Monday, 20 January 2020

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)


Director: Frank McDonald
Writer: Edward Bernds
Stars: Audie Murphy, Ben Cooper, Colleen Miller, De Forest Kelley and Jan Merlin


One of the problems of only reviewing new material, as I do with music, is that the pivotal gamechanging moments often fail to be obvious at the time. An album might be original enough to spark a whole new genre, but at the time of release it more likely feels a little awkward, if not outright stupid. Why would someone do that? Only in hindsight does it start to seem like a grand idea. One of the benefits of mostly reviewing old material, as I do with film, is that moments like these tend to be easily identified in one picture and the reason I mention this is because Gunfight at Comanche Creek feels like one of these that, for a variety of reasons, simply failed to become the spark it could. It was an Allied Pictures release, a remake of an earlier film of theirs, 1957’s Last of the Badmen, and it’s a bizarre hybrid of two completely separate genres that someone clearly thought ought to merge to become something new. As the title suggests, it’s a western, but it’s also very much a detective story in police procedural form, with the usual narration.

And this feels more than a little weird. It opens roughly as we might expect for a western, with a static shot of a western town full of men in Stetsons and women in long dressses, horses being ridden down Main Street and credits unfolding in the usual American woodcut font style, all accompanied by an orchestral score with a hint of romance and a couple of danger. It looks very nice, shot in anamorphic widescreen with bright DeLuxe colour and, as those credits wrap up, night falls. But then the music stops so that we’re able to listen to a deep voice hurling out details. “Sunrise. June 5th, 1875. 5am. Comanche Creek, Colorado.” We might wonder why this is spoken rather than thrown up onto the screen in the same western font, but many will realise right off the bat that these are just the facts, ma’am. If not, we’ll grasp it soon enough: “A man named Peters came out of the Comanche Creek Cafe. He carried two breakfasts, one for a prisoner, another for the deputy on duty in the jail.” Why do we care?

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Buck Rogers (1939)


Directors: Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind
Writers: Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe, based on the newspaper feature by Phil Nowlan & Lt. Dick Calkins
Stars: Larry (Buster) Crabbe, Constance Moore, Jackie Moran, Jack Mulhall, Anthony Warde, Philson Ahn, C. Montague Shaw and Guy Usher


In 1977, soon after the launch of a rather successful space opera whose grip on pop culture continues unabated, this popular twelve episode movie serial from 1939 was edited down to feature length for the third time and released by Crystal Pictures with a notably telling tagline: “Star Wars owes it all to Buck Rogers, the original inter-planetary adventure”. While it’s not surprising for companies to cash in on the success of others, it’s frankly impossible not to watch the second episode of Buck Rogers, Tragedy on Saturn, without Star Wars coming immediately to mind. That’s because it follows its usual opening credits with what I’ve only ever heard described as “the Star Wars opening crawl”, a brief summary of where we’re at scrolling up into infinity before the action starts. George Lucas, who was born in 1944, didn’t see the 1939 Buck Rogers and the 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in theatres, but he was a huge fan of them on television, watching nightly on Adventure Theatre, and the Star Wars opening crawl is very much an homage to them.

Now, Lucas, even as a kid, knew how bad they were and he told Starlog in 1981, “Loving them that much when they were so awful, I began to wonder what would happen if they were done really well. Surely, kids would love them even more.” The rest, as they say, is history, but there’s history before this serial too because, like Star Wars, Buck Rogers was a media franchise and an important one. It began in August 1928, when a pulp magazine, Amazing Stories, published a novella by Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon 2419 A.D. It might all have ended there, but the John F. Dille Company, a newspaper syndicate, adapted it into comic strip form, renaming the hero from Anthony Rogers to Buck Rogers. It launched on 7th January, 1929, the same day as Tarzan, and was initially syndicated to 47 newspapers. By 1934, it was appearing in 287 American newspapers daily and a further 160 internationally in eighteen different languages. The initial artist was Lt. Dick Calkins, an Army Air Service pilot and flight instructor.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Vicki (1953)


Director: Harry Horner
Writer: Dwight Taylor, based on the novel I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Stars: Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliott Reid, Richard Boone, Casey Adams, Alex D’Arcy, Carl Betz and Aaron Spelling


Vicki Lynn is everywhere in New York City, it seems. The billboards highlight that she drinks Royal Tea, smokes Crowns and uses Caress facial creme by Daniele. When we get a glimpse of the real Vicki, she’s being taken out of a building on a stretcher with a tag already on her toe because she’s been murdered before the opening credits. This film noir is a look back at how she got there, both the skyline and the morgue, and why in what’s half a detective story and half a look into how stars are made. And, in keeping with the traditional Hollywood success story, we soon meet her in the real world, slinging coffee and waiting tables at Weber’s Cafeteria. She’s played by Jean Peters and, for all the glamour that’s soon visited onto her as she’s elevated to stardom, she looks her best here as a gorgous girl next door at Weber’s. Ironically, for someone so magnetic on the big screen, this came close to the end of her film career, as a different role was calling: that of being the second wife to billionaire Howard Hughes, whose seclusion she also adopted.

Hughes met Peters before she became a film star and they were in a highly publicised relationship when she made her first picture, playing the female lead opposite Tyrone Power in 1947’s Captain for Castile. They didn’t marry until 1957, though, after she had wed and divorced a Texan oilman, Stuart Cramer, in a matter of mere months. The character that she plays here appears to be as flighty and starstruck as Peters might seem from those details (but apparently wasn’t, remaining surprisingly grounded during a fourteen year run as a billionaire’s wife). Vicki is swept up by the interest of a number of men, most obviously Steve Christopher, PR agent to the stars. While this film is Vicki’s story, it’s told by Christopher, mostly in flashback, as he tries to convince the cops that he didn’t murder her. He found her, he made her name and he may even have loved her, but he professes that he had nothing to do with her death, even when badgered by policemen who grill him without mercy in a dark room under a strong light. Hey, it’s film noir.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975)


Director: Dean Hargrove
Writers: Dean Hargrove and Gabriel Dell
Stars: Gabriel Dell, Will Geer, Anjanette Comer, Joyce van Patten, Vincent Gardenia and Barbara Harris


Sure, I’m remembering important people to film on what is or what would have been their one hundredth birthdays, but I want to do it by finding interesting and unusual movies that don’t get a lot of press. Today, the 7th January, would have been the centenary of Vincent Gardenia, an Italian actor so associated with New York that he was named the “King of Brooklyn” at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival in 1989, became an honorary chief of the New York City Emergency Medical Service and was memorialised on the map of Brooklyn after it renamed a section of 16th Ave. to Vincent Gardenia Blvd. in his honour. The catch for us, of course, is that there are many New York Italian actors who quickly spring to mind: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Danny Aiello, Armand Assante, Sylvester Stallone... the list goes on. Unlike them, however, Gardenia was a New Yorker actually born in Italy: in Naples. He moved to the US with his family in 1922 at the age of two and started acting three years later in a local Italian language acting troupe.

Fast forward a hundred years and we can look back on his major career. Three films in which he appeared were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (The Hustler, Heaven Can Wait and Moonstruck). He was personally nominated twice, fourteen years apart and both times as a Best Supporting Actor, for Bang the Drum Slowly and for Moonstruck. He didn’t win either, being beaten on the former occasion by John Houseman for The Paper Chase and on the latter by Sean Connery for The Untouchables, but he did win both an Emmy and a Tony. The former was awarded for a 1989 TV movie called Age-Old Friends, for which Hume Cronyn also won; the latter was for playing opposite Peter Falk in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. While we’re counting awards, he also picked up a pair of Obies for off-Broadway productions, in 1960 and 1970. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that Rue McLanahan also won an Obie in 1970; the two would go on to play wife swappers on an episode of All in the Family in 1972, before Gardenia became a regular.

Monday, 18 February 2019

I Died a Thousand Times (1955)


Director: Stuart Heisler
Writer: W. R. Burnett, from his novel, High Sierra
Stars: Jack Palance, Shelley Winters, Lori Nelson, Lee Marvin and Gonzalez Gonzalez


Index: 2019 Centennials.

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood nowadays is that every movie they release seems to be a remake, a sequel or a reboot. As I write, Alita: Battle Angel, an American remake of a Japanese anime, is at the top of the box office, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, the fourth film in a franchise based on a toy, is in second place in its second week. The highest grossing film on the list, Glass, with $104.6m to its credit in five weeks, is the third in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy. However, remakes and sequels are hardly new concepts and many would be surprised at just how prevalent this sort of behaviour has always been. Case in point: I Died a Thousand Times might appear to be an original picture with an impressive cast, but it’s actually the third adaptation of a novel, High Sierra, to the big screen. The novelist, W. R. Burnett, wrote the screenplay for the first in 1941 (with John Huston) and returned to do a very similar job on this one in 1955. The director of the first, Raoul Walsh, also directed the second in 1949.

While sequels need their own justification, there have been plenty of historical reasons to remake movies because the industry has rarely stood still and the times have always been a-changin’. When Walsh made High Sierra in 1941, he did so using a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, as was the norm at the time. When Burnett returned to rewrite his script only fourteen years later, the resulting film was shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor. It looks completely different and much more appropriate, given that it’s set in the countryside around Mount Whitney, the highest peak in California, and colour and widescreen help with that a great deal. Back in 1941, High Sierra, by comparison, looks best in its indoor scenes with criminals arguing and planning. Each, however, told the same story and in a very similar way, right down to dialogue and choreography. They’re gangster films; the version made in between them, Colorado Territory, was, at least, a western, the story translated to that of an outlaw sprung from jail to rob a train.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

The Abominable Snowman (1957)


Director: Val Guest
Writer: Nigel Kneale, from his own screenplay for The Creature
Stars: Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing


Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’m personally valuing my centennial review choices not only because they allow me to discover new favourites through research but also because they allow me to revisit old friends in much better circumstances. For instance, I’ve seen The Abominable Snowman before, but not in the last three decades and not in pristine Hammerscope. I probably last saw it as a teenager on a small black and white television, emphatically not the best way to see anything. Then again, Nigel Kneale based his script on a screenplay that he’d written for The Creature, a 1955 episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, that nobody, as far as we know, has ever seen on anything but a small black and white television. That’s because it was broadcast live from Lime Grove Studios, with a repeat four days later, also broadcast live. No recording is known to exist and one may not have been made, though some similar broadcasts around this time were telerecorded and the oldest to survive, the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, were written by Nigel Kneale.

Like The Quatermass Experiment, The Creature was produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, who worked with Kneale often; they’d made three serials about Prof. Bernard Quatermass and a 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Television was primitive back in the early to mid fifties but Cartier and Kneale kept pushing the envelope forward. The Quatermass Experiment, in 1953, was the first original British science fiction show produced for adults. Nineteen Eighty-Four was accompanied by a live orchestra performing one studio over, watching the production as they played on a closed-circuit screen; questions were asked in Parliament about whether the BBC should broadcast such “horrific”, “subversive” material, and on a Sunday no less. The Creature brought the outdoors into the studio with a great deal of exterior footage previously shot in the Alps being projected behind the actors. Quatermass II in 1955 also benefitted from some filming on location and was telerecorded onto 35mm film, so that it could be easily re-broadcast.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

I’ve Lived Before (1956)


Director: Richard Bartlett
Writers: Norman Jolley and William Talman
Stars: Jock Mahoney, Leigh Snowden. Ann Harding and John McIntire


Index: 2019 Centennials.

I often talk about other people when writing centennial reviews, because I select them for more reasons than just the person born a hundred years earlier. Usually, however, they’re other actors in the film or they’re in the crew that made it: a writer, a producer or a director, maybe even a cinematographer or composer. Here, the key person to talk about wasn’t involved at all and I can’t be sure that she even saw this feature. Her name was Bridie Murphy Corkell and she died a year later, having become the centre of a rather bizarre storm that, even more bizarrely, hasn’t quite dissipated yet. For our purposes, her story began in Pueblo, CO, in 1952, even though she wasn’t there either. A housewife called Virginia Tighe was and she was being placed into hypnotic regression by a local businessman called Morey Bernstein, who conjured up the bright idea to take her memories back further than her childhood. The result was that Tighe recounted, vividly and lucidly, her previous life as Bridey Murphy, born in Cork in Ireland in 1798.

While Mrs. Tighe didn’t capitalise on this, insisting that her name be kept private—she became Ruth Simmons to posterity—Morey Bernstein did. He quickly went to the press and William J. Barker published a string of articles in The Denver Post in 1954. Two years later, Doubleday published Bernstein’s book on the subject, The Search for Bridey Murphy, which became a bestseller and a sensation of epic proportions. Naturally, given that the story even prompted Bridey Murphy “come as you were” parties, Hollywood rapidly took notice, adapting the book into a Paramount film, also titled The Search for Bridey Murphy and starring Teresa Wright and Louis Hayward. Just as naturally, there was a rapidly rushed into production knock-off, albeit one rather less exploitative in tone than an Asylum production nowadays. I’ve Lived Before was a Universal picture about the buzzword of the day, reincarnation, but it doesn’t mention Bridey Murphy even once. However, it was still just as clearly a product of her phenomenon as the official adaptation.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The Big Circus (1959)


Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writer: Irwin Allen & Charles Bennett and Irving Wallace, based on a story by Irwin Allen
Stars: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Kathryn Grant, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, David Nelson, Steve Allen and Gilbert Roland


Index: 2019 Centennials.

Oh hey, that’s a big screen! Irwin Allen’s attempt to bring what ringmaster Vincent Price calls “a spectacle of unparalleled beauty” to our eyeballs was done in TechniColor and CinemaScope and it looks huge. It takes all of ten seconds to dwarf Price in one of the rings of a immense circus tent; he’s so tiny that we wouldn’t have a clue who he was if it wasn’t for his instantly recognisable voice. He’s Hans Hagenfeld and this is not his story, as important a star as Price was in 1959; he made this in between House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. In fact, the story here frankly doesn’t matter because it’s good old fashioned Hollywood hokum, crammed full of pointless romances, ridiculous plot devices and transparent mysteries; what isn’t entirely stupid was lifted directly from Cecil B. DeMille’s Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, made seven years earlier. What matters is the spectacle, because the movie is as gaudy and outrageous and enjoyable as any circus and, arguably, that’s why, as bad as it is, it works so well.

Of course, times have changed since 1959 and I’m not only referring to the lyrics of the clichéd musical theme song number which suggest that, “There’s nothing as gay as a day at the circus with you.” Circuses were still big in the fifties and this one comes fitted with all of the reasons why they’re not still big today: there’s a lion act in which the big cats don’t look particularly comfortable, an array of elephants painted from trunk to tail in different colours and a slapstick routine with clowns that’s taken straight from the Keystone Kops playbook. Nowadays, we like our lions and elephants to roam free and our clowns to be kept far away from our kids because, after Stephen King’s It, every damn one of them’s scared silly whenever they see one. To a child of the 21st century, this will be as old fashioned as the Enid Blyton books I read in the seventies about kids running away to join the circus. To them, it’ll be a curiosity of a bygone era and their parents might find themselves having to explain more than they might believe.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966)


Director: Coleman Francis
Writer: Coleman Francis
Stars: Coleman Francis, Tony Cardoza, Harold Saunders and John Carradine


Index: 2019 Centennials.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that cinema is all about the celebrities, because they’re who get the press, but they’re just the surface and there are a thousand others below for each one above. Case in point: Coleman Francis, who would have been a hundred years old today. He never made it to celebrity status, though though he did find cult fame posthumously courtesy of the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which lampooned each of the three films he wrote and directed, as well as a couple of others in which he merely appeared. Take a good look at his filmography, though, and you’ll see that he connected all over the cult movie map. He acted for W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy, in Killers from Space; Ray Dennis Steckler, in Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters (playing two separate roles); and Russ Meyer, in both Motorpsycho and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. He narrated Steckler’s The Thrill Killers, had a bit part in This Island Earth and appeared in two episodes of Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. I’d like those credits!

Of course, most of those roles were so tiny as to be often uncredited. When he finally got a credit, for Stakeout on Dope Street, it was spelled wrong, and when he achieved a major role, it was in an exploitation film as inconsequential as 1959’s T-Bird Gang. What he will always be remembered for are the three features that he wrote and directed himself, features so bad that they underline once and for all how Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker of all time. The first of these was The Beast of Yucca Flats, my go to choice for the worst film ever made. Certainly it has the weirdest stream of consciousness narration that I’ve ever heard, while Tor Johnson stumbles around the desert suffering from radiation burns and searching for a plot. That was 1961. Two years later, Francis made The Skydivers aka Fiend from Half Moon Bay, with a larger role for his producer, Tony Cardoza. Finally came Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba, shot in 1961 but not released until 1966 and the only one not to include his wife and kids in the cast.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Our Man in Havana (1959)


Director: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene, from his novel of the same name
Stars: Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Noël Coward and Ralph Richardson


Index: 2019 Centennials.

As with House of Bamboo for Robert Stack, I couldn’t resist revisiting another fifties feature that I’ve previously covered for my next centennial review; this time, I’m remembering the pioneering American comedian, actor and writer, Ernie Kovacs, who was born a hundred years ago today in Trenton, NJ. While Kovacs only made a handful of films, just ten of them in the five year period before a car crash took his life in 1962, most would seem to be solid choices for this project. He competed against Jack Lemmon for the ladies in Operation Mad Ball and researched New York witches in Bell, Book and Candle. He tried to stymie Doris Day’s attempts to transport lobsters in It Happened to Jane and ran a backwater radar station in Japan in Wake Me When It’s Over. He worked to steal John Wayne’s gold mine in North to Alaska and played a memorable professional mourner in Five Golden Hours. However, none of those films had a fraction of the pedigree of this comedy, in which he played the polite but lethal Capt. Segura of the Cuban secret police.

Our Man in Havana began life in 1958 as a sardonic spy novel by the acclaimed British writer Graham Greene. It was the last of what he called his “entertainments”, which were popular thrillers as against “novels”, which were serious literary efforts, but it wasn’t entirely fictional. Greene had always been passionate about world travel, often visiting the sort of places that most didn’t: Mexico while it was being secularised; the leper colonies of the Congo Basin and the British Cameroons; and Haiti under the brutal rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. These travels led to his sister recruiting him into MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, in 1941, where his supervisor was Kim Philby, not yet revealed as a Soviet double agent. While working in counter-espionage, he learned about German agents in Portugal, such as “Garbo”, who created entirely fake reports in order to earn bonuses and generate expenses. He turned this into a film script, set in Estonia just before the Second World War, but it never reached production in that form.