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Spine-chilling TV suspense--57 years ago!
How strange it is that of the movies and TV shows I saw in my childhood (the 1950s), the ones I remember the most vividly are the musicals and the scary ones. Among the latter, I've never forgotten "The Tall Dark Man", a presentation of the 60-minute "Robert Montgomery Presents" anthology series. It gave me nightmares for weeks, and I still recall scenes from it and the reason why I watched it. "I Remember Mama" was one of my and my older sister's favorite shows of that era, and we especially liked the child actress Robin Morgan who played the youngest child of that Norwegian-American family. She must have been the reason why we tuned into "Robert Montgomery Presents" that night, and our parents must have been away that evening (leaving us with our grandmother) or they most certainly would have shut off the TV had they known what kind of program we were watching (heck, I still hadn't forgiven them for not allowing me to see Marilyn Monroe in "Niagara" 3 years earlier; yes, the previews for "Niagara" were indeed lurid but then so was the ahead-of-its-time movie!). Anyway, in "The Tall Dark Man" young Ms. Morgan portrayed (and quite convincingly, too) a grade school youngster ridiculed by her classmates for constantly spinning wild stories from her overactive imagination. One day, she dozes off during a boring class, and when she wakes up, she peers out the window next to her desk and sees in the distance a murder being committed by a "tall dark man". Naturally, her teacher and students don't believe a word she says and--though I can't recall the plotting at this point (probably she forgot something when school is out and goes back into the now darkened building to retrieve it) finds herself locked into the school along with the murderer who had seen her spying on him when he committed the murder. His homicidal pursuit of the terrified girl, through corridors and empty classrooms plunged into darkness, was the most frightening thing I'd ever seen in my young life, and while my sister urged me to turn off the TV, I persisted in watching the program to the bitter end if only to see whether the poor girl survived this nerve-shattering ordeal. 20-plus years later, when I was similarly scared out of my wits when I saw the now-classic "Halloween", that film evoked memories of "The Tall Dark Man" and I figured its writer/director John Carpenter must have also been inspired by this now-forgotten TV program of so many years back. With Hollywood currently losing millions by unnecessarily making lousy remakes of movies barely 20 years old, why doesn't some young talented filmmaker scour the archives and do a feature-length theatrical-film version of "The Tall Dark Man"? Without any gore, please. The original was terrifying enough without one drop of blood. One more question: I don't recall whether this program was telecast live or was taped. Even if it was "live", a kinescope might well still be in existence. Does anyone know where I might find a copy of it? Many thanks!
Miss Robin Crusoe (1954)
Entertaining low-budget fun; Ms. Blake & Nader save it . . .
For the past year or so, Turner Classic Movies has been digging up several forgotten obscurities that probably haven't seen the light of day since their original release dates. Such an oddity is MISS ROBIN CRUSOE, a 1954 Fox pickup shown in a pristine, beautifully Pathecolored print this morning at 6 AM. The two other reviews have gleefully pointed out this unpretentious programmer's shortcomings. In defense, I'd like to list its merits. For one, while one critic griped that the movie was obviously shot on a studio soundstage, this is untrue. Several scenes were filmed on location with the stars cavorting in front of spectacular Pacific Ocean vistas(no process shots here!). Then-newcomers Amanda Blake and George Nader could easily have sleepwalked thru the proceedings but act with such sincerity and conviction that it's no wonder both of them quickly went on to stardom: Ms. Blake on TV's legendary 20-year series "Gunsmoke", while Nader was quickly signed to a Universal-International contract (and starred in such 'A' features as "Unguarded Moment", "Away All Boats", "Four Girls in Town", "The Second Greatest Sex" and the unjustly overlooked superior second-feature "Man Afraid"--I've always been grateful to this gentleman for responding to my fan letter, at the age of 8, with a personally autographed 5x7 photo and a hand-written letter of appreciation!). Feminists could write a fascinating thesis on this gender-reversed take on Dafoe's classic novel. (The censors must have been comatose when, towards the conclusion, Ms. Blake and Nader engage in an oceanside coupling that, for pure eroticism, outdoes the similar-but-much-celebrated clinch in "From Here to Eternity" and did I detect a sapphic undertone in the scene where the female Friday gazes at and touches the sleeping Ms. Blake's body?) All of this packed into an action-packed 73-minute running time, scored by the then-unknown Elmer Bernstein. I'm by no means recommending that you go out of your way to track down "Miss Robin Crusoe" but the next time (if ever) it turns up on TCM, you might give it a try. It's certainly far more fun than the Peter O'Toole/Richard Roundtree "revisionist" version of Dafoe's tale, the godawful "Man Friday"!
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
George Peppard--Audrey Hepburn's Finest Leading Man
Though I had always been charmed by Audrey Hepburn and her movies of the 1950s, it wasn't until "Breakfast" that I truly fell in love with her. But what bothers me is that George Peppard is rarely mentioned in tributes to the movie, and when he is, the comments about him are usually derogatory. In her previous films, Ms. Hepburn's leading men always seemed old enough to be her father. "Breakfast" broke that creepy tradition by casting a young, handsome, sensitive newcomer named George Peppard, and the chemistry between them is electric. Instead of portraying his role as a traditional two-fisted matinée idol, Peppard quietly underplays, revealing his character well-aware of being a flawed young man, unhappy at being a failed writer, only able to pay his bills by being the kept man of an East Side harridan (Ms. Neal's portrayal of this role is almost as much a caricature as Mr. Rooney's as Holly's Japanese neighbor). So let's give Peppard (also superb in "Home From the Hill") credit for being Ms. Hepburn's most appealing romantic lead--until six years later when Albert Finney (seven years her junior) stole her heart on-and-off screen in the sadly underrated masterpiece "Two for the Road". Incidentally, when my snooty friends told me a long time ago how inferior the movie version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was to Capote's brilliant novella, I finally read the damned thing and loathed it! Everything that is so magical about the movie is NOT in the book, including the character of Paul, portrayed so subtly and sincerely by George Peppard. He, Ms. Hepburn, Blake Edwards, Henry Mancini, George Axelrod et all may not have known it at the time, but they created what I consider the finest movie of all-time that, 50 years later, still sparkles like an exquisite Tiffany's bauble.
Hollywood Kills (2006)
Avoid this amateurish garbage at all costs!!!
Normally, I wouldn't waste my time commenting on swill like Hollywood KILLS but since no one has yet to review it, as a public service, here goes: Recently I discovered that my Time-Warner cable service had added a new channel to its lineup entitled "Chiller". Fair enough. Horror films and thrillers (even junky ones) have always been one of my favorite genres. My first sampling on "Chiller", a 2006 gem entitled "Hollywood Kills", certainly had a promising premise: four young hopefuls are lured to the empty studio of a once-well-known filmmaker with promises of fame and fortune after they "audition" for him. Enough said. The IMDb lists the budget of this cinematic turd as $200,000. An extremely low budget? Yes, but I still would like to know: where did the budget go? Certainly not on the director (the worst), the actors (inept and repulsive), the script (or was this monstrosity improvised?), the production (if you're longing for those bottom-of-the-barrel cheapies cranked out in the 1940s by such poverty-row studios as PRC and Monogram, "Hollywood Kills" is for you!), etc. I would venture to say that, since this thing was made in 2006, it was an attempt to cash in on the mercifully short-lived popularity of such garbage as the "Saw" series, "Hostel" and "Vacancy", which by any stretch of the imagination could not even be called thrillers or even slasher flicks, but a disreputable genre known as "torture porn" that focused ad nauseum on revolting closeups of the torture and dismemberment of its protagonists. However, even on this despicable level, "Hollywood Kills" is a boring disaster. I doubt if I shall ever again sample the wares of the "Chiller" channel, which is so putrid it makes me take back every negative comment I've made about the Sci-Fi channel (whose mostly self-produced monster-on-a-rampage epics at least provide amusingly tacky CGI special effects, fairly generous budgets, and employment for once-popular actors like Dean Cain and Christopher Atkins). Summing up, please don't waste one minute of your time on imbecilic junk like "Hollywood Kills" or, for that matter, the "Chiller" channel. Cable TV, with its plethora of channels aimed at specialized tastes, was a wonderful idea in concept. But the fulfillment of its potential has been, so far, entirely another matter!
Senza ragione (1973)
A very strange--and very sick--obscurity.
In the mid-1970s, my NYC apt. building was finally wired for cable-TV and since Showtime (instead of HBO) was the only premium channel offered showing recent movies, I signed up for it. Being a writer and night-owl by nature, I soon discovered the channel was showing movies late at night and until the wee hours of the morning I'd never even heard of--most of them American independent films and foreign films that had never been given a U.S. theatrical release. Many of them had recognizable "star" casts and respectable directors, and thanks to Showtime, I discovered many first-rate films I (and other Showtime subscribers) would never else have had the opportunity to see. Most of these cinematic mongrels were indeed "dogs" but often so bad they were unintentionally hilarious. One night, Showtime unveiled a little Italian-made gem called "Redneck" (filmed in 1972, given a limited European release in 1973). Even though the movie had never been released in the U.S., the MPAA rating was listed as an 'R'. Since the director was one Sylvio Narizzano (the director who made his name with the glorious "Georgy Girl"), and the three leads were Mark ("Oliver") Lester, Fabio Testi and Telly Savalas, I decided to give it a try. And found myself nailed to my TV screen in disbelief for 89 minutes. As I recall, Savalas and Testi played two criminals, the former a raging maniac who, in one stomach-churning scene, casually sent a German family to their deaths by nudging their trailer off a cliff, thereby plunging to the wilderness depths below. So far, so bad. Then, out of nowhere, Testi (as the "nice" psycho) and Lester (all of 14 when the movie was made) are seen, both nude, in a men's room, Testi sneaking peeks at the kid's body while shaving, and poor confused Lester fixated on close-ups of Testi's naked butt. As a not-yet-jaded member of the movie industry, and a card-carrying liberal (I was as much against censorship then as I am today), the entire movie made me queasy (and, being the early '70s when I thoughtI'd seen everything in the anything-goes movies of that liberated era--including the uncut version of Altman's "That Cold Day in the Park", a real jaw-dropper until it was trimmed for an 'R' rating and would have spelled The End for Altman's career had he not next come up with something called "M*A*S*H"), I still wonder if anyone else except me ever saw "Redneck" and was appalled as I was. Trashing the actors and movie-going audiences is joy maladjusted filmmakers have been merrily indulging in since the beginning of time. But leeringly exploiting a highly respected and talented child actor (Mr. Lester) at a time when he was beginning to make the difficult transaction from child to adult actor (and I'm sure his film offers had thereby dwindled to meretricious junk like "Redneck")...Mr. Narizzano, you should be hanging your head in shame. (Incidentally, I was soon to make friends with actors who had appeared in Narizzano's future, undistinguished efforts. They both despised him. Surprise?)
Crack in the Mirror (1960)
Terrific forgotten melodrama with the 3 leads playing 2 parallel roles
One of the outstanding--albeit forgotten--films of the early 1960s, CRACK IN THE MIRROR is a sizzling, frankly sexual, twist-filled drama with Orson Welles, Juliette Greco and Bradford giving the performances of their careers. (Make that the "two" performances of their careers!) In the first story, lower-class lovers Ms. Greco and Dillman are so in lust that they plan an intricate murder to rid themselves of Ms. Greco's dull husband, Mr. Welles. Now here's the twist. When they are put on trial for manslaughter, the distinguished judge is portrayed by Mr. Welles. And unbeknownst to him, a fellow detective (Mr. Dillman) and Mr. Welles' wife, the lustrous Ms. Greco, are also in heat and plotting to do away with him. To say anything more about this highly original, superbly-acted thriller would do it a disservice. Just SEE it, and savor three actors at their best (under Richard Fleicher's brilliant direction) in a film long-overdue for the praise it deserved some 40 years ago. Rating: ****
Earl Carroll Sketchbook (1946)
Lively, tuneful, forgotten Republic musical.
EARL CARROLL SKETCHBOOK was one of Republic's attempts to compete with the major studios in producing a high-budget, grade-A musical. With Constance Moore and William Marshall as its talented romantic leads, a wonderful score by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, musical direction by Cy Feuer, and choreography by Nick Castle, this sadly forgotten film deserves to be revived. It's fast, melodious fun, and superior to most of the expensive major studio musical blockbusters released that same year. Sheek, glossy entertainment--long overdue for a restoration and revival on home video! If the negative is still in existence, will someone please strike a new print and show moviegoers that not all the great musicals came from MGM!!!
The crowning jewel of the timeless Nancy Drew series. Bravo, Frankie and Bonita!
Of the four classic Nancy Drew films Warner Bros. released from 1938-1939, NANCY DREW...TROUBLE SHOOTER is perhaps the most imaginative, humorous, creepy and expensively produced of them all. Moving the locale from the Drews' home in River City to the nearby farm resort Sylvan Lake, where Nancy's lawyer father Carson is summoned to prove a relative not guilty of a murder, the breath of rural country air enlivens everyone involved. The widowed Mr. Drew's attraction to a lovely neighbor (Charlotte Wynters) sets Nancy's jealousy in full force, making her relationship with her reluctant (though none-the-less-enchanted) boyfriend Ted, played to droll perfection by the engaging Frankie Thomas, all the more delightful--and in some sequences downright romantic. Aside from the beautifully photographed location backgrounds, the deliciously intricate plot (a transplanted tropical flower, the torching of the local nursery, and farmhand Willie Best's dithering about seeing two "ghosts" on the night of the murder) provides the necessary clues for Nancy and Ted to piece together the identity of the murderer--and enriches their relationship at the same time. Of the four Nancy Drew films, this third entry shines with its subtle, underlying portrayals of the love and dependence that draw the principal characters together--along with good-natured humor (for once, Willie Best is not denigrated by the time's racial stereotypes--he's treated as an affectionate equal by the other characters--and seems to be having a ball poking fun at the "chicken-stealing darkies" he was called to portray in that era of moviemaking). Bonita Granville is as blonde, buoyant, perky and loving a teenager as has ever been presented in movies of any era. And the underrated Frankie Thomas is her equal as the sweetest, bravest, most caring fellow a teenaged girl could ever wish for. The witty, intelligent depiction of their relationship--and unacknowledged love for each other--makes NANCY DREW...TROUBLE SHOOTER perhaps one of the most captivating portrayals of friendship and family life ever put on screen, with equal praise for John Litel (as Nancy's all-too-understanding father)and the warm and enchanting Ms. Wynters. And all in the guise of a suspense-filled murder mystery (incidentally, the use of a homicidal crop-dusting plane precedes Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" by a good 20 years!). In short, NANCY DREW...TROUBLE SHOOTER is as unpretentious, disarming and downright lovable an entertainment to come out of Hollywood during its Golden Age. Turner Classic Movies has apparently gotten the message, and the quartet of Nancy Drew movies (after too long a time languishing in obscurity) are now being shown on a fairly regular basis. Don't miss any of them, but put NANCY DREW...TROUBLE SHOOTER at the top of your list. Dated (as other IMDB comments claim)? Perhaps, and more's the pity. A rare and timeless treat? Absolutely!
Thirteen Women (1932)
Irene Dunne vs. Myrna Loy square off in a terror train.
This fascinating, hypnotic RKO 'A' film bombed so badly that the studio withdrew it from release, chopped out 15 minutes (from 74 to 59), and disposed of it on the bottom end of double bills. The question is: Why?
Even after 70 years, "Thirteen Women" is an eerie, lushly produced thriller that provides more genuine chills than in any of today's counterparts. For movie buffs, the real treat is seeing Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy (both of whom within a year or two would emerge as two of Hollywood's most bankable and respected leading ladies) slumming in a nasty pre-Code creeper about a half-caste sorority girl (Loy) who enlists the aid of a sinister spiritualist to exact revenge on the prejudiced campus "ladies" who expelled her from their club a few years earlier. One by one, and by devious means, Loy (still playing slant-eyed fiends, but not for much longer, thank God!)meticulously plots and carries out the not-for-the-squeamish deaths of her victims--until the last one alive, Irene Dunne, happily married with an adorable young son, remains her sole surviving target. After her plans to poison the toddler go awry, Loy goes bonkers and boards the train where the police (it certainly takes them long enough to figure out what's going on) have secreted Dunne until they apprehend Loy. The climax--with a dagger-wielding Loy chasing the terrorized Dunne through one car to the next--is a corker--meticulously copied and working equally well a half a century later in the climax of "Terror Train" (with Jamie Lee Curtis duking it out with a transvestite psycho). Even chopped to 59 minutes, "Thirteen Women" is still a landmark horror film. The most baffling mystery is why audiences rejected it in 1932. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. Depression-era loved mysteries--but uncensored exercises in sheer terror like "Thirteen Women" were too scary for comfort (even today, it provokes an unsettling series of shocks that make it the "Psycho" of the '30s--and even the "Psycho" of 30 years later had to overcome initial critical pans before audiences pounced on it and lapped up every sick, terrifying minute.) Hopefully, the 15 minutes a worried RKO cut from the original prints of "Thirteen Women" will be discovered and restored so we may someday see this unexpected treasure as it was intended to be seen. Meanwhile, even the expurgated version (shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies--check the listings) is as dazzling and brazen a shocker Hollywood turned out in the early 1930s--before the Hayes Office took over and thwarted any further movie from going as gleefully and sadistically over-the-top as the delicious "Thirteen Women." (Even MGM had to severely edit "Freaks" to placate horrified censors and audiences.)
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Definitely NOT a sequel to "The Great Ziegfeld"!
Audiences queuing up for this expensive MGM mega-production expecting a sequel to that studio's Best Picture-winner of 5 years earlier must have gone into toxic shock when confronted with what unravelled on the screen. Was Louis B. Mayer asleep at the dailies? What in God's name is poor Jimmy Stewart doing in this farrago, looking like he has ulcers the few times he appears on screen during the interminable 132-running time? But for sheer gall, or studio lunacy run amok, "Ziegfeld Girl" certainly merits watching. The lugubrious tale of 3 young beauties hand-picked by Flo Ziegfeld (mercifully off-screen) to be groomed for Ziegfeld Girl stardom, the film isn't even a musical (a few lavish production numbers occasionally intrude on the histrionics, but the only truly magical musical moment occurs when Judy Garland, in one of her first "adult" roles--and stealing the film with a warm and endearing performance--sings the evergreen "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" as it has never been sung before or after). Instead, "Ziegfeld Girl" seems to be (I'm not quite sure about anything regarding this loopy extravaganza) about the personal perils and pitfalls awaiting talented but naive young ladies trying to make it into show business. Viewed from this perspective (and certainly NOT L.B.'s intention), the film's moralistic warning seems to be--stay home! Only one of the girls makes it to the top with her sanity intact (ironically, the role played by Garland, who would go on to become MGM's prime mistreated sacrificial lamb), another (Hedy Lamarr, at her most ravishingly gorgeous) chucks it all and goes back to her husband, and the third, high-strung emotionally-unstable shopgirl Lana Turner (also at the peak of her beauty, and delivering a touching, subtle performance) can't handle the pressures of stardom, takes to the bottle, and comes to a tragic end (I think--evasive editing makes it unclear whether she dies at the end or just keels over from the battering inflicted on her by the invisible Mr. Ziefeld). In retrospect, in real life, Garland & Turner should have switched roles. This curio must have run way over its considerable budget when the grand finale is shiftily edited to incorporate the conclusion of the most lavishly eye-popping spectacle from "The Great Ziegfeld." A definite curio--was this Louis B. Mayer's subconscious warning to all his female contract players what working for MGM ultimately had in store for them? More stars than there are in hell? Worth watching (and scratching your head over).