Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL


"I'm gonna ram the name of Shields down their throats!"

Judy and I watched THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) last night and loved it. I first saw it many years ago with my movie buddy Kelly Greene. It was one of the first films we watched together and we both enjoyed it. The line of dialogue quoted above (and spoken by Kirk Douglas in the film), has stayed with both of us over the years. In fact, when Kelly was making his outstanding film ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS, we often joked that he was going to "ram the name of Greene down their throats!"

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, like SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), takes a look behind the scenes of  show business (in this case, a Hollywood movie studio) and reveals some of the darker truths about the film industry. Masterfully directed by Vincente Minnelli, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL features a great cast, a terrific screenplay by Charles Schnee (based on the novel Tribute to a Badman by George Bradshaw) and a memorable score by David Rashkin. It's darker than the standard Minnelli fare of musicals and comedies and a few scenes in the film (especially the ones between Douglas and Lana Turner), have a whiff of noir.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the story of boy wonder film producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), whose father was one of the early giants of the motion picture business. Shields is determined to make a name for himself in Hollywood and he does so by utilizing the talents of three people: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Turner) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). All three are contacted by Shields at the beginning of the film and asked to meet in the offices of producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon). From there, the film is broken into three separate story lines with each character narrating their own tale about their experiences with Shields.

In each flashback, Shields is revealed to be a complex man. One minute you like him, the very next second you hate him. He does right by all three characters at first before turning on each one in the end. But, as producer Pebbel points out, all three got their start thanks to Shields and all three went on to have successful careers after their associations with Shields came to their respective ends. The last shot of the film implies that the trio will overcome their deep-seated animosity towards Shields and work with him one more time.

There are lots of inside Hollywood references in the film. Shields himself can be seen as an amalgamation of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles. When Shields and Amiel are set up by Pebbel to produce a grade-B horror film called THE CAT MAN, they decide to ditch the men in cat monster suits and focus more on what's not seen on the screen. This is a direct reference to RKO producer Val Lewton and his classic horror film THE CAT PEOPLE (1942). Leo G. Carroll and Kathleen Freeman appear to be analogues for Alfred Hitchcock and his wife/assistant Alma. Georgia Lorrison is the daughter of a "great profile" actor like John Barrymore whose daughter Diana's film career was launched the same year as her father's death. Screenwriter Bartlow may have been based on writer Paul Eliot Green, who wrote The Cabin in the Cotton.  

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL received six Academy Award nominations including Best Actor (Douglas), Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame, winner), Best Black and White Art Direction (winner), Best Black and White Cinematography (winner), Best Black and White Costume Design (winner) and Best Adapted Screenplay (winner).

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a first rate film. It's well written, directed and acted and enormously entertaining. It's head and shoulders above the similarly themed Minnelli/Douglas collaboration TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962) (which I reviewed here late last year).  Oh, and it features the smoking hot Elaine Stewart in a small role. Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

JUST CAUSE


I stumbled across a used DVD of JUST CAUSE (1995) a few weeks back when Judy and I hit a local thrift store to do some bargain hunting. For 99 cents, I figured, hey, why not? I ponied up the money for only one reason: Sean Connery. I figured that anything with Connery in it is worth seeing at least once and besides, the price was definitely right for ol' skinflint Frank.

Based on the novel of the same name by John Katzenbach (which I have not read), JUST CAUSE is the story of Paul Armstrong (Connery), a Harvard law professor and strong anti-death penalty advocate. After a public appearance in a small Southern town, Armstrong is persuaded by the mother of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), to look into her son's murder trial, conviction and subsequent death penalty. She swears he's innocent.

Armstrong is at first reluctant to take the case but once he starts digging around in the Florida town where the murder was committed (the victim was a young white girl), he comes to believe that his client, a well-spoken, highly intelligent young black man, is innocent. Armstrong soon uncovers evidence which indicates that insane serial killer and fellow death row inmate Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), actually committed the crime. A new trial is held and Bobby Earl is found not guilty. He's released from prison while Sullivan is soon executed.

End of story, right? Whoa, hold on there Tex. Not so fast. I can see by the old clock on the wall that we've still got about thirty minutes of running time left which means it's time for a major plot twist in the third act. I won't say what it is, but it's a fairly good one (if a bit contrived).

As I said, you watch a routine, generic thriller like JUST CAUSE just to see the great Sean Connery in the twilight of his film career. Is it his best work? Far from it. But any Connery is better than none. Ed Harris does his best Hannibal Lecter impersonation but instead of the silky menace exuded by Anthony Hopkins, Harris turns everything up to 11. It's showy, flashy and theatrical and not entirely convincing. The supporting cast is good, with Laurence Fishburne as the small town police chief who butts heads with Connery before they finally have to work together to bring a killer to justice.

Bottom line: not  a great film but not a terrible one either. I think I got my 99 cents worth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST


Okay, I'll admit it. My tastes in film weren't entirely formed when I was twelve-years old (as I alluded to in my previous post about EMPIRE magazine's list of 301 best films). At least not entirely. Besides, since THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST was released in late 1967, that means I probably saw it for the first time in early 1968. I would have been eleven. And as we all know, eleven-year-old kids don't know anything about films.

That's because when I first saw THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST (1967), I thought it was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. When I watched it again the other day (for the first time since 1968), I didn't laugh once. I don't think I even smiled or grinned. I know I nodded off (very briefly) a couple of times.

The film is oh-so-very much a product of its' time, the "swinging sixties". It's a "hip" political satire/spy film spoof/science fiction send-up with plenty of sex, drugs, rock and roll, a liberal use of the "N" word in one scene, and the CEA and the FBR (stand-ins for the CIA and FBI, respectively). Oh, and a master villain that is revealed to be a major corporate power.

James Coburn, fresh from his two starring turns as secret agent extraordinaire Derek Flint in OUR MAN FLINT (1966) and IN LIKE FLINT (1967) (both of which are superior to ANALYST), stars as New York City psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Schaefer. He's recruited by one of his patients, CEA (Central Enquiries Agency) agent Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) to be the analyst for the president of the United States. It seems that the most powerful man in the world has no one to talk to and relieve the stress of the burdens he carries. Pint size FBR (Federal Bureau of Regulation) chief Henry Lux (Walter Burke), is against the move but Sidney gets the job anyway.

After several therapy sessions with the president (who is never shown, we only see Sidney going into and out of a room in the White House) and being on call 24/7, Sidney suffers a breakdown because there's no one he can talk to about what he knows.

He goes on the run from the White House, first hiding out with a family in suburban New Jersey before falling in with a rock band. Meanwhile, assassins from every major (and minor) power in the world are after him. He eventually falls into the clutches of Russian agent Kropotkin (Severn Darden) but the two become friends after Sidney psycho-analyzes him.

In the film's third act, Sidney gets captured by the real villains of the piece and it's up to Kropotkin and Masters to storm the headquarters of this evil organization (oh, all right, already, it's The Phone Company, okay?) and rescue him.

In one bit of remarkably prescient plotting, The Phone Company's master plan is revealed to be the implanting of a micro-chip directly into the brain of every American so that people can call someone by just thinking about it. This was decades before today's cell/smart phones and nano-technology. This was also before The Phone Company was broken up and went from "Big Bell" to many smaller, "Baby Bells."

The end, except that in the last shot, we see TPC still conducting surveillance on Sidney, Kropotkin, Masters and Sidney's girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney).

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST was written and directed by Theodore Flicker, so he only has himself to blame for this turkey. The film bombed at the box office on first release but subsequent showings on television has granted ANALYST some degree of cult cachet.

What can I say? I loved this mess when I was eleven but now, at the age of fifty-eight, not so much. It's worth seeing once if you're a James Coburn fan (I've always liked the guy) or  if you want to remember what the late '60s were like. If you weren't around back then, watch it to get a glimpse of a truly lost world. Your mileage may vary regarding laughs but my needle pegged towards empty.

Monday, August 25, 2014

FLASHFIRE


Now this, my friends, this is what I'm talking about.

FLASHFIRE (2000) by Richard Stark, was just what I needed to get the still-lingering bad taste of Michael Crichton's bloated THE VENOM BUSINESS out of my mouth. FLASHFIRE is a stripped down, lean and mean, pedal to the metal crime story that is next to impossible to put down.

It's the nineteenth adventure of Parker, the super crook created in 1962  by mystery author Donald Westlake writing under the pen name Richard Stark. The first in the series, THE HUNTER, which I've read, was adapted for film twice, first by John Boorman in the brilliant POINT BLANK (1967) with Lee Marvin as "Walker" and later in 1999 as PAYBACK, with Mel Gibson in the lead. I've seen both films and I prefer POINT BLANK. When I read a Parker story, I can't help but picture him in my mind as looking and sounding like the great Lee Marvin. Oh, and Darwyn Cooke, who is a masterful comic book artist, did a graphic novel adaptation of THE HUNTER a few years back which I highly recommend.

In FLASHFIRE, Parker works with three other men to pull a bank job at the beginning of the book. They get and get away with a sizable amount of cash but the three thieves tell Parker that they need his share of the loot to finance their next big caper, a jewelry heist in Palm Beach, Florida. Withholding money from Parker is their first mistake. Leaving him alive is their second.

Parker is soon on their trail across the American South, pulling various jobs of his own and working a complicated scheme to set up a new identity and a ready source of funds. Oh, and he has to kill some other bad guys along the way, deaths that will have repercussions later in the book. Parker arrives in Palm Beach and soon finds himself teamed-up with Leslie, an avaricious real estate agent who sees the mysterious "Mr. Parmitt" as her meal ticket out of a life of drudgery.

Parker is forced to rely on the amateur to help in his plan to get revenge on the three crooks who double crossed him. The partnership is sometimes good, sometimes bad. There's also a deputy sheriff nosing around that knows something is just not right but he can't put all of the pieces together.Things come to a violent head (as they always do in a Parker novel) and there are a couple of very satisfying plot twists and turns before everything is finally over. 

FLASHFIRE is a terrific crime thriller written by a genre master at the peak of his career. Stark (or Westlake, if you prefer), writes in an economical, stripped down prose style that keeps you turning pages. He also seems to know way too much about how professional criminals operate (and I don't really want to know how he gained that information). He also makes us root for a bad guy. We want Parker to succeed in his quest and, true to form, he does. Once Parker sets his mind on something, there's no stopping him.

FLASHFIRE was the basis of the recent film, PARKER (2013) with Jason Statham in the title role. I've not seen it but I will definitely check it out the first chance I get. In the meantime, it's off to BACKFLASH (another Parker caper) for me. Highest recommendation.




Friday, August 22, 2014

SHOCK


Despite the title and the fact that the film stars Vincent Price, SHOCK (1946) is not a horror film. It's a nifty little film noir that I watched a while back with my buddy Kelly Greene.

Vincent Price was under contract at 20th Century Fox in the late 1940s. He appeared in bit parts and supporting roles in a number of films including the noir masterpiece LAURA (1944). The studio heads at Fox apparently decided to see how Price could do in a leading role and thus, he was cast in SHOCK, in which he received top billing.

Price plays Dr. Cross, a psychiatrist who murders his wife in order to be with his nurse, Elaine (Lynn Bari, as a lovely femme fatale). Trouble is, the murder is witnessed by Janet (Anabel Shaw), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room. Young Janet is awaiting the arrival home of her war veteran husband, Paul (Frank Latimore). But the sight of the murder sends Janet into a state of catatonic shock. This is a neat bit of role reversal. In many post war noirs, it's the men who come home shell shocked and psychologically damaged. Here, veteran Paul seems pretty well adjusted, while his poor wife is the one suffering.

Janet is put into the care of Dr. Cross, which works to his advantage. He figures if he can keep her doped up at his sanitarium, the only witness to his crime can never testify against him. But during the course of one stormy night, Janet comes out of her trance like state and remembers everything. Still, Cross can discredit her story as the ravings of a disturbed young woman who has undergone tremendous psychological stress.

But things start to unravel when O'Neill (Reed Hadley), an investigator from the D.A.'s office starts poking around the circumstances surrounding the death of Mrs. Cross while another psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Charles Trowbridge), begins to question Cross's prescribed treatment of shock therapy for Janet.

Although a murderer, Price comes across as a fairly sympathetic character who is urged against his will to act against Janet by Elaine, who is the real villain of the piece. It would be several more years before Price became typecast as a horror star (and he was one of the all-time best in my book). With competent direction by Alfred L. Werker from a screenplay by Eugene Ling and Martin Berkeley (and a story by Albert DeMond), SHOCK is a neat little thriller that has a great premise, a solid cast and a couple of surprises along the way. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ALL THESE CONDEMNED

I finished reading ALL THESE CONDEMNED by John D. MacDonald this afternoon. I know I first read this novel (originally published in 1954 and reprinted this year in a handsome trade paperback edition by Random House) some thirty plus years ago but I didn't remember anything about it.

In ALL THESE CONDEMNED, MacDonald tries his hand at the traditional, formal murder mystery. Eight people are spending the weekend at the lakeside home of cosmetics magnate Wilma Ferris. All of the people, three women and five men, are employed in some capacity by Ferris. She has mistreated and abused every one of them and is about to fire some of them. Every one of them has a reason and a motive for wanting to see her dead.

MacDonald opens the story with the recovery of Wilma's dead body from the lake. It appears she drowned but a closer inspection of the body reveals evidence of foul play. What was at first believed to be a tragic accident is now under investigation as a murder. Who did it? Was it the television comedienne whose show was sponsored by Ferris's company? The crafty PR man? The stuffed shirt from the advertising agency? The business manager who knows how over exposed the company really is? The muscle bound "artist"?  Or the mousy wife of one Ferris's managers, a woman who worships Wilma when everyone else hates her guts?

MacDonald turns the traditional mystery novel on it's head by having each character narrate two chapters apiece during the course of the novel. One chapter each is told from the point of view of the character before the murder occurred with the other chapters relating the action after the murder. A couple of characters are fairly quickly eliminated as suspects but there are plenty of possibilities to consider before the penultimate chapter in which the killer is revealed.

ALL THESE CONDEMNED combines the jigsaw puzzle aspect of the traditional drawing room mystery (without the presence of a detective to solve the crime) with liberal doses of MacDonald's world view and cynical, mid-century philosophies. The characters are all strongly developed and there's a bit of a surprise at the end. If you're a MacDonald fan, you need to read this book. If you're not a fan of this terrific writer, read ALL THESE CONDEMNED and become one. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE VENOM BUSINESS


There's a little more than four months left in the year 2014 but it's safe to say that as of today, August 19th, my nomination for the worst book I've read this year goes to THE VENOM BUSINESS by Michael Crichton. It's one of his earliest books, first published in 1970 when Crichton was just learning the business and publishing under the name "John Lange". All of the Crichton/Lange books have been reissued in handsome trade paperback editions by Hard Case Crime but despite the provocative cover art pictured above, this is a stinker through and through.

It's an over plotted, over written mess of a "thriller" that ironically enough, starts out fairly promisingly but very soon takes a turn for the worse. Crichton spins this yarn over the course of 384 pages, which is easily one hundred pages too many. One is left to wonder if this is Crichton's first draft or if any editor (then or now) ever touched this manuscript. It's clumsy, the characters are cliched, the women are all beautiful and interchangeable, the plot takes forever to take shape, the hero is competent at first but then suddenly turns stupid, everyone in the book drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks (I think they all attended the Nick and Nora Charles School for Advanced Alcoholics), every main character is secretly plotting against every other main character and the whole thing is just one great, huge, crashing, epic bore.

To be fair, Crichton was young and just starting out and was still learning the craft of writing. The trouble was, he never got that much better in my opinion. Oh, he was a great story teller, full of terrific high concept ideas that seemed ready made to make the leap from page to screen. Crichton became an enormously popular, successful and wealthy author but dammit, he just never was that good of a writer. He could keep me turning pages, no doubt, but all the time, a voice in my head was constantly reminding me that this stuff isn't very well written.

Which begs the question, does popular, escapist fiction have to be high art and great literature? Of course not and I'm certainly guilty of enjoying other books by other writers who were on a par (or less) with the later works of Michael Crichton. But there are so many guys out there who bring something more to the page other than plot, guys like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, that make me wish every thriller writer would learn from them.

If you're a die-hard Michael Crichton fan and are determined to read everything he ever wrote, go ahead and give THE VENOM BUSINESS a try. Just be warned, you might not like what you read. Everyone else, cross against the light to avoid this one.