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The First Great Train Robbery April 20, 2008

Posted 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.

Rambo’s Back October 20, 2007

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^ 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, 2007

Posted 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.

Jean as a child

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.

dancing with Ty Power in CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE

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.

an early publicity shot

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.

relaxing between takes, circa 1950

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.

between takes on NIAGARA, with Marilyn Monroe and Max Showalter

on location for Viva Zapata!

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.

Jean has a ball as ANNE OF THE INDIES

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.

becoming suspicious in NIAGARA

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.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Jean's finest hour

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.

with Jeanne Crain in VICKI

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.

THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN

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).

BROKEN LANCE, with Robert Wagner

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.

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER, with Joseph Cotten

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.

promoting BROKEN LANCE with Wagner, 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.

Jean on the day of her wedding to Stuart Cramer

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.

A MAN CALLED PETER

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.

Cover star back in the 50s

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.

Jean at the 1970 Academy Awards

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.

Howard Hughes in 1947

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.

VICKI, 1953

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.

MURDER SHE WROTE, 1988

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.

Jean photographed in 1989

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, 2007

Posted 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.

receiving his star on the Walk of Fame last week

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.

Dalton, Moore, Brosnan, at Cubby Broccoli's memorial service 10 years ago.

Christopher Lee at the Oxford Student Union October 8, 2007

Posted 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 GunHowever, 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.

Oh my.

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.

“Lee Marvin IS Slob” August 24, 2007

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… 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 …

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.

Arnie turns 60! July 30, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films , 1 comment so far

Governor Schwarzenegger

A short update today, just to mark the fact that the Austrian Oak, Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, is 60 years old. The 7 time Mr Olympia, worldwide movie icon and Governor of California has come a long way since his early days growing up in the small village of Thal, Austria. Say what you will about his oversized ego or wooden acting, I’m still one of those who find him an incredibly inspirational figure (BTW, Laurence Leamer’s 2005 biography comes highly recommended from these quarters). Now in his second and final term as California Governor, there are already whispers of a run for senate next. Many happy returns to the, er, old guy; I hope I wear half as well.

The Limey (1999) July 22, 2007

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“Tell me … Tell me! Tell me about Jenny!”

With those furiously spoken disembodied words, The Limey opens to blackness. The Who’s thunderous “The Seeker” strikes up, and the speaker emerges from the darkness at the start of his tale, out of focus, the memories taking time to coalesce. After a few moments Wilson, ageing London gangster, becomes discernible, striding out of LAX airport and into the warm, unfamiliar California sunshine. As Wilson, Terence Stamp burns up the screen, blue eyes firing like diamonds in a face so gracefully weather-worn you feel he could strike a match off his cheek. Wilson is a man with a purpose, and you’d better not get in his way.

Wilson picks up a cab at the airport and travels in silence, his thoughts humming in his head while his voice hums on the soundtrack. Passing traffic barely registers. Wilson is fresh out of prison, an unreformed London gangster, one of the old-school. He’s lived a violent life, full of high times and long stretches, but it’s a different world now, one that doesn’t recognise him, let alone afford him respect. When Wilson buys a gun in LA, the dealers are kids, still in high school. Wilson’s confusion and shame at involving children in his business registers potently on Stamp’s face. Wilson’s one true happiness in life was his daughter Jenny (Melissa George). She grew up well in spite of him, moved to LA, became involved with a wealthy record producer, and died in a fiery car crash. Wilson doesn’t believe it was an accident. He’s out to find the truth, he’s a man with nothing to lose, and he doesn’t fuck around. 

Jenny (Melissa George)

From the very outset, director Steven Soderbergh and his editor Sarah Flack tell the film like a jigsaw puzzle; it’s disjointed, carefully constructed to be almost chaotic but always provide the viewer with the information needed. This is Wilson’s story as he remembers it: fractured into moments, pieces of one conversation mixed with another, fused to the memories they evoke, bringing back old regrets and treasured days. Flashbacks to Wilson’s youth are taken from Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow, in which Stamp played a thief who ends up in prison. It’s an unusual move, and one that works beautifully. We cut frequently to Wilson, seated on a plane, his face serene, yet sad. To begin, we can only assume this is Wilson before his arrival; only as the story reaches its end does it become apparent that he’s on his way home, looking back over his trip. 

Music and sound are used expertly in the movie, with Wilson’s reminiscences scored to near-silence, broken only by the same few haunting notes played over and over, together with Stamp’s own indistinct humming and the tinkling of windchimes. It’s haunting, lyrical and effective.

A flashback from POOR COW

Wilson hooks up with Eduardo, an old friend of Jenny’s from her acting class. Soderbergh favourite Luis Guzman plays the sidekick, an unusually dramatic role for him, and his turn is understated and genuine. Wilson and Eduardo are strangers from different worlds, they barely speak the same language, and yet both have one thing in common: a sense of duty to the girl they both knew and cared for. Bonded by this, they become a most unlikely and oddly touching team, and the culture clash between cockney gangster and semi-reformed LA crook also gives Soderbergh opportunity to inject a little levity to the script:

Wilson: “I’m going to have a butchers round.”

Eduardo: “Who you gonna butcher?!”

Wilson (patiently): “Butcher’s hook: look.”

Wilson and Eduardo

From Eduardo’s information, Wilson learns the name of the man Jenny was involved with: Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), and the location of a depot where Valentine’s associates operate. Wilson strolls in off the street, confuses the obviously shady workers long enough to find Valentine’s address, then takes a thorough beating with calm indifference. With Wilson dumped on the street outside, Soderbergh executes the film’s most memorable shot: Stamp, emerging from below frame, untangles his battered frame and stands tall; he removes a pistol hidden in his waistband and resolutely plods back into the depot. Shots ring out; there are cries for help. As the camera, still without cutting, moves in on the building, a sole survivor flees as Stamp emerges, his face twisted with rage: “You tell him! You tell him I’m coming! TELL HIM I’M FUCKING COMING!”

Wilson rises again

News of this gets back to Terry Valentine through his no-nonsense security advisor Avery (Barry Newman). Standing on the overhang of his grand house in the LA hills, a beautiful starlet swimming in the pool, with “King Midas in Reverse” jangling on the soundtrack, the handsome and well-groomed Valentine looks like the man who has everything. Fonda is perfectly cast opposite Stamp: two once-golden 60s icons, playing rivals in a film that dwells on themes of age, memories and regrets, men past their time.

Valentine's place

Fonda makes Terry Valentine everything Wilson is not: relaxed, reflectful, mellow; yet underneath is unrest, even a sense of desperation. Valentine’s high days are long behind him, the sun is setting, and he’s clinging on by his fingertips. In that first scene, Valentine stands in twilight, the warm California sun fading below the horizon, and the implication is clear. Later, there’s a quiet little scene in which he describes the halcyon days of the 1960s to his young girlfriend; Fonda is subdued, mournful and quite wonderful.

Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda)

Valentine holds a party the next day, into which Wilson and Eduardo crash. In a striking sequence, Wilson’s repeated fantasies about stepping up and shooting Valentine dead are played out, editing together multiple angles of Wilson’s revolver swooping out like a coiled snake. Wilson won’t go through with it yet, however, telling Eduardo: “he’s got to know why.”

The plot thickens: Valentine authorises Avery to hire hitmen, but they fail. Wilson discovers from the authorities that Valentine is suspected of laundering money for drug dealers. As the net closes in on the panicked music mogul, he flees to his vacation home along the coast, but Wilson is on his tail.

Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren)

Intertwined with this, somewhere in a quiet alleyway just off the main story, Eduardo leads Wilson to Jenny’s acting coach, Elaine (Lesley Anne Warren). A calm and quiet person, she is not a natural mesh with Wilson, yet they develop a careful friendship; through their talks he is able to put his memories into order, mull over the possibilities and family life he missed out on, even though he doesn’t regret his choices. It’s in these quiet moments that Stamp’s faultless performance is at its peak. When he allows a tiny crack in Wilson’s armour, a melancholic smile for the daughter whose childhood he watched largely from behind prison bars, Stamp’s delivery is heartbreaking.

Elaine: “Do you even remember the last time you saw her?”

Wilson: “I remember every time I saw her. I watched her grow up … in increments.”

Wilson recalls his daughter's childhood

*SPOILERS BELOW* 

It’s this same, almost serene Wilson, who ultimately emerges at the film’s climax. Having cornered the terrified Terrry Valentine after a bloody and superbly filmed gunfight, the film’s first, then-detached words are finally placed in context. “Tell me,” Stamp snarls like a wolf, “tell me about Jenny!

The now pathetic, cowering figure of Terry Valentine tells the whole guilty tale. Wilson could, and perhaps should - at least by his code - kill him, but instead he steps back, his mind overflowing with conflicting memories and emotions. Finally, without explanation, he walks away. Whatever he took from Valentine’s story, it was enough to complete his cathartic journey.

Wilson bids farewell

The Limey is a film I didn’t fully appreciate upon its initial cinema release; I don’t think I was expecting something so stylised or non-linear in its narrative. Since then I’ve watched it three or four times, and it grows in my estimation with each repeat viewing. I’d now say that it’s a minor classic: rich, haunting, beautifully photographed and with a magnificent central performance from Terence Stamp.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) July 15, 2007

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Right from its opening moments, with the camera sweeping majestically across Manhattan while a beautiful rendition by Sting of the classic title song plays over the credits, Someone to Watch Over Me is as effortlessly cool and jazzy as can be.

I’ve always been a fan of Ridley Scott, but as a youngster this film seemed, quite honestly, dull. I think it was the very 80s appearance of the film (hair, fashions, etc.), and the fact that it’s less a thriller, more a romance with a thriller subplot. Watching it again recently, it was almost like a different movie to the one I remembered. The focus on the romance in the story worked extremely well for me this time, simply because it’s so engagingly portrayed. Scott gets the initial trigger for the plot (Mimi Rogers’ wealthy Manhattan socialite witnesses a murder backstage at a party) out of the way in a short but thrilling sequence within the first ten minutes. It’s a premise familiar from The Narrow Margin and other thrillers, and there’s no attempt at anything particularly original here. The thriller aspect is strictly routine, necessary only to set up the slow burning romance which develops between Rogers and the happily married detective (Tom Berenger) assigned to protect her until the killer is found.

The obvious construction of the romance - he’s a blue-collar cop from Queens; she’s a privileged heiress with her own chauffeur - is nonetheless entirely beliveable. Scott’s vision of Manhattan is warm, opulent and inherently glamorous, beautifully photographed as always; when Keegan finishes a shift, we cut straight to him trudging home on the subway to his working class neighbourhood. Scott combines his trademark visuals with a striking use of music to great effect, most noticeably during Berenger’s first visit to Rogers’ apartment. While the camera follows him in grand sweeps as he marvels at the scale of his surroundings, Vivaldi’s “Gloria” plays on the soundtrack, perfectly underscoring the character’s reactions. Classical music is used throughout the scenes in Rogers’ apartment, creating an inviting atmosphere, a refuge for Keegan and amplifying the movie’s relaxed, mellow pace.

The action/thriller element is held back so that when it does come, its impact is only heightened. In the film’s best sequence, the threat to Rogers finally reaches her apartment itself, and in a tense, well-staged set-piece, it’s Keegan’s new-found familiarity with his environment that gives him the edge over the killer.

Crucially, though, it’s the performances that sell the story. Rogers delivers strongly in a role requiring a mixture of strength and inner vulnerability. Berenger, meanwhile, is truly excellent. In Detective Mike Keegan he creates a rounded, flawed hero, whose every move rings true: from his first unsure, embarrassed meeting with his witness, through to their eventual affair and its consequences, Berenger charts his character’s emotional journey with skill, his motivations always well-defined. Seeing a performance like this underlines how unfortunate it is that Berenger now finds himself stuck in DTV hell, a thoroughly undeserving fate.

Lorraine Bracco, years before The Sopranos would bring her wider recognition, gives fine support in the somewhat thankless role of Keegan’s wife. Andreas Katsulas is perfectly cast as the ruthless killer, and it’s surely his performance here which landed him the role of the ‘one-armed man’ in the excellent big screen remake of The Fugitive.

The only false note in the film is the climax. Up to this point the story has existed in a beliveable world, with character behaviour grounded in reality, but it does sadly go a little off the rails for a typically OTT Hollywood finish. It didn’t ruin the movie for me at all, though, and it does recover for a nice, understated ending that falls somewhere between happy and downbeat. This is, in my new opinion, an excellent, very stylish romantic thriller, and unfortunately somewhat underappreciated.

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