Friday 21 January 2022

The Train (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and Walter Bernstein, based on the book Le front de l’art by Rose Valland
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield and Jeanne Moreau

Index: 2022 Centennials.

Telly Savalas wasn’t the only important name in film to be born on 21st January, 1922, because Paul Scofield also found his way into the world, albeit on the other side of the pond in Birmingham, England. Savalas is the bigger star, because we’ve probably all seen a few of his films and his bald head made him in an instantly recognisable figure. Scofield dedicated most of his career to the theatre, having discovered Shakespeare at Varndean School in Brighton at the age of twelve, but he reached pinnacles in acting that are the envy of every classical actor. For instance, a poll of Royal Shakespeare Company actors in 2004 decreed his King Lear as the greatest Shakespearean performance of all time, potentially a greater honour to him than his triple crown of Oscar, Emmy and Tony, which he achieved in a record span of only seven years. His Tony and Oscar were both for A Man for All Seasons, the latter ahead of Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Michael Caine as Alfie. His Emmy was for Male of the Species, an NBC TV movie.

The Train was the last feature that Scofield made before A Man for All Seasons, after only two in the fifties: That Lady in 1955, in which he played King Philip II of Spain, stuck in a love triangle with Gilbert Roland for the attentions of Olivia de Havilland; and Carve Her Name with Pride, the 1958 biopic of Violette Szabo, a valiant British spy working undercover in France, though his role was fictitious, a blend of many of her male colleagues. Similarly, The Train is based on real events during World War II, but I believe that Scofield’s role, as Colonel Franz von Waldheim of the Luftwaffe, was made up for the movie. It’s an unusual role, but then it’s also a highly unusual feature, given that it wears the clothes of an action movie and wears them well; is, of course, a war movie too; but is at heart a brutal character drama. What’s stayed with me the most about The Train isn’t the train at all, but what it means to three characters: von Waldheim, a Nazi art lover; Paul Labiche, an agent of the French Resistance; and Christine, a simple café owner.

Lisa and the Devil (1974)

Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone
Stars: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Silva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinti, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Franz von Treuberg and Alida Valli

Index: 2022 Centennials.

In some ways, Guy Madison and Telly Savalas, born only two days apart, had similar careers. Both were best known for a television role that kept them busy for multiple seasons, but both had racked up plenty of credits on the big screen before that and had many more to come after, a majority of them in leading roles across a whole slew of genres and a three and a half decade span. There are differences too, of course, the most obvious being that Savalas landed much more prominent films than Madison but also that they started no fewer than seventeen years later. Madison’s first credit was in 1944 and his last in 1979; Savalas didn’t arrive on that big screen until 1961 but he stayed there until 1995, even though he had died a year earlier. One other similarity is that there’s just so much for me to choose from in their filmographies, but I’m not unhappy with my choices. This one is a dreamlike (or nightmarish) horror movie from 1974, an Italian, West German and Spanish co-production but shot and originally released in Spain.

One reason I chose it is because I’ve reviewed other likely candidates for other people or have them slated for other projects, while this one was directed and co-written by the incomparable Mario Bava, one of those directors whose name guarantees that a film is going to be interesting at the very least and likely more. This one is certainly interesting, shot with a haunting eye and told in such a way that we’re never quite sure what’s real. It may be that nothing is real and the entire film is a daydream generated in the very first scene, or maybe the second. A whole discussion could be had about which, if any, moments are spent in our reality. Whatever the correct answer to that unanswerable question is, it’s probably fair to say that at least the majority of the picture is the product of Lisa Reiner’s imagination, whether aided or not, and she’s played by the delightful Elke Sommer, who had starred in Baron Blood for Bava in 1972 but who I remember for comedy in Carry On Behind and as a joyous foil to Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark.

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Reprisal! (1956)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: David P. Harmon, Raphael Hayes and David Dortort, based on the novel Reprisal by Arthur Gordon
Stars: Guy Madison, Felicia Farr and Kathryn Grant

Regular readers of my centennial reviews may be shocked to discover that I’m opening up 2022 not with Betty White but with Guy Madison. Sure, Betty was a beloved household name who’s still generating falling petals on searches for her name in Google three weeks after her death on New Years’ Eve of last year. She came within a breath of celebrating her hundredth birthday with us, but she went out as she lived: entirely on her own terms. Hey, 99 and a lot really counts as 100 if you count the leap days, or so memes would have it, but that’s nonsense. I’m 133 and going strong if you count in dog years but nobody gives a monkey’s. Anyway, Betty White did surprisingly little on film for such a prolific television actress, her most prominent role arguably being the contrary old cuss in Lake Placid, not enough to warrant me covering it as a centennial review. So, let’s kick off 1922 with Guy Madison, who was more prolific as a lead on film, as well as on television and radio, prompting a couple of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Even though he was never an A list star, there was plenty of choice for me in what to review. I could have gone for his debut, Since You Went Away in 1944, which prompted thousands of letters from fans seeking information on who he was, even though he was a bit part sailor with only a few minutes of screen time. RKO lent him out to William Castle for Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven, before his initial round of fame as the title character in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which ran for eight seasons on TV from 1951 to 1958 and on radio from 1951 to 1956. He never stopped making features, though, and a few leap out for attention in varied genres: The Charge at Feather River, a western shot in 3D; On the Threshold of Space, not the sci-fi flick it might seem but a drama about test pilots with an unusual première on an air force base; and a weird western shot in Mexico called The Beast of Hollow Mountain. He’d later gain success in Italy, starring in an array of peplum epics, spaghetti westerns and what are now called macaroni combat films.