Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Les Blank night

Tonight is one of those nights that makes TCM worth having. As much as some people like to complain about TCM and think they only show the same stuff over and over, I find that even after seven and a half years of blogging that there are still new things to be learned about the movies.

Tonight's lineup on TCM is a night of movies directed by Les Blank. Never heard of him? I have to admit that I hadn't heard of him either before seeing this night's movies on the TCM schedule. Blank was a documentary filmmaker whose films included quite a few looks at traditional musicians of various genres. Much of the first half of the evening will be looking at Cajun music and culture, while the second half of the evening has what looks to be a fairly broad range of documentaries on music from the blues to polka.

Unfortunately, Blank died a few years ago so TCM won't be able to sit down with him for an interview. Blank's son is also a director, but the TCM page on tonight's movies doesn't say anything about anybody sitting down with Robert Osborne to discuss Les Blank.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Sorcerers

A few months ago TCM showed a new-to-me movie called The Sorcerers. It's on again tonight at 6:30 PM on TCM, and is definitely worth a watch.

Boris Karloff stars as Prof. Monserrat, an elderly, down on his luck hypnotist/pyschologist. It's to the point that he has to advertise at corner shops, and can barely pay for those advertisements. But he's been working with his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) on a new invention, one that's sure to revolutionize society! The only problem is, to prove that the machine will work, they need to find a young, healthy person on whom they can experiment without the person being aware as to what's going one and what the experiment will entail. Sounds highly unethical, but I suppose if the elderly couple were ethical, we wouldn't have much of a movie, would we?

Thankfully, the couple lives in London during the swingin' 60s, so there are a lot of young people around who like to experience life. They find Mike (Ian Ogilvy), a guy who likes to go out to the clubs with his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy) butalways seems to find himself winding up bored with the whole thing. So when he leaves the club to take a walk by himself and Monserrat approaches him, Mike decides to take Monserrat up up on the offer of having the wildest experience he's ever had, although Mike is understandably skeptical about the whole thing and is really only doing it on a lark.

And so they set out on the experiment, which involves strapping Mike into some ghastly machine while he watches, well, something that looks like an abstract video of lights, colors, and shapes. In fact, this mind-blowing contraption is supposed to put Mike into some sort of super hypnotic trance through which the Professor and his wife will be able to control Mike. But what makes the device revolutionary is not that they'll be able to control Mike, but the fact that they will be able to feel Mike's experiences. And in fact, the experiment seems to be a success as the elderly couple can feel when Mike cracks an egg open on his hand, and then washes his hand.

Think of the good that this contraption could be used for! Professor Monserrat believes it will be a boon to seniors and other shut-ins who will have a better ability to experience the world around him. Yeah right. If that were what the device were going to be used for, we once again wouldn't have much of a movie. Instead, Estelle gets ideas of her own. She's always wanted a fur coat, and with the device giving her the ability to control Mike, perhaps she can get him to break into a furrier and steal a coat for her! And Estelle wants more than that, much more. The Professor wants to stop her, of course, but does he have to will to do it? And won't everybody around Mike figure out that something bizarre is going on?

The Sorcerers is one of those movies that probably shouldn't be thought of as very good, but boy is it entertaining. Boris Karloff for the most part, and Catherine Lacey especially, are confined to one set of their tiny London flat for the entire movie. The hypnotic induction sequence was frankly laughable, albeit reminiscent of The Ipcress File, which is supposed to be a much more serious movie. Poor Ian Ogilvy has to act like an automaton for much of the movie. And yet, The Sorcerers is a heck of a lot of fun. Put it on when you just want to be entertained, and don't have to think too hard.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Long Hot Summer

Coming up at 4:00 PM today on TCM is The Long, Hot Summer.

The film opens up with young Ben Quick (Paul Newman) walking along a road in rural Mississippi, trying to hitch a ride. He eventually gets picked up by a convertible with two young ladies in the front seat: Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) and her sister-in-law Eula (Lee Remick). They take him to town, which is also where they happen to live. Ben discovers that their father is the richest man in town and pretty much owns everything there is worth owning in the town, so Ben plans to approach the Varner father to ask about getting a job.

The only thing is, Dad isn't home just now because he's recuperating in hospital. So Ben has to ask the son, Jody (Tony Franciosa) about getting a job. Jody manages the general store for Dad, but it's not exactly a great relationship that father and son have. Dad Will (Orson Welles) thinks that his son isn't enough of a man, evidenced in part by the fact that Eula seems quite interested in sex, but Jody hasn't been able to get her pregnant an produce an heir to the Varner fortune yet. As for Clara, she's the local schoolteacher. She's got a bit of a man in her life in the form of Alan (Richard Anderson), but he isn't enough of a man for Will, either. He's under the thumb of his mother, afraid to ask for Clara's hand in marriage.

So you can probably guess that Will begins to take a shining to Ben, since Ben is a take charge sort of guy and exactly the sort of strong man that Will thinks the family needs to produce a strong heir. And you can also tell from the opening scene that eventually the sparks are going to fly in one way or another between Ben and Clara. Will begins to give Ben more responsibilities, which understandably irks Jody to no end. But Ben also has a past, which is another thing you probably should have been able to tell from that opening scene. As with Montgomery Clift's character in the opening of A Place in the Sun or John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, seeing somebody hitchhiking into town at the beginning of a movie implies that there's something the character is trying to get away from. In the case of Ben Quick, it's accusations that he burns barns, and had to make a quick escape (no pun intended) from the last town he was in when another barn burned down. And sure enough, once you learn that, you can guess that there's going to be a barn burning in this town too, although it's made quite clear who started the fire.

It goes on like this for close to two hours, being overheated and never quite going anywhere, thanks to the fact that it's based on material by William Faulkner. I think I've stated before that I've never been the biggest Faulkner fan, probably going back to the days when I had to read As I Lay Dying for a high school English class. He's not as much of a slog as Tennessee Williams, although the screenplay here comes across almost as though it could have been from Williams' material as much as Faulkner's. Still, it's physically a well-made movie. Everybody acts well, and there's lovely cinematography and sets. It's just that the story made me want to reach through the screen and smack some sense into these people.

The Long, Hot Summer is available on DVD, so if my relatively short notice in mentioning this film made you miss today's TCM airing, you've still got a chance to see it.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Nova Pilbeam, 1919-2015


Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney in Young and Innocent (1937)

British actress Nova Pilbeam passed away a week ago at the age of 95. However, she led a fairly private life after leaving acting, so her obituary didn't get posted until the 21st, and I didn't see it until the evening of the 23d, hence this late obituary post. Pilbeam is probably best known for her roles in two of Alfred Hitchcock's British films: the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Pilbeam played the kidnapped daughter; and Young and Innocent, in which an all grown up Pilbeam helps wrongly accused Derrick De Marney prove his innocence.

I didn't realize until reading the Independent obituary that Hitchcock wanted Pilbeam for Rebecca when he was going to go to Hollywood. But Pilbeam decided she didn't want to be tied down to an exclusive Hollywood contract, and that was that. Marriage, widowhood, a second marriage, and motherhood followed, and Pilbeam opted for the private life rather than remaining an actress.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kansas City Confidential

TCM has been showing a lot of noirs in its Summer of Darkness festival which has one more Friday to run after today. One of the movies that I've mentioned briefly a couple of times, but never actually done a full length post on, is Kansas City Confidential, coming up today at 1:15 PM.

John Payne stars as florist deliveryman Joe Rolfe. He's got a routine at the job, and wouldn't you know that somebody else knows about that routine. That somebody else is ex-cop Tim Foster (Preston Foster), and he's been following Rolfe's routine because of a scheme he has to get his job back. The thing is, the florist shop is right next to a bank, and Foster is watching when the florist vans come and go, and when the armored cars come and go from the banks. Foster's plan is to get a couple of thugs together to rob the bank, and then "solve" the crime himself, which will have him become a hero in the process. In order to keep the other members of the gang from ratting him out, he wears a mask and has all of them wear masks too so that none of them will recognize each other. (Except, of course, Foster knows all of them.)

So Foster and his gang rob the place, and one of the results is that Joe gets arrested for it, since the police naturally figure that with Joe's schedule, he's the one who would have been in the delivery van from which the robbers emerged. That, and Joe has already been in jail once before. It's only natural that the cops aren't going to believe him, and that when evidence comes out that Joe is in fact innocent of the crime, he's going to have to find the real robbers himself.

Joe does some investigating and gets word from a friend that perhaps all of the robbers went to Tijuana. Joe's response is to make his way to Mexico, where he will of course find the robbers. But he's also going to run into Helen (Colleen Gray). She's studying law at college, and she's in Mexico on her term break to see her father, who, having been dismissed from the police force, has decided to go to Mexico ostensibly for his health, but is of course really there to complete the robbery scheme. What he doesn't realize is that it's already not going the way he planned.

Not only has Joe begun to fall in love with Helen, the feeling is mutual. But more importantly for Daddy, Joe has found one of the other bank robbers only for that guy to get shot in an altercation with the police. Joe's thoroughly logical idea is to take that robbers' identity so that he can find the actual mastermind of the whole thing. (He should consider himself lucky he didn't run into the mastermind first and have to impersonate the mastermind.)

It's all quite interesting, but then there's the ending. One of the previous times I mentioned the movie, I pointed out that it was made under the Production Code, which of course means that crime must not pay. So we're going to have to get script gyrations for Joe to be fully vindicated, for all the bad guys to get their due, and for Joe and Helen to be able to live happily ever after. (I don't think audiences would have gone for a twist that had Helen being in on the robbery.) There's also the plot hole surrounding the robbers' masks. This is obviously so that they won't be able to recognize each other's faces out in the real world. But there's no reason they couldn't recognize each other's voices. But there are a whole lot of Hollywood movies that had to deal with that aspect of the Production Code. Kansas City Confidential is still a very good movie in spite of that.

I'm sorry I haven't given you more advance warning of the upcoming showing on TCM, but at least this one is in print on DVD, in case you miss today's showing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

George Burns, early and late

TCM lists its prime time lineup for tonight as George Burns and Gracie Allen. The two were married for close to 40 years until Allen's death in 1964. The earliest of tonight's movies is the short Lambchops, on at 9:45 PM. This is basically just a one-reeler from the dawn of sound (1929) of Burns and Allen doing one of their routines, and then doing a short musical number. Burns' voice is unmistakeable even if he doesn't have the distinctive glasses yet; Allen's humor is, well, interesting. A one-reeler like this is a good way to learn about that original brand of humor.

Coming up at the end of the night is a movie that obviously doesn't have Gracie Allen in it, as it was made 15 years after her death: Going in Style, at 3:45 AM. George Burns plays Joe, a seventysomething pensioner living in one of New York City's outer boroughs. Joe lives together with fellow pensioners Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg), in order to stretch their meager Social Security checks. This is the New York of a few years after Gerald Ford had told the city to drop dead, and once Ed Koch had been elected Mayor and started to turn the city around. So, it's not as bad as we'd se in some of those early-1970s movies, but it's still not particularly golden years for our three retirees.

Indeed, it seems as though all they do is get up, take care of whatever basic needs to survive they have, and spend their free time at the park. There's not much for them. So one day, Joe gets an idea. Why not spice up their lives by doing something, with the something he gets being the daft idea to rob a bank out in Manhattan? After all, they need something to do with their lives, and they could certainly use the money, too. The worst that could happen is that they get arrested, and get to live off the state in prison while their Social Security checks pile up. Amazingly, Al and Willie pretty much agree to the idea! So we get an extended set-up showing the three elderly men's preparations for the robbery. They need guns, and fortunately, Al has a nephew Pete (Charles Hallahan) who is a bit of a gun collector. (Imagine that in New York City these days.) Al can "borrow" a couple of Pete's guns for a few days without Pete even noticing that they're missing. And as for the disguise? Well, a couple of Groucho Marx masks will do.

But surely a plot this daft can't work! Well, the movie is supposed to be a comedy, so of course the heist goes off more or less without a hitch, but with a few moments of dark humor. The three men get to stuff their bags full of cash, and get home to count that they've raked in something like $35,000, which was even more substantial back in the late 1970s than it is today. But at this point, the movie also starts to turn dark. Crime does not pay, and it's going to turn out not to pay for our three retirees, although not quite in the way you might expect if you've seen some of the great old crime movies.

Going in Style is generally a good movie, although there are some uneven parts. It's a comedy, and up until they rob the bank, there certainly is a fair bit of comedy. But once the heist is pulled off, the movie takes a rather darker turn which some people may find a bit off-putting. The second half of the film also had an extended scene in Las Vegas that I thought really drags the movie. Still, George Burns was about as good here as he was in any of his elderly roles, while Carney and Strasberg are no slouches either. Hallahan seems like an authentic character, although I can't imagine somebody like that in real life knowing his uncle's friends so well.

Going in Style is another of those out-of-print DVDs: you can find old copies on Amazon, but it's not available from the TCM Shop.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

TCM Guest Programmer July 2015: Joan Collins

Joan Collins, who is probably best remembered for her role in the 1980s prime time soap opera Dynasty, is this month's Guest Programmer on TCM. She sat down with Robert Osborne to present four of her favorite movies. That sit-down and the movies will be on tonight.

First, at 8:00, Collins has selected Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth in the title role as the woman who tempts old flame Glenn Ford despite the fact that she's married to her boss in glamorous Buenos Aires;
That's followed at 10:15 by Boom Town, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy as two men who wind up competing against each other in the oil business.
At 12:30 AM, Collins will present The Women, the classic 1939 movie about a bunch of catty women and how their gossipy ways affect each other.
The Women was remade in the 1950s as The Opposite Sex, which starred Collins herself, taking the role played by Joan Crawford in the original. The Opposite Sex airs at 3:00 AM.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Theodore Bikel, 1924-2015

The death has been announced of actor/singer Theodore Bikel, who passed away today at the age of 91.

Bikel was born in Vienna, but as a member of a Jewish family, his father knew that he had to get them out of the country once the Nazis took over in 1938. The Bikels actually wound up in Palestine, since Israel wouldn't be a country for several more years, and Bikel eventually made his way to London after World War II. Stage acting followed, and eventually in 1951 Bikel got his first role in a major film as the first officer of the German ship in The African Queen.

Bikel's stage career was, I think, always bigger than his movie career, having played Captain Von Trapp in the original Broadway version of The Sound of Music, as well as playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof more times than you can shake a stick at. As for his films, he was second-billed in I Bury the Living, and played the sheriff going after Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.

Yet another out-of-print warning



TCM's prime-time lineup for tonight is called "Seeing Red", which I presume has something to do with the Technicolor in all the films. Anyhow, I notice that among the films is Peeping Tom, coming on overnight at 2:30 AM. TCM's schedule lists this one as not available at the TCM Shop. Meanwhile, over at Amazon, you can do the streaming video thing, or you can buy an out of print DVD, listed at "$116.88 used and new (9 offers)". Yikes.

Catch it on TCM. It's a good one.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Devil at 4 O'Clock

A few years back I briefly mentioned the film The Devil at 4 O'Clock. It's airing tomorrow afternoon at 4:45 PM on TCM, so now would be a good time to do a full-length post on the film.

The movie opens with a plane landing on Kalua, one of those small South Pacific islands that in this case is owned by the French. On the plane are four passengers we need concern ourselves with. Harry (Frank Sinatra), Marcel (Grégoire Aslan), and Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) are convicts, and are being transported to Tahiti to serve prison sentences, but the plane stopped here for refueling and whatnot. The fourth passenger is Father Perreau (Kerwin Matthews). He's a Catholic priest, and is here to take over priestly duties from Father Doonan (Spencer Tracy). Doonan started a hospital and school for leper children many years ago, and he's reached the age where the Church feels it's better to recall him and let somebody younger take over. Kalua doesn't really have the proper facilities for three convicts like the ones who have arrived, so the governor of the island (Alexander Scourby) sends them off with Father Perreau since he's going to the leper hospital.

The thing is, the leper hospital is halfway up the mountain, in a rather inaccessible place. The reason for this is that the locals were afraid of leprosy, and the God-forsaken place is about the only place Doonan could get the facility built. Not only is the place God-forsaken, the attitude of the locals toward Doonan and the children he takes care of has led to Doonan questioning his own faith and being a rather unorthodox Catholic priest, which is probably part of the reason he's being replaced.

Oh, and did I mention that the hospital is not just halfway up a mountain, but that that mountain is a volcano? Well, you'll find out soon enough, as the volcano begins to let out smoke in a minor eruption. Of course, a minor eruption is one that happens to other people and in other parts of the world. When you live at the base of the volcano, any time it lets out steam or ash is a big deal. And so the authorities begin to investigate whether the volcano is going to blow its top the way Mt. St. Helens did back in 1980. They also make plans to evacuate the islanders to safety. But who's going to help the lepers evacuate, since none of the locals want to help them? You can probably guess who.

Then, to make matters worse, the minor eruption turns into a major eruption, with it looking dicey as to whether any of the sick children or the adults looking after them will be able to make it to safety. If a place is inaccessible to get to, then it's also going to be inaccessible to get from, after all.

The Devil at 4 O'Clock is a movie that I'm probably harsher on than I ought to be. I think it's mostly because I find the script to be ludicrous at times. Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra both try, but the script asks them to do things that are just a little too over the top. That having been said, it's entertaining enough, and nice to look at.

The Devil at 4 O'Clock is another of those movies that I think is out of print on DVD. You can find copies on Amazon, but it's not available from the TCM Shop.