Monday, August 29, 2016

Pure Imagination: Gene Wilder As Willy Wonka

After a long, hot day at work, I came home to find out that Gene Wilder passed away. This one hits a little bit closer to home than most. WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is one of my top 100 favorite movies of all time, and I watch it at least once a year. The idea that Mr. Wonka himself could pass away is frankly unnerving. I believe that Gene Wilder as Wonka is one of the most fascinating and brilliant performances in all of movie history.

Even as a kid there was something about Wilder's Wonka that intrigued me. Most movies or TV programs that were supposedly for kids during my younger years had mostly straightforward, predictable characters. There's nothing straightforward or predictable about Willy Wonka. Due to Wilder's magnificent portrayal, you just can't pin the man down. I've seen this movie dozens of times, and I'm sure I first saw it on TV in the 1970s...but every time I watch it, Gene Wilder still has the ability to surprise me.

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka is mysterious, commanding, austere, and aloof. He's bold, sly, cunning, and winsome. He's goofy, silly, sarcastic, and hot-tempered. He's also dangerous, erratic, manic, and irresponsible. You don't know where he's coming from--or where he came from--and you don't know where he's going. When I was a child, seeing an adult act like this in a movie was a revelation. You couldn't get bored watching Wilder's Wonka. He totally commands the story--yet Wilder's performance feels absolutely natural. Obviously Wilder didn't do the role entirely off the cuff, but everything he does, no matter how unpredictable it might be, just seems right. Every so often, there is a magic combination of the right actor, the right story, and the right movie. Gene Wilder IS Willy Wonka, pure and simple.

Wilder had a huge advantage in that Willy Wonka is never even seen until the movie is almost half over. Wonka is discussed by other characters, but he doesn't sound too appealing...he's set up as a dark, foreboding presence. When we finally are introduced to him, Wilder comes out hobbling like an old man, before doing a perfectly timed comic pratfall. This ingeniously establishes Wonka for the rest of the film as a man who has way more going on than what we see on the surface. The audience--and the characters in the film--cannot take him at face value.

One major reason Wilder's Wonka made such an impression on a generation of kids like me is that at times he's downright scary. Remember the scene with the S.S Wonkatania? Remember how creepy Wilder is in that scene? Nothing in Willy Wonka's factory is explained--and you get the feeling that Wonka himself doesn't really know how it all works. I love how whenever one of the kids or the parents asks Wonka about his fantastic concoctions, the candy maker acts as if it's the most obvious thing in the world, or he acts as if he couldn't be bothered about it. One of the most egregious errors (among many) that the Tim Burton remake of this film made was giving Willy Wonka a backstory (even if it did feature Christopher Lee). I don't want to know the pertinent facts about Wonka's factory, or about the man himself. This is a movie for kids of all ages--you should use your imagination to fill in the blanks, not logic.

And speaking of imagination...the true highlight, for me, of WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is Gene Wilder's performance of the song "Pure Imagination". Even as a kid, I thought there was something deeply moving about the way Wilder sings this song. Perhaps the reason for that is there is a tinge of melancholy to it--it's as if Wilder is trying to tell us, "Use your imagination while you can, because we're all going to grow up and have to deal with the real world." I posted a video of Wilder singing this song on the Hitless Wonder Facebook Page, but I must admit that I didn't watch it all the way through, because I probably would have started crying.

There's so many things I could say about Wilder as Wonka....but the man's career was much more than that. I haven't even touched upon THE PRODUCERS, or BLAZING SADDLES, or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, or SILVER STREAK, or STIR CRAZY...Gene Wilder was a writer and director as well, and despite his singularly unique style, he was one of the most popular movie stars of the 1970s.

I'll wrap things up by placing an Everlasting Gobstopper on Mr. Wilder's desk, and thanking him for giving us all a Golden Ticket that we can use forever.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Ingrid Bergman Blogathon: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

This is my contribution to the 2nd Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by

Today we live in a world of re-boots, remakes, and reworkings of classic and not so classic material. The Golden Age of Hollywood had its share of reworkings as well, particularly when it came to famous literary adaptations. What makes the 1941 MGM version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE unique is that it is not a re-telling of Robert Louis Stevenson's story--it is basically a remake of Paramount's 1932 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which won Fredric March a Best Actor Oscar.

MGM wanted the story to be a prestigious role for the studio's leading dramatic actor, Spencer Tracy. To this day there is a debate on which version is better. Both productions have outstanding qualities, and while an individual may have a personal favorite, you certainly can't praise one and totally dismiss the other. Since this is an Ingrid Bergman blogathon, I'm going to focus on Ingrid's performance in the 1941 JEKYLL AND HYDE as Ivy Peterson, especially in comparison to Miriam Hopkins' portrayal as Ivy in the 1932 version.

I have to start out by saying that Miriam Hopkins' performance as Ivy (her last name is "Pierson" in the '32 version) is one of the most haunting and memorable in all of classic horror cinema. If a Supporting Actress Oscar had existed in 1932, Hopkins assuredly would have deserved to win. If Spencer Tracy had a challenge in competing against Fredric March, Ingrid Bergman certainly had a daunting task in playing Ivy after Miriam Hopkins. Originally Bergman was cast as Dr. Jekyll's loving fiancee, and Lana Turner was supposed to play Ivy. Before shooting started the two ladies switched roles. It has been documented in several books that Bergman didn't want to play another "good girl"--but one has to realize that JEKYLL AND HYDE was only Ingrid's fourth American movie. I personally think Ingrid wanted to play Ivy because she knew it was a much better part, and she could make far more of an impact with it.

The storylines of the '32 and '41 versions are essentially the same. Both movies have Dr. Jekyll and his friend Dr. Lanyon come across Ivy fighting off an "admirer" in a disreputable part of London. The two men give Ivy a ride home, and once there the girl, entranced by Jekyll, tries to seduce the doctor.

In the 1932 version, the seduction scene is far more involved, as befitting a film made in the Pre-Code era. Miriam Hopkins taking off her garter and stockings is almost a mini-film in itself. In the '41 version, Ivy still takes off her garter, but the scene is much more compact--we barely get a glimpse of Ivy's legs. Director Victor Fleming uses mostly close-ups to show Ivy's feelings for Jekyll.

There's an old adage that says you can always tell how a film director feels about his leading lady by how exquisitely she is photographed. Victor Fleming must have fell very hard for Ingrid, because she is the recipient of several ravishing full-face set-ups. (I've picked three gorgeous stills of Ingrid from the film to illustrate this post.) The cinematographer on the '41 JEKYLL AND HYDE was Joseph Ruttenberg, who would photograph Ingrid beautifully again in the 1944 GASLIGHT. Granted, the ordinary person with a digital camera could make Ingrid look good--the woman was one of the true natural beauties of the screen--but in this film she is breathtaking. Apparently Fleming and Bergman did develop a mutual attraction while working on this film, and it shows by how the actress is presented here. Lana Turner wasn't exactly hard to look at either, but in this film poor Lana didn't have much of a chance to make an impression. (One thing I noticed when watching the '41 version again in preparation for this post is that Fleming used close-ups extensively throughout the film, not just only on Ingrid. Perhaps he was trying to accentuate the psychological aspects of the story, as opposed to Rouben Mamoulian's more florid visual style for the '32 version.)

Ingrid's Ivy makes such an impression on Dr. Jekyll that when he turns into the satyr-like Hyde, he goes out of his way to make contact with Ivy and set her up as his "kept woman". The scenes in which Ivy is in Hyde's grip is where Ingrid really shines. Her portrayal of a woman who is the victim of a abusive and dysfunctional relationship is very relevant to today's culture. We usually consider the abusive/dysfunctional relationship belonging to the modern world, but I'm sure there was plenty of it in Victorian England. Ingrid is devastating as a beaten and psychologically scarred Ivy, so much so that it is almost hard to watch her in such a state. There's a frightening realism to Ivy's victimization, a realism one doesn't often see in a 1940s major American studio film. The main reason that Spencer Tracy is scary as Hyde is because of Ingrid Bergman's reactions to him.

What makes Ingrid's Ivy so heartbreaking is that, at least from my perspective, you don't think of her as a "bad girl". Ingrid's Ivy may act like she's been around, but she's so fresh-faced and open that you get the feeling she's putting on an act. That, in my mind, is the main difference between Ingrid's Ivy and the Ivy of Miriam Hopkins. Hopkins' Ivy definitely appears to be a woman of "experience", so to speak (no doubt this feeling is helped by the '32 version being a Pre-Code film). Hopkins has a harder edge to her, and her relationship with Fredric March's simian-like Hyde has a more manic aspect to it. Bergman's Ivy is softer, and more fragile. Spencer Tracy's Hyde tears her down more emotionally than physically (even though the physical part of the abuse is there as well).

When Tracy's Hyde finally does kill Ivy, it's truly a disturbing moment, even though Ivy is hidden from the camera. Ivy may supposed to be to Hyde what the sweet Lana Turner character is to Jekyll, but Ivy isn't bad at all--she's more a victim of bad circumstances. Due to the brilliance of Ingrid Bergman, we feel as if we know Ivy, and we as an audience care about her plight.

The role of Ivy Peterson in the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE was Ingrid Bergman's first truly great American film performance. Most film buffs consider the '32 version the best Jekyll & Hyde film, but the 1941 version is a very good film in its own right. Was Spencer Tracy miscast? Maybe...but he's a lot better in the film than is generally assumed. Some even say that Ingrid Bergman was miscast, due to the reasoning that Ivy is supposed to be a Cockney barmaid. Ingrid is certainly no Cockney, and you can tell she's a bit uncomfortable with the period slang--but my explanation for that is her Ivy was an immigrant, and she changed her name and manner of speech to try and fit in.

Ingrid Bergman by far and away is the best thing about the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I would even go far as to say she steals the film away from Spencer Tracy (and I bet Tracy was well aware of this). It's possible to appreciate both Miriam Hopkins and Ingrid Bergman as Ivy, just as it's possible to appreciate both the '32 and '41 versions of the film. I happen to own the Warners DVD which has the two versions--I think it's rather fitting they are on the same disc. If there was any actress that was able to get an emotional response from an audience, it was Ingrid Bergman, and her role as Ivy is more than adequate proof of that. Watching the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE for the first time as a teenager was one of the main reasons I've had a lifelong crush on Ingrid Bergman.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I finally went and saw SUICIDE SQUAD. Is this the true breakout DC movie everyone has been waiting for? It's making a lot of money at the box office, true, but I think that is more due to the fact that there isn't much else out right now. It's an okay film, not as bad as some people say and not as good as some people say. But before you read my opinions, please realize that this movie isn't made for boring 40-something white guys like me.

SUICIDE SQUAD is a PG-13 movie that tries to have a R-rated attitude. The "heroes" of the film are all comic book villains who are thieves and killers, and they all have an excess of extreme attitude. How much attitude? There were times when I felt that I was watching a movie produced by the editors of MAXIM magazine. SUICIDE SQUAD writer-director David Ayer would probably take that as a compliment.

One big problem with all the assorted bad-assery is that the main villain, the Enchantress, winds up being rather dull in comparison. She also reminded me very much of Apocalypse in the latest X-MEN film. Frankly, all these comic book/geek movie villains are starting to resemble one another--as my good friend Joshua Kennedy pointed out to me, how many times have we seen a super-villain surrounded by streaming tendrils of powerful energy? We see it in SUICIDE SQUAD too.

I have to say, though, that the Enchantress is really just an excuse to get all the anti-heroes together. We get an entire roster of minor DC comic characters--Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, Katana, etc. They all get a (thankfully) brief backstory, and they all get a chance to shine. The one character that has attracted the most attention is of course Harley Quinn, portrayed by Margot Robbie. I'm not joking when I say that Harley Quinn is one of the most important fictional characters of the last 25 years. Harley was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the iconic BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as basically just a member of the Joker's gang, but she wound up being a major part of the DC Comics universe, due in large part to Arleen Sorkin's wonderful vocal performance. If you've been to any comics/entertainment convention in the last ten years, you know how much impact Harley Quinn has had on geek culture.

The news that the ultra-hot Margot Robbie was going to play Harley in SUICIDE SQUAD certainly caused a lot of fanboys to drop their laptops. Robbie as Harley is about what you would expect, especially if you've seen a number of SUICIDE SQUAD trailers (just about all her best moments are shown in those). We get a glimpse of Harley's "origin", and a small window into her relationship with the Joker. We even get a quick look at Harley's "classic" costume, and she does get to say "Mr. J" and "Puddin". The Harley Quinn/Joker pairing is a fascinating one, and probably deserving of its own film. In SUICIDE SQUAD--at least from my perspective--Harley chooses to be with the Joker, thus sidestepping the movie from confronting the more disturbing elements of the Harley/Joker coupling.

And Jared Leto as the Joker? Well, yeah, he's over the top--how can you play the Joker and not be over the top? This Joker, with his tattoos, silver-capped teeth, and clubbing lifestyle, seems to be the gangbanger version of the Clown Prince of Crime, a version I'm not all that impressed with. The fact is that Leto's Joker isn't in the movie all that much.

The real stars of SUICIDE SQUAD are not Harley Quinn and the Joker--they are Deadshot and Amanda Waller. I'd never thought I'd say this, but Will Smith gives the most impressive performance in the film. The Fresh Prince brings back his 1990s action-movie swagger, but at the same time he's still able to bring a realistic, human dimension to someone that is a hired killer. Viola Davis makes Amanda Waller more of a bad-ass than all the members of the Squad put together. As the National Security official who creates the Squad, Davis' Waller makes Donald Rumsfeld look like a low-key pacifist. For those who think the character of Waller is nothing more than a rip-off of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury. please remember that Amanda Waller has held a huge role in the DC Comics universe for a long time (Angela Bassett even played Waller in the lamented GREEN LANTERN movie). I assume that Davis is going to appear in other DC movies in the future.

The reason that I'm spending so much time on the characters of SUICIDE SQUAD is that they are more important that the actual movie. As a film SUICIDE SQUAD is rather derivative. It has a lot in common with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY--the classic rock music on the soundtrack, the goofy humor, and the many bizarre characters. It also shares a lot of elements with the AVENGERS and X-MEN movies, and it has the "those who are protecting us from harm are worse than those who are supposedly harming us" sub-plot. It even has the obligatory "all the main characters determinedly walking in unison" shot, except this time it is not in slow motion. As I've said, it's an okay film--but it's really a set-up for a DC Cinematic Universe than a standout picture.

Monday, August 22, 2016

2016 Wizard World Chicago

Last Sunday I attended the 2016 Wizard World Chicago convention, along with my friend Paul G. Lyzun, who is the director of the esteemed documentary WITHOUT CHARITY. Our main purpose was to get Carrie Fisher's autograph, and.....well, that didn't happen.

When Paul and I went to buy autograph tickets for Carrie, we discovered that they were sold out, and apparently had been for a month--despite the fact that the Wizard World website seemed to suggest that you would be able to get her autograph. I've been to Wizard World before, and to C2E2, which is a very similar con--and I've never personally experienced someone's autograph being sold out before the event even started. Needless to say, Paul and I were not too happy about the situation--but we decided to get Bruce Campbell's autograph instead. (By the way, Paul and I walked by Carrie's autograph table a couple of times during the day--but whenever we did she wasn't there. So I didn't even get to see Carrie Fisher.)

There's a reason why Bruce Campbell is a geek culture legend. When you met him in person you find that he is totally, absolutely, 100% Bruce. He didn't just sign his name--he made sure that every person who came through his line got a personal talk with him. While Paul and I were in his line Lou Ferrigno stopped by to say hi to Bruce--and Bruce turned it into a comic skit by acting like he was in pain when the TV Hulk shook his hand. If you ever get the opportunity to meet Bruce Campbell, by all means do so--you will not be disappointed.

One of the highlights of Wizard World is the "Artist Alley"--where comic book creators and all sorts of creative individuals have their own tables to present and sell their wares. I purchased a print of Salvador Larroca's magnificent work for Marvel's DARTH VADER comic book, and he signed it for me. What shocked me was that no one was at Larroca's table--since he is the main artist on one of Marvel's most popular titles, I expected that a bunch of folks would be crowded around him.

A print of Salvador Larroca's magnificent work for Marvel/Star Wars 

Paul got some stunning original movie poster art from a gentleman named Matt Peppler. Walking around "Artist Alley" made me realize that it is the so-called independent or "outisde" artists who capture the true spirit of the horror/science fiction/fantasy works that we love so much, instead of the giant conglomerates who produce them for film & television.

I tried not to spend too much money--of course me saying that is like a college football player saying "I'm gonna try to stay out of trouble this weekend" (wake up the echoes, Notre Dame fans). One thing I did get was a t-shirt featuring the cult 1960s TV show THE PRISONER--how many of those do you see around??

I also picked up a Svengoolie business card at the MeTV booth, along with some other classic TV business cards.

Don't leave home without it. 

The thing about this card is--if you really were a Secret Service agent, why would you carry around a card announcing that? Wouldn't you like....try to remain secret?

There were plenty of cosplayers at Wizard World, as usual. It seemed to me that this year there wasn't as many superhero costumes as in years past. There were plenty of SUICIDE SQUAD Harley Quinns, along with the obligatory "classic" Harleys. There were also a couple Dr. Harleen Quinzels, who I though were way more attractive (is that because I'm not a fan of women wearing too much makeup?). The best cosplays are the ones that are the most obscure.

Is Wizard World worth going to? I would say that if you are a major participant in 21st Century geek culture, you should go to it at least once if you have the chance. Get ready to spend some money, and get ready to do a lot of walking. And get ready to deal with some huge crowds.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Judy Geeson

On August 6, I attended the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention held at the Crown Plaza O'Hare Hotel (the same place that G Fest was held at a couple weeks earlier). Flashback Weekend is more of a "modern" horror movie convention--most of the autograph guests had appeared in thrillers from the last twenty years or so. The one guest I really wanted to meet was British actress Judy Geeson. She was there mainly because of her roles in the Rob Zombie films 31 and THE LORDS OF SALEM, but what was important to me was that she had co-starred with both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Most Americans will probably remember Judy for her role in TO SIR, WITH LOVE, but she's had a very distinguished and eclectic acting career, working with all time legends such as Joan Crawford and John Wayne, and starring in various TV series in both England and the U.S. (she was a semi-regular in MAD ABOUT YOU). As I was standing at her autograph table, waiting for a chance to talk to her, she walked right up to me, pointed at my trusty Peter Cushing shirt, and said, "I LOVED THAT MAN!!" (Obviously my choice of attire was the right one.)

She went on to tell me plenty of stories about Peter Cushing, assuring me the man really was a special person. I know there are some in the monster fan community who roll their eyes at all the "Peter Cushing was such a great man" stories, but Judy definitely had deep and real feelings for him. Every Cushing co-star I have met--Veronica Carlson, Caroline Munro, Yvonne Monlaur, Valerie Leon, etc...has expressed how much respect and admiration they had for him.

I had to ask Judy about Joan Crawford and John Wayne. Judy co-starred with Crawford in the wild and wooly circus horror film BERSERK, and she told me Crawford was a serious professional, totally dedicated to the task at hand. Judy said that she felt Crawford was having some difficulty not being a young glamour girl anymore, but she did not experience any problems with her personally.

As for the Duke, Judy co-starred with him in the "Tough American cop goes to England" movie BRANNIGAN. Judy got along famously with Wayne--she said he had no star ego whatsoever, and on set he never acted as if he was better that anyone else. She said that she and Wayne kept in touch with each other for a few years.

Judy Geeson and I at Flashback Weekend

Judy also co-starred with Christopher Lee in an obscure movie called DIAGNOSIS: MURDER (it's so obscure, even I've never seen it). She said that before filming she had heard stories about Lee being pompous and boring, but she found him to be interesting, and a far warmer person than he is usually given credit for. She also gave me an example of how Lee would practice his golf swing while on the set!

There were plenty of other things about her career that I could have asked her about, but I didn't want to be a pest (if you go to one of these conventions, you certainly don't want to annoy the guests). I could tell, though, that Judy was more than happy to discuss the movie legends that she worked with, and I think she got as big of a kick out of it as I do interacting with her.

I know that there are some who frown on the whole celebrity autograph circuit industry. At the bigger cons it can feel like going through an assembly line--you'll be lucky at some autograph sessions to make eye contact with the artist, let alone have a conversation with them. The great thing about "mid-level" conventions such as Monster Bash, G Fest, and Flashback Weekend is that you will get more of a chance to talk with a certain artist. I don't just get autographs from anybody who has appeared in a movie--there has to be a certain reason for me to get a person's autograph, such as being in a particular film or co-starring with a certain performer. I've never going to get to meet Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee, or Hollywood legends like Joan Crawford and John Wayne--but in talking to someone like Judy Geeson, I can get a feeling of what those stars were really like. It's one thing to read books and articles about movie history, but it's even better to meet and talk with someone like Judy Geeson who has had such a varied screen career...and find out she's a real sweetheart too.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The British Invaders Blogathon: CONE OF SILENCE (AKA TROUBLE IN THE SKY)

Whenever I participate in a blogathon I try, as much as possible, to write about a film or a subject that is not well-known. My pick for the Third Annual British Invaders Blogathon is certainly not a famous film--but it has a well-known cast, especially to those who are film buffs. It is such an accomplished cast that I felt I just had to write a post on it.

I think it is rather simplistic to say that British actors are better than American ones, but there is something impressive about a large gathering of English performers working in tandem with one another. British films of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to have the same actors pop up over and over again, so much so that you have to wonder if all these folks just traveled around on the same bus and went to one film location after another. CONE OF SILENCE (released in the U.S. as TROUBLE IN THE SKY) is a 1960 mystery-drama revolving around the problems of a new airline jet. The film doesn't have a large budget--we don't even see much actual airplane footage, except for the same shots of an airplane model used over and over--and I wouldn't even say it was a great film. But for a picture that might be called a decent little movie, it features an array of acting talent that would top most big-budget spectaculars made at the same time.

The reputable cast includes my favorite actor of all time, Peter Cushing. He made this during his first great horror period at Hammer Films, and apparently he brought along many of his Hammer co-stars along with him. Andre Morell, who had just played Dr. Watson alongside Cushing's Sherlock Holmes in Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, also appears, along with former and future Hammer stars Gordon Jackson (YESTERDAY'S ENEMY), Charles Tingwell (DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Noel Willman (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE REPTILE), Delphi Lawrence (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH), Charles Lloyd Pack (THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and Marne Maitland (THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY).

Having all these familiar character actors in one film is one thing...but there's still some more interesting names that need to be mentioned. Michael Craig gets the leading role as airline pilot Captain Dallas, and he'll be remembered by classic movie fans for his role in Ray Harryhausen's epic adventure MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Bernard Lee, who will forever be known as the first and best "M" in the James Bond film series, plays the maligned Captain Gort. And, last but not least, Hollywood legend George Sanders plays a small but important role as a barrister.

That's an amazing cast, considering that the film they are acting in is all but forgotten today. But there were plenty of British films made during the same period that had a comparable ensemble--proof of the overwhelming amount of extraordinary performers working in the English film and TV industry at the time.

CONE OF SILENCE was directed by Charles Frend, and it was based on a novel of the same name by David Beaty. "Cone of silence" is a pilot term--in the movie it has a double meaning, referring to the silence surrounding the problems with a new airline jet called the Phoenix. The film begins with a court of inquiry on the actions of British airliner Captain Gort (Bernard Lee), who was unable to get a Phoenix to properly take off on a recent flight. The jet skidded off the runway and Gort's co-pilot was killed. Gort is being question by Sir Arnold Hobbes (George Sanders), and due to Sanders' usual droll sarcastic manner, Hobbes all but convinces the court (and those watching the film) that Gort was in the wrong.

Gort is found guilty of pilot error. During the inquiry Gort's daughter Charlotte (Elizabeth Seal) meets Captain Dallas (Michael Craig). The two are attracted to one another, and Charlotte tells Dallas she's convinced that her father did nothing wrong. Dallas later oversees a test flight with Gort, and Gort passes--which enables him to fly the Phoenix again. Despite passing the test, an air of suspicion hangs over Gort--not helped by one of his flights running into a patch of large hail, which breaks a cockpit window. Gort brings the plane in safely, but even a veteran stewardess (Delphi Lawrence) starts to become uneasy flying with him. During another flight, with the overly officious Captain Judd (Peter Cushing) observing in the cockpit, Gort is accused of bringing in a plane too low on a small runway. Airline official Captain Manningham (Andre Morell) decides to ground Gort, but before this happens Gort fills in for a sick pilot--and he fatally crashes another plane while once again failing to take off.

Despite everyone else's assumptions, Captain Dallas is convinced that Gort was not at fault. Dallas suspects that there may be something wrong with the Phoenix itself--and his investigation takes him to the plane's designer (Noel Willman).

At 90 minutes CONE OF SILENCE does have some slow spots--particularly the romantic scenes between Charlotte and Captain Dallas--but the overall mystery behind Captain Gort's troubles will keep the audience's attention. Bernard Lee plays Gort in his typical gruff manner, but at the same time shows that he is a man under tremendous pressure to prove himself. Gort is well aware that many consider him a risk--doubly so because he is a middle-aged man. The viewer can't help but feel sympathetic toward Lee as Gort. Michael Craig is a good leading man, showing determination in getting to the bottom of what's been happening to the flights of the Phoenix. (Sorry--I just had to use that line.) Even though Peter Cushing is second-billed, his role is rather small compared to the rest of the cast. Seeing Cushing in 20th Century contemporary clothes always takes some getting used to. His Judd isn't really a "bad guy" as he is a coldly efficient airline employee. (Having said that, I don't think I'd want to work with him!) The rest of the outstanding cast gives the film a crisp, realistic demeanor. British actors of this period seemed to have a "Let's get on with it in the best way possible" attitude--there's no overly dramatic histrionics here, and there's certainly no "Method" acting going on. There's just good, solid, consistent performances that match the tone and manner of the story.

CONE OF SILENCE is available on All-Region DVD from VCI Entertainment (the disc cover lists the film as TROUBLE IN THE SKY). Unfortunately the DVD is not in widescreen. CONE OF SILENCE can also be screened on YouTube. British film aficionados will definitely want to view it just for the cast alone...and it really is a decent little film.

(By the way....I know somebody out there is going to use a GET SMART joke in reference to this post. All I can say missed it by that much.)

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Blue Underground continues to mine the nuggets of bizarre cinema with their Blu-ray release of CIRCUS OF FEAR and FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS. Both films were produced and written by the notorious exploitation showman Harry Alan Towers, and they both feature cult actors Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski.

If you are a fan of Christopher Lee, and have seen a large number of his movies, chances are you've seen examples of Harry Alan Towers' handiwork. It was Towers who cast Lee as Dr. Fu Manchu in a series of movies based on Sax Rohmer's character in the 1960s. Towers made plenty other wild potboilers during the same period, and most of these films have a lot in common--far-flung foreign locations, beautiful European women, supposedly large-scale and dangerous criminal organizations, and past-their-prime Hollywood stars. Towers' films sound like they'd be a fantastic thrill ride, but for the most part they wind up falling way short of their goal. As a producer Towers had something of a shady reputation (which I won't get into here), but he was still able to churn out movies over and over again, and his casting choices enabled these pictures to have a shelf life far longer than most "reputable" movies made over the same period (this Blu-ray is proof of that).

CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966) is actually one of the best Harry Alan Towers productions, due in most part to the fact that John Moxey was the director. Moxey was a far better filmmaker than the usual Towers director choices such as Jeremy Summers and Jess Franco, and he keeps the slight story interesting with a tight, efficient pace. CIRCUS OF FEAR is usually grouped into the "horror circus" category along with CIRCUS OF HORRORS and BERSERK, but it's more of a crime thriller than all-out terror flick.

The movie opens with a very impressive armored car robbery on Tower Bridge in London. The loot winds up getting hidden at the headquarters of Barberini's Circus, and nearly all of the outfit's performers are involved in some way. Lee plays the hooded lion-tamer Gregor--he spends most of the movie under the mask, which certainly will disappoint many of his fans. The usual pulchritude inherent in any Towers production is mainly reduced here to stunning 1960s bombshell Margaret Lee, who looks very fine in circus tights. Klaus Kinski doesn't have much to do as one of the robbery gang members--but because it's Klaus Kinski, you can't help but closely watch him in anticipation that he might go off the rails at any moment. Towers was able to get fine British character actors like Leo Genn and Cecil Parker to appear in this, and German "Krimi" veteran Eddi Arent provides the so-called "comic" relief. Towers wrote the script under his usual pseudonym Peter Welbeck.

Blue Underground had released CIRCUS OF FEAR on DVD as part of their "The Christopher Lee Collection" box set (as you've probably guessed, I own that). The Blu-ray is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks fantastic--I doubt that this movie looked this good when it was first released. CIRCUS OF FEAR was originally released in the U.S. as PSYCHO-CIRCUS in a cut-down, black & white version. This Blu-ray features the full-cut color version. Carried over from the original DVD release is a audio commentary by John Moxey and trailers and poster & still galleries.

CIRCUS OF FEAR isn't very gory or violent, but it is a decent crime caper story with enough geek elements to it to make it interesting. It gives Christopher Lee a different sort of just doesn't make full proper use of him.

As for Lee's role in FIVE GOLDEN's really more of a cameo. Lee is one of the "Golden Dragons", who are the leading crime lords of a supposedly vast outlaw organization. The other three Golden Dragons shown to the audience (the fifth one is kept secret till the very end) are classic Hollywood tough guys Dan Duryea, Brian Donlevy, and George Raft. Seeing all four of these men in the same scene is a film buff's dream--unfortunately they only all appear for a couple minutes near the end, and they are given basically nothing to do. (Even when they are busted by the authorities, all they do is react glumly like a bunch of kids being told it's past their bedtimes.)

The real star of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is aging Hollywood light comedic leading man Robert Cummings. Cummings' performance here is one of the strangest I've ever seen. He spends almost the whole movie with a goofy grin on his face (even when he's facing danger), and his dialogue is so off-the-wall and confusing that I can only come to the conclusion that the actor was making it up as he went along. Cummings may have felt that the story was a James Bond spoof, but there's nothing else in the film to back that up, except the cartoon-like music during a lame fight scene between Cummings and some of the Golden Dragon's goons. During the movie we are constantly informed about how seriously deadly the Golden Dragons are--yet how can we take that information seriously when they can't even bump off a guy as purposely wacky as Cummings' character? Harry Alan Towers loved using large-scale criminal organizations like the Golden Dragons throughout all his movies--but whether they're run by Fu Manchu, Sumuru, or whoever, these evil groups never to seem to accomplish much of anything.

FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS was filmed in Hong Kong, and we get to see plenty of the city during this film--so much that it starts to feel like a travelogue. Most of the story has one character following or chasing one another--at a total running time of 104 minutes these scenes get tiresome very quickly. The big highlight of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS are the three leading ladies--the three marvelous M's--Maria Rohm, Margaret Lee, and Maria Perschy. All three are drop-dead gorgeous and they give the movie what little verve it has. Maria Rohm was actually Mrs. Harry Alan Towers (lucky guy)--I mention this because she appeared in most of the Towers output, and there always seemed to be a scene of her being tied up or under some type of torture in these movies (here she's tied up and threatened by Klaus Kinski). You can read into that what you will.

The esteemed character actor in FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is Rupert Davies, who plays a Shakespeare-quoting police inspector. As mentioned, Klaus Kinski is in it too--his part is about the same as his role in CIRCUS OF FEAR, that of a low-level thug. Kinski still gives it his all, and winds up being more memorable than the movie gives him a chance to be. (By the way, my friend Troy Howarth has a new book coming out called REAL DEPRAVITIES: THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI.)

FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS is getting its American home video debut on this Blu-ray. It is presented un-cut and in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Like CIRCUS OF FEAR, FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS looks amazing for a 1967 low-budget exploitation flick. The extra for this film is an extensive still & poster gallery. Both films are presented on the same Blu-ray disc.

Are the films on this double-feature great classics? No...I'd call them "Psychotronic classics"--the type of films more intriguing to film geeks than a general audience. Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski don't get all that much of a showcase here, but hardcore buffs of both actors might consider this Blu-ray a decent buy. Blue Underground has done an excellent job with both these titles, and they deserve respect for that.

(By the's some interesting trivia. During the filming of FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS, Christopher Lee made the acquaintance of Brian Donlevy's wife, Lillian. She was the ex-wife of Bela Lugosi!)