrophiliac coroner played by Philip Madoc, and Hare, of Burke and Hare, played by Tony Calvin. Fortunately, they don’t haul out their instruments to launch into a music video, but there were points where I half expected that to happen. More to the point, he’s clearly male but also androgynous enough in that haircut to morph believably into Martine Beswick, whose well defined cheekbones have never looked more severe. At points she seems cadaverous and could easily be the singer in that goth band! The transitions, either handled with the aid of props, like a broken mirror and textured glass, or through clever overlays, are excellently handled and Beswick’s ‘shock’ at discovering she has female parts is incredibly well done.
Everything comes back to this sex change and the ramifications that it brings. The concept has validity: Jekyll realises that women live longer than men, on average, so uses female hormones to try to extend the male life span. The source is young corpses but, as the supply is limited, he lowers his morals to allow for the supply to continue. At least it works, with flies; while they should live for a couple of hours, he demonstrates one to his friend, Prof. Robertson, that has survived for three days under a bell jar. He’s clearly a genius, though his arithmetic is awful; that only translates into two hundred years in human terms if life expectancy at the time was five. Naturally, the next step is a human trial and who better to experiment on than himself? Sadly, he skips over the importance of his discussion with Robertson; he knew the fly was male, but Robertson points out that it’s laid eggs. He must be dedicated if an outrageous side effect like an impromptu sex change doesn’t stop him from trying his serum out on himself!

Now, Jekyll doesn’t merely change from male to female; there are other changes too, like his sexual appetite. Susan Spencer, living upstairs, clearly has designs on the good doctor and she’s not hard on the eyes, but he’s too wrapped up with work to acknowledge her. He declines when she invites him up to dinner because of a ‘prior engagement’ and her brother Howard suggests that he may be ‘impervious to women’. The ensuing transformation, which the Spencers hear through the ceiling, prompts their investigation and Susan is livid to discover that Jekyll passed them over for a woman until he mentions that she’s his sister, a widow named Mrs. Hyde, the name plucked from the front page of the paper. Howard is much happier about this new arrival and we find ourselves in the odd situation where Susan wants Jekyll but her brother wants Hyde, each unaware, of course, that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same. This leads to great dialogue. ‘How’s your brother?’ Howard asks Hyde. ‘He hasn’t been himself of late,’ she replies.
The knowing dialogue shines around the most telling scene in the film. We’ve got to the point where confusion reigns. Robertson thinks Jekyll is having a relationship with Hyde, Susan believes she’s his sister and we have to wonder quite what Howard must be thinking about Jekyll, even as we know what he’s thinking about Hyde. He bumps into Jekyll, as the latter leaves a clothes shop for women, and asks how his sister is. Jekyll, with a notably immobile face, replies, ‘Fine. Excellent. I am in excellent health.’ Then he reaches out tenderly as if to touch Howard’s face. ‘Howard,’ he sighs, almost pleadingly. Only then does he realise that he’s Jekyll and not Hyde and rushes on, leaving Howard dumbstruck in his wake. After this scene, Robertson tells Jekyll, ‘One day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll be a changed man.’ Before it, he tells a cop, ‘It’s a queer business, sergeant. Very queer.’ This has been an interesting film throughout but suddenly it leaps into thesis territory.

In the classic story, Jekyll and Hyde are moral opposites. At its simplest, this manifests as Jekyll being good and Hyde evil, although novelist Vladimir Nabokov pointed out that Jekyll was hardly morally good by Victorian standards. Like anything Victorian, class is part of the discussion, with an easy reading that Jekyll is a respectable member of the upper class, maintaining control as required by polite society, while Hyde is a thoroughly disreputable member of the working class, eager and willing to explore every one of his base urges. This includes sex, of course, because the hypocrisy of the Victorian era is ably highlighted by what biographer J. R. Hammond described as ‘outward respectability and inward lust’. Jekyll can maintain the boundary between the two, while Hyde is either unable or unwilling to do so. It’s not only sex, though, because Hyde gets up to a lot more than just sexual deviance, even in Stevenson’s original novella, not least murder. Here, Jekyll prompts murder before Hyde ever appears, so it’s all about sex.
And, given that it was the first picture to use a scientific experiment to examine what happens to sexuality as the genders change, blending both genders and the sexuality of both genders into a single character, I really shouldn’t complain that it only starts that conversation. The problem with the Jekyll and Hyde framework, of course, is that it’s a dichotomy: you’re either one or the other and, if you try to be both, those two sides will fight each other until one wins out for good. Science nowadays suggests that human sexuality is far from a dichotomy; it’s a sliding scale and we all have a little of both. The logical remake of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is one where neither side wins and the title characters come to terms with each other, coexisting as halves in a yin yang fashion. It’s surely time for a movie where Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde share a knowing partner, especially if they change back and forth during a sexual act rather than outside of it. Talk about a challenging role for an actor though!

Ralph Bates had good reason to remember this movie because it’s where he met his second wife. She’s Virginia Wetherell, who he murders on screen; she plays Betsy, a whore who takes Jekyll to her place, only for him to slice her right after her corset laces. He divorced his first wife in 1973 and married her; they remained together until he died in 1991. Martine Beswick made many more movies than Bates, who struggled after Hammer horrors fell out of fashion, but she never managed to eclipse her two James Bond roles, in From Russia with Love in 1963 and Thunderball two years later. Hammer helped perpetuate her sex symbol image by casting her in One Million Years B.C. and Slave Girls aka Prehistoric Women, but this was a much better use of her acting talents. The film itself has the potential to outlast them both, as well as Clemens, Baker and others who worked on it because it was just a beginning. We don’t have the end in sight yet, but it’s going to be a fascinating road to get there.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)


Director: Preston Sturges
Writer: Earl Felton, from his own story
Stars: Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee and Olga San Juan


I’ve enjoyed a lot of Preston Sturges comedies, some more than once, but then I’ve only seen the first half of his career. He started off incredibly well with The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and The Lady Eve, then somehow got even better, with Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, movies as universally acclaimed as they are criminally underseen. However, he made thirteen features and I hadn’t got past the middle one, Hail the Conquering Hero, which is just as strong as its predecessors. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend sits firmly within the second half of his career, an era that critics often pretend doesn’t exist, unless it’s to acknowledge The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, the film that saw Harold Lloyd come out of retirement after nine years away. I hadn’t seen any of these last half dozen until now and this bodes poorly for the rest, even with Betty Grable and what the poster calls ‘the biggest Six-Shooters in the West!!!’ Yes, three exclamation marks for Betty, who would have been a hundred today.

In fact, the poster sums up the picture pretty capably: it over-suggests but under-delivers. The Modernaires sing the theme tune behind the opening credits to set Grable up as a ‘hard tootin’ , freebootin’, high falutin’, rootin tootin’, six-shootin’ beautiful blonde from Bashful Bend’, which is enough to believe that this whole thing started with the song, but it really came from a story by Earl Felton, writer of a whole slew of Richard Fleischer pictures, as varied as Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wonder what brought him to Fleischer’s attention, as this broad farce wouldn’t seem to be a likely candidate! I see this mostly as a great example of getting what you wish for. Grable’s boss at 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had tried to push her towards more substantial roles but she successfully fought him on it, continuing on in bright and cheery musicals with paper thin plots summed up by how critic Bosley Crowther described That Lady in Ermine: ‘a bright and beguiling swatch of nonsense’.
And this is as surely bright and beguiling as it is a swatch of utter nonsense at first glance. At a second, it’s not much better, but it’s a little more forward looking than people have generally given it credit for. It has a feminist edge, not only because it has a female lead but because she’s clearly able and willing to take care of herself. The scene that kicks the film off is eye-opening today because it features a six or seven year old girl being taught how to shoot; at the time it was eye-opening because it features a girl not a boy. Little Winifred just wants to play with her dolly, but her grandfather makes her practice with her pistol first. ‘It won’t get you into trouble,’ he suggests, ‘but it may get you out of it.’ Now, that’s irony because it does precisely nothing but get her into trouble and we simply wouldn’t have a film without that, but it does give her a confidence that allows her to survive in a world dominated by men. As uneducated as she may be, she’s fully in charge throughout, whoever she’s facing off against and with what.

It’s also notable today that this white woman who passes for a Swede has a Spanish-speaking boyfriend and a Hispanic companion who passes for Native American. No wonder the Hays Office had problems with this script as, after all, miscegenation was against the Production Code! Certainly Joseph Breen, the head of the Code, had as much trouble with Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole indulging in an illicit relationship with someone named Conchita as with him having extra-marital relations in a old west saloon’s hotel room. Irony abounds here. While Olga San Juan, who plays Conchita, seemed as Hispanic as her nickname of the Puerto Rican Pepperpot suggests, she was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Puerto Rico, a US territory. However, Cesar Romero, as the Latin lover who so upsets our heroine, had Cuban parents, even if he was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. How Puerto Rican (ie American) blood falls foul of the Production Code’s miscegenation rule but Cuban (ie not American) blood doesn’t, I have no idea.
Then again, Betty Grable, born in St. Louis, Missouri, but with Dutch, Irish, German and English ancestry, spends half of the movie masquerading as a Swede. Her star has faded over the decades, partly because she was insecure enough about her talents to make fluff that hasn’t dated well but also partly because it was a very bright star at the time. If we think of her today, it’s usually because of a cheeky 1943 photo that was the most popular pin-up poster for GIs serving in World War II. Maybe that also sparks a memory that her studio had insured her legendary legs, so prominent on that poster, for a million dollars; she’d even made a movie called Million Dollar Legs in 1939. What we don’t tend to remember is that she was the best paid actor (of either sex) in 1947 (some sources call her the highest salaried woman in America), or that she was a top ten box office draw for ten years running (only Clark Gable and Bob Hope had had longer runs). She even topped that poll in 1943 above Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello and Bing Crosby.

Here, she’s the grown up version of that gunslinging kid, Little Winifred. Now she’s Freddie Jones, a saloon singer who plays cards and drinks as well as any of the guys at work. Presumably she can still shoot too, but her gun has just got her into trouble. You see, her boyfriend, Blackie Jobero, is a wolf who thinks he can bring a fancy girl called Roulette into her bar and waltz on upstairs with her. Freddie sees red and sidles off stage during her number to grab her gun from behind the bar, follow them, singing all the way, and break into their room to shoot the lowlife dead. Surely we should be with her, but there are two reasons why not. One is that this all unfolds during one of those annoying Hollywood musical numbers which defy the laws of physics; there were no wireless microphones in the Old West (or 1949, for that matter)! The other is that she doesn’t shoot Blackie at all; she accidentally hits the Honorable Alfalfa J. O’Toole instead. ‘Right in the caboose,’ as the doctor says. That he’s played by Porter Hall just makes it funnier.
Hall, a regular in Preston Sturges comedies, is only one recognisable face here. His wife, Elvira O’Toole, is an uncredited Margaret Hamilton who plays the shrew to perfection, especially when Conchita flounces in to ask her sweetie, ‘Why is your mother upset?’ Musical number aside, I had a lot of fun with the first half hour of this film and the cast are a lot of the reason behind that. Casting Hugh Herbert as the mostly blind doctor trying to retrieve the bullet is genius! No wonder the judge is boiling, but he calms down when Freddie shows up. She apologises very well and he might even be about ready to forgive her. After all, she was just mad at a man she slaved for ‘playing puss in the corner with some beezle’! Unfortunately, then they bring in Blackie and Roulette and, after saying that she’s the mild type, she promptly grabs a gun and tries to shoot him again. And guess what? Somehow the back end of Alfalfa J. O’Toole manages to get in the way for a second time! So, off go Freddie and Conchita to skip town on the next train.

It’s once they arrive in Snake City that the quality starts to drop. They get there because Conchita steals a couple of travelling bags which drop them into new identities. So Freddie Jones becomes Hilda Swandumper from Wauwatosa, WI, the new schoolteacher in Bashful Bend and Conchita is her ‘little Indian maid’. You can just imagine the political incorrectness that leaps out to play with that situation! Yes, the ticket collector tries it on with her immediately. ‘You leave mama and papa home in tepee?’ he asks. ‘How would you like to go with me and see white man’s choo-choo. Puff puff engine, huh?’ The moment they alight from the train, Mr. Hingleman, the chairman of the school board, pinches her cheek, calls her Little Firewater, and asks, ‘Everything heap good back in wigwam?’ Now, I do get that we’re setting up contrasts in Snake City: half the town are redneck miners and cowboys who howl like wolves at the purty ladies while the other half are respectable citizens, but it’s the latter spouting idiocy like this.
I should add that these lower class citizens are played by some formerly major names in western movies, such as Kermit Maynard, Tom Tyler and Tex Cooper for a start. Richard Hale is also uncredited, oddly given that he gets a decent amount of screen time as Mr. Gus Basserman, an ornery local who proceeds to start a gun battle in town and lynch a couple of people to boot. You’re getting that this is a comedy, right? Well, one of the reasons that it may have failed both critically and commercially at the time (though it did eventually make its money back) is because it’s really not the usual late forties musical. The tone of the piece is inconsistent to crazy degrees. The first third is farce, but written rather cleverly. The middle third, as our fake Swede tries to outwit Basserman’s two idiot kids, is so far into pantomime that I expected someone to shout ‘He’s behind you!’ The final third is a very slow Keystone comedy and slapstick was long dead in 1949. Then again, Chester Conklin and Snub Pollard are here too. This cast has everyone!

And, if you hadn’t guessed, this makes the last two thirds very silly indeed. Naturally, the inept authorities fail to realise that their wanted woman has just hopped down the track a ways and the one man who does is Blackie Jobero. So, her story comes out while those pesky Basserman boys are camped outside the window, dressed as Indians, and she sets them up to knock her boyfriend out. This long scene feels like a stage farce with its long takes in a single location, its lights going on and off (not always in sync) and its wildly overblown ‘death’ scenes. Then it’s Keystone fight time, merely with guns instead of pies. One bad guy gets shot off of the top of an outhouse and gets back up four times to rejoin the battle. Another picks up his hat four times after it’s shot off. A third is stationed in front of a cattle trough; every time he shoots his gun, the water erupts into his face and he starts trying to outwit the water. If anyone expected the clever wit of early Preston Sturges in this picture, they must have been utterly lost.
What’s more, not one person gets hurt. It doesn’t matter how much lead flies and there’s a great deal winging its way down Main Street. It doesn’t matter how close a shooter is to his target. It doesn’t matter even when we know that they got hit, like the judge, whose wounds set the whole story into motion. Nobody gets hurt and not one lick of blood is spilled. It’s like watching an episode of The A-Team, but with musical numbers and Betty Grable periodically stripping down to her abundant underwear to show us her pair of million dollar legs. Even when we want someone to get hurt, like the highly annoying Basserman boys, they don’t, even as Freddie gets serious about disciplining them on her first day in class as Hilda Swandumper. She pulls out her gun to shoot a bottle out of one’s hand, a cigarette out of the other’s mouth and then a couple of ink bottles off the tops of their heads. Now I’m seeing how Donald Trump could get elected President; lily livered liberals would never stand for this sort of discipline!

For all the silliness, Betty Grable is a lot of fun here and she works well with Olga San Juan. I haven’t seen much of either of them before but I left this film confirmed fans of both. To be fair, they’re the only actors who are really given parts to play; the rest of the cast are given routines instead, mostly the ones they were already justly known for, like Herbert, Hamilton and Holloway, to name just three beginning with the letter H. Cesar Romero is holding back, perhaps to leave the girls in charge. Rudy Vallee is so forgettable that I haven’t talked about him once and it doesn’t matter. The Basserman boys are even more overplayed than their screen father and that’s saying something; I felt like Richard Hale was about to turn on me for looking at him cross-eyed and call me out for a good ol’ fashioned gunfight. He was so ornery here that I expected the film to turn into a commercial for something soothing. After all, if can sooth the temper of Gus Basserman, imagine what it can do for you!
Apparently Betty Grable didn’t like this film at all and said so. If that’s true, she kept it from affecting her performance, which is a delight, even when the film gets silly. One reason why she does so well is that she was able to play up her status as a bona fide sex symbol but appear to be just one of the boys. The theme can call her high falutin’ all it likes, but she’s thoroughly down to earth. I could fantasise about meeting a Marilyn Monroe character, but it’s unrealistic in the extreme. Yet, if I found the saloon that Betty Grable sings at in this movie, I could totally believe buying Freddie Jones a drink. Of course, she’d probably fleece me at poker too. Her career would last six more years and eight more movies, including How to Marry a Millionaire, but she was probably very happy to retire. Preston Sturges, on the other hand, probably wanted to keep on going, but he’d never direct another Hollywood feature. His final film was Les Carnets du Major Thompson, shot in France in 1955 and it was ignored even more than this.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Psychout for Murder (1969)


Director: Edward Ross
Writers: Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, from a subject by Oscar Brazzi
Stars: Adrienne la Russa, Nino Castelnuovo, Alberto de Mendoza, Idelma Carlo, Renzo Petretto, Nestor Garay, Rossano Brazzi and Paola Pitagora


On 18th September, I reviewed The Bobo at Apocalypse Later to celebrate the centennial of Rosanno Brazzi. It seemed like a decent choice and indeed it was, for Apocalypse Later, just not for Rosanno Brazzi because he was hardly in it. Sure, he appeared third on the bill, right behind the two leads, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland, but perhaps that was merely an acknowledgement of his stature. After all, he was an important European actor who had starred in one of the biggest hits of the previous decade, South Pacific. Still, he was hardly in it, so I needed to find an alternate. There are plenty to choose from, given that Brazzi made 120 films in all, which doesn’t touch on his television work, though many are difficult to track down today, not least because he spent the first half of his screen career in Italy. I’m not sure what the survival rate of World War II era Italian films is but I hope there was an equivalent to the Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, who saved so many French films during that same period.

Brazzi’s first English language film was MGM’s Little Women in 1949, by which time he had 36 Italian pictures behind him, including We the Living, a 170 minute adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that soon fell foul of Mussolini’s political watchdogs. Other titles of note, based entirely on reading about them, include a 1942 spaghetti western called Girl of the Golden West, a historical romance set in the 11th century called The Gorgon and a Pushkin drama in 1946 called The Black Eagle, which prompted a sequel in 1951. On he went in Italy, turning out drama after drama, many of them historical or romantic in nature and often both at once, such as Milady and the Musketeers, a version of The Three Musketeers told from a female perspective. Inevitably though, Hollywood called loudly enough to summon Brazzi over the ocean, but even with hits in 1954 like Three Coins in the Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa, he continued to make films in Italy with just a few American titles here and there to dot his filmography like confetti.
The easiest place from which I could grab a title is the late fifties, because he shot seven English language films in a row, from Loser Takes All in 1956 to Count Your Blessings in 1959. This is the time of South Pacific and it included titles with John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Joan Crawford. The Crawford picture, The Story of Esther Costello, looks particularly interesting, but I found myself drawn to the late sixties instead, not just western movies I knew like Krakatoa: East of Java or The Italian Job, but Italian genre flicks like Seven Men and One Brain and Psychout for Murder, not only for their subject matter but because Brazzi didn’t merely act in them; he wrote and directed them both too. The former looks like a rather wild Eurocrime thriller but it doesn’t seem to be available in subtitled form, so I chose the latter instead, a psychedelic giallo originally titled Salvare la faccia and also known as Daddy Said the World Was Lovely. Brazzi plays an important on-screen role but I’m even more intrigued by what he did off screen.

He’s not listed in the opening credits as crew. The director is Edward Ross, generally accepted as a pseudonym for Brazzi, but who wrote the film is a little trickier to identify. The opening credits list the screenplay as by Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, working from a subject (or story idea) by Oscar Brazzi, who was Rossano’s brother and the film’s producer. Wikipedia only has a page on its Italian site for Salvare la faccia, but that backs up what’s on screen. IMDb omits Proietti entirely, odd given that he wrote a lot more than Crispo, but adds both Renato Polselli and Piero Regnoli as writers, with Rossano Brazzi listed for both screenplay and story. It may be that IMDb is misleading us, which wouldn’t be for the first time, but other sources share its suggestions. However much or however little he contributed to the writing, however, he was clearly interested in directing pictures that were different from the films he’d acted in. In particular, there’s a stylish, experimental edge to this one that helps to flavour it well.
Back on screen, Brazzi plays an industrialist called Marco Brigoli, a very important character, as ably highlighted by the first scene in which his new factory is opened to great fanfare by an aspiring politician whose wife, Laura, Brigoli is doing on the side. He isn’t the lead, however, that role going to Adrienne la Russa as Licia, his youngest daughter. We’ll soon discover that she’s the only key player absent from the ceremony, as her boyfriend Marco has talked her into spending the day in bed with him instead. While it’s not overtly called out, they’re apparently in a brothel, hence why a scandal arises after the police raid the place and a half-naked Licia is photographed trying to escape onto the roof. It’s all a set-up, so Marco can successfully blackmail Brigoli and get out of his cheap apartment. The downside is that, to quieten the scandal, Laura talks Brigoli into announcing that Licia is sick and thus must spend some time in an asylum to recover. Ah yes, the overblown drama of the rich and powerful.

Of course, Licia, who swans around in the wildly colourful mini skirts of the late sixties with her long hair floating in the breeze, as free as a bird, is far from comfortable in austere white gowns and ponytails. We don’t know how long she spends inside, but we do know that she hates every moment of it and she leaves with a serious grudge. If she wasn’t crazy when she went in, she is after she gets out and, in a giallo, that doesn’t bode well in the slightest. One of the successes of Psychout for Murder is its editing. It’s shot well by Luciano Trasatti, but it’s how those shots are cut together by Amedeo Giomini that turns up the style. It’s overt editing, obvious in scenes like the one where Licia is driven to the asylum. We jump around frenetically between three scenes which represent her past, present and future: the factory opening, which she didn’t attend but can imagine if it might undo the past; the car, a notably uncomfortable present; and a small Licia in white against a big wall, hidden away from everything in the asylum.
Another success is the performance of Adrienne la Russa, who dominates this film. She changes wildly, in ways that often torment the people around her. One minute she’s both childlike and childish, floucing around an empty estate destroying flowers in a fit of pique; while the next she’s clearly an adult, teasing her sister’s husband from a distance with sexual allure, only to vanish when he decides he might want to do something about it. There’s a great scene in which she switches from one to the other and back: she’s going into town with daddy and he stops his sports car to open the gate. She suddenly gets acutely serious, takes off the handbrake and lets the vehicle roll towards him, screaming as it goes, then stops it just in time and leaps out for a big hug to give thanks that he’s still alive. Oh yes, she’s dangerous, as she tells Mario. She lies in wait for him at his new place, spins around in a vast chair and points a empty gun at him. ‘I can kill you whenever I want to,’ she says. ‘I’m mad, remember?’ Then she pulls the trigger.

I didn’t recognise Adrienne Larussa, as her surname is usually spelled, but she made three Italian pictures in two years, her two in 1969 being notable; the other was The Conspiracy of Torture, a non-horror from Lucio Fulci that many deem underrated and unfairly obscure. She fits this material wonderfully, epitomising that free European spirit but turning psychotic whenever a scene calls for it. Given that, I was wildly surprised to find out that she didn’t in the slightest. I didn’t expect her to have been born in New York or to have ended up as a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. I hadn’t realised that I’d seen her before (in The Man Who Fell to Earth) or that her best known role was on an American daytime soap, Days of Our Lives, in which she played ‘the scheming Brooke Hamilton’, as IMDb would have it, for three years. I was particularly shocked to discover that she was married to Steven Seagal for four years in the eighties. All these things are true, but none of them seem remotely likely. Well, except for the scheming part.
The scheming part is everywhere here, as is appropriate for a giallo. In Italy, ‘giallo’ is simply the local word for thriller, regardless where such things happen to be made. However, it’s taken on a more specific meaning to film fans, namely a recognisable style of murder mystery with psychological overtones, consistent cinematic elements and touches of horror, violence and eroticism. This is an early giallo but it checks all the boxes, even if it doesn’t contain quite as much death as the seventies would soon condition us to expect and it’s much easier to figure out than many of the more complex movies to come. It also builds relatively slowly, easing us into the world of the Brigolis and gradually isolating us there; that’s helped by a scene in which Licia, freshly released from the asylum, wanders round town and realises that everyone sees her differently now. It’s not important whether that’s real or just in her mind; the effect is the same, which is to bring her, with us in tow, back to the Brigoli estate to fester.

Even when we leave the estate, we’re still firmly stuck in this family’s grip. We wander with Brigoli over to Laura’s house so they can get it on and lay plans that will elevate everyone in prestige and wealth. We leap with Licia into Paterlini’s car, Brigoli’s right-hand man, so she can set him up and derail those plans. We gyrate with the teens during the dedication of a swimming pool which ends with a reputation neatly sabotaged. Gradually, though, we focus in on the estate, watching Licia set her traps and waiting for everyone else to fall into them. What’s surprising is how closely all the traps spring, because they’re mostly left until the final act, which is blistering. I won’t spoil the final scene, but it’s a beautifully shot demonstration, sans dialogue, of both victory and defeat, the inevitable conclusion to one bad decision. Well, there may have been more bad decisions, as there are certainly undercurrents here, but it’s all framed as one quest for revenge spawned from one inappropriate action.
Given where we end up, I wonder why Rosanno Brazzi was drawn to this material, even if he didn’t write it. Perhaps it appealed to him as a combination of old and new. The old is most apparent in the story, the classic European tale of the rich and famous doing what they want but eventually coming a cropper for it. The new comes in the choice of style and genre; this could not be mistaken as a film from any other era, partly because of the costumes and wild score but also because it feels naturally like a giallo without a deliberate effort to adhere to the iconography of the genre. Sure, it’s about madness and murder, violence and voyeurism, but it’s short on gore and nudity and the protagonist is female. It’s more stylised than regular films, with the opening credits unfolding to extreme close-ups of eyes or lips, but it’s not stylised to the degree of having an Argento colour palette. The editing is spot on for giallo but the story is too focused. Italian genre cinema is a fascinating beast and I wonder if Brazzi was caught up in its changes.

Maybe he wanted to comment on such changes by abstracting them onto the screen. There could well be social commentary going on here but, if there is, I can’t speak to it beyond highlighting how the various roles are all archetypes. There’s no depth to any of these characters except for Licia. Her father is Brigoli the industrialist, ever set on improving the family’s lot. Laura his mistress is even worse, orchestrating everyone else, including her husband, the politician who is never given a name. Licia’s sister, Giovanna, is nothing but Licia’s sister, just as her husband, Francesco, is nothing but a man to steal away. Paterlini is just a businessman and the Monsignore is just the Monsignore, put on screen not as a character but as the encapsulation of the Roman Catholic Church. It falls to Licia, the young and vibrant creature who just wants to live and love, to stir everything up because she’s too free to fit into an easily categorised box. Maybe it’s about generational warfare at the time of the counterculture, but maybe I’m stretching.
Oddly, I haven’t called out any of the actors, but that’s because this isn’t an actors’ film. Sure, Paola Pitagora gives great reaction as Giovanna and Alberto de Mendoza looks like an Italian cross between Robert Vaughn and Bruce Campbell, but there’s little to talk about on the acting front. With the notable exception of Lucia, this is all about story, direction and style, which means that Brazzi is all over the film even when he’s not on screen. He cares about this more than he did other wild movies like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, in which he plays the lead, and I can only assume it’s because he had a lot more to do with this than simply act. There are better gialli out there and better dramas, but this is fascinating stuff and I’m keen to follow up with the other two films that Brazzi wrote and directed: Seven Men and One Brain, a Eurocrime flick from 1968, and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, a 1966 seasonal film with his wife, Lydia Brazzi, playing Mrs. Santa Claus. Never mind South Pacific, Brazzi in the late sixties is where it was at.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Villain (1979)

Director: Hal Needham
Writer: Robert G. Kane
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger

It has to be said that The Villain is unique as a live action film. Beyond being a true statement, I keep coming back to that as it may be the greatest success the film can boast. Certainly it’s an interesting movie, but it’s also a trainwreck that unfolds at such a slow pace that we’re effectively watching it crash and burn for ninety minutes. I watched it in befuddlement, with my mouth open as I tried to figure out who thought that this was such a great idea and where it all went horribly wrong. After much thought, where I ended up is that it is a great idea and it’s cast amazingly well for the most part, but it’s directed with such lack of understanding of what it actually is that I have to wonder if the Hal Needham credited as director is really the Hal Needham who brought us Smokey and the Bandit, The Cannonball Run and, the same year as this film but earlier in this project, Death Car on the Freeway. It could always be a outrageous typo for Alan Smithee, the name that takes credit when the people who earned it disown their resulting film.

Given the cartoon logic that’s applied to this live action movie, it’s also within the bounds of possibility that the film was directed by its lead character, Cactus Jack Slade, who is as inept as he is dedicated. He’s Wile E. Coyote brought to life and, in the first great casting choice, he’s played by Kirk Douglas, who is celebrating his one hundredth birthday today and still going strong. That’s not surprising, given that he was an amazingly spry 62 years young when leaping around in this film; perhaps he’s really dyslexic and thought that he was 26. His effortless performance here reminded me of Douglas Fairbanks, Senior rather than Junior, decked out to play Zorro but actually playing a cartoon character instead. It’s not merely that Douglas’s 62 year old body is still in great shape, it’s that it seems to be infused with a boundless energy that mere years can’t diminish and mere flesh shouldn’t be able to contain. I’m assuming that some of his falling off hills and being crushed by giant boulders was done by stuntmen, but still. It’s impressive.
Cactus Jack, and his scene-stealing horse sidekick, Whiskey, are an endearing partnership if not a particularly successful one. The first time we see them work is when the outlaw leaps onto a moving train from a great height in order to rob it. Unfortunately, he misses the train completely and so lands face down in the gravel between the tracks, apparently uninjured through application of the last of nine golden rules that Chuck Jones compiled to govern the Roadrunner cartoons: ‘The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures’. Writer Robert G. Kane (no, not Bob Kane of Batman fame) followed many of these rules, excepting the ones that apply only to the Roadrunner. We have a live action Wile E. Coyote, but he’s not chasing a live action Roadrunner in this picture. Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing Sam Sheepdog, the foil of Wile E. Coyote’s clone, Ralph E. Wolf. Maybe he’s just an archetype from old time westerns rather than a cartoon character. Both his name and his role are Handsome Stranger.

Everything else can be extrapolated from those two sources. We’re in the old west for an old western with a simple plot and black and white characters. Nobody has any depth here at all; they’re all playing either archetypes or cartoons. And the unfolding story is governed by cartoon rules. At one point, Cactus Jack resorts to that old Wile E. Coyote faithful: painting a tunnel on a mountain and hiding behind a tree until the roadrunner crashes. Sure enough, Handsome Stranger drives his carriage straight through this imaginary tunnel which promptly ceases to exist when Cactus Jack tries it out himself. At another, he leans off a hillside to better spy on the leading lady, Charming Jones by both name and nature, when the grass or whatever he’s holding rips away. Instead of simply falling, he looks at it first in disbelief before his recognition of his fate kicks the laws of physics back into motion and he plummets into the river. That’s rule eight: ‘Wherever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy.’
Initially, things feel really strange, because we’re breaking the sixth rule: ‘All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters - the southwest American desert.’ Instead, we follow Cactus Jack into town, which I recognised as Old Tucson from the mountains rather than the buildings, as this predates the fire in 1995 and my time there is all this millennium. It’s called Snakes End in this picture and Cactus Jack is there to rob the bank, of course, because that’s what bad guys do. He’s so dedicated to his archetype that he even reads a chapbook called Badmen of the West to tell him what to do. However, even though it guides him through the steps needed to dynamite the safe, it doesn’t work. The safe remains stubbornly intact, though the entire rest of the building is blown to bits. I looked but didn’t see Kane and Needham following rule seven with their dynamite: ‘All materials, tools, weapons or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.’ Maybe they didn’t own the rights.

Other than moments like that, things don’t feel like a cartoon in town; they feel like a cheap comedy. Handsome Stranger helps an old woman over Snakes End’s main street, which is dangerously packed with horses and carriages; it turns out that she was on the right side to begin with. Mel Brooks could have got away with this but Needham fails dismally with it. Before he was a director, he was a stuntman and one of the best there was, founding Stunts Unlimited, introducing innovative equipment to the business, and even licensing a toy in 1977, the Hal Needham Western Movie Stunt Set, which is scarily rare but looks absolutely awesome. To be a stuntman you have to have impeccable timing, but that’s technical not comedic timing, which is what’s sadly lacking here; Arnie had no idea either, so the whole thing falls flat. The best comedic timing comes from Mel Tillis, as he uses his trademark stutter to tell the heavily accented Handsome Stranger, ‘You talk funny.’ Not politically correct, but hilarious.
Tillis is only one of many recognisable faces who show up briefly in The Villain to get our story in motion. Foster Brooks is the bank clerk who has to deal with Cactus Jack’s villainous robbery attempt. Strother Martin is Parody Jones, a mine owner who’s sending his daughter into town to pick up some money. Jack Elam is the best of them, as the villainous Avery Simpson, who’s lending that cash and wants it back again; if it’s stolen en route, then he’ll get Parody’s mine. He’s much more dapper than I’ve seen him, with an awesome hat and a wonderful demeanour as he frees and hires Cactus Jack all at once. I’ve seen Jack Elam many times, but he’s becoming a firm favourite of mine and I just wish he was given more to do, in many pictures but especially this one. Sadly, we get little of any of these folk, focusing in as we leave town on Cactus Jack, Handsome Stranger and Charming Jones. Of course, I can’t complain too much, because that means lots of Kirk Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret.

If Kirk Douglas was perfectly cast, then Ann-Margret followed suit. She’s a delightful young lady from the first time we see her, as the boys on her train know. And she knows they know it too. At the Snakes End station, she leans over to show dangerous cleavage and ask Handsome Stranger, ‘Would you mind taking hold of these?’ She means the suitcases that aren’t even in shot, but this sets in motion a running gag that, once again, Mel Brooks would have had a field day with but Needham mangles horribly. By escorting his daughter home with the money, Handsome Stranger is repaying Parody Jones for saving his life. That daughter would happily thank him in turn by jumping his bones but he just can’t see her attempted seduction. Sure, he’s a dunce (Mel Tillis steals his steak at the Broken Spoke by telling him that the five mile crossing is only half a mile down the track), but how could anyone not launch into a dozen sexual fantasies while accompanied by the Ann-Margret of 1979, especially when her lines are all come-ons?
Arnie looks the part, as much as anyone can in a cowboy outfit that would have worked for Marty McFly if he was 6’2” tall; it’s pale blue, it magically repels dirt and it’s as dumb as the character that wears it. I can’t even say that he doesn’t play the part the way it was given to him; he’s a good guy but a stupid guy, one who’s utterly oblivious to everything. He plays that well and, had the film been sped up either through direction or through editing, he would have been fine. Still, he’s always the third wheel when scenes feature Douglas and Ann-Margret. They could act around him in their sleep and almost had to, given how slow the whole film got. Arnie plays along with the pace, plodding consistently forward, getting more wood for the fire every time his companion attempts to get him into the sack. There are a number of scenes where I’m sure his co-stars are laughing not at what they were shooting but at how things played out off screen. At least they seem to have enjoyed the shoot!

With a quick shoutout for Gary Combs, who had the unenviable task of being a stunt coordinator in a film directed by a legendary stunt coordinator, and his team of stuntmen who all did great work here, the technical side really isn’t where this film shines; the camerawork is adequate, the music clichéd and the editing ridiculous. At least there was nine-time Emmy-winner Bob Mackie to design costumes for Ann-Margret; I have no idea how she didn’t fall out of that dress but I kept waiting for it to happen. I hated the Indian outfits though and, talking of Indian outfits, the one that Avery Simpson enlists is run by no less than Paul Lynde as a very nervous Nervous Elk. It’s another slice of genius casting but, for some reason, it doesn’t work at all. I often wished that Paul Lynde would have played the part but instead we got Paul Lynde. The problem certainly isn’t lack of talent or an incompatibility with the role, so I’m going to plump for bad direction again. Whatever it was, Lynde just couldn’t make Nervous Elk funny.
That leaves one actor still worthy of mention and his name is Ott. He’s the horse who plays Whiskey, in what IMDb suggests was his final performance. Back in 1971, he’d played Black Beauty in the film of the same name, and the Black Mustang in a couple of episodes of Lassie. Other films and television shows followed until this one, which came after he was the title character in a dozen episodes of his own series, Thunder, on NBC. He won three PATSY awards, the equivalent of the Oscar for animal performers (the acronym originally stood for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), but I wonder if he ever before had the opportunities he had in this picture, both to shine as a performer and to steal scenes from his co-stars. He saves Cactus Jack’s life at one point, but he also drops him right in it on more than one occasion for no better reason than because he can. The only thing he doesn’t get to do is to ride at speed, which underlines yet again how slow this movie is.

And so everyone moves gradually closer to the ending, which I won’t spoil but is at once inevitable and yet somehow surprising. I can’t say I didn’t like this but I hated it too. It’s too bad to be a guilty pleasure, but the concept is a peach and I’d suggest that it be revisited except that it would be done with CGI and that would be horrible. Perhaps a low budget filmmaker without too much to risk could make this with real stuntmen doing real stunts and create a cult hit. The only reasons that this one would be recalled in the event of a similar movie done right are Kirk Douglas’s energy, Ann-Margret’s cleavage and the way that everything flies over Arnie’s head just like Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s totally within character for Handsome Stranger to suggest, ‘Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast!’ If only Hal Needham had shot the film like those reflexes. There’s a great twenty minute short film here, maybe half an hour, but it’s stretched far too thin for an hour and a half. Watch it on fast forward!
I research the movies I pick for my centennial reviews ahead of time. I try to find interesting films that well represent the star in question and allow me to talk about a facet of film history, without just lumping for the obvious. Often, these interesting films are also great ones but this is a solid exception to that rule. It’s far from great but it is a great Kirk Douglas movie. Regardless of what he happened to be shooting, he gave it his all and, in doing so, created a character who may well leap to mind for some viewers if the name Kirk Douglas is mentioned in passing. Of course, it’s far from the only one and there are a number of others that I could easily have picked for this project. I could have chosen his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, made as long ago as 1946, or the French TV movie, Empire State Building Murders, a ‘doc-crime-drama’ and tribute to film noir that sits at the other end of his career in 2008. In between, I’m completely spoiled for choice, both for interesting movies and those which generate opportunities.

After such varied classics as Out of the Past, A Letter to Three Wives and The Glass Menagerie, there’s a vastly underrated gem by the name of Ace in the Hole, made by Billy Wilder in 1951, that would have allowed me to talk about newspapers in the movies and how far ahead of its time this one was. After more classics, such as The Bad and the Beautiful, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Lust for Life, there were a string of films produced by Bryna Productions, a production company Douglas established in 1955, including an anti-war movie in 1957 called Paths of Glory, directed by an up-and-coming director named Stanley Kubrick. Three years later, Douglas helped to break the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus, with an overt on-screen credit. On we travel through his filmography to see classic after classic, each movie different from the last and each notable in its own regard, such as Seven Days in May, There Was a Crooked Man... or The Man from Snowy River, the latter of which gave Douglas a double role.
It’s a heck of a career, especially for someone who started out during the studio system era as a Golden Age star because it’s free of the routine stuff that almost every major name at the time got to churn out in between the films for which they’re remembered. It bears deep exploration, whether through binge-watching or a more relaxed examination, unlike almost any of his peers. And that isn’t bad for a man who spent his early life in poverty. He started out as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, the one male child of seven born to a couple of Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus. He became Izzy Demsky and then Kirk Douglas, the name he joined the US Navy under during World War II. He worked over forty different jobs to raise funds to pay for acting classes but only made it into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts through a special scholarship. One classmate was Betty Joan Perske, who, after changing her own name to Lauren Bacall, enabled his transition from stage to film by recommending him to Hal Wallis.

The rest can mostly be watched on screen. He did turn down two Oscar-winning roles in his time, those which eventually went to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and William Holden in Stalag 17, but he was nominated three times, for Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life, before eventually receiving an honorary award in 1996 ‘for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community’. He also received three nominations for Primetime Emmys and even a Razzie nomination for Saturn 3 in 1980, among many other nominations and wins. Yet, even as a Hollywood star, he’s consistently refused to fish in only one pond, which is why he has more books to his name than I do, mostly written during the last couple of decades; his eleven titles include fiction, non fiction and memoirs. What’s more, he hasn’t quit yet and, like Olivia de Havilland in June, is still with us to celebrate his 100th birthday, which is today, 9th December. Happy birthday, Mr. Douglas!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: Clive Exton, from the book by Ludovic Kennedy
Stars: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson and John Hurt

Somehow I let this feature get past me and I have no idea why. I can safely get a pass from seeing it on initial release because I was too busy being born, but it must have played on British television while I was growing up and, as a boy who had both an interest in true crime and a tendency to read the Radio Times each week to figure out what I wanted to watch (this was in the dark ages before VCRs let alone DVRs), I would surely have noticed it. After all, the address of the title is a standard trivia question in the UK. Where did John Christie commit eight murders between 1943 and 1953? That one’s a gimme. However, I find it more chilling that I’d also let the importance of what the film, and the book by journalist Ludovic Kennedy upon which it was based, has to say get by me too. Perhaps like many, I’d associated it with murders rather than hangings and it’s the latter that has more resonance. Put simply, the hanging of Timothy Evans, an innocent man, is a key reason why capital punishment was abolished in the UK.

Contemporary critics didn’t like 10 Rillington Place because it didn’t do what they expected. It’s not a thriller, surviving on its use of tension and suspense; neither is it a traditional serial killer story, in which we delve into the mind of a madman. It’s an exercise in inevitability and that’s entirely the point. It follows the inexorable path towards a miscarriage of justice that cannot be undone or even mitigated and the fact that the guilty man was eventually hanged is only a small saving grace. It’s not an enjoyable picture to watch in many ways, though film fans can’t fail to appreciate the performances, especially those of Richard Attenborough as John Christie and a young John Hurt as the man whom he manipulated so easily. The direction, which is what disappointed those critics in 1971, is impeccable too, courtesy of Richard Fleischer, who would have been a hundred years old today, and I was as stunned by his directorial restraint as I was by Hurt’s bravado portrayal of an illiterate Welshman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The script, adapted from Kennedy’s book by Clive Exton, who had the benefit of the author’s technical advice during production, is relatively close to the accepted course of real events. It even boldly states as it begins that, ‘This is a true story. Whenever possible the dialogue has been based on official documents.’ That doesn’t mean that it tells the whole story, of course. The murder that we watch as the film begins is Christie’s second murder rather than his first and a great deal is compressed at the end, all for the sake of narrative flow, but it doesn’t depart from the pertinent facts in any dangerous way. Also, like its source book, it makes a number of educated guesses, but none of them ring false. This was a problematic case, in that the innocent man, for reasons that we’ll soon get into, made three official statements to the police, two of which were untrue. While he’s honest on the stand, his credibility has been shot and he’s missing certain key information that would have backed up his case. Are you confused yet? Well, let us begin.

John Christie, in the recognisable form of Richard Attenborough, is at once a creepy and calming fellow, an odd mixture that helps us understand why so many women trusted him. He’s a short man with a severely receding hairline who wears glasses and speaks so softly that his voice could be described as a whisper. It’s a highly unthreatening combination, though one more sinister today as pop culture has associated this look with the Nazi officer next door. It’s simple to suggest that Anthony Hopkins borrowed some of this performance for his famous take on Hannibal Lecter, but it’s misleading too as there’s none of his dominant genius here nor a hint of his devilish good taste. I’ve always pictured Brian Cox rather than Hopkins whenever Lecter (or Lecktor in his instance) is brought into conversation, but I can see myself blurring Attenborough’s Christie and Hopkins’s Lecter together because I’d dearly love to have seen Attenborough portray Hannibal the cannibal as the shabby little man he makes Christie.
We begin in London during the Blitz, but the air raid siren seems to carry an additional warning, pleading with Muriel Eady not to trust John Christie to cure her bronchitis using his ‘special mixture’. It turns out to be Friar’s Balsam to mask the influx of domestic gas, which has a strong carbon monoxide content. ‘You may feel just a bit dizzy,’ he tells her, as he puts a makeshift mask over her face; when she fights, he holds it until she drifts into unconsciousness. After he strangles her, it’s implied that he sexually assaults her, then he buries her in the communal garden behind his terrace. We see that she’s not the first body to go into this ground. We then skip forward five years to meet the other key players in this sordid and sorry saga: Tim and Beryl Evans, who move into a flat upstairs with their baby daughter, Geraldine. The war is over, but Rillington Place still looks shabby, even in the daylight. And it’s worth mentioning that this really is Rillington Place, even if had been renamed to Ruston Close and they shot at number 7 not 10.

The Evanses are recognisable faces too. John Hurt looks scarily young as Tim, even though he was a decade into his film career and I’ve seen him five years earlier in A Man for All Seasons. By comparison, Judy Geeson looks old as Beryl, because I tend to picture her as the schoolgirl she played in To Sir, with Love in 1967; I really should delve more into her work of the seventies. Both are excellent in this picture, matching the quality of what could easily have been a dominant performance from Attenborough. Geeson, the Meg Ryan of her day, is eminently desirable and easily led, attributes which would have been seen as complementary at the time; but it has to be said that she’s rather annoying, the catch in her being a catch, as it were. She sells both aspects of Beryl Evans capably in a way that seems passive but still avoids her being overwhelmed by the more overt performances of her male co-stars. After all, it has to be said that Christie and Tim Evans are gifts of parts to actors who know what to do with them.
Attenborough is the lead, playing a role that he knew he wouldn’t enjoy. ‘I do not like playing the part,’ he explained to The Times, ‘but I accepted it at once without seeing the script,’ adding, ‘I have never felt so totally involved in any part as this.’ He thoroughly inhabits the character, not once letting his creepy calmness lapse. The chilling nature of the man is there in the way he smiles and the way he hovers. It’s in the way he’s constantly helping people in ways that enforce his own importance; he might seem like the landlord but he isn’t. And, more than anything, it’s there in his quiet manipulations, like when he realises that Beryl wants to have an abortion and plants the seed that he used to be a doctor and could take care of it on the cheap. The scene where he’s preparing to conduct that abortion is blistering; he’s killed already but he still shakes, whether from nerves, anticipation or both. There are workmen outside but he just can’t resist the temptation to take one more victim.

And, if Attenborough is chilling as Christie, Hurt is award-worthy as Evans. I’ve seen him in so much over the years that I’m aware just how much of a talent he has, but he plays very believably stupid here and that’s really tough to do, especially for an actor who so believably plays professors and other educated men. Evans wasn’t inept, idiotic or imbecilic; he simply had a below average IQ and little enough education that he was illiterate and even more easily led than his wife. It’s in his eyes and in subtle movements of his head. It’s in his overblown reactions to his wife’s hints and barbs, because he can’t argue his way out of such situations and thus has to scream and shout, even if he wakes up the whole terrace. And, of course, it’s in the moments in which he uses physical strength to reinforce his dominance. He may not be a killer, but he’s a violent man with a violent temper. Hurt plays those scenes as well as the happy or bewildered ones. I can’t remember seeing a more credibly lost man than Hurt late in this film.
Holding these exquisite performances together is Fleischer’s direction, which is utterly controlled and was misunderstood at the time. An anonymous Variety critic praises Hurt and Fleischer, calling 10 Rillington Place ‘an absorbing and disturbing picture’, but fails to acknowledge the point, even expressing surprise that people might find more interest in Evans than Christie. The point is not that Christie killed people but that Christie killed people and persuaded the powers that be into hanging a mental midget for those crimes instead of him, even testifying on the stand in front of the man he was setting up. By comparison, Vincent Canby, a critic for The New York Times, nails the film’s purpose, starting his review with the fact that Evans was executed but posthumously pardoned, an act which prompted the abolition of the death penalty. However, he suggests that the ‘small, unimaginative people’ lessen the film’s entertainment value, whereas I’d counter that the dreary killer in working class grime heightens it.

You see, Fleischer steadfastly refuses to sensationalise any aspect of this case. Christie wasn’t remotely as clever as he thought he was and he made a string of stupid mistakes, but none of them were caught by the police, who were hindered by being brought in through an obviously false confession by Evans. This is another masterpiece scene for Hurt, because it’s a real mess of a confession that, incredibly, aims to protect his wife’s killer, because he believes him to be a friend who merely tried to help them and failed to keep Beryl alive through the abortion procedure. ‘He’s a bit simple,’ one cop tells another. Caught out by inescapable truth, he has to come clean on his second attempt which, of course, isn’t believed in the wake of the first. Even though many of us know what is to come, we still root for the poor simpleton, not because he’s remotely sympathetic but because we know that he’s innocent. The whole point of the film is for the hangman to not listen to us in the cheap seats screaming at him that he’s hanging the wrong man.
The hanging of Timothy Evans is an incredibly brutal scene, not for any of the reasons we might reasonably expect with our 21st century history with brutal film, but because it’s so quick. The camera shifts to handheld as Evans is walked from one room to the next and, before we know it, it’s all over. There’s no procession, no prayer, no last words. There’s no ritual at all and we can fairly believe that, given that Albert Pierrepoint, the man who hanged both Evans and Christie, advised the production to ensure that it would handle the scene accurately. Evans is there to be hanged and that’s what happens, quickly and efficiently, to the degree we can reasonably accept that, even as it’s happening, he still can’t believe that it will. What’s more, as Evans falls to his death, we’re shifted in a truly twisted segue to Christie straightening his bad back two years later. Canby calls that a common cinematic trick, but I thought it epitomised the film because the death of an innocent man had been utterly accepted and forgotten.

Fleischer, an American by birth and residence, must have been interested in the subject because he addressed it in more than one of his films. In 1959, he directed Compulsion, a drama based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, in which they’re saved from the hangman’s noose by an impassioned speech given by their lawyer, played by Orson Welles, against capital punishment. In 1968, he made The Boston Strangler, with Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo, who was convicted not for a string of thirteen murders, to which he had confessed, but for a series of rapes. His lawyer had the death penalty removed as a possibility in exchange for admitting guilt in a plea bargain. DeSalvo later withdrew his confession and nobody has been convicted of any of the murders that he is suspected to have committeed. Capital punishment is an odd focus for a man who was born into the film world, the son of Max Fleischer who is still my favourite American animator; I’ll take his Snow White over Walt Disney’s any day of the week.
Then again, the Oscar he won in 1948 wasn’t for any of the films for which he would later become known. He made films noir like Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin; big budget blockbusters, like Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora!; action films like Violent Saturday and Mr. Majestyk; sci-fi classics like Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green; fantasies like Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer; period pieces like The Vikings and Barabbas; and crime films like The Last Run and The New Centurions. He was a versatile director, who even ventured into odd territories for Che! and Mandingo, but none of those won him an Academy Award. That Oscar came for a documentary feature he produced in 1948, Design for Death, to explain Japanese culture to American soldiers occupying Japan. It was written by Theodore Geisel and his wife; Geisel is, of course, better known to us today as Dr. Seuss, an odd fact that mirrors how odd it was for it to be what the Academy would remember Fleischer for. We remember him for much more.