Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Ladd and His Gun

I've been promising a fellow blogger,  Rachel (Hamlette), for months that I was going to get around to doing this double feature, but I kept putting it off, due to time and commitments to various blogathons.  She is a big Alan Ladd fan, and, I might add, a fellow enthusiast for film noir, of which both of these movies are under that double umbrella. I, too, am a big fan of film noir.  Personally, however, I can take or leave Alan Ladd.  I've seen a number of movies he was in, and he is a great actor, but as I've stated before, with the exception of John Wayne, I don't actively seek out movies just because a certain actor or actress is in it.  (Of course, the opposite is not true... I have also stated elsewhere that I dislike Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise, and it would take an extraordinary movie indeed for me to sit through one with either of those two guys...)  But Alan Ladd is not one of those, so I will watch movies in which he is the star without complaint.

Alan Ladd was on the scene for many years before he got his big start as a headliner.  And this was news to me because I thought, pretty much, based on the impression that I got, that he just popped up out of nowhere to be cast as the star of This Gun for Hire.  He had actually been a veteran as an extra on some 40 features and shorts since 1932.  But the noir classic WAS his first starring role, and he never had to look back.

A bit of history about Ladd; he was born in Arkansas.  After his father died, his mother remarried, and eventually the three ended up in California, where Ladd was "discovered" while performing in a high school production of The Mikado.  He was signed to a Hollywood contract, but was eventually let go.  Not because his acting was sub-par, however; he was dismissed because he was "too short".  He was only 5½' or so (height measurements vary) and leading men just weren't shorter than their leading ladies in those days.

After various "working stiff" jobs, Ladd found work in radio, where his voice was the only factor, and his height didn't matter.  His voice impressed an agent named Sue Carol who signed him and began promoting him, both for radio and film.  He got several walk on roles over the next few years, but his height was still a hindrance.  Then Paramount called.  They were looking for the right person to play the role of a hitman in a production of Graham Greene's novel, A Gun for Sale, which eventually was titled This Gun for Hire.  And not only was Ladd an excellent choice for the role, the added bonus was that Veronica Lake, the woman who would be the the leading lady, was shorter than Ladd.

He never had to look back.  His acting brought him the roles that exhibited his great acting, and on more than one occasion, studios even took to filming him on ramps and with special filming styles that de-emphasized his height.  After a very brief career in the Army (he was initially classified as 4-F, but did serve for most of 1943 before he was discharged due to medical reasons), Ladd returned to Hollywood where he worked for another 20 years, until his death by accidental overdose in 1964.

As stated before, the initial role that kicked off his career was as the hitman "Raven" in This Gun for Hire.  It was followed by The Glass Key, both of which featured Veronica Lake as his leading lady.

(An interesting side note: Among the actors who were considered for the role of "Raven" in This Gun for Hire was DeForest Kelley.  Yes, the same actor who became more famous for playing Dr. Leonard McCoy on Star Trek.  As he had played mostly villains in the films he made prior to Star Trek, doing the job fairly well, I might add, it's not inconceivable that he could have pulled off the role.  Check out Warlock for a great example.  Kelley's career was put on hold just after losing out to Ladd because he was drafted into service for WWII, and would not be a film star until after the war was over.)

This Gun for Hire (1942)

This film starts out in San Francisco, with a bang.  Raven (Alan Ladd) shows us what we are in for when he slaps around the house maid, Annie (Pamela Blake), for swatting a stray cat that Raven has been feeding.  See, we are supposed to find the character at least a wee bit sympathetic because he likes cats.  (We later learn that he likes cats because he thinks they bring him good luck.)

Raven goes to do the job for which he was hired, that of killing a blackmailer by the name of Albert Baker ( Frank Ferguson).  (A side note:  If you have ever seen the Steve Martin classic film noir parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, you've seen the scenes where Alan Ladd appears and shoots his man, with Martin subbing for Ferguson in the scene).

Raven then goes to meet the man who hired him, Willard Gates (Laird Creagar).  Gates is a wimp, and somewhat of a weasel,  with an affinity for peppermints.  He pays off Raven, but unbeknownst to Raven, Gates has another agenda on his mind, that of getting rid of Raven as a confidante in his scheme, and he pays off Raven in bills that have been reported as part of a stolen payroll.

Raven is tripped up in this regard when he uses one of the stolen bills to buy a dress to replace the one he ripped when he slapped around Annie.  Enter Michael Crane (Robert Preston), a police detective on the trail of the stolen money.  He shows up at the boarding house looking for Raven, but Raven escapes through a bit of subterfuge.  Preston is the most annoying beau to ever come down the pike, if you ask me.  He's a little too exuberant, which was OK when he played such roles as "Toddy" Todd in Victor/Victoria, but grated on my nerves in a film noir characterization.

Raven, having discovered he has been duped by Gates, goes on the trail looking for him, and boards a train.  On the same train is Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a nightclub singer who has recently been hired to sing in Gates' nightclub in LA.  By coincidence, she has also been induced to spy on Gates for the government, because Gates is suspected of dealing with enemy agents, it being wartime that this movie takes place.  They don't actually come down and name the enemy, but hints are it is the Japanese, which makes it even more treasonous in the eyes of the viewer at the time of this movie, since it had only been ½ a year or so since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Also, by coincidence, Ellen and Michael, the policeman, are romantically involved.  (Any more coincidences, and I may not be able to restrain myself...)  She is sworn to secrecy by her government contact, and is not to tell anyone, including Michael about her secret mission.  On the train, by coincidence (uh oh..), she and Raven are seated next to each other.  Also, by coincidence, Gates just happens to pass through the car where they are and sees them together.  (OK, just how much of this coincidence crap am I supposed to take?)

Gates telegraphs the police to meet the train, but Raven, with Ellen as his hostage, manages to escape the dragnet.  A scene where Raven and Ellen are in a deserted building and Raven is about kill Ellen really shocks the senses, since up to that point we have been gradually, if somewhat reluctantly, dragged into a feeling of sympathy for the killer.  Fortunately for us, and the rest of the movie, Raven is interrupted by some workmen who are preparing to demolish the building.

Raven continues on his quest, while Ellen goes to her new job at Gates' nightclub.  Gates' suspicions of Ellen increase and he invites her to his home for dinner, ostensibly to get to know her, but really to get to the bottom of what her connection is to Raven.  In that regard, he and his valet incapacitate Ellen and plan to kill her by dropping her in the river with weights on her ankles.  But Raven shows up and rescues her.  (This teeter-tottering of Raven's display as , alternately, a sympathetic soul and an unrepentant killer keeps the viewer on edge.  Just when we start to think that Raven deserves what his fate must be, we are dragged into a feeling of hope that he might escape, because, after all, he's not such a bad guy after all, is he..?)

Raven and Ellen end up hiding out in a factory, but they are surrounded by the police.  Michael, whose feelings for Ellen have been complicated by the fact that she seems to be in cahoots with Raven, leads the charge.  In the factory Ellen and Raven have an intimate moment, of sorts, where Ellen convinces Raven to give up his killing, to which Raven promises, but only after he has finished his goal.  Ellen gets him to help her in getting down to the truth of the traitorous dealings that Gates has been doing, however.  The traitorous

Needless to say, it all works out in the end, although maybe not entirely the way we as the viewers may hope at this point.  This is a really good movie, all the way up until the end.  I can't understand, though, why a movie that involves all this subterfuge and killing ends, with the screen credits rolling, with a perky, happy almost screwball comedy type of music.  It definitely seems like an odd choice.   But that is the only downside to what is a terrific movie.

The Glass Key (1942)

Ladd is cast here as Ed Beaumont, a second-in-command to gangster Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) .  Donlevy is the most unlikely looking gangster in the history of film, if you ask me, but be that as it may.  Madvig is involved in trying to help a reform candidate, Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) to win the position of governor of the state, notwithstanding that Henry wants to shut down illegal operations of gangsters like himself, and his counterpart Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia).

Varna is among those who have a stake in seeing that Henry does not win.  And there is, of course, some animosity between Varna and Madvig, not just for the political reasons but because they are competitors in business.

Madvig has a less than friendly encounter with Henry's daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake).  She slaps him.  Rather than be offended, Madvig proclaims he loves her and intends to marry her.  (Must be a masochist, to boot).  To complicate matters even further, Henry's son, Taylor (Richard Denning), is a gambler who owes big time money to Varna.

And Opal (Bonita Granville), Madvig's sister, is carrying on a relationship with Taylor.  A relationship that Madvig has  attempted to discourage, but Opal is a girl with a mind of her own.  But that is not going to be a problem for too much longer, because Taylor ends up murdered.  And his body is found, first, by Ed.

Which becomes a thorn in Ed's side, because someone is out to make an issue of that fact.  A note starts popping up which states "If Paul Madvig didn't kill Taylor Henry, how did his best friend happen to find the body?"  And everyone, it seems, suspects Madvig of having done it, including Ed.  But Ed is still a loyal confidante and is determined to help Madvig through it, even though Madvig won't own up to the murder, or for that matter profess his innocence.

But eventually, or so it seems, Ed gets fed up and quits his relationship with Madvig.  And goes straight to Varna.  Varna, for his part, is eager to have Madvig's right hand man in his camp, but apparentyly Ed is not so eager.  Varna sicks his dog, Jeff (William Bendix) on Ed.  Calling Jeff a "dog" is not meant to imply that Jeff (or Bendix) is ugly.  It is meant to say that Jeff is as vicious as any pitbull stories you may have ever heard.  In fact it is probably derogatory to pitbulls to call him a "dog"... Jeff beats the crap out of Ed.  And seems to enjoy every minute of it.

Fortunately for Ed, he manages to escape during one of Jeff's breaks from kicking his ass.  Meanwhile Varna has apparently bribed a guy into claiming he witnessed Madvig kill Taylor.  But this witness is gunned down, and Madvig ends up on the hook for his murder.  Ed has to get down to the bottom of what all these loose threads tie up to reveal, which he does, and you'll be relieved to know it wasn't Ed, all along who committed the murder.  (I half expected they would throw that monkey wrench into the fray, which is why I mention it...)

The Glass Key has it's downsides, not the least of which, as I stated, is the casting of Brian Donlevy as the most un-gangster-like gangster to ever be portrayed (on a film I've seen, at least.  I don't include any overt comedies in that judgement, just gangster and film noir movies).  The absolute best part of the movie, for me, is when Bonita Granville smiles with that twinkle in her eye.  Makes me wish I had a time machine...  If I had to pick only one of these two, I'd opt for The Glass Key just to see her.

Well, time to pack the gat away and shuffle on home.  Enjoy the movies.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Cold (Space) Warrior

This is my entry for the Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by

It had to happen sooner or later.  In 1989, the big news was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the complete and utter chaos that followed after the Communist Russian government collapsed.  The Klingons of the Star Trek Universe had, for most of their first twenty years of existence, been a stand-in for the Russians.  Thus when the Communist Russian government fell, the Klingon government had to follow suit.

Several parallels to the current events at the time can be seen.  In 1986 a nuclear accident happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  A similar disaster happens on the Klingon moon Praxis.  The Klingons in particular have to stand down from their aggressive military stance because their planet is dying as a result of their disaster.  Soviet Russia, too, had difficulties which made their own lifestyle as a nation collapse.

As I stated previously in my review of StarTrek II: The Wrath of Khan, my favorite Star Trek villain is Ricardo Montalban's portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh, but a close second is Christopher Plummer's portrayal of the renegade Klingon General Chang.  The fact that both of these movies were directed by Nicholas Meyer has a lot to do with it.  I personally feel that Meyer was able to draw out the story line much better than any of the other directors who attempted it.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

At the beginning, Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), a former helmsman for the USS Enterprise and now the commander of his own vessel, the USS Excelsior, is on manuevers when they are hit by unexpected shock waves.  The shock waves resulted from an explosion on the Klingon moon, Praxis, the site of a key energy production facility for the Klingons.

The Klingons initiate a procedure to bring peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire (because the Klingons can no longer apply the aggressive pressure they had previously exhibited... sounds familiar, doesn't it?)  The Klingons send an ambassador to Earth for negotiations, Gorkon (David Warner).  He is to be escorted by the Enterprise, which Kirk resents because as he says he has never forgiven them for the death of his son.

A note from your blogger:  In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a crew of Klingons led by the villainous Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) had engineered an attack on the Enterprise and its crew.  I won't go into more detail; that's for another post, but it must be pointed out that Kirk is not the ideal liberal paragon of virtue that Roddenberry envisioned in this movie.  And I totally agree with this idea. After all, Kirk exhibits a xeno-racism by blaming all Klingons for the actions of one, or a group if you accept that all of Kruge's crew were complicit in his actions.  Roddenberry himself made himself a PITA about the fact that his liberal idealistic future had been compromised by some of the xeno-racist things some of the characters say in this film.  In fact he had made a petition to the powers that be to stop the release of the movie, but died a few days later, so his petitions were not followed.

Gorkon and a few guests, including Gorkon's military guard, Chang (Christopher Plummer) come aboard the Enterprise for a dinner, after which the crew of the Enterprise express some remarks about the way the Klingons composed themselves at the dinner.  So obviously Kirk is not alone in his feelings towards the Klingons.

That night (there is night in space?), the Klingon ship is fired upon, ostensibly by the Enterprise, and the ship is damaged and many Klingons either hurt or killed.  The Enterprise crew is flabbergasted because they did not fire upon the Klingon ship.  Kirk and McCoy beam aboard to render what help they can, but McCoy, being unacquainted with Klingon biology, is unable to help and Gorkon dies.

Kirk and McCoy are arrested for the crime of murder by Chang and taken to the Klingon homeworld to stand trial.  They are defended eloquently by an unnamed Klingon defense attorney (played by Michael Dorn, and a theory runs through the Star Trek fanbase that he may have been Worf's grandfather, although he is not identified by name in the movie).  But the two are convicted and sent to the Klingon equivalent of Siberia.

Meanwhile, on the enterprise, Spock and crew try to find out what really happened in the attack on the Klingon ship.  To help aid in this they have to ignore or pretend to have communications problems when Starfleet tries to order them back to Starbase.  It takes a while but it is soon revealed that there  is at least a couple of traitors on board the Enterprise.  And they were working in conjunction with Chang, who as it turns out, is the ultimate cold warrior, kind of like General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.  Chang just could not face a future with no enemies (in this case Starfleet), and engineered the assassination of his own Klingon ambassador so as to restart the conflict.

While Plummer does not evince the mania or pure menace of Khan from the earlier Star Trek movie, he still manages to leave a mark on the viewing audience. And I absolutely love every time a Shakespearean, or other literary quote is used in the movie (of which there are several.  See how many you can identify).  One of the best lines in the movie is when one of the Klingons says you can't appreciate Shakespeare "until you've read him in the original Klingon"...:-D

Plummer has the neatest look of any Klingon ecer portrayed on film, too.  That's him in the banner at the head of this entry.  Who wouldn't want to go hang out at the bar with a cat who looks that menacing?  You could keep all the riff-raff away with just his look.

I haven't seen a whole hell of a lot of Plummer movies, mostly as the star or one of the stars of a few war movies.  (The Night of the Generals, Battle of Britain, Aces High, Waterloo).  I always enjoy him when he makes an appearance on screen though.  He is one of those few men that I think I could fall for if I had been born a woman, even in his older age.

Hope you enjoyed the tribute this time, kiddies.  Time to fire up the nacelles and head home.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Bond Age (Part VI)

2017 marks 55 years of James Bond on the movie screen.  To celebrate this momentous year, I am undertaking to review the entire oeuvre of Bond films, all 24 of them (at this juncture in history), two at a time.  These will appear on the 7th day of each month  (Bond's agent number being "007").  At the beginning of each entry I will give my personal ranking of each movie and of each movie's theme song.  (These are subjective rankings and do not necessarily agree with the view of the average Bond fan, so take it as you will).  I hope you enjoy them, nay, even look forward to the next installment.  As an added note, I am deeply indebted to Tom DeMichael, and his book James Bond FAQ,  for tidbits of information I with which I am peppering these entries.                                                                                                                                                                                                  -Quiggy

Note: As stated last month, I skipped over The Man with the Golden Gun so I could pair the two movies featuring the Richard Kiel character "Jaws".  I revert back to the chronological order with this month's entry. (sort of)

***I have to begin this review on a sad note:  On May 23 Sir Roger Moore passed away.  Roger Moore will always be my favorite James Bond.  Both this and next month's posts are dedicated to his memory.***

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the Movie: #2

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the Theme Song:  #6

Best Bond Quote:  (I'm cheating here. The scriptwriters gave M such a classic retort it HAD to take precedence.  After Bond comments "Who would pay a million dollars to have Me killed?")
M:  "Jealous husbands...outraged chefs...humiliated tailors.  The list is endless." 

Best Bond Villain Quote:  (after Bond and two young girls have defeated the best of Hai Fat's students at his karate school)
Scaramanga:  "What do they teach at that academy?  Ballet dancing?."

Best Weapon:  OK.  I was promised by 2015 I'd have flying cars (see Back to the Future).  If Bond villains are hoarding them, I say we mount an attack.  The flying car in this movie gets my vote.  Even if it did have to have airplane wings attached to accomplish it.

The pre-credit sequence for this installment does not involve Bond himself.  It sets up the character of Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) and his valet/henchman Nick-Nack (Herve Villechaize).  It looks like Nick Nack has hired a Mafia hit man to take out his boss, but instead, it turns out, he is just providing entertainment for him.  (If you can call being in a gun battle with a hit man "entertainment":...)  A wax dummy of Bond does make an appearance after the battle, and Scaramanga shoots it's fingers off...ouch.

The credits sequence features the song, sung by Lulu.  Alice Cooper had also recorded his own song that he intended to submit for consideration, but his entry was one day too late, as Lulu's song had already been accepted.  It was a different song altogether.  If you'd like to see how the credits would have rolled with Cooper's entry, I provide this video..

Someone sends a golden bullet, engraved with "007", to MI6, implying that Scaramanga's next assassination is to be Bond himself.  Bond is called in and taken off assignment  (he's trying to find the Macguffin-like object called the "Solex Agitator"), and told to take some time off.  But Bond realizes that his real "assignment" is to locate Scaramanga and resolve the issue.

With the help of a female agent, a ditzy blonde named Goodnight (Britt Ekland), Bond goes looking for Scaramanga.  His first goal is to locate the person who is Scaramanga's connection to the golden bullets, which leads him to a weapons manufacturer named Lazar (Marne Maitland).  This leads him to Scaramanga's lady, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams), the one who picks up the bullets for him.  (BTW, Maud Adams is one of the few actors and actresses that appeared twice as different characters in a Bond film.  She shows up as the title character in Octopussy).

Through Anders Bond traces Scaramanga to a nightclub where the inventor of the Solex Agitator appears.  The inventor is killed by Scaramanga and in the ensuing confusion, the Solex Agitator is stolen from his body.  Bond proceeds to pose as Scaramanga himself and goes to the residence of the man who may have hired Scaramanga.  Unfortunately for Bond, the man knows he is not really Scaramanga, and Bond has to escape an entire dojo of karate students.  But he does get some help from two unlikely teenage girls.

Ultimately Bond ends up on Scaramanga's island fortress, helped along because our ditzy Goodnight had the misfortune of being kidnapped by Nick Nack and Scaramanga.  Of course, Scaramanga has the Solex which Bond has been looking for all this time, but despite the altruistic potential of the device, you just know our villain has other plans for it's use.  And this is part of what makes this movie my #2 favorite Bond film (that and the presence of Lee as one of the best Bond villains).

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the Movie:  #24

Quiggy's Personal Ranking of the Theme Song: #5

Best Bond Quote:  "I hope he was dining alone." (after a shark swims by)

Best Bond Villain Quote:  OK.  this is cheating, I admit, but look at my ranking of the movie... The best Bond villain quote comes from Loque  who manages to get through the movie without saying one damn word.

Best Weapon:  I can't really give any praise to the weaponry (Bond's only weapon is his gun).  I gotta hand this one to Melina's car, a Citroen, which must have been made by Timex, because it took a licking and kept on ticking.

I preface this by restating that Roger Moore was my favorite Bond.  But this entry was the worst, but not entirely due to anything that Moore did.  It's just a pretty shoddy script.  It appears to have several short stories cobbled together to make one movie.  Which is not entirely unprecedented.  The book that Ian Fleming wrote bearing the title For Your Eyes Only was a collection of short stories.

The movie opens with Bond visiting the grave of his wife (he had married in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and she had died at the end of that film).  A helicopter arrives to take Bond back to headquarters, but it is commandeered remotely by a villain who, although not named, is given a lot of clues that it might be Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE.  "Blofeld" tries vainly to kill Bond, Bond wins the day and drops "Blofeld" down a smokestack.

The opening credits feature Sheena Easton singing the title song.  It also features, for the first time, the actual face of the singer singing the song.  I credit this to the fact that the movie was made around the same time as the premiere of MTV, and it was probably supposed to be functional as a video for the station.  (yes, kiddies, at one time MTV actually DID play music videos...surprised?)

The death of Bernard Lee early in 1981 prevented him for reprising his role as M.  The production on the movie had already started at this point, but Lee's scenes had not yet been filmed.  Instead of replacing him (which they would do in the following Bond movie), they chose to just say, within the movie, that he was "on leave".  Instead, filling the responsibilities in M's absence are the Minister of Defense and the MI6 Chief of Staff.

Bond has been called in on assignment because a British spy ship has sunk.  (It was an accident, not through any subversive sabotage.  It seems it caught an old sea mine in its netting and the mine did what mines were supposed to do.)  But on board was a special computer called Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC), which becomes the MacGuffin of the movie.  The British want to retrieve it and the Russians want it for themselves.

The British have employed the services of a marine archaeologist to find the machine, but he and his wife are gunned down, in view of the doctor's daughter, Melina (Charlotte Bouquet).  Bond is sent to the area to find out who killed the doctor and his wife, but his efforts are frustrated when Melina shows up and kills the man Bond was supposed to be investigating.  Needless to say, Bond's superiors are extremely displeased.

Using help from Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and an identifying computer, Bond determines that a suspicious character he observed at the gunman's place is a man named Locque (Michael Gothard).  This leads him on the trail to Italy.  There he meets his contact, Ferrara (John Moreno), who in turn introduces him to Ari Kristatos, a Greek business man.  Kristatos tells Bond that Locque  is in the employ of Milos Colombo (Topol).

Bond also meets Kristatos' ice skating protege, Bibi Dahl {...really...?} played by real ice-skating champion Lynn-Holly Johnson.  Bibi becomes immediately smitten by Bond, and does something for which Bond is extremely unprepared.  She tries to get HIM to go to bed with HER.  Bibi shows up occasionally over the course of the film, but disappointing to prurient interests, she fails to get Bond in the sack.

In the course of his investigations, Bond comes to realize  couple of things.  First, Kristatos is not the ally he seems to be, and second Colombo is not the enemy he seems to be.  Both are involved in illicit trade and both were former partners.  Each would like to get the other out of the way.  It turns out that Kristatos is a true businessman as he intends to get the ATAC (remember the ATAC from the beginning of this movie?) and sell it to the Russians in the person of our old friend General Gogol (Walter Gotell).  Bond's new found ally in Colombo and his men try a valiant siege on Kristatos fortress to see to it that the trade goes wrong.

Part of the reason that this movie gets ranked as the worst on my list is that by 1981, we had come to expect a Bond with a rather quick wit, and there seems to be little of it here.  Of course, some of my fellow Bond enthusiasts rank the Roger Moore Bond's as the least of their favorites precisely because that dry wit annoys them.  But its exactly the same reason why I rank them high.

The martinis are waiting, so it's time to head home.  Drive safely, folks.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day in Memorium

Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion which signaled the beginning of the end of WWII.

I was a history major when I attended college.  I found my most abiding interest in military history, especially in the major conflicts in what became known as World War II.  WWII was a direct result of the devastation, both economic and political, that resulted from the impositions made on the defeated countries of Germany and it's allies after what was then called "The Great War".  Without these harsh restrictions it is questionable whether the rise of Adolph Hitler would have been necessary, much less likely.

Be that as it may, Hitler did come to power, and the result was a conflict that involved almost every nation on the face of the Earth embroiled in a conflict that extended from September of 1939 until the surrender of Japan as the final combatant in August of 1945.  The war was fought on three fronts, the Japanese being the Eastern Axis power and Germany, along with Italy, fighting on the Western front.

The beginning of the end for Germany began with the invasion of the Normandy coast in France, then a part of Germany's conquests, on June 6, 1944.  Today marks the 73rd anniversary of that event.  Cornelius Ryan wrote the phenomenal book that inspired this movie (also titled The Longest Day) and it was immediately scarfed up by Darryl F. Zanuck who had dreams of making the big book into an even bigger movie.

In an effort to do that, not just one, not just two, but three directors had a hand in the movie.  Ken Annakin directed the British and French scenes, Andrew Marton directed the scenes invoplving the American soldiers, and Bernhard Wicki directed the scenes from the German point of view.  To add verisimilitude to the film, those scenes with either French or German characters were filmed with the characters actually speaking French or German.  (Not to worry, the movie provides subtitles so you can follow along...)

The film was helped along by many of the actual participants in the invasion and, on the side of the Germans, in the defense, as advisers to make sure the historical aspects were true to the actual events. Because of this, the action of the evens and the actions of the actors participating are more or less true to the real story. (In other words, you don't get a dramatic death scene of one of the main characters just because the director or the actor wanted one.  True, some of the headliner actors do die, but not any of the ones who portray real people who didn't actually die in the D-Day landing.)

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and a cast of thousands came together in the early sixties to create one of the most intriguing historical epics to ever come out of Hollywood.  The movie runs almost like a documentary.  Interchanging between the Allied front as the Allies prepare for the invasion of the Axis powers hold in France, and, on the other side, as the Axis powers prepare their defense against an invasion they are sure is imminent.

The movie is filmed almost documentary style.  Standout performances are too numerous to mention, but there are some that are memorable.  In the tradition of previous entries to this blog for ensemble cast movies, I have chosen to address specific characters instead of doing an encapsulation of the movie.  (For greater clarity, you should watch the movie, and even read the book. It's fascinating and imminently readable even for people who find history boring).

John Wayne as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort

Wayne has always been a favorite of mine, despite the fact that many of his characters are pretty much played the same way.  This one is not much different, even though he is cast as a real person.  Vandervoort was one of the instrumental characters in the landing.  The real Vandervoort survived the war and passed away in 1990 (at the age of 73), making him the longest lived American survivor of the main real participants that were portrayed in this filming.  Wayne does a pretty decent job of it.  I wonder how Vandervoort reacted to Wayne playing him.  However, my feeling is that the best performance by an actor playing one of the real participants was...

Robert Mitchum as Brigadier General Norman Cota

Mitchum plays a cigar chewing gung-ho soldierr, willing to do whatever it takes to make the landing successful.  Cota himself also survived long past the invasion, passing away in 1971 (he was 78).  I probably would rank Mitchum as my second favorite actor, behind Wayne.  The expanse and scope of this movie being what it is, Mitchum is on screen for far less time than I would like, but every time he does get the screen time, he dominates it.  There are other actors who play real characters.  One of them who stands out is...

Red Buttons as Private John Steele

The scene where Steele, as a parachutist, gets hung up in a church steeple and watches in horror as the rest of his comrades get slaughtered by the Germans during a parachute drop is a true event.  Buttons actually had a conversation with Steele prior to his playing the role.  On my DVD commentary he talks about how terrifying it was for Steele.  Steele lived through the was and died in 1969 (at age 56).  The city in France where this occured now has a tavern, the Auberge John Steele, named in his honor.  Buttons is one of the standout characters in the film.   But we can't leave out some of the "fictional" characters, especially...

Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell as Flying Officer David Campbell and Private Morris, respectively.

Burton and McDowell were in the middle of filming Cleopatra at the time, but if you know some of the history of that filming, it will come as no surprise that the two showed up on the set of The Longest Day, just itching to be productive, because the other film was bogged down in its own production.  Burton in particular, is memorable because he delivers the penultimate line in the movie:  "It's funny.  He's dead, I'm crippled, you're lost.  I wonder if it's always like that.  I mean war.  I wonder who won..."  This line is spoken to another of my favorite "fictional" characters...

Richard Beymer as Private Schultz

Beymer is well known to many as Tony in West Side Story, or from Twin Peaks (if you were into that).  Beymer excels as a happy-go-lucky character who seems lost in the actual fighting.  In the scene with Burton, Schultz claims he has not even had to fire his gun, but he still seems shell shocked by what he has witnessed.  But we can't forget there were some standout performances by the actors playing Germans, either.  One of my favorites is...

Heinz Reincke as Oberstleutnant Josef Priller

How Reincke did not receive a credit in the casting list at the end of this movie is a mystery to me.  I think Reincke's preformance as Priller is the most memorable.  Priller, by the way, was also a real combatant on the German side. passing away in 1961.  He is honored in Augsburg with a street named after him.  Two future James Bond villains also appear as chacters on the Germn side...

Curt Jurgens  and  Gert Frobe  as General Gunther Blumentritt and Unteroffizier "Kaffekanne"

Frobe's only scenes involve him as a fat officer deliver coffee to soldiers on the beach in Normandy, thus his character's name "Kaffekanne" ("coffee pot").  On the other hand, Jurgens plays the real Blumentritt, one of the officers frustrated by the lack of sufficient forces to combat the invasion which had been expected, but due to poor communications was not adequately addressed in its efforts.

This is only a smattering of the participants in the movie.  In honor of the D-Day invasion, which was the beginning of the end of World War II, I present this piece.  I hope you get a chance to take time out today to honor those who fought, and especially those who sacrificed their lives to ensure the freedom we have today.


Monday, June 5, 2017

His Mother's Son

This is my entry in the Dean Martin Blogathon hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict.

Dean Martin was a singer who successfully made the transition from singer to actor.  For every success in this endeavor (like Mark Walberg), there are probably at least ½ dozen who proved that it wasn't always easy. And some who proved that it was a HUGE mistake to even try... (Neil Diamond comes to mind, here. as does Mariah Carey.)

Martin had previously starred with Wayne in Howard Hawks' classic movie Rio Bravo, and he had a career both before and after in a variety of movies.  He was Matt Helm, a sort of counterpoint to James Bond, in several movies (The Silencers, Murderer's Row, The Wrecking Crew and The Ambushers).   He was also a part of the Rat Pack and appeared with Frank Sinatra and sammy Davis, Jr in the original Ocean's 11.  Not to mention a plethora of movies in which he starred with his comedy team partner, Jerry Lewis.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

Dean Martin plays one of four sons of Katie Elder.  They have come to Clearwater to attend the funeral of their mother.  Tom (Dean Martin), Matt (Earl Holliman) and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.) wait for their big brother, John (John Wayne) at the train station, but John doesn't arrive on the train.  An unknown man, later revealed to be a hired gunman, Curley (George Kennedy), does.

The star of the movie, of course, is John Wayne, but Martin does a great job in the co-star role.  He plays a gambler, and is constantly trying to entice people into bets on the most ridiculous chances (including trying to get his brothers to bet him on where the train will stop in the early part of the movie).

The brothers, minus John, go to Katie's funeral (but John is there, albeit from a distance).

The boys expect to back to Katie's ranch, but unfortunately, sometime in the preceding months, The Elder boys' dad has gambled away the farm and it now belongs to Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), the same man who has hired Curley to come to his aid.  He certainly can't depend on his own son, a wimpy little weasel played by Dennis Hopper.

Why would a legitimate owner hire a gunman to protect his interests?  Could it possibly be because the supposedly law-abiding citizen has not actually acquired the land by the means he claims?  Well, if you know your western tropes, you already know the answer to that question.  Especially since we find out that Daddy was shot in the back, and his murderer has not yet been discovered.

Martin shines here as brother Tom.  And he has a hidden past.  He shot a man in self-defense, but ran away from the town before he could be brought to trial, since as an outsider and a notorious gambler, it would have been his word against the entire town, all of whom were respected friends of his victim.

 Of course, you know this comes back to haunt him when the sheriff of Clearwater, Billy (Paul Fix) and his deputy, Ben (Jeremy Slate), get wind of it.

To complicate matters, while Billy is at the Elder place, he is shot and killed by Hastings, who then proceeds to frame the Elder boys for the killing.  But not content with just framing them, he also arranges for an ambush to occur while they are being transported from Clearwater to Laredo (the reason for the transport being to keep the boys safe from being lynched before a trial can occur).

You can't get past a John Wayne movie without acknowledging Wayne.  Wayne is the most clear-headed of the brothers, acting as the voice of reason despite his brothers' tendency to want to solve their problems expeditiously (read: with violence).  Wayne is determined to keep his brothers in check, even if it means beating the crap out of them to do it.

But as the second oldest, Martin as Tom is the most endearing character. he has an insouciant charm that makes him the most memorable brother.  (Despite my love of Wayne, he is pretty much the same character he has played dozens of times previously before this movie.)  If you want to know how it all comes out, you haven't watched enough westerns.  But the way it turns out is still a classic finale.  Although (Spoiler Alert!) only three brothers survive to the end.  You'll have to watch the movie to see which one meets his end, though.

Well, that about wraps up this time at the drive-in.  Drive home safely, folks.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mr. Monk and his OCD

This is my entry in the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon hosted by Charlene's (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews.

Adrian Monk was the title character on the USA TV series Monk. A little background to the character, garnered over the span of the series:

Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk

Adrian Monk was born in 1959 to a later absent father and a rather over-protective mother.  He had one brother, Ambrose (John Turturro), who later developed agoraphobia, and by the time of the first encounter on the series, remained a recluse in his childhood home.  Monk is viewed by his brother as the braver, more adventurous brother, as a result, because Adrian actually went out into the world, got a job in the police department, and actually got married.

Adrian did get married, and while his OCD tendencies were present during his tenure, he managed to be a productive officer.  All this came crashing down when his wife, Trudy (sometimes seen as a halluciation by Monk in times of stress, played by Stellina Rusich in the early episodes and by Melora Hardin for the remainder of the series), was killed by a car bomb.  Monk became catatonic and was out of it for a long period of time, but his boss, Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine) hired a personal nurse, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram), to help him through this time.

By the start of the series, Sharona has been with him for several years.  She serves in the first two seasons as his driving force to get him to focus on his job, which is as a consultant to the police force.  Sharona treats Monk as a patient but somewhat demanding person would a unruly child.  Later, (after Bitty Schram left the series), this role would be taken over by Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), a former client who becomes Monk's assistant in his crime solving capers.

Much of the series has, as a subplot, Monk's efforts to get to the bottom of who was involved and why his wife was murdered.  (In fact, most of the series' final episode of the season centered on his attempts to do this.) Because of his obsession with the loss of his wife and his inability to come terms with it until the mystery is solved,  he spends time with a psychiatrist at regular intervals.

Dr. Charles Kroger (Stanley Kamel) serves in this capacity for the first six seasons.  After the unfortunate death of Dr. Kroger (due to the fact that Kamel himself had died in real life), this psychiatric relationship was taken over by Dr. Neven Bell (Hector Elizondo).  Also a recurring character is Harold Krenshaw (Tim Bagley), a man with many of the same issues as Monk and thus a constant thorn in Monk's side as each one tries to prove to the other that they are crazier than their respective nemeses. (Now if that ain't sick, I don't know the meaning of the word...)

Monk has a list of phobias a mile long, including germs (he constantly cleans his hands after shaking hands or touching things that are dirty), heights (he's even afraid to get on the first step of a two step ladder), crowds (an extension of his fear of germs),  and milk.  Monk is usually immaculately dressed, but I guess he must have a phobia for ties, since he never wears one.  maybe he just has a fear of strangulation, but then who, outside of a masochist, doesn't?

 It is significant that, not only does his assistant Natalie have to carry around a list of his phobias, but it is hinted at on at least one or two occasions that there is a ranking of the phobias in order of which is the most horrifying.  It is a credit to his OCD that he has to rank them, I think.

Monk's relationship with his psychiatrist is highly dependent, sometimes bordering on obsessive.  In order to really delve into the psychoses of Monk, I have chosen a handful of episodes which center more or less on Monk and how he has to deal with Drs. Kroger and Bell.

Stanley Kamel as Dr. Kroger
Hector Elizondo as Dr. Bell

Most of the first two seasons of Monk only deal peripherally with Monk's relationship to his therapist.  We continually find out more about the character, including his phobias and obsessions (including his need to have everything in order.  At one point in season 2 episode "Mr Monk Goes Back to School" Monk pours decaf and regular coffee together in a teacher's lounge, in an attempt to make them at even levels, despite the fact that they are two different coffees).

Season 3: " Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine"

One of Monk's fears is pills.  At the beginning of this episode, Monk is extremely distraught over the apparent slow success (or lack of success) in getting cured of his psychoses.  Kroger gives him some pills that are supposed to have some success  in curbing depression, but Monk is reluctant to take them.  However, when he is really down, at one point, he succumbs to the desire to be free of his depression and takes them.

Kroger suggests only a half a pill at a time, but if you pay attention, when Monk takes them, he swallows two pills.  There is a serious side effect to this overdose, however.  Sure he loses his depression, but he also becomes extremely un-Monk-like.  He loses most of his phobias, and becomes extremely rebellious.  He also appears to lose the focus he usually has, and becomes mostly useless to the investigation of the crime he has been called in to investigate.

Season 5: "Mr. Monk Gets a New Shrink "

This episode had one of the more direct and expansive involvements with Dr. Kroger.  In it, the doctor's maid service employee, Teresa Mueller (Lisa DEmpsey), gets murdered while cleaning Kroger's office.  The evidence initially seems to suggest that a patient of Kroger's was trying to raid his files and got caught, instigating a need to murder the woman.

Dr. Kroger, aghast that he did not see it coming, decides to retire from his practice.  Monk, devasted because of his dependency on Kroger as his psychiatrist, tries many different tactics to try to get his weekly sessions, including showing up at Kroger's house.  Kroger arranges for Monk to have a new therapist, highly recommended, but Monk has a serious issue because the new doctor (Kevin Fry) has only one arm.  (And as a side note, Tony Shalhoub insisted that the character be played by a one-armed actor, so it's not just camera trickery.  The actor only has one arm.)

Eventually, to the relief of Monk own psyche as well as his relationship with Kroger, it is determined that it was NOT one of Kroger's patients who committed the crime.  In the process of solving the case, however, we get to see a little more insight into how Monk's OCD has a hold on him.  In one scene, he and Kroger are kidnapped, tied to chairs and put in the back of a van.  Monk insists that they move themselves into a position resembling a session and Monk begins in as if it really were a session.

As stated earlier in this post, Stanley Kamel, the actor portraying Dr. Kroger, died between the end of season 6 and the beginning of season 7.  In the series, it was established that Dr. Kroger had died, too. As a result, Monk had to find a new therapist.  Enter Dr. Nevin Bell.  It is a rocky start, of course, but Monk manages to establish a good rapport with Bell by the middle of season 7.

Season 7: "Mr. Monk Gets Hypnotized"

Seeing some success in Harold Krenshaw, due to Krenshaw's having gone to a hypnotist, Monk tries the hypnotist for himself.  As in the episode "Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine", Monk has a disastrous side effect from the hypnotism and becomes extremely child like.  (He finds and becomes friends with a pet frog he calls "Hoppy").  Dr. Bell tries to warn him beforehand of the unreliability of hypnotism, but Monk is, as usual, desperate to be "normal", so he ignores his therapists advice.

Season 8: "Mr. Monk Goes to Group Therapy "

Late towards the end of the final season of "Monk", our hero receives some devastating news from his HMO; he has reached the end of what his insurance covers in private sessions.  Of course, Monk thinks this is the end at last, but it is established he can still go to his psychiatrist, but only to group therapy sessions.

The problem with that is that Monk does not deal well with others, and the most frustrating part of it is his nemesis Harold Krenshaw is also a member of the group.  The two are at constant odds with each other, as usual.  And when other members of the group are being killed, both try to accuse each other of killing them so they can have Dr. Bell for themselves.

The good news is that the series ends with Monk finally finding out the truth behind Trudy's murder and capturing the culprit.  In the process, by that success, Monk becomes more like a normal, functioning human being.  You should check out this series.  "Monk" was awarded several Emmys, including a couple to Shalhoub as Best Actor.  It is a very entertaining series.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

Black Magic in Chinatown

This is my entry in the Favorite Director Blogathon hosted by yours truly and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies

My first introduction to John Carpenter was with Escape from New York.  I instantly became a Carpenter fan.  Over the ensuing years, I made a point to go see each new movie that Carpenter put out.  It is curious then that this one escaped my notice when it was in the theater.  I didn't actually get to see it until it was out on video.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why it ranks as my favorite Carpenter movie.  (Not the ONLY reason, to be sure.  The plot and the presence of Kurt Russell has a lot to do with it too...)

The script started out in life as a Western, if you can believe it.  The script was given an extensive re-write by W. D. Richter, a great scriptwriter in his own right who, among other scripts, worked on the scripts for the 1970's remakes of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula.  He also directed (but not wrote) one of my other favorite movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.

The movie was made at the same time as the Eddie Murphy flick The Golden Child.  In fact, there was a concerted effort to get this movie in the theater before the Eddie Murphy movie because it was thought that it would flounder in competition with a movie that had the superstar.  As it turned out, it didn't matter anyway.  The movie bombed at the box office.  But it has something going for it in it's after life.  It is more fondly admired than the turkey Eddie Murphy put out.  It has a HUGE cult fan base (of which I am one).

Carpenter with Hong in his Lo Pan makeup

Carpenter's output has been largely in the horror genre.  His output includes the original introduction to slasher extraordinaire Michael Myers, Halloween, The Fog, the remake of The Thing, the film adaptation of Stephen King's Christine, as well as the previously reviewed They Live.   He has also delved in the sci-fi world, as evidenced by Starman and two features, previously reviewed, with the anti-hero Snake Plissken, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

Early Carpenter work includes a TV movie about Elvis (featuring today's movie's star, Kurt Russell), and an excellent nail-biting remake of sorts of the classic John Wayne flick, Rio Bravo, set in modern day, Assault on Precinct 13.  Not all of Carpenter's works have been gems, however.  (Take my advice and avoid Memoirs of an Invisible Man at all costs...)  But Carpenter has made more hits that are genuinely revered by people, like me, who like his kind of movies, and you can guarantee this won't be the last time I review one of his movies.  Just waiting for the right moment (or the right blogathon...) 

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Jack Burton (Russell) is an independent truck driver owner/operator of "The Pork Chop Express".  At the beginning of the movie he is driving a load of cargo into San Francisco, specifically Chinatown.  After dropping his load, he spends an evening indulging in some of the delights of Chinatown, including food and gambling with dock workers.  At the end of the evening (actually early morning, by this time) he makes a bet with his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) which he wins.

But Wang hasn't got the money, so Burton accompanies him to get it.  But before this can happen Wang has to go to the airport to pick up his fiancee, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), freshly coming in from China.  While there, members of a Chinese street gang, The Lords of Death, try to kidnap another Chinese girl, Tara (Min Luong), a friend of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall).

Burton foils the kidnapping, but in the process, Miao Yin is kidnapped instead.  Burton and Wang give chase and end up back on the streets of Chinatown.  There they encounter a funeral procession for a member of the Wing Kong (the good tong).  Members of Chang Sing (the bad tong) interrupt the funeral procession and a mini-war breaks out.

But this battle is interrupted by the three "Storms", three brothers with phenomenal powers; Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (Peter Kwong) and Rain (James Pax).

 These three make short work of the two gangs, but the  two heroes don't stick around.  They drive off, but run over, seemingly, a wizard, David Lo Pan.

Lo Pan is the villain of the piece, so you just know he is not killed.  Jack and Wang go to Wang's father's restaurant where the plot becomes even more complicated.  First it turns out that everybody but Jack knows Gracie.  Then we find out that the reason that Miao was kidnapped is she has green eyes (apparently a rarity among Chinese people).  She is being held in a brothel in Chinatown.

The heroes enlist the help of Egg Chen (Victor Wong) to rescue Miao, but the plan falls through because the three storms show up and kidnap her from the brothel.  Now we find out that Lo Pan is older than Methuselah.  He is cursed by an ancient emperor and the only way he can remove the curse is to marry a Chinese girl with green eyes.  But the only problem with that is that he must sacrifice her after he marries her.  Which makes it a little easier, so he thinks, when he captures Gracie, who also has green eyes.  He plans to marry them both, sacrificing Gracie to the Emperor and living out his life in joy with Miao.

The film is replete with Chinese black magic.  To counteract it, Egg Chen comes along with his own brand of white magic.  You can see it for yourself even in the beginning of the movie. A beginning, BTW, that was demanded by Barry Diller and the executives at 20th Century Fox because they didn't understand the movie and were afraid that Jack Burton's character did not come off heroic enough.  That's Barry Diller conducting the interview with Egg in that scene.  It was a last minute addition after all the rest of the movie had been wrapped up.  The original movie was intended to start with Burton driving into Chinatown (the part where the opening credits roll).

The white magic that Egg uses includes potions to help the heroes be brave in the face of the monsters and traps that lo Pan has set up, and also to do battle with his guards.  Not that Burton really needs it.  He's a gung ho, devil-may-care type with an over inflated sense of his own bravado, but it gives us some great moments in the movie.  And the movie is funny as all get out, if you can appreciate the humor.  One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Jack and Wang come up along a door with Chinese writing on it.

Jack: "What does that say?
Wang: "Hell of Burning Oil".
Jack: "You're kidding?"
Wang: "Yeah.  I am.  It just says Keep Out."

All of this leads up to the final confrontation between our good guys and Lo Pan and the Three Storms. And of course the saving of the damsels in distress.  Big Trouble in Little China is a great place to start with Carpenter, especially if you are a little squeamish about blood and gore and don't want to experience Halloween or The Thing.

Keep in mind there are a whole raft of other great directors in this blogathon.  Be sure to check them out.