Saturday, 16 May 2020

Hell is Empty (1967)


Director: John Ainsworth
Writers: John Ainsworth, from screenplays by George Fowler and Bernard Knowles, each in turn based on the novel Hell is Empty by J. F. Straker
Stars: Martine Carol, James Robertson Justice, Shirley-Anne Field and Carl Möhner



Index: 2020 Centennials.

Given that I’m watching and reviewing Hell is Empty for Martine Carol, born a hundred years ago today in Saint-Mandé, a high end department of the Île-de-France, it seems appropriate to remember her through this movie, produced by her last husband, because it’s quintessentially European. It isn’t just that it’s a British film shot in Prague, then in Czechoslovakia. It isn’t just that it has a set of European actors in prominent roles, like the Italian Isa Miranda and the Austrian Carl Möhner, or that they speak fluent English with accents that betray that it isn’t their first language. It isn’t just that there are two members of European nobility in the cast: Baroness Irene von Meyendorff was born in Tallinn, now the Estonian capital but then in Russia, while Catherine Schell, daughter of a Hungarian baron, is from Budapest. Ironically, the former was the most popular Nazi pinup girl while the latter’s family estates were confiscated by those same Nazis. It’s also that the film isn’t commercially available, so I found myself watching a dubious VHS rip with hardcoded Finnish subtitles. Needs must.

It’s not a good film but it is an interesting one, not least because it either had no idea what it wanted to be or because it aimed to be everything. I haven’t read the 1958 source novel by J. F. Straker, a maths teacher by profession, but he claimed to create books by outlining their beginnings and ends, then letting the middles flesh out as he wrote. That might explain why this picture, adapted from a pair of different screenplays, is so open to anything. At heart it’s a thriller but it also spends time as a courtroom drama, a heist flick, a polite mystery, a hospital drama and even a dubious romance during which the telling words “Stockholm Syndrome” aren’t ever mentioned. It isn’t even sure who to treat as the most important characters. The young crook who serves as our initial focus loses it pretty quickly. The romance angle hinted at early on is forgotten for most of the film. Martine Carol may be top billed and she may receive the most opportunities, but she’s hardly the lead. Characters come and go, their importance always unknown.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Sorcerer (1977)


Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Walon Green, based on the novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud
Stars: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Amidou and Ramon Bieri


Index: 2020 Centennials.

The birth of the modern blockbuster can generally be dated to 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 464 theatres at once, becoming the hit of the summer and the highest grossing film of all time up to that point. Readers in 2020 might be surprised that such an approach was a big deal, as it’s utterly standard today, but, before Jaws, wide releases like that were generally associated with exploitation movies of, shall we say, dubious quality, that needed to make money quickly before word of mouth killed them. Jaws wasn’t the first, as some James Bond films, among others, had seen wide release, but it was the turning point after which the industry changed and it became the norm. William Friedkin, who had directed a proto-blockbuster in 1973 in The Exorcist, missed out on this change, as that film opened in a mere 24 theatres, gradually expanding nationwide. However, he was right there when the next big change happened and it’s why Sorcerer isn’t particularly well known today outside certain circles of film fans.

It opened theatrically on 24th June, 1977. It was budgeted at $15m but had cost over $21m to make so, adding in marketing, it had to make at least double that to break even. It didn’t by a long shot, eventually earning less than $6m in the US, a number that only expanded to $9m worldwide. It was a huge flop. There are many reasons why, from the misleading title that led many to believe it was another supernatural film, like The Exorcist, to the fact that it takes sixteen minutes to hear a word spoken in English, However, the biggest reason is surely that it arrived in the wake of a phenomenon: Star Wars. Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, which had premièred Star Wars less than a month earlier, was still showing it to huge crowds, so had no wish to replace it with Sorcerer. They had to, because of contracts, but when Sorcerer failed dismally, Star Wars promptly returned and the audiences returned with it. Suddenly, Sorcerer seemed like a silent movie after the advent of sound, or a black and white movie in an age of colour.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Nights of Cabiria (1957)


Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli
Stars: Giulietta Masina, François Périer, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Aldo Silvani, Mario Passante, Ennio Girolami, Christian Tassou and Amedeo Nazzari


Index: 2020 Centennials.

If 1939 is indeed Hollywood’s Golden Year, as has been so often suggested by critics, then 1957 has a pretty good claim for being the equivalent for world cinema. It’s the year in which Ingmar Bergman released both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, probably the double whammy of all time, and Akira Kurosawa released both Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths. Mikheil Kaltozishvili’s The Cranes are Flying won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The UK produced both Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon and the year’s biggest hit, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. Even the US contributed movies which could easily be seen as world films rather than typical Hollywood fare: Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. In such company, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar went to Italy (and director Federico Fellini) for a second time. Nights of Cabiria followed La Strada, supposedly nudging out Mother India by a single vote. Before Fellini, it wasn’t a category but a special award.

And I’m not going to argue with that. It’s a film not easily forgotten. Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that the final shot of Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria is more valuable than “all the fire-breathing blockbusters Hollywood has to offer” and we have two hours of cinematic magic in which we can revel before we get to that point, if we include the seven minute “man with the sack” segment which had been removed after the film premièred at Cannes. Film legend tells us that this was due to censors bowing to pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, but producer Dino de Laurentiis later owned up to stealing that scene from the negative himself because, in his opinion, it slowed down the film. It doesn’t and it offers a valuable contrast to other sections of the picture. To me, it would seem unbalanced without it and, fortunately enough, I’m reviewing it today for Fellini’s centenary because it’s one of only a few of his films that I’ve never got round to watching, so I’ve still never seen it without the “man with the sack”.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963)


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


Index: 2020 Centennials.

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


Index: 2020 Centennials.

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


Index: 2020 Centennials.

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


Index: 2020 Centennials.

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.