Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon--JUNE NIGHT

Ingrid Bergman is one of my favorite movie stars of all time. She was one of the most naturally beautiful women ever to appear on screen, and along with that beauty she had a naturally appealing personality that drew audiences to her.

For the purposes of this blogathon, I chose an Ingrid Bergman film that many of her fans have probably never even seen. JUNE NIGHT (original Swedish title: JUNINATTEN) was the last movie Bergman made in her native Sweden before resettling in the United States--this production was even released after Ingrid appeared in the American remake of INTERMEZZO in 1939.

In the liner notes for Kino's INGRID BERGMAN IN SWEDEN box set, it is stated that "Bergman could portray suffering and torment better than almost anyone", and JUNE NIGHT gives her plenty of opportunity to do so. The actress plays Kerstin Norbeck, who in the beginning of the film is shot be her angry lover. Kerstin's life is saved by radical heart surgery, but her troubles have just started. During her lover's trial it is Kerstin's behavior that is called into question, and the girl receives so much bad publicity that she moves away from the prying eyes of her small Swedish town and travels to Stockholm, where she changes her name and gets a job at a drugstore. Kerstin, who now goes by the name Sara Nordana, moves into an apartment with three other girls and attempts to start a new life. But the young woman is consumed with feelings of guilt and shame, and her past eventually catches up with her.

JUNE NIGHT is very much a soap opera-type of tale. Even while being troubled Bergman still looks gorgeous, and in the film she captivates every man she meets (can you blame them?). Even her roommates' boyfriends are smitten by her, which has major complications on the plot. Kerstin Norbeck is a well-meaning person who just wants to find peace and acceptance, but she has been "branded" by her lover's criminal act. This movie may have been released 75 years ago, but it is still relevant today--just think about what happens to many women who are victims of sexual and physical abuse when they choose to speak out.

What one especially notices when watching JUNE NIGHT is how perfectly natural Bergman's acting is. The movie's story may be a bit contrived, but Bergman certainly isn't. She already had almost a dozen movies on her resume when she worked on this feature, and it's easy to understand why Hollywood was taking an interest in her.

This movie is part of the INGRID BERGMAN IN SWEDEN DVD box set from Kino, which also includes the original Swedish versions of INTERMEZZO and A WOMAN'S FACE. Bergman aficionados should definitely check this set out. All three features look magnificent, and even though the dialogue is in Swedish, English subtitles are provided. When I watched this set for the first time I was impressed with overall quality of each movie. These are not Hollywood productions, but they hold up rather nicely against any American films of the same period. JUNE NIGHT, for example, has fine direction by Per Lindberg, who uses numerous close-ups, and moody black & white cinematography from Ake Dahlqvist. I'm no expert on the Swedish film industry of the 1930s, but going by the titles in this set the Swedes were very proficient in the cinematic arts.

After JUNE BRIDE Ingrid Bergman would go on to America and become one of Hollywood's biggest screen stars. Her mainstream film career would be derailed for a few years due to her personal and professional relationship with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, but she would return to Hollywood's good graces and become a cinema legend. Every time I watch this woman in a film I can't help but fall in love with her. Obviously she was physically attractive but there has to be more to it than just that. Ingrid Bergman had "It"--that indefinable quality that made audiences want to watch her and feel protective of her. JUNE NIGHT proves that even before she went Hollywood, she had "It". Her Swedish film performances may not be as well known as CASABLANCA and GASLIGHT but they are an important part of her screen persona, and those who admire this extremely talented woman are advised to seek them out.

Ingrid Bergman in JUNE NIGHT

Monday, August 24, 2015


Kino Lorber continues to put out more AIP horror and science-fiction films on Blu-ray, and one of their latest is 1965's WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP, starring Vincent Price.

I have always had an affection for this title, because I first saw it back in the mid-1980s on the Son of Svengoolie show. It is an okay little feature, certainly not on the level of the Edgar Allan Poe movies featuring Vincent Price. AIP tried to make people think that WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP was based on Poe, by having Price recite lines from the author's poem The City in the Sea during points in the film. (The British title of this movie was actually THE CITY UNDER THE SEA.)

WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP does have some Poe-like elements--but it also mixes in ingredients from Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Walt Disney, and George Pal. The setting is 1903 on the southern coast of England. An American engineer (Tab Hunter) and a flaky artist (David Tomlinson) discover a ancient city under the sea, lorded over by a mysterious figure known as the Captain (Vincent Price). The Captain and his band of smugglers inadvertently discovered the city 100 years before, and due to some strange quality of the city's atmosphere, the Captain and his crew have not aged. Unfortunately the city rests near an underwater volcano, which is about to erupt. The two heroes must find the beautiful Jill (Susan Hart), who was kidnapped by the Captain, and return to the surface before the volcano explodes--and before they can be caught by the tribe of "Gill Men" who are under the control of the Captain.

WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP tries to be an epic old-fashioned adventure story, but due to the budget--and a script that puts forth a number of ideas that never seem to go anywhere--it falls short. Price dominates the film as the Captain--one wishes that the story had explored his character more. Many of the Captain's actions are not properly developed, such as a subplot which reveals that the man has kidnapped Jill because she resembles his late wife (this being a 1960s AIP Vincent Price movie, of course he just happens to have a portrait of the lady handy). The concept of the "Gill Men" is an intriguing one, but the creatures themselves are rather raggedy looking, as if they were the Creature from the Black Lagoon's poor cousins. One expects the Gill Men to turn on the Captain, but it doesn't happen. The underwater city seems to have been built by an ancient race who had futuristic technology (were they aliens?), but this is another idea that does not get explored.

What really hurts WAR-GODS FROM THE DEEP is a climax that brings the film to a screeching halt. The heroes put on some quaint diving suits to escape the underwater city, and Price and some of his men go after them. What follows is a bunch of people in diving suits fumbling around, with various close-ups of the principal actors looking through a diving helmet (obviously none of the main cast went underwater). If you have ever seen THUNDERBALL, you will know that nothing slows down an action movie like a major underwater scene.

Tab Hunter and Susan Hart are alright as the two young leads, but the script doesn't really make their characters interesting in any way. David Tomlinson is the comic relief here, and the actor had just appeared in MARY POPPINS, so his casting was sort of a coup for AIP. Tomlinson's companion in this film is a chicken--and the chicken even gets special billing in the credits.

WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and co-written by veteran screenwriter Charles Bennett. Tourneur and Bennett had already collaborated on one of the best British thrillers of all time, 1957's NIGHT OF THE DEMON. Considering that Tourneur had made such classics as CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST, and Bennett had written for such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock, one expects WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP to be better than it is.

You may now be asking--why do I say I have an affection for this film, after pointing out its flaws? Maybe I like WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP for what it could have been instead of for what it is. That may sound strange, but movies like this have always fired up my imagination. There's a lot of concepts put forth in the story that could have been handled better--but at least the movie does have some concepts. Jacques Tourneur does sneak in a few moments that remind one of his work with Val Lewton, and above all there is the magnificent presence of Vincent Price--once he begins to describe his underwater environs the viewer totally buys into it. No other actor could inhabit a role like the Captain the way Vincent Price could.

The Blu-ray looks fine, but the only extras are an original trailer and a nice 11 minute interview with Tab Hunter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

CINEMA RETRO Special Edition--The American Westerns Of Clint Eastwood

I've extolled the virtues of Cinema Retro magazine many times on this blog. It is one of the best classic movie magazines available, and their special editions--in which they devote a whole larger-sized issue to one subject--are must haves. I'm proud to say I have every single Cinema Retro special edition, including the latest one, which deals with the American Westerns of Clint Eastwood.

This issue is a 116-page spectacular, filled with hundreds of stills, on-set photographs, and reproductions of poster art. 9 different Eastwood Westerns are covered, including THE BEGUILED, which some may consider a strange choice (I don't). The issue is worth buying just for the pictures alone--but the text, written by Lee Pfeiffer, is even more impressive. Pfeiffer gives out exhaustive detail on the making of all the films herein, and also analyzes and critiques them as well. The result makes one wish that Pfeiffer would write a full-length book on all of Eastwood's movies. The author has a huge affection for Eastwood and his work, but at the same time doesn't shy away from any controversies that happened during any of the productions, such as Eastwood firing Phillip Kaufman at the beginning of filming THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.

This special edition is so densely packed with detail that the reader will get far more out of it than most hardcover books that have been written about Eastwood. Any true Eastwood fan needs to get a copy of it. The magazine is only available from Cinema Retro's website.

I think what makes Cinema Retro different is that editors Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall have a genuine fan's love for the material that they showcase, and a historian's love for factual & interesting information about that material. Out of the five special editions that the magazine has published, four of them have dealt with Clint Eastwood.....and while I'm certainly not complaining about that, I would like to see other subjects explored in the future. How about an issue devoted to the making of John Wayne's THE ALAMO? Or one on the films of David Lean? Or another "Foto Files" special edition featuring the ladies of Hammer Films?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Marvel's STAR WARS Comic Book Adaptation--Remastered

Disney and Marvel continue to ride the Star Wars gravy train with a re-issuing of the original Marvel comic book adaptation of the 1977 film--this time in hardcover and "remastered" with new coloring.

Just about any kid in 1977 had at least some of the Marvel Star Wars comic books (like me). Marvel's adaptation of the film was spread out over six standard issues, and later in the year the issues were combined into a special issue that contained the whole story.

Today the idea of Marvel doing a Star Wars comic seems a no-brainer, but actually the company was taking something of a chance. By the mid-1970s comic book movie adaptations were becoming somewhat scarce, and they usually covered the movie story in one basic issue. Marvel's decision to devote six issues to an unknown property paid off big--I can't tell you how many original Star Wars comics were bought at the time, but trust me, those things were everywhere when I was a kid.

Having the movie story spread out over six issues also enabled Marvel to do a rather thorough recreation of the film. Marvel even put in scenes that were not in the original theatrical cut, such as Luke and Biggs' talk on Tatooine and Han Solo's encounter with Jabba the Hutt in Docking Bay 94 (this means that anybody who read the comic back in '77 knew all about this scene way before it would be included in the Special Edition release years later). Jabba, by the way, is pictured in the comic as a green-colored walrus-faced creature.

Written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Howard Chaykin, the Marvel adaptation covers the look and the feel of the movie very well. There are some slight differences, such as subtle dialogue changes (in the majority of the comic Luke refers to Han as "Solo"). Luke himself comes off looking a bit more like the 1980s cartoon character He-Man instead of Mark Hamill (I think this was because Marvel may have wanted a more buff looking male hero). Chewbacca also looks a lot more muscular (and a lot more monstrous). During the comic's Death Star battle sequence, Luke is part of Blue squadron instead of Red--thus he is Blue Five instead of Red Five. Some of the designs of the various spaceships are bit off, but for the most part any Star Wars fan will recognize this universe and accept the comic as a true adaptation.

The one major difference the original Marvel comic had over the movie was that the comic used a distinct color scheme for many outfits and locations that did not match what was on screen. Marvel-Disney have tried to alleviate this by having the entire adaptation re-colored. The colors certainly match the movie now. I'm sure there will be purists who will object at this, but I personally don't think it's that big of a deal.

This re-issuing is in hardcover, with high-quality paper, and it contains all six issues, with reproductions of the covers of all the issues. There is an introduction by Peter Mayhew, the actor who portrayed Chewbacca.

Going through this adaptation brought back a lot of memories for me--I even remembered certain actual panels (such as the one where Darth Vader uses his lightsaber to kill Obi-Wan--I firmly believe that picture is more dramatic than what happened on screen). I'll fully admit that I read the 1977 Marvel Star Wars comic before I got a chance to see the movie--I'm sure a lot of kids did back then. You have to realize now that in those days there was no DVD or Blu-ray--if you wanted to find a way to "own" a movie, a comic book adaptation was as close as you were going to get. I must have read the Marvel version of STAR WARS hundreds of times. It will always have a special place in the geek part of my heart.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Anti-Damsel Blogathon: Frieda Inescort In THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE

The Anti-Damsel Blogathon is a celebration of empowered women in classic film history--and there are a lot more of them than most people generally assume. It is my belief that movie actresses had a far better range of roles available to them in the '30s and the '40s than they do today.

When it comes to classic horror films, you will find way more examples of damsels instead of anti-damsels--but there are exceptions. One of the biggest is the role of Lady Jane Ainsley in the 1943 Columbia thriller THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE.

The character of Lady Jane was portrayed by Frieda Inescort. She had a long Hollywood career playing various supporting roles--THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is one of the few times that it could be said she was a "lead". Lady Jane is more than just the lead female role of the film--she's also the story's true protagonist, the one who actively leads the fight against evil.

The movie starts out in late 1918, England. Scientists Lady Jane and Prof. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) are trying to solve the mystery of why a young woman is suffering from a major loss of blood. The very young granddaughter of the Professor is also afflicted, and Saunders finds two puncture marks on her neck. The Professor reads up on a book of vampirism written almost two hundred years ago by an Armand Tesla. Saunders convinces Lady Jane to accompany him to the local graveyards in a search for a vampire. The two find the undead creature's resting place...and it is none other than Armand Tesla himself (Bela Lugosi). The Professor hammers a spike into Tesla's heart....just as the vampire's slave, a werewolf named Andreas (Matt Willis) arrives. As Tesla is destroyed, Andreas reverts back to his human form.

The story now shifts to the early 1940s. Lady Jane is such a distinguished scientist that it is mentioned in the film that her name is respected all over England. Lady Jane has kept Andreas on as an assistant, and she has taught him the value of goodness. The Professor's granddaughter, Nikki, has grown up to be a beautiful woman (Nina Foch), and she is now engaged to Lady Jane's son, John, who happens to be not only a decorated RAF pilot, but a acclaimed concert pianist as well.

Frieda Inescort

A German bombing raid scores a direct hit on the dilapidated graveyard where Armand Tesla was re-buried. Two workers cleaning up the cemetery after the raid remove the spike from Tesla's body, and soon the vampire is on the prowl again. Tesla regains his power over Andreas, and uses the man to help him get revenge on the family of Lady Jane.

Lady Jane is a very unusual female character for a horror film of this period. First of all, she's certainly no young damsel, even though Frieda Inescort was only in her early 40s when she appeared in this movie. She's a brilliant scientist, yet she still has enough of an open mind to accept the fact that vampires exist in this story. She's cool, confident, and determined. She continually bothers her friend, Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Frederick (Miles Mander) about the dangers of Armand Tesla, despite the fact that he doesn't take her seriously. It is Lady Jane who takes the lead in the investigation of Tesla's return, and she even confronts the vampire herself, in what is probably the movie's best sequence.

Lady Jane faces confronts Armand Tesla

The revived Tesla begins to turn Nikki into one of the undead. Under Tesla's power, Nikki attacks John. Lady Jane is the one who figures out what is going on. During her confrontation with Tesla, Lady Jane chases the vampire away with a cross, and she and Sir Frederick go looking for Tesla's new resting place, by following Nikki at night. Nikki leads them to the old graveyard, where Tesla and Andreas are waiting. Another German bombing raid allows the vampire and the werewolf to take Nikki away to a bombed-out church. There, the wounded Andreas pleads to Tesla to give him eternal life, but Tesla dismisses him (the vampire is far more interested in Nikki). Andreas starts to hear the voice of Lady Jane telling him about the power of goodness, and the werewolf starts to fight Tesla. Another German bombing raid hits the church again (the Luftwaffe plays a huge role in the plot of this movie), and Andreas, Tesla, and Nikki are dazed by the blast. (Maybe bombs should be used against vampires instead of crosses.) Andreas comes to, sees that it is daylight, and drags Tesla out into the sun. Andreas also stakes him in the heart for good measure, and Tesla's skin starts to melt from his bones. Lady Jane may not have killed Tesla personally, but her influence over Andreas enabled him to overcome Tesla's control, destroy the vampire, and save Nikki.

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is Columbia's answer to the Universal "monster rallies" of the 1940s. If one did not know about the film's production history, one would assume that it was a Universal horror film. The director, Lew Landers, had actually made a Universal horror film--with Bela Lugosi, no less--1935's THE RAVEN. The story and screenplay are credited to Kurt Neumann and Griffin Jay, and both men had worked on Universal thrillers, as had actors Gilbert Emery and Miles Mander. The movie is filled with the typical classic horror iconography--atmospheric fog-shrouded sets, moody black & white photography, and yes, a "damsel" in the form of lovely Nina Foch, who spends a lot of time wandering around in a nightgown. Matt Willis' werewolf is obviously a riff on Lon Chaney Jr's Larry Talbot, and of course there's Bela Lugosi, the greatest cinematic vampire of all time.

For some reason THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE does not have a major reputation among classic monster movie fans. Most consider it a Universal rip-off, and even hardcore Lugosi fans tend to dismiss it. Why Lugosi lovers would look down on it has always puzzled me--at this time in his career Bela was stuck doing extreme low-budget product, and here he at least had a role in a film for a decent studio, and a vampire role at that. I think THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE is very well done, and far better than most of the product that Bela was appearing in--I even think this movie is better than some of the Universal horror product of the same period. Using World War II events as a major plot point in a classic horror film is a unique concept.

But what really makes THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE stand out is the character of Lady Jane Ainsley. Having a intelligent, resourceful woman in her forties taking vampires seriously, and opposing them, is unusual in any horror film in any time period. Inescort's understated, matter-of-fact playing of the role helps the story immensely. Many writers who cover classic horror films have referred to Lady Jane as nothing more than a "female Van Helsing"--but in a genre where the hero role is usually rather underwhelming (David Manners, anyone?), Frieda Inescort deserves credit for making Lady Jane believable. Lady Jane Ainsley is certainly an Anti-Damsel.

Lady Jane getting down to the business of vampire hunting

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon--SVENGALI

When Crystal personally invited me to participate in a Barrymore family blogathon she was holding on her blog (, I scanned the entries already submitted and was surprised to find no one had yet chosen SVENGALI as a subject. That 1931 Warner Bros. film, based on George Du Maurier's famous novel TRILBY, is in my opinion one of the finest examples of the magnetic acting personality that was John Barrymore.

Despite his matinee idol image and his "The Great Profile" nickname, John Barrymore was really a character actor at heart. He loved nothing more than twisting and hiding his features and creating outlandish figures of ill repute. The role of Svengali was perfect for John Barrymore--a charismatic, larger-than-life mysterious hypnotist who is also charming, funny, and determinedly devious.

John Barrymore as Svengali

The viewer is automatically impressed by Barrymore as Svengali just by getting a glimpse at him. With long scraggly hair, exaggeratedly pointed beard, and make-up designed to showcase the actor's eyes, Barrymore's Svengali is a show in himself. His wardrobe, which includes a black cloak and a high, wide-brimmed hat, only accentuates the show.

   When he looks full-face into a camera, the effect is startling, mainly due to his eyes--like the eyes one sees in paintings of the saints, and photographs of serial killers.
--Gregory W. Mank, writing about John Barrymore in the book THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT

It is the eyes that Barrymore uses the most in his performance as Svengali. They almost count as a special effect, especially when Svengali is hypnotizing someone (at various points in the movie Barrymore was fitted with special contact lenses to give his orbs an otherworldly effect). But Barrymore uses his eyes in other ways as well--to give emphasis to a certain line, or to show what Svengali is really thinking.

One would assume that Barrymore would play Svengali as broadly as possible--but the Great Profile doesn't make the hypnotist a stock melodramatic villain. He injects a lot of humor into Svengali, and he also gives the character a heart--a twisted one, no doubt, but a heart none the less. For SVENGALI is really more of a love story than a horror tale.

The story begins in Paris in the late 19th Century, where Svengali is "teaching" music to numerous young females. Despite his scraggly appearance and his con-artist ways, Svengali still manages to overwhelm nearly everyone he meets. The self-proclaimed maestro happens upon a very young, and very beautiful, artists model named Trilby (Marian Marsh). Svengali becomes smitten with her, and uses his hypnotic powers to spirit her away from her true love Billie (Bramwell Fletcher).

Marian Marsh as Trilby with John Barrymore

Marian Marsh was only 17 during the making of SVENGALI, and she looks even younger. The actress had only one other film credit before her role as Trilby, and her youth and inexperience made her perfect for the part. The innate sweetness and innocence of Marian Marsh fits the character of Trilby like a glove. An older and more polished actress would not have worked in the role. Marsh's fresh-faced beauty makes a grand contrast to the bizarre image of Barrymore's Svengali--there's something very unsettling in the hypnotist's desire for this virginal creature.

Svengali fakes Trilby's suicide, and makes her into a famous concert singer. Five years later Billie finds out what has happened to Trilby, and he determines to break the spell that Svengali has over her. Billie follows the couple to every performance they give, and his presence affects Svengali so much that the maestro starts refusing to let Trilby sing. Svengali and Trilby are reduced to playing in low-rent dives, and Billie catches up with them in Cairo. By this time, the strain of controlling Trilby's mind has physically and mentally weakened Svengali, and he tells Billie that tonight's show will be their last. During the performance, Svengali, totally spent, collapses--and Trilby collapses with him. Billie rushes to Trilby and cradles her in his arms....but she dies saying the name "Svengali....Svengali..."

Svengali's love for Trilby may be unnerving, but Barrymore shows that it is love nonetheless. Svengali may control Trilby, but he does not control her heart. At one point Svengali hypnotizes Trilby to be passionate to him. Marsh's change of expression here is startling--she's no longer a sweet, innocent girl--and the effect even bothers Svengali, who knows he can never have Trilby's real passion (he breaks the spell, saying, "It is only Svengali talking to himself again").

Svengali may be somewhat of a loathsome and unusual character, but Barrymore is able to make the audience sympathetic and understanding toward him in the end. Most other actors would have played Svengali as an out-and-out villain. John Barrymore has often been accused of being a "ham", and there certainly are times where that applies here--but the fact that he can give someone as outlandish as Svengali human qualities is a testament to the actor's greatness.

SVENGALI is still considered today as a "horror film", even though as I have mentioned it really isn't. This is due to a show-stopping sequence in the film where Svengali "calls" on Trilby by sending his mind over the rooftops of Paris and contacting her in her room. It is a dazzling photographic moment, and more proof that early 1930s sound films were far more cinematic than given credit for. Many also put SVENGALI in the horror category due to the expressionistic set design. Fittingly the two Academy Award nominations SVENGALI received were for Cinematography (Barney McGill) and Interior Decoration (Anton Grot). Unfortunately, neither man won.

SVENGALI, the film, holds up well today, due to the fine atmosphere injected into it by director Archie Mayo. It definitely has a Pre-Code feeling to it, due to the extreme youth of Marian Marsh and the non-happy ending.

But what makes SVENGALI truly exemplary is John Barrymore. It is one of his greatest roles, and aspects of the character would follow him in other films--for example, in TWENTIETH CENTURY, there's a scene where Barrymore is dressed in a black cloak, with a wide-brimmed hat, just like Svengali...and of course Barrymore's character in that movie is something of a Svengali to Carole Lombard. Svengali is a larger-than-life, extraordinary role, and it takes a larger-than-life, extraordinary performer to play it. If you want to see John Barrymore at his absolute best, I can think of no better example than SVENGALI.

NOTE: I would like to point out that Greg Mank has written extensively on the making of SVENGALI and its cast, and most of the information about the film in this blog post comes from his work.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Being in a Holmesian mood after seeing Ian McKellen in MR. HOLMES, I decided to take the opportunity to go on YouTube and watch one of my favorite actors of all time in his first stab at the role of the great detective--Christopher Lee in 1962's SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE.

The official original title of this German/Italian/French production is SHERLOCK HOLMES UND DAS HALSBAND DES TODES. In the early 1960s Christopher Lee moved from London to Switzerland, and he appeared in a number of European-made films. This Sherlock Holmes tale was produced by Germany's Artur Brauner, best known for his prolific output of what are called "krimi" movies. The "Krimi" genre has as much of a cult following as do Spaghetti Westerns or the Giallo films. Most krimis are based on the works of British mystery writer Edgar Wallace (who the Germans have a major obsession for), and they have several common elements--stark black & white photography, bizarre plots and characters, and annoying jazz scores. I have watched a few krimis and I own some on DVD--it's very hard to describe them to someone who has never seen one. A typical krimi is a mish-mash of film noir, crime thriller, serial adventure, pulp sci-fi and Gothic horror. Some krimis are inventively entertaining and some others are sleep-inducing.

You can't really call SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE a true krimi--it is more like a kind-of-krimi. This movie appears to be set in the early 1900s (most krimis were set in the contemporary 1960s), despite the fact that many of the female extras are wearing early 1960s hairstyles and hemlines. The movie is in black and white and it does have a very mediocre jazz score--both hallmarks of the krimi genre.

The story concerns Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty battling over the possession of a priceless necklace supposed to have once been owned by Cleopatra. In this tale Scotland Yard does not believe that Moriarty is the master of crime that Holmes says he is--the authorities consider Moriarty an honorable academic, and they also look upon Holmes as something of a nuisance.

There's really nothing very thrilling--or very deadly--about SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE. If Moriarty is such a powerhouse of villainy why is he spending so much time trying to get a piece of jewelry? Apparently the budget didn't allow for any real earth-shattering crimes. While watching this movie it reminded me of one of the lesser Basil Rathbone Universal Holmes movies made in the 1940s. That's not surprising, considering that the screenplay for DEADLY NECKLACE was by Curt Siodmak, who had written many Universal thrillers during the World War II period.

Another reason I was reminded of the Universal Rathbone series was that Christopher Lee, made up with a false nose, looks very much like Basil Rathbone in my opinion. Lee's Holmes in this feature is also very much like Rathbone's, attitude-wise. Lee plays Sherlock in a somewhat surprisingly low-key manner....he's certainly in a better mood than Peter Cushing's Sherlock in Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. At one point in the story Dr. Watson (Thorley Walters) foolishly reveals that he and Holmes are eavesdropping on Prof. Moriarty, and Holmes' reaction is one of mild amusement.

Holmes' deductive skills in THE DEADLY NECKLACE are somewhat low-key as well--the character here is constantly giving the London Times credit for all his knowledge, and at one point he even uses a rolled-up edition of the newspaper in self-defense! With Lee in the role one expects an authoritarian, incisively brilliant Holmes--but we don't get that here (the fault of the script, not Lee).

All in all it is almost impossible to judge Christopher Lee's performance in this picture, because in the only versions available of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE, Lee's voice has been dubbed. This happened fairly often in Lee's early 1960s European work (for example Lee was dubbed in two different movies directed by Mario Bava--HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD and THE WHIP AND THE BODY). Not only does the dubbed voice sound nothing like Lee, it sounds very American! Thorley Walters as Watson was also dubbed, and this voice too sounds more American than English. It's a shame not to be able to hear Lee's voice, but the dubbing of Walters may have been even worse--as anyone who has seen Thorley Walters in a film can tell you, most of his performance comes from his unique voice mannerisms.

If we could hear the voices of Christopher Lee and Thorley Walters, would SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE be a better film? Maybe, but not by much. Even at only 85 minutes (that is the length of the version I viewed on YouTube), the movie has a tendency to drag. Everything I have been able to read about SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE mentions that it was a chaotic shoot--no doubt due to the fact that it was a multi-national co-production.

The credited co-directors on DEADLY NECKLACE are none other than Terence Fisher, and Frank Winterstein. Of course Terence Fisher was the legendary director of the Hammer Gothics (including the aforementioned THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES). Getting Fisher to come to Germany to direct Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes was a coup--but for whatever the behind-the-scenes-reasons, it didn't work out. How much Fisher actually directed of THE DEADLY NECKLACE, and why he was given co-director billing with someone else, remains unknown. On the quotes I have found of Fisher talking about the film, he practically dismisses it.

Christopher Lee would spend a great amount of his acting career connected in one way or another to Arthur Conan Doyle's greatest creation. Before SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE Lee had played Henry Baskerville in Hammer's THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. In 1969 Lee would appear as Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder's under-appreciated THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. And in the early 1990s, Lee played Sherlock Holmes once again in two mediocre television films. Today SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE must be seen as a missed opportunity. In 1962 Lee was the perfect age to play an authentic Holmes, and Thorley Walters was an inspired choice as Watson (Walters would play the doctor several other times during his acting career). A few years later, in 1965, the Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper tale A STUDY IN TERROR was filmed--can you imagine if that movie had starred Lee and Walters, and had been directed by Terence Fisher?

Sadly Christopher Lee never had the chance to play Sherlock Holmes at the right time in the right film. If you are a Christopher Lee fan and you have not seen SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE, I recommend you do so--just for a tantalizing glimpse of "what if?".

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

My Early Nineties Movie Chart (Or Once A Film Geek, Always A Film Geek)

While going through some stuff looking for some other stuff, I came across a historic find--my attempt to list all the movies I had seen at a theater during the late 80s and the early 90s. Each time I would go see a movie, I would write down the title, the exact date I had seen it, and a rating from one to four stars.

To view a bigger sized image just click on each photo.

As you can see I quit doing this in 1994. I can't remember the reason why but I can guess that it was because I wasn't good at keeping track at all the movies I had seen (I'm pretty sure I saw a lot more movies in this period than what I documented).

Looking at this list is an excellent way of judging what was popular in cinemas 25 years ago--Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, etc. If you are looking for rom-coms....well, there aren't any (my love life back then was just as lousy as it is now). Some of my immediate ratings are certainly worthy of being questioned when looked upon today.

For example....I noticed that I gave Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY three and half stars. That movie is all but forgotten today...if I saw it on, say, Blu-ray, how would I react to it now? In 2015 I honestly barely have a memory of it.

I gave ROBOCOP 2 three stars?? Hmmm...

I gave THE ROOKIE--a movie that is not considered one of Clint Eastwood's best--three and a half stars. I definitely would lower that rating now.

One of the earliest blog posts I wrote was on how underrated I felt THE ROCKETEER was. I obviously loved it the first time I saw it, since I gave it a rating of three and a half stars.

STAR TREK: GENERATIONS got three and a half stars? I must have been in a holiday mood.

One thing that really stuck out to me looking at this list was that I saw JURASSIC PARK and LAST ACTION HERO on the same day--June 20, 1993. My brother Robert went with me to both....and I distinctly remember how great an experience JURASSIC PARK was, and how disappointing LAST ACTION HERO was in comparison.

If this list proves anything, it's that even back then I was trying to find a way to define and articulate my love for movies. Now I attempt to do that with a blog. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The British Invaders Blogathon: WHERE EAGLES DARE

Does the 1969 movie WHERE EAGLES DARE qualify as a British film? Well, the man who is running this blogathon says it does. Most of the film was shot at MGM's British Studios in Borehamwood, England. Much of the cast & crew of WHERE EAGLES DARE were British.

But more importantly the movie is part of a sub-genre of films in the 1960s that dealt with British military operations in World War II. These movies were often major epic productions, and they usually had at least one major American star. Other titles that belong in this sub-genre include THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, THE GREAT ESCAPE, and OPERATION CROSSBOW.

WHERE EAGLES DARE was initiated by producer Elliot Kastner, who personally contacted adventure novelist Alistair MacLean and asked him to write an original screenplay, which the author had never done. MacLane was intrigued enough to agree to the project.

Kastner wanted the story to be set during WWII and to be in the manner of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, which was based on a novel by MacLean. Kastner then approached Richard Burton to star in the film. The story goes that Kastner convinced Burton to be in the project by telling the actor that it was a movie that Burton's children could see (apparently Burton wasn't too worried about his kids seeing dozens of people shot and blown up). After getting Burton on board, Kastner was able to attract MGM into making the film.

The story concerns a group of British commandos, and one American Army Ranger (Clint Eastwood), who are tasked with retrieving a captured American general from a forbidding medieval castle, the Schloss Adler, which is located in southern Bavaria. If that isn't dangerous enough, the castle is perched high on an Alpine mountain, and the village below is home to a German army base.

Being that this is a Alistair MacLean story, there's more to the mission than meets the eye. WHERE EAGLES DARE features a number of twists and turns, and many of the characters are leading double lives.

The production made use of a real medieval castle located near Werfen, Austria. Much location shooting was done in the Austrian countryside and at a nearby cable car track. The use of these real-life locations gives WHERE EAGLES DARE an authentic "feel" that one doesn't get from the CGI blockbusters of today, despite the fact that the movie's story is WWII-based fiction.

WHERE EAGLES DARE may not have any CGI, but it does have a catalog of practical special effects and outstanding stunt sequences. The movie truly is an epic production, with an amazing cable car station set that one would think on first viewing was the real thing. Many of the shots of Schloss Adler are actually that of a large-scale model (the real castle featured in the film did not have a cable car line running to it). The combination of models, matte paintings, and detailed sets makes the castle formidable enough to serve the story's needs.

The stunt sequences are still amazing to this day (the second unit director on the movie was none other than Yakima Canutt, probably the most famous stuntman who ever lived). The cable car sequences--in which various stuntmen rode on top the cars, hundreds of feet up in the air--are breathtaking. Obviously Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood didn't ride the cars (seeing WHERE EAGLES DARE on DVD or Blu-ray makes that more obvious), but that doesn't take away from the fact that these sequences are a major highlight of action cinema. The stunt crew also had to climb up-and down--the walls of the real castle. The major stunt performers on WHERE EAGLES DARE were Alf Joint, Joe & Eddie Powell, and Gillian Aldham, who doubled for female lead Mary Ure.

WHERE EAGLES DARE clocks in at two and a half hours long, but there's so much action going on, and so many plot twists, that one never feels bored. There are some scenes where Richard Burton does appear to be bored, but once his character is given a long scene "explaining" the plot, the actor's brilliant way with dialogue gets a chance to shine. Clint Eastwood doesn't really have much to do here except kill people--his line of dialogue to Germans shot ratio has to be about 1 to 100--but WHERE EAGLES DARE proved that he could star in a big-budget action film as well as a Western. (Eastwood has been quoted as saying that he killed so many Nazis in this movie, he never understood why the war took so long to end.) Adding to the British feel of this film is the number of adept U. K. character actors present, including Patrick Wymark, Michael Horden, Donald Houston, and Derren Nesbitt. Representing the German side are Anton Diffring (who played dozens of German military officers in his screen career) and Ferdy Mayne.

One major supporting role that requires attention is that of Heidi, an Allied agent working as a barmaid in Werfen. The voluptuous Ingrid Pitt plays Heidi, a year before she would acquire everlasting cult fame as Carmilla in Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. Ingrid makes such a big impression in WHERE EAGLES DARE that poor Mary Ure, who is the actual female lead in the film, gets very little attention for her part in it.

Ingrid Pitt as Heidi 

WHERE EAGLES DARE became a hit for MGM when first released, and it plays on TV constantly (it always seemed to be on when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s). The movie now has a major following among film much so that the standout film magazine Cinema Retro has published not one, but two special editions totally devoted to the film. Much of the information in this blog post comes from these outstanding magazines. If you really love WHERE EAGLES DARE, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of one of these issues--they are not just filled with information, they also have hundreds of great photographs concerning the film.

The reason I picked WHERE EAGLES DARE for The British Invaders Blogathon is that I believe the movie has a very old-fashioned "Let's get on with it, lads" British attitude. There's no soul-searching conversations about the futility of war or the nature of killing, and despite people being killed left and right, no one seems too broken up about it. Throughout all the mayhem and destruction, Burton and Eastwood remain concentrated on the job at hand, and they never question the point of what they are doing. 21st Century political correctness plays no part in WHERE EAGLES DARE--it is a pure action-adventure spectacle all the way, and a entertainingly well-made one, at that. Director Brian G. Hutton (a native New Yorker) was very young when he made this film, and he had never made anything on its scale before. Despite that, WHERE EAGLES DARE is considered by many one of the great World War II adventure epics, and it still has a huge fan base....particularly in England.

"Broadsword calling Danny Boy...."