Thursday 2 May 2024

I Bury the Living (1958)

Director: Albert Band Writer: Louis Garfinkle Stars: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel and Peggy Maurer

Index: 2024 Centennials.

Robert Kraft is the new chairman of the Management Committee of the Immortal Hills cemetery in Milford so Andy McKee, who’s been its caretaker for as long as anyone can remember, shows him around. Bob Kraft is Richard Boone, well known on TV in 1958 for his role in Medic, which landed him a 1955 Emmy nomination, but was becoming a bigger star through roles in westerns like The Tall T, Ten Wanted Men and Man without a Star, along with a new TV show for 1957 called Have Gun – Will Travel, in which he played a gentleman wandering the West as a gun for hire to help people in need. McKee, an old Scot with a thick accent whose retirement is one of Kraft’s first priorities, is Theodore Bikel, then a thirty-four year old Austrian Jew. He was born in Vienna but moved to what was then Mandatory Palestine (now Israel), learning acting there and later in London, to which he moved at twenty-one to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He racked up many European nationalities in movies. A Scot was just one more.

The easiest way to see I Bury the Living is as an unassociated feature length episode of The Twilight Zone, so it doesn’t hurt that Boone bore a resemblance to Rod Serling. He had similar rugged good looks, a similarly serious attitude and, of course, a similar suit given that Bob is also the president of the Kraft department store. The Kraft family run the town of Milford and Bob’s Uncle George, who was chairman two years prior, explains to him how they maintain their level of prestige. Every man in the family “served on every community project, board and committee that was ever created. They served for free but they did it for business.” So, even though Bob is busy with the store, he’s now going to have to dedicate a few hours a week to the cemetery. Given that most of the feature is set at Immortal Hills and we never see the store, you can imagine how well that doesn’t go for him. There’s a reason for that and it is inherently tied to the big board on the far wall of the cemetery’s office that McKee talks him through on that first fateful visit.

It’s a map of the cemetery, large enough to not only include all the curling roads through it but every single plot it contains. It has the impression of being lit up, but those aren’t light bulbs. They’re pins: black ones to indicate that a particular plot is occupied and white ones to show that it’s empty but has been paid for, by people like Stu Drexel’s father. Stu’s a friend of Bob’s and he drives up on his wedding day with his new bride, Elizabeth, because his father has gifted them a plot there. As they drive away, Bob puts two black pins into the map. Hey, it’s his first day and anyone can make a mistake like that, right? The point of the film manifests when Bob gets the call that Stu and Betsy are dead, he asks Andy McKee to change their pins from white to black and so realises that they already are. Bob sees these untimely deaths after his obvious mistake as eerie. Andy suggests that he “marked the young couple for death”. And, as you might imagine, they’re only the first of many as Louis Garfinkle’s script explores all the possibilities.

I Bury the Living is a lurid title for what appears to be a fifties horror B-movie and it misleads us into thinking that this is going to be a schlocky but enjoyable mess. It isn’t any of those things except enjoyable. It’s a Twilight Zone-esque episode of speculative fiction, horror sure but also fantasy and science fiction. The opening text, in lieu of a personal introduction à la Serling, says that “science has learned that man possesses powers which go beyond the boundaries of the natural”. Initially, we wonder if that cemetery map has been cursed or endowed with magical ability or some such, but we soon move onto Kraft himself. After all, this problem didn’t manifest under Henry Trowbridge’s tenure or Uncle George’s or any other Kraft going back down the years. It’s just him, so has he some sort of power and, if he does, how should he use it? We’re never given a cheesy explanation, like a wronged medium or a bad witchdoctor or a voodoo curse. It’s just coincidence until it’s too much to be coincidence, even after experimentation.

It’s this experimentation that endows the film with so much suspense. We fully expect that the deaths will keep on coming, but we side with Bob as he tries something new just to prove that it’s all coincidence and the streak will stop this time, only for it to not go down that way. For instance, Stu and Betsy’s deaths bug him, so he swaps a white pin for a black one entirely at random. When that man dies, he tries another not at all at random. That man dies too, so he doesn’t want to do it any more but the script manoeuvres him into more in clever ways that keep us guessing. Soon, whatever choice Bob makes is one made while he’s racked with potential guilt and beaded with sweat. The cemetery office isn’t a huge room but it becomes progressively more claustrophobic as the deaths mount up and some of the most pivotal scenes unfold with only Bob in that one room, frantically calling people to discover news of what he fears has happened after his latest change to the map. That’s good acting, good writing and good directing.

If everything I’ve said makes it seem like this is the Bob Kraft show, then I should point out that it is and it isn’t. Certainly Boone is given the pivotal role, in which we not only wonder whether he has some sort of supernatural power for reasons nobody, not least Bob himself, knows, but whether it’s going to drive him mad. This is a black and white film and we can’t help but compare it to the many black and white films of the forties and fifties that tackled madness as a means to instil suspense and horror, from Gaslight to a plethora of Alfred Hitchcock’s features, not to forget so many episodes of TV anthology shows like The Twilight Zone. Whatever is going on here, it’s centred on him, so those scenes of him alone in the cemetery office or in bed at night wondering who’s dead, or indeed running frantically between the graves after inevitably changing pins from black to white, just in case his apparent power over death extends to a similar power over life, are the focal points of the movie. Boone lives up to the challenge.

However, Bob isn’t the only character here and a bunch of others have important roles to play, even if his fiancée, Ann Craig, with depressing inevitability, fails to make that list. She’s there only to perk up proceedings on occasion and serve as moments of light in a movie that’s rapidly descending into deeper and deeper darkness. Bob also needs sounding boards like Jess Jessup, a reporter friend; an outlet for his conscience like Lt. Clayborne, the policeman to he whom reports his “crimes”; and a force above himself like the broader management committee that abides by majority rule. Of course, the first we see is Andy McKee and he’s a constant in the film, the chipping away of his chisel inscribing new headstones a 1958 equivalent of Poe’s telltale heart. Of course, we can’t fail to see that he has a crucial role in this story as it plays out, but we’re kept guessing as to how. Of course, there’s a reason why Andy is overdue for retirement even though Bikel was only thirty-four at the time, and there is, but it isn’t what we might think.

To find out the answers to these and other thrilling enigmas, you’ll have to watch this movie, which I’ve been recommending to as many people as I can ever since I first saw it on TCM Underground in 2007, when Rob Zombie was still presenting that nascent show. However, it’s a good thing that Andy is played by Theodore Bikel, who was born a hundred years ago today, because he was one of the most interesting people in show business and he always grounded his characters magnificently with perfect little touches that may not mean anything on their own but add up to admirably bring them to life. It’s probably fair to say that one of the impossible tasks he was given here was to always be there even when he wasn’t. He achieves that not only by floating around the background and chipping away at those headstones but by singing little songs to himself, precisely the sort of thing Andy would do, having been used to being his own company for the decades he’s taken care of Immortal Hills when nobody else is around.

That detail was hardly a stretch for Bikel in 1958, given that he’d become a recording artist in 1955 with Israeli Folk Songs and, only a year later, would co-found the Newport Folk Festival. Frankly, his career as a folk musician would be enough to prompt a Wikipedia page, even had he not done anything else in his life. He reportedly sang in twenty-one languages and was a pivotal part of the early American folk scene. He was close friends with Pete Seeger; mentored Judy Collins and Joan Baez; and championed Bob Dylan in his more controversial musical choices. He brought folk music to Los Angeles, opening its first couple of folk music coffee houses, and played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more often than any other actor, as early as 1969 and as late as a 2010 tour standing in for Topol, who had fallen ill. Then again, he knew Tevye well long before that, having played the character in Tevye the Milkman as a teenager in Tel Aviv. There are dozens of Theodore Bikel albums out there, whether sung or spoken word, even excluding collections.

Of course, many know him as an actor rather than a musician. He first played Tevye as an actor rather than a singer and he studied to be an actor, learning method acting in Tel Aviv, where he co-founded the Cameri Theatre, still one of the leading theatres in the state of Israel today, studying at RADA in London in the forties and moving to the United States in 1954 to seek roles in Hollywood and on Broadway. He was nominated for two Tonys, one for playing Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music during its original run on Broadway, but also performed opposite Vivian Leigh on the West End in A Streetcar Named Desire, having been recommended as understudy by Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1958, but for the film he made before this one, The Defiant Ones, in which he played a southern sheriff chasing Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. It’s a crapshoot as to which film you might know him best from, as he continued to deliver memorable supporting performances in a whole succession of titles.

From his earliest film performances, he started racking up nationalities. After all, he spoke nine languages and perfected accents like they were going out of style, so served as a screen chameleon for production companies on both sides of the Atlantic. He was an uncredited newspaper vendor in his first feature role, in 1951’s Island Rescue, but followed it up as a memorable German gunboat officer in The African Queen and the King of Serbia in Moulin Rouge, setting that trend in motion. He was German in Desperate Moment, French in A Day to Remember and Dutch in The Colditz Story; Spanish in The Vintage, Greek in The Angry Hills and inevitably Russian in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. Of course, he was also Israeli in Victory at Entebbe and Hungarian in two major roles: as the lead in Flight from Vienna and as an accent coach, Zoltan Karpathy, in My Fair Lady. The ability to play whatever nationality a movie called for was a key part of his success and few before or since have mastered that ability better than Theodore Bikel.

Later generations got to know him on television, starting out with a British TV movie version of The Cherry Orchard in 1947 in a cast that also included such diverse names as Robert Shaw, Wilfrid Brimbell and Sebastian Cabot. It didn’t matter the genre: he could be as at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone as Charlie’s Angels, Wagon Train, All in the Family, Combat!, Mission: Impossible, Dynasty and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Talking of science fiction, he memorably played a rabbi on Babylon 5, bringing Judaism into the 23rd century. Others knew him from his political activism, which led to a wide variety of noteworthy moments, as well as many official positions in acting related organisations. He co-founded the Actors Federal Union in 1962 and served five years as president of the actors’ union, Equity, later also acting as president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. The media focused a lot more, of course, on his arrest in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1986, at which he was protesting the plight of Soviet Jews.

Crucially, he pursued each of these careers simultaneously, which occasionally led to surprising conflicts. During his Broadway run in The Sound of Music, he actively campaigned for John F. Kennedy’s campaign to become president, often leaving the theatre after a matinee to speak at a rally, then returning for the evening performance. The producers were not impressed, but apparently gave in after he was picked up backstage by Eleanor Roosevelt’s limousine so that he could be her special guest at a particular rally. At that point, free publicity surely had to trump whether it could be seen as unbecoming for an actor to dabble in politics. He even served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention when he was supporting Eugene McCarthy for president, the same year he made a guest appearance in Mission: Impossible (as Casimir Zepke, a wannabe dictator of an unnamed country), issued Theodore Bikel is Tevye on Elektra Records and acted in the Hollywood romcom Sweet November alongside Sandy Dennis and Anthony Newley.

It might surprise that Bikel had time for a personal life, but he was married four times over seventy years, though tellingly forty of those were to Rita Weinberg Call, who’s remembered to posterity only for being Bikel’s second wife. Maybe she was an escape from everything else. His first wife was an Israeli documentarian, Ofra Ichilov; his third was an American conductor, Tamara Brooks; and his fourth was Aimee Ginsburg, an American Israeli author, journalist, broadcaster and activist, though he was eighty-nine in 2013 when they married and only lived two more years. However, she’s continuing his work in activism as the director of the Theodore Bikel Legacy Project, which aims to adhere to his principles of tikkun olam, a concept in Judaism that refers nowadays to repairing and improving the world, a broad concept that trawls in direct service, social justice and philanthropy. It seems appropriate that a man who never stopped during his life has a legacy living on after his death. We don’t need to switch his black pin for white.

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