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“Lee Marvin IS Slob” August 24, 2007

Posted 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.

Whit Bissell, Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn

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.

Marvin gets fresh with Moore

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.

Kotty and Slob in a rare friendly moment

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.

Slob pumping iron

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.

snorkelling above water

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.

He's behind you ...

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, 2007

Posted 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.

Steven Hill and Martin Landau

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).

Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter

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.

Greg Morris and Peter Lupus

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.

Peter Graves as Jim Phelps

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.


Lupus during last month's record attempt

Film Noir still MIA August 1, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , 3 comments

It’s been a year since I wrote Film Noir MIA, highlighting some of my favourite noirs that were unavailable on commercial DVD. Checking through the list again recently, I was happy to observe that several of the 12 titles have been released, or are on the slate for the near future. Woman in the Window and Macao have arrived on R1 and The Glass Key on R2. Ministry of Fear is also due for R2 release in September, while Dangerous Crossing has appeared on Fox’s website for future R1 release (although, this being Fox, who knows whether it’ll actually show up).

In light of those releases, and since I’ve watched a lot more films noir over the past 12 months, I thought I’d revise and expand my original list. Below you’ll find a rundown of my favourite noirs still sitting unreleased in the studio vaults. Some are perhaps more crime than noir and, as before, I must stress that it’s entirely biased to my tastes: there are many, many other noirs that are also unavailable. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

20. Saigon (1948)

The fourth and final screen pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake is a lightweight but enjoyable romp that finds them caught up with shady dealings in the titular locale. My take on it is here.

19. The Glass Web (1953)

Edward G. Robinson and John Forsythe are producers of a reality crime TV show; when the woman both men are involved with is killed, suspicion falls on one of the pair, much to the delight of the other. An interesting premise plays out in rather far-fetched but enjoyable fashion.

18. Human Desire (1954)

After The Big Heat, Fritz Lang reunites with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame for this smouldering drama of infidelity and murder. Broderick Crawford co-stars.

17. The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

Probably the most obscure screen outing for Philip Marlowe, this short and snappy adaptation of Chandler’s The High Window has George Montgomery as a breezy, wisecracking incarnation of the private eye.

16. The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

John Garfield is a troubled veteran of the Spanish Civil War who finds himself sucked into a Nazi spy plot. Great thriller co-starring Maureen O’Hara as the alluring girl he falls for along the way.

15. The Sleeping City (1950)

Absorbing docu-noir with Richard Conte as a cop sent undercover at Bellevue Hospital to investigate a string of apparent suicides; Coleen Gray co-stars. I previously looked at the film here.

14. Nocturne (1946)

Solid detective story with George Raft as a cop investigating the puzzling murder of a womanizing music composer. Lynn Bari co-stars.

13. Conflict (1945)

One of the most notable Bogart titles not on DVD is this interesting little melodrama. He plays a murdering husband who is troubled by a series of odd happenings that suggest his wife may not be dead after all. Alexis Smith and Sydney Greenstreet co-star.

12. 99 River Street (1953)

Tough noir, with John Payne as an ex-boxer who has one hell of a bad night. Accused of murdering his wife, he’s on the run, desperate to find the killer before he leaves the city. Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes co-star.

11. Johnny Angel (1945)

An atmospheric thriller with George Raft as tough guy Johnny Angel: a merchant navy captain determined to find his father’s killer. Claire Trevor co-stars.

10. They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

Robert Young’s womanising past comes back to haunt him when he finds himself on trial for murder. Will the jury believe his outlandish explanation of events? Susan Hayward and Jane Greer co-star in this atmospheric noir.

9. The Window (1949)

A brilliant performance from child actor Bobby Driscoll anchors this gripping tale of a young boy who witnesses a murder in a neighbouring apartment, but finds that nobody believes him - except the killer! Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale also star.

8. The Web (1947)

A private detective smells a rat when a simple bodyguarding job goes badly wrong, and sets out to discover what’s really going on. Edmond O’Brien, Ella Raines, William Bendix and Vincent Price are the quartet of noir all-stars populating this tightly-plotted thriller.

7. A substantial portion of Dick Powell’s career! (Cornered, Cry Danger, Johnny O’Clock, PitfallTo the Ends of the Earth)

There are just SO many Dick Powell noirs unreleased, it’s easier to bunch them all together. Here are a quintet of fine thrillers, all of which deserve to be more widely seen. Cornered was apparently due for release in WB’s new Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 4 boxset, but lost its place to the inferior (IMHO) caper The Big Steal.

6. My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

One of the finest “B” pictures ever made: Nina Foch is excellent as the titular heroine, kidnapped by Dame Mady Whitty and her psycho son for their nefarious scheme of changed identities and murder. It’s short and modestly budgeted, but terrific entertainment.

5. Phantom Lady (1944)

Top-notch early mystery from Robert Siodmak; the lovely Ella Raines is an intrepid secretary who must track down the elusive ‘phantom lady’, whose testimony is the only thing that can prove Raines’ boss innocent of murder.

4. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

One of the very first examples of true noir, this wonderfully shot, nightmarish thriller is a real treat. Peter Lorre shines as the loony killer of the title.

3. The Breaking Point (1950)

John Garfield and Patricia Neal star in director Michael Curtiz’s take on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Sticking more faithfully to the novel than the 1944 Hawks film, this is a powerful noir flavoured with despair, populated by flawed, human characters, and featuring a blistering performance from Garfield.

2. The Bribe (1949)

Robert Taylor is a federal agent sent to the Central American island of Carlotta to investigate shady business dealings. But as Taylor begins to fall for the suspect’s wife, the case gets a whole lot more complicated. Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton, John Hodiak and Vincent Price complete the impressive line-up for this hot and humid noir.

1. Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Don’t be put off by the dodgy title - this is a beguiling, poetic noir directed by Robert Montgomery. He also stars, as Lucky Gagin, a disilluisoned WWII veteran who travels to a backwater Mexican bordertown with revenge in mind, and the Feds on his tail. Gagin finds help in the form of Pilar (Wanda Hendrix) a naive yet enigmatic teenage girl who follows him everywhere, and the hard-drinking, fiercely loyal Pancho (Thomas Gomez). The straightforward plot gradually peels back to reveal rich and meaningful depths to this forgotten gem.

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