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Off-beat episode tries for pathos--and actually achieves it!
In the 11th episode of its 3rd season, "77 Sunset Strip" tries for something different--pathos--and achieves just that without ever becoming maudlin. Credit must go to Roger Smith who has always seemed the most compassionate of the group, and though now only 27, appears to be handsomer and in better shape than when the series began when he was a mere 25. Nor should I need to remind his fans that the writers, as with nearly every episode, always remember to include a scene that requires Smith to remove his shirt! This time, while he's in London, his diminutive, lovable, leprechaun-like friend Benny Markham comes to him asking his help. Benny has just made off with an isotope the man who hired him neglected to tell him was radioactive, and despite Jeff's immediately rushing him to seek medical help, is sadly told by the physician that Benny has only two weeks to live. After making sure the sympathetic doctor aids Benny with the necessary drugs to help alleviate is failing eyesight and pain, Jeff poses as an intimidating Canadian in a complicated scheme to bring to justice the heartless man responsible for Benny's impending death. It's an action-packed episode tainted with the knowledge that its outcome will be expectedly sad. And Smith & the actor who plays the doomed Benny enact it with such subtle empathy that the writers' ill-advised attempt to end it on a light-hearted note by adding a scene of Kookie's snuggling with an anonymous cutie in his telephone-equipped car (!) simply doesn't work.
Otherwise, this unusual episode of "77 Sunset Strip" is more than well-worth watching.
77 Sunset Strip: The Office Caper (1960)
Nifty, tongue-in-cheek fun. Suzanne shines!
Any episode of "77 Sunset Strip" that gives the delightful Suzanne (French actress Jacqueline Beer), Bailey & Spencer's office receptionist and secretary, more to do than merely answer the phones and take notes, is worth checking out. And THE OFFICE CAPER is worth watching for a number of other reasons. Perhaps the show's variety of locations ran over-budget and the writers were ordered to create an episode on the cheap. Whatever the reasons, the inspired scribes turned this limitation to their advantage and, by basically keeping the action confined to the parking lot (Edd Byrnes settled his months-long strike with Warner Bros. & seems glad to be back as Kookie) and the interior of the private detectives' swank office, cranked out one of the funniest, tongue-in-cheek episodes of the series. Planning some kind of robbery, a small-time hood hires two of the most-unlikely cohorts to drive the getaway car. The male half of this odd couple is the likably inept Richard Jaeckel (at 34 and still baby-faced as he would remain for the rest of his career) and his tough-as-nails gun moll (yes, that's Danny Thomas' "Make Room for Daddy" daughter Sherry Jackson now, at 18, all grown up and nearly bursting out of her tight sweaters with what must be a 40-inch bust!). Fortunately, the private eye on hand is Roger Smith (to me, the most appealing of the regulars who leavens his drop-dead good-looks with his droll, self-effacing sense of humor). The chemistry between Suzanne and Jeff has always been palpable (in one serious episode, they fall in love and Jeff proposes marriage to her) so who better to participate in the no-holds-barred brawl that's the episode's climax. And the other reviewer who says he still remembers from age 12 that the encounter between the two lovely ladies is a "catfight" can be forgiven for his faulty--albeit colorful--memory. Suzanne actually saves Jeff's life; when Ms. Jackson points her gun at him, preparing to fire off a fatal bullet, the feisty Suzanne intervenes, socking Sherry in the kisser, but their (or their stunt-women's) subsequent tussle is no "catfight". There's no hair-pulling or screaming; their fist-fight is dead serious. Or as serious as this looney episode gets.
In short, fans of this terrific series shouldn't miss THE OFFICE CAPER. It's definitely a keeper!
77 Sunset Strip: Perfect Setup (1960)
Breezy, diverting showcase for Roger Smith
Undeterred by a writer's strike and the Ed Byrnes strike, the Sunset Strip team simply refurbished an episode from the show's first season and turned it into a well-deserved showcase for the many talents of Roger Smith. Posing as a narcissistic none-too-bright beach bum, with a slicked-back hairstyle and a wardrobe consisting of little more than bathing trunks, Jeff travels to a remote Hawaiian island to investigate whether a wanted fugitive is hiding out there. Getting a job as the entertainer at the local hotel gives Smith the chance to accompany himself on the guitar and show off his fine baritone voice crooning four songs, one of which he composed himself, another a dandy duet where he and Connie Stevens (Cricket of Warner Bros.' other private eye series "Hawaiian Eye") perform a delicious rendition of the catchy "I Like the Likes of You". But she (and her "Eye" co-stars Anthony Eisley and Poncie Ponce) are only on hand for cameos. The village's luscious femme fatale (the gorgeous Myrna Hansen) wastes no time spinning a seductive web around the seemingly innocent newcomer, obviously impressed by his enviable physique as much as by his romantic vocalizing. And when she offers to give him a tour of the island, they wind up playfully swimming in a lagoon, a sight we haven't seen the likes of since the heyday of Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. But when she tries to slip an exotic ring on one of Jeff's fingers, he resists, claiming that "it's too tight", totally unaware that she and her scheming young lover (Skip Ward) are planning to murder Jeff that night and shoot his smiling face beyond recognition so that they can pass his corpse off as Ward's while they flee the island $150,000 richer (the amount of the loot delivered in cash on a monthly basis to pay the salaries of the hotel's staff). To avoid any spoilers, I'll simply add that two more characters figure in the plot: Warren Stevens (as the local policeman who involves Jeff in a no-holds-barred fist fight) and Joyce Meadows (as an American tourist Ward married when he mistakenly thought she was a wealthy heiress, and then promptly ditched when he found out she was as penniless as he was). Need I add that since Ms. Meadows wears glasses, she is considered homely, but when she removes her spectacles at the very end of the story, WOW!!!).
I hope I haven't made PERFECT SETUP sound unpleasant because of its gleefully lurid plot. Quite the opposite, it's as perfect an hour of sheer escapism as 77 SUNSET STRIP.has offered. Sure, the closest the cast gets to Hawaii is the Warner Bros. backlot in Burbank but who cares? The twists and turns of its frantic pace will have your head spinning, and its still every bit as sexy, clever and good-natured as it was nearly 60 years ago! Every member of the cast seems to be having the time of their lives, no one more so than Roger Smith whose droll, self-effacing sense of humor is one of the highlights of the entire series. Smith was also a first-rate writer who penned several of the show's finest episodes (including one with absolutely no dialogue, another an hilarious spoof wherein the three male leads lampoon each other as well as themselves). He was also James Cagney's protégé and a consummate (albeit underrated) talent in his own right!
A murky, muddled misfire; Roger Smith singlehandedly saves it.
Even a terrific show like "77 Sunset Strip" occasionally fell victim to a hopeless script, and "The Odds on Odette" is one of them. It's certainly one of the murkiest episodes of the series: most of it takes place at night, but even the daytime interiors seem shrouded in darkness. And for reasons I don't understand, guest star Merry Anders, an attractive blonde who brightened many a TV episode and 'B' movie of the late-1950s-early-1960s, is here forced to forego her customary brightness by tucking her blonde tresses underneath an unbecoming, frumpy black wig. What is going on here? You won't find any satisfactory answers (much less suspense) in the muddled, incomprehensible script, a hodgepodge having to do with some astrologists involved in a moneymaking scheme (or scam). And even when that brilliantly sinister character actor Henry Daniell shows up and we expect his presence to kick some life into this dud, our hopes are completely dashed when he is quickly kicked down a flight of stairs to his death!
So why go on? Simply for one significant reason. The private eye assigned to this dreary case is Jeff Spencer and while Roger Smith is deprived on this occasion of even cracking a smile, he once again proves why he is the most valuable member of the 77 Sunset team. Though still in his 20s as this classic TV hit nears its end, this dashingly handsome, quick-witted, self-deprecating and woefully underrated young actor has brought more genuine high spirits, sincerity, and a classy romantic panache to "77 Sunset Strip" than all of his other colleagues combined. The 7 scripts he either wrote or co-wrote are among the finest, most original of the entire series, Moreover, when least expected, Roger Smith often accompanied himself on his guitar, revealing his fine baritone voice. And when confronted with an impossible script like the one for "The Odds on Odette", instead of throwing a hissy fit like the stars of other hit TV series often did, Smith was the ultimate professional, keeping whatever complaints he may have had to himself and managing to give a solid performance despite the shortcomings of the material he was given to work with.
For this reason alone, I'm giving "The Odds of Odette" a higher rating than it actually deserves. And for Roger Smith's many admirers, I highly recommend it!
77 Sunset Strip: The Rice Estate (1960)
A must-see episode for devoted fans of the "Strip"!
"The Rice Estate" is a deceptively bland title for this terrific, innovative episode of my favorite private-detective series, as much fun today as it was 58 years ago. It begins promisingly enough, with Efrem Zimbalist summoned on a dark and stormy night to an isolated mansion whose sole inhabitant, the delicious Peggy McKay, has been scared out of her wits by a series of letters and phone calls threatening her with death if she dares to sell the palatial estate she has just inherited from its eccentric, recently-departed owner. But what follows, instead of the expected whodunit, is a series of events that include every single element that have made this TV show so memorably unique: For starters, it's not solely Zimbalist's case; when he and McKay quickly find themselves falling in love, they throw an impromptu midnight masquerade champagne cocktail party that very same night. Among the guests are every single member of the "77" team, including Roger Smith (who shows off his impressive singing talents by accompanying himself on his guitar and delivering a fine version of the standard "Just One of Those Things"; Edd Byrnes (who saves Efrem's life by instigating a fist fight that finally reveals the identity of the villain); Louis Quinn (a riot, as always); and the delectable Jacqueline Beer (the French actress who portrays the boys' good-natured secretary/receptionist Suzanne, and gets to say the show's priceless final lines, an hilarious plug for one of Warner Bros.' popular-at-the-time TV Westerns).
I must add my belated thanks to Montgomery Pittman, a gifted writer/director responsible for several of the show's finest episodes (who died tragically at the young age of 45). Also, this episode is refreshingly free of murders, and the mayhem is kept to a humorous minimum, albeit there is no shortage of suspense. It is also, I believe, the first (and possibly last) chapter in the series where Zimbalist actually falls in love with one of his clients (in another outstanding, similarly touching episode, Roger Smith & Ms. Beer realize they are deeply in love and Smith asks her to marry him). The exterior and interiors of the palatial mansion are a set-designer's eye-filling dream.
Best of all, "The Rice Estate" captures the obvious warmth and comradery the entire cast of "77 Sunset Strip" had for each other. Whether intentional or not, the fact that this episode was originally telecast only one day before New Year;s Eve of 1960 seems highly appropriate. When "The Rice Estate" was filmed, "77 Sunset Strip" was at the peak of its popularity, but its abundance of high spirits and sheer all-out fun are usually only found in a hit show or movie's celebrated (but never filmed) 'Wrap Party'!
77 Sunset Strip: Nightmare (1962)
Homage to Hitchcock's "Spellbound" and a series highlight
A man cloaked in black pursues a terrified young blonde who, despite a series of surreal obstacles (a giant metal fence, a lace woman's handkerchief, a huge hour glass, an abandoned dark alley, a sharp Florentine dagger), manages to elude him until he catches up with her and plunges the dagger into her back. (This sequence is so realistic it takes you a moment or two to re-focus your vision and realize it's brilliantly animated, not unlike Dali's contribution to Hitchcock's "Spellbound".) CUT TO: A handsome young man waking up in his bed from a horrible nightmare, drenched in sweat, his shaking hands clutching his head. CUT TO: That same man we learn is an artist, talking to his psychiatrist (a bespectacled blonde female of indeterminate age, speaking to him in dulcet though somewhat sinister tones). He tells her he's been having the same nightmare for the past few weeks, following a traumatic incident in his life, the details of which he has no memory, except that he is the man in this recurring nightmare and he is tortured by the fact that he knows it was himself who murdered the alluring blonde victim. After he leaves her office, the psychiatrist picks up her telephone and dials the number of:
Jeff Spencer! Welcome to the latest episode of "77 Sunset Strip", a more-than-welcome return to form following several episodes in this fourth season so mediocre that they're not worth commenting on. And I'm not giving away anything more about the plot except to say it entangles Spencer (at first skeptical about this bizarre situation, then downright sympathetic once he meets and befriends the tortured artist) into a labyrinth of puzzling clues, a creepy assortment of supporting characters, real-life incidents as startling as those in the artist's nightmare, and finally a satisfying conclusion, capped by a double-twist one-minute romantic postscript.
None of this would have worked were it not for the inspired casting and wonderful performances by the entire cast. Despite brief (and unnecessary) cameos by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. & Edd Byrnes, it's Roger Smith's show all the way and, as always, he comes up trumps. (How tragic that Smith's acting career was terminated after only a few more years, first by one, later on by another, nearly fatal illnesses, though his 50-year-marriage to Ann-Margret remains one of Hollywood's most inspiring, mostly untold love stories.) Another highly underrated actor, Peter Breck (soon to achieve TV stardom with "The Big Valley"), is terrific as the tormented artist. Stunning Norwegian actress Anna-Lisa keeps looking younger with each scene as the psychiatrist, and Andrea King (one of Warner Bros.' most popular leading ladies of the 1940s, now an equally fetching character actress) is a hoot as a self-proclaimed friend of the missing (murdered?) girl of Mr. Breck's nightmares, her ravenous appetite for gossip unwittingly providing Jeff with clues vital to his solution of this baffling mystery.
"Nightmare" has such a tantalizing, incident-and-character-filled plot that it easily could have been expanded into a 2-hour theatrical movie. That the cast and crew of "77 Sunset Strip" manage to compress it into a fast-paced 52-minute television episode (without sacrificing the in-depth characterizations and nuances necessary to make such a complex thriller so gripping) is a testament to their professionalism and expertise at their craft.
Surprisingly brutal episode, fine performances save it
With "77 Sunset Strip" nearing the end of its fourth season, someone at Warner Bros. apparently felt the series needed a change-of-pace, and the result must have come as somewhat as a shock to its loyal viewers. The set-up is fine, finally promoting Jeff Spencer's pal, police Lt. Gilmore, to the lead role. This time, however, it's the cop who needs the private eye's help when a powerful homicidal mobster tries to pin the blame for a murder he committed on Lt. Gilmore! Sounds silly, but it's played dead seriously and, up to a point, it's a surprisingly gripping if downright nasty episode as the monstrous mobster terrifies Gilmore's wife with threatening phone calls regarding the safety of the Gilmores' teenage daughter who's away from home attending a private school. Fortunately, this potentially stomach-turning subplot is quickly dropped, but what transpires is still quite sickening with the graphically depicted murders of two of the mobster's cronies, one of them being a rather endearing blonde floozy whose gruesome murder seems purely gratuitous, especially when the camera doesn't have the decency to pan away from her demise but instead stays focused on the poor sobbing girl, almost taking a fiendish delight as she screams, takes a bullet in the chest, and slowly slumps to the floor.
If you think I'm insinuating that this episode goes way over the top as far as good taste is concerned, you're absolutely correct. One of the main pleasures about this series was that it never took itself too seriously, always keeping an appealingly light-hearted tone and a subtle sense of humor that made every episode so much fun. "Framework for a Badge" is no fun at all, leaving the viewer with a bad taste in the mouth. But that's not to say there aren't compensations that still make it worth watching: The script is taut and tight (I blame the director for trashing it); the Ivy-League-handsome Roger Smith is always a welcome presence, enhancing every episode he's in by portraying Jeff Spencer as a sensitive, quick-witted, good-hearted heartthrob; and the entire cast deserves praise for their uniformly excellent performances, among them Byron Keith (always terrific as Jeff's policeman buddy); Irene Hervey (the lovely leading lady of many 'B' movies of the '30s and '40s, now still luminous in her late 40s and downright heartbreaking as the policeman's distraught wife; and Tom Drake as the mobster's shifty lawyer only 18 years older than when he achieved stardom as Judy Garland's dreamy "Boy Next Door" in the classic "Meet Me in St. Louis", his good looks long gone, and his now-ravaged face, at only 43, betraying his years of heavy drinking that ironically qualified him for a career as a first-rate character actor.
Mediocre script but Roger Smith makes it watchable
When a popular 24-year-old singing sensation is killed in a plane crash, his fans go into mourning and his wheelchair-impaired widow gets scared out of her wits when she receives phone calls from her dead hubby telling her he wants her to join him. Good thing she calls the '77 SS' private eye agency for help, and good thing for the viewer that Roger Smith takes her case. With a tantalizing set-up like this one, the possibilities for creepy suspense and a bang-up finale seem inevitable. Unfortunately, the uninspired script and hack direction sink this below-par episode in a usually terrific series. Fortunately, however, the always reliable and enormously likable Roger Smith is on hand to single-handedly salvage the show with his droll sense of humor and infectious panache.
Delicious fun as Suzanne solves a whodunnit at a desert spa
At long last, the second episode of the fourth season puts the spotlight on the glorious Suzanne (the delectable young French actress Jacqueline Beer who plays the private detectives' office receptionist), resulting in one of the most riveting episodes of the entire series. It seems that, following the mysterious death of a womanizing male superstar (never seen but obviously a fictionalized Errol Flynn), his on-and-off screen leading lady (the ravishing Kathleen Crowley who brings an unexpected poignancy to her role)has hit the bottle and is now a full-fledged alcoholic and virtually unemployable. But her studio decides to give her one last chance--starring in a major movie but only on the condition that she cleans up her act before filming starts. For rehab, she's sent to a swanky one-week desert spa FOR WOMEN ONLY! Coincidentally, Suzanne had already made plans to spend a one week vacation at the same spa, so when Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith, terrific as always) is hired by the studio head to make sure his fallen star successfully completes her detox, he assigns Suzanne to the case and books her room right next door to the troubled actress.
It doesn't take long for Suzanne to realize someone at the spa is trying to murder her new friend, so she makes a long-distance phone call to Jeff (naturally, someone at the spa listens in to their conversation) and that's as much of the plot as I'll give away. . .
What makes the episode such sparking fun is the first-rate screenplay (which blends shivery suspense with sharp, witty dialogue), a deluxe production, the fact that the females at the spa are collectively the bitchiest bunch of feline backstabbers since "The Women", and the sizzling chemistry between Suzanne and Jeff (die-hard fans of the series will remember that in one of the earliest episodes 3 years ago, Suzanne and Jeff fell deeply in love and Jeff even proposed to her (!) but she turned him down, not because she didn't love him but because of the dangers of his profession. (Sounds corny, I know, But Ms. Beer and Mr. Smith played it so sincerely and honestly that it packed a bittersweet emotional punch).
Also, Roger Smith, accompanied by his guitar, once again is given the opportunity to reveal his fine baritone voice; and you'll never guess the identity of the killer (I was certain it was Lisa Gaye, another beauty. I was wrong!) Best of all is the lovely performance by Jacqueline Beer, never more glamorous or assured. She even receives top billing and deserves it, as does Roger Smith, who gallantly settles for second billing.
"77 Sunset Strip", all these decades later, remains by far the best and most innovative of all the private eye, lawyers, and cop shows that filled the networks' schedules during the late-1950s thru the 1960s. It boasted the most attractive and ingratiating cast, the sharpest most humorous dialogue, and the handsomest sets and production values. Above all, it was FUN and is not to be missed.
Nifty whodunit co-written by Roger Smith
Any episode of "77 Sunset Strip" written (or co-written) by Roger Smith (as Jeff Spencer) is first-rate, and this one is no exception. As another reviewer pointed out, the relationship between the police and the private detective is antagonistic in virtually every series of this genre, but not here. In fact, Jeff Spencer is a personal friend of the police lieutenant who, in this episode, comes to Jeff to ask for his unofficial help. The police are getting nowhere in finding who the psycho serial killer is responsible for the brutal slayings of several young Beverly Hills beauties, and "The Common Denominator" explores in methodic detail how Spencer, using his keen intelligence in discovering and following up on clues, tracks down the murderer (and I'll wager you'll never come close to guessing the identity of the culprit). The episode is filled with genuine suspense and shudders (the depiction of the killings is pretty graphic for 1961). And when Spencer is finally able to tie the slayings together when he realizes all of the victims spoke with French accents, you can be sure he'll engage his agency's gorgeous French secretary as a decoy to trap the killer. (The show's ardent fans will recall that in one of its first episodes, Roger Smith and Jacqueline Beer fell in love and he asked her to marry him!)
No spoilers from me,just my appreciation for Mr. Smith's first-rate screenplay which is so much more than a mere whodunit (albeit a dandy one). What truly makes it shine is its nuanced character study of the very real friendship between Jeff and his policeman friend, and also between Jeff and his lovely, intelligent secretary. "77 Sunset Strip" was always filled with the most beautiful young starlets of its time, but, for me, Jacqueline Beer was the most delectable actress to ever appear on the series. The chemistry between Ms. Beer and Mr. Smith is so palpable that you won't even miss the absence of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Richard Long (Edd Byrnes has two very brief scenes, and that's it for Kookie and his comb).
Roger Smith's brilliant script lampoons "77 Sunset Strip"
When I was a young teenager, "77 Sunset Strip" was my and my friends' favorite TV show and, thanks to MeTV for recently airing its re-runs, it remains the freshest, most original and coolest show on TV. Little did I realize way back when that one of its stars--the handsome gifted young actor Roger Smith (on whom my sister had a serious crush)--also wrote 7 of its episodes, and the 2 I've seen so far are terrific. "The Silent Caper" had absolutely no dialogue--a gimmick that Smith utilized to create one of the series' finest 60 minutes. Equally wonderful is "Once Upon a Caper" wherein Smith used a Rashomon-like narrative to turn the series upside down by lampooning the whole private eye genre and making good-natured fun of the characters played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Stuart Bailey), Edd Byrnes (Kookie) and Smith himself (Jeff Spencer). Richard Long (a recent addition to the cast) wants to know what brought the original threesome together, and Smith, Zimbalist and Byrnes are only too happy to tell him. Trouble is, each one takes full credit for establishing their swank private eye agency, gleefully portraying the other two as bumbling, nerdy, down-on-their-luck incompetents (especially hilarious is Smith's depiction of the suave, sophisticated Zimbalist as a hick wearing a bow-tie, baggy pants, an ill-fitting suit and a nebbishy haircut). I can't recall any other TV series pulling the rug out from under itself, but thanks to Smith's droll tongue-in-cheek script (and he doesn't spare himself-- Zimbalist portrays Smith as an inept, clumsy, narcissistic fool with a lousy haircut), "Once Upon a Caper" is probably the most enjoyable episode of the entire series and quite possibly the inspiration for Blake Edwards' quintet of Inspector Clouseau movies (the ones with Peter Sellers). The multi-talented Roger Smith (who in other episodes also revealed a fine singing voice) never resorts to crude slapstick, nor are there any corpses or mayhem (and only a couple of stunning blondes) in this light-hearted caper. All three lead actors seem to be having a great time poking fun at each other, and their inspired hi-jinks make for a classic episode of a classic, classy TV series!
Make a Face (1971)
A vanity film, barely remembered and best forgotten
Since there are no reviews and minimal information provided for MAKE A FACE, I feel compelled to supply what little I remember of this independent film I had the misfortune of seeing at a screening prior to its release in the summer of 1971. The only other person attending this screening was a caustic movie critic I had become friends with, and MAKE A FACE was actually worth sitting thru simply to see the expressions of horror on his face (and listening to his whispered comments, most of them unprintable). The movie was the creation of someone named Karen Sperling who modestly took 5 screen credits: for writing, directing, producing and playing the starring role in this obvious vanity production. (Her 5th credit was for playing the harpsichord on the soundtrack.) I gather the movie was autobiographical, since it devoted 90 minutes observing her life as a single young woman (mid-20s, I would guess) existing in New York City. The problem was that there was absolutely nothing the slightest bit interesting about it (the movie) or her (an aspiring auteurist, I presume). The only thing I wondered about was where in God's name did she get the money to commit this nonsense to celluloid. Fortunately, my critic friend knew everything about the famous and not-so-famous in the film industry, and informed me that Karen Sperling came from a very well-heeled movie family and that her father had been quite a successful producer during Hollywood's golden era. So he obviously gave her enough moolah to not only make the damned movie, but also rent the theater where it played very briefly (the reviews in the 3 NYC newspapers were killers!)and pay the prestigious p.r. firm Rogers, Cowan & Brenner a handsome sum to drum up media interest in Ms. Sperling and her movie (unfortunately, there wasn't any). I don't mean to sound unkind. The film's production values and cinematography were certainly professional and, among the few supporting actors, an appealing young newcomer (in the thankless role of the heroine's boyfriend) named Nicolas Surovy did a nice job and seemed destined for a bright future (which he achieved--check out his IMDb coverage). Ms. Sperling was, alas, never heard of or seen again--as a filmmaker or actress, that is. I still remember Roger Greenspun's droll review in the NY Times, however. While unable to encourage her ambitions as a filmmaker, he admitted he found her quite attractive and, assessing the potential of her future boyfriends, concluded: "The line forms at the left"!
Cimarron City: Cimarron Holiday (1958)
"Cimarron City" Christmas episode. A rare treat!
Of all of the hugely popular Western series that saturated the TV networks during the 1950s and 1960s, I can't recall any of them doing a Christmas episode except my favorite, CIMARRON CITY. It was the NBC programmers who had the promising idea of creating an intelligent adult Western, produced on a generous budget, and peopled with class-A guest stars to support its outstanding trio of vastly underrated regulars: George Montgomery, whose appealing presence alone elevated the quality of the 'B' theatrical genre movies of which he was already a veteran; 27-year-old John Smith, whose extraordinary good looks and versatility seemed to guarantee his achieving top movie stardom (which, sadly, never happened), and lovely Audrey Totter who, now at 40, was freed of being typecast as a slut and, as a cultured, strong-willed citizen of Cimarron City, added feminine allure. In the Christmas episode (mercifully free of anything maudlin, mushy or even remotely heartwarming, but in no way mean-spirited either), it's Ms. Totter who decides to direct a play celebrating Cimarron's festivities. She comes across something called "A Christmas Carol" written by someone named Charles Dickens, and casts it with local citizens (Mr. Montgomery is a riot as Scrooge, and Mr. Smith has a lot of sly fun with Bob Crachit--who would have known these two actors were such expert comedians?). In a nod to "42nd Street", a distinctly uncharming, snot-nosed little boy (Tim Hovey, one of the finest child actors of the '50s in his next-to-last role)arranges for the sweet little boy cast as Tiny Tim to break his leg so Hovey can replace him (for reasons I won't reveal here). What a shame that NBC scheduled "Cimarron City" for Saturday night opposite "Gunsmoke"! The show, of course, got bottom-of-the-barrel ratings and, instead of moving it to a more suitable time period, NBC canceled it after only 26 episodes. But all 26 episodes are highly original, and the relaxed camaraderie among the three leads is a high-spirited delight. With the proper handling by NBC, there's no reason why "Cimarron City" wouldn't have caught on with viewers and lasted for several seasons (unlike "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" which today are practically unwatchable).
"Cimarron City" is currently being revived by the terrific GetTV cable channel (every Saturday afternoon at 2PM). Give it a try, and I think you'll be more than pleasantly surprised.
3 superb actors make below-par PM episode a must-see!
As a child in the 1950s, I avoided watching the Perry Mason series because I found courtroom dramas boring, Now, decades later, and thanks to MeTV (which shows two episodes every weekday), Perry Mason is my favorite show on TV. Why? For one thing, the quality of the writing, direction and acting of the series regulars is first-rate. And while all 271 episodes basically follow the same format (the first-half hour sets up the whodunit and introduces a plentitude of characters who may or may not have 'dunit', the second-half resolves each generally baffling mystery in the courtroom via the dynamic warfare between the d.a. handling the case and the defense lawyer Perry Mason, whose clients are ALWAYS innocent). Most intriguing of all to me is the line-up of each episode's guest stars, usually a well-chosen mixture of fading stars of Hollywood's golden past, the finest of filmdom's 'character' actors and actresses, and the good-looking young male and gorgeous female newcomers of that particular era when the episode was filmed, only a few of whom were destined for future stardom. And while "The Case of Constance Doyle" may be one of the series' more uninspired hours (its confusing plot, lack of any genuine suspense and only very brief appearance of Perry Mason himself have been sufficiently covered by the other commentators), the outstanding performances of a trio of memorable actors at various stages of their careers make it an example of spellbinding TV that shouldn't be missed (hence, my highest rating of 10). First, of course, is the formidable Bette Davis (age 54,since the episode's early January 1963 telecast indicates it was filmed at the end of 1962). Fresh off the totally unexpected, huge success of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" the previous year, Ms. Davis got the career boost back into the A-list she hadn't enjoyed since 1950 and extended her expiration date by another 15 years. Via her delightfully candid, good-humored appearances on TV talk shows, Ms. Davis found herself beloved by a brand-new young audience (of the hip collegiate crowd) and gives a lovely, intelligent performance as a female lawyer Constant Doyle that remains one of her best--restrained, warm-hearted, sharp-tongued and witty simultaneously. Her newfound glow required a new kind of leading man--and she certainly got one in a handsome, strikingly talented 22-year-old newcomer Michael Parks. Already being promoted as "the new James Dean" and sneeringly put down by another character in the show as a "juvenile delinquent", Parks was neither and he hit it off so beautifully with his co-star that Ms. Davis happily told the press that he was "the finest young actor in America". Another person here commented that he found it cringeworthy that Ms. Davis acted like what today is called a "cougar" by the way she often touched one of Parks' broad shoulders or gave him (her client) $20 after tenderly brushing his hair across his forehead and ordering him to "get a haircut". In the final scene, she even playfully swats his behind. Please! This was 1963. And. Ms. Davis' maternal affection for this misjudged young fellow, and his admission that he had once met her late husband provided one of the clues needed for her to prove his innocence. It was obvious that Michael Parks was headed for movie & TV superstardom and, a few years later, when his casting as Adam in the much-hyped "The Bible" provided moviegoers with the first glimpse of male nudity since Hollywood's pre-code days (his impressive physique led to even more favorable newspaper headlines), the now 28-year-old was confirmed as the most popular actor of the time with his casting as the motorcycle-riding hero of the smash-hit TV series "And Then Came Bronson". But as the Vietnam War raged on, Parks objected to the show's producers' intention to make the show much more violent and stood his ground. As a result, the show was cancelled, Parks was fired on the grounds that he was "difficult" to work with, and by his 30th birthday, he found himself broke, washed-up and, worst of all, blackballed. (Check out his IMDb page to find out how he is faring today.) The third actress to find her participation in this PM episode a mixed blessing is Peggy Ann Garner. Probably the most talented and natural child actor of the 1940s, Ms. Garner was honored with a special miniature Oscar for her incandescent portrayal of the child of a kind, loving, but alcoholic father through whose eyes we see "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", followed by her moneymaking and still-delightful teenage comedies as "Junior Miss" and "Home Sweet Homicide". 15 years later, Ms. Garner had not made the kind of transition from child to young adult sweetheart that her studio 20th Century-Fox had hoped for and, at 30, was reduced to playing guest roles of diminishing quality such as her one in "Constant Doyle". Nevertheless, she imbues her one scene in the courtroom as a ravaged alcoholic with heartbreaking honesty. A decade later, she was dead. The above comments are the reasons I believe the current revival of classic and not-so-classic TV shows of the past so popular on such cable channels as MeTV and Antenna and GetTV. Even if the particular episode of a series you're watching is not one of the best, stay tuned anyway, and watch the end credits. If there's an actor listed in the credits who may not be one of the stars, but perhaps looks vaguely familiar or captures your attention at first glance, jot down the name and look the person up on the IMDb website and see what's become of them. And cross your fingers while you're at it.
Handsome Hero + 3 Gorgeous Gals = Fun, sexy Western!
Forget all the nasty things that reviewers have said about MOHAWK, an unpretentious, thoroughly enjoyable, ahead-of-its-time 1956 Western starring handsome Scott Brady (was the word "hunk" in use as early as the 1950s?) as an artist from Boston commissioned to do a series of frontier paintings to present the Iroquois Indians in a favorable light. Since Brady usually does these paintings with his shirt off, small wonder he attracts the amorous attentions of a trio of gorgeous gals: brunette Indian maiden Rita Gam, auburn-haired sexpot Allison Hayes and blonde beauty Lori Nelson (try and guess which one he winds up marrying; a nice surprise!). For about an hour, the romantic cavorting of Brady and his beauties take the forefront (the Breen office must have been napping during a lakeside interlude and make-out session with Brady & Gam wearing as little as possible). Then the final 20 minutes get down to the inevitable cowboys vs. Indians clash, but since the screenplay is refreshingly original enough to make a distinction between the good and bad white men, and the savage vs. civilized Indians, you'll probably care about who dies and who survives. And rather than try to stage the climactic uprising within the limits of its modest budget, MOHAWK smoothly incorporates some spectacular footage from John Ford's 1939 extravaganza "Drums Along the Mohawk" (which accounts, I imagine, for why this independently-produced movie was released by 20th Century-Fox). So what's not to like? Slick direction, a sensible and often good-humored screenplay, a terrific supporting cast, and beautiful color photography contribute to making this good-natured escapism a lot more enjoyable than many of its big-budget, boring CinemaScope counterparts from the same era. A hearty, sincere, belated thanks to everyone involved with MOHAWK. They appear to be having a very good time, and so should you, the viewer.
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.)
A suspense classic; the best of the Stephen King adaptations!
The astounding boxoffice success of two low-budgeted independent thrillers HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) gave new life to the genre, and for the next decade, theatres were flooded with a torrent of copycats. Most of them were low-budget quickie "splatter" films, but an alarming number were major-studio offerings, many of them Stephen King adaptations as an added boxoffice lure. Emerging from the dross, one movie of genuine quality stood above all the rest--CHRISTINE, a 1983 release that is as finely crafted and gripping a thriller to come out of Hollywood since the output of Val Lewton ("Cat People," "The Seventh Victim") in his all-too-brief 1940s heyday). CHRISTINE was based on a Stephen King novel, but its makers had the acuity to delete the novel's dreck, retain its haunting premise, and embellish its strong points. CHRISTINE is the name a bullied, lonely highschool nerd Arnie (Keith Gordon) gives to a battered 1958 Plymouth Fury he acquires at a used-car garage. Feeling a kinship with the abandoned vehical, Arnie lovingly restores the battered car to its former gleaming red glory. But as Christine's outward appearance undergoes a transformation, so does Arnie's. His sole friend and protector, the warm-hearted school jock Dennis (John Stockwell, giving depth and quiet strength to a usually cliched character) looks on at first in bemusement, then in increasing alarm as Arnie's personality is gradually transformed into an aggressive, kick-butt stud. Moreover, Dennis takes notice of Arnie's increasing, almost pathological obsession with his beloved Christine. But Christine has a mind of her own. First, anyone who tangles with Arnie is found mysteriously slain. And when the highschool beauty (Alexandra Paul, years before her "Baywatch" days) becomes attracted to the newly refurbished Arnie, Christine swings into a jealous rampage and . .. CHRISTINE evokes its sense of alarming dread by casting a probing eye on everyday small-town American life, of carefully observed relationships between teenagers and their parents, and the casual caring and cruelties of highschool existence. The film entirely eschews gore, cheap shocks and CGI special effects, and focuses almost imperceptibly on our most primal fears and elations--of growing up, falling in love, the anguish of betrayal and abandonment--all calmly observed by the eerily silent Christine, who zooms into the foreground whenever she senses her savior is imperilled. As in his classic HALLOWEEN, director John Carpenter calmly but deviously pricks at our nerves--all is nuance (enhanced by a furtively roaming anamorphic Panaglide camera). CHRISTINE creates moments of such eerie suspense that it reminded me of a few other superior thrillers of its era and--by cross-referencing them (on IMDB), I was surprised that all shared one connecting link. First the films: SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME!, a truly unnerving made-for-TV thriller starring Lauren Hutton as a woman terrorized in her swank high-rise apartment. This little-known jewel was written and directed by John Carpenter prior to HALLOWEEN. SALEM'S LOT, Tobe Hooper's 2-part TV adaptation of Stephen King's vampire shocker, released theatrically overseas, featuring one of James Mason's last, most memorable performances. Wes Craven's CHILLER, made-for-TV before the filmmaker went on to commercial theatrical success with his "Elm Street" and "Scream" franchises. This top-quality trilogy--plus CHRISTINE--were all produced by Richard Kobritz. His two Stephen King adaptations show he seems to understand and enhance King's work as no other filmmaker has to date, though many have tried and come a cropper (check out BOTH versions of THE SHINING, Kubrick's bloated theatrical bore and the tacky TV mini-series, and you'll see what I'm talking about). In an era when directors are instantly credited as the "auteurs" of their films, I'd suggest that the films of Mr. Kobritz--not unlike those of producer Val Lewton--show who the real "auteur" is. In all of Kobritz's films, the sense of foreboding is evoked through the subtlest of psychological and cinematic terms. Somehow, these films all have the same unique "touch." In all of the endings, the presence of evil is never entirely vanquished. As in life, evil is always lurking, waiting to make its inevitable return in some form or other. I congratulate Mr. Kobritz for being perhaps the sole filmmaker to have learned the lessons of Lewton.