Saturday 31 March 2018

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post
Writer: Abe Polsky
Stars: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor and David Manzy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Ted Post, who would have been a hundred years old today, had a stellar career, gradually moving from the stage to television and eventually to film, where his fourteen features as director constitute a highly varied set of underrated gems. Choosing just one to remember him by is a difficult task indeed, as almost all of them would be perfect for this project, except perhaps the two in which he directed Clint Eastwood, Hang ’em High and Magnum Force, which are notably well known. The latter wasn’t his only sequel, as he also made Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the rest are all standalones, often emphatically so. There’s The Legend of Tom Dooley, the old folk music standard turned into a film; The Harrad Experiment, a controversial comedy about sex in college; and Nightkill, a dark crime picture shot here in Phoenix. There’s Whiffs, a comedy about chemical warfare techniques being used to rob banks; 4 Faces, a compilation of four stories starring the same actor; and especially Go Tell the Spartans, a highly underrated Vietnam War picture.

I simply couldn’t resist The Baby though, which is as unlikely a feature as could be imagined for a director best known for hundreds of episodes of television westerns. Post was almost destined to find a career in the industry, having begun as an usher at the Pitkin Theater in Brooklyn, so caught up in what was on screen that some reports suggest that he would often forget to actually seat any of his customers. He tried acting, but it didn’t work out, so he shifted into directing plays, including a 1948 production of Dracula in Connecticut that starred Bela Lugosi. He kept this up during wartime, staging shows for the troops, but, by the fifties, he had found his way both into teaching, at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and television, where the bulk of his credits are to be found. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1955 for one episode of Waterfront, a crime show set in the LA harbour, and a DGA Award in the same year for a different episode of the same show. A year later, he’d get another nod for an episode of Medic.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Death Collector (1988)

Director: Tom Garrett
Writer: John J. McLaughlin
Stars: Daniel Chapman, Ruth Collins, Loren Blackwell, Karen Rizzo and Philip Nutman

I didn’t know about the 1988 film Death Collector until last year, but I’m a big fan of genre hopping and this one is a post apocalyptic western with wild credits. The first half dozen characters include ‘Molested Woman’ and ‘Hood with Whip’, before progressing all the way to ‘Fearless Turbo Sluts’. Splatterpunks John Skipp and Craig Spector play, no surprise here, ‘Splatter Punk 1 and 2’. I got a kick out of the assistant editor and sound editor being credited as a pair, given that the former was Donald Johnson and the latter John Donaldson. Keep watching, though, and you’ll reach Francisca Vanderweerdt. Thirty years ago today, she showed up on set to do make up and hairstyling. Then, as she wrote on Facebook last year, ‘The assistant director came over and introduced himself. When I shook his hand, the loudest voice I have ever heard said, ‘This is the man you’ll spend the rest of your life with.’’ That was Brian Pulido, the Evil Ernie to her Lady Death and they married in 1991. Congratulations on thirty years together, folks!

Back then, this was called Tin Star Void and I wonder what writer John J. McLaughlin wanted it to be. It’s really a western at heart, but it seems more like a post-apocalyptic action flick, nothing like the pictures that would make his name, many years later. This was his debut as a scriptwriter and it was clearly going to spend its days being rented from Blockbuster, the sort of tape with ‘cult movie’ written all over it. McLaughlin only wrote one more film in the entire twentieth century but eventually hit the big time in the 2010s. Yes, the scriptwriter of Death Collector, as definitive a straight to video title as anything starring Rutger Hauer or Dolph Lundgren, went on to be a big shot, writing or co-writing Black Swan, Hitchcock and Parker within only four years. That ambition is perhaps why Death Collector, for all its many faults, still feels interesting and, in its low budget way, stylish. It’s not as wacky as Six-String Samurai, made a decade later, but it does bear some similarities in approach and would play well to the same audience.

Friday 9 March 2018

The Girl Hunters (1963)

Director: Roy Rowland
Writer: Mickey Spillane, Roy Rowland and Robert Fellows
Stars: Mickey Spillane, Shirley Eaton, Scott Peters, Guy Kingsley Poynter, James Dyernforth, Charles Farrell, Kim Tracy, Hy Gardner and Lloyd Nolan

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It’s a rare literary detective who didn’t make it to the cinema screen both early and often. The Guinness Book of Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the ‘most portrayed movie character’of them all, with his first appearance on film arriving as early as 1900, so early that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t even written The Hound of the Baskervilles yet. This was Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a thirty second piece that was exhibited in Mutoscope machines in arcades. Most of the longest running film series in the western world feature a detective, such as Charlie Chan, who has now appeared in over fifty movies, or the Lone Wolf, who’s racked up half as many. While I grew up in the UK in the eighties, watching Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson play Miss Marple on television, both still arguably the most authentic versions of those characters, my go to detective was Mike Hammer. I adored Stacy Keach’s performance on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and devoured the original novels. In rural Yorkshire, this was akin to exotica.

Keach was far from the first actor to play Mike Hammer, though the hardboiled detective first saw life in print, back in 1947 in the novel I, the Jury. Spillane published five sequels in the three years between 1950 and 1952 and, naturally, the media paid attention. Ted DeCorsia was the first actor to take on the role, on radio in 1952’s That Hammer Guy, but Biff Elliot played him on film the next year in I, the Jury, in 3-D no less. Ralph Meeker took over in 1955 for Robert Aldrich’s fantastic Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Bray was next in line, in 1957’s My Gun is Quick, before the character moved to TV, with Darren McGavin portraying the title role in 78 episodes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. What came next, though, was something unique. I don’t know if The Girl Hunters, an indie production in the UK, marks the only time in which the author of a beloved character played it himself, but I can’t come up with another one. ‘Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer’ proclaim the opening credits, while the closing ones add ‘Mike Hammer is Mickey Spillane’.

The Last Page (1952)

Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Frederick Knott, from a play by James Hadley Chase
Stars: George Brent, Marguerite Chapman and Diana Dors

Index: 2018 Centennials.

One hundred years ago today, Marguerite Chapman was born. 22 years later, she started a film career that only lasted for a decade and change but kept her busy indeed. From 1940 to 1943 alone, she appeared in twenty B-movies of varied genre and quality, that prompted Jerry Mason of the Los Angeles Times to suggest, ‘I saw none of them, and you probably didn’t either.’ I have indeed seen some of these, as they weren’t only routine wartime programmers, like Navy Blues or You’re in the Army Now, in which she appeared as a member of the Navy Blues Sextet. I saw her in detective series, like Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum or One Dangerous Night, one of the Warren William Lone Wolf pictures. Some of these certainly seem to exist as little more than opportunities for her to rise to the A list, having impressed people in the highly-regarded 1942 serial, Spy Smasher. Unfortunately, they seem to be rather hard to track down nowadays. I looked for films like Parachute Nurse and the later One Way to Love, but they’re nowhere to be found.

Her easily available movies are generally later ones in which she played a supporting role, like The Seven Year Itch, although she did actually make it to the A list by being cast as the female lead in Destroyer, alongside Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford. I prefer to find the interesting films lurking behind those major titles in a filmography, but hers are surprisingly elusive and, when they can be found, they’re not that appropriate. I did watch Spy Smasher, thinking it was about time I included a serial in this project, but as enjoyable as she is as the lead’s fiancĂ©e, she’s hardly in it. Similarly, Flight to Mars, a 1951 sci-fi romp in which her character, Alita, is named as an overt homage, might have worked, but she’s only in the second half; maybe I’ll revisit it later this year for her co-star, Cameron Mitchell. I remembered that she ended her film career with a leading role, in The Amazing Transparent Man, but that was hardly a great movie. So which picture should I choose to remember her, one that I can actually find to watch?

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Home of the Brave (1949)

Director: Mark Robson
Writer: Carl Foreman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents
Stars: Jeff Corey, James Edwards and Lloyd Bridges

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Watching the news lately, it sometimes seems like we’ve hardly progressed at all in the world of race relations. Movies like this are shocking realisations of how far we’ve really come and how quickly because they chart the passage of time. A couple of years ago, I took a look at how outrageously racist Hollywood was back in its classic era, while celebrating the career of Willie Best, a massively talented African American actor who began his career as Sleep n’ Eat and was given next to nothing to do for decades; well, except act lazy, eat watermelon and roll dice. I chose The Ghost Breakers to remember him, given that he was close to being half a comedic double act with Bob Hope in it, but he still had to deal with spook jokes and dialogue like, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ It was 1940, after all, only a year after Hattie McDaniel had become the first African American winner of an Academy Award for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Less well remembered is the fact that she was also the first African American nominee.

While that was a major step, it has to also be remembered that Georgia’s segregationist laws meant that she was barred from even attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta; Hollywood and America had a long way to go. It seems appropriate to mention here that Sidney Poitier was only thirteen at the time, because we tend to see him nowadays as the true beginning of progress, but that’s not entirely fair. He made his mark early in his career in No Way Out, playing a doctor who treats a pair of racist brothers, but that was in 1950; it was his second film and the first for which he received a credit. Yet a year earlier, another African American actor made his mark in a role that would have been perfect for Poitier; his name was James Edwards and he would have been a hundred years old today. What’s more, he does a fantastic job in a complex role and, in doing so, set the stage for Poitier and the big changes that we would see over the next couple of decades, if often through Poitier’s far more prominent performances.