A Comic Genius!

Louis Mazzini:  “As in an old Italian proverb:  revenge is the dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold.”  [Dennis Price, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949)]

For this month’s Blog Post I’m going to do something a little different.  It will pertain to a term that we have all heard of, applied as a label to, and seen exhibited by, a select few in different ways.  That term is “Genius.”  As defined, it can mean:

  • Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability, or…
  • A person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.

When you think of the term do you immediately think of individuals like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs, or artistic greats like Rembrandt, Beethoven, and Boxcar Willie… (No, I have not gone off the deep end!  That last one was just to see if you were starting to fall asleep yet!).  Since this Blog delves into film, television, etc. along with the various individuals involved both in front of and behind the camera, who would you categorize as being an artistic genius in the visual arts?  Better yet, how about say, we limit it to just, actors!  Maybe you might say, “Lawrence Olivier.”  Maybe you might say, “Marlon Brando.”  Or maybe you just might say, “Meryl Streep” too!  The names and the opinions on this subject can go on and on.  However, one thing that cannot go, on and on, is my not explicitly saying what this month’s post will be about.  Hence, I will explain what it is in further detail.

This month I am going to talk about a specific actor who is well known to older Farts like myself, and maybe to younger ones too, specifically, for one immensely popular motion picture that he made when he was older.  Unfortunately, this person has been dead for over twenty years now, but honestly, he was a truly great actor who could easily fit into the “Genius” discussion very well.  However, it might not be so well known, even to my fellow contemporaries, that this individual was an incredibly gifted and great comic actor, one who I have always felt was a comic genius who did a series of remarkable comedy performances, one after the other during a select period of time in a number of motion pictures that, unfortunately, have been shown, too infrequently now, if at all.  Why he has not been better remembered for his comedy performances might have been due more to his acclaimed dramatic performances during the middle, and the later portion of his career.  That is what this month’s post will be all about!  I will discuss his comedy films along with his performances in them during a brief eight-year period to make my case, and to hopefully see if you will concur.

Over the years it has been disputed that Oscar winning veteran character actor Edmund Gwenn, who played Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, actually said, while on his deathbed that, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard!”  However, similar words to that effect have been said by other actors throughout the years.  Also, many individuals in the acting profession have readily admitted that comic actors are usually better able to play serious dramatic roles simply because it was actually easier for them to do drama rather than to act in a comedy.  Marlon Brando, for example, desperately wanted to do more comedy roles in his career, but for some of the ones that he actually did do such as, “The Teahouse of the August Moon” (1956) and “Bedtime Story” (1964), his comic acting was seriously panned.  However, as a quick aside, regarding “Bedtime Story,” repeat my mantra: “The Critics are full of Shit!”  Brando gave a hysterical performance and “Story” was a very funny comedy.  See it!  And now, back to the Blog Post!

In any case, before you start screaming, “Who is the actor that I am referring to already?” I will finally tell you.  It is…

Alec Guinness!  

Yep!  Good old Obi-Wan Kenobi for all of you younger folks who watched way too many different versions of “Star Wars,” Alec Guinness!  Guinness made a bunch of great comedies from the period of 1949 all the way up to 1957.  Let’s start with his first really great comedy performance in 1949.  Guinness, who was already a film actor of note due to his prior dramatic performances in two adaptions, both directed by David Lean, of the Charles Dickens Novels’ “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948) had the good fortune at age 34, to finally latch onto an acting role in a film that would make him a star.  Ops!  Did I say a role?  That’s the singular!  I should have used the plural and said, “roles” as in more than one.  How many you ask?  How about nine as in nine different characters both male and female.  The film was the dark Victorian comedy classic, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) which was about Louis D’Ascovne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the son of a woman disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying out of her social class and who, after her death, vows to kill all of the family members (who were played by Guinness) ahead of himself in the line of succession to take the title of duke and the dukedom.  Even though Guinness did not have the main role and was only originally supposed to play four roles, he thought that the screenplay was so funny he beseeched Ealing Studios to let him play all eight roles (he ultimately wound up playing nine in all).  Although a number of the roles were brief or short, he still made every one unique and different while capturing the overall dark humor of their demise by the villainous Mazzini.  He took to playing all the different roles very seriously, so much so that quickly transferring from one character to another but keeping in character and not mixing them up was a real challenge.  However, he pulled it off, and the end result was comedy perfection.

His next great comic performance, but this one more of a drama highlighted with comedy and, ultimately, tragedy was the film, “Last Holiday” (1950).  Here Guinness played George Bird, an older, plain, unassuming, lower-class salesman of agricultural implements who, after having a routine physical, is told that he has an incurable illness that will kill him in a matter of weeks.  Being a long-time bachelor with no family or friends, George decides to take his meager savings and enjoy his remaining time at a high-end hotel populated with an affluent crowd.  Sporting a phony refined upper-class accent and acquiring, by chance, two suitcases loaded with a high-end wardrobe from a used clothing store he settles into the hotel with everyone believing him to be a wealthy gentleman.  From that point on, his life completely changes because his unassuming attitude of treating everyone he meets decently attracts everyone to him like a magnet.  Now he has friends, is respected and even has possibilities at romance and business success just from his own decency and new willingness to live life to the fullest.  Unfortunately, fate has other plans for George.  This was Guinness’s first real lead role in a film and he is alternatively amusing and ultimately heartbreaking in the role.  His reactions to the changes in his life are so believable that it’s like you honestly feel these changes right along with him.  By the time the final ironic twist in the film occurs, I dare anyone to not be emotionally moved by Guinness’s touching and gentle performance.  

In 1951, Guinness did two more great comedies for, once again, Ealing Studios and which brought him further international fame.  The first one was the wildly comic “The Lavender Hill Mob.”  In “Mob,” Guinness gave another chameleon-like performance as Henry Holland, a meek looking bespectacled and nerdish middle-aged London bank clerk in charge of gold bullion deliveries for over 20 years.  Holland, who wants to retire in luxury, hatches a plan to steal a load of bullion and have his new friend, Alfred (Stanley Holloway), who owns a nearby foundry, melt the bullion down and make them into Eiffel Tower paperweights for smuggling into France.  Of course, the plan first succeeds but when a few of the paperweights are accidently sold to some schoolchildren, the race is on for the two of them to get the paperweights back before the authorities find out.  Here, Guinness is a pure comic delight wearing a bowler hat along with his meek face lighting up like a little delighted child as his manipulations unfold.  His animated reactions are almost like seeing a cartoon character in human form.  “Mob” earned Guinness his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and it did win writer T.E.B. Clarke the Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.  However, for that year he wasn’t finished yet.  Next came his second hit, the satirical science fiction film comedy (Yep, you heard that one right!), “The Man in the White Suit.”

For “Suit” he played Sidney Stratton, a brilliant, young (and even with a full head of hair, too) research chemist obsessed with inventing an everlasting cloth-like fiber.  While working as just a mill worker, he accidentally becomes an unpaid researcher and ultimately succeeds in his goal of inventing an incredibly strong cloth-like material that repels dirt and never wears out.  However, when a suit is quickly made from the material it turns out to be of a brilliant white color because the material cannot absorb dye along with it being slightly luminous because it contains some radioactive elements.  Although Stratton states that it is not something that cannot be solved, he soon has an even bigger problem that may never be solved.  Namely, once the average consumer purchases enough of the new fabric, the entire textile industry will be effectively put out of business.  Now both labor and management team up to try and stop him even going so far as to temporarily kidnap him to force Sidney to sign away the rights to his new textile invention.  Here Guinness’s character is a youthful mix of intelligence, ambition, and naivety with his obsessive enthusiasm making himself blind to the possible real-world effects of his new invention.  Yet he is so down to earth and, at times, awkwardly likeable that you just can’t keep from rooting for him.  His performance is especially helped by the fine Oscar nominated screenplay and by the ever-underrated actress Joan Greenwood who had maybe the smokiest, and sexiest sounding voice of any actress ever alive as Daphine, the Mill owner’s daughter who at first tries to entice Sidney into signing the rights away but, enchanted by his earnestness, becomes both his ally and romantic interest instead.  They have great chemistry together, and their film scenes as a couple are maybe, the best thing in the whole movie.  Here Guinness showed a romantic side that was never displayed before and it helped to make “The Man in the White Suit” a great film.

Three of the four Guinness films that I just profiled here (excluding “Last Holiday”) were under the auspices of Ealing Studios who made great British comedies.  However, Guinness was such a fine actor that he could give great comedy performances even for films that were not made under Ealing.  This was apparent for the next two films that I want to mention.  The first one was for the 1952 film, “The Card” (AKA “The Promoter”).  Guinness played the character of Denry Machin, the son of a poor washerwoman in turn of the century England who, despite what he lacked in wealth and social standing, he more than made up for in ambition, drive, and determination backed by an eternal optimism along with a little conniving guile. The movie charted his rise to wealth and success including ultimately finding love along the way.  This was basically an old fashioned “feel good” cute movie where the humor was more restrained.  However, it was also a film where you could still find yourself smiling right along with the perpetually smiling Denry.  In Denry, Guinness played someone decidedly younger than his current age of 38 back then.  However, despite that, he maybe, never had a more charming or romantic a role with such fine actresses as Valerie Hobson, Glynis Johns, and a young, enchanting Petula Clark playing the ladies beguiled by a man who was literally “A Card”, or namely, someone who was truly regarded as a character, but who was always amusing and never dull.  An altogether lighter, yet subtler fine comedy performance by Guinness.  

The second comedy film that Guinness made outside of Ealing Studios was “The Captain’s Paradise” (1953) which was made the following year.  This one was a straight, satirical, ”sex farce” with Guinness as Captain Henry St. James, the owner and captain of a small passenger ship ferrying individuals to and from Gibraltar and the North African port of Kalique.  Oh, and he is also a bigamist too with his domestic wife Maud (Celia Johnson) and their two children in Gibraltar, and his hot-blooded, passionate wife Nita (Yvonne De Carlo) in Kalique.  Here his character is a far different type of romantic lead than the one he played in “The Card.”  His St. James is someone a little older than Denry, but with a more rakish type of charm then the innocent Denry, and Guinness plays him as someone oozing with Devilish mischief behind the façade of a quiet, sober, early to bed family man with one wife, and as a wild, loud, nightlife loving hedonist with the other.  This role also gave Guinness the opportunity to play someone with two completely different personas, and his over-the-top performance in both roles is a riot.  Some of his facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission.  Although he was not usually known for his physical humor, Guinness had the ability to do it (in real life he was a yoga practitioner), and here, he demonstrated it in hilarious fashion in a wild late night dance number with De Carlo.  In “The Captain’s Paradise”, Guinness is just plain, laugh out loud funny!

The last two Guinness comedy performances that I want to highlight are films with Guinness back, once again, under the umbrella of the Ealing Studios.  The first film was the black comedy classic, “The Ladykillers” (1955).  This one was another different sort of Guinness performance. “Ladykillers” was an ensemble comedy headlined by Guinness playing sinister Professor Marcus, a more than a little mentally cracked criminal semi-mastermind.  Our professor has assembled a gang to execute a sophisticated bank van robbery at London King’s Cross railway station. The professor and the other members of the gang consisting of Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Danny Green, and Peter Sellers (in his first major role), rent rooms pretending to be musicians needing a place to practice while actually coordinating their plan for the robbery.  Their plan ultimately succeeds, but there’s just one little problem (I know you are saying…” Not that one little problem thing again!”), the little old landlady (Katie Johnson) later catches them with the van money and wants to tell the police.  From that moment on, all comedy Hell starts to break out!  

For this film, Guinness didn’t have to carry the comedy high jinks all by himself.  Every member of his gang, along with Johnson, had their own comic moments to shine.  Also, Guinness’s character of Professor Marcus was originally written for the great veteran comedy character actor Alastair Sim, but when Sim was not available, Guinness got the role.  Hence, Guinness decided to play the Marcus character in the humorous but sinister style that Sim was well known for even having himself altered by makeup to have a marked resemblance to Sim.  His appearance was of someone with disheveled white hair, oversized teeth, and an almost ghoulish bewildered look all the time.  Despite Guinness being thinner than the hulking Sim, it was an almost perfect impression of the actor. Guinness is hysterical in the role playing the creepy Marcus with a horrible grin and a horrible laugh while doing little physical things like his manic tugging on the scarf around his neck after Johnson steps on it while it is hanging down on the floor showing his growing frustration with all of his carefully laid plans starting to fall apart due to the sweet, befuddled, Johnson.  Guinness, who was always very insecure about his talent, originally thought that he was too old for the part, if you can believe it!  He needn’t have worried.  “The Ladykillers” is a classic!  

The last great Guinness comedy performance during this period was for the Ealing Studios film, “Barnacle Bill” (AKA “All at Sea”) in 1957.  He played Captain William Ambrose, a retired Royal Navy Captain coming from a long line of distinguished naval ancestors, but who, unfortunately, suffers from intense debilitating seasickness which keeps him on land during his naval service just testing different cures for his malady to no avail.  Now, still missing being in charge of something approximating a naval command, he decides to purchase a dilapidated Victorian era amusement pier, fix it up, run its operation like a ship while installing a dance hall, a place to drink, and a sort of refuge for those who would like to be on something approaching a sea cruise but still have the safety of land.  Of course, he soon runs into conflict from the local town council who want to see him fail so they can just condemn the pier and tear it down.  This was a lightweight comedy that Guinness only did as a favor for the Director, and upon its completion, he thought that overall, it wasn’t very good.  However, “Bill” still had many virtues.  First, the screenplay was again written by T.E.B. Clarke, who previously wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for “The Lavender Hill Mob”.  Second, the film gave Guinness the opportunity to play six of his various naval ancestors in a couple of hilarious sequences incorporating everything from being a caveman in a rudimentary sort of boat to his father’s semi-comic demise during the World War I Battle of Jutland.  Third, he played Ambrose in a completely straight, serious manner which made him even funnier in how he constantly has to deal with all of the many problems that arise from being a naval commander of a pier.  Fourth, he had the opportunity to do some great physical comedy, once again, when our strait-laced Captain breaks into some serious boogieing on the dance floor with a much younger babe while maintaining a wild silly grin on his face.  Maybe Guinness didn’t like the film, but his wonderful comic performance still managed to keep the whole Darn thing afloat!     

Well, now at this point, Dear Reader, I am concluding this Blog Post chronicling Alec Guinness’s great comedy film roles.  The reason I’m choosing to do so is because, in 1957 after Guinness also won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the great, Best Picture Oscar winner that year, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (and which is on my “Top Ten” Movie List of all time), things seemed to change.  Ealing Studios was bought by the BBC in 1955, and although films under their name like “Bill” were still being made up to 1957, the great comedy writers, directors, and actors like Guinness, moved on to doing different things.  Although Guinness still continued to give other great comedy performances for a few years after in films such as “The Horse’s Mouth” (1958) and “Our Man in Havana” (1959), he increasingly did far more drama than comedy.  It also didn’t help that, in his later years his comedy films were not very good, and his performances in them were nowhere near as memorable.  Maybe his film performances in those films didn’t ignite the same fire and artistic comic creativity he had when he was younger.  Maybe other great comic actors, like Peter Sellers (who idolized Guinness), and could also play multiple characters in films now got the prime comic roles instead of him in the nineteen sixties and the seventies.   Who knows?  All I do know is that, for a brief eight-year period, never has anyone done so many varied and fine comedy performances as Alec Guinness did, and all the while still being a great dramatic actor too!

Whether you want to agree with me or not that Alec Guinness was a “comic genius”, I hope that you will at least agree with me that he was a great actor, period!  

 

NLP

 


Paranoia will Destroy Ya!

Elliot:  “Hello friend.  Hello friend?  That’s lame.  Maybe I should give you a name.  But That’s a slippery slope, you’re only in my head, we have to remember that.  Shit, this actually happened, I’m talking to an imaginary person.  What I’m about to tell you is top secret.  A conspiracy bigger than all of us.  There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world.  I’m talking about the guys no one knows about, the ones that are invisible.  The top 1% of the top 1%, the guys that play God without permission.  And now I think they are following me.” [Rami Malek talking to Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”]

Don’t you feel sometimes that life is just not fair!  Maybe you feel that you are not recognized for the work you do.  Maybe you feel like you never get a fair break!  Maybe you feel like you are constantly harassed or disrespected!  Even worse, maybe you feel that you cannot truly trust anyone or that those around you wish to betray you or to do you harm!  Well, if that’s the case, then Dear Reader maybe you are suffering from a case of Paranoia!  According to Marriam-Webster’s Dictionary, paranoia is defined as:

  • Mental illness characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations or…
  • A tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others!

However, like the old expression that you have either read somewhere or seen on a popular T Shirt or two saying,” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!” maybe, just maybe, you might not be necessarily mentally ill, but actually, right after all!  Paranoia as an essential part of a storyline for films and Network TV or cable has been a popular one for a long time.  This month’s Blog Post will discuss paranoia in these mediums, and how it has been utilized in varied and unusual ways.

Two movies where paranoia was an important part of a storyline are the RKO Pictures films’ “The Fallen Sparrow” (1943) and “Cat People” (1942).  The espionage themed “Sparrow” starred John Garfield as Kit, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was brutally tortured by the Nazis for two years for vital information until he was rescued by his lifelong friend Louie.  While recovering in Arizona his convalescence ends when he finds out that Louie, now a NYPD lieutenant, died in a mysterious fall from a Park Avenue high rise apartment window during a party hosted by Kit’s former girlfriend.  Now Kit, still physically and psychologically frail, heads to New York to investigate Louie’s death, and to see if it was tied into their experiences in Spain.  During his investigation, Kit also starts to suspect that the Nazis are still after him.  “Sparrow” was adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes who crafted literary works teaming with paranoia (“In a Lonely Place”, etc.).  Despite undistinguished direction by journeyman director Richard Wallace this movie is note-worthy due to the incredible dark shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca which captures the slow creeping fear and paranoia all around Garfield along with good performances by Patricia Morrison as Kit’s former girlfriend (or maybe not) along with Maureen O’Hara as Kit’s possible new love interest (or maybe not), and Walter Slezak as a wheelchair bound Norwegian intellectual (or also, maybe not) as fellow guests at the party the night Louie died.  While this is not one of Garfield’s more memorable performances, he still is very believable as an unlikely hero who is unsure, mentally fragile, and full of self-doubt.

As a different type of paranoia, the horror film, “Cat People” was the first film made by Producer Val Lewton.  Made for only $150,000 and completed in just 18 days, it starred Simone Simon as Irena, a Serbian-born illustrator in New York City who, when catching the eye of Oliver (Kent Smith) they meet cute, and after a brief romance he asks her to marry him despite her protests and fears.  What protests and fears you may ask?  Oh, nothing much!  Just that she believes that she is descended from the legendary satanic “Cat People” from her region in Serbia and that she can turn into a murderous panther if aroused by passion (I think she means SEX, Oliver).  Well, although that one sure beats the Hell out of being stuck with your intended bride’s “Battle Ax” mother-in-law by a country mile, does our Oliver decide to call off the engagement?  Ah, No!  So of course, they marry, there is no consummation of the marriage, and Oliver starts paying attention to his enticing assistant Alice (Oliver, I think she’s thinking about SEX too, you dumb F**k!).  In the meantime, Irena is being treated by her pompous and lecherous shrink, Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) who insists that her fears are all just psychological while seeing if Irena might be more interested in being physically, rather than psychoanalytically, probed on Dr. Judd’s couch.  Soon Dr. Judd will discover that he should have invested in some extra medical coverage along with having a spare whip and chair handy for the next time Irena starts getting aroused!

“Cat People” was loaded with all kinds of uneasy moments like when various animals start reacting in terror to Irena’s mere presence when entering a pet store or visiting a zoo.  However, she wasn’t the only one exhibiting paranoia.  Underrated Director, Jacques Tourneur assisted, once again, by Nicholas Musuraca’s great cinematography helped to create a visual atmosphere of increasing unease and dread with Alice, Dr. Judd, and finally, Oliver (It’s about time!) realizing that Irena’s supernatural beliefs are not psychological, but menacingly real.  Amazingly, for Puritanical America at that time, this film slid by the censors despite its veiled hints at a woman’s sexual frigidity, the suppressed sexual yearnings of different individuals like Alice and Oliver, and even possible hints at lesbianism like a scene at a Serbian restaurant where a mysterious semi-androgynous cat-like woman walks over to Irena and addresses her as mova sestra (“my sister”).  This movie, along with other films that Lewton produced, conveyed chills and scares by shadows and darkness which worked like a charm at the box office too.  “Cat People” was a big hit and the largest moneymaker for RKO that year.  Not bad for a film where one of the taglines for it back then was, “A Kiss Could Change Her into a Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!”  Hmm!  Well, I guess if that kiss was from idiots like Dr. Judd and Oliver, you might have whipped out those old fangs and claws too!   

Another type of movie where paranoia was a popular element was for what was known as a “woman in jeopardy” movie.  One of the best of these was for the movie, “Gaslight” (1944) with Ingrid Bergman giving an Oscar winning performance as a new wife in Victorian London slowly being driven insane with objects disappearing, and accusations from her sinister husband (bug-eyed Charles Boyer) that she was a mentally ill kleptomaniac.  Years later you had another great one with the French film “Les Diabolique” (1955) starring Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret as the brutally treated wife and ex-mistress of the cruel head of a second-rate boarding school near Paris where both women finally decide to team up and kill him while making it look like an accident.  They commit the deed, but complications soon occur when the body is not found, and tell-tale signs start showing up suggesting that he might still be alive and that their lives might be in danger.  This one might have come close to rivaling “Psycho” as being one of the most scary shock movies ever made.

An even more recent one was the SY/FY horror/suspense thriller, “The Invisible Man” (2020), a reimagined, updated version of the famous H.G. Wells novel starring Elisabeth Moss.  For this version Moss played a heroine who escaped her abusive and wealthy boyfriend, a sort of brilliant scientist/optics expert, who was so unstable he supposedly committed suicide shortly after her escape.  However, soon afterwards she starts questioning her own reality, memory, and even her own sanity with items being moved, sounds being heard but nothing seen, and with even physical things starting to happen, to herself and later, to others but never seeing anyone or anything.  Finally, after concluding that her ex is not only alive, but has acquired the ability to become invisible and was now stalking her, she has to take swift action before he completely destroys her life.  Director Leigh Whannell (“Upgrade”) had a great premise and visually directed a film where both the audience and Moss’s character are in a constant state of unease where potential danger can occur at any moment.  Unfortunately, unlike the two previous “woman in jeopardy” movies that I have favorably mentioned, there was only one small problem with this version of “The Invisible Man” … IT STINKS! Moss, usually a fine actress, is absolutely terrible here.  She overacts so badly with her face crazily contorted all the time that all that was missing was a drool cup under her chin.  The plot also has holes big enough to move a supertanker thru.  For example, Moss, while in her attic dumps a can of paint on her invisible ex while he is trying to climb the attic ladder to menace her, yet by the time she climbs down he has already cleaned the paint off so he’s invisible again, or Moss, while with her sister in a crowded restaurant sees her sister killed by Moss’s invisible ex with a floating knife moving through the air past numerous individuals and no one else happens to see it, or… Oh, forget it!  Do I need to say anything more?  Just don’t waste your time watching this Turd!

Fortunately, keeping up with the paranoid SY/FY angle tying in with a feminist viewpoint is the far better British film, “Unearthly Stranger” (1963).  This little black and white movie was only 78 minutes long, and had almost no special effects.  They weren’t needed.  Told in flashback, John Neville (“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”) portrays a scientist exploring the possibility of space travel by mental concentration after his predecessor dies from an explosion in his brain after making a scientific breakthrough.  The following investigation soon focuses on Neville’s new Swiss(?) wife (Gabriella Licudi) who has some disturbing physical characteristics like almost never blinking, sleeping with her eyes wide open, and picking up hot objects with her bare hands (although that sure saves her from ever having to buy a pair of oven mitts!).  These revelations may soon put her husband’s life at risk.  Like “Cat People,” a husband quickly marrying an unusual foreign-born wife but discovering danger soon afterwards was given a SY/FY “Twilight Zone” twist here while invoking an atmosphere of increasing paranoia and fear.  Neville is excellent, and Licudi, an actress who mostly had few roles of notice, is also very fine as an increasingly scared mysterious wife that schoolchildren recoil from upon her approach.  Also, starring a young Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs”), maybe the most interesting aspect of “Unearthly Stranger” is in how women are portrayed.  Here they may appear to have mostly secondary or minor roles, but by the time this movie ends they may be the ones who will ultimately be in control, not the men.  The chilling ending of “Unearthly Stranger” makes that prospect, abundantly, clear!

Network and cable television also had a number of SY/FY shows that evoked paranoia very well.  One of the lesser ones was ABC’s hokey “The Invaders” (1967-68) starring Roy Thinnes as someone who accidently learns of an in-process alien invasion which he tries to thwart by traveling place to place in an attempt to stop their threats despite the fact that no one will believe him, and that the aliens, altered to appear human, disintegrate after dying leaving no trace of their existence.  This show did have some good “who is a human and who is an alien” type of paranoia moments.  However, Executive Producer Quinn Martin, who also produced the immensely popular ABC Network TV show, “The Fugitive”, which ended right around the same time, was looking for another “cash cow” TV hit so he gave the go ahead to have this one made.  Unfortunately, he tried to use the same format of “The Fugitive” for “The Invaders” with Thinnes showing up in different places each week as the hunter, not the hunted, trying to root out those sneaky Aliens!  The show even had the same sort of “fake” omnipotent beginning narration for the opening of every episode like in the “The Fugitive” to try and garnish some cheap sympathy for Thinnes’s character.  It didn’t really work (I guess looking for hulking green aliens wasn’t the same as looking for a one-armed man), and the show was cancelled after the 2nd season.  Now, at the same time Martin was also the Executive Producer for the even more hokey hit ABC Network TV show, “The F.B.I.” (1965-74) with emotionally lifeless Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. portraying J. Edgar Hoover’s wet dream fantasy vision of what an F.B.I. agent should be along with his crime busting F.B.I. agents always driving around in Ford sedans (Guess who the show’s TV sponsor was?).  Hoover was even a series consultant, and his boyfrie…, I mean, second-in-command, Clyde Tolson vetted every episode to ensure that all the actors playing F.B.I. agents, and other participants, had background checks so that no criminals, subversives, or “Commies” could ever be associated with this show.  Hmm!  You’ll notice that the background checks didn’t include “Aliens!”  Maybe Martin should have done a cross-over show with Thinnes discovering that Zimbalist was an alien and that his actual alien leader was “J. Edgar Hoover!”  (After all, Hoover was already used to being in disguise with all of those dresses in his closet!)  

A much better paranoia infused SY/FY TV show made back then was the British TV show, “The Prisoner” (1967) starring Patrick McGoohan.  This 17 episode limited series starred McGoohan as an unnamed Secret Agent who angrily quits his job without a reason but shortly afterwards is subdued and whisked off to “The Village”, a coastal town isolated from the outside world by mountains and sea.  No one is constrained there and everyone dresses the same with each individual assigned a number, rather than a name (his is No. Six).  The village is secured by various high-tech monitoring systems and security forces making escape impossible, and where in each episode you have a new leader (No. Two) of the village trying to get No. Six to reveal the reasons why he resigned (which he will not do) while continually trying to either escape or undermine No. Two’s authority.  This show was an allegory about individuality personified by No. Six vs. the crushing conformity of No. Two and “The Village”.  McGoohan was excellent playing someone trapped in a surreal paranoid nightmare world where no one could be trusted, but where he could still be defiant.  Much later on, two other fine series, where either supernatural or SY/FY paranoia was a major component, were “Outcast” (2016-17), and “Mr. Robot” (2015-19).  “Outcast” was a short-lived horror series about unseen demonic possession in West Virginia with Patrick Fugit starring as an individual recovering from his own possession while also trying to help others affected by the same malady.  “Mr. Robot” was even better starring Rami Malek in his Emmy winning role as a cybersecurity engineer and secret hacker, who struggles with social anxiety, clinical depression, multiple personality disorder, drug abuse, (leprosy, lycanthropy, acne, whatever) resulting in him constantly being in a paranoid and delusional state.  He ultimately becomes a cyber-vigilante for an anarchist group known as “fsociety” trying to destroy one of the largest corporations in the world called, E Corp (AKA Evil Corp) while constantly fighting his own inner demons.  Both shows were excellent in conveying a sense of creeping paranoia where too often you never knew what was actually real or who you could actually trust. 

The last type of movie that I want to mention incorporating paranoia is, what I like to refer to as, “look over your shoulder” conspiracy films.  I will mention one bad one, and then one really great one to conclude this month’s post.  The first one, which actually could have been really great, but fell flat on its face, was the organized crime conspiracy film, “The Brothers Rico” (1957).  Richard Conte starred as Eddie Rico, a former mob accountant now retired who is called back by the syndicate to find his two mobbed up, and now on the run, brothers to convince them not to talk to the authorities.  Based on a story by George Simenon and directed by the underrated “pulp” film director, Phil Karlson, “Rico” was (for about ninety-nine percent of the film’s running time) a terrifically sinister, downbeat, and tragic criminal conspiracy tale with the mob seemingly everywhere watching Eddie in his search, and with Eddie slowly realizing that he, along with his brothers were in a trap with no way out.  “Rico” really could have been a paranoid film classic, but unfortunately, Columbia Pictures proceeded to ruin it.  How?  Why by using that last one percent of the film’s running time to tack on a ridiculously stupid, “Happy Ending!”  If you ever want to imagine something equivalent, try imagining the end of “West Side Story” with Maria holding the dead Tony in her arms and then… her immediately jumping up to sing a rousing repeat rendition of “I Feel Pretty” with all of the remaining gang members dancing around her!  After seeing the end of “The Brothers Rico”, I definitely…

  • Did not feel pretty, oh so pretty
  • But I definitely felt “Very MAAAD!!!”

However, the truly great, paranoid conspiracy film that I want to enthusiastically praise is “The Conversation” (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  It starred Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a bespectacled and highly respected San Francisco surveillance expert who is personally obsessed (paranoid) about his own privacy.  Behind the multiple locked-door of his almost bare apartment which also includes a burglar alarm, he lives a sort of Spartan existence with no phone (he only uses pay phones) and almost no friends.  Even his sometime girlfriend Amy (Teri Garr) knows little about him, and his only other obsession is playing a tenor saxophone along to his jazz records alone in his apartment. He has his own business and his office is enclosed in a chain-link cage in a corner of a much larger warehouse.   Although he believes that he is not responsible for the actual content of whatever information he records or how his clients choose to use it, he is still racked with guilt accentuated by being a devout Catholic from a past assignment that resulted in people being killed. Now his current assignment, bugging the conversations of a young couple in public for his unknown client, starts to lead Caul into fearing that history may repeat itself and that the couple’s lives may now be in jeopardy unless Caul personally gets involved.  His following decisions soon result in himself being followed and possibly being placed under surveillance by someone.  

Director Coppola had a banner year in 1974.  Besides “The Conversation,” he also did “The Godfather Part II” which won him the Oscar for both Best Director and Best Picture even though “The Conversation” was also nominated for Best Picture too.  In all honesty, my own personal opinion was that he should have won both awards for “The Conversation” instead (and he also should have gotten the Best Director Oscar previously for “Godfather Part I” too, but that’s another story).   His semi-documentary directing style for this film along with strong support provided by cinematographer Bill Butler was brilliant.  He is equally matched by Gene Hackman’s towering performance as Caul.  His Caul is a lonely outsider, introverted, and socially awkward with a need to be in control of his own limited little world to feel safe.  His ultimate tragedy is that he not only doesn’t achieve it, but that he also repeats the same mistakes of his past.  It’s one of the finest performances of his career, and how he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, I’ll never know.  Coppola additionally elicited fine supporting performances from John Cazale, a coldly sinister Harrison Ford, and an uncredited Robert Duvall as Caul’s client.  As a film, “The Conversation” is a masterpiece!

This concludes my Blog Post for this month.  So, if you ever feel the need to complain to someone about how you think the world is unjustly treating you, well that is perfectly OK.  However, if you ever feel the need to complain out loud to no one about how you think the world is unjustly treating yourself, and then you start to answer yourself back, well…

 

You might not be Paranoid…

 

But you sure might be CRAZY!!!

 

NLP

Plague It Again Sam!

General Williams:  “There’s something beyond botulinus?”

Dr. Hoffman: “Yes, the second weapon.  Also a virus, airborne.  But self-perpetuating.  Indestructible.  Once released it will multiply at a power beyond our calculations.  It perhaps will never die.  To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly.  “The Satan Bug.”  If I took the flask which contains it and exposed it to the air, everyone here would be dead in three seconds.  California would be a tomb in a few hours.  In a week all life, and I mean all life, would cease in the United States.  In two months, two months at the most, the trapper from Alaska, the peasant from the Yangtze, the Aborigine from Australia are dead.  All dead, because I crushed a flask and exposed a green colored liquid to the air.  Nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug.”

[Dana Andrews to Richard Basehart, “The Satan Bug” (1965)]

I think, Dear Reader, we all know that the past couple of years have not been necessarily so great.  This was due to a lot of factors.  Besides the current turmoil in our own country, the world has been badly rocked by the number of countries turning away from Democracy and moving instead, towards totalitarianism as an answer.  We also have had global environmental problems caused by climate change which threatened our world’s very existence.  Oh, and least I forget, there is the continuing global coronavirus pandemic which has affected our lives, whether we have been vaccinated or not.  However, at this point you might be thinking right about now, “Well other than depressing the Hell out me, what does any of this have to do with your stupid Blog this month?”  Ah, well let us all calm down shall we, and I will explain.  You see, since I just mentioned the coronavirus, this month’s Blog Post will discuss various dramatic scenarios involving pandemics and which, surprisingly, are popular subjects in different ways for films and for television.

As an example, let’s look at the MGM film “Yellow Jack” (1938) which was based on the stage play by Pulitzer and Oscar (“Gone with the Wind”) winning playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard, and famed microbiologist and author Paul de Kruif.  The story, partially based on fact, was how U.S. Army Major Walter Reed (Yep, the guy that the medical center in DC is named after) worked with other Army Medical Corp doctors and Cuban epidemiologist Carlos Finlay to diagnose and treat yellow fever victims both before, during, and after the Spanish American War in Cuba.  Yellow fever (nicknamed “Yellow Jack”) sickened and killed more soldiers during the Spanish American War than anything else, and the film explored the drama of U.S. Army soldiers who volunteered to be infected by mosquitoes carrying the disease to enable doctors to devise a cure.  However, since Reed and Finlay were portrayed by character actors Lewis Stone and Charles Coburn (who looked about as Cuban as a “kumquat”), they had to have the film focus on the solders themselves [Sam Levene, Buddy Ebsen (pre-“Beverly Hillbillies”), etc.] and with Robert Montgomery in the lead role also as one of the volunteers.  The movie captured the general science aspects pretty well along with the conflicts waged by Reed against those who dismissed his scientific conclusions and methods for fighting the disease.  The human element was also provided by those who caught and perished from the disease throughout the film.  Unfortunately, this movie does not hold up well at all.  It includes a dippy cringe-inducing love story between Montgomery (with a bad Irish brogue thicker than a bank vault door) and Virginia Bruce as a nurse, bad over-acting pontificating by just about everyone, and clunky direction by film director George B. Seitz.

Fun Fact:  Perennial “Hack” Director Seitz directed eleven of the sixteen “Andy Hardy” films which were a sort of far worse “Father Knows Best” version of comedy films made in the nineteen thirties and forties starring Mickey Rooney as Andy and Lewis Stone as his even more annoying know it all daddy.  If you have ever actually made the mistake of seeing an Andy Hardy film, you might have wished, like me, that Seitz instead would have made a series of medical films with Rooney as Andy like “Andy Hardy Gets Yellow Jack” or “Andy Hardy Gets Laid” along with it’s sequel, “Andy Hardy Gets V.D.”, etc.  At least, it would have been far more informative and far less sickening!

Moving right along, two much better made movies that I want to highlight, and which were made in the same year were “The Killer that Stalked New York” (1950), and “Panic in the Streets” (1950).  “Killer…” was based on the real-life story of a smallpox outbreak in New York City in 1947 which was, fortunately, thwarted in time.  This low budget noir thriller starred Evelyn Keyes as Sheila, just back in New York City from Cuba with a package of illegal diamonds.  Discovering that she is being tailed by U.S. Customs officials, she immediately mails the diamonds to her secretly cheating husband Matt (Charles Korvin) who, unbeknown to her, is planning to double cross her and run away with the diamonds himself.  Soon after, she nearly faints, and after being taken to a local health clinic and misdiagnosed as having a common cold, she leaves to go home, but not before infecting a little girl at the clinic.  Once, the medical authorities determine that the little girl has smallpox, the race is on to find Sheila and stop the outbreak in time.  For a low budget film, “Killer” is really terrific.  It alternates from being just a little suspense crime noir into a epidemic thriller as Sheila starts infecting people left and right who she fleetingly comes into contact with.  Directed by Earl McEvoy in a semi-documentary style, the film is really highlighted by top-notch black and white cinematography from future Oscar winner Joseph F. Biroc (“It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Towering Inferno”, etc.) capturing both outdoor realism and dark shadows at night with Keyes, like an Avenging Angel, hunting down her cheating husband while growing weaker and weaker before your very eyes.  The film is loaded with veteran character actors like Jim Backus, Whit Bissell, Roy Roberts, Carl Benton Reid, etc. along with future stars like Lola Albright, Richard Egan, and Dorothy Malone, etc. in small or secondary roles.  As a thriller, “The Killer that Stalked New York” is a gem!

An even better plague thriller, and with a bigger budget, was “Panic in the Streets.”  “Streets” starred Richard Widmark as Lieutenant Commander “Clint” Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service who jumps into action when a murdered illegal immigrant in New Orleans is found to be infected with pneumonic plague (a version of the bubonic plague).  Fearing an outbreak and with grudging help by, at first, skeptical police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas), they hunt for the original source of the infection as well as the individuals (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, etc.) who murdered the immigrant.  Directed by the great Elia Kazan on location in semi-documentary style with fine cinematography by Joseph MacDonald, “Streets” is also an edge of your seat thriller of two men racing against the clock to find all of the individuals infected to contain the outbreak before the news is released to the general public.  Kazan’s cast included some of his fellow actors from the New York stage, local area actors, and a number of individuals with no acting experience at all in various roles.  He also incorporated a Neo-Realist visual approach which was popular in Italy after World War II and it worked very well.  He was greatly helped by Edward Anhalt and his then wife, Edna Anhalt’s Oscar winning screenplay which provided solid character development for his talented cast.  Kazan was always known for eliciting great performances from his actors, and this movie had many along with fine performances by both Widmark and Douglas.  However, maybe the best one of them all was Jack Palance’s scary (both on screen and off) film debut as the murderous killer.

Like all great villains he used his physical size to intimidate and evoke fear.  Yet his character, at times, was surprisingly generous and even helpful in a way.  You just never knew what to expect, which caused you to always be on edge or wary of his presence.  Widmark stated that Palance was the toughest guy he ever met and the only actor he was physically afraid of.  He must have been.  During one scene where Palance clubs Widmark’s character on the head with a gun, Palance deliberately replaced the rubber gun they were originally using for the scene with a real gun and knocked Widmark out cold.  If that wasn’t bad enough, to get into the mood of his character, Palance’s version of “Method” acting was to actually beat on actor, Zero Mostel, who played his flunky underling off-screen which resulted in the now black and blue Mostel after the first week of filming having to go to the hospital.  I think if I had a choice, I’d rather catch the plague than piss off Jack Palance.

The next two pandemic films that I want to praise are also thrillers but more towards the SY/FY category rather than film noir.  The first one was “The Satan Bug” (1965) directed by John Sturges and with a screenplay by, once again, Edward Anhalt (who must have really liked writing about pandemics).  Based on a novel by Pulp thriller writer Alistair MacLean, the movie involves a break-in at a top-secret bioweapon facility in the Southern California desert.  Lee Barrett (George Maharis) a former intelligence agent is tasked by the military to find out what happened and soon enough discovers that a man-made Doomsday virus named The Satan Bug has been stolen by a mysterious unidentifiable insane millionaire named Ainsley who is perfectly willing to use it to destroy all living creatures on the planet unless his demands are met.  From that point on, it another race against the clock (Is there any other kind!) to find the virus before it is released.

John Sturges, who was another good but never great director, could make some terrific male dominated thriller/action films (“The Magnificent Seven”, “The Great Escape”, etc.) and in MacLean, he found the perfect hokey thriller writer that he could make chicken salad out of.  Of course, that didn’t mean that Sturges still didn’t make some big directing mistakes with this film.  First, you could figure out who Ainsley was within the first thirty minutes.  Second, despite Anhalt’s screenplay, Sturges direction of his actors (Dana Andrews, Anne Francis, Richard Basehart, along with Maharis) was pretty weak with basically none of them showing any depth or complexity beyond the basic cardboard variety.  Third, there were some gaping plot holes in the storyline which made you just want to say, “What the F**K!!!”  However, despite these flaws, it’s still a pretty good movie.  Actors Frank Sutton and a young Ed Asner (when he still had a little hair on his head) play a great pair of stone-cold psychopathic killers (even if they hardly say anything), and the terrific suspenseful film score by Jerry Goldsmith is one of the finest efforts of his entire career.  As for Sturges, he could really ratchet up the suspense and tension to have your heart pounding.   For example, the best scene in the entire movie is a sequence where Maharis and two agents trapped in a locked garage immediately react when Asner throws a vial of botulinus through their garage window forcing them to break out or die trying.  For that sequence alone, you could just about forgive Sturges for almost anything.  “The Satan Bug” is not a great movie.  However, it is a pretty good movie.

A later and much better, pandemic film was “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) directed by Robert Wise and based on the novel by Michael Crichton.   After a U.S. satellite crashes near a small town in rural New Mexico almost all of the town’s residents die except for a 69-year-old alcoholic man and a six-month-old-infant.  When a military recovery team fails to retrieve the satellite and rescue the survivors, an elite team of scientists (Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne) are tasked to do both while also analyzing the situation at a top-secret underground Nevada facility.  Their fear is that a deadly alien organism is present, and if it ever escapes the facility, an automatic nuclear self-destruct mechanism will be activated to destroy the facility and all infectious areas before the organism can infect an even larger surrounding area.

The success of Crichton’s first book made him an international literary celebrity and led him to write numerous bestselling scientific thrillers for the rest of his life.  Unfortunately, just like with author Tom Clancy, both authors could write about scientific or military/techno information very well, but their characterizations of individuals in their novels were inclined to be something that you could more readily find in a kindergarten coloring book.  Fortunately for Crichton, he had Robert Wise directing.  First, Wise cast top actors rather than movie stars for the main roles.  Second, Wise worked with his longtime screenplay collaborator Nelson Gidding to ably flesh out fully developed characters for the scientists as well as numerous secondary characters.  Third, Wise (who could direct any type of film) was also adept at science fiction, and he made one of the greatest of them all with “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) along with the still underrated “Star Trek:  The Motion Picture” (1979).  Fourth, Wise, who started off his film career as a sound and film editor (“Citizen Kane”) utilized Stuart Gilmore and John W. Holmes’ great film editing to elicit tension and suspense throughout the film (they were both Oscar nominated).  About the only mistake he made in this film was in choosing the awful Gil Melle to do the nearly unlistenable techno SY/FY film score.  Despite that mistake, “The Andromeda Strain” was my pick for the best picture of that year (Of course, it didn’t win), and it’s still one of the best and most believable pandemic movies ever made!

From the nineteen nineties on up to the present day, more pandemic movies than ever before have been made with varying degrees of success.  For example, you had…

  • “12 Monkeys” (1995): With Bruce Willis as a time traveler going back and forth in time like a ping-pond ball while trying to find the virus or cause of the virus that wiped out most of humanity in his own time.  More boring than exciting but ladies, at least you got the chance to see Brad Pitt’s bare butt in this one!
  • “Outbreak” (1995): With Dustin Hoffman as a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases virologist trying to find a cure for an Ebola-like virus that has caused an outbreak in a small California town while fighting a military plot to use the virus as a future bioweapon.  The first half is pretty good but the second half caves in faster than a sandcastle hit by an ocean wave.
  • “The Happening” (2008): Psychological thriller about an epidemic causing individuals to commit mass suicide and the four individuals who are trying to escape the calamity.  Is it a pandemic film or maybe more like your typical M. Night Shyamalan (“I’ll pull a surprise twist ending to surprise you) kind of film?  Ah, no!  It’s neither!  However, what it really happens to be is a completely boring waste of your time!

Now of course there were other supposedly good film versions of a pandemic like “Contagion” (2011) for example.  I say supposedly, because I didn’t see that particular one so I can’t offer an opinion on it one way or the other.  However, I definitely can offer a favorable opinion on another one which was actually a six-episode television miniseries airing on the National Geographic channel in 2019.  That one was called, “The Hot Zone”, and it was based on the Richard Preston book of the same title.  The series, taking place in 1989, covers the actual story of the potential outbreak of the ebolavirus after it was found in monkeys at a Primate Quarantine Facility in Reston, Va. near Washington, D.C.  It starred Julianna Margulies as real-life U.S. Army veterinary pathologist Nancy Jaax and Topper Grace as real-life Peter Jahrling, a virologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who helped to identify the virus at the Reston facility and then worked with others to both contain, and to determine the deadliness of the virus along with working on ways to develop a cure.  The series has been justly criticized for its accuracy and being overly melodramatic.  However, it was also gripping, suspenseful, and, at times, scary even if it was not totally accurate.  Margulies gives a fine performance as Jaxx and she is ably assisted by Noah Emmerich as her husband and fellow actors’ Liam Cunningham, Robert Sean Leonard, and James D’Arcy.  Despite the controversy, the miniseries got good reviews and it returned for a second go-round last November chronicling the 2001 anthrax attacks.  I guess you just can’t keep a good potential pandemic under control!

Lastly, you just knew that I had to bring up one last kind of pandemic since it has been such a popular one for decades with the general public.  Now which one could I ever be referring to, you may ask?  Why what else but the one that causes those infected to turn into…ZOMBIES!!!  Now before all of you start groaning, I just want to let all of you know that I am not going to start talking about “Dawn of the Dead”, “World War Z”, the ten thousand iterations of “The Walking Dead” or “most” of the other zombie movies.  Heck, I am not even going to talk about Rob Zombie for cripes sake!  However, notice I said “most” of the zombie movies.  I did not say, all of them.  There is one that I did want to mention because it is a dark comedy that is really funny as Hell and, even more surprising, it is a sequel which is even better than the original.  That film is “Zombieland:  Double Tap” (2019).

“Zombieland…” continues the further adventures of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in a post-apocalyptic world populated by, you guessed it…ZOMBIES!  The dynamics of our group consist of Harrelson playing a semi-bright Southern “good old boy” (which is the type of character that he usually plays 90% of the time), his nerdy/socially inept partner Eisenberg (which is the type of character that he usually plays 95% of the time), and who lives by a goofy set of survivor rules that are pasted across the movie screen throughout the film, Stone, who Eisenberg continually lusts after and who is stereotypically tough and stand-offish from Eisenberg, and Breslin as Stone’s little sister and who is also stereotypically rebellious.  Our little family(?) is now residing in the abandoned and weed and vine covered White House with Columbus about to finally propose to Wichita with his little “Hope Diamond” trinket that he has been lugging around.  As for Tallahassee, he has also found his own personal sort of true red neck love with his newly modified Dukes of Hazzard-like presidential limousine which he affectionately calls, “The Beast!”  Needless to say, things do not work out as planned, and soon enough, our mismatched group are off on the open road where new adventures await including new and creatively original comic ways to kill Zombies!  This Zombie fest was directed by Ruben Fleischer (who did the original “Zombieland”) along with fellow returnees’ screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and new writer David Callaham who provide even more over the top silliness than the original.  Also providing able comic support are actors’ Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, and especially, Zoey Deutch who plays the dumbest, and maybe the funniest, Dumb Blond since the heyday of Marilyn Monroe.  If you can stand the gorefest moments, “Zombieland:  Double Tap” is a laugh out loud pandemic riot!

To conclude, I hope that all of you have enjoyed this month’s post!  Stay safe, be well, and be sure to always…

“Carry an extra wooden stake in the trunk of your car!”   

You never know when you might have to use it!

N.L.P.

Bombastically Biblical!

Judah Ben-Hur:  Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Esther:  Even then.

Judah Ben-Hur:  Even then.  And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.

[Charlton Heston to Haya Harareet, “Ben-Hur” (1959)]

Well, everyone, once again it’s time for my yearly holiday blog post.  This particular one is something that is always germane for the holidays.  Now just what could that one ever possibly be Dear Reader?  Making holiday fruit cakes for fun and profit?  No, that one would probably fit in better under the category of Horror rather than Holiday.  No, this time we will have a holiday blog post specifically relating to religious movies.  Now that will not necessarily pertain to just movies or Network TV/cable/streaming stuff specifically for Christmas, Chanukah, etc.  It will pertain, mostly, to religious films connected to stories from the Bible.  Hence, I hope that you will not be offended.  However, if you might be, well, as Bette Davis in “All About Eve” once said, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

All of the way up into the nineteen forties, Hollywood movies about religion focused on uplifting stories of faith.  They were heavily and conservatively Catholic inspired, and quite popular with the general public at that time in America.  For example, you had two films made by Director Leo McCarey which were “Going My Way” (1944) and “The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) both starring Bing Crosby as father O’Malley.  If you like straight uplifting Catholic dogma for the faithfully devout, then these two movies are the mainline drug for you.  They were both big hits, and “Way” even won best picture that year along with both McCarey and Crosby also winning Oscars for Best Director and Actor.  Two other popular ones made then were “The Song of Bernadette” (1943) and “The Keys of the Kingdom” (1944).  “Song…” was a fact-based biographical drama of Bernadette Soubirous (Oscar winner Jennifer Jones), a simple girl in Lourdes who experienced seeing eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858 and who would later be made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.  This was actually a very fine film with excellent all around acting by everyone involved and anchored by an amazing performance by Jennifer Jones.  It also was helped by strong direction from the always underrated director Henry King (“Twelve O’Clock High”) along with fine Oscar winning cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, and an Oscar winning film score by Alfred Newman.

Moving right along with the solemn uplifting Catholic religious movie express train crushing anything in its path is “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck in an Oscar nominated star-making role as Father Francis Chisholm.  When the film begins, Chisholm is now an old man whose life is shown in flashback all the way through to the present day as a long serving Catholic priest in China who piously helps everyone whether they be Chinese, Protestant, Atheistic, or fans of “Honey Boo-Boo” reruns.  Our Father Chisholm is so noble and self-sacrificing that he probably never even took a bath because he was too busy perfecting his ability to walk on the top of the water in his own bathtub.  Now before you say, “What the H…” what I’m getting at here is that despite Peck’s earnest performance, half way through this film I was hoping that good old Father Chisholm would at least do something a little more daring like maybe have a nip or two of the Holy Communion wine, crack a smile more than once a decade, or do something really scandalous like dance a Scottish Jig (Sacrilege!) to stop this movie from being so Frigging Dull!  Hollywood religious films during this time were not going to have anything really controversial in them to offend either the Catholic Church or any other organized religious group back then for fear of the mega backlash from said religious organizations, the general public, and the Federal Government which would ultimately affect a Studio’s financial bottom line. 

During this time and moving on up to the present day, another type of religious film was popular and, hence, relatively safe for Hollywood to make.  These were stories taken directly from the Bible, and which I will now further discuss.  Maybe the one director who was regarded as the greatest practitioner of such film making was Director Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was one of the founding fathers of the motion picture industry in America making hugely successful films in both the silent and the sound era.  He was regarded as one of the most commercially successful producer/directors in film history.  DeMille was adept at making all types of epic pictures from Westerns to musicals to comedies to social dramas.  However, like I previously said, his religious films are what most people remember him for even though, out of the seventy films that he directed, only five were religious with three [“King of Kings” (1927), “Samson and Delilah” (1949), and two versions of “The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956)] specifically related to the Bible.  All of them were popular commercial hits.  Now it would be nice if I could also say that these movies were artistically well made, with great acting, emotionally powerful dramatic scenes, and written with great depth and meaning.  Well… Are you kidding! 

Other than the epic size of these films along with dozens of other films in other genres that he made throughout his career; they are some of the worst pieces of overblown trite garbage in motion picture history.  If you could take P.T. Barnum, porn movie kingpin Russ Meyer, and the excessively visual but artistically empty film maker Ken Russell, stuff the three of them into a blender, and hit the “ON” button, you’d have C.B. DeMille.  In his films, Roman orgies and female bathtub scenes were standard practice.  Bad acting with ponderous screenplays that could have been better written by kindergarten graduates or the inhabitants of a zoo’s Ape House were laugh-out-loud standard practice.  The promoting of stereotypes with bad actor casting was also widespread standard practice too.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, somewhere in all of these films you always had to hear good old C.B. himself doing some sort of over indulgent, pseudo, self-important God-like narration as if we were all too stupid to comprehend his films otherwise.  If C.B. was around today, he probably would have cast Clint Eastwood and Madonna as the leads for all of his films (although Clint, as Moses, probably would have just pulled out that old 44 Magnum, and blasted the Red Sea apart all by himself).  However, DeMille didn’t care and the public didn’t care either.  His huckster Hollywood biblical films made a mint, and to this day on every Passover and Easter we will all be eternally tormented by “Chucky” Heston belting out the words, “Let My People Go!”  If only we could, Chucky!  If only we could!

After the nineteen forties, more of these biblical extravaganzas were made by other directors and actually, two were made in the nineteen fifties that were really very good.  Maybe this was because the principal characters in these films were based, not on specific characters found in the bible, but from popular novels where Hollywood could craft characters with true dramatic depth and complexity.  Also, because these characters either did not represent a member of the clergy or a famous historical religious personality like Jennifer Jones’ Bernadette Soubirous, it was less likely that Hollywood censors or the general public would cause an uproar.  The first film that I want to praise is “The Robe” (1953) from the bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas.  Fun Fact: “The Robe” was No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for most of 1943, but when the film version of “The Robe” came out in 1953 the novel shot right back up to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for that year too.  The movie starred Richard Burton as Marcellus Gallio, a military tribune of Rome who, while assigned to Jerusalem in Palestine, is ordered by Pontius Pilate to take charge of the Roman soldiers assigned to crucify Jesus.  He does so and even wins’ Jesus’s “robe” in a dice game.  However, once he puts the robe on to cover himself from the rain, he undergoes intense pain and throws it off.  He later loses the robe, but has such intense and continuing nightmares of the crucifixion that he fears that he will lose his mind.  Ultimately, he will return to Palestine where he will find the robe again and become a disciple of Jesus. 

The Robe” was a big budget release by 20th Century Fox with an all-star cast (Heck, they even had actor Cameron Mitchell as the unseen voice of Jesus).  It was well directed by journeyman Director Henry Koster, and it was the first film by 20th Century Fox to be released in their CinemaScope widescreen process which made its visuals even more arresting on movie theater screens.  The acting by most of the principals, especially Burton, was fine (he was Oscar nominated for his breakout acting performance), and the screenplay (with an assist by blacklisted writer Albert Maltz) was excellent too.  About the only real negatives that I have had for this film over the years were:  (1) Richard Burton’s goofy shake, rattle, and roll looks of pain whenever he puts on or grabs that robe, (2) actor Jay Robinson’s over-rated ham fisted performance as Caligula where it looked like he could chew up the entire CinemaScope movie screen all by himself, and (3) the film score by the usually dependable Alfred Newman which, at times, was so overtly ponderous, and solemn that even the most fervent believer would want to pitch a brick through a stained glass window if they listened to it long enough.

The other fifties’ biblical film that was exceptional, and on my Top Ten greatest movie list of all time, was “Ben-Hur” (1959) originally based on the immensely popular novel written in 1880 by Lew Wallace.  Many films (both silent and sound versions) of “Ben-Hur” have been made (including an absolutely abysmal version made as recently as 2016), but this one is the best of them all.  Directed by the great William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston in the lead (and redeeming himself acting-wise after “The Ten Commandments”), it was the most expensive movie ever made at that time, the second highest grossing film in history (behind a little thing called “Gone with the Wind”), and also winning eleven Oscars (which was also a record at that time too).  Wyler, Heston, cinematographer Robert L. Surtees, film composer Miklos Rozsa, and the Picture itself all won well deserved Oscars.  A story of revenge and redemption, Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant is falsely condemned by his former Roman friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) to a living death on a slave galley after an accident almost kills the new governor of Judea.  Chained and being led away to the galley, his life is later saved by Jesus giving him some water after he collapses from thirst (There’s the religious tie-in folks!), and then…Hey, wait a minute!  This is an over three-and-a-half-hour movie!  You think I’m going to spend the next three Blog Posts explaining the entire movie to ya!  No way!  All I will further say about Ben-Hur is that: (1) for the most expensive movie ever made back then, the sea battle between the Roman fleet of sea galleys vs. the fleet of Macedonian pirates where they used toy ships for distance shots of the battle looked about as realistic as something that I did as a 3-year-old in a bathtub with my little toy boats, and (2) after all of these years, the non-CGI chariot race in “Ben-Hur” is still one of the most exciting and greatest action sequences in motion picture history.  William Wyler once said (and maybe also subtly sticking the stiletto in) that, regarding “Ben-Hur”, he wished to outdo Cecil B. DeMille and make a thinking man’s Biblical epic.  Well, boy, did he ever!  C.B. DeMille, who died early in 1959, must have rolled over in his grave when Wyler said that one!

Unfortunately, maybe due to the colossal success of “Ben-Hur,” Hollywood went Biblically Batty in wanting to make the next epic “big hit” religious picture.  You had such winners as:

  • “The Big Fisherman” (1959) with Howard (“They Call the Wind MARIAH”) Keel as the Apostle Peter (and probably wishing he could have sang his dialogue rather than speak it).
  • “Francis of Assisi” (1961) with Bradford Dillman as Francis (the Saint, not the talking mule although it would have been more entertaining if it was the mule).
  • A remake of “King of Kings” (1961) with Jeffrey Hunter looking like a Southern California surfer dude and giving a sock puppet quality performance as Jesus. 

All of these were either box office duds or just plain, mediocre at best.  However, did it stop there?  Of course not!  Hence, you also had:

  • “Barabbas” (1961) with Anthony Quinn doing a biblical warm-up before doing “Zorba the Greek.” Also with Jack Palance as Torvald, the gladiator (AKA “The Bad Guy”) who flicks out his tongue like a snake so often that he probably used it to wipe his own forehead.
  • “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962) with maybe the only thing funnier than watching Stewart Granger trying to play religiously moral Lot might have been watching John Wayne trying to play Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror.”  However, health-wise, I’ll bet a lot of people went on a salt free diet after seeing this one.
  • “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) with (Sad) Max von Sydow who originally missed out on playing Jesus in “King of Kings” finally getting his big chance to play Jesus, aaannd he blew it! Oh well, at least he was better than Jeffrey Hunter’s Jesus (Of course, Danny DeVito would have been better playing Jesus than Jeffrey Hunter too!).
  • “The Bible: In the Beginning…” (1966) even with Director John Huston doing both the voice of “GOD”, and playing a Doctor Dolittle version of Noah, he couldn’t keep either the Ark or the film from sinking from its own pretentiousness.  However, at least you did get the chance to see Sodom and Gomorrah celestially Nuked once again, so there was some solace in that.  

Most of these religious films also suffered from the “Ben Hur” hangover effect of being overly long.  While “Ben Hur” didn’t originate looonnng biblical films (good old C.B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith could both take some substantial credit for that), more biblical/religious themed films than ever before were released that way after “Ben-Hur.”  For example, “Fisherman” was 180 minutes long, “King of Kings” was 168 minutes long, “The Bible…” was 174 minutes long, and, the worst, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was a mind numbing 260 minutes long (for that one, the movie theaters must have been handing out compression socks and mason jars to their patrons in case they had to take a leak).  Currently, if you want to personally test your own urinary tract endurance, try sitting through any of Director Zack (The Hack) Snyder’s long pseudo-artistic crap film efforts (“Watchmen”, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”, “Army of the Dead”, etc.).  However, if you choose to not do so, you still might want to shower the movie screen with your own unique personal review of Mr. Snyder’s directing efforts!

These biblical films also succumbed to another hangover effect resulting from the prior Best Picture Winner of 1956, “Around the World in 80 Days”: Cameo/Stunt Casting!  Unlike miscasting (Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” for example), “Around the World…”  had all of these big-name stars/celebrities in bit roles (over 40 of them in all).  Although none of these biblical films were that bad, you still had a number of them (Ray Milland as the voice of Satan in “Kings”, Shelly Winters as a “woman that is healed” in “The Greatest Story…”, etc.) that didn’t enrich, but rather distracted from the storyline instead.  After a while, Hollywood finally stopped making so many of these biblical religious epics and moved on to making dramas about the clerical hierarchy itself like Tom Tryon in “The Cardinal” (1963) and Anthony Quinn in “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1968) (AKA Zorba the Pope).  With regards to other films about Jesus, even though the previous film versions left much to be desired, one was finally made that was really excellent, and that one wasn’t even a movie but a British-Italian television six-hour mini-series.  That version was “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), directed by Franco Zeffirelli (“Romeo and Juliet”) and with a screenplay by Zeffirelli and Anthony Burgress (“A Clockwork Orange”).  Although originally, either the producers or Zeffirelli himself considered doing some stunt miscasting for the role of Jesus like possibly considering either Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin on the Cross???), they dropped that dumb idea and picked British actor Robert Powell instead.  It was a brilliant casting decision, and Powell gave a mesmerizing performance. 

Zeffirelli conceived of portraying Jesus as more of an ordinary man who was gentle, fragile, and simple in his ways.  However, he also highlighted Powell’s blue eyes by having a thin line of dark blue eyeliner on his upper eye lids, and a thin line of white eyeliner on his lower eye lids which resulted in the piercing blue of his eyes generating a more penetrating stare.  He also had Powell and the other actors playing a younger version of Jesus hardly blink their eyes at all.  Zeffirelli brilliantly used this as a way to create a subconscious visual and surreal mystique about the character as well as having him stand out differently from any other person.  As a part of his portrayal, Powell also went on a near starvation diet for twelve days prior to shooting the crucifixion scenes in order to appear physically emaciated from Jesus’ prior imprisonment and torture.  When Powell, who looked very similar to pictures of Jesus, portrayed scenes of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, it was so powerful the both cast and crew complemented him afterwards on his performance.   However, he wasn’t the only one who was outstanding.  Zeffirelli’s direction, and the performances he elicited from his all-star group of actors like Laurence Olivier, Anne Bancroft, Anthony Quinn (no Zorba redone this time), James Farentino (Emmy nominated), and others were also highly praised.  Unfortunately, this series received few Emmy nominations, and neither Powell for his performance nor Zeffirelli for his direction were even nominated.  Worse, before its initial broadcast, and not even seeing the series’ first, some Protestant fundamentalists led by the religious fanatics’ Bob Jones III (Asshole No. 1), and Dr. Bill Bright (Asshole No. 2) denounced the mini-series as “blasphemy” because they felt Zeffirelli’s conception of Jesus would deny Jesus’ “divine nature”. Hmm?  I wonder if they wanted him instead to be flying through the air, shooting heat rays from his baby blue eyes, and wear a shirt with a big red J… Oh, that’s right!  That one has sort have been done before!  Never mind!  Anyhoo… once the producers added some additional dialogue mentioning Jesus’ future resurrection, and a simulated resurrection scene, the criticism finally started to die down!

To conclude, Hollywood has continued up to this present day to make new film versions/series of stories from the Bible both small and Epic.  Some of the more recent ones have been “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Passion of Christ” (2004), and “Exodus:  Gods and Kings” (2014).  I have not seen any of these more recent interpretations so I do not have an opinion on them one way or the other.  All I’d like to add Dear Reader is that, whatever you choose to believe, and whatever you choose to watch, I sincerely hope that you enjoy it, whether it is by yourself or with your family, friends, and loved ones.  Stay safe, be well, and love one another!

And as for myself, I think I’ll just sing…

For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow…

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!

 

And then, I think I’ll just watch “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” again!  

Happy Holidays Everyone!

NLP

 

Double Trouble!

Howard Silk: [frustrated by his other] “You know, they say it’s so great to meet yourself.  Bullshit!  It’s kind’a like losing your virginity, ya know?  Wait your whole life for it, and then 20 seconds later you’re disappointed.”

[J.K. Simmons to…J.K. Simmons “Counterpart” (2017-19)]

Sometimes I find it surprising that a specific unique genre is constantly utilized for adaption for movies and Network TV/cable/streaming shows.  For example, for crime and mysteries you can have the femme fatale character (too often blond) who entraps someone into their plans which can result in one’s self-destruction or at least put them at great risk to themselves or to others.  Another one, usually found in romantic comedies, can be for an ex-couple (married or otherwise) reconnecting again maybe when one or both are about to get married to someone else, or when they have to interact in some other way (vacation, work, health, some setback, etc.) and find that they are really either still attracted to each other, or they develop a new attraction to each other after the passage of time.  There are literally dozens and dozens of different unique themes that are repeated over and over again (different clothes, same person/type of person wearing them) because they are consistently popular with the general public.  Actors and actresses also repeat these specific types of roles too because (1) they are good at playing them, (2) they are stereotyped into playing these types of roles either by the various studios/networks/media companies, (3) they are too lazy to try anything else, or (4) it’s the only Damn thing that they can play really well.  An example of #4 is John Travolta who is always terrific at playing dumb, stupid, punks but for anything else…Ahhhh, Never Mind!  This month’s Blog Post will discuss one specific type of genre which is not usually discussed at all for either movies or Network TV/cable/streaming/shows.  What is it you ask?  Why, it’s a genre involving Twins or more specifically, Identical Twins!

There are a number of famous works of literature that feature identical twins.  For example, there is Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.”  There is also Alexander Pope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda.”  Lastly, there are two by Alexandre Dumas which are “The Corsican Brothers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  Not surprisingly, all of these can also be considered swashbuckling adventure novels/novellas (which is another unique type of genre too).  Every one of these examples have been adapted, while not exactly sticking to the exact storyline, many times for film, theater, and TV.  I have not seen all of the many adaptions (Shocking!  I know!), but I have seen enough of them to have some opinions on which ones are worthwhile.  Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”, which is the historical fiction story of two identical twins born separately in 1547 England (Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Tom Canty, a pauper) who, after switching places have to assume their new roles for real, had some really fine versions of the tale made.  One was a three-part Network TV adaption made in 1962 on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” TV show with actor Sean Scully playing both twins and Guy Williams (who originally played the swashbuckling Zorro for Disney) playing the novel’s equally swashbuckling character of Miles Hendon, a former soldier who protects and helps the young Edward.  While it was made strictly with children in mind, it was still very good, and Williams made a dashing Hendon (before he started acting like a department store manikin as the father on the stupid “Lost in Space” TV show a few years later).

Another one (and maybe the best of them all) was the Warner Brothers Studio version made in 1937 starring actual identical twins Billy and Bobby Mauch in the twin roles and, with maybe the greatest swashbuckling actor of them all, Errol Flynn as Hendon.  Flynn, who was also an underrated actor, is terrific in the role, and the film had additional top-notch assistance provided by Director William Keighley (who would also co-direct Flynn one year later in the even better “Adventures of Robin Hood”), cinematographers’ George Barnes and Sol Polito, film score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and fine acting support by Alan Hale and the always great Claude Rains as the two principal villains.  If you have never seen this version, try to find and watch it sometime (preferably with children).  It’s a classic!

Speaking of another classic involving identical twins, as I’ve previously mentioned, there’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” with enough different versions made to rival “Pauper”.  There was even a whole bunch of comic versions of this story like one film starring Peter Sellers in 1979, a subplot in the 1965 comedy film, “The Great Race” (with Jack Lemon playing the twins), and even, of all things, comedian Don Adams for an episode of his espionage sitcom “Get Smart” playing the dual role.   I even saw a pretty good serious adaption in a 1961 TV version starring a young Christopher Plummer in the title role.  It was stagey with cheap sets, and had more characterization and drama than any action.  Of course, for a little kid like me what did I care.  It was “The Prisoner of Zenda” for Christ Sakes Already!  However, the all-time best one of them all was the 1937 version starring Ronald Colman in the title role and directed by John Cromwell.

For this big budget version, they pulled out all of the stops with great assistance provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe, an Oscar nominated film score by Alfred Newman, and a great supporting cast consisting of Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven, and a scene stealing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as his nemesis, Rupert of Hentzau.  This tale of English gentleman Major Rassendyll (Colman) in 1897 Eastern Europe having to take the place of his double, Rudolph V at his country’s coronation as the new king, and then having to continue the charade when the real king is kidnapped is a slam bang romantic adventure classic highlighted by Colman’s fine portrayal.  Besides having one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever heard by an actor (and which has been endlessly mimicked ever since, even on an animated “George of the Jungle” cartoon show by a talking ape), Colman could actually act.  He was a great romantic lead.  His scenes with Carroll as Flavia, the real king’s intended bride, have real emotional pathos as you see him slowly falling in love with her while desperately trying to (1) maintain his facade, and (2) not to succumb to the temptation to let the real king die so he can have Flavia and the crown for himself.  He is equally good playing the real king, a wastrel who also changes while being held captive showing real courage and defiance even in the face of possible death.  About the only real issue I have ever had with this film is with the action scenes, especially the final sword fight between Colman and Fairbanks, Jr. which is a huge letdown.  Cromwell couldn’t direct any action scene worth a Damn, and they even tried to re-shoot some them with another director to little avail even though they had one of the best in the business in cinematographer Wong Howe.  For action scenes alone, check out another version of “Zenda” made in 1952 with Stewart Granger in the double role.  It’s not as good but, wow, what a sword fight. However, even with Cromwell’s limits as a director, this version of “Zenda” is still the best of them all thanks to Colman’s arresting performance.

Many actors have had the chance to play identical twins in films over the years. However, there has only been one actor who has ever played identical twins in two different films.  Do you have any idea who that might possibly be Dear Reader?  Would you believe…

Bette Davis!

Yep, she did two of them.  Now it would be nice to say that these two were classics too and, in a way, they actually are.  They are both Classic…ally Badddddd!  The first one was “A Stolen Life” (1946) which has the old cliche storyline of her playing the meek/wholesome sister, Kate (who is duller than a butter knife) vs, mean, manipulative/trollop sister, Pat who steals Kate’s new boyfriend Bill (Glenn Ford) and marries him.  Sometime later Kate and Pat go sailing, a sudden storm occurs, Pat drowns, and Kate now assumes Pat ‘s identity so she can win back Bill who now hates the real Pat because she had continually cheated on him (Oh, the horror!).  Will Kate tell him the truth?  Will Bill forgive her?  Will you admit you just wasted two hours of time on this piece of Shit?  Even though Bette Davis has been dead for over 30 years, the remains in her casket could still out act any actress ever trying to play a character like Pat.  However, for her performance as Kate (who probably should have been wearing a “Kick Me!” sticker on her back), that’s another story.  It almost looked like Davis was internally seething throughout the entire movie whenever she was trying to play such a boring and weak character like Kate.  Despite “Life” utilizing ground breaking special effects cinematography to enable Davis to play two different roles in the same scene, “A Stolen Life” was just a TV soap opera before they actually had TV soap operas.  Unfortunately, for her second effort playing identical twins for the 1964 film, “Dead Ringer,” it was even worse!

“Ringer” was an adaption of a fine 1946 Mexican film noir called “La Otra” (AKA “Dead Pigeon”) starring actress Dolores del Rio as identical twins which had been sitting on a Warner Brothers Studio shelf all the way back in 1946.  By the time the nineteen sixties rolled around, whoever thought that it was a good idea to make a movie from a script written back in the forties must have been smoking some serious peyote.  Worse, now Bette Davis must have been smoking some of that same peyote too, if she thought that she could successfully star in this one.  In the early to mid-sixties, a number of older former big nineteen thirties/forties female movie stars (Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Davis, etc.) were making schlock films like this one because there were so few roles for older women (which is still too prevalent even today).  The archaic storyline of two long-time estranged identical twins: (1) rich, evil Margaret who stole her now recently deceased rich husband away from (2) dowdy, downbeat, and financially struggling Edith who ultimately plans to murder and assume Margaret’s identity was lamer than “Chester” from the TV western, Gunsmoke!”  Worse, Davis both in her appearance and in her acting style looked ridiculous because, even though she was 56 years old at the time, she looked more like someone 76 years old trying to act like someone 42 years old (which was del Rio’s age when she was in “La Otra”).  Even worse, Edith’s cop boyfriend was played by mash potato faced Karl Malden who must have been playing older roles since he was two years old. However, even here he still looked younger than Davis.  In keeping with the AARP acting lineup, they must have then emptied the entire Hollywood actor retirement home since the cast included fellow oldsters George Macready, George Chandler, Cyril Delevanti, and Estelle Winwood.  They even had old, former big-time star Paul Henreid directing this mess.  By the time I finished watching “Ringer” I felt like I needed to mainline some Geritol quick or else I’d fall asleep faster than an overstuffed hibernating bear.  Now, of course if any of you ever want to see a good version of “Ringer,” just skip this one and see del Rio in the Mexican “La Otra” instead.    

Network TV shows then also had episodes involving different types of identical twins, and often it was for genres such as S/F, horror, and even espionage.  For examples you had the following:

  • “Star Trek”: “What Little Girls are Made Of” [Season One, Episode 7 (10/20/66)].  While on a distant barren planet Captain Kirk is captured and a duplicate android of himself is made to assume control of his ship.  This excellent episode was written by famed S/F and horror writer Robert Bloch (“Psycho”), and it definitely fits into the S/F and horror realm (and Ted Cassidy of “The Adams Family” plays one Hell of a scary android.)
  • “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”: “The Double Affair” [Season One, Episode 8 (11/17/64)].  Napoleon Solo (never has there ever been a stupider name for a spy) is captured, and his plastic surgery duplicate takes his place to obtain some secret stuff.  Stupid S/F and espionage plot, but it has a good motorcycle chase and fist-fight at the end.  Also, any episode with a young Senta Berger in it can never be too bad!
  •  “The Outer Limits”: “The Duplicate Man” [Season Two, Episode 13 (12/19/64)].  A scientist (Ron Randell) in the future has to create an illegal clone of himself programed to hunt and kill a dangerous, and also illegal, escaped telepathic creature that he had secretly smuggled in to study before it goes on a rampage.  Terrific noir-like adaption of a fine story by famed S/F and horror writer Clifford D. Simak (even though the creature looked more like a shabby Chewbacca with a bird beak!)
  • “The Twilight Zone”: “In his Image” [Season Four, Episode 1 (01/03/63)].  Alan (George Grizzard), with fractured memories of his past and, at times, murderous urges, tries to find out who he really is while taking his recent fiancee to visit his home town.  One of the all-time best episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (an expanded hour version) with a tour de force performance by Grizzard (and no, I’m not going to tell you anything else, Dear Reader).  See it!

Network TV, cable, and other streaming services also had series which had storylines involving identical twins.  One of the earliest ones was the ABC sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-66) with Duke having an identical paternal cousin (also played by Duke with a Scottish accent) due to the fact that their fathers (both played by veteran character actor William Schallert) were also, identical twins.  Sometimes, a visiting third paternal cousin (also Duke) would show up with a Southern accent to cause even more comic(?) mayhem.  Without going into the sheer biological improbability/impossibility of three paternal cousins being exactly identical, this show was typical of the type of crap sitcoms that polluted the television airwaves back then.  Basically, it was just ABC jumping on the Patty Duke bandwagon to pimp her for some cheap ratings since Duke just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Miracle Worker” the year before.  Besides Duke demonstrating that she couldn’t do either a Scottish or a Southern accent very well, it mercifully, was cancelled after three years.

A far better series involving identical twins (actually, a whole container ship load of them) was for the espionage/science fiction Starz Network cable series, “Counterpart” (2017-19). “Counterpart” takes place in Berlin and involves an entryway opening between two parallel Earths with everyone having an identical twin (even with the same name), except their opposite is on the alternative Earth.  The entryway was created after an experiment in 1987 East Germany, but when a major pandemic occurred on the alternative Earth in 1996 resulting in the death of hundreds of millions there, and the virus causing the pandemic was thought to have originated on our Earth, a Cold War situation has existed ever since.  Now the Top-Secret entryway is a major checkpoint portal where both sides strictly enforce who is allowed through each way with associated spies, assassins, officials, and other various individuals passing through constantly.  Even though this might be the only series where we have more identical twins than you know what to do with, this series is focused on the main character of Howard Silk played by the terrific Oscar-winning actor, J.K. Simmons.  On our Earth he is a meek, unassuming, and minor married office worker.  However, on the alternative Earth he is a ruthless, intelligent, and highly dangerous operative estranged from his wife, and needing to reveal his presence to and enlist the aid of his twin on our Earth to stop a rogue faction on his alternative Earth from executing a plan to get revenge on our Earth for causing the pandemic on their world. 

Although “Counterpart” is science fiction, it is also espionage, and it is terrific in conveying this dark shadowy world where lies, subterfuge, double-dealing, and betrayal are as common as in any espionage novel.  The entire cast is excellent, the various storylines are complex and believable, and the series is both suspenseful and constantly surprising.  However, maybe the best thing in “Counterpart” is J.K. Simmons in the pivotal role of Howard Silk.  He is absolutely amazing!  He literally becomes two different and distinct personalities before your very eyes, especially when both twins are together.  Each one is unique, and they butt heads constantly, but it is subtle at times rather than overt.  What’s even more remarkable is when each twin is on the other’s world and has to pretend they are the other one.  You see the slight changes he makes to each character non-verbally, from facial expressions to even body movement to pretend they are the other one, but at the same time, still maintaining some of the same characteristics of their original character.  While watching Simmons performance, all I kept thinking was, “How in the frigging Hell is he doing that?”  This series is a standout in its own right, and it’s a shame that it only lasted two years.  However, for “Counterpart,” J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Howard Silk is someone (or is it two?) who you’ll always remember.

Well, that’s about it for this post.  There are other fine performances by actors portraying identical twins whether it’s Kevin Kline in the political comedy, “Dave” (1993) or Lee Marvin in his Oscar winning performance for the Western comedy “Cat Ballou” (1965).  We’ll always have more of them.  Let’s just hope that they’ll be more “good” ones!

NLP

Shrink Rap!

Dr. Alex Brulov: “Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love.  After that they make the best patients.” [Michael Chekhov to Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” (1945)]

The psychiatric profession has been a fruitful area for film directors and Network TV to explore for a long time.  It really came into prominence for motion pictures starting in the nineteen forties and later for television in the nineteen sixties.  This was due to a lot of motion picture directors, executives, and actors seeing psychoanalysts themselves, so they were influenced into making films about the subject.  It also might have been due to the horrors of WW II which brought the increased use of psychoanalysis into the forefront of the public conscience.  This leads up to this month’s post where I will discuss the different ways, both good and bad, that the field of psychiatry and psychiatrists have been portrayed in films and on TV all the way up to the present day.

A number of film noirs in the nineteen forties had storylines where mentally unstable individuals committed murder.  This allowed the field of psychiatry to be incorporated into the story to try and explain these individuals’ motivations/actions.  Such films like “The High Wall” (1947) had war veteran Robert Taylor accused of murdering his wife treated by psychiatrist Audrey Totter to help him try to remember what actually happened, or “The Dark Mirror” (1946) with psychiatrist Lew Ayres trying to figure out which identical twin (both played by Olivia de Havilland) was a psychopathic killer, or “Spellbound” (1945) with psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman who, while trying to help amnesiac psychiatrist Gregory Peck, discovers that:  (1) she is in love with him, (2) he is not really a psychiatrist, (3) he might be an insane killer, and (4) he didn’t pay for their dinner (maybe she should have just tried Match.com instead!).  All of these films along with others made back then just had to always have the various shrinks falling in love with their patients.  It got so bad that maybe Faberge should have marketed a scent labeled “Psychopathic Aphrodisia” for the public.  You just always had to love those Nut Jobs!

At times you didn’t even need to have a psychiatrist explaining the motivations for a psychopath in these films.  Instead, you now had your lead detective(s) spouting off some psycho-babble mumbo-jumbo about what were the psychological motivations for the maniac they were trying to apprehend.  It was almost like they had a “Psychopath for Dummies” identification book in the lower drawer of their precinct desk right along with their cheap half pint of bourbon, a pack of Camels, and a comic book or two.  Some of these movies back then were “White Heat” (1949), “Follow Me Quietly” (1949), and “Phantom Lady” (1944).  Although “Follow Me Quietly” and “White Heat” (with James Cagney playing the greatest psycho with a Mom complex until Norman Bates came along) were both excellent, “Phantom Lady” was almost laugh out loud awful.  Despite the fine direction by Robert Siodmak (“The Killers”), and incredible cinematography by Woody Bredell (also, “The Killers”), this stupid redundant tale of a loyal secretary (Ella Raines) secretly in love with her unhappily married boss (pretty boy non-actor Allan Curtis), and her efforts to later prove him innocent of his wife’s murder, it was adapted from a story by the always overrated trite noir writer, Cornell Woolrich.  However, maybe the worst thing in the whole movie was the ridiculous performance by Franchot Tone as (Spoiler Alert) the real nut job killer.  Every time he wants to secretly reveal his craziness to the viewing audience, he puts the flat part of his hand over his mouth while spreading his fingers wide open so his Goo-Goo-Googly eyes can bulge out between his fingers.  That might have possibly been the worst ever attempt by someone to look nutty until it was finally topped 47 years later by Anthony Hopkins’ overrated semi-drooling/ham performance as Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.” Even with Raines (while undercover at a late-night club) gyrating and erotically dancing while simulating in closeup that she was having an orgasm (how did that one get by the censors), you couldn’t keep “Phantom Lady” from inanity!

Too often for movies and Network TV you had psychiatrists portrayed as all-knowing/wise problem solvers of the mind who resolved their patients’ mental problems just in time for the ending credits to appear!  This also wouldn’t change until years later.  For this stereotype you had both good and bad ones with such good ones as:

  1. “The Three Faces of Eve” (1957): True story with good shrink Lee J. Cobb helping to cure tour de force Oscar winner Joanne Woodward’s three-person multiple personality disorder.
  2. “Sybil” (1976): NBC Network film, which was also a true story, with Joanne Woodward now as the good shrink helping to cure mesmerizing Emmy winner Sally Field of her fourteen-person multiple personality disorder.
  3. “The Snake Pit” (1948): Good shrink Leo Genn helping to cure Oscar nominated Olivia de Havilland’s mental illness while also throwing light on how institutionalized patients were mistreated in mental institutions.  This movie is dated but it is still powerful!
  4. “The Mark” (1961): Good shrink Rod Steiger helping former convicted child molester Stuart Whitman (Oscar nominated) to deal with his psychological demons upon his release.
  5. “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (1977): Semi-biographical story about good shrink Bibi Andersson helping Kathleen Quinlan (should have been Oscar nominated) in dealing with her mental illness.  Despite numerous questionable film changes for the original character’s story, this is still a good film with fine performances.

Of course, you also had some real stinkers with an all-knowing/wise(ass) psychiatrist such as:

  1. “The Dark Past” (1949): Know it all shrink Lee J. Cobb while being held captive by murderous escapee Bill Holden and his gang takes less than an evening to cure of him of his psychological nightmares, his paralyzed hand, his murderous tendencies, and a bad case of dandruff making him into a new man (Of course there is still that little matter of him killing the prison warden earlier!).  No problem!  Cobb will take care of that one too before breakfast!
  2. “Lizzie” (1957): Vaudeville “Three Faces of Eve” rip-off with Eleanor Parker overacting worse than a high school play reject trying to portray someone with a multiple personality disorder.  Also, with Richard (Palladin) Boone in a sleepwalking performance as her shrink!
  3. “Dressed to Kill” (1980): Maybe the worst of them all.  Another Alfred Hitchcock rip-off film by Hack Director Brian De Palma.  This time it’s “Psycho” with cheating Angie Dickinson in the Janet Leigh role, and Michael Caine as her therapist who’s trying to analyze(!!!) her while also  getting in touch with his feminine side (You know, like Lizzie Borden!).

Later on, studios started to make film biographies of famous therapists, and surprisingly, a couple of them were actually quite good.  Two that I want to mention are “Freud” (1962), and “A Dangerous Method” (2011).  “Freud” was a straight biography of the therapist as a young doctor leading up to the development of his analytical concepts regarding dream interpretation, the subconscious, child sexuality, and the Oedipus complex.  It had top notch talent behind it with Montgomery Cliff starring as Freud, Susannah York playing a composite of a number of his patients, a number of other fine English character actors, an original screenplay by playwright Jean Paul-Sartre, fine black and white cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, an Oscar nominated film score by Jerry Goldsmith, and direction by John Huston.  However, despite all of that, it was a very troubled production.  Sartre’s screenplay was too long (it would have resulted in an eight-hour movie), and Mega-Jerk Sartre had his name removed from the film rather than having his “masterpiece” screenplay altered in any way.  Susannah York was also a royal pain in the ass to deal with too, so much so, that she was finally told to quit being a problem “or else”.  And then there was Montgomery Cliff.

Marilyn Monroe once said of Cliff, “He’s the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.” (And folks, that means something if someone as screwed up as Marilyn Monroe says something like that!).  This was Cliff’s next to last film, and besides his dealing with being gay, he was beset with numerous health problems accentuated by his long-time drug and alcohol dependency.  It also didn’t help that Huston, who had a long track record of having sadistic tendencies during prior film productions, was continually abusive to Cliff during filming.  The constant production delays due to both Cliff and Huston’s actions later resulted in Universal-International Studios trying to sue Cliff for the production delay costs.  However, despite all of that, the film was a hit, and not only did the Studio lose the suit, they also had to pay Cliff a serious chunk of money.  My own feelings on the matter are that Cliff, even early in his career, and Huston could both be arrogant royal Assholes, but together they still managed to make a fine film no matter what you think of Freud’s views and concepts.  Huston brilliantly directs “Freud” almost like a film noir mystery of the mind with Cliff as a detective trying to solve why York and others portraying disturbed patients either say or act the way they do. Incorporated into this film are incredible dark black and white dream sequences which are the most riveting ones seen on film since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” was made seventeen years before.  Cliff’s performance is subtle, and both thoughtful and introspective.  For all of his troubles, he was still able to deliver a capable performance with strong assistance provided by John Huston.

“A Dangerous Method” is another film drama about Sigmund Freud.  However, it takes an entirely different approach to psychiatry.  Here it is instead a drama about three eminent therapists: (1) Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), (2) his patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who suffers from hysteria and ultimately becomes both his mistress and an eminent therapist in her own right, and (3) Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and his interactions with both individuals.  The film was directed by David Cronenberg with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his own play.  At first, I couldn’t see how Cronenberg could ever possibly be able to direct such a high brow film.  He was known for a film genre known as “body horror” which too often were films containing scenes of extreme gore, violence, nudity, and sex (“A History of Violence”, “Eastern Promises”, etc.).  However, in this case, I was wrong.  He elicits fine performances from the three main characters (except whenever Knightley overacts while going into a hysterical fit).  He also expertly incorporated the scenery, costumes, sets, and art direction into the film to beautifully convey the time that these individuals lived.  Cronenberg crafts a movie that really forces you to think about the various opposing views of Jung and Freud along with what originally drew them both together first as friends and colleagues, but later tore them apart as their professional differences, especially pertaining to psychoanalytical concepts, proved unreconcilable.  However, maybe the best part of the movie is his utilization of Hampton’s screenplay.  It is complex, and he does not dumb down the differing concepts found in psychoanalysis for the viewer.  That is what ultimately makes “A Dangerous Method” a great film.

As time went by, another change in film portrayals of the psychiatric profession was in their focus shifting from not just a therapist’s treatment of patients, but also how a therapist was personally affected for better or worse.  Unfortunately, too often this resulted in soap opera storylines that almost came across like Peyton Place on a couch.  For movies you had such winners as “The Cobweb” (1955) with Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Graham, Paul Stewart, Lillian Gish, and others consisting of shrinks and staff at a mental institution more busy drinking, cheating, back stabbing, etc. than actually treating patients.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the grating nail across a blackboard film score by bad film composer Leonard Rosenman was enough to drive anyone batty.  Next up you had the campy and overwrought “The Caretakers” (1963) with Robert Stack (right after he finished playing Elliott Ness) now reduced to cleaning up a psych ward rather than the crime infested Chicago of the nineteen thirties.  However, here he had a nemesis that was even worse than Al Capone…JOAN CRAWFORD!  As the head shrink, he believes in group therapy.  As the head nurse, she believes in strait-jackets, and padded cells (and also maybe the rack and branding irons which was probably how you maintained discipline in your own home!  Right, Joannie!).  By the end of this mess, I was hoping that Ness…I mean, Stack would have just whipped out that old Thompson submachine gun and blasted all of the Pepsi-Cola advertisements that Crawford had deliberately placed in this movie (she was on their board of directors at the time) along with Crawford, to smithereens. Lastly, you had “Captain Newman, M.D.” (1963) with Gregory Peck as the aforementioned “Newman” who is head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at the Colfax Army Air Field military hospital in the Arizona desert treating numerous airmen suffering from various emotional and psychological combat trauma in 1944.  This one, at least, mixed in some comedy with the hard drama (sort of like a much lesser “M*A*S*H”) with Tony Curtis and Larry Storch providing the comedy, and Angie Dickinson (way before she was fricasseed in “Dressed to Kill”) as his head nurse/love interest.  This one wasn’t so bad as much as just being pedestrian/soap opera bland.  It wasn’t till much, much later that something far better came along and that one wasn’t even a film.

Network TV tried a few times to specifically produce a few shows about the psychiatric profession.  However, all of these like “The Eleventh Hour” (1962-64), “Breaking Point” (1963), and “The Hothouse” (1988) were rating failures.  Basically, Network TV too often just incorporated stories relating to the psychiatric profession into their regular TV medical shows every once in a while, from Dr. Kildare/Ben Casey’s time all the way up to “ER” and “House”.  Maybe this was because the public preferred watching their doctors operating on people rather than analyzing them.  Who knows!  Anyway, finally one cable series came along which focused on a therapist not only psychoanalyzing patients, but also focusing on his all too fallible personal life.  That series was “In Treatment” (2008-10) starring Gabriel Byrne as Dr. Paul Weston.

“In Treatment” was an unusual series in that it was originally based on the Israeli series “Be Tipul” (“In Therapy”) which won a ton of awards there.  An American adaption was made using some of the same storylines and even some of the music from the original Israeli series.  HBO Europe reached a deal with other countries mostly in Europe along with a few others in the world to develop their own versions which have continued long after the American version ended in 2010, although a new version has returned this year with Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) as the new therapist.  The format of the original American series consisted of five, thirty-minute episodes shown weekly one per night where Weston, in a separate office at his home, conducted individual sessions with his patient(s).  However, that was only for the first four episodes out of the five.  The fifth episode every week consisted of Weston going to the home of his former friend and colleague Gina (Dianne Wiest) who psychoanalyzed him.

As Weston, Byrne is terrific as is Wiest along with all of the rest of the cast.  He is neither all knowing nor even wise at times.  He makes mistakes, sometimes “big” ones.  He gets too involved in his patients’ lives which causes a strain on his marriage with his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), his children, and his own sense of self.  He can also be an arrogant and temperamental ass as well as acting curt, rude, and judgmental with everyone around him including Gina.  However, he is also a keenly insightful and skilled therapist, an extremely feeling individual, and too often most critical of himself.  In other words, he is a believably real “human being.”  “In Treatment” does have some major flaws.  Some of the angry, nasty, and inappropriate outbursts towards him during some of his sessions I cannot believe any analyst would possibly tolerate for long including his own nasty outbursts at times with Gina.  Also, two patient storylines of (1) Laura (Melissa George) being erotically attracted to him and he to her, and (2) Mia (Hope Davis), an old ex-girlfriend who he accepted as a patient even though it was obvious from the start that she still had major unresolved issues with him after all of these years misdirect the series into ludicrous soap opera territory at times.  However, even with these flaws, “In Treatment” is the only series that shows how therapy sessions actually somewhat work, and how hard it is for even gradual progress to be made if any progress is to be made at all.  For a series about people who mostly sit around talking to each other, “In Treatment” is both suspenseful and illuminating!

Well, that sums up another Blog Post.  I hope that it was interesting and informative for you!  However, if it was not, or if I provoked any anger or annoyance, well…

“MAYBE YOU HAVE SOME UNEXPLORED ISSUES THAT WE MIGHT NEED TO FURTHER DISCUSS…”

NLP

Poverty Porn!

Ty Ty Walden:  “When a man has a wife like Griselda, I don’t know how he can keep his mind on food all the time.”

Griselda Walden, Ty Ty’s Daughter-in-Law:  “Now, quit your teasin’ Ty Ty.”

Ty Ty Walden:  “If the good Lord seen fit to put a beauty like you in our house, I’m gonna take my fill of lookin’ while I can.”  [Robert Ryan to Tina Louise in “God’s Little Acre!” (1958)]

Rural America, whether it was portrayed in the south, mid-west, or elsewhere has been a popular subject for countless novels, plays, movies or TV shows going all the way back to the founding of this nation.  Since the majority of the population was rural, not urban or suburban until much later in our country’s existence, it was a natural subject for dramatization.  Also, due to job prospects being more limited, agriculture was the principal means for employment even though individuals remained limited economically due to such fickle things as topography, weather, acreage need, etc. which too often resulted in people just barely scraping by or living in dire poverty or…  OK, WAKE UP!  WAKE UP ALREADY!  I figured I’d better do that right now before my pseudo-sociological/economic introduction to this month’s Blog Post puts everyone to sleep (or at least keep you from getting a concussion from dozing off and hitting your head on something).  In a nut shell, this month’s Post will discuss the overabundance of movies, cable, and Network TV shows that explored/misrepresented this part of rural American life which I have not so subtly nick-named, “Poverty Porn.”

From the late nineteen-fifties right on up to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, Network TV was loaded or plagued, like an infestation of locusts, with numerous shows that celebrated (AKA made big ratings/bucks for the TV Networks) rural America.  These shows happened to be sitcoms presenting a rural populace that the Networks wanted to make appear as being naïve but noble but too often devolved into just having them come across as ignorant or dumber than an ice truck salesman trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.  The only saving grace for these shows was that a number of these rural types often interacted with urban dwellers who, despite being better educated and economically advantaged, were made to look even dumber than these so called “lesser” individuals.  My own opinion was that these shows were just plain stupid, simplistic, and loaded with heavy-handed and borderline slapstick humor, so much so, that they just re-enforced crude stereotypes that did a disservice to everyone.  The CBS Network was a pioneer in mass producing these highly rated low I.Q. sitcoms.  They were so prevalent that critics said that CBS should actually mean, the “Country” Broadcasting System, and that instead of originally being called the “Tiffany” Network, a much better moniker should have been the “Hillbilly” Network.  Some of these shows were:

  • “Petticoat Junction” (1963-70): Rural sitcom taking place at the Shady Rest Hotel run by Kate, the owner, her three jailbait daughters located in the community of Hooter…ville (I’m not kidding), and where hilarity ensues.  An old 1890s train called the Hooterville Cannonball also played a predominant role at the beginning of each episode Hooting its whistle while the three daughters just happened to be taking a shower together during the opening credits (Real subtle, CBS!).
  • “Green Acres” (1965-71): When New York City lawyer Eddie Albert wants to leave the rat race and become a rural farmer, his glamorous, semi-beautiful wife, Eva Gabor follows and hilarity ensues.  And where is their farm located?  Why near Hooterville of course.  You know a sitcom is really bad when a pig named Eva … Ops! (wrong pig) I mean, Arnold, has all of the best lines.
  • “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1962-71): Widowed Ozark hillbilly Jed (looking like a scarecrow who got his attire from The Walking Dead”) after discovering oil and becoming a gazillionaire moves his family consisting of sex bomb daughter Elly May, the family imbecile Jethro, and sweet/forgiving devout Confederate/Baptist Bigot Granny (Yeah, and if she was around now would probably have been leading the crowd storming the Capitol Building with a rope in hand looking for the nearest non-Caucasian to lynch).  And where did they all move to?  Why to Beverly Hills, of course where even more hilarity ensues (At least it wasn’t Hooterville this time!).
  • “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-68): Starring Andy Griffith playing Andy Griffith as the sheriff of Mayberry, his 6-year-old son Opie (Ron Howard before he started going bald like at age 8), his deputy Barney (Don Knotts vibrating like a tuning fork), Jim Nabors as Gomer (the village idiot), and where even more and more, hilarity ensues (I think I need a marathon “Halloween” movie fix right about now!).
  • “Mayberry, RFD” (1968-71): With bland Ken Barry taking over after Andy Griffith left the show.  The blandly re-named show follows bland widow city councilman Sam and his bland son Mike’s interactions with the remaining denizens of Mayberry where bland hilarity now ensues (I think I’m starting to fall asleep!).
  • The Real McCoys” (1957-63): This show actually originated on ABC but for its last year it moved to CBS so I’m including it here.  It starred Grandpappy Amos (Walter Brennan) and his grandson and family who move from West Virginia to California to live and work on a farm that they inherited, and how they dealt with others while instilling their sweet, rural family wisdom and humor (which also reflected Brennan’s conservative views). What sort of views you ask?  You know, like when good old Amos uses his divining rod to find a new water source for the farm vs. the recommendation of an actual geologist (AKA science “Bad!”  Ignorant, superstitious folklore “Good!”).  Or how about good old lovable Amos confronting bigotry against hillbillies like themselves from local children (But it’s perfectly OK for you, Walter in real life to be a vehemently hateful anti-Semitic and racist Bigot!  Right, Walter!).  Maybe CBS in their wisdom could have done a crossover episode with Granny and Amos hooking up and going on a first date, fire-bombing places of worship that were not of their same faith.  Oh, what wonderful hilarity would ensue from that!  Right, CBS!

Finally, the Big Three Networks, and especially CBS under executive Robert Wood and programming head Fred Silverman during the 1970-71 time period instituted what was known as the “rural purge” where an entire group of rural themed sitcoms, some still very popular in the ratings, were cancelled along with a number of older game shows (“I’ve Got a Secret”, etc.) and variety shows (“The Ed Sullivan Show”, etc.).  This followed from research showing that these shows drew a less desirable audience, namely older and rural or young boys lacking disposable income for advertisers’ products.  The result was Networks focusing more on developing shows that would be appealing to suburban and urban audiences along with young adults, and who would also have more disposable income to buy advertisers’ products.  CBS would still make shows that appealed to the rural populace like the original “Hee-Haw” (1969-71) and which, after cancellation, was put into syndication from 1971-93, the gentle rural family drama “The Waltons” (1972-81), and “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979-85).  However, as an important block of Network programing, rural-oriented TV sitcoms were deader than an Egyptian mummy (or Madonna’s film career!).

Hollywood adapted a large number of books by some noted authors and playwrights into films exploring poor rural life with both good and bad results.  A number of these novels along with their film adaptions ran into censorship problems due, at times, to their tawdry subject matter (real or imagined) which affected the overall quality of their film adaptions.  For writer Erskine Caldwell you had a bad film version of “Tobacco Road” (1941) but a good one for “God’s Little Acre” (1958).  Next, for William Faulkner you had a good adaption of “Intruder in the Dust” (1949), but poor adaptions of “The Sound and the Fury” (1959) and “Sanctuary” (1961).  Then, for John Steinbeck you had good film adaptions of “Of Mice and Men” (1939) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), but a poor one for “Tortilla Flat” (1942).  Lastly, for Tennessee Williams you had a good adaption of “This Property is Condemned” (1966) but a God awful one for “Baby Doll” (1956) (Karl Malden overacted so badly he should have been muzzled!).  The list just goes on and on.  Out of all of the ones that I have just mentioned, I’d like to highlight two for praise.  They are not as acclaimed as some of the others but they both deserve better appreciation.  Those two are “God’s Little Acre” and “This Property is Condemned”.

“Acre’s” storyline revolved around widowed farmer Ty Ty Walden (Robert Ryan) the patriarch of his family in the backwoods of Georgia during the Great Depression.  His family consists of three boys (Buck, Shaw, and Jim) and two girls, Darlin’ Jill (Fay Spain) the teenage sexual tease, and Rosamund, unhappily married to Will (Aldo Ray) who still lusts after his ex-fiancee Griselda (Tina Louise) who also still has the hots for Will even though she is now married to Ty Ty’s hot-tempered son, Buck (Confused yet?).  Ty Ty has been digging for gold, supposedly, a treasure left by his grandfather for over 15 years while leaving his farm in total disarray.  Will, depressed after losing his job when the nearby textile mill closed, longs to re-open it while erotically reconnecting (and not figuratively either) with Griselda (What a mess!).  When this book was originally published in 1933, the sexual themes were considered so explicit that Caldwell and his publisher were sued for spreading pornography.  Caldwell won!  They lost!  It was also banned in Boston (always a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned) as well as courting controversy due to Caldwell’s desire to focus on the plight of non-unionized textile workers in the Depression era South which back then could be construed as maybe Socialist or Communist or Marxist or, at the very least, not too friendly towards Capitalism in general.  This film courted its own amount of controversy since the screenplay was by blacklisted writer, Ben Maddow who tried to show a form of popular uprising by the laid-off millworkers in trying to re-gain control of their former factory equipment in order to work again.  However, this film was made back in the McCarthy Era fifties when Blacklisting was prevalent so it was really toned down into just showing a bunch of guys showing up with Will in the lead to briefly turn on some textile machines before tragedy strikes.   By now you may be thinking, “And why exactly, do you like this film?”  Well, remember the title of this month’s Blog Post Dear Reader?  For the fifties, besides innuendo, “Acre” reeked with erotic and smarmy sexual tension combined with some really hysterical funny moments which made it all worthwhile.

The still underrated and great Director Anthony Mann could do any sort of picture from film noir (“Raw Deal”) to Classic Westerns (“Winchester 73”) to even historical Epics (“El Cid”).  Here, even though he had to tone down Caldwell’s radical views and maybe Maddow’s as well, he ramped up (as far as possible back then) the sexual aspects of the novel into his film.  Whether it was Fay Spain taking a bath in an outdoor bathtub next to an outdoor handpump and spigot while asking lusting Buddy Hackett (eyeballs almost popping out of his head) to “pump” some more water on her to Tina Louise walking outdoors in the middle of the night wearing an almost painted on negligee covered in sweat to Aldo Ray, bare-chested, also covered in sweat panting almost like a wild animal upon meeting her at night, the sexual tension could make anyone sweat right along with them.  When this film was first released, audiences under 18 years of age were prohibited from seeing it. However, it didn’t stop me from seeing it when it first came out and I was a whole lot younger than 18 too (My older brother took me with him!  He wasn’t 18 either!).  To be honest, back then I liked “Acre” because, for a little innocent kid like me, I didn’t notice the sexual overtones at all.  I just thought the film was really funny.  Some of the advertisements for “Acre” were things like, “See How Poor White Trash Live!” and “Forbidden Love in the Hot Georgia Sun!”  Some of the dialogue was priceless too!  For example:

Ty Ty Walden: (In response to his son wanting a raincoat) “Son, if it starts to rain, you just peel off your clothes and let your skin take care of the rest.  God never made a finer raincoat than a man’s skin, anyhow.”  (No sexual innuendo here at all!  Right!)

Robert Ryan looked like he was having the time of his life overacting in this role.  Although Tina Louise was never much of an actress, she didn’t have to be rather than just acting alluring which she pulled off without a hitch.  Aldo Ray, also a limited actor, could at least elicit a crude form of blunt masculine sexuality here that fit into this movie very well.  There was even a small pivotal role played by a very young Michael Landon playing an albino (Why not!  He played a “Teenage Werewolf” just the year before) who Ty Ty enlists (sort of) in helping him to find that gold.  The scandalous aspects of “Acre” are pretty dated now.  However, the overall acting by everyone as well as the non-subtle comedy in the storyline still make “Acre” enjoyable more so than the overrated and supposedly more scandalous “Baby Doll” made just two years prior.

“This Property Is Condemned” was based on a one act play by Tennessee Williams that took place during the Great Depression in the small fictional town of Dodson, Mississippi.  Natalie Wood starred as Alma Star, the eldest daughter of Hazel who owns a boarding house where local railroad workers rent rooms.  Hazel uses (pimps out) Alma as an attraction for the men so they will rent rooms there while Alma desperately wants to escape this dead-end existence and head to the big city of New Orleans.  A stranger named Owen (Robert Redford) soon arrives there and also rents a room while quickly attracting Alma’s interest since he came from New Orleans.  However, secretly, he is actually a railroad agent hired to lay off a number of employees, some of who are Hazel’s renters, due to cutbacks caused by the Depression.  Conflicts arise as Alma and Owen slowly grow closer and fall in love.  However (This is a Tennessee Williams story, you know!), things ultimately do not work out the way either Alma or Owen had planned.

“Condemned” had a lot of problems being made.  Tennessee Williams hated the adaption and threatened to have his name removed from the credits.  As such there was no finished screenplay when filming began which required constant re-writes causing further delays.  Wood was also having some serious personal problems.  Her prior films were not successful, and she even tried to commit suicide during this film’s production.  She also had difficulties doing some of the scenes.  For a specific scene where her character was supposed to be drunk in a bar, she had to actually get drunk because she just couldn’t perform the scene properly.  For another scene where her character was supposed to be standing in a steel water tank for cattle, she was so scared of being in dark water (a major phobia that she had all of her life) that actor Robert Blake (who was also in the movie) had to dive under the water and, while holding his breath, steady her legs so she could do the scene.  Sadly, when this film was released, it was met with both public and critical indifference resulting in Wood not making another movie for the next three years.  However, “Condemned” has gotten better and better with age.  First, despite its problems, the film had a top-notch production team making it.  Future Oscar-winning Director Sydney Pollack (it was his second film) directed it very well.  Also, despite the screenplay’s issues, the finished version was excellent (even if it didn’t jive with William’s original play).  This might have been due to the fact that it was co-written by a young talented guy by the name of Francis Ford Coppola who would later earn his spurs as a future Oscar winning screenplay writer before graduating into becoming a future Oscar Winning Director.  It was co-produced by the great producer (and later actor) John Houseman and the cinematography was by legendary former Oscar winning cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Second, the acting was excellent too with Redford subtly underplaying his character while managing to show some depth in the role.  The other actors such as Kate Reid as Hazel, Mary Badham as Alma’s younger sister, and Charles Bronson in a sly and sinister performance as Hazel’s (maybe) boyfriend are all good too.  However, the best of them all is Natalie Wood’s great performance as Alma.  Her Alma, like most of playwright William’s female characters, is a tarnished innocent living in a dream-world of her own mind.  Whether it’s taking Owen to show him her late father’s red-headed scarecrow to telling him fanciful stories that Owen knows are not true, her Alma is consistently beautiful aided in no small way by James Wong Howe’s stunning star highlighting cinematography.  However, at the same time, in Alma, Wood gives the absolutely sexiest and most sensual performance of her career.  Her Alma attracts men to her like a magnet and she knows it and she loves it.  She pulls off the difficult dual role of making her Alma both an erotic unattainable dream girl, and a desperately manipulative tramp.  This movie deserved better, and so did Natalie Wood in her too short and, ultimately, tragic life.

Other adaptions of novels highlighting rural life have been made into fine films such as “The Yearling” (1946), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), and “Winter’s Bone” (2010).  However, the last two pictures that I want to highlight are more recent.  Those two films are “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020), and “The Devil all the Time” (2020).  “Elegy” was based on the runaway bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, and it starred Amy Adams as Beverly, J.D.’s mother, and Glenn Close as Bonnie (Mamaw), J.D.’s grandmother.  In flashbacks, a grown-up Vance (Gabriel Basso) reflects back to his upbringing as  part of a poor dysfunctional Kentucky family while he currently tries to help his drug/alcohol addicted mother once again while also applying for a job at a prestigious law firm.  Like other films chronicling family substance abuse issues tied into corresponding sociological problems such as poverty, “Elegy” does not paint a pretty picture of it or an exactly original one either.  Also, a movie that shows someone like J.D. being able to overcome such a life to become a success is not exactly original either.  Nor is a movie where ultimately, J.D.’s road to success is due to both his equally flawed Mamaw’s abuse/tough love as well as his own desire to accept responsibility and make something of himself as anything really original either.  What makes this movie work however, is that it tells a simple story very well while presenting a portion of American society, namely rural, honestly, and with believable individuals who are not stereotypes thanks to Director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”).  Film critics have not generally approved Howard’s directorial efforts and for “Elegy” they have not been kind either except for praising some of the acting performances.  Why?  You tell me!  Some critics said it perpetuated stereotypes.  Others said it was nothing original.  Others said it was too melodramatic.  Others didn’t like how the movie cherry-picked only certain parts of Vance’s memoir and didn’t tell a full story.  My own personal view is (Repeat my Mantra…), “The Critics Are Full Of Shit!”  About the only real fault I have with this film is that there may be some truth to the film’s cherry-picking premise but, unless you want to have a six-hour movie, I’d like to know how else it could have been done.  Also, as an aside, actress Amy Adams is way overdue in getting an Oscar win, but unfortunately, her performance as Beverly, is too often someone acting like the character but never actually being believable as the character.  That’s a big problem!  Sorry, Amy!  Better luck, next year!  However, as for Glenn Close, another actress that is even longer overdue Oscar-wise, She…Absolutely…Nails…It!  Every time she is in a scene, she completely steals it.  Some of Vance’s family members even started crying when they saw Close’s performance and felt it was almost like Mamaw had come back to life.  She is Mamaw, not trying to act like Mamaw!  If the Academy doesn’t finally give her the Damn Oscar already, I’ll personally be accepting Bounty donations for their heads (excluding a small stipend for my expenses, of course)!

“The Devil all the Time” is a different sort of animal altogether.  Adapted from the novel by Donald Ray Pollack (who also provides the narration for the film), “Devil” is an ensemble drama consisting of a number of interconnected storylines of individuals in and around the rural area of Knockemstiff in southern Ohio encompassing a period from the end of World War II up to the late 1960s.  The film is a portrait of rural poverty, ignorance, violence, psychopathic/deviant behavior, and how backwoods religious beliefs can be misused or distorted to commit or to excuse any sort of abhorrent or criminal act.  The only real connecting thread for all of these various storylines for the film are in how they all ultimately tie in later with the character of Alvin Russell (Tom Holland), a newly orphaned teenager who lives with his grandmother after his widowed father previously committed suicide.  This is a dark and, at times, disturbing film.  It is probably one of the most damning portraits of those professing holiness committing evil that I have ever seen since the movie, “Spotlight” (2015).  Also, some of the twisted and disturbed individuals portrayed in this film almost look like escapees from your typical Rob Zombie film.  Other than that, it’s a fun film for the whole family (If you’re The Adams Family!).  Director Antonio Campos does a masterful job interconnecting all of the various storylines and eliciting incredible realistic performances by the entire cast including Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett (who gave a fine performance in “Hillbilly Elegy” too), Bill Skarsgard, and especially, Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson.  Pattinson has been giving a bunch of great and acclaimed performances for the past few years now (after he quit doing all of those Shitty “Twilight” movies) and his performance as a phony Bible-thumping preacher is one to remember.  However, Tom Holland is the true revelation here as Alvin.  Gone is the boyishly shy nerdy Peter Parker from the Spiderman movies.  His Alvin, while youthfully awkward, is also unexpectedly tough, quick thinking, and a surprisingly formidable adversary against some of the repulsive lowlifes that he is forced to face.  However, his character never loses his humanity, and is so soulful that by the end of “Devil” he is actually quite touching.  It’s a great performance!  Campos’ outstanding direction loaded with religious symbolism captures a gritty side of backwoods life in a way that you won’t soon forget.  This picture has gotten better reviews than “Elegy” but, unfortunately, it still won’t get the full recognition that it deserves.

Whether you want to call “The Devil all the Time”, Poverty Porn or not, I will just call it “The Best Movie of 2020!”

Deal with it!

N.L.P.

False Assumptions!

Groot: “I am Groot.”

Peter Quill: “Well, that’s just as fascinating as the first 89 times you told me that.  What is wrong with Giving Tree here?”

Rocket Raccoon: “Well he don’t know talkin’ good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to “I” and “am” and “Groot,” exclusively in that order.”

Peter Quill: “Well I tell you what, that’s gonna wear real thin, real fast, bud.”

[Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper squabbling amongst themselves in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)]

I have to admit to all of you that I have made some mistakes. As a matter of fact, when I first started this Blog, I said in my very first Blog Post that I would make mistakes.  Well, that is only natural.  I could possibly make all kinds of accuracy or grammatical errors and to which I would expect to be justifiably verbally flogged by all of you for my transgressions.  Also, since I am my own proofreader the odds could definitely increase exponentially until, ultimately, I would make such a faux pas.  However, that is not the type of error that I am about to admit to.  You see, there is one type of mistake that I am about to admit to which is something that I, rather than you, would ever notice.  Now what in the world could this possibly be you might be wondering, and what does this have to do with this month’s Blog Post?  Well, let me explain!  You see, it involves “assumption.”  There’s a really old joke that says, “You should never ASS U ME anything, because if you do, you will ultimately…”

  • Make an ASS…
  • Out of U…
  • And out of ME.

This month’s Post will be about mistakes that I have made for movies, directors, certain actors, etc. because I mistakenly made prior assumptions before even seeing something that I made a judgement on, or that I made a judgement about something that I saw a long time ago but when I re-saw it recently, I had to change my prior opinion.  These prior mistakes I am about to apologize for. Hence, now that I have acknowledged my mea culpa, I will begin to make my amends.

My first one pertains to a movie that I saw a few times when I was young many years ago which happened to star my all-time favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart.  As much as I love Bogey, I absolutely hated this particular movie and bad mouthed it so often over the years that I must have sounded like a broken record.  However, as the years have gone by, it had gotten more and more acclaim every year especially for Bogart’s performance.  Hence, last year I finally convinced myself to re-see it again after maybe an over 45-year absence to see what the Heck the critics and the general public were talking about, and that I may have missed previously.  After viewing it, I sat there stunned!  I was dead wrong!  It was a great movie and it was one of Humphrey Bogart’s greatest performances.  So what was the picture you ask?  Why it was…

“In a Lonely Place” (1950)

Bogart played Dixon Steele, a has-been, insecure, and temperamental Hollywood screenwriter prone to outbursts of rage and violence who is suspected of murder after he was last seen with the murder victim shortly before her death.  He sees and later starts to date Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a struggling actress who is a new tenant in his apartment building and they ultimately fall in love.  However, Steele’s constant emotional instability makes her start to question whether he is actually innocent after all, and that his volatility could threaten her own life.  I think my original dislike of this film was due to my youthful ignorance of what the film actually was.  It was a relationship drama and a character study with noir overtones which I never could comprehend when I was younger.  Also, it was distributed by Columbia Pictures and I always had difficulty in watching their earlier films back then because, at times, they seemed cheaply made, and emotionally overwrought.  My understanding and appreciation of nuance and character complexity did not develop until later in my life so this was another strike against “Place”.  It took a second look after so many years to appreciate Bogart’s incredibly complex performance of someone vain, mercurial, smart, sarcastic (which Bogey could do in his sleep), bitter, abusive, scared, cruel, loving, tender, paranoid, etc. and how he could flip from one of these characteristics to another or a combination of them almost instantaneously moment to moment.  Film director Nicholas Ray might have been an overrated director, but he directed this particular film very well, especially with the noir aspects, thanks to fine cinematography by future two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey.  However, I felt that it was Bogart who grabbed both the movie and his character by the throat and made it his own.  His performance here was watching a true master artist at work.  Actress Louise Brooks (“Pandora’s Box”) who knew Bogart said that his character of Dixon Steele was most like who he really was in real life.  I can honestly believe it.  For “In a Lonely Place,” Bogart wasn’t just playing the character of Dixon Steele.  He actually was Dixon Steele!  

Another movie I dismissed without ever seeing it until a couple of years ago was Director Preston Sturges’ “Hail the Conquering Hero” (1944). This wartime comedy’s storyline was about a meek small-town guy named Woodrow, who was discharged from the Marine Corp due to acute hay fever.  Embarrassed because his deceased father was a hero in World War I and, rather than returning home, he sent letters to his mom saying he was fighting overseas while he was actually working in a San Diego shipyard.  However, when he buys a bunch Marines on leave a round of drinks, one of them (William Demarest) who originally served with his father tries to help him out by having his fellow Marines go with Woodrow back to his home town and say that he served with them and that he just returned stateside with a medical discharge.   From that point on the lies pile up one after the other from the whole town showing up to celebrate him as a hero to everyone even suggesting that he should run for mayor.  Although this plot had a classic screwball comedy premise, I absolutely had no desire to see “Hero” at all.  This was primarily due to a number of factors. 

First, I had a strong dislike of Preston Sturges.  Known as a comedy director, I had previously seen some of his films many years ago (“The Lady Eve”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, etc.) and I didn’t think they were funny at all.  Hence, I arbitrarily dismissed the rest of his films like “Hero”.  Second, the character of Woodrow was played by actor Eddie Bracken.  I always regarded Bracken as a second-rate comedy actor who played so many secondary roles in films and on TV that I never could picture him as a lead actor in anything.  Third, tied into that was a supporting cast lacking star power like Ella Raines (a B-movie actress) as his girlfriend, and Demarest whose chief claim to fame was playing Uncle Charley for the future “My Three Sons” Network TV show.  Lastly, if such high-powered actors like Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Veronica Lake were not funny in the previous Sturges comedies that I saw, why would I think “Hero” would be any different.  Well Dear Reader, I was dead wrong!  Both Bracken and Raines gave terrific performances (maybe the best of their careers).  The other character actors were fine too and the pacing of the comic lines were flying so thick and fast by the actors that you could hardly catch your breath before you just started laughing again.  This might have also been due to the terrific script by Sturges (which was Oscar nominated) and his direction which captured the comic timing of the actors to the dialogue perfectly.  Sturges prime skill as a director was in writing great original screenplays [he won the first ever Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty (1940)].  With “Hail the Conquering Hero”, Preston Sturges directed a true comic gem!

Two more recent films I have to mention which also forced me to eat my words.  The first one involved a terrible assumption that I made about a particular director.  That director was Martin Scorsese.  Scorsese, a great director, did a number of terrific and acclaimed movies such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Irishman” (2019), and so many others.  His films, while varied, had a strong propensity for graphic violence, profanity, machoism, criminality along with religious concepts such as guilt and redemption accompanied by the judicious use of rock music.  So, could I have ever in my wildest dreams thought that he was capable of doing an actual children’s film that was good for the whole family?  Hell, NO!  Yet, that is what he actually did when he made the film, “Hugo” (2011).  Once again, I thought that you have got to be kidding me so I completely ignored it for years.  You all do not have to all tell me that…I…Was…Wrong!!!

“Hugo” was based on the 2007 Brian Selznick children’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”.  Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a 12-Year-old orphan who secretly lives in the Gare Montpamasse railway station in 1931 Paris while secretly repairing train station clocks there between stealing food and hiding from the Train Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).  His further adventures involve working for a shopkeeper named Georges (Ben Kingsley) after he is caught stealing, making friends with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and later, George’s wife, Jeanne (Helen McCrory).  As the story proceeds you find out more about Georges and Hugo’s desire to repair an automation, a mechanical man that may contain a message from Hugo’s deceased father.  Scorsese decided to make this film after his young daughter gave him Selznick’s book hoping he would later turn it into a film.  She also wanted him to make it as a 3-D film.  He did both (clever kid), and it was the first time he ever made a 3-D film.  The film received universal acclaim and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (more than any other film that year) winning 5 Oscars in all.  Unfortunately, it was not a box office success and it didn’t win either Best Picture or Best Director for Scorsese (which it should have).  After seeing “Hugo” I now have a cardinal rule that I always make regarding Martin Scorsese:  Never, ever, think that he cannot make a great film out of anything.  “Hugo” is a classic!

The second more recent film that I assumed stunk even before I ever saw it was an actual Marvel Studio picture.  Now, I’ll make an honest admission here:  I love Marvel Superhero movies.  I have been a fan of just about all of them since the very beginning as well as being an avid Marvel comic book fan when I was a little kid (even younger than the one in “Hugo”).  However, when the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) movie came out, I literally refused to see it.  Why you may ask?  Well, I quit reading Marvel comics as well as comics in general when I got older so I never read any of the “Guardians…” comic book series when they were first issued.  Hence, I had no frame of reference.  Second, the idea of a guy running around the Galaxies with the moniker of “Star-Lord” while teaming up with a bunch of aliens, one of which was a frigging talking raccoon named, “Rocket” (and does he have a brother raccoon named “Rocky” too?) seemed lame to the extreme!  Tied into that one was my viewing of Marvel’s film version of “Deadpool” (2016) when it first came out.  This was another Marvel comic book series that I had no knowledge of.  Worse, when I saw it, despite it receiving rave reviews, I absolutely hated the movie (and I still do).  Hence, did you honestly think that I wanted to repeat that experience again with “Guardians” too?  Of course not!  Well (Drum roll please…), I was wrong again!  “Guardians” was terrific.  The screenplay was hilarious with the actors mining the comic and dramatic elements perfectly by playing off of each other like a seasoned comedy act while having this swashbuckling adventure across time and space.  Director James Gunn gets a special mention here too.  His direction is smooth, combining both exciting action scenes and quieter dramatic moments.  He also re-wrote the screenplay which gave real depth to all of the film’s characters even those in small roles while heightening the overall humor of the film.  Heck, I even liked the Rocket raccoon character too (Will wonders never cease!).  This was one time that I was perfectly glad to admit I was wrong.

My last two examples of my prior assumptions being thrown awry actually pertain to two actors who I have constantly lambasted over the years for being awful actors (and who I mentioned previously in some of my prior Blog Posts).  However, in both actors’ cases I have to admit to being wrong if I apply another one of my “Syndromes” into the discussion.  This particular syndrome is something that I call, “The Blind Squirrel Finding a Nut Syndrome”.  What this means is that, like a blind squirrel finding a nut every once in a while, even these two limited talents (I’m being kind) managed to actually give a pair of decent performances in something during their long careers.  I will highlight two performances for each actor as a part of penance for my sins.  However, before I continue, I want to qualify what I have just said by adding that “Neither of these two actors will be Sylvester Stallone!”  There are just some things that one can never do!  Now, to continue, the first actor is Glenn Ford.  Ford was always a one note actor who always appeared annoyed, flustered, irritable or generally uncomfortable in any type of role.  His attempts at portraying characters with any depth or complexity was either wooden or unbelievable.  Maybe for a sixties Network TV sitcom like “Dennis the Menace” he would have been perfect playing next door neighbor Mr. Wilson perpetually tormented by “Satan’s Spawn” Dennis!  Otherwise, forget it (or so I thought!).  However, years later I saw him in two things which really made me change my mind. 

The first, was a modern-day Western comedy called, “The Rounders” (1965).  Also starring the always great Henry Fonda, “Rounders” starred the two of them as a pair of old (and not too bright) cowboys who make a meager living breaking wild horses for their frequent employer Jim (Chill Wills) a shrewd businessman who constantly outwits them whenever he can.  One of Jim’s more successful schemes was in getting Ford to accept a roan horse named “Old Fooler” in lieu of their full payment for prior work done.  Sure enough it’s Ford that’s the one “fooled” when it turns out that “Fooler” has a malevolent mind of its own and throws off anyone who tries to ride him.  However, instead of shipping “Fooler” off to the nearest glue factory, Ford decides to take the horse to the local rodeo and bet against the other cowboys being able to ride him and make some easy money.  His plan starts to succeed but, “Old Fooler” (smarter than the two cowboys combined) has other plans.  Ford is hysterical in the role.  He and Fonda work effortlessly off of each other playing a pair of dim bulbs constantly getting into more trouble as they try to get out of this mess.  Ford is funnier the more irritable he gets with the horse and for once, his perpetually frustrated act fits in perfectly with his character.  “The Rounders” is a little film.  However, the laughs along with Ford’s performance are huge! 

The other role where Ford gave a fine performance was for the Network TV Western mini-series, “The Sacketts” (1979) which was based on two novels by famed Western author Louis L’Amour.  Although “The Sacketts” focused on three brothers adventures heading West right after the end of the Civil War, Ford was a standout in the secondary role of Tom Sunday, an older former gunfighter who becomes a mentor to the youngest Sackett, Tyrel, while acting as a ramrod during a cattle drive. His Sunday is world-wise, educated, and desperate for a fresh start out West.  Unfortunately, his dream is later dashed when, while running for election as the town sheriff in Santa Fe against Tyrel’s brother, Orrin, Sunday’s prior checkered past is revealed resulting in him losing the election.  Sunday’s disgrace ultimately leads to tragedy.  Ford is very moving in this role.  He actually showed shades of complexity that I never saw him able to convey before.  His Sunday is someone who cannot escape his past and who becomes bitter, frustrated, angry, and ultimately, vengeful.  Ford conveys the pain and sadness of the man and you can only feel pity and sympathy for him rather than distain.  Out of all of the bad performances that Glenn Ford gave in his career, here is one, at least, that he could be proud of.

The other bad actor that I want to highlight for two fine performances that he gave later in his career is actor, Richard (Gerbil) Gere.  Gere was someone who I have truly despised from the very first time I saw him all the way back in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977).  Over and over, he kept doing the same one-note pretty boy role, always posing whenever he wasn’t speaking (not that he had anything worthwhile to say when he did), always acting like some sort of supercharged sex machine that women were supposed to go gaga for whenever he graced the screen with his mere presence.  Whenever he tried to actually do something different than this tired stereotype, he came across about as lifeless as a Cabbage Patch Doll (Ding-Dong, “Pretty Woman” anyone?).  I once said that there were only three types of “good” Richard (Gerbil) Gere films…

  • One, where he was kicked in the groin!
  • Two, where he was killed in the end!
  • Three, where he was both kicked in the groin, and killed in the end!

However, I was wrong, as these next two examples I can attest to.  The first one was “Chicago” (2002), the black comedy crime musical which won best picture that year, and in which Gere gave a winning performance in the male lead role of sleazy, yet brilliant, criminal defense lawyer, Billy Flynn.  Our Billy appears to have his work cut out for him in having to defend Roxie, a no talent wannabe who shot and killed her lover when she found out that he had no showbiz connections and all he wanted to do was sleep with her.  Gere’s Billy seems to not even break a sweat as he radiates charm, charisma, and ego, mixed in with a hunger for fame and further fortune.  He eyes Roxie like a hungry wolf, but the meal that Roxie can provide for him is as a meal ticket for Billy to achieve all that he wants. Gere was 53 when he did this role and his pretty boy looks were finally starting to fade so it looked like he realized that he had to do some convincing acting to pull this role off. And he actually did!  Instead of trying to act like some older “Sex Machine” A-hole lech, here he just acted like a money grubbing and fame hungry A-hole!  His smiling Billy may be as real as a three-dollar bill but, for once, my eyes stayed transfixed on his performance rather than on my watch which, in the past, was what I did whenever he was on the screen to see how much longer it would be before whatever he was in would, mercifully, end.  His second performance of note was in the ensemble cop drama, “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2009), with Gere playing Eddie Dugan, a burned out beat cop about to retire after 22 years of unremarkable service.  His Eddie is a borderline suicidal alcoholic who is so emotionally shutdown that the only person he can honestly talk to is a prostitute that he hires regularly.  However, like a wounded Phoenix arising from the ashes, he finally has a chance to do something meaningful in his life before it’s done.  Here, Gere is finally stripped from his early career posturing of relying on just his looks alone.  His Eddie looks about as sexy as a snail and more tired than Woody Allen after doing a pull-up.  He convincingly plays his age and it’s a believable physical performance.  Unlike a lot of former A-hole pretty boy non-actors who became really pathetic when they got old (I’m looking at you Ryan O’Neal and Jan-Michael Vincent!) at least for “Brooklyn’s Finest” Gere actually gives a strong performance.

Well, that sums up some of the wrong-headed assumptions that I have made over the years.  I’m only human just like we all are.  So, I’ll try to improve in the future.  However, 

(Just don’t ask me to ever applaud any Sylvester Stallone movies!)

N.L.P.

Dangerous!

Tommy Udo: “You know what I do to squealers?  I let ‘em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinkin’ it over. [Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death” (1947)]

Have you ever been in a situation where someone, just by their sheer physical presence alone can make you apprehensive or invoke a feeling of true fear inside yourself?  They do not have to say a word.  They do not even have to make a sudden movement.  Maybe they even give you nothing more than a fleeting glance if they bother to give you any glance at all.  Yet you find your own heart beating faster, your gut tightening up, your breathing constrained, your body starting to sweat, and your eyes starting to look for the nearest exit or something to either hide behind or, at least, to put between the two of you just in case.  That person is truly Dangerous and someone nobody wants to F**k with!  Movies, TV, cable, etc. have always made such individuals an integral part of a storyline.  Criminals, psychopaths, tough guys, mean guys, bad guys, etc. it doesn’t really matter.  The whole idea is to invoke that feeling inside of yourself.  This month’s post will discuss such characters both good guys and bad and the actors who played them.

Sometimes it’s not one individual but two who combined together make for a truly terrifying duo.  As an example, for the underrated pulp movie, “Street Kings” (2008) which is a down and dirty tale of corrupt murderous cops in Los Angeles, a not so corrupt cop named Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) on an elite law enforcement team that bends/breaks rules, investigates the murder of a former partner by two criminals.  However, later when the criminals’ bodies are found and that they were dead before Ludlow’s partner’s murder he has to find out who the actual two killers really were.  After pretending to be a dirty cop and using someone to arrange a night time meeting with the actual two killers (Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan) it all goes south when they recognize Ludlow as a witness to his former partner’s killing, and with Ludlow mistakenly asking who they really are.  One of them (Common) then replies, “Who are we detective?  We straight nightmares.  We the walking, talking exigent circumstances!” … and then an explosive gunfight begins.  Although Common and Cle Shaheed Sloan do not have much screen time, they portray a pair of the scariest coldblooded psychotic killers that I have seen in quite a long time.  Straight nightmares indeed!

Another example of a nightmare duo can also be found in the even better crime film, “One False Move” (1992) directed by Carl Franklin.  This tale involves the hunt for two stone cold killers, Ray (Billy Bob Thornton) and Pluto (Michael Beech) after they, along with Ray’s girlfriend murder six people while stealing a large cache of money and cocaine one night, in L.A. (seems like a popular destination spot for murderous duos).  The movie follows a dual track storyline.  One involves the killers’ murderous journey east to rendezvous in Star City, Arkansas.  The other involves two LAPD Detectives heading to Star City to set up a trap for the two fugitives with the help of the local “good old boy” police chief (Bill Paxton) who seems to know a lot more about the fugitives and the girlfriend than he’s first let on.  Thornton co-wrote the screenplay and it is terrific along with the direction by Franklin.  Ray and Pluto are a mismatched pair.  The hulking ponytailed Ray is not too bright, quick-tempered, and violent.  The quieter and calmer Pluto is an African American who is a former college graduate with an I.Q. of 150.  However, he is also a sadist with an affinity for using a knife to kill anyone at a moment’s notice.  You can feel the tension and suspense build between these two volatile killers, especially, the nearer they approach Star City for a final confrontation with all of the principal parties involved.  For “One False Move,” you won’t forget Ray and Pluto anytime soon!

A dangerous personality can be measured, not necessarily by one’s physical size, but by the sheer presence that they can project towards others.  As a case in point let’s look at the famous crime film, “Kiss of Death” (1947).  “Death” starred Victor Mature as Nick Bianco, a career criminal who is arrested, tried and convicted after a jewelry heist goes wrong.  Refusing to become an informer to obtain a reduced sentence, he changes his tune when his wife commits suicide after being assaulted by a fellow criminal who Nick entrusted to help his wife while Nick was in prison.  Once Nick is released on parole to work undercover for the District Attorney, he is utilized to try and obtain evidence to help convict a dangerous criminal.  It is at this point that you are about to witness one of the greatest first-time screen-acting debuts in the entire history of motion pictures with actor Richard Widmark’s remarkable terrifying portrayal of gangster, Tommy Udo.

Udo is small and lean in appearance, hyper, animated, unpredictable, loud, rude, always wildly grinning, giggling, and extremely and unapologetically dangerous.  A murderous and sadistic psychopath who often wears his clothes one size too large, he is so unstable and explosive that it almost looks like his attire is too small for his personality to be constrained.  Maybe the scariest thing about him is not his outbursts but his ice-cold stare at someone which literally feels like he is walking on your grave.  In real life, Widmark was a big fan of Batman comics so he patterned Udo’s character after Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker, even incorporating a Joker deranged cackling laugh.  Amazingly, director Henry Hathaway originally didn’t want to cast Widmark because he thought Widmark looked too intellectual due to his high hairline.  Even after Hathaway was overruled by Darryl F. Zanuck, the Head of 20th Century Fox, Hathaway, a good, but never great director (as well as an Asshole who was also a well-known bully towards actors), made Widmark’s life a living Hell on set until Widmark finally threatened to quit the film and Hathaway backed down.  Widmark’s performance got him his only Oscar nomination for his career (for Best Supporting Actor). However, it made such a lasting impression with the general public that College fraternities formed Tommy Udo fan clubs, and when actor Frank Gorshin played The Riddler on the old “Batman” TV show he even mimicked Udo’s laugh for his character.  Even actual gangsters loved the character.  Supposedly, New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo so idolized the Tommy Udo character that he not only started wearing similar clothes (suits with black shirts and white ties), but he also tried to act even crazier than he already was.  In Gallo’s case it didn’t help him stay alive.  He was gunned down in 1972.

Speaking of memorable dangerous characters, a more recent character was on one of the greatest TV cable series ever.  That series was “The Wire” (2002-08) which chronicled the Baltimore City drug trade and local law enforcement’s efforts against it.  There were many great characters portrayed on this series but maybe the most memorable one of them all was the character of Omar Little personified by actor Michael K. Williams.  His Omar was a notorious and feared stick-up artist who predominantly robbed street-level drug dealers.  He wore a bulletproof vest and was armed with a shotgun and a large caliber handgun which he hid under a long duster.  He was also distinctive for his long facial scar and whistling “A-Hunting We Will Go” whenever he stalked someone.  On the show he was so legendary that whenever the local population either saw him or heard that tune, they ran while announcing his presence.  He was also unusual in that, although he could be a ruthless stone-cold killer, he was also a homosexual with a private tender side who maintained a strict moral code by his refusal to either harm innocent civilians or to even use profanity (usually).  Although he was orphaned at a young age and basically raised by his grandmother, he was exceptionally close to her as well as his other lovers and close associates.  On “The Wire” he survived so long due to his cunning survival instincts, his skill at surveillance, and having an exceptionally high I.Q. which he utilized to constantly outwit and outsmart his opponents.  Williams is absolutely mesmerizing in the role making Omar almost like some sort of modern-day Robin Hood of the “Sherwood” Ghetto except that he robs from the rich drug kingpins and gives to his poor self.  It’s a well-known fact that “The Wire” never won a single Primetime Emmy Award nor even received any major nominations except for two nominations for writing (maybe if it was located in California and involved drug dealing criminals’ surfing in Malibu, the Academy would have showered it with nominations and awards).  This also included the Emmy idiots ignoring Williams unforgettable performance too.  Oh well, Dear Reader, there’s always prior Emmy Award winning shows to savor instead, like “Cagney and Lacy” or “L.A. Law” (Gag!  Barf!!)

The character of Omar could possibly be construed as not so much a bad guy but more akin to an antihero.  Antiheroes can be extremely dangerous too.  Two examples that I want to highlight are for the films “Hell is for Heroes” (1962) and “Sicario” (2015).  “Heroes” takes place on the World War II front lines in 1944 near the German Seigfried Line.  Before a small group of soldiers are sent up to the front line to act as a decoy unit to deceive the German front line in their sector into thinking that there is a much larger Allied force facing them, they are joined by Private John Reese (Steve McQueen) who is as dangerous as they come.  Reese was a former decorated master sergeant (winner of a Distinguished Service Cross) but demoted to private after a court martial for flagrant insubordination.  McQueen’s Reese is morose, sullen, internally tense, maybe suffering from PTSD, and a man of few words.  He is a quintessential and antisocial Lone Wolf who can never fit into civilian life, and McQueen physically plays him in a relaxed almost fatalistic manner until, like a coiled spring, he can burst into violent action in an instant.  In real life McQueen was a serious practitioner of martial arts which probably helped to instill a natural limberness and fluidity in his physical movements almost like a feline.  His Reese is also an outsider in his choice of weapons.  Unlike the other soldiers he carries a butcher’s knife for close in fighting along with an M3 submachine gun (AKA a “Grease Gun) with extra ammo clips taped to its stock and to which he uses for deadly effect in the short violent action scenes ably directed by the great action Director Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”).  When you think of the lauded acting performances in Steve McQueen’s career, you never hear much mention of his performance in “Hell is for Heroes” which is a shame.  His character of John Reese is someone you’d never want as an adversary.  However, unlike the classic antihero that McQueen so often played, you’d probably never would really want him as a friend either!

For “Sicario” you have a different kind of dangerous “man of few words” antihero in this tale about U.S. law enforcement actions against the Sonora Mexican Drug Cartel.  FBI special agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) and her partner are recommended to join a DOJ and DOD joint task force headed by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to capture a key lieutenant for the Cartel after a previous drug raid against the Cartel resulted in the death of two police officers.  Assisting Graver is the silent and secretive Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) who Graver later refers to as “The Tip of the Spear.”  And boy, is he ever!  As this suspense thriller proceeds, you discover just how lethally sharp, that “Spear” actually is!  Del Toro fought to preserve the mystery of who his character really was by cutting out substantial parts of his dialogue which director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) wholeheartedly agreed with.  His Gillick is a brooding presence emanating potential lethal menace and a cold sardonic attitude.  At times he is quietly in the background but you always feel a need to know exactly where he is at all times.  It’s not because he’s creepy.  It’s because he’s really scary!  As Blunt’s character slowly discovers the real reason for this task force’s mission along with why she was tasked to be a part of it, you also slowly find out more about who Gillick really is, why he is part of this task force, and how “matter of fact” capable he is of doing absolutely any horrific thing to achieve this task force’s real mission even if it means Kate’s possible elimination in the process.  The only sign of any real human feeling that Del Toro conveys in his character is, remarkedly, with just his eyes alone throughout the entire movie.  “Sicario” was justly nominated for a number of Academy awards but Del Toro was unjustly ignored in the Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination category that year (He should have been both nominated and winner of the Award).  As a true Angel of Death with an “Eye for an Eye” view of Justice, his Alejandro Gillick is the stuff of nightmares!

The last two “dangerous” examples that I want to discuss pertain to two actors who have done a series of portrayals of dangerous characters in their long-acting careers.  One specialized in portraying dangerous villains while the other gave some incredible performances of both villains and formidable good guys/antiheroes that you would never want to mess with.  That first person was actor Lee Marvin.  When Marvin won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar in 1965 playing a dual role in the comical Western “Cat Ballou” he became a big-time movie star who, from that point on, did a wide variety of roles for the rest of his life and with very few of them being outright villains.  However, before his Oscar win, he played some truly scary and dangerously evil men, predominately, on television.  Like Steve McQueen, Marvin also had a natural fluidity in his physical body movements which made him equally scary and dangerous whenever he suddenly moved which, at times, made his performances so unpredictable that you just couldn’t take your eyes off of him.  In a previous Post, I mentioned a chilling performance he gave for an episode of “The Dick Powell Theatre” called “Epilogue” (1963) where he played a psychopath who murdered individuals in gruesome ways whenever he thought they escaped Justice.  However, that’s nothing!  Here are three other memorable “dangerous” individuals that he portrayed just in the year of 1962 alone:

  • Bonanza (“The Crucible”): Marvin plays demented and sadistic Peter Kane, a lone prospector of a mine in the desert who psychologically torments and brutalizes Adam Cartwright (Pernell Roberts) as his own personal slave while trying to drive him to murder.
  • The Virginian (“It Tolls for Thee”): Marvin plays sadistic and loathsome Martin Kalig, who shoots outlaw leader Sharkey in the back to take over his gang to later kidnap Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb) who previously sentenced Kalig to prison for robbery and murder while tormenting Garth every step of the way. Best scene in the entire episode is when Garth fails to convince Kalig’s chief sidekick, Quinn, to turn against Kalig and who instead, slugs Garth off of his horse.  Kalig then rides up to Quinn and says with a big smile on his face, “Feels good to hit a Judge doesn’t it?”  When Quinn nodes his head in agreement Kalig says, “Kind of gives you a nice warm, tingly feeling inside, doesn’t it?” I literally burst out laughing at that one!
  • The Untouchables (“Element of Danger”): My favorite one of them all and the one that he should have won an Emmy for.  Marvin plays quick-thinking, hyper violent “Mad as a Hatter” gangster Victor Rait, who is so out of control that his boss (Victor Jory) decides to have him killed.  Bad career move, Victor!  Marvin is so scene stealing over the top here that you almost flinch while watching him dominate this episode.

To conclude, no one could do the dangerously crazy quite like Lee Marvin!

The other “dangerous” actor that I want to highlight is actor, Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum conveyed a laconic, relaxed manner in his acting style while incorporating a “don’t give a Damn attitude” that made him perfect for playing both villains and heroes/antiheroes.  I will highlight two of each.  Maybe his greatest villainous role was his Oscar worthy performance as the murderously insane bogus Depression era preacher in “Night of the Hunter” (1955).  However, what I want to do is praise two of his other villainous roles where he sent chills down your spine.  The first, was his performance as Max Cady, an intelligent, but brutal, and murderous rapist in the suspense thriller, “Cape Fear” (1962).  Cady initiates a slow reign of increasing terror against Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a happily married lawyer who provided key testimony that originally put Cady in prison after a brutal rape he perpetrated against someone.  Mitchum plays Cady as a stoic, relaxed, and sardonic menace, with a mild Southern drawl, a slight smile on his face and a calculating leer especially at Sam’s wife and young daughter who you just know is in his future plans for revenge.  It’s a very naturalistic performance and his Cady is a monster just slowly waiting for the right moment, like an alligator gliding through the water at night, to strike.  Mitchum’s other great menacing performance was late in life (at age 66) when he starred in the made for TV movie, “Killer in the Family” (1983).  “Killer” is based on the true story of Gary Tison who was serving two consecutive life sentences for murder, and who manipulatively used his three sons to break him and another convict out of an Arizona prison.  Ultimately, during his flight from the law, Tison and his partner conducted a murderous rampage which resulted in disaster for all of those involved.  This downbeat tale with an “In Cold Blood” vibe is anchored by Mitchum’s incredible performance as Tison.  His Tison is a cunning psychopath easily willing to throw his children’s lives away if they serve his purposes even while acting like a loving father to them (like complaining about people leaving trash at a picnic site, or complementing one of his children for his academic achievements, etc.).  Here, Mitchum’s famous stoic manner is what’s really frightening in this movie.  Unlike a Tommy Udo, his Gary Tison acts with no emotional or physical change at all, whether it’s doing something as simple as pumping gas or killing someone who might identify him.  The concept of “Banality of Evil” is a belief that what one is doing is not evil, but rather what they are engaging in is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside.  Mitchum’s Tison is a walking and talking living nightmare of that belief!

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mitchum gave two fine performances as a “dangerous” hero/antihero in the films, “Man with a Gun” (1955) and “Thunder Road” (1958).  In “Gun”, a western, he plays Clint Tollinger, a “town tamer” (AKA a professional gun for hire who cleans up lawless towns).  He takes on that role for the town of Sheridan City even though he originally rode into town to find his estranged wife, now a madam for the town’s brothel.  As a “town tamer” unlike a sheriff, he has no limits and he can enforce justice however he sees fit.  In his case, he soon does so in brutal fashion.  The old storyline of a hired gunfighter coming in to clean up a lawless town but who, as a “cure” may be worse than the “disease”, has been done many times over the years.  However, Mitchum’s character is different by his moral ambiguity.  He may appear to be upright as he walks down the town’s streets with his head constantly on a swivel looking for any sign of trouble.  However, his Tollinger is angry, bitter, and ruthless which, at times, make it hard to differentiate between him as being any different than the outlaws he has to face even when he’s shocked by what he has done.  This is apparent when, later in the movie, his inner rage culminates in a reckless outburst, when after he finds out a shocking secret, he immediately sets fire to a saloon (while having to kill the saloon owner in self defense), and as the townspeople try to put out the fire, he stands against the wall of a nearby building in a state of almost catatonic shock.  Although, “Man with a Gun” is a little film, there is nothing small about Mitchum’s powerful performance.

“Thunder Road” starred Mitchum as Lucas Doolin, a Korean War vet who, after returning home, gets back into the family moonshine running business in Appalachia while being menaced by Federal agents and organized crime muscling in on his family’s territory.  His Doolan is another morally ambiguous but “dangerous” antihero.  His character sees no difference between the mob and the Federal Agents.  Both want to restrict his idea of the freedom to do whatever the Hell he wants, legal or otherwise, and Mitchum is never cooler here with his constant and open defiance.  As some examples:  (1) when he tries to originally see the mob boss but is told that he is not currently around but the boss’s hat was left on a table, he nonchalantly walks over to the table and crushes it, (2) when later he finally meets the mob boss and is arrogantly told something to the effect that the mob is taking over and what are you going to do about it, Doolan calmly and unemotionally cold-cocks the mob boss with a karate chop to the boss’s face and then nonchalantly re-crushes his hat, and (3) when running a load of moonshine at night with a lit cigarette in his mouth while being chased by one of the mob’s henchmen who tries to run him off a cliff, he outmaneuvers the guy onto the cliff side of the road and then, without batting an eyelash, flicks his cigarette out of his open window and into the guy’s face before running him off the cliff to his death.  Mitchum’s character of Lucas Doolan just might be the coolest and most dangerous hero/antihero of them all.

Well, that sums up this month’s Blog Post.  So, if any of you want to act dangerous, you don’t have to act like any of the examples that I have listed here.  All you really have to do is just…

“NOT WEAR A MASK!”

N.L.P.

Strange Competition!

Beth Harmon: “You think I’m a prima donna, don’t you?”

Harry Beltik: “It’s chess.  We’re all prima donnas. [Anya Taylor-Joy to Harry Melling, “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020)]

A long time ago while I was working and living in the Washington, DC area I heard of a small church located on one of the secluded back streets in Georgetown where, one Saturday a month, about 4 to 6 mediums were available to, for maybe $10 to $20, spend an hour reading your fortune.  Of course, I just had to scientifically investigate this development (AKA, it sounded weird so of course I had to check it out).  Hence, I had a different medium read my fortune for the next two months.  One was fairly accurate while the other one was so wrong that I almost burst out laughing in her face.  The experience there was sort of like a medium “competition” with the winner being the one who was less wrong than the others (or maybe better able to fool the suckers into coming back again).  I bring this story up because this month’s post will involve competition.  Strange competition!

Now before you mentally say, “What the H…” let me further explain what I’m getting at.  There is sport competition such as baseball, football, basketball, tennis, etc. However, there are also other types of sports competition but not necessarily recognized or even legal.  Anybody ever do ferret-legging (enduring two live ferrets in your trousers tied up at one’s ankles for as long as one can)?  Yow!  Or how about baby tossing where you, Ahhh… never mind.  It seems like you can turn on any TV channel either day or night and see some, usually inane, game show where people are competing against each other either physically (“American Gladiators”), mentally (“Jeopardy”), or allowing themselves to be willingly humiliated (“Let’s Make a Deal”).  Actually, regarding “Deal,” why is it that most of those contestants sort of look like they would fit in just fine with the mob that stormed the Capitol Building recently.  Hmmm!  Maybe that Capitol mob might be participants for a new type of game show entitled, “Let’s Make a Plea Bargain Deal!”  Anyway, movies and TV have explored many different types of strange or unusual competition even if it’s not labeled as such.  I will discuss some of these, both memorable and obscure as well as both popular or those stinking worse than a garbage dump.  Some pertain to sports while others involve an individual/group vs. another individual/group over/for, something.  Now, let’s begin!

Fist-fighting can be a form of physical competition.  Two such films that come to mind are “Hard Times” (1975), and “Donnybrook” (2018).  “Times” starred Charles Bronson as Chaney, a middle aged almost mute hobo arriving in Depression era Louisiana in 1933 who starts earning money fighting competitive illegal bare-knuckle matches against younger opponents once gambling addict/promoter, Speed (James Coburn) becomes his manager.  Unfortunately, Speed’s addiction complicates their relationship until Chaney has to risk his earnings on a fight against a formidable opponent or Speed will be killed.  This was action director Walter Hill’s first picture and it was a pretty good first-time effort.  It had fine location cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop, especially of New Orleans along with excellent art direction and costumes evoking the time period.  It also had fine performances by James Coburn as Speed, and Strother Martin as Poe, an old junkie who is Chaney’s cut man during his fights along with exciting fight sequences under Hill’s direction.  However, “Times” could have even been better if two problems could have ever been resolved. Unfortunately, those two problems were Walter Hill and Charles Bronson.  Hill has had his successes (“48 Hrs.”, “The Long Riders”, etc.), but in all honesty, he never moved beyond being just an average director.  Too often, his action scenes were too loud, disjointed, erratic, and unbelievable although that was not the problem specifically here.  His biggest problem here was in his direction of actors (excluding Coburn and Martin), and which was a problem in all of his later films.  Too often his screen characters were either undeveloped, or had no emotional depth and believability beyond doing the “old” strong silent tough guy routine to hide the fact that they were just posing, not actually acting.  As for Charles Bronson, his problem was something else entirely. 

Bronson certainly looked like and was, an actual physical presence in the role.  However, beyond that, he had about as much emotional weight as a feather.  Bronson was an underrated actor throughout most of his life playing rough, tough, and uneducated individuals who, at times, had surprising emotional depth earlier in his career roles, even if sometimes his characters didn’t or wouldn’t say much.  He was almost always interesting, usually in supporting roles whether he played good guys or bad guys.  Unfortunately, everything changed once he finally became a big-time international movie star after a series of hit foreign films when he was in his late forties.  He copped to a really bad acting style which I have aptly named, “The George Raft Syndrome” (Yes, it’s another one of my syndromes!).  This is a syndrome where an actor, say like George Raft, actually gave some really fine dramatic performances when he was younger [“Souls at Sea” (1937), “If I Had a Million” (1932), “Spawn of the North” (1938), etc.], but when he got older, he changed his acting style to always say very little while trying to just be an unemotional tough guy.  Once Bronson did this, he quit being a real actor and instead just became a caricature doing the same one-note role, over and over again like in “Hard Times”.  If you want to see someone else currently doing this same thing, check out all of the trash movies that Bruce Willis has been doing for the past ten years or more.  The “George Raft Syndrome” is alive and well in Hollywood!

“Donnybrook” is a portrait of desperate individuals trying to escape their dead-end lives in a heartland America crippled by ignorance, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, and crime.  Their means to attain this goal is by entering a winner take all $100,000 grand prize at the Donnybrook, an illegal no-rules bareknuckle mass cage fight with as many individuals that are willing to pay the admission fee to participate in.  The last person standing is the winner no matter how many other participants they have to maim or kill in the process.  You have “Jarhead” Earl (Jamie Bell), an ex-Marine with a junkie wife, two kids, and so desperate that he commits a violent robbery to obtain the fee money.  You also have “Chainsaw” Angus (Frank Grillo), a psychotic and murderous meth dealer/user who needs the money to restart his meth business after his crude lab is destroyed in a fire.  He is accompanied by his sister/accomplice Delia (Margaret Qualley), a suicidal/murderous meth user who is constantly being physically abused by him.  They will all ultimately have a final rendezvous at the Donnybrook.  This is a brutal dark film, grim in its presentation of individuals whether they are participants in this event or spectators watching like the Roman mobs who used to flock to an arena to watch gladiators fight to the death.  The only difference here is that rather than reciting, “We who are about to die, salute you,” they instead, all say the pledge of allegiance to a waving American flag before this bloody game begins.   The acting is excellent all around and Tim Sutton’s direction pulls no punches (no pun intended).  It may be hard to take but, like a slow-motion train wreck, “Donnybrook” is something that you just can’t turn your eyes away from.

Well, now let’s move on to highlight another type of strange, brutal, and ruthless competition in a movie.  This brutal competition is… sheepherding and the movie in question is “Babe” (1995).  OK, I know!  it’s neither brutal nor ruthless.  However, as a movie about a strange type of competition it is definitely delightful and truly heartwarming.  Babe is the name of an orphaned piglet won at a contest by Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), the owner of a rural farm in England who finds that Babe has the ability to sort out the different types of farm hens so he tries to have him do the same thing as a potential herder for his sheep.  Innocent Babe convinces the sheep to allow him to herd them to the consternation of Rex, the lead sheepdog which leads to conflict involving Rex and some of the other farm animals. This conflict ultimately comes to a head when Babe is later entered into a sheepherding competition.  As if you haven’t already figured it out, Babe is a classic children’s movie.  However, more importantly, it is a great movie period!  Usually, films classified as children/family movies are not considered as anything more than artistically lightweight if they are to be even considered at all.  That would be a mistake here.  There have been a few truly great children films that deserved acclaim and were well worth being appreciated by people of all ages.  Some examples are films like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and “Hugo” (2011).  Oh, and Victor Fleming, who directed both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” in the same year and won Oscars for Best Director and Picture for “Wind” got it for the wrong picture.  He should have got it for “Oz” and it should have won Best Picture that year too, G-ddamnit!  (I had to say that!).  George Miller (“Mad Max”) who produced the film (Chris Noonan directed and was nominated for Best Director) waited ten years before bringing the story to the screen because he waited for the special effects CGI technology to be developed so his vision for the film would be just right.  It was a wise decision.  Noonan’s brilliant direction makes it appear that live animals are actually speaking words (no soft nylon thread under any animal’s lips being pulled like in “Mr. Ed”).  Veteran character actor Cromwell also gave a wonderful Oscar nominated performance (can you believe he once played Stretch Cunningham on the original “All in the Family”).  “Babe’s” CGI special visual effects won the picture its only Oscar (out of seven nominations), but despite that, it’s still a timeless and charming classic!

Rodeo riding is another strange/unusual competition that has been highlighted in movies [“The Lusty Men” (1952)] and on Network TV [“The Wide Country” (1962-63)].  However, the one that I’d like to favorably mention is the Network TV show, “Stoney Burke” (1962-63) starring Jack Lord.  “Burke” highlighted the rough and tumble lifestyle of an itinerant competitive rodeo rider always competing for the always elusive National Rodeo Championship “Golden Buckle” accompanied by his fellow band of companions like E.J. (Bruce Dern) and ethically dubious Ves (scene-stealing Warren Oates).  Besides some top-notch actors like Dern and Oates along with great guest stars in various episodes, the show also had top production talent behind it like future Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere (“The Outer Limits”), and Producer/Writer/Director Leslie Stevens (“The Outer Limits”, “The Name of the Game”, etc.).  Lord’s Burke was a principled and honest everyman, but he had a temper and could make foolish or rash decisions that were hurtful or counterproductive.  Numerous episodes highlighted Stoney often being injured from his rodeo competitions, financially broke, used, deceived, and constantly getting into difficult situations frequently caused by Ves’s scheming manipulations.  The show presented a portrait of individuals that were often fallible, yet distinctly very human.  Unfortunately, “Stoney Burke” only lasted one season consisting of thirty-two black and white episodes.  It deserved better.  If you ever get a chance to see it, give it a try.  You might be pleasantly surprised!

Next up, have any of you ever seen a roller derby contest?  They used to have male and female contests on local TV when I was young.  I still have fond memories of a particular roller derby contest where one of the male players when slugged by an opposing player flew over the railing of the roller rink and into the crowd where someone in the crowd immediately ran up to him, stomped him some more and then ran off into the night while being chased by three arena security guards.  It was better than watching Saturday Night Wrestling.  With that cultural memory in mind, I just had to include the roller derby comedy drama film, “Whip It” (2009) into this month’s Blog Post discussion.  Roughly based on the life of Shauna Cross (who also wrote the movie’s screenplay), and her fictional novel, “Derby Girl”, “Whip It” starred Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a moody Texas teenager (aren’t they all) whose former beauty queen mother wants her to continue the family beauty queen tradition.  Preferring a lobotomy with a butter knife rather than carrying on said, family tradition, Bliss finds a different direction in her life after encountering a group of roller derby girls and, after secretly attending a game, decides she wants to try out for a spot on the Hurl Scouts, a perennially unsuccessful roller derby team.  Of course, this being a coming-of-age story, our Bliss wins a spot on the team while discovering that she does have some innate natural skating ability.  Now with her derby moniker, “Babe Ruthless” she’s set to be a part of the team while trying to keep her parents in the dark about her new obsession.

First time director Drew Barrymore does a top-notch job balancing both the comic, as well as the dramatic elements in the film.  She also gets fine support from her talented group of actors.  As Bliss’s parents, Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern (who for once, doesn’t get the S&%T kicked out of him like when he was doing the “Home Alone” movies) are just fine as her likeable parents.  Bliss’s team mates like the always dependable Kristen Wiig as a single mom, old timer Juliette Lewis (at age 36?), and others like singer/actress Eve, and ex-professional stunt woman now turned actress Zoe Bell are excellent too.  Barrymore even had a small role as one of Bliss’s team mates as well as having Jimmy Fallon playing the derby ring announcer (Don’t quit your night job yet, Jimmy!).  However, the weight of the movie is on Ellen Page’s shoulders and she carries it off with style.  If you look up the word, “spunk” in Webster’s Dictionary you’d probably see her picture next to the definition.  She might be typecast playing that type of role all the time but in this film, she is endearing rather than annoying.  Although the roller derby premise is the only original twist to an old tired movie storyline (misfit finding purpose in her life despite her mom’s possible objections) “Whip It” is still worth seeing despite its lightweight elements.

The last two types of strange competition that I’d like to discuss concern two competitive contests that one doesn’t ordinarily think of although one of the two has just recently received great recognition and justified acclaim.  As for the other one, well, hold your noise when I tell you about that one.   Anyway, the better one concerns the competitive sport of Chess.  Surprisingly. there actually have been some excellent films about chess competition.  For examples there was “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) based on the life of child prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin, “Pawn Sacrifice” (2014) a biographical drama of Bobby Fischer’s life starring Tobias Maguire, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) the true story about the 1998 Miami Jackson High School chess team and their Cuban-American teacher Mario Martinez who helped them become the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship starring John Leguizamo as Martinez.  However, there is one story of chess competition that I’d like to particularly praise although it was not a movie but, rather, a limited seven-episode miniseries on Netflix.  That miniseries was “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) written and directed by Scott Frank and starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

“Gambit” was based on the 1983 novel by author Walter Tevis (“The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”, etc.) and it tells the story of Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), an introverted and at first, unexceptional child who is sent to an orphanage at age nine after her mother dies by suicide in a car accident.  Once there she discovers, by accident, the custodian (Bill Camp) playing chess.  Fascinated, she keeps nagging him to teach her which he ultimately does.  From that point on her natural visualization skills enhanced by the tranquilizers handed out daily to the children by the orphanage staff help her to become a formidable chess prodigy who, as she grows up, leads her into playing increasingly difficult competitive tournaments with the ultimate goal of becoming the best chess player in the world.  Unfortunately, her goal, as well as her life might be totally derailed due to her increasingly self-destructive emotional and psychological issues as well as an increasing drug and alcohol dependency.   

There are so many things to praise about “Gambit” that I almost do not know where to begin.  First, the casting and acting is first rate.  Veteran character actor Camp is wonderful as Beth’s gruff teacher.  Acclaimed film director Marielle Heller [“Can You Ever Forgive Me” (2018), “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), etc.] gives a powerful dramatic performance as Beth’s adoptive mom Alma, a depressed, functioning alcoholic who discovers that after her husband leaves them, she and Beth can still survive due to Beth’s chess playing. Her Alma is needy, desperate for excitement, longing to love/be loved by someone, supportive, and, at times, almost reversing roles with Beth being the more mature one than Alma.  Actors Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as both of Beth’s early competitors/mentors and later lovers/close friends are also compelling especially Brodie-Sangster in a swashbuckling confident performance.  However, the entire series is anchored by Taylor-Joy’s towering star-making performance as Beth.  Joy uses her startlingly beautiful otherworldly face as both a mask to hide her pain and emotions, and as a weapon to stare down her opponents and anyone else standing in her way.  Joy, who in real life studied ballet, used her ballet training in her body movements both around and during the chess matches imparting a unique individual physical style to her character.  As her character grows more confident and successful you see her physical appearance remarkedly change in the more fashionable clothes she wears and in how she now moves her body with grace, style, and assertiveness.  It’s an incredible physical transformative performance.    

I’ve sang the praises for writer/director Scott Frank for awhile now and I’m going to do it again for “Gambit”.  This guy just plain writes great screenplays creating multifaceted characters that are believable and real.  He pays great attention to details in his films from getting the period settings of the story right (the fifties and sixties) to ensuring that the chess boards are always set up correctly and that the chess games and positions are realistic.  He enlisted the help of National Master Bruce Pandolfini (who also originally advised author Walter Tevis when he wrote his novel) and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov as consultants.  Best of all, besides his skill in getting great performances from his actors, in “Gambit” his direction, whether it’s of Beth looking up at the ceiling and you see imaginary chess pieces being moved on the ceiling chess board or of the actual chess matches themselves, the competition scenes are exciting and suspenseful.  Four weeks after Gambit’s debut, it became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ever receiving universal acclaim by the viewing public as well as the chess community too.  As a final observation, interest in chess and the purchase of chess sets by the public, especially women, increased exponentially since its showing.  

The last type of strange competition that I want to discuss is definitely something that you do not often see highlighted anywhere (although they did show it a few times on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” a long time ago).  As far as I know, there has only been one movie ever made incorporating this particular type of competition.  Hence, that is the movie that I will now discuss to end this month’s Blog Post.  That sports(?) competition is…

 Arm Wrestling…

And the movie is…

“Over the Top” (1987)

This classic (??) starred Sylvester Stallone (Yeah, you all know how much I love him) as Lincoln Hack… I mean, Hawk (Sorry, I was just thinking about Sylvester’s previous writing and directing efforts), a long-haul trucker who walked out on his wife (Susan Blakely) and child (David Mendenhall) ten years ago.  Well, maybe he walked out because his wife was finally fed up due to the fact that: (1) he couldn’t speak coherent English, (2) he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, and (3) he probably couldn’t even feed himself without help.  Needless, to say, his sickly wife now wants him to pick up their son from military school and drive him to the hospital where she is staying while the two of them bond along the way (You know, like getting drunk on Boone’s Farm and getting into bar fights at cheap strip joint dive bars for example).  Of course, by the time they arrive, wifey dies, sonny blames dad, and sonny runs to wifey’s Gazillionaire grand-dad (Robert Loggia) who does everything possible to keep them apart (Robert, I hope you at least got paid very well for debasing yourself in this film).  Of course, then “Missing Link” Lincoln decides he wants to enter the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas to win the prize money and a new bigger truck (of course) while hoping to win back his son’s love again (also, of course!).

This testosterone turd was the brainchild of schlock Israeli producer, screenwriter, director and former Canon Studio co-head Menahem Golan, maker of somnambulant action films with such noted thespians as Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester (Legend in his own Mind) Stallone usually starring.  Originally, they wanted Don Johnson for the role but Golan wanted a big star so he paid a ton of money to get Stallone instead (Don Johnson should drop down on his knees every night to thank G-d he didn’t act in this mess!).  Sylvester also co-wrote the screenplay which consisted of him saying such howlers as…

  1. “I always wanted to be a milk shake” (Well, he already has the brain of a milk shake so I suppose that’s the next logical step!)
  2. “What I do is I just try to take my hat and I turn it around, and it’s like a switch that goes on. And when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel, I don’t know, I feel like a… like a truck.  Like a machine.” (Other than justifiably comparing himself mentally to an inanimate hunk of metal, maybe next time he should just take that hat and stuff it in his mouth and spare all of us from having to hear him try to speak!)

At the 8th annual Golden Raspberry Awards in 1988 Stallone was nominated for Worst Actor of the year.  Although he’s won that award four times (“Rhinestone”, “Rambo III”, etc.) along with another six times for his other artistic talents (Director, Screenplay, etc.) in other categories which is still an all time Raspberry record, he lost this time to Bill Cosby for “Leonard Part 6” (an inspired choice, if I do say so myself).  However, “Over the Top” was not left out that year at the “Raspberries.”  David Mendenhall won two Raspberries for Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star so there is some justice in the world.  Way to ashcan your career David.  Good job!

To conclude, all I have to further add is that, my job here is done, so until next month Dear Reader I bid thee, Adieu!

N.L.P.