Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Obit watch II: Electric Boogaloo.

Friday, November 11th, 2016

Robert Vaughn. NYT. A/V Club.

That’s a great photo in the NYT. Two beautiful women and a Thompson? Living the dream.

And Lawrence: we should put “Battle Beyond the Stars” on the list.

Short notes on film: October 30, 2016.

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Since we’re talking about movies anyway, I’d like to make another recommendation. And this one won’t cost you anything.

Last Saturday, it was just Lawrence and I for movie night, and we didn’t want to burn “John Carpenter’s The Thing” with just the two of us there. We had trouble settling on something to watch. We tried “The Architects of Fear” episode of “The Outer Limits”, but neither of us could really get into the episode: it seemed too talky and too relationship oriented, and we turned it off after about 10 minutes. (Also, man, they, like, totally ripped that plot off from “Watchmen”, right?)

We tried watching David Cronenberg’s first movie, “Stereo” (which is on the Criterion disc of “Scanners”) and that was one hot pretentious mess. I think we also made it about 10 minutes into that as well.

We ended up watching, for our feature presentation, a movie I’ve been wanting to see, but which may not technically qualify for Halloween viewing. It is kind of creepy, and falls into the category of “film noir”, so if you’re willing to extend Halloween creepy to noir…(says the guy who has gone in costume as Sam Spade, complete with Maltese Falcon).

The movie in question is 1948’s “He Walked By Night” directed by some guy named Alfred L. Werker (who was supposedly either “assisted by” or “fired from the film and had it taken over by” Anthony “fired from ‘Spartacus'” Mann).

Richard Basehart – excuse me – “Richard Basehart!” – is a burglar specializing in thefts of electronics. At the start of the movie, he shoots and ends up killing a police officer, triggering a massive manhunt by the LAPD. The police lure him into a trap at one point, but he shoots his way out (leaving another police officer paralyzed). The LAPD continues to pursue him, but things are complicated by the fact that he has no criminal record, changes his methods to throw off the police, and almost seems to be one step ahead of them…like he was a former police officer or something.

(Possible spoilers ahead.)

This is often cited as a hugely influential noir film. It is a little stagey (but it was also 1948) and there’s a lot of stuff in it that feels today like clichés. (“I’m taking you off the case because you’re too close to it!”) The thing is, those weren’t clichés in 1948: this is one of the origin points for a lot of what you see in later noir films and procedurals well into today.

A very young (and very thin) Jack Webb plays a police lab technician:

(“You will believe a man can use a slide projector!”) There’s an interesting story behind that: while he was working on this movie, Webb became friends with LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, who was working as a technical advisor on the film. One thing led to another, and, well…Webb and Wynn’s friendship and discussions ultimately led to the creation of “Dragnet” (which shares a lot of DNA with this movie.)

Even with all the staginess and talking, this is, in my opinion, a remarkably compelling movie. It is short (one hour nineteen minutes) but something is going on in almost every frame to advance the plot. And there’s also a feeling of some real stakes at play here: any of the good guys (or an innocent bystander) could get killed at any minute. As Ivan G Shreve Jr. notes in his writeup at “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”:

The unwritten law of the men in blue is there is nothing more dangerous than a cop killer; after all, if someone is crazy enough to shoot a cop, he’s liable to inflict even more grievous injury on an innocent member of the public.

There’s also a lot of really good cinematography: the use of underlighting and shadows to convey a sense of danger and dread is top-notch. And the crime is broken somewhat by lab work (Jack Webb’s role isn’t trivial), but more so by dogged, unrelenting police footwork.

The movie is actually based on a real incident, the Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker case, and it is surprising how closely it sticks to the facts. Walker, like Basehart’s protagonist, was an electronics expert who stole to finance his experimentation. He carried around homemade nitroglycerin that he’d carefully desensitized (to make it safer to transport) had a pretty extensive arsenal (mostly stolen from military armories), experimented with making his own fake driver’s licenses and license plates, and he had worked before WWII as a police dispatcher/radio operator.

There are a few small deviations from historical fact, and one omission: Walker shot and wounded the two LAPD detectives first, the police officer he killed was a highway patrolman (not an LAPD officer), and Walker wasn’t gunned down in an LA sewer. Walker was actually captured alive and sentenced to death, though that sentence was never carried out. One thing the movie doesn’t touch on – perhaps it was too early – was that Walker was emotionally disturbed by his wartime experiences: part of the motivation for his crimes was that he wanted to build a radio-based device that would turn metal to powder, use that device to force the governments of the world to raise military pay, and thus make war “too expensive” to be fought.

You can watch “He Walked By Night” on Amazon Video, and there are several DVD editions of it. Interestingly, though, the film is in the public domain in the United States: you can also download it for free from the Internet Archive.

If you like noir films, or Jack Webb, or Richard Basehart, I recommend you do so. I think you will find this movie amply repays your investment of time and bandwidth.

Not forgotten, just disappeared. (#1 in a series)

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

I’ve noted that if you’re going through Hollywood history, you keep running into people who had short but interesting careers. Maybe, like Zita Johann, they were in the movies for just a few years, then went off to do something else. Maybe they were only in one movie ever: but wow, their performance in that one movie was something to behold. (I have someone specifically in mind in this category, but you’ll have to wait for that one.)

I’ve also threatened to start doing a regular series about these people, and now seems to be as good a time as any to kick it off. Let’s talk about Kathleen Burke.

She was 19 years old and working in Chicago as a dental assistant when she won a Paramount Pictures sponsored contest. She was announced as the winner on September 29, 1932. The first film she was in was released in December of 1932 (according to Wikipedia and IMDB). Seems like a really, really, short production schedule: it makes me wonder if those sources are right. Or maybe they filmed certain parts of the movie first, and then just backfilled the sections she was in? Interesting question.

After that first movie, she was in a fair amount of stuff between 1933 and 1938. Most of it I’ve never heard of, though “Murders at the Zoo” is described as “particularly dark for its time”. She was also in “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” though I can’t tell how big her part was.

By 1938, she’d retired. She died in 1980: she was 66.

What about that contest? And what about that first movie?

Well, there were (allegedly) 60,000 entrants in the contest. And Ms. Burke, as the winner, got the role of…

…Lola, “The Panther Woman” in “Island of Lost Souls”.

“Island of Lost Souls” is the first (real) adaptation of H. G. Wells “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. (I add that qualifier as there were apparently two short silent adaptations before it.) I want to say it is probably the best, but I confess: I have not seen most of the other ones (including, tragically, the Brando/Kilmer/Frankenheimer version). We watched “Island of Lost Souls” around Halloween last year: it may just have been the state of mind I was in, but I found it genuinely interesting and creepy.

And Ms. Burke is quite memorable in it. I wouldn’t say she was “attractive” in a conventional sense, but “Lola, The Panther Woman” did have something going on for her. Actually, pretty much everyone in this movie is good. There’s an excellent Criterion edition of “Island of Lost Souks” that’s packed with extras, including interviews with David J. Skal and members of Devo. (“Island of Lost Souls” was, I gather, a big influence on the band.)

(Damn, those Ohio boys really get around. But I digress.)

I commend “Island of Lost Souls”, and Ms. Burke’s work as “The Panther Girl” to your attention. It may be a little late this year, but perhaps next year, when the pumpkins start showing up in church parking lots and the air turns cold, you can start a fire, plug in the Criterion blu-ray, and admire Ms. Burke and her work.

Kathleen Burke’s Wikipedia entry.

Art update.

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

The Jerry Orbach Memorial Art Car is funded.

I’m looking forward to getting my bumper stickers.

Questions: which one should I put on? I’m kind of partial to “My child is a honor student…”, but feel free to argue your case in the comments.

And which one should I take off to make room? Right now, I’m thinking: as much as I liked CHeston, and as much of an NRA supporter as I am, the “My President Is Charlton Heston” one is faded almost to the point of being unreadable. It might be time to let go. (And I’ve got window stickers out the wazoo.)

Obit watch: September 28, 2016.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

For the historical record, Shimon Peres. NYT. WP.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, noted film director (“Blood Feast”, “Two Thousand Maniacs!”). A/V Club.

Obit watch: September 26, 2016.

Monday, September 26th, 2016

There were a lot of deaths over the weekend, but I was away from a computer with an Internet connection for most of it. Getting caught up:

Arnold Palmer, drink innovator, sometime golfer, and good Pittsburgh boy. NYT. LAT. Golf Digest. The prose is a little purple:

He was loamy meadows and smoky skies, river valleys and steel mills, like the plant where his father, Milfred, worked (“Steel, Michaeleen, steel in pig-iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of hell”) until just in front of the Depression, Milfred took a job as greenkeeper and pro (mostly greenkeeper) at Latrobe Country Club. Nobody addressed him as Milfred, except Doris when she was of a fanciful mind. To most, he was Deacon. A few said Deke. Arnold called him Pap.

José Fernández. Miami Herald. NYT.

It may just be me, but the tone of these obits rubs me kind of the wrong way. It seems like they’re saying “José Fernández, noted pitcher, is dead. Also two other guys, but they weren’t famous baseball pitchers, so who cares?” (And, yes, I understand that they’re withholding names until families are identified. But it still kind of reads like the other two guys just don’t matter.)

(Also: strict boat control.)

Buckwheat Zydeco.

In 1978, though, he fell into the orbit of Clifton Chenier, “The King Of Zydeco,” who invited the young musician to play organ in his Red Hot Louisiana Band. “I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton,” Dural later said. “We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit.”

Bill Nunn, actor. NYT. A/V Club. He was Robbie Roberston in the Raimi “Spider-Man” movies (none of which I’ve seen) but was perhaps most famous as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing”.

Obit watch: September 21, 2016.

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Curtis Hanson, noted film director. A/V Club.

“L.A. Confidential” was a swell movie. I wouldn’t mind watching that again.

D. Keith Mano. I was most familiar with him as a National Review writer, and was unfamiliar with his work as a novelist.

“Seriously, at the end of a CC class when I was fed up with all the atheism, socialism and relativism taught, I went over to St. Paul’s Chapel and said, ‘If that’s the way the world is, I’d better turn to God,’” he told The Columbia Spectator in 1976.

Obit watch: September 17, 2016.

Saturday, September 17th, 2016

Edward Albee, noted playwright (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).

I remember when I was growing up in Houston, Albee came to town – I think they were doing the world premiere of one of his works at tha Alley Theatre, though I can’t for the life of me recall what it was – and it was a huge deal at the time. As a teenager, I didn’t understand why; in retrospect, it may have been that Albbe’s coming to town put sort of stamp of cultural legitimacy on the city, at a time when many people outside Houston thought of it as a grotty oil boom town.

Thing I had forgotten:

He was also involved in one of the great flops in Broadway history, becoming a script doctor for the producer David Merrick’s 1966 staging of the musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain and closed on Broadway before it opened, after its fourth preview.

He also did a disastrous adaptation of “Lolita” in 1981.

The Onion A/V Club is reporting the death of noted author William Patrick Kinsella. Kinsella is perhaps most famous for the novel Shoeless Joe, which, of course, was filmed as “Field of Dreams”

(I’ve never read any of Kinsella’s work, though I’d consider it: some of the things I’ve read about his work indicate he’s more interesting and complex than those other lyrical magical baseball happy horseshit writers. I did see the movie and didn’t care much for it, but, yoy know, that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.)

(Amazon also lists something called “Rice Field of Dreams”. Turns out this is a documentary about the Cambodian baseball team; whle that sounds interesting, I was thinking it was some sort of Hong Kong movie. Perhaps one of those one-eyed priest/apprentice monk things Lawrence likes, where the good guys have to use martial arts and magic to battle evil spirits. Add some sort of sports element – not necessarily baseball, maybe soccer – and I’m sure it would make money.)

Cahiers du cinéma: September 11, 2016.

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

We were watching movies last night, and a question came up. I don’t remember the exact context, but basically: was The Paper Chase actually John Houseman’s first film?

The answer turns out to be: yes, and no, and it’s interesting.

Before The Paper Chase, Houseman is listed as having an uncredited (and I assume small) role in the film adaptation of Seven Days In May.

But before that, in 1938, Houseman was in something called Too Much Johnson. Just the name sparked immense hilarity among our little group (though to be fair, it was also late) but there’s an interesting story here. Too Much Johnson was never shown in public while Houseman was alive…

As most of my readers probably know, long before he was Professor Kingsfield, Houseman had quite a stage career. Among his other credits, he was a leading member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Welles had an idea: he wanted the Mercury Theatre to do an adaptation of a 1894 comedy, also called “Too Much Johnson”, by William Gillette. But he also wanted to integrate a silent film into the stage production.

Welles planned to mix live action and film for this production. The film was designed to run 40 minutes, with 20 minutes devoted to the play’s prologue and two 10-minute introductions for the second and third act. Welles planned to create a silent film in the tradition of the Mack Sennett slapstick comedies, in order to enhance the various chases, duels and comic conflicts of the Gillette play.

There’s some very funny stuff about Welles editing the film, in his hotel suite, while up to his knees (according to Houseman) in nitrate film. Another of Welles collaborators recalls the film catching fire in the projector, Welles being so absorbed in the editing he didn’t even notice…

“What I remember, most remarkably, is me running with the projector in my hand, burning, trying to get out of the door into the goddamn hallway, and Houseman racing for the door at the same time … while Orson, with absolutely no concern whatsoever, was back inside, standing and looking at some piece of film in his hand, smoking his pipe.”

Anyway, they put the film together and went to stage “Too Much Johnson” at a place called the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut before they took it to Broadway. But there was a problem: the ceiling in the Stony Creek Theatre was “too low” for film projection. So the Mercury Theatre staged “Too Much Johnson” without the movie part. Depending on who you believe, the audience reaction was poor. In any case, Welles shelved the “Too Much Johnson” project before he finished editing it: in later years, he claimed that he’d looked at the stored footage, and it still looked pristine. But that footage was destroyed in a 1970 fire at Welles home, and the movie was presumed lost…

…until 2008, when a copy was discovered in Spain. The film was restored and shown for the first time in late 2013. In 2015, the combined film/stage production was staged for the first time. And now you can watch the 66 minute work print and reconstructed 34 minute edit of “Too Much Johnson” at the National Film Preservation Foundation website.

This is probably too much “Too Much Johnson” for most of you, but I make no apologies for my interest in Welles and his work, and I think this is a great story even without Welles and Houseman.

After the jump, topic changes…

(more…)

Obit watch: September 7, 2016.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

Leslie H. Martinson, noted television and film director.

His output in the ’70s included “Ironside,” “Love, American Style,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Room 222,” “Mannix,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Wonder Woman” and “Dallas.”

His film credits included the 1966 “Batman”.

Anna Dewdney, author of the “Llama Llama” children’s books, passed away far too young. This makes me choke up a little bit:

In lieu of a funeral, Dewdney asked that people read to children, Penguin said.

Obit watch: September 3, 2016.

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

The late great Jon Polito.

I hate to be lazy here, but I’m going to point to the respectful and comprehensive A/V Club obit. (Though couldn’t they have found something better for Detective Crosetti than the misguided “Homicide” movie?)

(And I need to see “Miller’s Crossing” again.)

Also among the dead: Jim Pruett, legendary Houston radio personality turned prominent (and often quoted in the media) gun store owner. Mike the Musicologist tells me he sold the store a while back; I’ve actually wanted to visit it, but the last few times I’ve been down to Houston it just hasn’t worked out for one reason or another.

Obit watch: September 1, 2016.

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

There’s a nice obituary in today’s Statesman for Tom Anderson, who passed away a few weeks ago.

Mr. Anderson was the carillon player at the University of Texas since…well, since Jesus was a private:

He played from 1952 until 1956 while a graduate student. In 1967, a year after he returned to UT to work in the international office, where he was assistant director, UT President Harry Ransom asked him to serve as carillonneur, and he continued to play until about three years ago.

I never met Mr. Anderson, but I remember when we toured the Tower some years back, he came up in conversation: the tour guide told us that he always said he was going to keep playing until he could no longer physically make the climb.

He was 93 when he died.

Marvin Kaplan has also passed away. He is perhaps best remembered as Henry Beesmeyer on “Alice”. though he was also in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Great Race”.

Finally, I intended to note this one earlier in the week, but the past few days have been hard. Jeremiah J. O’Keefe passed away on Tuesday. He was 93.

Mr. O’Keefe was a Corsair pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, the “Death Rattlers”. During the course of his first combat mission, on April 22, 1945, he shot down six enemy planes.

The squadron claimed 23 of the 54 Japanese planes downed that day. Two other Death Rattlers also scored five or more kills. Maj. Jefferson D. Dorroh Jr., the squadron’s executive officer, downed six planes. Maj. George C. Axtell Jr., the commanding officer, scored five. An article on the battle in Time magazine carried the headline “One Deal, Three Aces.”