Sunday, February 26, 2017
DELUGE is a film that for many years was considered lost. Released in 1933, it is looked upon as one of the first disaster movies--and it can also be categorized as one of the first post-apocalyptic movies as well. I had never seen this movie, but I was aware of it due to its being included in several books and articles on science-fiction cinema I had read over the years. Kino Lorber has just released a restored print of it on Blu-ray.
DELUGE was mentioned in the histories of science-fiction cinema due to its sequences featuring the destruction of New York City. These sequences actually appear in the beginning of the film. The rest of the story is much more scaled down, covering the attempts of a few survivors to carve a living in a new barren world.
The main protagonists in the story are a man named Martin (played by Sidney Blackmer), who believes his family has been lost in the earthquakes and floods which have ravaged the Earth. Martin tries to carry on by himself, and he meets up with a young attractive swimmer named Claire (Peggy Shannon). Claire is on the run from a brutish thug named Jepson (Fred Kohler). Jepson joins up with a group of other loutish individuals, and Martin and Claire must protect themselves from the gang. Meanwhile, Martin's wife and children are still alive, and part of a small band of men of women who are trying to rebuild in a civilized manner. The triangle between Martin, his wife, and Claire comes to a head during the film's climax.
For most viewers the opening scenes of mass destruction will be the most interesting thing about DELUGE. Some will consider the much-touted footage to be a disappointment, but one has to accept the fact that these were state of the art special effects for the times (and in fact the effects would be re-used in other movies and serials). It's not so much that the effects are bad, it's that the viewer assumes that the entire story will be filled with such catastrophic destruction, and it's not. The opening scenes feature character actors Samuel S. Hinds and Edward Van Sloan as worried scientists.
The rest of the film is a bit of a comedown after seeing New York City reduced to rubble. Sidney Blackmer's Martin is a decent fellow, but he doesn't seem to have the inner strength to deal with the supposed loss of his family and go on to be a lone survivor. (He's certainly not a Charlton Heston OMEGA MAN type.) Peggy Shannon has a bit of spunk as Claire, and she also shows some Pre-Code sexiness (in a couple of scenes it appears she's wearing nothing more than her underwear). Fred Kohler is decidedly nasty as the cruel Jepson. The post-destruction scenes have a very low-budget vibe to them--forests, caves, and some run-down buildings are all that represents this new world.
What makes DELUGE stand out, other than the FX, is the fact that it is one of the very first entries in the disaster/post-apocalypse genre. Many of the elements of that genre that are shown in such films as THE OMEGA MAN, the MAD MAX movies, and even THE WALKING DEAD TV series, crop up in DELUGE. A lone survivor gathering supplies, convinced he's the only person left in the world...a character ticking off days on a makeshift calendar...a group of dangerous thugs trying to take advantage of the breakdown of civilization pitted against a group of folks who wish to restore that civilization...these things appeared in DELUGE years and years before they became something of a cliche.
The print that Kino has used for this Blu-ray isn't perfect, but at least the film exists. The extras include an audio commentary be Richard Harland Smith, who reveals several details behind the film's production, such as the creation of the film's effects. The Blu-ray also has an entire bonus feature, a 1934 film called BACK PAGE, starring the leading lady of DELUGE, Peggy Shannon. BACK PAGE is about a reporter (Shannon) who leaves the big city to become an editor of a newspaper in a small town in California. There she uncovers political scandal involving the town's oil well. Shannon (who kind of resembles Clara Bow) does very well here, even though the film itself is mediocre. The actress was good-looking, and she had a perky attitude...but unfortunately her film career was ruined by alcoholism, and she died very young (Richard Harland Smith goes into this in his commentary).
DELUGE is more interesting than entertaining. Film buffs will appreciate it more than a general audience. It deserves some notoriety as one of the earliest disaster movies, but this is not a Roland Emmerich--CGI fueled end of the world flick.
Thursday, February 23, 2017
One of my latest low-priced DVD pickups is the 1969 Western 100 RIFLES, starring Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, and Burt Reynolds.
100 RIFLES, despite being a 20th Century Fox movie, was filmed entirely in Spain, where many Spaghetti Westerns were being made at the time. 100 RIFLES tries very hard to seem like a Spaghetti Western, but in the end it's just too Hollywood of a product. Jim Brown plays Lyedecker, an American U.S. Marshal who travels to Mexico to apprehend Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) for robbing a bank in Phoenix. Joe committed the robbery in order to buy 100 rifles for his Yaqui compatriots who are battling a vicious Mexican warlord named General Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Lyedecker winds up helping Joe and his beautiful but determined cohort Sarita (Raquel Welch) in their fight against Verdugo.
100 RIFLES isn't the greatest Western ever made, but you can't say that it's boring--nearly every five minutes or so an action scene breaks out. The amount of violence is only one of the ways 100 RIFLES shows how it was influenced by Euro Westerns. The Mexican Revolution setting and the pairing of a taciturn, straight-arrow male character (Lyedecker) with a more colorful, devious one (Joe) are major elements of most Spaghetti Westerns. 100 RIFLES even features Aldo Sambrell in a supporting role as one of Verdugo's lackeys--Sambrell seemingly appeared in more Spaghetti Westerns than any other actor.
I feel, however, that 100 RIFLES is more reminiscent of THE WILD BUNCH than a typical Euro Western. (Both movies were produced and released at about the same time.) 100 RIFLES and THE WILD BUNCH have a lot of plot similarities--American gunmen finding themselves involved in the Mexican troubles, an evil Mexican general ravaging native peoples, an attack on a heavily guarded train, etc. The Mexican general in THE WILD BUNCH has a German military advisor--and so does General Verdugo in 100 RIFLES, played by Eric Gudegast, who is now better known as Eric Braeden, the actor who has spent years being Victor Newman on the TV soap opera THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. There's even a few slow-motion frames of gunshot victims falling to the ground in 100 RIFLES (THE WILD BUNCH would make slow-motion movie violence famous). The major difference between the two films is that Sam Peckinpah's direction of THE WILD BUNCH elevated that film to a legendary piece of brutal art, while the director of 100 RIFLES, Tom Gries, lacked Peckinpah's flair and ability to make despicable characters interesting.
Jim Brown had made his movie debut in a Western, the vastly underrated RIO CONCHOS. The former NFL great does have a fine screen presence here, and he ably handles the physical rigors of the part. Brown not only got lead billing, he also got to have a love scene with Raquel Welch, the leading sex symbol of the time. This was a rare thing for an African-American actor in 1969 (some might say it's a rare thing for a black actor now). Brown would go on to star in several other Westerns, and that is the genre that best served his film career.
Raquel Welch had already made her Western debut with 1968's BANDOLERO! alongside James Stewart and Dean Martin (a movie worth seeking out, by the way). There wasn't much to her role in that film, but 100 RIFLES gives her a chance to shine as Sarita. Welch gets to shoot, ride, and fight, and she more than holds her own against her two macho co-stars. Sarita may be a poor Mexican Indian revolutionary, but that doesn't stop her from looking gorgeous (I don't think there could be anything that would do that). Welch uses her natural charms to her advantage twice in the film--early in the story she acts as if she's disrobing for one of Verdugo's soldiers, but then she stabs the man with a tree limb. In the train attack sequence, she distracts Verdugo's army by washing herself underneath a water tower, wearing nothing but a thin shirt. She then proceeds to start taking the men down with a shotgun! Is the water tower scene a bit too obvious? Maybe....but I'm not complaining. Welch would go on to star in HANNIE CAULDER, her most famous Western, but I have to say that overall Sarita is one of her best roles.
Burt Reynolds as Yanqui Joe is basically a preview of his many good ole' boy characters he would play in the 1970s. Reynolds is entertaining as always, but you get the feeling when you watch 100 RIFLES that the actor knows he's being outshined by Brown and Raquel. Reynolds had already starred in a real Spaghetti Western, the ultra-violent NAVAJO JOE. What hurts all three of the main stars is that none of their characters are developed very well--we don't know all that much about them, and it's hard to have an emotional connection to them. A director such as Peckinpah would have given the story more dramatic weight.
If you're thinking Fernando Lamas as a brutal Mexican general is a bit of miscasting, you're right. Lamas is too refined for such a role--a movie that is trying to be like a Spaghetti Western needs a crazy, bizarre, villainous portrayal--from an actor like, say, Jack Palance. I have to mention that Soledad Miranda has a small role in this film--she is now a cult icon for her work with another cult icon, director Jess Franco.
100 RIFLES is what I would call a junk-food Western. It looks and sounds great (the Spanish locations give the story an epic feel, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes a nice Mexican-flavored music score), and there's plenty of action and gunplay. It is diverting entertainment, but it doesn't stick in the memory the way great Westerns do, and it lacks the wild & provocative attitude of the Spaghetti Westerns it tries to emulate. 100 RIFLES should at least be remembered as one of Raquel Welch's best performances.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) is one of the great all-time geek movies. It's got cavepeople, dinosaurs, volcanic explosions...and it features the special effects wizardry of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. It also happens to be a Hammer film, and it is responsible for one of the most magnificent movie publicity photos ever taken (see above). The subject of that photo, Raquel Welch, became a sex symbol superstar, and she's a major reason why the movie became, and remains, so popular.
Kino Lorber has released a new Region A Blu-ray of the film, which includes two different versions of it--the 91 minute American cut, and the 100 minute international version. Both cuts look fantastic, way better than I've ever seen the movie presented.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. is actually a remake of a Hal Roach film called ONE MILLION B.C. (I wonder if people complained about that in 1966). There isn't that much of a plot--in the dawn of pre-history, a man known as Tumak (John Richardson) is kicked out of his tribe, a violent group referred to by the narration as the Rock People. Tumak's wanderings bring him into contact with dangerous creatures, and a peaceful group, the Shell People, who happen to include among them Loana the Fair One, in the lovely form of Raquel Welch. (Personally, I'd give Loana a grade way more than fair.) Tumak and the more advanced Shell People learn from one another (the Shell People are so advanced, they seem to have invented hair conditioner and eye liner), but more obstacles lie ahead for the group, such as a volcano which constantly looms in the background.
You either accept this film for what it is, and enjoy it, or you don't. Judging ONE MILLION from a serious historical or scientific perspective isn't the way to go about analyzing this film. No, cavepeople and dinosaurs never existed at the same time...but, really now, wouldn't it have been better if they did? The combination of Ray Harryhausen's brilliant stop-motion creations and gorgeous cave women like Welch and Martine Beswicke make ONE MILLION a fun viewing experience. Yes, there are times when things get a bit goofy, and there's a few dull stretches--but watching this film again on Blu-ray made me appreciate how good a production it is. The Canary Islands locations do give the story a bizarre prehistoric look, and the interior cave sequences are impressively mounted. The music by Mario Nascimbene is appropriately weird and dissonant, and it also gives the movie a sense of epic foreboding. This was reportedly Hammer's most expensive production up till that time, and once again I must point out that a movie made in this manner has a texture and reality to it that all the best CGI in the world just can't match.
Many folks will look upon Ray Harryhausen as being the most important part of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. instead of Hammer Films or Raquel Welch. The FX master contributed some of his finest work here--the attack of a dinosaur on the Shell People is one of Harryhausen's greatest sequences. For those that scoff at the caveman vs. dinos aspect of ONE MILLION, let's consider Hammer's CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT. That movie does not have any dinosaurs, and it's terrible. Hammer made an astute decision in bringing Harryhausen onto the project.
While the technical aspects of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are impressive, the performers in front of the camera deserve some respect as well. One can well imagine that the actors probably felt ridiculous at times--Raquel Welch has admitted this in interviews--but considering circumstances such as there not being any real dialogue in the film, the cast comes off better than expected. John Richardson (who was the male lead in Bava's BLACK SUNDAY and Hammer's SHE) capably shows Tumak's conflicting emotions throughout the story. Raquel Welch certainly brought her natural attributes to the role of Loana, but she does make the character kindly and likable, without being just a helpless scream queen. Martine Beswicke gets a very showy role as the hot-blooded leading lady of the Rock People, and she and Raquel get to engage in a majestic catfight (Martine had already participated in a great screen catfight in her role as a gypsy girl in the James Bond film FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE). Other Hammer acting veterans such as Robert Brown and Percy Herbert also appear in the film.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. has to be the very first Hammer film I ever saw. It was on American TV constantly when I was a little kid in the 1970s (this was long before I even knew what Hammer Films even was). Kino does its usual superlative job with this title--each version of the film gets its own disc, and both look superb. The international cut is by far the better edit, but it's nice that Kino included the American version. A poster & still gallery is included, along with some interviews. A short talk with Raquel Welch (from 2002) presents the actress as being somewhat embarrassed by the picture. A visit from Ray Harryhausen (also from 2002), while also short, is a much better extra, with the FX genius discussing the making of ONE MILLION. There's also a 2016 interview with Martine Beswicke, in which she delightfully talks about her memories of the film.
The main extra is an audio commentary from Tim Lucas. He gives out much relevant information about the production, but he also gives some thoughtful analysis about the motivations and the interpersonal relationships between the characters. Lucas also makes some apt comparisons between ONE MILLION and Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It would be easy to become snarky when talking about a movie like ONE MILLION. but thankfully Lucas doesn't do that, and his insights into the script are welcome.
I was greatly anticipating this release, and I wasn't disappointed. I even thinks it ranks as one of the best American Blu-rays of a Hammer film to this point. I know some who read this blog won't be interested in a film like ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., but it's right up my alley. The best defense I can give of it is--out of all the giant big-budget fantasy spectaculars released over the last few years, how many of them will be talked about 50 years from now?
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
It's another classic film release from Kino Lorber, this time a somewhat obscure feature starring the one and only James Stewart.
NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY (1951) has Stewart as a fidgety aeronautics expert named Theodore Honey. Based in England, Honey is convinced that a new type of airplane known as the Reindeer will have its tail break off after 1400+ hours of flight time. His British superiors doubt his claims, but they decide to send him to Canada to investigate the recent crash of a Reindeer. The quirky Honey has never actually flown in a plane before, and his trip gets more interesting when he finds out that he's on board a Reindeer that is approaching the 1400 hours mark. Honey tries in vain to tell the flight crew that they are in danger. The plane makes an emergency landing as soon as it crosses the Atlantic, and a special inspection is carried out. When nothing unusual is found, the crew make preparations to continue on--which forces Honey to commit an act totally against his retiring nature. The act causes Honey's mental state to be called into question, and his theories on airplane metal fatigue may wind up being totally rejected.
Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, but even I'll admit that in the beginning of the film he lays on the absent-minded professor act rather too thick. (Honey's mind is so preoccupied that he doesn't even know if he's in his own home.) Despite his nerdy portrayal (years before the term nerd came into widespread use), Stewart does more than adequately convey Honey's desperation and frustration at his warnings not being taking seriously. NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY was filmed entirely in England, and the fact that Stewart was the only American member of the cast makes his character seem even more of an outsider. During the climax Honey must face a review board, and as the man passionately defends himself one can't help but recall other Stewart roles such as Jefferson Smith and George Bailey. Despite Honey's eccentricities and nervous tics, the fact that he is played by James Stewart makes the audience believe the man and take him seriously.
On Honey's fateful airplane trip he meets up with famous actress Monica Teasdale, played by Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich is basically playing herself, and it's fun to see her and Stewart reunited years after their famous teaming in the 1939 DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. Teasdale starts to feel warmth and sympathy toward Honey, as does kindly flight attendant Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns). The attention paid to Honey by both women (especially the flight attendant) seemed a bit forced to me--the movie spends an inordinate amount of time showing how Honey doesn't function very well around people, and now two attractive women are showing an interest in him? (I wished that worked for me.) The women even go so far as to befriend the widowed Honey's young daughter, played by Janette Scott. Scott, who would grow up to become something of a scream queen in the 1960s, gives a wonderful performance here (the girl has more common sense than Honey does, and she's a lot more stable). Even though Marlene Dietrich gets second billing, Glynis Johns has the bigger (and more important) role.
The fact that this movie was filmed in England allowed it to use a number of fine British actors in the cast, such as Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Niall MacGinnis, and Maurice Denham. These gentlemen give the proceedings an air of believability (why is it that we always take actors from the U.K. more seriously than their American counterparts?).
NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY was directed by Henry Koster. Koster and James Stewart worked together on five films, the most famous being HARVEY. Koster was responsible for such titles as THE BISHOP'S WIFE and THE ROBE, but he's one of those Hollywood studio-era directors who are almost forgotten today. There's nothing showy about Koster's direction here--the story is presented in an efficient, understated manner that allows the actors to shine. Koster's son Bob participates in the audio commentary, along with the main speaker, film historian Jeremy Arnold. Arnold thoroughly discusses all aspects of the production, and asks Bob Koster several questions about his father's career in making movies. It's a talk worth listening to. The visual quality of the film, which was shot in full frame black & white, is excellent.
NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY is definitely a star-driven vehicle. James Stewart carries the picture, and his natural sincerity and integrity make the audience accept an unusual person like Theodore Honey. I consider the film to be okay, not great (the climax solves everything a bit too neatly). Fans of Jimmy Stewart will appreciate this Blu-ray the most.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
One of Kino Lorber's latest releases in their Studio Classics line is the 1949 PRINCE OF FOXES, starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. From the cover art one would assume that it is a rollicking swashbuckler, much like THE MARK OF ZORRO and THE BLACK SWAN, which also starred Power. But it is more in the realm of historical melodrama--during his audio commentary for this Blu-ray Troy Howarth calls the film "a thinking man's action picture."
I had never seen PRINCE OF FOXES, and quite frankly, during my time as a film buff I don't remember hearing all that much about it. The subject matter may have something to do with this--PRINCE OF FOXES is set in the Italian Renaissance, a period very few Americans (such as myself) are all that familiar with. Instead of a generic good guys-bad guys scenario, the audience is shown the political machinations of the dastardly Cesare Borgia (Orson Welles). Tyrone Power plays Andrea Orsini, a man who, at the beginning of the story, serves under the Borgias. Andrea isn't the usual lovable rogue that Power played before in other historical spectacles--the man is more of an opportunist, someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead in a violent and desperate time (Orsini isn't even his real family name--he's using it to hide his humble origins). Borgia dispatches Andrea to a small dukedom that he wishes to take over. There Andrea gets to know the kindly and thoughtful elderly Duke (Felix Aylmer) and his young attractive wife (Wanda Hendrix). Andrea and the Duchess develop a mutual attraction, but both of them have great respect for the Duke. Andrea is so taken with his hosts that he pledges his service to them against the oncoming threat of Borgia's army. The result is that a man who once looked out only for himself now will risk death to protect others.
PRINCE OF FOXES, despite being a 20th Century Fox production, was filmed entirely in Italy. This gives it a verisimilitude that few movies made in the same period can match. The exteriors and locations used throughout the story are stunning, and they are made even more so by the exquisite black & white cinematography by Leon Shamroy. Visually the movie is fantastic, especially on this Blu-ray, but I can't help but wonder how it would have appeared in color. The costumes are elegant as well. Director Henry King worked with Tyrone Power a number of times, and he does a very fine job here. King isn't considered by many in this day as one of the great Hollywood studio directors, but go on IMDB and check out his body of work and you'll come away impressed. The attack on the Duke's city by Borgia's army (which is located on a daunting precipice) is very well staged, but Power doesn't get to engage in any swordplay until the very end...and then only briefly.
By the time of PRINCE OF FOXES Tyrone Power had already starred in several historical adventures. What's different about his Andrea is that he's not a pure hero type (the fact that he serves the Borgias to begin with tells you something about his character). Andrea changes as a person during the story, and Power is effective at showing this. Cesare Borgia is one of the great villains in all of history, and Orson Welles plays him to the hilt. Welles actually has very little screen time, but due to his larger-than-life flamboyant portrayal of Borgia, he makes the viewer think about him even when he's not around. Everett Sloane gets a very show part as a shifty assassin who changes his loyalties about every five minutes. Wanda Hendrix is certainly attractive, but one wishes that a bigger personality might have played the main female role in this film (Linda Darnell would have been perfect for the role).
In my opinion, though, it is British character actor Felix Aylmer as the wise Duke who steals the show. It would be easy for the quiet, dignified Aylmer to be overshadowed by all the historical daring-do, but his soft-spoken wisdom makes more impact than any action scene. For some reason distinguished English stage actors were made for historical epic movies like this.
The main extra on this Blu-ray is an audio commentary from author Troy Howarth. At first it might seem unusual for Howarth to talk about this particular film, since he has written books on Mario Bava and Giallo cinema. But PRINCE OF FOXES was filmed in Italy, and Howarth even mentions a connection the movie has to Bava. Howarth discusses the novel on which the film was based, and he thoroughly analyses the picture from several different aspects of the production. It's a commentary well worth listening to.
I made a good decision in buying this Blu-ray of PRINCE OF FOXES. I assumed that it was going to be another typical Tyrone Power costume adventure--but it's much more than that. The movie has some dark elements to it, and it showcases a time and place in history that one doesn't get to see much on-screen (at least in American films). This isn't a action-packed swashbuckler--but it's a fine film nonetheless, and one that deserves more attention.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
You want proof that Batman is the greatest comic book superhero of all time? Just go down to your local movie theater and see THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. Only the Dark Knight himself could have the starring role in a film based on a children's building block toy line. Some may consider this team-up goofy, others sacrilegious, but the fact is that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE has more authentic DC Universe references in it than all of the live-action Batman movies combined.
If you've seen any of the dozens and dozens of family-oriented computer animated films over the last decade, you know what to expect--famous contemporary actors doing the voice work, colorful & vibrant animated effects, sarcastic comedy for the adults, and a simple message for the kids. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE has all that, with the added bonus of the nearly 80 year-old history of the Caped Crusader. This movie totally embraces the Batman mythology, throwing in so many arcane nods to it (and the rest of the DC Universe) that one may not fully appreciate all the in-jokes until viewing it multiple times. The humor is very much in the vein of THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY, but at the same time the story makes some very apt observations about Batman's life as a crime-fighting loner.
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE presents a Dark Knight who can save Gotham City from destruction, then five minutes later sit all alone in Wayne Manor watching rom-coms. The Lego Batman has to learn to work together with others, including his new ward Dick Grayson, and allow people into his life (he even has to show his true feelings for the Joker). Some comic readers may look upon this plot as ridiculous, but in the context of the Lego Movie Universe, it works.
Will Arnett provides the voice of the Lego Batman, and his comic readings here are excellent (although I'm convinced he's doing a take-off of Kevin Conroy's Batman voice). Plenty of other big names make vocal appearances as well. As for visual appearances, just about every DC superhero you've ever heard of (and many you haven't heard of) shows up in this. Geeks everywhere will enjoy it for that fact alone.
Speaking of geeks, I'm sure there's going to be some out there who will bemoan the idea of a movie like this, or those who will cover the internet with rants about how this is an attack on the "true spirit" of Batman. I would advise those folks to remember that every single adaptation of Batman has tinkered with the true spirit of the character. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is entertaining fun--and that's more than I can say about almost all of the live-action Batman movies. I saw it with my 11 year-old niece and 5 year old nephew, and they loved it. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE isn't going to ruin the character--if anything, it shows how viable and legendary the Dark Knight is, and how he can be used in various and inventive ways.
You can say that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is nothing more than a multi-platform cash grab....and you'd be right to an extent. But it is also a movie that totally accepts, and celebrates, the comic book geek world it is set in. So many live-action superhero films try to act as if they're not about superheros at all. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE gets it.
Monday, February 6, 2017
My latest YouTube wanderings led me to the 1966 Eurospy film SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN. This Italian/French/Spanish production was one of a series of movies about a CIA agent named Dick Malloy, played by American actor Ken Clark. The real star of the show, however, is Daniela Bianchi as Lady Arabella Chaplin.
Daniela Bianchi played Bond Girl Tatiana Romanova in the 1963 007 film FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. To this day Bianchi is considered one of the best Bond Girls (especially by me). The Italian actress spent most of her short movie career playing in Bond knock-offs, including OK CONNERY/OPERATION KID BROTHER, alongside Sean Connery's brother Neil (I wrote a post about this film in September 2015). Bianchi was an absolutely stunning woman, but in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE she still was able to bring a sense of naive innocence to her character (even when she was wearing a nightgown and trying to seduce 007). In SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN, she gets plenty of things to do other than look gorgeous, which she undoubtedly does.
The movie begins with a bang--Bianchi is dressed as a nun, and she walks into an abbey, where she proceeds to blow away a couple of monks with a machine gun! (Don't worry, the "monks" are really spies.) A very Bondian song about Lady Chaplin then begins to play over the credits, while the lady herself ditches the nun's habit to reveal a she's wearing a swimsuit underneath.
Lady Chaplin is involved in the search for a sunken American nuclear submarine, an incident which also attracts the attention of CIA operative Dick Malloy (Ken Clark). Malloy's investigations lead him to international businessman Zoltan (Jaques Bergerac)--with a name like Zoltan, you know he's going to turn out to be the villain. Zoltan is after the Polaris missiles stored on the sub, and he induces Lady Chaplin to help him in this endeavor. The beauteous Lady comes up with a clever scheme to smuggle a new missile fuel out of England--I won't reveal what it is, but suffice to say it's a very inventive plot point from the screenwriters. Malloy manages to track Lady Chaplin and Zoltan to where the missiles are, and he even manages to convince Chaplin to help him take down Zoltan.
Lady Chaplin isn't just a secret agent--she is also a fashion designer (she gets to wear at least a dozen different wild outfits during the story). She disguises herself as an old woman and a British military officer, among other things, and she's able to handle herself in just about any situation. Bianchi doesn't just get to do more than the usual Bond Girl--she's allowed to showcase her abilities than most supposed liberated female characters in movies made in the 21st Century. Ken Clark may have top billing, and his Dick Malloy may be the lead character, but Daniela walks away with the film.
Ken Clark's Dick Malloy comes off as rather bland compared to the amazing Lady Chaplin, but he's an okay sort of generic Secret Agent type. Clark doesn't have the most magnetic screen personality in the world, but he does handle himself well in the action scenes, and he appears to be doing most of his own stunts. It appears that Clark was dubbed in this movie, which makes it harder to properly judge his performance. What hurts Clark as Malloy the most is that he's surrounded by eccentric foreign types (or fantastic looking women) who are more interesting than he is. By the way, Malloy goes by the number "077"--at a couple points in the film he's driven around in a car that has that number emblazoned on the side. He might as well just wear a sign around his neck saying I AM A SECRET AGENT.
SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN has a number of fine action scenes, such as a battle between Dick Malloy and some bad guys in a bullring. The various fights in the film are staged and edited rather well, and this isn't another low-budget Bond ripoff--among the locations showcased are New York City, London, Paris, and Madrid. The story has a rapid pace to it, and some of the script's elements (such as Lady Chaplin's fuel-smuggling operation) are more impressive than those found in better-known spy films. Two directors (Alberto De Martino and Sergio Grieco) are credited, but that doesn't seem to have adversely affected the production. Special mention must be made of Eurocult actress Helga Line (NIGHTMARE CASTLE, HORROR EXPRESS) who has a small but important role. The film's trendy 60s music soundtrack is by Bruno Nicolai.
The print that I viewed of this film was in widescreen, and it was quite good visually. I honestly don't know if it was uncut--it's hard to say that about any 1960s movie made in Europe. I will say that SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN was a lot better than I thought it would be. I would even rate it on the same level as some of the weaker Bond efforts. It's entertaining and with a leading lady like Daniela Bianchi, certainly easy on the eyes. I tried to find if there was an official DVD or Blu-ray release of this film, but no such luck. There needs to be one, though. I intend to seek out the other titles in the Dick Malloy series.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
I get my cable service from Comcast, and at the beginning of every month I check Xfinity On Demand to see which titles have been added to the Free Movies section. While scrolling through the new additions I noticed STAR IN THE DUST, a Universal Western made in 1956. What really caught my attention was the fact that it starred 1950s sci-fi/monster movie hero John Agar, and blonde bombshell/pin up queen Mamie Van Doren. The movie also features the very first appearance in a Western film by a young actor by the name of Clint Eastwood.
Universal made a number of Westerns during the 1950s, the most famous being the collaborations between director Anthony Mann and James Stewart. The Universal Westerns also starred the likes of Audie Murphy, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson, and Glenn Ford. Today they are considered "B" pictures, but for the most part they are tight, efficient, and entertaining. STAR IN THE DUST is no exception to this.
John Agar plays Bill Jorden, who is Sheriff of the town of Gunlock. The Sheriff is a man with a particular problem. He's holding convicted killer Sam Hill (Richard Boone) in the town jail, and Sam is scheduled to hang at sundown. The cattlemen of the area, who hired Sam to chase farmers away, want Sam sprung from jail. The farmers, who are aware of this, want to lynch Sam as soon as possible. The Sheriff has to walk as fine a line as possible between the two groups, which is complicated by the fact that he's engaged to Ellen (Mamie Van Doren), who happens to be the sister of the leader of the cattlemen (Leif Erickson). Bill is determined that Sam will be executed lawfully, at the proper time, no matter what the circumstances.
STAR IN THE DUST plays out in a single day, and at 80 minutes, the movie has a nice pace to it. John Agar is certainly no John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood, but the fact that he's not a major personality helps the film story-wise. We would have confidence that a Wayne or a Gary Cooper would handle this situation, but one worries about Agar's Sheriff. The townspeople in the film are not all that sure about him either (Bill's father used to be the Sheriff, a fact that is brought up to him again and again).
John Agar starred in two of the most famous Westerns of all time, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and FORT APACHE. His career took a hit after his divorce from Shirley Temple, but he wound up signing a contract with Universal in the 1950s, where he appeared in numerous sci-fi/horror titles such as REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, TARANTULA, and THE MOLE PEOPLE. Agar may not have been a great actor, but he had an earnest, likable on-screen personality--you can't help but root for the guy. The fact that an "ordinary fellow" like Agar is the hero gives STAR IN THE DUST a different angle.
Richard Boone has relatively little screen time as Sam Hill, and when he is on-screen, he's mostly stuck in jail, but he still steals every scene he is in. It's too bad he didn't get more of a chance to show off his quirky acting style. One would expect Mamie Van Doren to be playing a saloon girl in a movie like this, but here she's the "nice girl" fiancee of Agar's Sheriff. Leif Erickson is an okay bad guy, but the real standout performers in STAR IN THE DUST are all the great character actors featured in the story, such as Paul Fix, James Gleason, and Harry Morgan. The town bartender is played by Stafford Repp, who is now best known for playing Gotham City Police Chief O'Hara in the 1960s BATMAN TV series.
As for Clint Eastwood...he's in the movie for about 30 seconds. He shows up soon after the start of the film--he has a brief exchange of dialogue with John Agar in the middle of the town, and that's it. This was near the end of Eastwood's contract with Universal, and it's fairly obvious that the company had no idea what to do with him. The role of the Sheriff would have been perfect for him, even at that time.
I wouldn't call STAR IN THE DUST an unheralded classic, but it does have a few interesting elements to it. The sheriff's office and the town jail is on the second story of a building (don't think I've seen that before in a Western), and one of the townsfolk spends the movie singing a song about Sam Hill's upcoming hanging, a touch that brings to mind HIGH NOON. (STAR IN THE DUST also reminds one of RIO BRAVO, even though it was made a few years before that movie.) There's more fistfights in this tale than gunfights, with a vicious catfight between actresses Coleen Gray and Randy Stuart. The climax has a very brutal "guy gets shot while standing on top of a building and falls to the street below" stunt that had me wondering how many bones the stuntman performing it must have broken. Director Charles Hass does a very good job with the proceedings, and the movie was presented on Xfinity OnDemand in a fantastic looking HD color widescreen print.
STAR IN THE DUST may be looked upon now as nothing more than a B movie, but I found it to be more effective than a few other Westerns that have been deemed more important. I feel that fans of classic Westerns will appreciate it.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
There's some exciting news for film geeks this month (well, exciting for me, anyway). The legendary horror movie host Svengoolie will be presenting Godzilla movies all February on his weekly show on the MeTV network.
For the past few years Sven has been showing movies from the Universal Monsters collection, due to a contract MeTV has with the company. There's nothing wrong with these films, but most classic horror film fans have seen them dozens and dozens of times. These Godzilla films will be a change of pace, and they will also allow Sven to come up with some new comedy bits.
I'm sure a lot of you are thinking..."Dan, you probably own all of these Godzilla movies on home video. Why is watching them on American broadcast TV--where they won't be in the proper aspect ratio, and they'll likely be edited, and with commercial interruptions--such a big deal??" It's not so much the movies themselves--it's the fact that Svengoolie is presenting them. I've literally been watching Svengoolie for over 30 years. Just about every great horror or science fiction movie I saw for the first time courtesy of Svengoolie. Seeing Svengoolie now brings back to me the nostalgic feeling of being a kid, staying up late, and discovering the joys of fantastic cinema. Yes, I have all these movies on home video in uncut pristine prints...but there was something special in being introduced to them on late night TV, especially at a young age. It's the type of feeling I never get to experience anymore.
There's one more main reason I'm excited about Sven showing Godzilla movies this month...it gives me more material to use in the live Svengoolie tweet-a-thon! The Svengoolie tweet-a-thon is an event I usually partake in every Saturday night during Sven's show (that fact alone shows you how amazing my social life is). A lot of fine folks take part in it, and the creativity and humor involved in some of the tweets is more entertaining than that old sketch show NBC has going on at the same time. The Svengoolie tweet-a-thon also restores my faith in humanity by proving that there's people out there who are as goofy as I am.
Here's the Svengoolie schedule for February--his show is on 10 PM EST every Saturday night on MeTV television stations throughout America.
Feb. 4--GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS The American version of the very first Godzilla movie, starring Raymond Burr. Yes, I know the Japanese version is a better overall film, but this version is the one most people know about.
Feb. 11--GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN The very first Godzilla sequel, first shown in America as GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER. This is also the first time two kaiju battle one another--in the movie the Big G takes on Anguirus.
Feb. 18--GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA This 1964 film, also known as GODZILLA VS. THE THING, is generally considered by kaiju fans to be one of the best Godzilla movies ever made. I'm really happy Sven is going to show this one.
Feb 25--GODZILLA'S REVENGE One of the most unusual Godzilla films (and that's saying a lot), the story revolves around a young boy who dreams of hanging out with the Big G to escape his drab reality. The Sven fans on Twitter are going to go to town on this.
That's a great collection of Godzilla movies--you get to see the Big G's serious beginnings, his first sequel, one of his greatest battles with Mothra, and how he evolved into a hero for children. So if you don't have much to do on Saturday nights in February (like your humble author), enjoy some classic monster movies the way they should be seen--presented by a legendary TV horror movie host. And don't mind all the commercials for reverse mortgages and medical alert bracelets--they'll just give you a chance to go to the kitchen and get some junk food. And don't forget to join in with Sven fans like me on Twitter using the hashtag #svengoolie.