Wednesday, May 6, 2015

TCM Star of the Month May 2015: Sterling Hayden


Sterling Hayden (r.) and Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle (1950; 9:45 PM)

We're getting close to finishing the first week of a new month, and so we finally get to the new Star of the Month: Sterling Hayden. (In an interesting coincidence, it's the third straight month in which the Star of the Month is showing up on Wednesday nights.) Hayden is an interesting choice, as he wasn't quite your typical star, at least, not in the way the studio system produced stars in the era just before Hayden got to Hollywood. He certainly didn't become as big as some of the other people who came around in the early 1950s, like Ernest Borgnine or Jack Lemmon. Still, Hayden's films are worth a watch and I'm glad that TCM has selected him.

Probably Hayden's most famous movie is The Asphalt Jungle, and that one is airing at 9:45 PM this evening. In fact, most of the movies this evening have a substantial crime element to them:

The night starts at 8:00 PM with The Killing, in which Hayden masterminds a daring robbery of a racetrack's takings, only for the robbery to go wrong because of the foibles of some of the conspirators. In this case, that means Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor who play an unhappily married couple; both of them are quite good.

Third up is Crime Wave at 11:45, with Hayden as a more or less good guy, a cop trying to investigate a gang of criminals. The only thing is, he has to deal with an ex-convict (Gene Nelson) who would really prefer to stay straight.

Suddenly comes on at 1:15 AM. This one also has Hayden as the good guy, a sheriff who gets held hostage by a man (Frank Sinatra) who wants to take out the President in a sniper attack. It's suspenseful, but whenever TCM have shown this one, they've had a lousy print since I think this is one of those movies that wound up in the public domain.

Concluding the night, at 4:15 AM, is Five Steps to Danger, which has Hayden getting mixed up with Ruth Roman, East bloc spies, and a scientist at a US army base. It's entertaining enough, but one of those decidedly low-budget movies.

The only one of the night's films I haven't seen before (at least, I think I haven't seen it) is Crime of Passion at 2:45 AM. Hayden stars along with Barbara Stanwyck and Raymond Burr. Sounds interesting.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Bob's" Picks

Most months -- 31 Days of Oscar and Summer Under the Stars are excluded -- TCM host Robert Osborne has a night of movies that he's selected as if he were a Guest Programmer. According to the TCM schedule, tonight is that night.

What's going to be more ineteresting is to see whether Osborne actually shows up to present the picks. He missed the TCM Film Festival at the end of March, putting out a statement that he was having a medical procedure that his doctor said he really shouldn't put off, and as far as I can tell, he hasn't shown up since. The Guest Programmer segments are recorded some time in advance; how far I don't know. And of course all the Essentials segments are done well in advance too. I'd assume they could knock off the 28 (according to something Sally Field says in one of the promos) intros in two taping days.

As I understand it, Robert Osborne basically does a month of prime time intros at a time. Back when he was doing every night, this would have taken five or six taping days; one should be able to get three nights' worth of intros in in one taping session and do two taping sessions each day. The reason for the two taping sessions with a meal break in between is down to union rules: go over some amount of time (I think six hours) consecutive, and you have to start paying overtime. For the same reason and partly to bring in a fresh audience, those game shows that tape a week's worth of shows in one taping day will take a break after the third show. As for TCM, what ll this means is that Robert Osborne would have done all his intros for April at one time, so if he was going to miss anything it's unsurprising that he would miss an entire month.

May 1 was a Friday, which is the Friday night spotlight, something which was instituted in part to cut down by at least one day the number of taping days Robert Osborne has to do. Saturday was the Essential, and Sunday being a weekend, I'm not overly surprised thta he didn't show up to do those. I figured that if Osborne were back, he'd definitely be back by last night. And yet there was Ben Mankiewicz doingthe intros. It also makes me wonder just how serious Robert's health concerns are.

At any rate, "Bob's Picks" for this month are:

Miss Sadie Thompson at 8:00 PM, starring Rita Hayworth as the title role in a remake of the early 1930s film Rain with Joan Crawford.
At 9:45 PM, you can catch Torrid Zone, with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien battling for the love of Ann Sheridan;
Agatha comes on at 11:30 PM. It's a speculative story about a true incident in the life of Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) when, in 1926, she up and left her husband (who was cheating on her) and went missing for a week and a half; and
a movie version of Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None, at 1:15 AM.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

TCM is running a night of death row-themed movies tonight, including Beyond a Reasonbale Doubt at 12:15 AM.

Dana Andrews stars as Tom Garrett, a writer who's moving up in the world. He's gotten himself engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), who is the daughter of the influential newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer). Mr. Spencer campaigns tirelessly against the death penalty, and has a particular interest in doing so right now since the local prosecutor recently obtained a murder conviction on circumstantial evidence.

To that end, Spencer has an audacious idea. There's been another murder that the cops have been completely unable to solve, so he wants Tom to help him solve the murder for everybody's benefit. Well, they're not really going to solve the murder; they're going to plant evidence that will lead to a murderer, with that murderer being Tom himself. Once they do that, they'll have Tom be arrested, put on trial, and convicted, and hopefully even sent to the gas chamber. Only once all that happens will Spencer produce their documentary proof that the evidence pointing to Tom's involvment in the murder has all been fabricated.

Now, as I wtore the paragraph above, I found myself thinking of one of the TCM "Word of Mouth" pieces that runs every time they're going to be showing the 1960s version of King of Kings. Screenwriter Philip Yordan says he was called by the producer to be a script doctor, and when he flew over to Spain where the movie was being filmed, he saw what passed for a script and said, "This is insane!" Indeed, Spencer's plan for his future son-in-law is nonsensical, and who in his right mind would want to engage in a plan like that? At least Susan is in her right mind. Either that, or she'd spill the beans, so Dad and Tom decide to keep the knowledge of what they're doing from her.

So far, so good. And then the time comes for Spencer to produce the evidence which will exonerate Tom. He gets it from his safe, and then... gets into a car accident, which kills him and in the resulting fire destroys all the evidence! You'd think that if the two men had planned their actions as carefully as they did, they would have made certain to have a second copy of the evidence available somewhere. How will Tom be saved? Do we really want him to be saved, for after all, faking all this evidence is rather criminal in and of itself?

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is one of those movies that has a really interesting premise, but in which the ultimate payoff isn't quite as good as you'd hope for. If the cops were good enough to solve murders, you'd think they'd be good enough to realize that all this evidence was faked. The plot is full of unbelievable twists, right up until the very end. And it often feels as though everybody is going through the motions. It's the sort of thing where, it it had been a B movie with a bunch of unknowns, we'd probably praise it for being a little-known gem. But it's got fairly big stars and a big director in Fritz Lang, who already did similar stuff before with Fury. The result is a movie that does remain interesting, but winds up slightly disappointing.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Day Mars Invaded Earth

FXM Retro has had the film The Day Mars Invaded Earth in their rotation for some time now. For some reason I thought I had done a full-length post on the film, but apparently not. At any rate, it's coming up again several times in the next week, starting at 12:30 PM tomorrow (May 4), and is well worth a watch.

Kent Taylor plays Dr. David Fielding, a scientist working with NASA, or the NASA-equivalent, on their latest big mission: a probe to Mars. And as the movie opens up, it's the day when the probe is supposed to land on the red planet and start sending information back to Earth. But something odd happens, as we see some sort of explosion which suggests the mision has in fact failed. Back on earth, Dr. Fielding is talking on the phone and to one of his colleagues in his office when suddenly, the image the movie viewer gets becomes hazy. It's a sign that something is going on, and that nobody is noticing whatever that something is.

Dr. David, for his part, attributes it to stres, as he just feels as though he's zoned out for a bit. He's got a lot on his mind. Not only this technically demanding space mission, but also his family back home. The Fieldings had been living in California, and of course NASA is based in Florida. That's put some strain on the marriage betwewen the good doctor and his wife Claire (Marie Windsor). She's been living with the two kids making a little extra money by being the caretakers at a lovely estate in the Los Angeles area. It's when Dr. David gets back to that estate that the creepy fun really begins.

Being an estate, there are a lot of grounds, outbuildings, and places where it would be easy for people who aren't very familiar with the estate to get lost. So David has a scene where he sees his wife and calls out to her, only for her not to respond. And then he gets back to the caretakers' house and finds Claire there, having arrived much too quickly. It's as though David has seen a ghost. Claire has a similar experience with David, but perhaps the most disconcerting is one that daughter Judi has. She actually sees her doppelgänger, right in the bedroom with her! Oh, and it doesn't help that her boyfriend has just been killed in a suspicious car accident too. Apparently he knows too much about what's going on at the estate, and he has to be eliminated for it.

But what, exactly, is going on? I don't want to give that away, although unfortunately the one-sentence synopsis in the box guide does give it away, which I think is to the detriment of a first-time viewer. That having been said, the title of the movie does give a hint. The Day Mars Invaded Earth is one of those movies that fits well into the tradition of a Cat People, although it came 20 years later. It looks like it's done on a terribly low budget, except that this is something that works to the film's benefit, as not being able to spring for any sort of effects makes the viewers try to fill in the blanks themselves. That results in something super-creepy, as the slow action builds a sense of beign disconcerted. And the ending is one I found as good as anything you'd see in a film of this genre.

The Day Mars Invaded Earth will never be mistaken for any of the prestige movies of the 1960s. But it's quite effective and entertaining in its own right. I'm not certain if it's available on DVD, but if you've got FXM, you've got several opportunities to catch it this week.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Tonight on TCM Underground

I'm not quite certain what TCM really means by "Underground", although it seems a bit of a catchall for movies that have a bit of a cult status but which aren't very well-known. They've come in all sorts of genres, from horror to blaxploitation, to... musicals?

Well, one of tonight's movies is a musical. TCM is running ABBA: The Movie at 3:45 AM. I blogged about it back in July 2008, and I think this is the first airing since New Year's Eve 2004/5. The movie looks at the Swedish supergroup's tour of Australia in early 1977, and is a lot of fun, especially if you like ABBA's music. To think that the first of the members will be turning 70 at the end of the year.

The night's other movie is Roller Boogie, which I haven't seen before, so can't really comment about. Ah, the days of the roller disco, something for which I was too young, as I would have been a wee lad when this came out. Stars Linda Blair, several years after The Exorcist, and naturally deals with the roller skating craze of the late 1970s. Now if only TCM could get the rights to run Xanadu.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Thunderbirds are GO

Tomorrow mornign at 8:00 AM, TCM is running the interesting and unique movie Thunderbirds are GO. What makes it unique is what makes it worth a watch: it's one of the few feature movies told with puppets.

British husband and wife Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in the early 1960s came up with a process that they coined "Supermarionation"; "marion" as in "marionette" and of course having nothing to do with the "Super Mario" video game character. The Andersons used this process to create a family of plastic-looking human puppets that weren't hand-operated, or at least not in the way a normal hand/sock puppet would; nor is the stringing as obvious as it is with marionettes. Once they had these puppets, they started producing a ceries for British television called Thunderbirds which eventually gave rise to this movie.

The TV series Thunderbirds centered around the Tracy family, a father and his five sons. Together the family worked as a sort of superhero or Mission: Impossible team, operating International Rescue from their own private island to solve problems that the government can't solve by themselves. The Tracys have access to some fancy high-tech gadgetry to help them on their missions. As for this particular movie, the action involves a manned mission to Mars that goes wrong. Upon investigating what heppened, it's determined that somebody sabotaged the mission! It's up to the Tracys to figure out who's committing the sabotage, and prevent it from happening on the next mission. They'll be helped along the way by lovely agent Lady Penelope.

International Rescue do save the day, as the second mission does get to Mars even though it faces unexpected non-sabotage problems when it gets there, all of which require the use of the various International Rescue vehicles. There's also a running comic relief subplot about the youngest of the sons feeling as though he's not getting enough opportunity to help his older brothers, even though he's got important work to do down on Earth.

In some ways, there's not as much going on as it seems on the surface, and that's one of the problems with the movies. The TV episodes were 50 minutes each, while the movie is almost twice as long. You'd think that would give the Andersons more opportunity to open things up; that, and the use of color and a wider screen. Instead, there are stretches where it seems the action movies at a glacial pace. There's a dream sequence to cover this up, and the presence of popular British singer Cliff Richard performing a musical number, all of which seems incongruous.

That's not to say the movie is bad, however. It winds up being more than entertaining enough, but a little rough around the edges. It's something that should entertain children fairly easily, but also something that grown-ups can enjoy on a number of levels. In addition to the relatively thin story, the adults can look to see how the Andersons tried to get around the various technical difficulties involved in supermarionation, chief among them being that the figures couldn't walk very well. The movie is also surprisingly lovely to look at, just from the aspect of the visuals.

Thunderbirds Are GO and a follow-up, Thunderbird 6 (airing next Saturday morning on TCM) did get a DVD release at some point, but seem to be out of print as they're not available from the TCM Shop while Amazon lists a limited number of copies at a high price.

Fridy Night Spotlight: Orson Welles

Now that we're in a new month, we get a new Friday night spotlight on TCM. Film critic David Edelstein will be presenting the work of Orson Welles, both as a director and as an actor, as there's going to be one night of movies that have him in the cast but which he did not direct. After all, you can't really put the spotlight on Orson Welles without showing The Third Man.

Anyhow, tonight's first night of the spotlight looks at the early part of Welles' career, starting at 8:00 PM with Citizen Kane. The one that sounds interesting is Too Much Johnson at 1:45 AM, which was conceived as incidental pieces to accompany a stage play which was never produced, and which was considered lost for decades. I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on it. Orson Welles is one of those filmmakers I prefer in smaller doses, however.

I also don't watch CBS Sunday Morning or listen to NPR's Fresh Air much, so I don't know much about Edelstein as a critic or how well he's going to do on TV. But if he's been working on a show like CBS Sunday Morning, that shouldn't be a problem.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Goodbye Again" Again

A week ago, I blogged about the movie Honeymoon for Three and how it was a remake of the 1933 film Goodbye Again. What I didn't notice when I was mentioning Honeymoon for Three was that Goodbye Again was going to be coming on on the TCM schedule in May. Specifically, it's on tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM. I stand by what I wrote in that post, which is that the Warren William and Genevieve Tobin character are so irritating that it makes th emovie difficult to like at times. It's a bit of a shame, since the basic idea of the movie is a good one, and Joan Blondell is always worth watching.

Goodbye Again is running as part of a morning and afternoon of 1930s comedies involving secretaries getting mixed up in relationships with their bosses. Some of the movie titles look familiar, as though I know I've seen them before, but can't quite place them. The reason for that might be down in part to the same reason why TCM is able to program an entire half-day's worth of such movies. That is, there are a whole lot of them, and the plots begin to blend together after a while

I should apologize for not having mentioned Goodbye Again's airing tomorrow back when I blogged about Honeymoon for Three last week. But as I've mentioned before, I tend not to download the schedule for a month until a couple of days before the start of the month. Usually, that's in time so that I can have a full week's schedule from Sunday to Sunday available on my hard drive. So I wouldn't have gotten around to downloading May's schedule until about the 24th, or a couple of days after Honeymoon for Three ran.

Billy the Kid vs. Wyatt Earp

No, I don't think a movie with that title was made, although there is a cheapie 60s horror movie called Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, from the same people who gave us Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. Both of them have shown up in the TCM Underground slots at one time or another, although I don't think they're scheduled to show up any time soon. I mention the two old west figures, however, because tonight's lineup on TCM is a bunch of movies about Billy the Kid. Of the movies, the one that sticks out as seeming a bit more interesting in the sense that I haven't seen it but wouldn't mind it showing up at a more convenient time, is the 1930 Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack Brown, at 3:30 AM.

Seeing a night of Billy the Kid movies led me to look up the movies that have Billy the Kid as a character, and then ask myself whether he showed up more often in movies than that other Western figure, Wyatt Earp. The answer is Billy the Kid, by a good ways, I think. The IMDb character pages list TV shows as well as movies, with TV episode appearances featuring prominently in the places you can see both characters. Billy the Kid was also the title character in a series of early 1940s movies put out by Poverty Row studio Pruducers Releasing Corporation, played first by Bob Steele, and then by Buster Crabbe.

Why does Billy the Kid show up rather more often? I'm not certain, but I'd guess it's in part due to the fact that Billy the Kid was an outlaw, which makes for much more interesting story lines than being the good guy. Look at how often Jesse James shows up in the movies, for example. But I also wonder if it has something to do with the fact that Billy the Kid died young. He was killed in 1881, so by the time Hollywood would have started making movies in earnest in the 1910s, he would have been dead 30 years and there was no wory about libelling people. Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, died peacefully at the age of 80 in 1929 in Los Angeles. He had actually worked in Hollywood consulting on several films, and his pallbearers included William S. Hart and Tom Mix. With a reputation like that and a wife in need of money (Earp's wife Josephine lived into the 1940s and was known to gamble), I can imagine why Hollywood wouldn't want to portray Wyatt Earp as a character.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Apparently I haven't blogged about "Tycoon" before

TCM's Star of the Month salute to Anthony Quinn has been running his starting roles early in prime time, and then at the end of the night and early the next morning going to movies in which he played supporting or tiny roles. One of those smaller roles is in Tycoon, airing early tomorrow morning at 4:00 AM on TCM.

John Wayne stars as Johnny Monroe. He's a construction engineer, working for Mr. Alexander (Cedric Hardwicke). Alexander is building a railroad in the Andes mountains of exotic South America. Johnny and Alexander have a constant clash of ideas, so when Alexander needs to see somebody about the progress on the construction, he usually talks to Johnny's partner Pop (James Gleason). It doesn't help that Johnny is one of those people who works hard and plays hard. Anyhow, John and Pop have come down from the mountains to the city where Alexander is living in part to unwind for the weekend, and in part to talk to Alexander. Alexander wants to build a tunnel, which in theory is shorter in the long run, but there's the question of expense if you really want to do the tunnel safely.

Meanwhile, John has gotten himself good and drunk and is ogling the ladies. He sees one particularly lovely lady going into church for Mass, and decides that he's going to get this woman because that what John Wayne always does in his movies. The woman turns him down at first probably because he's hung over, so he follows her home and finds out that... this woman is Maura Alexander, the daughter of his boss! It goes without saying that Dad is none too happy with the idea that his daughter is thinking about seeing this engineer. Doesn't she know he's going to love the railroad more than he'll love her? Oh, and there's the social class difference and John's hard living. After a brief romance that sees them get caught in the middle of nowhere one night, the two get married!

What the hell were they thinking? Maura tries to make the best of it, moving in with Johnny up at the camp where they're building the tunnel. By now, it's turned out that Johnny and Pop were right about the idea that you can't build a tunnel if you're going to cheap out on safety. There are multiple cave-ins at the tunnel site, and Johnny's obsession with getting the tunnel finished strains his and Maura's relationship to the breaking point. Well, she was wanred that he'd love the construction work more than he'd love her.

Eventually, it becomes clear that they won't be able to get the tunnel built on time or on budget, so Johnny insists that the better solution would be to build a bridge instead. In theory a bridge is cheaper, but there's the question of whether it can stand up to the rainy season and the increased flow of the river. Still, Johnny is insistent on getting the railroad done so that he can win back Maura....

There's a lot going on in Tycoon, and while the movie is fairly interesting, it generally doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. John Wayne is about as good as he normally is, taking the lessons he learned from making all those westerns and the few military films he had done to this point and applying them to the job of playing a construction engineer. Laraine Day is lovely even if her role isn't all that demanding. James Gleason plays the moral conscience for the main character yet again, and is always worth watching for his supporting roles. As for Star of the Month Anthony Quinn, he plays Alexander's nephew who is also a construction engineer. Rounding out the cast is Judith Anderson as Maura's former governess who is sticking around as a sort of foster mother.

Tycoon is available on DVD, but you might want to watch the movie on TV first before deciding whether to spring for the DVD.