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.

Sunday 13 January 2019

House of Bamboo (1955)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Writer: Harry Kleiner with additional dialogue by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi and Cameron Mitchell

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I’ve reviewed House of Bamboo before, but that was a decade ago and I felt that Robert Stack’s centennial was a good opportunity for me to revisit because I wasn’t as impressed with either his performance or the film as a whole as I expected to be. I enjoyed it much more second time through and I found additional appreciation by following up with the film that inspired it, 1948’s The Street with No Name. That was an old school film noir, shot in 4:3 and in black and white, with an overt message: that the FBI are damn good at what they do and they’re not happy about the return of organised gangsterism. I didn’t even know that “gangsterism” was a word, but, when it’s brought to life by a young Richard Widmark, it’s clearly something to be taken seriously! Two members of that film’s crew revisited it seven years later to reinterpret their work in rather different ways. That’s writer Harry Kleiner, who adapted his basic story to post-war Japan, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who expanded his vision into colour and widescreen.

Watching the two movies in succession is a real eye-opener. Kleiner didn’t merely change the names and locations in his story so it would praise the Japanese equivalent of the FBI instead; he reworked it completely to fit a new time and place and restructured the aspects that didn’t gel; the part played here by Shirley Yamaguchi, for instance, couldn’t be more different to the equivalent played by Barbara Lawrence in The Street with No Name. That it’s a better part is beside the point; what’s important is that it’s a much more appropriate part given the other changes made. MacDonald’s work benefits from technical differences. I’d call out his composition of frame and use of light and shadow in the earlier film, but this is something else entirely. House of Bamboo was shot in colour and in CinemaScope, which meant that MacDonald had fully twice as much screen to fill. He did so magnificently, with what critic Keith Uhlich correctly described in Slant as “some of the most stunning examples of widescreen photography in the history of cinema.”

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Noose (1948)

Director: Edmond T. Gréville
Writer: Richard Llewellyn, based on his play of the same name
Stars: Carole Landis, Derek Farr and Joseph Calleia

Index: 2019 Centennials.

Frances Lillian Mary Ridste, better known as Carole Landis, would have been one hundred years old today but, unlike a surprisingly high percentage of those I’ve been covering for my centennial reviews, she didn’t even come close: she committed suicide in 1948, shortly after completing her two final films in the UK. This was the first, released in September, a couple of months after her death in July; the other was The Brass Monkey, which came out in December. She crammed a great deal into her short life, though, starting out her show business career as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub at the age of fifteen, hired only becuse the manager felt sorry for her. After all, she was the youngest of five children, whose father left after her birth, and her mother worked menial jobs to make ends meet. So, after she’d saved a hundred bucks doing her hula dance at the Royal Hawaiian or singing with a dance band, she changed her name to Carole Landis and moved to Hollywood. Carole was an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard.

By the time she made her screen debut, in Gold Diggers of 1937 at the age of only seventeen, she’d already been married twice, to the same gentleman, Irving Wheeler, who had still already become history. The first wedding was in January 1934, when she was only fifteen and Wheeler nineteen, but her mother had it annulled a month later. After gaining permission from her absent father, who lived nearby, they were re-married in August, only for Carole to promptly walk out after three weeks. By the time she began a film career, that whole relationship was over, though neither filed for divorce and Wheeler re-emerged four years later with a $250,000 lawsuit against Busby Berkeley for alienation of affection. His wife had moved up in the world pretty quickly. Relationships weren’t a strong point though. Berkeley did propose but they never married. She did marry Willis Hunt, Jr., a yacht broker, in 1940 but left after two months. Her fourth and fifth marriages, to Capt. Thomas Wallace and W. Horace Schmidlapp, lasted under two years.