The First Great Train Robbery April 20, 2008Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment
A favourite of mine since childhood, Michael Crichton’s The First Great Train Robbery is a wonderfully entertaining caper movie that really ought to be better known that it seems to be. Taking as his basis the real-life robbery of a gold shipment from the London to Folkestone passenger train in 1855, Crichton fictionalised the crime in his historical novel The Great Train Robbery (1975). In 1978 he adapted his novel for the screen and, fresh from helming medical thriller Coma, also took the directorial reins.
In a vividly recreated Victorian London (filmed mostly in Ireland and at Pinewood Studios) con-man Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), together with fellow criminals Agar (Donald Sutherland) and Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down), schemes to steal a £25,000 shipment of gold bound for the Crimean war effort. To do so will require copying the four separately stored keys required to open the safe, not to mention actually removing the gold from a guarded passenger train travelling at speed across the English countryside.
From this premise Crichton spins a delightfully playful series of escapades, as the trio hatch and execute elaborate plans for the theft of each successive key, overcoming unforeseen obstacles and dodging detection at every turn. The cast plays everything with a light touch, making for a film that is frequently amusing, often laugh-out-loud funny, yet is never in danger of spilling over into open comedy.
As Pierce, Connery brings immense charm and presence to a character that is deliberately drawn with only the vaguest of brush strokes in the script - as in Crichton’s original novel, we learn almost nothing about Edward Pierce during the film; he’s a clever, incredibly ballsy criminal, and he wants the Crimean gold. Throw in Connery’s gruff charisma, and that’s all you need. Connery and Sutherland, working together for the only time, also make for a marvellous double-act, the good-natured humour springing from their every weary glance or throwaway line. Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam, who finds herself donning various disguises throughout the story, is as amusing as she is alluring. In support, Malcolm Terris makes a big impression as a hilariously lecherous and unsuspecting patsy who is repeately duped by Pierce’s scheme; dancer Wayne Sleep, playing talented “snakesman” Clean Willy, apparently performed his own remarkable climbing stunts; elsewhere, the film is peppered with familar faces like Michael Elphick as the bribed train guard who watches in bemusement while Pierce’s crazy scheme unfolds around him.
As a kid, I was enthralled by the tense yet fun set-pieces that drive the picture. Watching now, I still find it as thrilling as I ever did, while the evocation of the 1850s period setting really struck me for the first time. Whether it’s cobblestone streets dressed as Victorian London, the smog-filled night sets, or the country scenes, the effect is quite convincing. Aided by frequent matte paintings, not to mention a dazzling array of period beards and whiskers among the male cast, the film makes a damn good stab at evoking 1855 London (as I imagine it to have been, anyway - I don’t remember it first hand ).
The robbery itself, filmed on a vintage passenger train in Ireland, makes for a suitably exciting climax, not least because when Pierce makes his run - clambering along the entire length of the fast-moving train - it’s clearly Sean Connery doing the stunt work himself, leaping from carriage to carriage and ducking under low bridges with seconds to spare. The ending deviates from Crichton’s novel (and from the real crime itself) to provide an upbeat outcome that is much more satisfying and appropriate to the film’s playful and fun tone.
The contribution of Jerry Goldsmith’s score cannot be overlooked either. From the very first chords of his exhilarating main theme, Goldsmith perfectly captures the light-hearted spirit of this heist movie. In my opinion it’s one of his finest scores; I just wish I had it on CD.
MGM’s disc of this film is a few years old and in need of an upgrade. The only special feature on the R1 is a Michael Crichton commentary (missing on R2), while the picture isn’t even anamorphic and the film itself doesn’t look stellar. It’s watchable, yes, but for an old favourite like this, I hope we get an improved transfer in the future.
Incidentally, this is the first post on jackal’s film corner for several months. I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop posting, but I’ve had other things occupying my spare time - not least of which was writing a novel (no, not for publication, just my own amusement). Today’s post doesn’t represent a return to business as normal, but I simply couldn’t resist penning a tribute to The First Great Train Robbery - one of those films that just makes me smile from beginning to end.
“WAR is our imperative!” December 13, 2007Posted by jackal in : TV , 2 comments
It’s a barren time for TV fans in general, with the Writers Guild of America strike now over a month old, no sign of fresh negotiations, let alone a deal, and hopes of salvaging anything resembling a full season for most shows fading fast. For Battlestar Galactica fans, the barren landscape is nothing new - we’re only in the middle of a looooong wait for the fourth, extended and final season of the insanely good drama. From last March’s season three cliffhanger we still have to wait until April of 2008 for episode 4.1 - and that’s assuming Sci-Fi don’t postpone the premiere due to the writers’ strike (only the first ten of the twenty episodes have so far been produced).
There is a bright spot, however, and its name is Razor. Focusing on the Battlestar Pegasus, introduced in episode 2.11 “Pegasus”, the newly-produced TV movie Battlestar Galactica: Razor brings back Michelle Forbes as Admiral Cain, and fleshes out the journey of Pegasus during the missing ten months between the Cylon attack on the colonies and her eventual encounter with Galactica. We’re introduced to Lt. Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen), a young Pegasus bridge officer, who is witness to the brutal lengths Cain goes to in her quest to maintain a fighting force. Gradually Shaw herself becomes fashioned by Cain into a “razor” of war, as we watch events previously only described in passing on the show.
Interspersed with the Pegasus backstory is the tale of Lee Adama’s first mission as Pegasus commander (ergo set after 2.17 “The Captain’s Hand”), the inclusion of which is justified by the Kendra Shaw’s presence, this time as Lee’s XO. In a deliberate bout of nostalgia, this thread of the story, as well as Admiral Adama’s flashbacks to events during the first Cylon war, feature the “old-style” Cylon raiders and Centurions - based, of course, on the models from the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica. There’s even a “By your command” in there, too. Very nice.
Most of the BSG regulars get screen time, even if they’re just elbowed in for a scene or two. Featured most strongly are Jamie Bamber, Katee Sackhoff, Edward James Olmos and Tricia Helfer, who gets to once again play Gina, the “Six” model who is captured aboard Pegasus. Best of all is seeing Michelle Forbes return to the role of Admiral Cain. Her guest spot in season two’s “Pegasus” and “Resurrection Ship: Parts 1 & 2″ ranks among the show’s strongest, and it’s truly a pleasure to see her embody the tough and uncompromising Helena Cain once more, introducing some complexity to the character’s emotional backstory. Like the tagline once declared: The Bitch Is Back.
Razor was screened a couple of weeks ago on Sci-Fi in an 88-minute broadcast version, immediately followed by a DVD release of the 103-minute “Unrated Extended Edition”, which I viewed. I don’t know what was omitted for the TV version, but nothing here feels overlong or unnecessary, and there’s extra blood and gore if that’s your thing. Razor is not Galactica at its absolute peak: the jumping timeframes are occasionally jarring and the finale a touch corny, but it’s still compelling and thoroughly entertaining. The SFX work is also more extensive than the show’s normal budget allows: Pegasus’ nail-biting escape from spacedock during the devastating Cylon attacks is particularly well-realised. Finally, there’s just the sheer pleasure of seeing these characters in action again while we wait for season four. So say we all.
Massachusetts noir: Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone November 6, 2007Posted by jackal in : TV, Film Noir , add a comment
Robert B. Parker is a fixture of American crime writing, most famous for his long-running Spenser series, now some 35 novels strong. In recent years, however, he’s also turned to a couple of new central characters: female Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (originally designed as a movie vehicle for Helen Hunt) and the troubled anti-hero Jesse Stone. A depressed, functioning alcoholic fired from the LA police force, Stone winds up as police chief in the small Pacific coast town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Haunted by the ex-wife he left behind, Stone’s humble new job is his last chance at salvaging a life and career, and he knows it.
From this starting point Parker is slowly building an increasingly rich and satisfying series of novels, a deliberate departure from the world of Spenser. Stone is younger, flawed, less of a wise-guy. Thus far we have had six novels: Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change and High Profile, which is released in paperback here in the UK this month.
Spenser never translated fully well to the big screen, largely because the right actor to play him hasn’t been found; neither Robert Urich nor Joe Mantegna fully fit the bill of the honourable Boston P.I., an ex-boxer from whom the wisecracks slip as easily as breathing. Parker’s own suggestion of Robert Mitchum in his prime doesn’t get us anywhere, at least without a time machine, and I struggle to think of anyone today who genuinely suits the role.
For whatever reason, Jesse Stone is somehow an easier character to cast. I’ve always pictured Kurt Russell while reading the books, but you could easily find a number of actors for the role. So when the novels came to Hollywood a couple of years ago, in a Stone Cold TV movie starring … Tom Selleck, it seemed an odd choice. Selleck was then 60, playing a character written as 35. It didn’t seem obvious casting.
As it turns out, Selleck was a fan of the books and, serving as executive producer of Stone Cold, protected the integrity of the adaptation. When that film was a ratings hit, a TV movie series bloomed, and Selleck has continued to ensure that the spirit of Parker’s books makes it to the screen intact. There have been plot changes here and there, but at other times entire scenes, frequently down to the dialogue, are lifted from the books unchanged. Parker has in fact called the Jesse Stone movies the most faithful screen versions of his work.
Following 2005’s Stone Cold (actually the fourth novel), Selleck and co. went back and filmed the first novel, Night Passage, as a prequel. Death in Paradise (the third novel) followed that, but was set after Stone Cold. Then (if you’re still keeping up), bringing the series back into line with the novels, Sea Change (a rather loose adaptation of the fifth novel) premiered earlier this year. Currently in post-production is Thin Ice, from an original screenplay, and planned for a Spring 2008 premiere. If it maintains the ratings success, the series will surely continue.
Parker’s characters, dialogue and plots aside, the chief reason for the movies’ success is Selleck, who has delivered consistently exceptional performances as Jesse Stone. Physically, he brings immense gravitas to the character. With his broad but aging 6′ 4″ frame he resembles a grizzled bear, bowed but not broken. Stone is just as he appears in the books: a man of deep regrets. In Sea Change he says “you know, you live long enough, you have regrets. And the ones that nag at you the most are the ones where you knew you had a choice.” The lone picture on display in his home is of a diving Ozzie Smith, a reminder of Stone’s own once-promising career as a shortstop, curtailed by injury. He’s a drunk, barely staying in control, and knows it. He’s also a disciplined police officer with a strong sense of justice and a line in self-deprecating humour (his catchphrase: “I’m just a small town cop; mostly I give out parking tickets”). There’s an economy to his actions; every move is deliberate, each word or gesture has a purpose, and backing it up is a quiet yet visceral strength. On top of it all, Selleck looks more than a decade younger than his 60-some years, negating any concern over his suitability for the role. He got an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a miniseries or movie for the most recent adaptation, Sea Change, but lost out to Robert Duvall for Broken Trail. Selleck richly deserves to win at least once before the series is through.
Also integral to the continuing success of the films is director Robert Harmon, who has been behind the camera for every entry so far. He succeeds in letting the story unfold at a relaxed pace, allowing characters room to breathe and ensuring that the sparse action, when it does come, is sharply crafted and makes an impact. There are no car chases or gunfights every ten minutes; the movies are somewhat old-fashioned police procedurals, given real bite by the character of Stone and Selleck’s powerhouse portrayal. The atmosphere throughout is downbeat, melancholy; noir is the watchword, and Jeff Beal’s stark but haunting score is the perfect accompaniment. Okay, these are only TV movies, but they’re thoroughly satisfying, and several notches above the competition. They come highly recommended from these quarters. Just make sure you read the novels first.
Now if only somebody would make a similar series of Sunny Randall movies with Katee Sackhoff in the lead. Too young? Maybe, but she’s got attitude to burn, and more than enough charisma and talent to take on the role.
Rambo’s Back October 20, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment
^ That was the tagline in 1988, on a giant billboard over Sunset Boulevard that otherwise featured only Sly Stallone, facing away from camera, and the title Rambo III. In his book Sly Moves, Stallone relates how he focused particularly on building a wide back for the film, handling so much weight on lat pulldowns that he had to be strapped into the machine to stop from being launched into orbit. I don’t doubt it. Two decades later, the first teaser poster for John Rambo has just been released, and harks back to that same simple image: Stallone still Kicks Ass.
The upcoming release of John Rambo is cause for celebration in my eyes, and not just because it represents, after Rocky Balboa, another triumph for the reinvigorated Stallone. What was the last true, big action movie from Hollywood? Not some watered-down cocktail like the PG-13 Live Free or Die Hard (yes, I’m waiting for the unrated DVD too), or childish XXX crap - the real deal, a full-scale, I’m big, dumb, overblown, and I just don’t give a shit action movie? Con Air? Face/Off? They were ten years ago. It’s taken the 61 year-old dinosaur (and I use the term affectionately) Sly Stallone to resurrect this beast. John Rambo brings back one of the most iconic characters of the genre, it HAS been rated ‘R’, and if you’ve seen the fantastic rough cut trailer that came out a while back (not for the faint of heart), you’ll know that it won’t pull any punches. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the action movie is back, and how.
Jean Peters: biography of a forgotten leading lady October 16, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , 9 comments
I first came across Jean Peters in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara a few years ago. It was among the films in my Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection boxset, and looked like a decent little thriller. Before long, though, I’d forgotten all about Ms Monroe; the dark-haired, green-eyed second female lead had caught me eye. Who the hell is that and why haven’t I seen her before? I thought. It’s perhaps not surprising that I’d never heard of Jean, since she and many other actresses of her time are today forgotten by all but us film buffs. Peters is at a further disadvantage for two reasons: she retired at 29, and did so to marry Howard Hughes. Thus her filmography is comparatively small, her tally of notable films can almost be counted on one hand, and on the rare occasions that she is mentioned it’s usually merely with reference to Mr Hughes and her place in his curious life.
As I watched more of Peters’ movies I started to become a real fan and, partly because I could find literally nothing beyond the most basic details of her life and career, I found myself becoming more interested. This led somewhat circuitously to the current piece on jackal’s film corner. On a whim a couple of months ago, I decided that if it’s so difficult to find anything substantial on Peters, I’d pen something myself. So I set out to find as much material as possible: obituaries from reliable newspapers archived on the net, lots and lots (and lots) of additional online research, a whole bunch of print articles (it’s amazing what you can find on ebay), as well as Raymond Strait’s long out-of-print 1971 biography Mrs Howard Hughes. I weighed it all up, filtered out anything that didn’t tally, and laid the results out in my own words. It also goes without saying that I tracked down and watched as many of her films as possible (everything from her Fox years; later TV movies and the like proved more difficult to locate). The following piece is not intended to be exhaustive, nor impressive; some sections are more detailed than others, depending on how many sources and how much detail I could find (and if anybody knows more - or better - than me, please say so). This is merely a pet project, an attempt to put the pieces of Jean Peters’ life together into a reasonably complete and coherent picture. It’s something that I’ve been working on intermittently for a while (see, Mr Jukes, I told you I’d finish it!), for nobody’s amusement but my own, and here seems as good a place as any for it to end up.
Big thanks to Carole for some of the photos that appear below.
Elizabeth Jean Peters was born in Canton, Ohio on October 15, 1926. She was 10 and her sister Shirley just a toddler when their father died and Jean’s mother opened a tourist camp alongside the family farm to earn a living. Jean soon became adept at DIY and working around the house, a trait that would stick with her even after fame struck. Growing up on a farm in small-town America, she could easily have ended up living an anonymous life as a school teacher, were it not for a friend’s casual act: when she was 20, studying to be a teacher at Ohio University, Jean’s roommate secretly entered her photo into the State Beauty Contest. Jean won, but apparently wasn’t interested in the prize: a screen test for 20th Century-Fox. Nevertheless she ended up travelling with her mother to Hollywood, where she reportedly caught the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck and was signed to a contract without even filming the test. Despite frequent clashes with her bosses, Fox would remain her home studio for the next decade.
After the whirlwind events that swept her west, Jean’s first few months in Hollywood were an anticlimax: a dull routine of publicity work and screen tests. It was only when scheduling conflicts prevented Linda Darnell from taking the female lead in Captain from Castile that Jean got her big break. The young college student suddenly found herself starring in a lavish Technicolor period adventure alongside superstar Tyrone Power. “When I first met him he seemed like some kind of god,” she later confessed. Despite a complete lack of acting experience, Peters handled the role admirably, impressing the powers-that-be, and a film career was born.
Captain from Castile would influence Peters’ career for the next few years: she was such a perfect fit as the film’s headstrong and fiery Spanish love interest that the studio tried to cast her in similarly strong, colourful female parts. At first Jean resisted being marketed as a sex symbol. Raised a Methodist and still influenced by her mother’s views (she was only 21) she refused, among others, the Anne Baxter part in Yellow Sky deeming it ”too sexy”. That caused the first of several suspensions. Jean’s tomboy personality also frustrated the studio’s publicity department. She dressed in jeans and sneakers on the Fox lot, abhorred the colour pink, wore little or no makeup and lunched on empty sets with her dresser or makeup girl to avoid the tourist groups that prowled the commissary.
Especially in those early days, Jean was conscious of her inexperience as an actor, and sought advice from her more established co-stars. Recognition as a serious actress was what she craved most, but would never attain because, quite honestly, she wasn’t a ‘great’ actress. She was, though, always believeable, able to adapt to a wide range of parts and genres. She also brought a natural passion and fiery spirit to all her performances, and more than a little sex appeal. Among her film crews she earned a reputation as a hard worker. An early riser, she could get by on four or five hours sleep a night, and was known as the most punctual star on the lot. There, the studio-favoured nicknames of Jeannie or Liz were ignored; she was ”Pete” to everyone, and universally liked. Columnist Cobina Wright said, “I never knew Jean to have a feud with anyone.” In his biography of the actress Raymond Strait similarly remarks that “in all the research and planning that went into this book, no one ever had an unkind word to say of Miss Peters, and that is unusual.” Her circle of friends at this time included the likes of Joseph Cotten, David Niven, Ray Milland, Marie McDonald, and Marilyn Monroe. Her best friend was fellow Fox contract player Jeanne Crain, only a year her senior, with whom Jean remained close for years.
The Hollywood party scene was not Jean’s; she enjoyed dining out, attending the opera, or small parties, but avoided publicity-friendly events like the plague - acting was fun, but she hated the idea of being a ‘celebrity’ and all that it entailed. “I’ve been to only one premiere,” she declared proudly in 1955, and on that occasion she even made her own evening gown. Fashioning her own clothes was a hobby born out of necessity in her youth, and one which which she continued in Hollywood. She had a talent for it, even writing articles on dress-making for the movie magazines. Fame didn’t make Jean frivolous with money, either. She lived for some time in a modest apartment that she liked because it was close to the studio, and saved much of her paychecks, investing the money in real estate. Between movie shoots she went horse riding, painted (friends said she was quite good) and was a passionate baseball fan. At home Jean followed the Cleveland Indians, but out west, ten years before the Dodgers would bring major league baseball to L.A., she adopted the minor league Hollywood Stars as her team and kept a private box at Gilmore Stadium.
Offscreen, Peters embodied many of the characteristics of the Hawksian woman, even down to the masculine nickname, and it’s a pity she never worked with Hawks himself. Margaret Sheridan’s role in The Thing from Another World springs to mind as one that would have been ideal for Peters, but he also made several movies at Fox during her tenure and the only one that would have been an obvious mismatch is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Peters hated dancing on-screen, and even after singing lessons couldn’t carry much of a tune. Surprisingly, when she did agree to a choreographed dance sequence in Love that Brute (1950), the end product (a dubbed rendering of “You Took Advantage of Me”) was slick and entertaining - thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I’ve uploaded it here if you want to check it out. Nevertheless, it was something the actress was never comfortable with, and largely avoided.
After Captain from Castile Jean slimmed down to a trim 125lbs and got solid if unspectacular work in the likes of Deep Waters (1948) and It Happens Every Spring (1949), the latter playing into her real-life passion for baseball. She also wanted to go blonde for the picture, but was overruled by director Lloyd Bacon. The afore-mentioned Love that Brute (1950) was the best of her films from this period, pairing her effectively with Paul Douglas in a warm comedy about a good-natured gangster and the nightclub singer he romances. However, it was as Anne of the Indies the following year that Peters came into her element. The role of the tough, swashbuckling pirate captain was perfect for the tomboy actress, with Jean relishing the chance to dress up as a pirate and embody a larger-than-life character. Though the film ultimately falls short of fulfilling its potential, her glee at portraying such an appealing bad girl pervades every scene.
After this, her films began to rise in stature: she was the wife of Marlon Brando’s Mexican revolutionary in the Oscar-winning Viva Zapata! (1952), second lead in Niagara (1953) with Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe, and scored a plum role in Samuel Fuller’s desperate film noir masterpiece Pickup on South Street (1953). Peters gave a raw, punchy performance, arguably her best, as Candy, the ex-hooker who becomes involved with Richard Widmark’s cynical pickpocket Skip McCoy.
The noir trend continued, although the films themselves were inferior: Vicki, a by-the-numbers remake of I Wake Up Screaming, at least gave her a glamorous starring role as a society model and the chance to work again with Jeanne Crain. A Blueprint for Murder re-united her with another pal, Joseph Cotten, but in an implausible, flat thriller that played off elements of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to only a fraction of the effect.
Jean was by now unquestionably a star, if not quite among the front rank. When Jeanne Crain proved unavailable for Fox’s lavish new CinemaScope romance Three Coins in the Fountain, Peters was ushered in. Ironically, while the film turned out to be the most popular of her career, Peters’ role was among the weakest she ever played. Surrounded by gorgeous Italian locations and wrapped up in Victor Young’s lush music, Jean didn’t actually have much to do but look pretty in Technicolor. That, at least, was easily accomplished.
Next up for Jean were back-to-back westerns. She was loaned to United Artists for Apache, which saw her made-up as a rather unconvincing American Indian opposite Burt Lancaster. While filming in high winds, she remarked to director Robert Aldrich, “make sure you pan with my wig when it blows off”. Back at Fox, she was cast in another top-flight CinemaScope production, Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954), during which there were rumours of a fling with co-star Robert Wagner (in his recent autobiography, Wagner says that their friendship never turned romantic).
Jean’s next film, A Man Called Peter (1955), generated some of her best reviews yet, but it was to be her last. Put on suspension again for refusing roles, Peters decided she was through with movies when long-time suitor Howard Hughes finally agreed to marriage.
Jean Peters and Howard Hughes first met, according to most accounts, at an Independence Day party in July 1946, shortly before Hughes’ near-fatal crash while piloting the XF-11. Ditching her date Audie Murphy, the farm girl from Ohio fell immediately for the charming Hughes, and they apparently began seeing each other very quietly. This caused consternation at Fox, whose publicity department desperately wanted to play up notions of a Hughes romance to enhance her public profile. Jean, though, insisted on her privacy and for the time being the studio relented. For Hughes the appeal in Jean was her natural beauty and lack of pretence, as well as the fact that she clearly didn’t need him; when he was in town they would go out for dinner, maybe see a show, but Jean was otherwise happy to continue her life without him, even managing to turn a blind eye to his dalliances with other actresses and the constant ’spies’ that Hughes sent to watch over and keep tabs on her.
Eventually, however, Hughes’ reluctance to commit to their relationship frustrated Peters enough to consider life away from him. In August 1953 Peters was on a flight home from Rome, where she had been on location for Three Coins in the Fountain. At the Paris stop-off, oil executive Stuart Cramer III boarded the plane and sat opposite Jean in first class. The pair hit it off immediately, and upon her arrival in LA, Jean gave Howard Hughes an ultimatum: marriage - or else, even confessing as much to Three Coins director Jean Negulesco. When Hughes still refused to commit, she began seeing Cramer, and romance blossomed. They dated for several months before marrying on May 29th 1954.
I suppose it’s worth mentioning that some make a rather far-fetched claim regarding this time: namely that during 1953 or 1954, Jean gave birth to the illegitimate son of Howard Hughes. Given her nearly unbroken filming schedule through this period (from Vicki to Three Coins to Apache to Broken Lance, to her marriage to Stuart Cramer just a few weeks later), as well as her unwaveringly slim figure on-screen, it must have been the shortest and most invisible pregnancy in history. In addition, over 50 years later, no such child has appeared, so I think we can safely put such stories in the dustbin reserved for the likes of Walt Disney’s frozen head and Ida Lupino’s wig.
The Cramer-Peters marriage was not to last, though. Hughes was jealous and may well have actively sought to break up the union. After 33 days the couple separated, and Hughes attempted to reconcile with Peters, while also hurrying along divorce proceedings against Cramer. But Jean didn’t sign the papers, and when Cramer tracked her down in Miami, they got back together for the next few months. Jean went back to Fox and starred in A Man Called Peter that autumn, apparently choosing the film on the recommendation of her new mother-in-law, who had been a parishioner of the real-life Rev. Peter Marshall, upon whose life the film was based.
Despite the relatively brief reunion, the marriage faltered in 1956 and Peters, once again on suspension from Fox for her ‘difficult’ behaviour, went back to Hughes. When the Cramer divorce became final in December 1956, Hughes and Peters married just days later in January 1957. Jean’s friend, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, was gifted the story.
Jean acquiesced to her husband’s desire for privacy and not only quit movies - much to the dismay of Fox, her friends, and fans - but also studiously avoided the public eye in any way. For the first couple of years the couple lived together in California, but as Hughes became increasingly reclusive and suspicious of outsiders, he moved to his Las Vegas penthouse and left Jean alone in a grand home in Bel Air. She would fly out occasionally on weekends, but was otherwise left to her own devices.
Jean had always been wise with her money, but suddenly finding herself the bored wife of a billionaire, she developed a taste for shopping. She frequented the high class boutiques in Beverly Hills, often buying numerous outfits, only to forget all about them until a courier showed up on her doorstep with an armful of packages. A friend from her days at Fox bumped into her in a store and had to politely decline the outrageously expensive dresses Jean tried to buy for her.
Jean would go out to shows when she visited Vegas, but her husband never came along. Accompanied by friends, she would sit at the best tables, but was seldom recognised, “unless one of my movies had been on TV the night before”. Back in California she would go to a ballgame or the opera with friends, Hughes’ invisible bodyguards always trailing quietly behind.
By the mid 1960s Jean was so stifled by solitary life that she went back to college for something to occupy her time, enrolling for classes at UCLA under her real name of Elizabeth Peters. Dressing casually and wearing sunglasses whenever possible, she got by for several months, ranking among the top students in her class, before an anonymous tip alerted reporters and she had to drop out. By this time her contact with Hughes was mostly by telephone; the marriage existed only on paper. Finally, Jean filed for divorce.
The precipitating factor for this seems to have been Jean’s involvement with Fox executive Stanley Hough, whom she first met on Captain from Castile in 1947, when he was an assitant cameraman. They had known each other, on and off, ever since (he worked also on Three Coins in the Fountain and most probably other films with Jean). When the Hughes divorce came through in June 1971, she was awarded $70,000 a year for life, to be adjusted for cost of living increases. In return, although Hughes didn’t insist on a confidentiality agreement, Jean promised not to talk to the press. She never did, telling Newsweek only that ”my life with Howard Hughes was and shall remain a matter on which I will have no comment”. Hughes’ aides said that Jean was one of the few people he was never heard to bad-mouth.
A year after her divorce from Hughes, Jean and Stanley Hough were married. She decided to return to acting, but Hollywood had moved on in the 20 years since her Fox contract, and she found it impossible to shed her identity as Mrs Howard Hughes. Her first reappearance was on TV, in Winesburg, Ohio (1973), and generated a level of press interest out of all proportion to the relatively insignificant production. “I’m not so naive as to think your only reason to be here is your interest in my career,” she remarked to the attendant press.
Shortly before his death in 1976, Hughes sent Jean a letter claiming he had always loved her, but second-hand platitudes were no substitute for fifteen years of a largely empty marriage. Jean subsequently returned to acting only occasionally, instead concentrating mostly on charity work. She also returned to college, finally getting the teaching degree that had eluded her all those years earlier. She intended to make use of it in the classroom, but never found the opportunity in the end.
Jean made her last screen appearance in a 1988 episode of Murder She Wrote. At 62, she had aged gracefully, and was perfectly cast as a reclusive ex-movie star, in a story that made much use of her old publicity photos and memorabilia for verisimilitude. It wasn’t a high-class exit - Murder She Wrote is hardly the pinnacle of TV drama - but was somewhat nostalgic nonetheless.
Following the death of spouse Stanley Hough in 1990, Peters left Beverly Hills and moved to Carlsbad, California, to be near her younger sister Shirley. In her early days Jean had spoken optimistically about her future: a long marriage, eventually children perhaps, much like her friend Jeanne Crain enjoyed, but it didn’t work out that way. She gave interviews only rarely in her later years, but on one occasion, talking about her childhood, confessed, ”I liked my small town. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had remained there.” Jean died on October 13th, 2000, two days shy of her seventy-fourth birthday, and is buried next to her third husband in Culver City, Los Angeles.
Sir Roger Moore at 80 October 14, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment
I grew up on the Bond films. No film series brings back more fond or happy memories for me than 007’s adventures. That fondness extends to the actors involved, and to this day I couldn’t tell you who my favourite Bond is. Connery was the best, Dalton the guy I picture when reading Fleming’s novels, Craig the coldest and toughest … but a favourite? They’re all favourites. And so I can’t let today pass without a quick mention of the fact that Sir Roger Moore, who only the other day received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is 80.
He played Bond more times than anyone else (unless, I suppose, we get into the whole ”is Never Say Never Again really a Bond film?” thing), and made the role his own. I’m grateful that I was first exposed to his Bond films as a small kid, and therefore accepted him in the role without question. I can appreciate others’ less favourable views of his portrayal, but consider myself fortunate that I’ve never felt the same way. Hell, I even like George Lazenby.
Happy Birthday, Rog.
Christopher Lee at the Oxford Student Union October 8, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , 2 comments
One thing I can’t help but notice at these events: hanging on the wall in the speaking chamber at Oxford is a painting, probably extremely old, of a very elegant, distinguished lady … who looks just like Cordelia Chase. It’s the funniest thing. Well, maybe it isn’t actually the funniest thing, but it always amuses me for about three seconds. And if you don’t know who Cordy is, tough. Google is your friend.
But enough of my ramblings. The guest at the Oxford student union this past Wednesday evening was the iconic, seemingly immortal Christopher Lee, appearing for an informal Q&A session with students. At the age of 85, he may now be a little slow on his feet, but time hasn’t affected his storytelling abilities, nor his recall of events from throughout his 60 years in film (even down to correcting a fan over the exact wording of a line from 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu). He entered to thunderous applause from an audience of several hundred, and with his booming basso voice still very much in evidence, held court comfortably for a little over an hour. In fact, relatively few questions were asked; each one was merely a springboard that allowed Lee to move effortlessly from one anecdote or experience to the next.
As one might expect, his career in horror films came up several times, and he happily discussed films like The Devil Rides Out, the Dracula series, and Fu Manchu, always with honesty. He declared The Wicker Man to be his best film (adding pre-emptively, “and no, I haven’t seen the remake.”) but was quite blunt with his thoughts on the quality of Dracula and Fu Manchu sequels. “I’ve made some dreadful films, but of course I didn’t know they were going to be dreadful before we made them.” Some of Lee’s funniest recollections were from his horror days, such as filming The Vengeance of Fu Manchu in Hong Kong, when he found himself on a ferry en route to the studio, in full asian make-up and drooping moustache, much to the bewilderment of the locals; or while filming a Dracula history documentary in Romania, he was costumed as Vlad the Impaler for a dramatic recreation, only for the crew to stumble across a field of happily picknicking families, who according to Lee, took one look at him, crossed themselves, and promptly fled.
At this point, I should admit that I’ve never seen a Hammer horror film (nothing personal; just not really my thing, is all). Therefore, I had planned to ask Mr Lee about the role I most associate him with from my childhood: that of Francisco Scaramanga, one of the very best Bond villains, in The Man With The Golden Gun. However, with questions at a premium, and other people frankly asking far more interesting things than I had up my sleeve, I decided not to butt in. As luck would have it, he did touch on the subject in any case, particularly his long friendship with Roger Moore who, Lee said with fondness, he’s known for 59 years, “and he’s never been changed by fame”. Praising Moore for his charity work, he said that the knighthood conferred on Sir Roger was richly deserved and should have come sooner. ”Roger’s 80 this month,” he reminded us, “and you can bet he’s going to get one hell of a phone call from me.”
Asked who was his favourite living actor, Lee couldn’t pick just one. Walter Huston, he said, was his all-time favourite. He also illustrated the remarkable longevity of his career when he remarked that after appearing in Moulin Rouge for John Huston in 1952, his next film is to be directed by John’s grandson, Danny. Among working actors, he’s a fan of Gene Hackman, along with Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. Of the current generation, he was full of praise for Johnny Depp, with whom he’s worked several times, and clearly hopes to again. Lee also happily mentioned that he’d managed to meet one of his favourite actresses not long ago: “I was in Berlin recently, with Kim Basinger - and my wife, I hasten to add.”
The 1998 film Jinnah, in which he portrayed the famous leader, was one that Lee raised himself as, in his opinion, his most important film. He spoke of the respect and reverence he encountered, simply because he was playing the part, even down to an impromptu salute from the military guard at Jinnah’s mausoleum.
An account of the evening would not be complete without reference to Lee’s singing abilities. After mentioning in passing that he’ll soon be travelling to Spain to perform songs from Man of La Mancha, he seemed to sense a little doubt over his vocal talents. So he sang some for us.
Lee has a singing voice that, for a man in his prime, would be impressive. For an 85 year old, it’s remarkable. I think I heard a few slates fall off the roof when he was through. And I thought Tony Bennett could still belt ‘em out …
Anyway, that’s pretty much the ballgame, folks. For once, cameras weren’t verboten, so I may be able to post a few photos sometime (from the front row, too; they’ll let anyone in these days …), but not at present. I’ll make reference in a future posting if I get them uploaded.
Will Peter Falk don the raincoat one last time? September 6, 2007Posted by jackal in : TV , 2 comments
A story has been floating around news sites for a few months now: namely that NBC-Universal TV have a script, Columbo’s Last Case, which is envisaged as a series finale and fond farewell to the character who first appeared on screens (as played by Peter Falk, anyway) in 1968’s Prescription: Murder. The studio are keen, Falk himself likes the script, and given his age - 80 next week - and 2008 being the show’s 40th anniversary, now is unquestionably the time for a proper send-off.
ABC, however, aren’t interested. Columbo’s home network for 20 years has turned down Universal’s proposed movie, apparently because they’re now focused on young audiences and, to paraphrase NBC-Universal’s head of programming, no network wants to buy a movie with an 80-year old lead. It’s a bizarre decision, given the solid ratings achieved by the last movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife. It won’t cost much, and people will tune in, so why not make it? Cable network USA, along with several others, turned it down as well, leaving NBC-Universal and Columbo fans alike thinking “well, ain’t that fucking marvellous.” Actually, series co-creator William Link puts it rather more eloquently in the article linked above: ”Ageism is rampant in Hollywood, at all levels, but this might be more than ageism. The detective shows on the broadcast networks are all police procedurals dominated by endless discussions of forensic evidence. Columbo was a classy, clever, witty show that challenged you to use your mind. It wasn’t something designed to just race across your retina. It didn’t rely on violence or technical jargon. It was a talky show, and there was an elegance to the talk, and that’s just the kind of thing that terrifies the networks these days.”
The idea of making a new instalment of a comfortable, old-fashioned show like Columbo, with an octogenarian lead, is on many levels dubious, but that’s simply not the point. The show lost any trace of reality years ago, as Falk continued to don the raincoat and pound the streets throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. Even Columbo fans know it’s ridiculous to bring Falk back again, now grey-haired and grizzled like an old fisherman, but viewers deserve a proper farewell. Hell, I only grew up watching repeats on afternoon TV in the 80s and 90s; there are people who’ve watched this show for four decades. This is the chance to finally send the character off into retirement with a little class and warm sentiment. But no. Let’s make another reality show. About rabbits. In jetpacks. On the moon.
Anyway, how about a little history? Despite the original Columbo pilot being produced in 1968, it wasn’t until 1971 that it became a regular on TV screens. As part of NBC’s “Mystery Movie” revolving schedule, Columbo was greenlit, and aired every three weeks, originally alternating with McCloud and McMillan and Wife. It blossomed into a hit for NBC, although they were concerned about the reliance on a single character. Asked to give Columbo a partner, the series creators reluctantly agreed, and created the lieutenant’s now-famous comic sidekick … his nameless, bone-idle bassett hound, known only as “dog”.
The show, meanwhile, went from strength to strength, powered by talented young directors such as Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme, and penned by writers like Steven Bochco and Jonathan Latimer. Guest stars piled up like (for want of a better metaphor) garbage: a steady flow of big names, most admittedly past their peak, but still impressive catches. I can’t think of another show that boasts anything remotely close to this array of guests: Anthony Andrews, Eddie Albert, Don Ameche, Diane Baker, Gene Barry, Richard Basehart, Anne Baxter, Theodore Bikel, Honor Blackman, Johnny Cash, John Cassavetes, Jack Cassidy (thrice), Billy Connolly, Robert Conrad, Jackie Cooper, Lindsay Crouse, Robert Culp (thrice), Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly (twice), Blythe Danner, Faye Dunaway, Dick Van Dyke, Samantha Eggar, Maurice Evans, José Ferrer, Nina Foch, Anne Francis, Jeff Goldblum, Ruth Gordon, Lee Grant, George Hamilton (twice), Laurence Harvey, Edith Head (as herself!), Arthur Hill, Sam Jaffe, Louis Jourdan, Richard Kiley, Martin Landau, Janet Leigh, Robert Loggia, Myrna Loy, Ida Lupino, Ross Martin, Kevin McCarthy, Roddy McDowall, Patrick McGoohan (four times - he and Falk are good friends), Vera Miles, Ray Milland (twice), Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen (twice), Leonard Nimoy, John Payne, Donald Pleasence, Suzanne Pleshette, Vincent Price, Clive Revill, Ron Rifkin, Martin Sheen, William Shatner (twice), Mickey Spillane, Rod Steiger, Dean Stockwell, Rip Torn, Trish Van Devere, Robert Vaughn (twice), Oskar Werner, John Williams, Nicol Williamson, Burt Young, Anthony Zerbe and probably more that aren’t listed on Wikipedia, and that I can’t recall offhand.
Althouth Columbo was a stalwart for NBC throughout the 1970s, the rotating nature of the format meant that only 45 movies in total had been produced by the time it was cancelled in 1978. At its peak, in movies like Murder by the Book, Try and Catch Me or Murder Under Glass, Columbo was superb television drama: tightly plotted, directed, beautifully acted by seasoned veterans, and with occasional moments of comic genius, usually involving the dishevelled lieutenant being mistaken for a hobo or other undesirable character. On occasion, the murderer is a more sympathetic character than the victim, leading to an odd split in the audience identification as he is slowly pinned down by the lieutenant. The fine episode Swan Song is probably the best example of the “sympathetic” villain, due largely to Johnny Cash’s outstanding performance.
Cancellation was the end of the road for Columbo until, over a decade later, ABC revived the show. Rounding up Falk, his raincoat, dog and battered Peugeot (the last of which had to be tracked down across America because Universal had sold it in 1981), Columbo returned - a little older and more crumpled - in 1989, and has been on the air intermittently ever since: 24 further TV movies, the most recent in 2003, for a grand total to date of 69.
The “new” movies generally aren’t up to the original standard. The weaker ones feel like TV movies too much of the time, and the occasional lack of a big name guest star does no good. There are several solid instalments among them, though: Butterfly in Shades of Grey, Murder, Smoke and Shadows and Columbo Goes to the Guillotine to name just three. The most recent movie, Columbo Likes the Nightlife, with a 75-year old Falk, is for my money the best episode of Columbo since the 1970s. It bodes well for a grand finale, and what would be the show’s 70th movie. Whether we’ll get it, or whether the lieutenant will just be left hanging, remains the big question. NBC-Universal’s plan now is to round up sufficient interest from foreign TV sales that a US network will agree to fund the difference. As Mark Dawidziak remarks at the end of his article linked above: No killer, no matter how ingenious, ever defeated Lt. Columbo. The insidious combination of ageism and demographics might manage this trick. And that would be a crime.
“Lee Marvin IS Slob” August 24, 2007Posted by jackal in : Films , add a comment
… thus opens Leonard Maltin’s review of Shack Out on 101, and it’s a concise summation of the main reason to watch. Shack is one of a kind: a trashy, tongue-in-cheek thriller, utterly loopy, incredibly fun, and as clear an example of ‘cult classic’ as you’ll ever find.
Born out of the McCarthy era, Shack sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from a po-faced “Red Scare” movie like Big Jim McLain. Instead, Shack takes the premise of a Commie spy ring and immerses it in a movie so knowingly daft and filled with the absurd that the overall effect is … unique.
The setting is a shabby, run-down greasy spoon on coastal highway 101. The owner, Keenan Wynn, has got it bad for his waitress Kotty (Terry Moore), but she only has eyes for for a research professor (Frank Lovejoy) who is one of the shack’s few regular patrons. Harbouring more carnal desires for “the tomato”, as he refers to Kotty, is the resident cook, ”Slob”. He’s a lazy bum, alternately violent and charming, described as ”an 8 cylinder body and a 2 cylinder mind” and Lee Marvin is magnetic in the role. In the film’s opening moments he ogles the sunbathing Terry Moore before pouncing on her like a lecherous panther; this is no good guy, and yet Marvin brings so much humour to the role, with a twinkle in his eye, that he steals every scene.
As Columbo would say, though, there’s just one more thing: underneath the bed in his grubby room, Slob keeps a padlocked chest containing US nuclear secrets; for when he’s not busy frying burgers, Slob is a Communist master spy, running a network of agents with an iron fist under the noses of those around him.
That’s the movie in a nutshell: the dangerous, hush-hush dealings of Slob, trading in national secrets hidden inside a box of seashells, contrasted with the supremely silly day-to-day happenings at the diner: Keenan Wynn and buddy Whit Bissell preparing for their snorkelling vacation by hunting the plastic shark hanging on the wall, or Wynn and Marvin spending their free time engaged in a hilarious weight lifting session.
It’s the careful balance between the absurd and the deadly serious that makes the film so inoffensive and enjoyable. There’s powerful business depicted herein: Communist infiltration, treachery, cold-blooded murder, but the tone of near-parody for the lighter scenes pulls the film back from ever taking itself particularly seriously. It’s also worth noting that - as with another similarly themed film from 1955, A Bullet for Joey - the word “Communist” isn’t uttered once, although the implication is obvious.
Technically Shack is no great shakes: evidently low-budget, and filmed almost entirely on the large, shabbily dressed diner set, it has something of a “TV play” atmosphere about it; the lighting and setups are largely routine, and only in a couple of scenes do the visuals impress: once in a tense confrontation between Lovejoy and Marvin, their faces lit only by a swinging ceiling lamp, and a tense moment late in the film when Kotty, left alone with Slob, creeps through the pitch black diner to the payphone to call for help.
With the exception of Marvin, the performances are fairly unremarkable. Faced with pretty superficial characterizations, the cast do an OK job, and the lovely Terry Moore is very easy on the eyes, but everybody pales next to Marv. Still in the anonymous henchman stage of his career, this was the same year he impressed in Bad Day at Black Rock and Violent Saturday, but neither comes close to the sheer glee visible here. Given a good-sized, meaty role, Marvin tears the movie apart and re-stitches it around himself; whether he’s merely lurking in the background of a dialogue scene, or throwing Terry Moore around like a rag doll (I bet she still has the bruises), Marvin commands your attention. Without him, we’d have a fairly flat, half-hearted thriller; he elevates it to trash classic.
Despite the all-too obvious flaws, this is one film I know I’ll be revisiting again and again in future. A DVD release, you ask? Well, we can dream …
“Good morning Mr Briggs …” August 14, 2007Posted by jackal in : TV , add a comment
I’ve been watching Mission: Impossible again from the start in recent months, Paramount having finally begun to release the original 60s show on DVD (the first two seasons are out now; the third is coming in November). I remember the show fondly from my childhood; even then it was a quarter century old, repeated on Channel 4 each Sunday morning.
Now, spruced up on DVD, the show is 40 years old and just as entertaining. The first season is my era, with the original and, in my opinion, best cast: team leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), ’man of a million faces’ Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), glamorous Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain, married to Landau at the time), electronics expert Barney Collier (Greg Morris) and strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus).
Everybody remembers Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and seems to forget his predecessor. Graves took over as team leader in season two after Steven Hill was fired, reportedly for being difficult on set and (as an Orthodox Jew) refusing to work on the sabbath, often throwing the show behind schedule. Graves is an excellent lead, but for my money, Hill is just as good on screen, always cool and understated in his performances. Once Graves took over, he stayed for the duration of the show’s run, while the rest of the original cast were gradually whittled down. In came the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Ann Warren and others, and when the show ended after 7 seasons only Greg Morris and Peter Lupus remained from the early days.
Watching those early episodes again recently, the show retains its lustre. Each episode is plotted to within an inch of its life, and while the general premise of the stories can get repetitive, the scripts - the ‘impossible missions’ themselves - are remarkably fresh. The primary cast - Hill/Graves, Landau, Bain - seem to relish the chance to essentially put on a different personality each week, as their characters go undercover in an ever-changing procession of false identities. Familiar faces frequently guest star as villains or allies: Lloyd Bridges, John Vernon, William Shatner, Mark Lenard, William Windom, John Colicos, George Takei, Diane Baker, Anthony Zerbe, James B. Sikking and more. The heavy use of the studio backlot and obvious LA location shooting to double for foreign locales does become a little tiresome, but the show overcomes its limitations through the ingenuity and pace of the action. It goes without saying that Lalo Schifrin’s driving theme tune - one of the greatest ever - is an immense asset, and the brief teaser presented during each episode’s title sequence is always a highlight.
The one thing lacking on Paramount’s DVD releases of the series is bonus material of any description. A decent retrospective documentary would have been ideal, but even a little effort spent tracking down surviving cast members for a commentary or two would have added a welcome touch of nostalgia.
Looking at the original line-up, Martin Landau is undoubtedly the best-known nowadays, as famous for North by Northwest or his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood as he is for this show; Steven Hill found recognition decades later as the gruff District Attorney in Law & Order throughout the 90s; Barbara Bain is still on-screen too, most recently in a brief guest spot on CSI. I was curious about series stalwarts Greg Morris and Peter Lupus, though, neither of whom went on to anything significant.
Unfortunately Morris died in 1996, but it turns out that Lupus, now owner of a health supplements business, is still going strong - literally. In 2002, at the age of 70, Lupus set a world record for weight-lifting endurance, shifting a total of 76,280 lbs in under the alotted 30 minutes (27 to be exact) and immediately promised to come back on his 75th birthday and break the record again. True to his word, he did exactly that: during a birthday celebration held at a California gym last month, family and friends including his old co-star Martin Landau, together with numerous TV crews, watched the 75-year old break his own record, lifting 77,560 lbs in 24 minutes and 50 seconds. I tip my hat to the guy.