Friday, April 22, 2016
One would assume that after the huge success of STAR WARS, Peter Cushing might have gotten the opportunity to work on any number of enticing projects. But that simply wasn't so. Most of the films Cushing worked on after STAR WARS and before his mid-1980s retirement are either almost impossible to find and/or impossible to sit through--titles such as HITLER'S SON, MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND, and BLACK JACK. The actor contributed to this situation himself due to some of his own decisions--Cushing (or his agent, depending on what story you read) turned down the chance to be in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and he also passed on many other projects for personal reasons, such as not wanting to leave his home in England for an extended period.
The result is that Peter Cushing's best showcase after STAR WARS happens to be a 1980 movie made for American television by Hallmark--a version of Charles Dickens' novel A TALE OF TWO CITIES. During that period the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" produced many adaptations of famous novels and stories for TV, starring numerous well-known prestigious performers. (As a kid back then I remember them being broadcast regularly--as a matter of fact I first saw this version of A TALE OF TWO CITIES on TV back in the 1980s.)
The made-for-TV movie was a genre unto itself in the 1970s and the 1980s. Many of these productions got huge ratings and acclaim, especially before the widespread advent of cable television. To this day there's a huge debate among cultural mavens and film buffs on whether made-for-TV movies should be on the same level as theatrical features. You certainly have to admit that a movie for television is a far different animal than a theatrical release--but for several actors, some of their best performances (and best roles) were in TV movies. It seems like every time I read a biography about a famous screen star, that star's television work is either barely covered or ignored altogether. That's a shame, because anyone who watches, for example, classic TV shows on a MeTV channel can tell you that the small-screen work of certain big-name stars can often be far more interesting and challenging than what that star did on the supposedly "more important" big screen. (There's something else when it comes to TV movies that I must point out--back in 1970s and 1980s America, there was no widescreen broadcasts, so for most viewers TV movies and theatrical films looked just about the same.)
Even if you feel that TV movies don't "count", you have to admit that this TV presentation gives Peter Cushing more of a chance to shine that just about any feature he was in since his Hammer period. Cushing plays Dr. Manette, a victim of the French aristocracy before that country's revolution. After 16 years of wrongful imprisonment in the Bastille, Manette is reunited with his daughter Lucy (Alice Krige). Lucy falls in love with Charles Darnay (Chris Sarandon), a French nobleman who gave up his title and moved to England. The pasts of both Manette and Darnay catch up with them, causing both men to return to France during the Reign of Terror, and having to accept the help of dissolute lawyer Sydney Carton (also played by Sarandon).
Cushing makes a memorable Dr. Manette, using his sad blue eyes and thin frame to show the pain and suffering the man has endured. It's a subtle performance, but an effective one--instead of going overboard with the Doctor's situation, Cushing uses simple motions and affectations to put over what Manette is going through. Peter Cushing is my favorite actor, and I couldn't help but feel glad seeing him in this production surrounded by such fine thespians as Kenneth More, Flora Robson, and Barry Morse. Hammer fans will be interested to know that one of the minor roles is played by none other than Robert Urquhart, who co-starred with Cushing in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Urquhart and Cushing exchange dialogue, but unfortunately they don't share a camera shot together. (I can't help but wonder if the two of them exchanged memories during the shooting.)
Chris Sarandon does a fine job playing the roles of Darnay and Carton (of course Sydney Carton is the showier part), and those who know Alice Krige as Star Trek's Borg Queen won't be able to recognize her here. Billie Whitelaw makes the biggest impression as a viciously determined Madame Defarge. Nigel Hawthorne has a small role, and this production is the screen debut of David Suchet, who is now known for his long-time portrayal of Agatha Christie's famous sleuth Hercule Poirot.
Directed by Jim Goddard and adapted from the Dickens novel by John Gay, the 1980 A TALE OF TWO CITIES is a fine version of the classic tale, if a bit stodgy at times. The production was filmed in both England and France, and some of the outdoor forest locations appear to be Black Park, famous for being used in several Hammer movies. Being that this is a television movie it obviously doesn't have the budget of a theatrical feature, but it still adequately conveys the feel and look of late 18th Century Europe. The production designer was the renowned John Stoll, who worked on such films as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.
The 1980 A TALE OF TWO CITIES has just been released on Blu-ray by Shout Factory. The aspect ratio on this disc is 1.78:1--I assume that this is cropped from the original 1.33:1, but I'm not sure. I do have to say that the compositions look acceptable in widescreen . For a 1980 TV movie the picture quality is fine--some scenes look better than others. The DTS mono sound is full and clear. The running time listed on the case is 2 hours and 42 minutes, but the movie actually has a length of 2 hours and 36 minutes.
The real reason to watch this A TALE OF TWO CITIES is to see Peter Cushing in his last important dramatic showcase. Fans of the actor will be glad to know that Cushing has more screen time here than in almost all of his other 1980s film roles put together. This TV movie doesn't have the dramatic flair of the 1935 version starring Ronald Colman, or even the 1958 British version (which ironically featured Christopher Lee), but it does give viewers the chance to see the great Peter Cushing in a classic part outside of a horror or science-fiction setting.
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Not too long ago I wrote a post about an issue of the Official John Wayne magazine that ranked each one of the Duke's movies in order of quality. The lowest-ranked film in which Wayne played the lead role was THE CONQUEROR (1955), a production which has a horrible reputation. I stated that THE CONQUEROR really wasn't that terrible...I've seen plenty of movies that were far worse. To me, the worst sin a movie can commit is to be boring. THE CONQUEROR is strange, outlandish, and sometimes unintentionally funny...but at least it's not boring.
The reason I have THE CONQUEROR on DVD is that it is included on a set of Wayne movies I own from Universal called "An American Icon: John Wayne". There are 5 films in the set: SEVEN SINNERS, PITTSBURGH, THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS, JET PILOT, and THE CONQUEROR. This has to be one of the most haphazardly put together movie sets of all time--the first two films I listed feature the Duke co-starring with Marlene Dietrich, and THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS is a very underrated folk tale in which Wayne appears with Harry Carey. In my estimation JET PILOT is even worse than THE CONQUEROR, because JET PILOT is simply as dull as old dishwater.
As for THE CONQUEROR, all you have to do is say "John Wayne plays Genghis Khan", and that about sums up the entire picture for most people. THE CONQUEROR has long been considered one of the worst movies ever made--when the Medved brothers came up with their series of "Golden Turkey" bad movie books in the 1980s they excoriated THE CONQUEROR. The movie is even more notorious for possibly contributing to the deaths of most of the cast & crew.
Obviously a Hollywood production couldn't have been filmed in mid 1950s Mongolia, so the land of Genghis Khan was recreated using locations in Utah. These locations happened to have been downwind of nuclear tests conducted in the neighboring state of Nevada, and in later years several members of crew of THE CONQUEROR--including director Dick Powell, Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendariz--contracted cancer. It has never been 100% proven that the Utah locations caused these various cancers, yet the amount of people on the film affected can't help but lead one to believe that there has to be a connection.
John Wayne and sons using a Geiger counter on one of the locations for THE CONQUEROR
Why did Wayne even agree to make something like THE CONQUEROR in the first place? According to Michael Munn's book JOHN WAYNE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, the actor was under contract to RKO Pictures, then owned by Howard Hughes. Wayne still owed RKO one more film, and somehow the Duke saw a script for THE CONQUEROR, and agreed to do it. Apparently Wayne felt that playing Genghis Khan would be a chance to do "something different"--and he was certainly right about that.
Making the filming of THE CONQUEROR even more taxing was that it was the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell. The movie had a huge budget, and it was shot in color and Cinemascope. It was intended to be a big, sprawling historical epic.
Whenever I read someone carping about THE CONQUEROR, I have to wonder if that person has actually sat through the entire film. I recently watched it to prepare for this post.
The first thing one sees is the famous RKO logo, in color and widescreen (which is very strange, especially for movie buffs). The movie starts out with an opening text crawl which says that even though this is fiction, it is based on fact. (I guess this was added to fend off all complaints over how unhistorical the movie is.) The title of the movie is something of a misnomer--the story is set before Genghis Khan makes all his major conquests (he's referred to throughout the film by his actual name, Temujin). Temujin and his blood brother Jemuga (Pedro Armendariz) come upon a caravan transporting the daughter of a Tartar chief named Bortai (Susan Hayward). Temujin decides to take Bortai for his own, resulting in war between the various surrounding tribes.
As Temujin , John Wayne is fitted out with a wig, mustache, and swarthy makeup, as is just about the rest of the entire cast. Agnes Moorehead plays Temujin's mother, and she's almost unrecognizable. As for Susan Hayward....she looks just like Susan Hayward (complete with 1950s hairdo). While watching THE CONQUEROR you can't help but wonder if Hayward had been a companion of Doctor Who and been abandoned by the Time Lord in this period of Earth history. As you can see by the poster below, Hayward resembles a 20th Century chorus girl instead of a 12th Century Central Asian woman. Did Hayward refuse to be heavily made up--or did Howard Hughes, with his appreciation of the female form, want Hayward to remain as glamorous as possible?
Hayward spends most of the movie fending off Temujin's advances, but toward the end of the film she inexplicably admits she loves him and goes out of her way to help him. I have a feeling that the Temujin-Bortai relationship was influenced by the onscreen pairing of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. (Wayne even gets to say a variation of his famous line "You're beautiful when you're angry"--here it's "You're beautiful in your wrath".) The problem is that while the Duke and Maureen had real chemistry, he and Hayward have none--almost every closeup of the actress shows her giving the same surly look. Hayward spends the entire movie in a ticked-off mood--I'm sure she wasn't too happy about playing this role.
What really hurts THE CONQUEROR is the stilted dialogue. According to Michael Munn's book, screenwriter Oscar Millard had written the film for Marlon Brando, but it's doubtful that any set of actors could have made it work. The dialogue is in the style of what I call "Hollywood Historical Epic-speak". It's the type of speech that no one would actually say in a real situation. American actors in particular are not adept at reciting this type of script (which is why you see British actors constantly being used in historical epics). There are no actual conversations in THE CONQUEROR--everyone makes declarations instead, and most of them are rather florid.
Another major lowlight of THE CONQUEROR is a lengthy dance sequence (you read that right) featuring dozens of scantily-clad harem girls. (Did Dick Powell think back to his days as a Warner Bros. musical star while filming this?) At the end of it, Susan Hayward gets up and decides to do her own dance routine--all the while still having that same surly look on her face.
I do have to give Dick Powell credit...as a director on his first big-time film, he did the best with what he had. Powell used the widescreen ratio well, and he keeps the story moving. The action scenes are well staged, and there are several impressive horse stunts. I'm no expert on ancient Mongolian culture, but the tribal villages and costumes seem authentic. The music score by Victor Young is fine. If actual Asian actors had been cast in this film, and the dialogue had been less chunky....this movie might have worked.
I have my own theory on how this movie could have really worked. It should have been made as a silent film. Of course, there's no way this would have been done, but think about it....if you take away the goofy dialogue, and focus on the visuals, THE CONQUEROR isn't half-bad. John Wayne still would have been badly miscast, but at least he wouldn't have sounded as silly as he does.
THE CONQUEROR proves that even the greatest of movie stars can make huge mistakes. I'm not trying to say here that this movie is some sort of underrated classic....but I am saying that movie buffs and Wayne fans should at least try to see it once, for curiosity's sake. Sometimes movies that don't work are more interesting than movies that are successful.
I'll end this post by using a John Wayne quote on THE CONQUEROR from Michael Munn's book. "The message is, don't make an ass of yourself by trying to play parts you're not suited to."
Monday, April 18, 2016
Recently I took the opportunity to purchase the Kino Blu-ray of Douglas Fairbanks' THE BLACK PIRATE for only $7. It's one of my best home video deals, since the disc is jammed pack with extras and the movie itself is a grand adventure of the high seas.
When Douglas Fairbanks made THE BLACK PIRATE, he attempted to make the ultimate pirate movie. Instead of filming an adaptation of an existing story, Fairbanks came up with an original tale that featured as many of the classic elements of pirate lore as possible--swordfights, duels, buried treasure, walking the plank, etc. THE BLACK PIRATE also allowed Fairbanks to show off his amazing athletic prowess and his one-of-a-kind screen presence.
The story starts off with a group of blood-thirsty pirates attacking a ship and murdering the ship's crew. There is one survivor, however--a mysterious fellow played by Fairbanks who winds up not only gaining the pirates' confidence, but also becoming leader of the group. It is all a ruse, though, to allow Fairbanks to wipe the pirates from the seas, and save a beautiful princess (played by Billie Dove) in the bargain. At the end the true identity of Fairbanks is revealed.
Not only did Fairbanks want to make the ultimate pirate movie, he wanted it to look far different than any other pirate film. Fairbanks' production company came to the decision to film the story in two-strip Technicolor, a rather novel idea at the time. This process still did not photograph all the colors of the spectrum, which resulted in a unique, almost artistic look. When one watches THE BLACK PIRATE today, the somewhat faded two-strip Technicolor makes the movie feel as if it had really been made in the 1600s--it's like viewing a series of old paintings come to life.
Fairbanks also spared no expense when it came to the production design of THE BLACK PIRATE, building replica ships and filling sets with all sorts of period detail. Despite all the wild daring-do. THE BLACK PIRATE certainly looks authentic, as do the dozens of background actors who make up the pirate ship's crew. In later years the typical Hollywood buccaneer picture would usually have a generic style to it, but that isn't to be found in THE BLACK PIRATE.
Douglas Fairbanks gives himself several chances to shine here, and why not? His best sequence by far is the one where he takes over an entire ship all by himself, highlighted by Fairbanks using a knife to slice himself down the length of the ship's sails (a trick still impressive even in the 21st Century CGI age). When it comes to personal vitality and physical acting ability, Fairbanks had very few peers--he's the best special effect in THE BLACK PIRATE.
THE BLACK PIRATE is fun and exciting, but it is also surprisingly grim in some spots. Many of the pirates have individual humorous eccentricities, but the story goes out of its way to show that these bandits have no qualms when it comes to killing people.
Kino's presentation of THE BLACK PIRATE is taken from a 35mm negative of the two-strip Technicolor print, mastered in high definition. The color certainly isn't vibrant, but just seeing a 1926 silent film in this manner is more than worth it. A black & white version of THE BLACK PIRATE is also included on this disc. This version was produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and features Doug Jr.'s narration instead of intertitles (Doug Jr. gives away the Black Pirate's true identity at the start of the film). An excellent audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer is included. Behlmer gives all the pertinent details about the making of THE BLACK PIRATE that one would need, such as the amount of test shooting was done to make sure the two-strip Technicolor process would work correctly. Behlmer also reminds the listener that Douglas Fairbanks wasn't just a great silent star--he was a great filmmaker in his own right (Albert Parker is credited as director of THE BLACK PIRATE, but Fairbanks oversaw all aspects of the production, as he would on almost all of the films he starred in).
There are other extras on the disc, such as 47 total minutes of outtakes, 18 of them narrated by Rudy Behlmer. The outtakes give a fascinating and rare look at the actual making of an epic silent film. There's also a photo gallery, and the viewer can choose between two different music scores for the film: the original 1926 score written by Mortimer Wilson, and performed by an orchestra conducted by Robert Israel, and a organ score performed by Lee Erwin.
I got this Blu-ray of THE BLACK PIRATE for $7 from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers. Even at full price this disc would be worth it. The movie is a magnificent tale of high adventure on the open seas, and a testament to the brilliance and artistry of Douglas Fairbanks.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
This is my 400th blog post. I can't believe I've written 400 of these things--I sometimes wonder if it's even worth it, but apparently there are a few folks out there who appreciate my humble efforts. Since this will be #400 I decided to do something special with it.
About the only thing I love more than movies is baseball. With the beginning of the 2016 Major League baseball season upon us, now is as good a time as any to list my five favorite baseball movies. The problem with this particular list is that I am such a baseball fan I will be a lot less forgiving over the typical baseball film than someone who knows little about the game would be. I'm not that much of a big sports movie fan period. It occurs to me that people who are not sports fans love sports movies way more than guys like me do. In my opinion there's no way a filmed production can recreate the unpredictable drama that comes from attending or watching a live sporting event. If you go to 100 different baseball games you'll never know what you'll see or experience, whereas if you see 100 different baseball movies you'll come upon the same plot contrivances over and over again. A filmed story for a mainstream audience has to follow certain patterns in script construction and character development, and that is why the "inspirational sports movie" genre is so predictable. The underdog overcoming great odds, the slow-motion action sequences, the main character's friends and loved ones cheering from the stands--I could write a "inspirational sports movie" in my sleep.
I submit that making a baseball movie is more difficult than the typical sports film, because baseball is a very complex sport (although most people wouldn't credit it as such). To those who are not aficionados of the sport, baseball looks deceptively easy. When it comes to accurately reproducing baseball on the screen, there's thousands of details filmmakers have to deal with (and if the story is a period piece, that means thousands of details more). The result of this complexity is a spate of movies that dumb down the sport, or use baseball as a setting for cheap comedy. There was a whole series of these types of baseball movies that came out in the late 1980s-early 1990s--movies like MAJOR LEAGUE, LITTLE BIG LEAGUE, ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD, ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, etc. These movies are entertaining in a generic sort of way, but I wouldn't call any of them great representations of baseball.
Here's my five favorite baseball movies, in order of preference.
1. THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976 version)
Yes, this is my pick as the greatest baseball movie of all time. I wrote a full piece on this movie, and its sequels, in the Spring of 2013. This movie has a personal connotation for me--it's about the closest any film has come to recapturing my childhood (I actually played Little League baseball in the late 1970s--and I was terrible). Despite this movie's reputation as a wild & wacky look at the American Pastime, today it looks like a documentary compared to the ridiculous comedies that have been released in the 21st Century. I've said it before and I'll say it again--if you want to know what 1970s America was really like, watch the original THE BAD NEWS BEARS.
2. FIELD OF DREAMS
Of course this is not so much a baseball movie as it is a metaphor about life. What makes this film great is the idea of building a real baseball field in your own backyard, and the "People Will Come" speech performed by James Earl Jones (which still gives me chills every time I hear it). Unfortunately most people's ideas about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal come from this movie--you really shouldn't get your information on a historical event from a story that features ghosts. (For example, Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson bats from the wrong side--did Shoeless Joe learn how to switch-hit in Heaven?) But you can't deny the emotional power the climax of the film has when Kevin Costner gets to play catch with his late father.
3. THE NATURAL
This is a movie that took me multiple viewings to fully appreciate. When I first saw it as a teenager in the mid-80s, I thought it was unbelievably over-the-top. It took me a while to realize that it is supposed to be over-the-top--it is baseball mythology. The one thing that isn't over-the-top is the fantastic 1930s production design--if you want to know what Major League baseball looked like back in the Thirties, watch this movie (There are still people who think the New York Knights was an actual franchise!). THE NATURAL also features magnificent cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and one of the best music scores ever, by Randy Newman.
4. THE STRATTON STORY
As a White Sox fan, I have to admit to a certain bias for this production. James Stewart plays real-life White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, who at the height of his baseball career lost his leg in a hunting accident. The movie details Stratton's attempts at a comeback, backed by the support of his loving wife (June Allyson). The movie is a somewhat simplistic version of Stratton's life, but it is warm and entertaining, and James Stewart has the right look and body language of a Major League ballplayer. (How important is that? Well, plenty of baseball movies have been ruined because members of the cast just didn't look proper in a uniform. Case in point: FEAR STRIKES OUT, where Anthony Perkins tries to play Jimmy Piersall....but the actor looks silly as a ballplayer--it's fairly obvious he never held a baseball bat in his life.) Real-life White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes plays himself--and he's so good, he might have carved out a career as a character actor if he had chosen to do so.
James Stewart as Monty Stratton
5. THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES
This is probably the most famous classic baseball movie of all time--producer Samuel Goldwyn's big-time biopic of New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig, one of the greatest players who ever lived. Only Gary Cooper could have played this role, despite the fact that he wasn't baseball savvy himself. Like THE STRATTON STORY, this too is a simplistic version of Gehrig's story--hopefully the next time you see this film you go out of your way to read something about the real Gehrig. The best part of this movie is the production design by the famed William Cameron Menzies.
I'm sure a lot of you wondering why some famous baseball movies are not on this list. BULL DURHAM? Yeah, it's funny on first viewing, but it don't think it holds up very well--Susan Sarandon's role is more of a "movie person" than someone who would exist in real life. I also think A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN doesn't hold up all that well either. That movie tries to put over the idea that there wasn't any Major League baseball during World War II, when there most certainly was. MONEYBALL should have been called "Brad Pitt Saves Baseball All By Himself"--it's another baseball movie that waters down the facts.
If you really want to experience the beauty and majesty of baseball, don't watch a movie or a documentary about it--go to an actual baseball game, and sit in the stands.
And while you're at the game....put away your damn cell phone.
Saturday, April 9, 2016
DONOVAN'S BRAIN is another one of those 1950s sci-fi movies I'm sure I saw for the first time on Svengoolie's show back in the 1980s. The title has just been re-issued on home video by Kino under their Studio Classics line (I bought the DVD version.)
The movie is based on the novel of the same name written by Curt Siodmak. The novel had already been adapted to the screen by Republic Pictures under the title THE LADY AND THE MONSTER in 1944, and Orson Welles starred in a radio adaptation around the same time. Siodmak's work would be translated to film yet again in 1962. Mind you, these are just the official adaptations--DONOVAN'S BRAIN has influenced untold numbers of science-fiction/horror tales for the big and small screen. Siodmak's novel has had a major impact on the entertainment industry (whenever you see a human brain sitting in a fish tank, hooked up to electrodes--well, that's basically taken from Siodmak). .
DONOVAN'S BRAIN is considered to be the best and most accurate version of Siodmak's story. Dr. Patrick Corey (played by Lew Ayres) has a small laboratory in his secluded home, where he experiments with the brains of monkeys. A nearby plane crash gives Corey the opportunity to keep alive the brain of one of the victims of the crash, ruthless financier Walter Donovan. Donovan's brain not only continues to function, it grows more powerful as well. It soon takes over the mind of Dr. Corey, forcing Corey's wife (Nancy Davis, aka Nancy Reagan) and his assistant (Gene Evans) to try and stop Donovan's malignant influence.
Judging from the story's synopsis, one would think that this film is a lot of hooey, but DONOVAN'S BRAIN is actually one of the better sci-fi flicks of the early 1950s. Felix Feist directs the film in an understated, down-to-earth manner, and Joseph Biroc's cinematography has an almost noir-ish sensibility. Lew Ayres gives an excellent performance, subtly presenting how Donovan's mind has slowly taken over Dr. Corey. Ayres is really doing a Jekyll-and-Hyde act here, but he doesn't overdo it--and that makes Corey's plight all the more believable. The fine character actor Gene Evans gives another one of his realistic portrayals (watch just about any TV show from the 1950s and 1960s and you're bound to see Evans turn up), and Nancy Davis is very good as Corey's loyal wife. Many have tried to use a title like DONOVAN'S BRAIN and link it to the second Mrs. Ronald Reagan in an effort to disparage both the movie and the woman, but I doubt most of those who do so have even watched the picture.
What also gives DONOVAN'S BRAIN a more "normal" feel is the fact that the mind of Donovan isn't out to control the world--he (or should I say "it"?) just wants to continue to get rich. It's an intriguing concept--a supposedly dead man wants to prove wrong the old adage of "You can't take it with you.". That's far more creative than the usual thirst for power or killing for killing's sake that one often sees in this type of production.
Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Davis....and Donovan's Brain!
Kino's home video release of DONOVAN'S BRAIN features a new audio commentary by Richard Harland Smith, who has written several posts for the TCM website's "Movie Morlocks" blog. Smith does a fantastic job, giving all sorts of pertinent details on the movie and the entire "brain in a tank" genre overall. Smith informs us that Curt Siodmak was actually supposed to have written and directed this production, but he fell afoul of the producers. (If you are a monster movie fan and have read any of the several interviews with Curt Siodmak, you'll probably understand why he was taken off this movie--the guy didn't seem to have a good word for anybody.) Smith makes a very good point in comparing the relationship between the characters of Lew Ayres and Gene Evans in DONOVAN'S BRAIN with that of the characters played by Peter Cushing and Robert Urquhart in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. (Let's face it, anybody who mentions Peter Cushing in an audio commentary is gonna get a thumbs-up from me.)
DONOVAN'S BRAIN is one of the best--and most influential--American science-fiction movies of the 1950s. You may say it's just a "brain in a tank" movie--well, it's the best "brain in a tank" movie.
Friday, April 8, 2016
Last night I ventured out once again to the Browning Cinema on the campus of the University of Notre Dame to see the new documentary INGRID BERGMAN: IN HER OWN WORDS. The film was directed by Stig Bjorkman and produced with the endorsement and participation of Bergman's four children.
The subtitle IN HER OWN WORDS is particularly apt here, as the documentary uses audio from several interviews with Ingrid Bergman, along with quotes from her personal journals (these quotes are voiced by actress Alicia Vikander). Most of the imagery in this film comes from Bergman's many family home movies.
Ingrid Bergman was of course one of the most famous movie legends of all time. She also was blessed with a natural beauty that comes out very distinctly in this film time and time again. At the height of her career in the late 1940s Hollywood, Bergman left it all behind, and her husband and young daughter as well, to go to Italy and start a personal and professional relationship with neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. The resultant notoriety over her actions made Ingrid persona non grata in America for a few years, but she made a triumphant comeback by winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role in the 1956 film ANASTASIA.
Throughout it all Bergman continued to be a fiercely independent woman who lived life on her own terms. In this film her children make it very clear that she loved them and they loved her, but acting was her true overriding passion. Bergman not only loved being in front of the camera, she loved filming and taking pictures herself--her eldest daughter Pia Lindstrom theorizes that Ingrid's mania for pictures and picture-taking may have stemmed from wanting to have a connection with her late father, who was a professional photographer. The Bergman children also wonder if their mother looked upon her real life as something of a performance. After watching this film, I wonder...did the thrice-married Ingrid view each of her relationships as like a long-running play--and did she want out of them after the "play" was starting to wind down?
This documentary also features several clips from Ingrid's most famous films, and very rare behind-the-scenes footage from them, including even her early Swedish movie appearances.
INGRID BERGMAN: IN HER OWN WORDS is a revealing portrait of a very well-known woman, but the title subject still has a bit of mystery about her. She was a shy and intensely private individual, but at the same time she kept voluminous personal correspondence and mementos (and she was determined to succeed in a profession that would draw worldwide attention to her). She cared greatly for her children yet led an unconventional lifestyle that often kept her separated from them. What makes Ingrid Bergman, and this documentary, so fascinating, is the fact that no matter how much we delve into her personal thoughts and feelings, she remains something of an enigma.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Is DRACULA A.D. 1972 one of the best Hammer films ever made? Maybe not....but it's one of the most entertaining. The movie has taken quite a bit of critical drubbing over the years, but many Hammer fans now accept and even appreciate A.D. 1972's goofy mixture of Gothic horror and pseudo-mod trappings.
DRACULA A.D. 1972 took the Hammer vampire series in a new direction with a modern sitting, and the film's music score went in a new direction as well. Instead of using the company's main composer, James Bernard, this production went with former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers. The result was brassy, bold, and perfectly fitting the time that the movie was made in.
The DRACULA A.D. 1972 original motion picture soundtrack has now been reissued on 180g "psychedelic splatter" vinyl by Death Waltz Recording Company. Distributed by Mondo Tees, the record contains 13 total tracks. (I have to point out that this album does not contain the songs performed by the group Stoneground in the film.)
The album cover, designed by Silver Ferox (see above), is simply spectacular....it would be great if Mondo reproduced this as a poster or maybe even a t-shirt design. The album also features a gatefold sleeve with an appreciation of the movie written by the redoubtable film scholar Kim Newman.
Listening to the album one can't help but be reminded of Peter Cushing frantically running around London searching for Johnny Alucard, or the various A.D. 1972 girls that are so memorable, such as Stephanie Beacham and Caroline Munro. It's not often that one gets to hear driving funky guitar rhythms backing a Christopher Lee performance, but Vickers' score works here. It remains one of the most unique and surprisingly effective scores for any British horror film.
The album is limited to 1000 pressings, so if you want it you'd better hurry. It can be ordered from mondotees.com.
The "psychedelic splatter" platter
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) is another one of those "monster rally" movies which feature several performers known for their horror film roles. Unfortunately most of the "Horror All-Stars" outings (such as SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS) never live up to expectations, and neither does THE BLACK SLEEP.
THE BLACK SLEEP is something of a rarity, in that it was a Gothic thriller set in the 19th Century and produced in mid-1950s America. By that time almost no one in the U.S. was making traditional horror films--science-fiction was the genre of choice. Producers Aubrey Schenck and Howard W. Koch decided to not only make an old-fashioned chiller, but to also hire as many old-fashioned chiller actors as they could. The result was a cast that included Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi. Schenck and Koch tried to get Peter Lorre as well, but were unable to do so. Character actor Akim Tamiroff was given the role earmarked for Lorre, and later-day cult icon Tor Johnson got a part. The producers hired Reginald LeBorg to direct, since LeBorg had worked on a number of Universal monster movies in the 1940s.
Basil Rathbone plays a mysterious scientist named Dr. Cadman who is seeking a cure for his wife's brain tumor. This requires Cadman to experiment on the brains of unwilling patients, turning them into freaks and mutants. The doctor blackmails a younger surgeon (Herbert Rudley) into helping him, but the surgeon is so put off by the doctor's experiments he winds up bringing about Cadman's downfall.
With a stellar cast and a director that one assumes would be perfect for the material, THE BLACK SLEEP still winds up being something of a disappointment. There's more talk than action in the story, due to Rathbone and Rudley having long discussions about everything that Rathbone is planning to do. Neither Chaney Jr. or Lugosi have any lines--Lon is reduced to one of his "Evil Lenny"-type roles, and poor Bela, who would die months after being in this film, is noticeably in very bad shape. (Any monster movie fan worth his or her salt has heard about the several wild stories surrounding Bela and THE BLACK SLEEP, especially the movie's infamous publicity campaign. These stories are so well known that commentator Tom Weaver goes out of his way to state that he won't even go into them!) John Carradine and Tor Johnson don't show up until the very end, and while Carradine at least gets to act like a wild man, Tor just wanders around looking menacing. Akim Tamiroff tries very hard to be like Peter Lorre, but his character is more annoying than dangerous. It doesn't take much for Basil Rathbone to run away with all the acting honors here. He may have felt that this type of picture was beneath him, but he takes everything on-screen with a deadly seriousness. (He also brings to mind Sherlock Holmes in the beginning of the story when we see him wearing a top hat and a black suit and frock coat.)
THE BLACK SLEEP does have some interesting elements to it, especially if one considers it within the context of Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, which came out the very next year. In his audio commentary Tom Weaver points out a number of plot similarities between THE BLACK SLEEP and the ground-breaking Hammer film. Both movies feature a driven, ruthless scientist who will stop at nothing to reach his goal. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is now legendary for its operation scenes in color. THE BLACK SLEEP is in black & white, but Rathbone is shown cutting into a brain, before Peter Cushing ever did it. The laboratory scenes of THE BLACK SLEEP can't help but remind you of the later Hammer Frankenstein outings--we see a close-up of Rathbone's determined face, while his off-screen hands are cutting into a skull, and his younger associate looks on in uneasy admiration. A similar set-up to the one that I've just described can be seen in almost every one of Peter Cushing's Frankenstein films. Hammer fans may not like to admit it, but THE BLACK SLEEP in many ways anticipates the Gothic horror wave of the late 1950s-early 1960s.
Bela Lugosi, surrounded by (from left to right): Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, John Carradine, and Lon Chaney Jr.
Kino Lorber, under their Studio Classics line, has put out a fine version of THE BLACK SLEEP on Blu-ray. The picture is in 1.85:1 widescreen and the visual quality is excellent. As mentioned, monster movie historian Tom Weaver provides a new audio commentary. It is always a treat to hear Weaver talk about an older horror film. You may not agree with all of his opinions, but he never fails to be entertaining and informative--he's one of the best home video commentators around. In the latter part of the film Weaver takes a break and lets film music expert David Schecter take over for about 15 minutes. Schecter discusses the movie's music score by Les Baxter--or should I say the score credited to Baxter, because Schecter mentions various claims that the composer may not have written some of the scores attributed to him. I have to admit that I did not know there was a controversy over Les Baxter's many credits, and after listening to Schecter I certainly now think of Baxter in a new light. A "Trailers From Hell" episode featuring THE BLACK SLEEP is also included, with Joe Dante talking about the movie.
THE BLACK SLEEP is more intriguing for its notable cast than entertaining as a film. Still, if you are an old monster movie fan, you can't help but be impressed by a production that has a scene where Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi are all on the screen at the very same time!