Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ground Zero

Many years ago, I recall reading an article in a news magazine that traced the steps of a killer and his victim, who were strangers to each other, in the hours leading up to their fatal encounter.

Countdown style.

The victim was a clerk in a convenience store. As the story followed the killer toward the time and place, the author inserted a neat little sentence that went something like this: "The stars were coming into line."

There are times in life when it really seems to be that random, even ironic. A person walks into a convenience store, thinking about how to make a healthier choice for a snack or a drink, and finds himself in the middle of a robbery and gets shot, for instance — or perhaps a typically meek person is thrust, by circumstance or fate or what have you, into a situation in which he/she has no choice but to act heroically.

And, of course, we really don't have to look beyond the headlines in the daily paper for examples of people who had to react when someone in their midst — in a mall or on a school campus — started shooting.

That kind of thing has been happening in America a lot longer than you probably think. Thirty years ago this summer, a man killed 21 people and injured 19 more at a McDonald's in California.

Surely, we have all, at one time or another, contemplated the apparent randomness of life. If something bad is prevented or avoided, it affects not only those who are there but also other things and people in the future.

Hasn't that very "what–if" theme shown up at the movies many times? "Schindler's List" told the story of how about a thousand people were physically saved from death during the Holocaust — and from them were born thousands more, the generations that were saved. The initial generation that was saved multiplied by all the generations that came to be.

"Towards Zero," which was published 70 years ago this month, was kind of like that. Not nearly as dramatic as "Schindler's List," of course, but it kind of explored that "what–if" theme.

In "Towards Zero," Christie showed how she felt about suicide by using suicide as a plot device. In this case, a character attempted to commit suicide and was foiled. It was one of a series of apparently unrelated events that took the reader to a zero point, a murder.

Christie once told an interviewer that her philosophy about life was "any moment before the end might be the important one."

And that, I think, tells the reader everything he/she might want to know before starting to read "Towards Zero."

Along with the fact that the murder occurs comparatively late in "Towards Zero," which put off some readers. Some reviewers, too.

That could be part of the reason why, although it is written as well as others that were written in the 1940s, it has never been as popular.

Maurice Richardson of The Observer liked that element. The murder had "a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build–up," he wrote, "urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers."

He noted the absence of Hercule Poirot, Christie's far more popular detective, and noted that it "might well have been a Poirot case," which could be another reason why "Towards Zero" never got the recognition it deserved. "Towards Zero" was the last appearance of Superintendent Battle, one of Christie's lesser sleuths.

Battle always struck me as being an early 20th–century version of TV's Columbo. I never got the impression that Battle was disheveled, but he did show remarkable good sense, which he managed to keep hidden most of the time, and he depended a lot on appearing to be stupid. It gave his adversaries a false sense of security.

Who knows? Maybe Columbo got that from Battle.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Ties That Bind

"You cad, you dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once! I was always makin' a fool of ya! Ya bored me stiff; I hated ya! It made me sick when I had to let ya kiss me. I only did it because ya begged me, ya hounded me and drove me crazy! And after ya kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth! Wipe my mouth!"

Mildred (Bette Davis)

"Of Human Bondage," the movie based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel that premiered 80 years ago today, was the movie that really made Bette Davis a star.

Some people will point to her Oscar–winning turns in "Dangerous" or "Jezebel," and they did confirm her status as a star, but it was her performance as Mildred the waitress in "Of Human Bondage" that put her squarely in the public spotlight.

(She was well established by the time she said, "What a dump!" the line that was really made famous when it was quoted by Elizabeth Taylor in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Davis uttered that line in the '40s.)

The role Davis played was so challenging that some of the most noted actresses in Hollywood turned it down — and understandably so. It was a callous character.

But Davis saw it as a chance to showcase the range of her skills as an actress. She did such a good job of playing Mildred that, when Leslie Howard's character "finally expressed his contempt for Mildred's behavior, applause was heard from all sides [of the theater]," wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times.

I gather, from what I heard from people who were there, that audiences applauded movies (even if only politely) much more routinely in the '30s and '40s — as if they were watching a play. That was long before my time. My experience has been that audiences seldom applaud movies unless they are truly moved to do so.

Nevertheless, Hall was impressed by the applause he heard in 1934. Based on that, I can only conclude that the applause he heard must have been quite enthusiastic for him to feel compelled to comment on it.

Maybe it was because Davis exceeded his expectations — and the audience's. Her co–star was certainly impressed.

Howard had been unimpressed with Davis prior to the filming of the movie, but he spoke highly of her after he had seen what she could do.

(Personally, I was unimpressed with Howard. Perhaps it wasn't his fault. His characters always seemed to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but almost never as much as he did in the role of Philip, the delicate, club–footed medical student — not even when he played Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With the Wind."

(On the other hand, maybe it was the way he played them. Philip struck me as being the same wuss that Alan was in "The Petrified Forest" and that Holger was in "Intermezzo.")

Director John Cromwell gave Davis considerable freedom in the role of the quarrelsome Mildred, and she really used it to her advantage.

If you're an early bird, you can see "Of Human Bondage" next Saturday at 5:30 a.m. (Central) on Turner Classic Movies.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Telling the Tale of a Terrorist Attack

"Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is less an expose of George W. Bush than a dramatization of what Moore sees as a failed and dangerous presidency."

Roger Ebert

To use a political term, filmmaker Michael Moore has known his base for awhile so it is no surprise when he plays to it — as he clearly did in "Fahrenheit 9/11," which premiered 10 years ago today.

That, I suppose, is the advantage of making a documentary. You aren't necessarily trying to win an election although you would like to persuade some folks who are sitting on the fence or are sympathetic to the other side that you are correct. In the end, though, I guess documentaries primarily succeed at reinforcing conclusions the viewers have already reached.

Most documentaries don't make a lot of money — few outside their niche audience will pay to see them. And many documentary makers' agendas are so slanted in one direction or the other that they aren't as meticulous about the facts as they should be — except for the ones that support their position.

Sometimes you have to wonder just how dedicated to the facts they really are. Indeed, there have been times when it was clear to me that the documentary maker was more interested in scoring points than being right — and, at times, that is certainly true of "Fahrenheit 9/11," just as it is true of most of Moore's documentaries.

Actually, in 2004 — as in all even–numbered years — there were the usual congressional elections, and a presidential election was scheduled, too, so the timing of the movie's release — slightly more than four months before Election Day — clearly was intended to influence voter behavior.

And part of that mission was to remind voters of what happened the last time — when George W. Bush and Al Gore were locked in a stalemate, and the Supreme Court voted to let vote counts in Florida stand, giving Bush the election.

While he didn't endorse Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, Moore told USA Today, at the time of the film's release, that "I would like to see Mr. Bush removed from the White House."

Moore's narration was, alternately, indignant and sardonic, occasionally both. Actually, as verbose as he was, I was surprised when I read that Ebert wrote: "If the film is not quite as electrifying as Moore's 'Bowling for Columbine,' that may be because Moore has toned down his usual exuberance and was sobered by attacks on the factual accuracy of elements of 'Columbine'; playing with larger stakes, he is more cautious here, and we get an op–ed piece, not a stand–up routine."

I never got the impression that he was "more cautious." He was more toned down, not quite as in–your–face as he had been in other projects, but I thought that was a good thing. Maybe he was a little more meticulous about the facts, but that is something I never discourage.

There was a considerable controversy surrounding the documentary's release, and Moore countered complaints rather nimbly, but if his objective was to remove Bush, he failed. Some voters may have seriously reconsidered whether to vote for him, but in the end Bush, of course, was re–elected.

There probably wasn't much Moore could tell viewers about the central event in the movie, either — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

(Ebert, however, did observe that "Moore brings a fresh impact to familiar material by the way he marshals his images," and there certainly is truth in that. It is a big part of why "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the highest–grossing documentary of all time — and won the Palme d'Or, the most prestigious award given at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Most Americans saw part or all of the attacks on TV. There were many details that Americans did not know, details that trickled out over time although many were revealed only through the release of the findings of the 9/11 Commission later that summer.

But, because they had seen the horrific things that happened on the morning of September 11, many Americans formed opinions that had hardened 2¾ years later — and had become more difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge.

In my experience, few minds were changed by "Fahrenheit 9/11" — and that really is the movie's story. Given his history in his documentaries about General Motors and the gun culture, Moore's influence via "Fahrenheit 9/11" was minimal. While it was entertaining, as Moore's movies usually are, my guess at the time was that it would reaffirm the viewer's opinion, whatever it happened to be.

Taken out of the context of its time, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is robbed of much of its impact. When it was released, though, it was fresh and — in spite of Ebert's comments to the contrary — electrifying in its own way.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Anatomy of a Mutiny

"The first thing you've got to learn about this ship is that she was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots."

Lt. Keefer (Fred MacMurray)

Sea adventures always seem to have fascinated moviegoers.

I'm not sure why that is so. Maybe it is because when there is a conflict at sea, the only choice is to resolve it somehow. There is only so much space to occupy; outside of that is miles and miles of ocean.

When a conflict occurs on dry land, there is always (well, usually) the option of going someplace else.

Things went very wrong for the fictional crew of the equally fictional USS Caine during a typhoon.

Before I say anything else about this movie, let me ask you a question: Which Humphrey Bogart performance do you think was his best, his most memorable?

Would you pick "Casablanca," which won Best Picture? Bogart was nominated for Best Actor, but he lost to Paul Lukas for "Watch on the Rhine."

Or would you pick "The African Queen," which was not nominated for Best Picture? Bogart won his only Best Actor Oscar for that one.

Would you pick a movie like "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," for which he was not nominated for Best Actor?

Or would you pick "The Caine Mutiny," which made its debut 60 years ago today? Bogart received his third and last (and perhaps most deserving) Best Actor nomination for it — but he lost to Marlon Brando for "On the Waterfront."

For many reasons, I might be inclined to pick "The Caine Mutiny," which was a first–rate sea adventure. However, I have always seen similarities between the role Bogart played in "The Caine Mutiny" and the one he played in "The Treasure of Sierra Madre."

It may not be Bogart's best performance, but, for me, it may be his most memorable because the character is so different from the roles he usually played.

Bogart's characters were always flawed in some way. Sam Spade and Rick Blaine were in love with women they couldn't have — and they knew it. Fred C. Dobbs was consumed with the desire for wealth, and Charlie Allnut, well, he had more problems than can be mentioned here.

But even though they had personal issues, all those characters were self–assured. They could manage things well enough on their own. Captain Queeg could not. He had been under great pressure throughout his naval career, and the story of how he cracked under the strain of commanding a nondescript vessel was the story of the Caine itself.

At the heart of the story was a young, affluent ensign on his first assignment. He didn't care for the commander in charge and was glad when he was replaced by Queeg, who appeared to be more of a disciplinarian.

"Mr. Maryk," he said to Van Johnson, his executive officer, "you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship: The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way. They do things my way, and we'll get along."

That was reassuring — temporarily — until Queeg's behavior brought his stability into question, particularly when he began rolling a pair of steel balls in his hand.

It was bad enough when, distracted by a crewman who was out of uniform, Queeg permitted the ship to go in a circle and cut its own towline. But later, when Queeg went on a preposterous search for strawberries that went missing, most of the crew began to doubt his stability.

At that point, three staffers from the Caine — Johnson, Fred MacMurray (a writer) and Robert Francis (the young ensign) — set out to report Queeg's erratic behavior to the admiral but thought better of it at the last minute.

Things reached a boiling point on board the Caine during the typhoon. Queeg froze under pressure, and Johnson relieved him of command — thus setting in motion a sequence of events that led to a court–martial for Johnson and Francis. They were represented by Jose Ferrer, who was reluctant at first. He admitted that he would prefer to prosecute.

There were high hopes among the defendants when MacMurray's character was called to testify. He, of course, had been the one who had planted the idea of Queeg's mental instability in everyone's heads. He was a writer, they said. He had a way with words and would be able to explain to the court what it had been like on the Caine, but he wound up taking no responsibility. When he heard that Queeg had been relieved of command, MacMurray said, he was "flabbergasted."

That was a good word for the reaction of the defense, too. Later, when talking about MacMurray on the stand, Ferrer told the ship's crew, "You ought to read his testimony. He never even heard of Captain Queeg."

Ferrer's character had no choice but to put Queeg on the stand and ask him direct questions about his bizarre behavior. Queeg pulled out his steel balls and began rolling them in his hand while he testified. The point was made, and the defendants were acquitted.

"The Caine Mutiny" was nominated for seven Oscars, but it took home none. That was unfortunate. Director Edward Dmytryk really deserved better than that.

Columbia Pictures, knowing this would be the last movie producer Stanley Kramer would make for the company, slashed the budget and relied on Bogart's reputation and the success of the book upon which the movie was based. The gamble paid off, but the financial restrictions under which he worked led Dmytryk to make — perhaps out of necessity — a great movie.

Bogart's acting achievement was only part of it. Johnson gave an astonishing performance as a foolish first officer whose intentions were good, and Francis was just as good as the naive and even more foolish ensign.

But I think that, perhaps, the most impressive performance was turned in by Dmytryk — creating a top–of–the–line movie for, essentially, bargain–basement prices.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Firing a Shot in the Dark

Clouseau (Peter Sellers): Facts, Hercule, facts! Nothing matters but the facts. Without them the science of criminal investigation is nothing more than a guessing game.

Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of my family watching Blake Edwards' timeless "Pink Panther" movies. There was another family with whom we liked to watch those movies — but we got a kick out of the Pink Panther even if our friends weren't there.

We were positively obsessive on the subject. There's no telling how many times we watched those movies on TV and laughed uproariously at the same things each time (as if we had never heard or seen them before). Some of Clouseau's lines became running jokes in my family.

(Interestingly, after Sellers died in 1980, film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Sellers' trademark accent was developed in "A Shot in the Dark," not in the original "The Pink Panther."

("It came from this brilliant concierge in a hotel I used to stay at in Paris," Sellers told Ebert. "He was a master of dealing with American tourists. He'd talk to them in a strange accent that wasn't French but sounded French to an English speaker.")

The only movie in the series that did not have "Pink Panther" in the title was "A Shot in the Dark," which premiered on this day in 1964. That was before my time. Mom and Dad may well have gone to see it at the theater, but I only saw it on TV until once, when I was in high school, an area theater held a Pink Panther movie marathon. I remember taking my girlfriend to see it.

"A Shot in the Dark" was also the only movie in that series that starred Peter Sellers and did not have an animated sequence in the opening credits with the pink panther cartoon character that became so popular on Saturday mornings ("Inspector Clouseau," which starred Alan Arkin in Sellers' role, also had no animation).

Here is the gist of the story. A murder was committed at a palatial French estate, and the prime suspect was the maid (Elke Sommer). The chief inspector (Herbert Lom) was ready to make an arrest, but the incredibly inept Inspector Clouseau stepped in to conduct his own investigation.

Clouseau, you see, had fallen in love with Sommer. There was a series of murders, the evidence in each pointing to Sommer, and every time Sommer was picked up by the police — but Sellers managed to free her each time.

Sellers always seemed to have beautiful women co–starring with him, but Sommer may have been his most beautiful "Pink Panther" co–star. It isn't difficult to understand why Sellers' character was so smitten, but in the end, even his detractors had to admit that he was spot–on in his judgments that Sommer was not guilty.

Although Sommer was innocent, "A Shot in the Dark" still managed to find ways to use her physical attributes in not–so–innocent ways.

The funniest example probably came when Sellers and Sommer were arrested for public nudity after escaping a nudist colony.

It was actually a funny escalation of an ongoing joke in which Sellers, in his bungling Clouseau way, always managed to be in the wrong place at the right time and was arrested for, in succession, selling balloons, selling paintings and hunting, each time without a license.

Those first three times, viewers could see, after Clouseau had been arrested, a paddywagon on its way to the police station, presumably with Clouseau inside, and the security officers standing on the vehicle's running boards looking bored and disinterested.

But when the paddywagon presumably contained Sellers and Sommer, both nude, the officers could be seen with their faces pressed against the paddywagon's tiny windows.

As I say, this was the second of the "Pink Panther" movies, but it was the one that really established the Clouseau character — as well as Dreyfuss' frantic eye twitching and Kato's judo ambushes.

Mom loved it all — the fractured French accent, Clouseau's clumsiness, everything. She would speak in his accent, sometimes using lines from the movies, sometimes using lines she made up but delivered in that accent. When she wanted to confer with a member of the family about something, she would say, "I must have speaks with you." (I don't remember offhand which movie that line was from. I don't think it was "A Shot in the Dark.")

I can only imagine the kind of conversation she might have had with Sellers' concierge. They might have needed an army of translators.

I am very fond of the "Pink Panther" movies and always try to watch when one is on TV because, well, they are funny but also because of Mom. Of course, I know, when I sit down to watch one, that I will be reminded of her, but that is OK.

They bring back happy memories for me.

'Batman' Was Entertaining, and That's What Mattered

"You ever danced with the Devil by the pale moonlight?"

The Joker (Jack Nicholson)

I can remember the first time I saw Tim Burton's "Batman," which premiered 25 years ago today.

I was on my way to St. Louis to visit some friends, and, en route, I stopped off in Little Rock for a few days to visit some other friends. While I was there, they suggested that we all go see "Batman," which had been in the theaters for about a week.

So we did.

My friend Steve was eager to hear Jack Nicholson deliver — in context — the line we had been hearing in trailers: "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" I was just eager to see the movie. It had been getting a lot of press, and it was shaping up to be the summer blockbuster that year.

And I liked it.

Roger Ebert didn't. He said the movie was "a triumph of design over story, style over substance — a great–looking movie with a plot you can't care much about."

Well, see, that's where we come to a parting of the ways. My friends and I enjoyed it — maybe because we didn't bring such lofty expectations to the experience.

I thought Nicholson had a blast playing the Joker. Maybe he didn't, but he certainly seemed to be having a blast. (Considering the reported terms of his contract, which insisted on a high salary and a chunk of the box office receipts — which must have been considerable, given that the movie made more than $400 million — he had every reason to enjoy himself.)

"Batman? Batman? Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?"

The Joker (Jack Nicholson)

I don't know if Michael Keaton had a blast playing Batman — but he must have had fun and a certain sense of satisfaction, since my understanding is that he was primarily pigeonholed as a comedic actor before "Batman" was released. He put that reputation to rest and started landing some more dramatic roles, presumably as a result.

(Ebert wrote that Keaton's performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne was "so monosyllabic and impenetrable that we have to remind ourselves to cheer for them.")

As for Kim Basinger, well, she was 35 and a darned good distraction. I don't think her performance as Vicki Vale was her best — that would probably be her Oscar–winning turn in 1997's "L.A. Confidential" — or, for that matter, her most demanding.

Basinger wasn't the first choice for the role; Sean Young was. But Young fell from a horse and broke her arm during rehearsals. Burton chose to drop the horseback scene entirely — and go with Basinger instead.

"[A]lthough [Basinger] and Wayne carry on a courtship and Batman rescues her from certain death more than once," Ebert wrote, "there's no chemistry and little eroticism."

I'm not sure I would go that far, but I must concede that Ebert had a valid point when he wrote, "The strangest scene in the movie may be the one where Vicki is brought into the Batcave by Alfred, the faithful valet, and realizes for the first time that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person. How does she react? She doesn't react. The movie forgets to allow her to be astonished."

Or a photojournalist.

To me, that may have been the most blatant false note. The true identity of a masked superhero is always a huge mystery, whether in a comic book or a movie — and the source of endless speculation among both those who wish him well and those who wish him ill. As much as I enjoyed "Batman," it was impossible for me to believe that Basinger, playing a photographer working with a newspaper that was eager for scoops, had zero interest in the subject, even when she figured it out.

Which she must have done. Vicki Vale was simply too sharp to miss something like that.

I saw the sequel to "Batman""Batman Returns" — and Basinger's character wasn't in it (except in conversation). Her almost casual discovery of Bruce Wayne's other identity was never addressed.

Maybe my friends and I didn't particularly care about the plot — but we were entertained by it.

And maybe that is all that mattered.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Taking Care of Family Business

"It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms."

Louis (Dennis Price)

The humor from Ealing Studios' black comedy, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which made its British premiere 65 years ago today, is deliciously understated, as the humor in British movies often is.

Alec Guinness, who was in his mid–30s by this time, played eight members (of varying ages and genders) of an aristocratic family. They represented the blood line to inherit a dukedom, and they stood between Louis (Dennis Price), the son of a disowned woman and the opera singer with whom she ran away, and what his mother told him was rightfully his.

After his mother's death, Louis vowed to avenge her by claiming his birthright, and the only way to do that was to eliminate the eight family members who stood between him and his inheritance — so he set about doing precisely that.

The story was told in a flashback style. Louis sat in his prison cell, convicted of committing multiple murders and waiting to be hanged the next morning. While he waited, he wrote about his crimes, explaining how each of the murders was accomplished.

His descriptions of his acquaintances with his unsuspecting victims were delightfully droll. At one point, he wrote of liking one of his victims and lamented the fact that he would have so little time with him.

Other regrets regarding his actions were equally understated.

"I was sorry about the girl," he wrote about killing his cousin and his cousin's mistress, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, "but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death."

He made mention also of the two women who divided his affections — Sibella (Joan Greenwood), a friend from his childhood, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of his victims.

"While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella," he wrote, "I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith."

Then, at the very end of the movie, evidence was brought to the prison that saved him from the gallows, and Louis left the prison in triumph.

As he left the prison, he was approached by someone in the British media about his memoirs — and he realized with a start that he had left his manuscript in his cell.

The audience was left to speculate about what happened next.

Of course, he didn't actually kill all of his relatives — the admiral, for instance, went down with his ship and thus spared Louis the responsibility for his death.

But, by and large, he was responsible for the deaths of most.

It was a classic black comedy from Ealing Studios, which has been a movie/TV production facility for more than a century, but its true golden era was the period just after World War II, when Ealing was producing movies like "Kind Hearts and Coronets."

"Kind Hearts and Coronets" may just be the best of Ealing's black comedies — with the possible exception of 1955's "The Ladykillers," which the Coen brothers remade 10 years ago.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Redefining the Western Genre

"What I like and what I need are two different things."

Deke (Robert Ryan)

The premiere of "The Wild Bunch" 45 years ago today was an important milestone in the movie western.

Gunfights have always been part of a movie western, but, in the early days, there were also parts of westerns that dealt with other things, too. Sometimes they addressed subjects that made viewers think. Sometimes they were partly love stories. Even "High Noon" dealt with nonviolent issues while Gary Cooper went looking for backup in the approaching shootout.

"The Wild Bunch" had other issues, too, but they were intimately related to the violence of the Old West. By and large, before "The Wild Bunch," Hollywood had idealized the Old West, but "The Wild Bunch" portrayed the Old West as the violent place the history books tell us it really was.

Along with the "spaghetti Westerns" that were popular at that time, "The Wild Bunch" redefined the western genre. If anything, the westerns that have followed have been increasingly violent.

Must have made it hard for the parents of the last half century to instill certain values in their children.

When we are young, we are told that might does not make right. It is a principle that is reinforced continually in stories and movies.

In "The Wild Bunch," it was understood that laws might exist, but, at its heart, the West was a lawless place, and it belonged to the new, not the old.

The story took place in 1913. The world was changing, and the "Wild Bunch," an aging gang of outlaws, knew their time was coming to an end. The frontier was making its transition to modern civilization.

I liked what film critic Roger Ebert wrote:

"In an early scene," he wrote, "the bunch rides into town past a crowd of children who are gathered with excitement around their game. They have trapped some scorpions and are watching them being tortured by ants. The eyes of Pike (William Holden), leader of the bunch, briefly meet the eyes of one of the children. Later in the film, a member of the bunch ... is captured by Mexican rebels and dragged around the town square behind one of the first automobiles anyone there has seen. Children run after the car, laughing. Near the end of the film, Pike is shot by a little boy who gets his hands on a gun.

"The message here is not subtle, but then Sam Peckinpah was not a subtle director, preferring bold images to small points. It is that the mantel of violence is passing from the old professionals like Pike and his bunch, who operate according to a code, into the hands of a new generation that learns to kill more impersonally, as a game or with machines."

William Holden played the leader of the gang, but he wasn't the first choice. Lee Marvin accepted the role but had to pull out to make "Paint Your Wagon." Before casting Holden in the role, Peckinpah considered such heavyweights as Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Sterling Hayden, Richard Boone and Robert Mitchum.

Not to say that Holden wasn't a heavyweight, but the others had more heft for the role, I think.

Anyway, Holden and his gang (Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Jaime Sanchez) wanted one last, big score before retiring; at first, they selected, as their target, a railroad office, but they were disappointed. They thought they would get a stash of silver for their trouble. Instead, they got a bag of steel washers. To add insult to injury, they were ambushed by Holden's ex–partner (Robert Ryan) but managed to escape to Mexico.

That was just the beginning of a long tale of double crosses and lawless maneuvers. The closest thing to a love story in "The Wild Bunch" was when Sanchez saw an ex–lover in the arms of a Mexican general and shot her on the spot.

"The Wild Bunch" was a bloody movie, but the violence didn't seem gratuitous. Still, there is no denying it was violent. It both started and ended with perhaps the bloodiest conflicts that had been seen on the big screen to that time — and, mind you, this was at a time when movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" had been showing up in theaters.

It seemed like an honest representation of a time and a place where the sword was mightier than anything else around.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Casey Kasem Passes Away

"Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars."

Casey Kasem

As I have followed the developments in the end–of–life story of Casey Kasem, it has been impossible to avoid concluding that the drama would soon reach its finish — and it has.

Kasem died early today at the age of 82 — and a part, a very big part, of my youth died, too.

Yes, he was a D.J. — but he was much more than just a D.J.

I remember listening to his American Top 40 radio countdown on weekends when I was a teenager. Back in those days, I was familiar with just about every song on the list. I probably couldn't identify a single song on such a list today — which, I suppose, is the natural order of things.

Most of my students probably could identify all the songs on such a list, but I couldn't — any more than my professors could have identified the songs on such a list when I was in school. In a way, I guess that is reassuring. It would be wrong to try to deny any generation the experiences it should have.

But most of my students probably didn't listen to the radio much when Kasem retired at the age of 77. He probably wasn't part of their lives.

I never speculated about Kasem's age when I was a teenager. He always sounded young. Maybe that was a byproduct of constantly reviewing the recordings that were the most popular.

Or maybe it had something to do with the long–distance dedications. If they weren't the most popular segments on his show, they were close to it.

The premise was simple: In addition to the songs in the countdown, Kasem would play at least one (usually more) long–distance dedication from one listener to another. It's been quite awhile since I've heard one, but I don't recall any being mean–spirited. Nothing like "Joe wants to welcome his ex back to town with Elton John's 'The Bitch is Back'" or anything like that. Usually, it was the kind of thing that would pull at your heartstrings — young lovers having to be apart for one reason or another or an older (perhaps much older) person seeking a long–lost love.

Hey, sure the long–distance dedications were corny. Just about everything about Casey Kasem's countdown was corny. Maybe that was the secret of its success — not unlike TV's Hee Haw. As director Frank Capra knew, corn sells. Especially if it is good corn.

And Kasem's was good corn. I've heard that some radio stations actually rerun American Top 40 programs from the '70s and '80s today.

Kasem was more talented than I realized. He did some voice acting, a lot of it for Hanna–Barbera cartoons. Apparently, he was best known for doing the voice of Scooby–Doo. I wasn't a Scooby–Doo fan so I have no memory of that.

He was also the original narrator for the TV show Soap. Again, I wasn't a fan of that show. My brother and my mother were; they used to watch it together and entertained each other endlessly by repeating lines from the latest episode.

Mom is deceased now, so I can't ask her, but I'm sure my brother doesn't remember Kasem's rather brief tenure as the show's narrator. Kasem didn't care for the adult themes on the show and pulled out of the project after the pilot episode.

He had certain standards.

Part Lebanese, Kasem objected to the depiction of Arab–Americans on a cartoon show (Transformers) and quit the project. He wrote a letter to the president/CEO of the production company and received a reply in which she sympathized with his position and assured him that she had shared his letter with her writers.

He also did voice–overs for commercials. I have no specific memory of that, either, although I'm sure I must have heard at least some of his voice–overs, and I probably knew it was Kasem. His was such a distinctive voice.

Every generation should have a Casey Kasem.

The Debut of Nirvana

Twenty–five years ago today, Nirvana's debut album, "Bleach," hit the music stores.

Nirvana was part of the early grunge scene in Seattle — in fact, it can be said (and has) that Nirvana gave birth to grunge — and the band's second album, "Nevermind," was a major influence on the grunge style when it was released in 1991.

Considering what was to come, it may be surprising to realize that "Bleach" didn't even register on the charts — although it was pretty well received by critics. The absence of recognition was understandable. Nirvana was a new band to most people. There was no fanfare when "Bleach" was released; heck, the album was recorded on a shoestring budget — for about 600 bucks.

In fact, "Bleach" didn't even make much of a ripple with the public until "Nevermind" was a hit — although "Bleach" did sell 1.6 million copies. When "Nevermind" was a hit, then people really began to listen to "Bleach."

Probably the most well–received song on the album was "About a Girl," which band founder Kurt Cobain wrote about the girl he was dating at the time. It had a catchy sound that was good for radio and more mainstream listeners, but I don't remember hearing it on the radio much until after "Nevermind" was released — and "Bleach" was re–released to capitalize on the band's popularity.

In general, Cobain had a disdain for the lyrics of most of the songs on the album. He claimed to have been under pressure from the record label to produce grunge songs that were like the ones in the band's existing catalog, and he said he wrote most of the song lyrics on "Bleach" the night before recording them.

Critics spoke of the influences on Nirvana's music — Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Smithereens — in their articles about the album, and that influence isn't hard to find. Indeed, at times it practically leaps out of the CD, grabs the listener by the collar and slaps him a couple of times.

But mostly what jumped out was Nirvana's emerging sound — uniquely its own, even with the influences of those who came before.

"School," for instance, had a very late '60s, early '70s quality — an almost Black Sabbath sound — to it.

"Love Buzz," too, had the sound of that era.

It had all the trademarks of a psychedelic song, but then, at the end, things went in — shall we say? — a different direction.

Actually, I thought it had kind of an ominous, perilous sound to it. The fact that it was the only song on the album that was not written by Cobain may or may not have had anything to do with that.

"Negative Creep" was probably the most blatantly grunge song on the album — a song Cobain admittedly wrote about himself. In hindsight, it was courageous of him to write a song about himself that was so honest.

Still, for all its rebellious attitude, grunge music hasn't been immune to hype. I've heard some people call "About a Girl" and "Negative Creep" grunge classics.

The word classic is, it seems to me, overused. There should be a generally agreed upon standard for how old something should be before it is regarded a classic. Perhaps having the word grunge as a modifier makes it acceptable — although I still wonder how any art style can have a classic form if the style itself is only 25 years old.

(In one of my classes, I heard two students discussing rap classics. Aren't those two words mutually exclusive?)

Throughout "Bleach," one could hear the roots of grunge in Nirvana's music. As songwriters, the members of the group, especially Cobain, were trying to find themselves — which ultimately led Nirvana to its own particular style.

They were nearly there when "Bleach" hit the shelves.

There was plenty of original material on "Bleach," but mostly what it did was whet the listener's appetite for what was to come.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

'It Happens Every Spring' Was One of Best Sports Flicks

Manager (Ted de Corsia): Kelly's not indispensable.

Monk (Paul Douglas): I know, but the team can't get along without him.

Early in "It Happens Every Spring," which premiered 65 years ago today, some folks at the college where Ray Milland's character was a teacher were talking. The subject was Milland's potential as a chemistry professor. It was observed that he was a top–notch instructor during the fall semester, but he was iffy in the spring. That was when he was "absent–minded."

"It happens every spring." That's what the head of the chemistry department told the school president (Ray Collins).

Based on the context of the story and its title — and the trailers most movie audiences probably saw before they saw the movie — it probably was assumed to be baseball. And, to be sure, the movie was about baseball.

It was also about Milland's classroom work — but mostly as it related to baseball.

See, Milland was working in his chemistry lab when he stumbled onto a formula that would make an object (for example, a baseball) go over, under or around an object made of wood. He confirmed this astonishing property in an early morning tryout with a couple of student–athletes, one of whom was played by Alan Hale Jr., 15 years before he became Skipper on Gilligan's Island.

(When I first saw this movie, I could have sworn it was inspired by Walt Disney's "Flubber," but "Flubber" didn't come along until nearly 50 years after "It Happens Every Spring" was in the theaters.

(And the movie upon which "Flubber" was based — "The Absent–Minded Professor" — came out more than a decade after "It Happens Every Spring.")

Anyway, armed with this formula, Milland's character won a spot on a ballclub that was looking for a pitcher and became a sensation, striking out every batter he faced. (The scene where he pitched to the batters on the team and impressed management enough to offer him the spot on the club was reminiscent of the scene in 1984's "The Natural," when Roy Hobbs drilled every pitch that was thrown to him into the stands.)

It really isn't as predictable as it sounds. In fact, I found it to be very creative and entertaining. The script was quite clever. At one point, Monk Lanigan (Paul Douglas) mistook Milland's formula for hair tonic. He ran some through his hair and then tried to comb it with a wood comb — unsuccessfully, of course.

As entertaining as the rest of the movie was, I think it saved the best for last — when the team was facing its greatest challenge of the season in the deciding game of the World Series, and Milland's character was out of his formula. Consequently, he had to do — on his own — what his formula had done for him all season. Did he succeed?

I won't tell you that! There are some things people need to discover for themselves.

All I will tell you is that "It Happens Every Spring" — in its understated way — is one of the best sports movies ever made.

And, in her own way, actress Jean Peters helped make it what it was. Peters played one of Milland's students — his fiancee, actually (I guess schools were more liberal about such relationships 65 years ago) — and she gave a strong performance in support of Shirley Smith's and Valentine Davies' story — which was nominated for an Oscar, by the way.

They didn't win, but at least they were nominated — which is more than anyone else involved in the production could say. They lost to Douglas Morrow ("The Stratton Story").

That's a shame. "The Stratton Story" was good, but it was also mostly true. True stories write themselves.

"It Happens Every Spring" required the kind of creativity that should be rewarded.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd): I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft!

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray): Nice thinkin', Ray.

Stantz: We used to roast Stay Puft Marshmallows on the fire at Camp Waconda ...

Venkman: Ray has gone bye–bye, Egon. What you got?

Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis): Sorry, Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

I was saddened by the news about three months ago that Harold Ramis had died at the age of 69.

And I was dismayed by the rumors that a "Ghostbusters 3" was in the works.

Because I am one of those people who believes that a "Ghostbusters" movie without Ramis wouldn't be — couldn't possibly be — as good as either of the first two.

The first one made its debut 30 years ago — on June 7, 1984.

I don't know how reliable those rumors are, but it just wouldn't be right to try to recapture the magic — even if Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray return.

It really wasn't a matter of Ramis being so integral to the story. He wasn't my favorite Ghostbuster.

But the key is that the three of them were a team. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert described them as "smart graduate students who are in on the joke."

They made it possible for "Ghostbusters" to achieve something special, Ebert wrote — a successful "head–on collision between two comic approaches that have rarely worked together ... (1) a special–effects blockbuster, and (2) a sly dialogue movie."

It was that style of rapid–fire dialogue that I found so appealing in The West Wing TV series.

I don't think the TV series' creator, Aaron Sorkin, was involved in "Ghostbusters," and I don't know if he was influenced by it. In fact, that really isn't something I thought about until The West Wing went off the air.

There may, in fact, be no connection at all. Probably isn't. But it was the smart, witty style of dialogue that I found appealing — not unlike many of the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s.

Come to think of it, screwball might be just the right word to describe "Ghostbusters." But that isn't a bad thing. Quite often, the best things — and people — in life are at least a little bit screwball.

It always helps to have a great supporting cast, preferably one that isn't there just to fill the time between costume and scene changes, and "Ghostbusters" had an excellent supporting cast.

Sigourney Weaver played Dana/The Gatekeeper and Rick Moranis (in one of his first movies) was Louis/The Keymaster. Dana wanted nothing to do with Louis, but, when she was possessed by a demon named Zuul, she was drawn to Louis, who was possessed by another demon named Vinz Clortho.

And thus the subtext of the story ...

The fictional Mr. Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (who resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Tire Man) was a stroke of pure genius. He looked so much like the kind of character that would be dreamed up on Madison Avenue that I'm sure many folks left theaters in the summer of '84 scratching their heads trying to place him and his product from their own childhoods.

It was a clever movie and a lot of fun to watch.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Christie's Underappreciated Classic

I hadn't been born on this day 75 years ago, but, based on my studies of history, I think I can guess what the mood was like.


Less than three months later, World War II began when the Nazis invaded Poland. In the months leading up to it, there were all sorts of global political maneuvers going on.

Five years later, almost to the day, the Allied invasion of Normandy marked the turning point in the conflict.

Most of that was looming in the future when Agatha Christie wrote "Murder Is Easy," the detective novel she published in Great Britain on this day in 1939. (When it was published in the United States in September, the title was changed to "Easy to Kill.")

With so much uncertainty in the world, I guess Christie felt compelled to return to a more traditional plot. Comfort food for mystery readers, you might say. It took place in a sleepy English village. It had a loquacious vicar and an equally loquacious old maid. It had an overbearing captain of industry and his beautiful fiancee — and others, all of whom made for a delicious list of suspects from which to choose.

It also boasted Christie's trademark brilliant plot and clue placement.

But "Murder Is Easy" often gets the short end of the stick, probably because so many other Christie books that were published in the late 1930s had more complicated stories or took place in more exotic locales.

One of Christie's prominent detectives at that time was a fellow named Superintendent Battles, and he does show up at the end of "Murder Is Easy," but nearly all the heavy lifting is done by a character named Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman who, to my knowledge, never showed up in another Christie novel.

Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing depends on one's perspective, I suppose. I have heard several Christie readers say they wish she had chosen to use Fitzwilliam in other books, but Maurice Percy Ashley, writing in London's Times Literary Supplement, said Fitzwilliam, a protege of Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, was "singularly lacking in 'little grey matter.' "

In fairness to Fitzwilliam, the case was baffling. On a train to London, he struck up a conversation with an elderly lady, who told him she was on her way to Scotland Yard to report what she had concluded was a serial killer on the loose. This killer, she said, already had been responsible for three deaths, and she identified by name the person who would be the fourth.

Fitzwilliam dismissed the conversation as the ranting of an elderly woman — until he saw the name of the alleged fourth victim in the obituary column. But the problem was that the man was not the fourth victim. He was the fifth. The old woman had been the fourth.

Had I been reviewing the book 75 years ago, I would have proclaimed it a classic.

But it is an understated and underappreciated one.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Release of Springsteen's Seventh

"Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says 'Son, if it was up to me'
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said 'Son, don't you understand now'
Had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone"

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is one of the most popular performers of all time, and he released his seventh — and most successful — album, "Born in the U.S.A.," 30 years ago today.

"Ten million copies later," writes David Hinckley in the New York Daily News, "Springsteen had graduated from star to supernova."

"Born in the U.S.A." was a considerable shift in tone from Springsteen's previous album, "Nebraska," which I always felt was the darkest of his recordings. It was pretty well received by the critics but lacked the kinds of musical touches that would make it commercially successful.

That wasn't the case with "Born in the U.S.A." The music was more upbeat — even though the subject matter wasn't always as light as it may have seemed on the surface — as Springsteen began to use a more radio–friendly sound.

It had seven hit singles, including the title track, which, briefly, was used (without Springsteen's permission) by Ronald Reagan during his presidential re–election campaign.

"America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

Ronald Reagan
Sept. 19, 1984
Campaign stop in New Jersey

The fact that Reagan referred to "Born in the U.S.A." as a "message of hope" gave it away as a cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a performer. "Born in the U.S.A.," which has often been mistaken (even at the time) for being patriotic, dealt with the negative side of the Vietnam experience.

(Reagan called the Vietnam War "a noble cause" during the 1980 presidential campaign.)

Reporters who covered Reagan's 1984 campaign were almost immediately skeptical that the president had ever listened to Springsteen, much less a particular song, and demanded to know his favorite Springsteen song. After a long delay, Reagan's campaign responded that his favorite Springsteen song was "Born to Run," which was released nearly nine years earlier.

I don't think Reagan mentioned Springsteen or "Born in the U.S.A." again. His opponent in that campaign, former Vice President Walter Mondale, erroneously announced that Springsteen had endorsed him but corrected the claim when Springsteen disputed it.

Personally, I liked "Born in the U.S.A." (the song and the album), but, if I had to select my very favorite song from the album, it might be "Cover Me," which Springsteen actually wrote for Donna Summer.

Springsteen's manager decided he should record it himself, though, which he did, and it was a huge hit in the summer of 1984.

Oddly, though, considering the time in which it was recorded, "Cover Me" had no official music video.

Or I might choose "Glory Days."

"Glory Days" was released as a single about a year after the release of the album. It was the fifth hit single from the album, but it was recorded in the spring of 1982 during the first batch of "Born in the U.S.A." recordings — which, technically, made it one of the oldest songs on the LP.

"Glory Days" climbed to #5 on the charts and was one of the top hits in the summer of 1985.

And it did have its own music video.

Actually, in spite of the fact that it was released in 1984, "Born in the U.S.A." was the top–selling album in 1985. It spent 84 weeks on the Top 10 albums chart. The album spent four weeks at the very top of the charts, sold 30 million copies worldwide and was nominated for four Grammy Awards, winning one. It took only a month for the album to be certified platinum.

In 1984, as CD technology was emerging, "Born in the U.S.A." also became the first CD to be made in the United States.

It was a trail–blazing album in many ways.