Sunday, August 30, 2015

How Does It Feel to Revisit Highway 61 Half a Century Later?

Like any admirer of Bob Dylan's work, there will always be a place in my music collection for "Blonde on Blonde" and "Blood on the Tracks."

But the Dylan album that Rolling Stone ranked the highest in its list of the Top 500 albums of all time — "Highway 61 Revisited" — was released 50 years ago today. (I have that one in my collection, too.)

It can be argued that, although Dylan had been a popular sensation before he recorded "Highway 61 Revisited," it was the album that truly made him a star.

What's more, three of the nine tracks on the album made it into Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. That's a pretty high proportion of any album, wouldn't you say? The first song on the album, "Like a Rolling Stone," was the #1 song on Rolling Stone's list.

"No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time," observed Rolling Stone. Considering how transformational the music of the 1960s was, that's a pretty comprehensive statement.

You can also find "Desolation Row" and the album's title track on that list.

The Bible tells us that God created heaven and earth in six days. Dylan recorded "Highway 61" in six days in the summer of 1965. Now, I'm not really trying to equate Dylan with the deity, but folk singer Robert Ochs did say "Highway 61" was "impossibly good. ... How can a human mind do this?"

It was a clear sign that things were changing in popular music. Up to this point, Dylan had been making acoustic recordings, but rock musicians backed him on every track on "Highway 61" except for one — the haunting "Desolation Row," which, although acoustical on the album, was also recorded in a rock mode.

So you could say that "Highway 61" was Dylan's first all–electric album — except the electric version of "Desolation Row" didn't get on to the album. That's OK, though. It can be found on "The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack," which was released in 2005, 40 years after it was recorded.

How did Dylan come up with the name for the album? Easy. There was a Highway 61 that ran through Duluth, Minn., where he was born and linked Duluth with America's great music cities to its south. Knowing that, I have always wondered if the name served a dual purpose — it was a clear reference to Dylan's roots, but the word "revisited" suggests a taking stock of one's life — and moving on.

"Highway 61 Revisited" launched Dylan on the course he has followed ever since.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Escaping to the State Fair

Margy (Jeanne Crain): I never want to see another fair.

Wayne (Dick Haymes): You can say that again!

"State Fair," which premiered 70 years ago today, was just the kind of movie that my grandmother really liked — a musical. It didn't just have occasional songs, either; the characters practically sang their dialogue. In fact, you could make a persuasive argument that there were times in the movie when they did exactly that. Yep, it was that kind of musical.

My grandmother probably saw it in the theater, too. She would have been in the middle of her life, and she enjoyed good health most of that life. From what she used to tell me, I gather she went to the movies a lot. There was a theater only a few blocks from her house, too. I know. It was still open when I was a child, and she took me to see movies there many times.

So it doesn't require much imagination for me to visualize her seeing "State Fair" there. It was one of the top grossing movies of 1945. Lots of folks saw it on the big screen. I don't know how she felt about the movie's stars, Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, but I know how she felt about musicals.

Andrews had been around for awhile. I haven't seen all of his movies, but I don't recall ever seeing him in another musical — even though he had an ambition to become a singer when he was in his early 20s, an ambition that brought him to Los Angeles. He never found success as a singer, but he embarked on a film career about five years before he made "State Fair," and he was in some good ones — "The Ox–Bow Incident" and "Laura" before he made "State Fair," and "The Best Years of Our Lives" the year after.

I suppose my grandmother knew whether he could sing, but Crain was more of a mystery. She was only 20 years old and had made a handful of movies — including one in which she was uncredited — prior to starring in "State Fair." Her character did a fair amount of singing in that movie, but I don't know if it was generally known at the time that Crain did not do the singing. It was actually done by a woman named Louanne Hogan.

Well, lip syncing didn't really hurt Audrey Hepburn 20 years later when she appeared in "My Fair Lady" — and Marni Nixon did her singing for her — although I guess you could make the argument that it cost her a Best Actress nomination. Crain wasn't nominated for Best Actress, either — but I'm inclined to think that Crain didn't deserve one, and Hepburn probably did.

Actually, the acting overall in "State Fair" didn't deserve recognition, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein compositions did, and their song "It Might As Well Be Spring" beat 13 other nominees for Best Original Song. The movie's other nomination was for Best Musical Score, which it lost to "Anchors Aweigh."

The music in "State Fair" was catchy, but it was Rodgers and Hammerstein. Can you think of a time when a Rodgers and Hammerstein score was not catchy?

In fact, "State Fair" is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that was written specifically for film, not for the stage.

Incidentally, "State Fair" seems to have been the starting point for a long and mostly successful movie partnership between Crain and Hogan. Crain was recognized for being able to ice skate rather well, but apparently she couldn't sing well, yet she did a lot of singing in her movies, and most of it was dubbed by Hogan.

There was a story of a second couple being told in "State Fair" — Crain's brother (Dick Haymes) and a singer (naturally) played by Vivian Blaine. Apparently, Blaine really was a singer. I have heard nothing to suggest that someone else did her singing for her.

See, a lot of the movie centered on these two rather random romances that blossomed at the state fair. To be sure, there were side stories about Ma in the mincemeat competition and Pa in the pig competition, but the romances were in the spotlight.

Crain and Andrews were the stars of the show, after all. And they were adequate — but certainly not Oscar worthy.

I thought it was a pretty routine story about a state fair. Actually, the scene reminded me of the county fairs I attended in Arkansas as a child, but it was more elaborate. The games and the food and the rides were certainly familiar, but I couldn't swear to the authenticity of the competitions, or some of the attractions — like harness races.

I don't think people ever came to our little county fair and camped there for days like they did in "State Fair." And, while it was supposedly set in Iowa, I heard accents that could only be described as distinctly New England. My family visited that part of the country several times when I was a child, and I know a New England accent when I hear one.

Well, I guess it did what it was expected to do. It provided some escapism for folks who were just plain worn out after nearly four years of involvement in World War II, which was about to end in the Pacific — and, consequently, the world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Being Denied the Pleasure of Their Company

Most of us — if we had our druthers, as the folks in the Li'l Abner comic strip liked to say — would prefer to die quickly and relatively painlessly when we were at the top of our respective games.

Not everyone is granted that wish, of course, just as it is true that not everyone lives to a ripe old age — but if one does live into old age, he/she is not likely to be as fit or as sharp as he/she was at a younger age. Such a person is hardly likely to go out on top of his or her game.

Most of us, I guess, would like to live long lives, but most people can't live long lives and be as vibrant as they were when they were young. Some can, I suppose, but not most of us. Everything in life, it seems, is a trade–off.

(In a way, I'm inclined to think that Spencer Tracy's character in "Inherit the Wind" was saying the same thing when he remarked, "Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'"

(Perhaps, when the subject is quality of life, it depends on what one considers progress — longevity or never having to contend with diminished abilities.)

My mother was denied the old age that my father has had. Mom was a schoolteacher who died in a flash flood 20 years ago. She and my father owned a duplex in Dallas and rented half of it as an additional source of income. The house had been in the family for decades. It originally belonged to my mother's parents, and she grew up there.

A week or so after my mother died, my brother and I crossed paths with the tenant, who remarked that Mom went out at the top of her game, and I couldn't argue with that.

A few hours before Mom died, she was at a carnival at her school. I've seen pictures that were taken that day. Perhaps there are home videos that were made as well in which I might be able to hear Mom chatting with her students or her students' parents. I can't get that from photographs, of course, but the look on Mom's face tells me she was in her element that day — and, for that matter, all the years she taught at that school. The tenant was right. Mom went out at the top of her game.

While I wish she had been with us longer, it is hard for me to imagine Mom in retirement. I know there were times when the job wore her out, but her work with children always seemed to energize her. I wonder where she would have found a source for that energy in retirement. My guess is that, if she couldn't be paid to mentor children, she would have found some way to do it for free — perhaps in a voluntary part–time capacity at a school or library.

There is a conundrum at play in every human life. See, I am grateful to have that mental image of my mother and not the one that my mother had of her mother in the final years of her life — but I still wish I had not been denied the pleasure of her company all these years.

Today would have been her birthday. It is also the 25th anniversary of the helicopter crash that claimed the life of another — and much more prominent — native of Dallas, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was considerably younger than Mom, but it could also be said of him that he went out at the top of his game.

And I often wish we had not been denied the pleasure of his company.

Stevie Ray Vaughan struggled with substance abuse issues in the 1980s, but he had straightened up and was clearly on an upward trajectory when his helicopter crashed in southeast Wisconsin 25 years ago today. Each album was better than the one that preceded it, and his last album, "In Step," seemed to be the one that would earn him the acceptance of the mainstream audience.

His debut album with his band Double Trouble was called "Texas Flood," which was the name of one of the songs they played on the album — but it wasn't a Stevie Ray original. Matter of fact, it was a blues standard that had been covered by many artists over the years, but it came to be associated with Stevie Ray. Maybe he played it better than anyone else ever did. I don't know if that is true, but I do know that he played the hell out of that song.

I was in graduate school at the University of North Texas — about 35 or 40 miles north of Dallas — when Stevie Ray was killed, and I remember watching the news reports on the Dallas TV stations the night following Stevie Ray's funeral. The list of attendees read like a who's who of popular music — Eric Clapton, David Bowie, ZZ Top, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne. Those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I'm sure there are many I have forgotten.

After Stevie Ray's death, the city of Austin, Texas, erected a statue in his memory, showing him wearing his trademark poncho and holding his guitar at his side standing by the river. Some folks didn't like it. I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I think I would have preferred for him to be holding his guitar in his classic pose on stage. To me, the guitar looked a little too much like a gun at his side — until you got close enough to examine it.

I thought it was ironic, in this the 25th anniversary of his death, that we got so much rain this past spring, and the river flooded the area around the statue. At the water's peak, Stevie Ray appeared to be standing on water.

Talk about your Texas flood.

Yes, Stevie Ray Vaughan went out at the top of his game, but you can still feel the loss for the rest of us. He was 35 when he died. He would be 60 if he had been permitted to live. At the time of his death, he had been putting out several records/CDs that soared on the charts; one can only imagine what the future held for him. Hey, 60 is a whippersnapper compared to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, all still out there playing to packed houses in their 70s.

What else might Stevie Ray have done in the last quarter of a century? I don't know, but I'm sure he would have been an influence on popular music. "In Step" would have been his breakthrough album, I'm sure of it, and I'm equally sure it would not have been his last. The entire musical landscape might be different today if he had not died.

"After he cleaned himself up, by 1990, he was back to playing guitar in a ferocious way," Jason Hanley, senior director of education for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, told the Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal Sentinel. "Who knows what he would have done next?"

One thing I do know — if you like blues rock, then you owe Stevie Ray Vaughan a special debt of gratitude. Every day, really, but today in particular.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Just a Gigolo ...

Joe Gillis (William Holden): You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

#24 movie quote of all time, American Film Institute

I'm not an authority on Bill Holden's body of work. I've seen many of his movies, and I know he was one of the best actors of his generation, but I certainly haven't seen all of his movies. And, while I am hesitant to proclaim anything the best that someone ever did unless I have seen or heard or read all the entries for myself, I would probably have no problem declaring his performance in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," which premiered on this day in 1950, his best. It's hard for me to see how he could have topped it.

In a story that began at the end, with Holden's lifeless body floating in a swimming pool, and was told in flashback, Holden played a down–on–his–luck screenwriter, trying to scrape together enough cash to square things with his aggressive auto finance company. I'm sure there were equally pressing issues in his life, but that was the one on which he was fixated when the movie began — and it dictated his every move.

It was while trying to evade the guys from the finance company who wanted to collect past–due payments or repossess the vehicle that Holden's character found himself on the estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a great star from the silent movie era but a has–been since the advent of talkies. He first thought the mansion was deserted, but it wasn't. Swanson's character lived virtually alone in a cavernous mansion, accompanied only by her dedicated — and fiercely protective — servant (Erich von Stroheim).

When I say "cavernous," I mean it. Really. In the viewer's first real glimpse of it, that huge mansion — with its overgrown tennis court and empty swimming pool — always reminds me of Xanadu in "Citizen Kane." A big, mostly empty (of people, that is, not things) coliseum. About the only things missing were the animals Charles Foster Kane had gathered from around the world.

But Norma Desmond matched Citizen Kane when it came to manipulating people. She always got her way — or she got her revenge.

Holden became something of a kept man. Swanson's character had been working on a script to be used as her comeback vehicle, and she needed a writer to polish it. He accepted the job, not realizing that she intended for him to move in to the mansion. He discovered that the next day, when he woke up in the room she had provided — supposedly for one night — to find his belongings all around him. Max (von Stroheim) had moved them himself, and Norma had settled things with his landlord. Holden resented his sudden dependent status, but he accepted it as the price of doing business.

It was at a New Year's party that he realized that Norma was in love with him, and he bailed. He felt liberated, but later, when he called to ask that his things be forwarded to a new address, Max informed him that Norma had attempted suicide, and he was back in her web.

It seems to me that Swanson was so good in that role not because she was the best actress but because she had lived much of the character's life. The character had been a huge silent film star, and so had Swanson, but a key difference (well, sorta) is that Swanson was quick to embrace talkies, appearing in her first talkie in 1929. But she never really made it in talkies. Swanson made her attempts to fit in to the world of the talkies, but she never really caught on and had made only half a dozen movies in the two decades before she starred in "Sunset Boulevard."

In "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond appeared to have resisted the changing technology — I don't think it was established whether she had ever tried to make a talkie — but she also seemed to have reached the conclusion that she would have to adapt if she wanted her career to have a new life — and she clearly did. It was, after all, her motivation for the script.

But, whether it was stated or not, it was clear to me that Norma hadn't been around the movie culture much after talkies came along. Why was that? I don't know. Maybe her character was one of those people who don't like the sounds of their own voices. Maybe she believed her skill as an actress was only suited for a silent environment. We can only guess.

In Swanson's visit to the studio to meet with her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary filmmaker offered to show her around because so much had changed since the last time she had been there. He artfully avoided any discussion of Norma's script — which he really didn't want, anyway — and then escorted her to her car. She seemed none the wiser.

In fact, she embarked on a beauty regimen in anticipation of her big comeback, and Holden began working nights with a pretty script reader on an idea she thought showed promise. In the course of their work together, the two fell in love. Swanson found out about it and, in a series of events that are better seen than explained, wound up shooting Holden three times.

And, as the movie came to its conclusion, the viewers were returned to the present day, with Holden's body floating in the pool and the police filling both the poolside and the house. Norma descended her staircase, believing that the cameras were there to film her comeback. Max — who, the audience learned earlier, was once a film director who discovered the teenage Norma, made her a star, married and then divorced her and became her servant rather than live apart from her — played along with her, giving her directions while she spoke of being ready for her close–up.

The American Film Institute, by the way, chose that line about her close–up as the #7 movie line of all time.

Swanson was good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but she lost to Judy Holliday.

"Sunset Boulevard" got 11 Oscar nominations in all — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress — but won only three in more technical categories (Best Story and Screenplay, Best Dramatic or Comedy Score and Best Black and White Art Direction).

Franz Waxman won the Oscar for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, and the American Film Institute ranked his work on "Sunset Boulevard" 16th among all film scores.

The American Film Institute also ranked "Sunset Boulevard" 16th among all films.

Friday, August 21, 2015

'Agnes of God' Came Up Short

"Smoking is an obsession with me. Maybe someday I'll become obsessed with something else and give up smoking."

Martha (Jane Fonda)

Norman Jewison's "Agnes of God," which premiered on this date in 1985, was a difficult movie to watch — especially in the last 30 minutes. In fact, I have only seen it once. I've never been able to watch it a second time.

It was painful to watch Meg Tilly's tortured performance as a simple young woman manipulated and abused by the people in her life, much as it was painful five years earlier to watch "The Elephant Man" — yet both were ultimately rewarding. The only problem was you had to experience all that misery for the payoff to really ... pay off.

And "Agnes of God" never really paid off as handsomely as it should have. There were, I suppose, many reasons for that.

"Agnes of God" began as a stage play, and the film adaptation made little allowance for the shift to the big screen. "But that's just the beginning of this film's problems," observed Roger Ebert. "It considers, or pretends to consider, some of the most basic questions of human morality and treats them on the level of 'Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Convent.'"

Meg Tilly played Sister Agnes, a young nun who gives birth and allegedly kills the child, then faces manslaughter charges, which draws Jane Fonda, as a court–appointed psychiatrist, to the convent to examine Sister Agnes and her surroundings. Sister Agnes, you see, had no idea who the father might have been. She even had doubts that there had ever been a baby.

"It is never made quite clear what specific problem Sister Agnes suffers from," Ebert wrote, "but she clearly has parts on order."

Still, it was Tilly's riveting performance enabled "Agnes of God" to rise above the mediocre in its pursuit of its objective — establishing that miracles do happen. The material may have produced, in Ebert's words, "a very badly confused movie. ..."

However, "(g)iven dialogue that sounds as if it were written to be read, given characters who consistently avoid asking the obvious questions, given a story that refuses to declare what it is about, [Anne] Bancroft, Fonda and Tilly use their craft to give the illusion that they know where they stand. It is service in a lost cause."

The acting really deserved to be recognized, and it was. It received three Oscar nominations. Two were for acting; the third was for Best Original Score.

Bancroft was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Geraldine Page. I thought Tilly really should have been nominated for Best Actress — not necessarily at the expense of Bancroft, who was great, as always — but she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress — and lost to Anjelica Huston.

Fonda turned in her usual workmanlike performance and received no nomination. She had already won two Oscars, anyway.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

'Satisfaction:' The Triumph of the British Invasion

If you weren't alive during the so–called British invasion of the mid–20th century and you would like an idea of how thoroughly and how quickly it succeeded in capturing the imagination of American youth, you really need look no further than the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," which was released in the Stones' homeland — the United Kingdom — 50 years ago today.

It was released in the United States nearly three months earlier.

Although there had been earlier reports in the American media of the popular music being made in England, the British invasion of United States pop culture generally is believed to have begun when the Beatles arrived in New York to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. By 1965, it seems the invasion was over, and the British performers were here to stay. America was where the money was. Media, too.

There is a pretty convincing case to be made for the significance of the year 1965 in modern popular music history. The Beatles had three of the top five hits of the year — "Help!" "Yesterday" and "Ticket to Ride" — but the Stones' "Satisfaction" was the top–selling single of the year, followed by America's Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man."

If you listened to the radio in 1965, you heard some of the biggest hits ever recorded by The Kinks, The Who, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds, The Moody Blues, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Roger Miller, Tom Jones, Herman's Hermits, The Temptations, and the list went on.

I was a small child in those days, and many of my peers had older brothers and sisters who introduced them to the music of the time, but my experience was different. I was the oldest in my family but far too young to be interested in the radio, and my parents rarely listened to the radio (my father would switch it on in the car if there was a good football game being played). I suppose my exposure to the music of my generation would have been further delayed if not for the fact that my father was a professor at one of the three colleges in my hometown, and he and my mother typically hired his students to watch my brother and me when they wanted to go out for dinner or a movie or something else. Sometimes the students came to our house to watch my brother and me; other times, my parents dropped us off at the dorm, and I can remember hearing the music of that time echoing through the halls of the dorms.

Undoubtedly, that is where I heard many songs for the first time. It is probably why I feel as if I have always known the words to some songs — I heard them played over and over again when I was young.

(If brainwashing were as benign as simply implanting song lyrics into one's brain, I could probably support it. But, I suppose, that form of brainwashing already exists.)

Speaking of which, it is funny how the brain functions, isn't it? I mean, every time I hear "Satisfaction," I remember — however briefly — when I saw "Apocalypse Now" and it was featured on the movie's soundtrack.

Making an Escape to 'Boom Town'

"Now, how can a guy be breaking the law when he's trying to save the resources of this country? He didn't know that he was doin' anything that you might call conservation, but bein' one of the best oilmen there is, he's got the right hunch about oil. He knows it took billions of years to put it there, and takin' it out at the rate we're goin', there won't be any oil left in the good U.S.A."

Square John (Spencer Tracy)

Interesting thing about the movies — well, actually, this particular stream of consciousness began when I was watching a movie from 1939, which is often regarded as the greatest year in the history of the movies, and it re–emerges from time to time, usually when I am writing about one of the movies of the '30s or '40s.

As I am today.

It was 75 years ago today that "Boom Town" an adventure about some oil wildcatters (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy), made its debut. It wasn't the best movie ever made, but it was enjoyable enough, and it featured four of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time — Gable, Tracy, Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr. (Frank Morgan, who may be best remembered for his part in "The Wizard of Oz," made it five names.)

And that is where my stream of consciousness comes in.

The movies of the '30s and '40s were almost entirely about escapism. In the '30s, nearly all the movies that dealt with the economic realities of the Great Depression were presented in such a way that the protagonist(s) rose above the circumstances and found success anyway. In other words, those movies encouraged hope. There were a few — like "The Grapes of Wrath" — that told it like it was and pulled few, if any, punches. But, mostly, the movies of that day were about other times, other places, other people. They were adaptations of great works of literature, Day–to–day life in the Depression was bad enough — for awhile, about a quarter of America's adult population was out of work — and money was precious enough that people would seldom pay to sit in a theater and watch other people struggling as they did.

They couldn't afford to go anywhere, so they went to the movies for a couple of hours — to escape. My grandmother once told me that the movie stars of that time were more than movie stars. They were like friends. People had their favorite stars, and they went to see every movie they made. Then as now, studios were interested in pairings that were profitable; what could be more profitable than bringing together four popular stars?

A few modern movie stars inspire that kind of loyalty — but not many. Maybe they are overruled by the prices that are charged for movie tickets these days.

"Boom Town" reunited the stars of "It Happened One Night," the unexpected hit of 1934 — Gable and Colbert. Their partnership didn't have the same sizzle that it had six years earlier, but it must have been great for fans of Gable and Colbert to see them together again — even if it was in an inferior movie. Turned out, it was their last on–screen pairing.

If one is bound and determined to find an agenda in a movie, it probably isn't too hard with "Boom Town." Its message of unfettered capitalism does seem obvious — it may have seemed just as obvious to audiences three–quarters of a century ago — and it also extols the virtues of entrepreneurship.

The story was far from perfect, but it made up for it in sheer star power. Well, unless you were a fan of Spencer Tracy. Seemed he was always getting the short end of the stick from Gable — mostly in matters of the heart.

Both named John, Gable's character was called "Big John" and Tracy's was called "Square John." For starters, Big John stole Square John's girl (Colbert). Then, when Square John discovered that Big John had been having an affair (with Lamarr), he offered to marry the mistress in order to save Big John's marriage.

But in matters of the head, my memory is that Square John always came out on top. They both had their times of booms and busts, but my impression, by the time the movie ended, was that Tracy's character had enjoyed more economic success.

Tracy, I have heard, was fond of Gable, but "Boom Town" was the third — and last — movie they made together. It was a capsule of all the things that Tracy didn't like about working with Gable. He didn't like taking second billing to Gable in movie credits, and he didn't like being Gable's "eunuch."

"Boom Town" was nominated for two Oscars — Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Special Effects.

Monday, August 17, 2015

On the Run With Sailor and Lula

"This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top."

Lula (Laura Dern)

"There is something inside of me that resists the films of David Lynch," film critic Roger Ebert wrote after the debut of "Wild at Heart" 25 years ago today. "I am aware of it, I admit to it, but I cannot think my way around it. I sit and watch his films and am aware of his energy, his visual flair, his flashes of wit. But as the movie rolls along, something grows inside of me — an indignation, an unwillingness, a resistance."

I don't think a lot of people really remember just how hot (not in the physical sense but in the successful sense) David Lynch was when he wrote and directed "Wild at Heart." Among his many projects was his TV brainchild Twin Peaks, which had a meteoric ride that began in April 1990 and continued until June 1991. At the end, the ratings were tanking, but it lit up the sky there in 1990. Many said it had developed a cult following for Lynch.

It was while Lynch was working on the first episodes of Twin Peaks that he was approached about directing a movie based on a novel called "Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula," the tale of a couple of lovers on the road together. Lynch was the one who introduced the crime angle; in the movie adaptation, Sailor and Lula weren't on the road so much as they were on the run.

I guess that was one of the movie themes of that time — people on the run from the law (or something). To an extent, I suppose, it is always a movie theme, but it isn't always as popular as it seemed to be in the late '80s and early '90s.

And, even when there is an unusually high number of such road movies in the theaters, few are as surrealistic — and I say that fully aware that "Thelma & Louise" premiered less than two years later — as "Wild at Heart."

Anyway, as I say, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) were on the run — but it started out that they were running from Lula's overbearing mother (played by Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd), who got other folks involved — gangsters, for example, and a detective (played by Willem Dafoe).

Both of the leads were played by young but familiar actors. Cage was cast regularly in movies in the 1980s — "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "The Cotton Club," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Raising Arizona," "Moonstruck." By the time he made "Wild at Heart," moviegoers were pretty accustomed to the idea of Cage as a leading man.

Things were different for Dern. "Wild at Heart" was hardly Dern's first appearance on the silver screen — that came nearly 20 years earlier, when, at the tender age of 6, Dern was cast in 1973's "White Lightning" — but many moviegoers probably didn't know that in 1990, and most probably were not aware of her resume. She was cast in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," which received three Academy Award nominations, in 1974. She had had many supporting roles (earning a reputation within the industry for earnest portrayals of virtuous but rather naive characters); she had worked with Lynch before, on 1986's "Blue Velvet," and some of her roles could be regarded as leading roles, but "Wild at Heart" was probably the first truly successful movie in which she was widely recognized as one of the stars.

A big part of the plot of "Wild at Heart" was sex, as one would expect with an oversexed, hot–blooded type like Lula — and Cage's character was always willing to oblige her, as just about any man in that age group probably would. It's been quite awhile since I've seen the movie, but it seems to me that Dern and Cage marked just about every event with a roll in the sack ...

Even though that is — to an extent — the kind of behavior that is expected of people Sailor's and Lula's age, it was part of what made the movie so surreal. "You've got me hotter than Georgia asphalt," Dern said to Cage at one point. She must have spent her life in a constant state of arousal.

Part of it was Lynch himself, though. The structure of the road film freed Lynch to indulge himself in all sorts of ways, which led to mixed results. That part was probably predictable. But he also took viewers to some intriguing places — like the aftermath of a two–car collision in which a young woman, suffering from an obviously severe head injury, emerged from the wreckage, staggered around for a little while, asking what had happened and trying to find her wallet, and then died in front of the amorous couple. Sailor and Lula regarded it as a bad omen.

Which it was, I suppose, particularly for the girl who died.

Ebert dismissed "Wild at Heart" as "a film without the courage to declare its own darkest fantasies." There may be truth in that. I only saw it once, many years ago. Maybe I need to see it again.

"I've seen the movie twice now," Ebert told his readers. "I liked it less the second time."

My advice to you is to judge for yourself.

Rod Taylor Didn't Ride a DeLorean Into the Future

"When I speak of time, I'm speaking of the fourth dimension."

George (Rod Taylor)

When Rod Taylor died back at the start of this year, there was a bit of a debate over which was his best movie — "The Birds" or "The Time Machine," which premiered on this day in 1960.

For me, there really isn't a debate. As I have written here many times, I admire the work of Alfred Hitchcock very much — and there are many of his movies that I would see and have seen over and over. "The Birds," though, is not one of them. A friend of mine and I were discussing it about a week after Taylor's death, and he described the plot of "The Birds" as a "one–trick pony." That is about as good a description as I have heard.

"The Birds" was good the first time — but "The Time Machine" is always good, no matter how many times you see it.

The cast was first rate, with faces that became more familiar to TV audiences within a few years. Alan Young had been in movies for more than a decade, but it was a year after he made "The Time Machine" that he became Wilbur Post on TV's Mister Ed, which is most likely his defining role.

Likewise, Sebastian Cabot had been in many movies by the time he appeared in "The Time Machine," but he is probably best remembered for his role as Mr. French in Family Affair.

For that matter, Taylor is probably remembered more for "The Birds." That really is a pity.

He received no Oscar nominations for either movie, but I always felt that he was the star of "The Time Machine," whereas Tippi Hedren really was the focus of "The Birds." "The Time Machine" was the story of Taylor's character's travels through time — and the people he met along the way.

The time machine remained in the same physical location but could not be seen when it was traveling in a different time. From time to time, as Taylor traveled into the future, he would stop and explore, usually encountering Young as his own descendant. (Talk about a family resemblance.)

In a minor example of director George Pal's Oscar–winning use of time–lapse photographic effects, Taylor monitored developments in women's fashions by observing the mannequin in the window of the shop across the street from his home.

Now, I liked the idea, but I was disappointed that the director didn't take it to its logical conclusion and try to forecast women's fashions after Taylor's character developed his time machine. The story took place in early January 1900, and it is reasonable to assume that, since the movie supposedly projected Taylor into a future that was thousands of years from his own time, at some time part of it must have taken place in the 20th century.

The '60s, after all, brought us mini skirts, tie–dyed T–shirts and blue jeans as the drivers of women's apparel — quite a change from what people of Taylor's real time (as far as the movie was concerned) expected.

It was also quite a change for the theatrical audiences, who, in 1960, might have been shocked to see the fashions that were soon to come their way.

Yvette Mimieux played Taylor's love interest. She was a member of the Eloi, one of two post–apocalyptic species. The Eloi were benign people. At some point, being quite intelligent for a time, the Eloi resolved all the earth's problems, then were segregated into their own group by the other species, the aggressive Morlocks.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hitchcock Diplomacy

"I came 4,000 miles to get a story. I get shot at like a duck in a shooting gallery, I get pushed off buildings, I get the story, and then I've got to shut up."

John (Joel McCrea)

Contrary to what you may have always believed, Alfred Hitchcock didn't spend his whole career directing movies about psychotic slasher killers. True, there was usually a dead body involved — but not always.

In "Foreign Correspondent," the Hitchcock movie that premiered 75 years ago today, there was a dead body or two, but they were elements of the tale, not the tale itself. The story started with a New York editor's concern about the growing crisis in Europe — and his desire to prevent a war and the resultant loss of life — prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was frustrated with the foreign correspondents who contributed little to the public's understanding of what was happening across the Atlantic. He wanted a reporter, preferably one who had covered the crime beat and had no real opinion of what was happening in the world — and could therefore be counted on to provide reasonably balanced reports. (Having covered the police beat as a reporter for a time in my career, I kind of resent that stereotype.) Thus, he chose Joel McCrea, whose character's only initial concern was whether his new appointment would come with an expense account.

After arriving in Europe, McCrea's first assignment was a peace conference in Amsterdam, where he was looking for an elusive Dutch diplomat. The diplomat was assassinated as McCrea stepped out of the crowd to greet him.

I guess that editor was right about McCrea and the need to have a reporter on the story. In his quest for the assassin, McCrea found himself in a windmill — where, it turned out, the real diplomat was being held. The man McCrea saw shot was a lookalike, a decoy.

That was followed by some spine–tingling Hitchcockesque suspense in which one couldn't help seeing glimpses of things to come. Still, it was a different kind of Hitchcock movie. If you've never seen it — and you think "Psycho" is all you need to know about Hitchcock — you're in for a real surprise — as well as a real treat — when you see it.

McCrea's character really gave his editor what he wanted — an open, inquisitive and creative mind who found all sorts of ways to get around obstacles. McCrea's love interest was 19–year–old Laraine Day, playing the daughter of a local politician. Don't let her age fool you. Her character was very articulate, as when she had to step in at the last minute as featured speaker when the diplomat failed to show up.

"I think the world has been run long enough by well–meaning professionals," she said. "We might give the amateurs a chance now."

And she could be tough, too, when the situation called for it.

As a Hitchcock fan, I am always inclined to think that any year in which one of his movies was showing in theaters — and that was most of the years in roughly a four–decade span — was Hitchcock's year, but 1940 really was Hitch's year. At the Academy Awards, "Foreign Correspondent" was one of two Hitchcock movies nominated for Best Picture. The other was "Rebecca," which went on to win the award. It beat some pretty good competition, too — "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Philadelphia Story," "The Great Dictator."

I think the Academy made the right choice. "Rebecca" was a better movie, but "Foreign Correspondent" was deserving of recognition as well. Both were fiction, but "Foreign Correspondent" was a vision based on what was known at the time of what might happen in a not–so–distant future. Sometimes, I suppose, the vision was inadequate, but trying to tell the future based on a limited amount of information was what made the project so challenging.

Deservedly, Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, too — but for "Rebecca," not "Foreign Correspondent."

"Foreign Correspondent" received six Oscar nominations in all. In addition to Best Picture, it was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Black and White Art Direction, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Special Effects (which isn't hard to understand, once you've seen McCrea crawling along the exteriors of windmills and hotels in scenes that must have served as preparation for the Mount Rushmore scene in "North by Northwest") — but lost all six.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Doing the Time Warp

"I'm just a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania."

Dr. Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry)

On this day in 1975, I don't think anyone really noticed the debut of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." I have no memory of it having a traditional theatrical run — of course, it's possible that the two–screen theater that served my hometown in those days chose not to show it when it had the opportunity — and it might have slipped into movie obscurity altogether had it not been for someone's inspiration to turn it into a cult movie with midnight showings on Friday and Saturday nights.

I don't know who thought of doing that — but whoever it was really earned a bonus for that one. In the late '70s and early '80s, a majority of the theaters in the United States had midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at some point — and nearly everyone in his/her late teens and/or early 20s in those days went to see "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" at least once. I was in college around that time, and it was a social event on campus — as it was elsewhere. People dressed in costumes inspired by the movie and brought appropriate props with them — toast, rice, umbrellas, newspapers. You probably needed to see the movie once before joining the audience participation — if only to have some idea what was going on.

I don't think it would be an exaggeration to assert that most people probably went to see it dozens of times. That doesn't mean it was a good movie — it certainly was not — but it had a campy appeal that was decidedly its own.

In fact, the more I think about it, a good way to judge the honesty of people of that generation would be to ask them how many times they went to midnight showings of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." You'll know they're lying if they give you a specific number. If they are truly honest, their answers will be somewhat vague — "Oh, I don't know. Several."

After all, who could be precise after being exposed to all the marijuana smoke those midnight showings always had?

However, there are always those who expect precision of a sort. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "It's one of those movies," he wrote, "you have to use a lot of hyphens to explain. A horror–rock–transvestite–camp–omnisexual–musical parody. It's about two clean–cut kids from the 'Ike Age,' Janet and Brad, who stumble through a time warp and into a sinister Gothic mansion where the annual Transylvanian Convention is taking place (pardon me, boys, is this the Transylvanian orgy?). The mansion is presided over by the bizarre Dr. Frank N. Furter, who is, he explains, a transvestite from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy Transylvanian."

And that, in a nutshell, is the plot.

Janet was played by Susan Sarandon, an actress in her 20s but already a veteran of some half a dozen movies. Brad was played by Barry Bostwick, an actor who was about 30 and who probably hasn't had as noteworthy a career as Sarandon. Dr. Frank N. Furter was played by Tim Curry — who always seems to land outrageous roles (and really hit the jackpot with this one).

No one who saw "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" could ever forget the titles of the songs — "The Time Warp," "Dammit Janet," "Sweet Transvestite," just to name a few.

I keep thinking that, in today's hopelessly politically correct culture, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" would be mercilessly hammered as insensitive — not the generational event that it was.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

'Go Set a Watchman' Tells a Human Story

"She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex,'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him."

Harper Lee, "Go Set a Watchman"

It has been said that the moment of both a child's greatest joy and greatest sorrow is the moment when he/she bests a parent at something for the first time — and, in the process, learns the parent is imperfect. I think it also applies to learning something about the parent that wasn't known before.

Perhaps it is when a boy beats his father at arm wrestling or some other physical competition, but, many times, that moment is when the child beats the parent at some kind of game, a game of cards perhaps or a board game. That's what it was with me. My father taught me to play chess when I was little, and he routinely beat me as I was learning the game. I remember the first time I beat him; to this day, I am not certain if I really did beat him or if he permitted me to win. At the time, though, I believed I had won fair and square — and it really did create a tremendous conflict in my young mind.

I was maybe 8 or 9 at the time, and I had always regarded my father as infallible. I know now, of course, and have known for a long time that he isn't, but I didn't know it then. I suppose that is part of being a child and making that transition to maturity — going from believing that your father can do no wrong to understanding that he is a mortal man with strengths and weaknesses like everyone else and that, if you haven't already, the two of you will disagree about some things. That doesn't make him any more or less what he was before — except in your mind.

I was thrilled to have beaten Dad — and profoundly sorry as well — and I think that is the point of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman." Well, it's one of the points. Let me explain.

First of all, I won't assume that you already know the circumstances surrounding this book so I'll try to briefly go over them for you. This was Lee's original book, the one she submitted to her publisher first. The publisher said it would be more effective if she wrote from the children's point of view so Lee wrote a new book set in the 1930s — at the time that the main female character's father, Atticus Finch, was defending in court a black man who was accused of raping a white woman.

If you are familiar with "To Kill a Mockingbird," it won't be hard for you to recognize Lee's style — and reading "Go Set a Watchman" will make it easier for you to see the influence Lee's editor had on the final product of "To Kill a Mockingbird." I can almost see Lee and her editor working together, her editor recommending a word or a phrase that softens or hardens a passage.

Lee created the book, but it was the editor who really polished it. We owe as much to her as we do to Lee for "To Kill a Mockingbird," which has long been regarded a classic of American literature. I know you already know that, but it is the kind of thing that cannot be said too frequently. Its hero, Atticus, has taken on almost mythical qualities. It is for that very reason that "Go Set a Watchman" has evoked such an emotional response.

But "Go Set a Watchman" tells a very human story.

Nearly everyone from "To Kill a Mockingbird" was there, only it was a couple of decades later. Many things had changed. Jean Louise (also known as Scout) had been living far away, but she was back in her Alabama hometown for a vacation visit and clearly still idolized her father. Her discovery of Citizens Council literature in his home caused a crisis for the adult Jean Louise and the child Scout (who happened to inhabit the same body simultaneously) — who had once believed, the reader learned, that she thought she became pregnant because she French–kissed a boy.

NPR's Maureen Corrigan writes that "Go Set a Watchman" is "kind of a mess" that will "forever change the way we read a masterpiece."

That isn't how I see it.

Half a century ago, Lee wrote a masterpiece, and no one thought we would ever see another book with her name on it. Now we have been given another chance to read something new from her, an opportunity to get caught up with the characters who became like old friends for a generation of readers.

In our supercharged, hyper–politically correct environment, I'm certain there will be some people — probably many people — who will be upset that, in "Go Set a Watchman," Harper Lee's sequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus Finch's attitude about blacks appears to have changed.

And I realize that is a difficult thing for some readers to accept. But accept this: These are Harper Lee's characters. She created them — no matter who inspired them or how much real–life truth was included in her books, it is up to her to do with them as she pleases. It is her story. You may disagree, but what is done with them is not your decision to make, just as it is not your decision which colors an artist uses on his canvas or which notes a musician uses in his composition. It is your decision whether to like it or not — but that is all.

Now, personally, I would prefer that people reach that conclusion on the basis of the book's merits, not what they have been told about it by others. But, unfortunately, you can't make people think for themselves.

I have always understood that Atticus was inspired by Lee's own father. In her original book, perhaps she was examining that moment in her life when she realized that her father was not living up to the standard she had set for him in her mind. In "To Kill a Mockingbird," we were permitted to see the life she had lived as a child and the things that had stayed with her. Was it idealized? Probably. Almost certainly. But, while it may not be a perfect reflection of reality, it is necessary if we are to take away a different lesson from Harper Lee's saga of Maycomb, Alabama, than the one we took from only the snapshot of Scout's childhood.

Few modern writers have been better at character development than Lee. Take, for example, her physical description of Scout's aunt: "There was no doubt about it: Alexandra Finch Hancock was imposing from any angle; her behind was no less uncompromising than her front. Jean Louise had often wondered, but never asked, where she got her corsets. They drew up to her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Alexandra's had once been an hourglass figure."

That is the kind of description that could have been written about many of the women I knew in the small Arkansas town where I grew up.

She also makes the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb a character. After a brief description of the town's history — and an explanation why the population hadn't changed much in a century and a half — Lee wrote, "What saved it from becoming another grubby little Alabama community was that Maycomb's proportion of professional people ran high: one went to Maycomb to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his mules vetted, his soul saved, his mortgage extended." In a few sentences, Lee irrevocably established how vital the town was in the lives of everyone it touched.

Again, that reminds me of the Arkansas town in which I grew up. It had three colleges in it — all small by most college standards — but it gave the town a special status as a producer of college–educated folks. When I was growing up, it was almost assumed that, if someone local went on to college after finishing high school, it would be to one of the three colleges in town. I think it was that way when I graduated from high school. Even though my hometown has grown considerably, it's probably still that way to an extent.

All the time I was reading "Go Set a Watchman," I was reminded of an episode of "M*A*S*H" in which Hawkeye encouraged Radar, who had always looked up to Hawkeye, to go into Seoul to lose his virginity — and Radar was injured by a mine and wound up in the O.R. at the 4077th. Hawkeye, who operated on Radar, felt so guilty for putting him in that position that he got drunk and then got sick. The next day Radar told Hawkeye that he was disappointed in him, and Hawkeye blew up. "I'm not here for you to admire," he shouted at Radar. "I'm here to pull bodies out of a sausage grinder, if possible without going crazy."

Later Col. Potter was talking to Radar about Hawkeye — who had slipped several notches in Radar's eyes — and he pointed out that the 4077th was a rather small compound and the two of them were bound to bump into each other sooner or later. They might start out talking about the weather or the food in the mess tent and, before long, he would realize that Hawkeye was the same guy he'd been when Radar had Hawkeye on a pedestal.

In fact, Col. Potter said, things might be even better — now that they could see things more eye to eye.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Everyone Needs a Little 'Help!' Now and Then

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles stood on the brink of an historic shift in popular music. In a few months, they would enter uncharted creative waters. They would release "Rubber Soul," which included the almost obligatory love songs with which early Beatles albums had become inextricably linked but also boasted an increasing number of songs that showcased the evolving maturity of each Beatle and gave listeners a glimpse of what was to come. Rolling Stone ranked "Rubber Soul" fifth on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

In 1966, the Beatles would follow "Rubber Soul" with "Revolver," Rolling Stone's third–greatest album of all time.

"Help!" the British version of which was released 50 years ago today, didn't fare poorly with Rolling Stone, either; it was named the 331st album on the magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was really more of the same that the Beatles had been peddling for a couple of years — many routine love songs with some cover tunes and a few unique numbers thrown in.

(Actually, all of the Beatles' albums deserved to be ranked among the Top 500 of all time — and most of them were.)

In hindsight, change was clearly in the air — even if the Beatles themselves didn't realize it. At this point in the Beatlemania phenomenon, I think the Beatles were being carried along by their own momentum — and the formula that had made that momentum possible had been established for quite awhile. But if the Beatles were going to continue to be the dominant force in popular music, some changes would have to come. In 1965, the Beatles were beginning to face some real challenges to their musical creativity.

The British "Help!" was sort of a semi–soundtrack. Half of the 14 songs on the British album were in the movie "Help!" which was in theaters in late July 1965 whereas the American version really was a traditional soundtrack from the movie — which, according to the Beatles themselves, was made in a "haze of marijuana." The American album had fewer tracks than the British album and featured three tracks from the movie by non–Beatles. So the British version of "Help!" really was more of a Beatles album than the American version — which was also more of the same. American marketers routinely and shamelessly cut songs from the British counterparts and tried to squeeze more profits from the Beatles by slicing and dicing Beatles records to make extra albums.

(I've never seen the movie "Help!" It's the only Beatles movie I haven't seen, which is why I didn't write about it on the 50th anniversary of its premiere last week. But I've read some interesting interpretations by others, especially Martin King of The Independent: "The representation of masculinity embodied in 'Help!' is a key stepping stone to more obvious displays of gender fluidity that were to emerge in later decades," King wrote. He went on to discuss how, in "Help!" the Beatles heralded the coming of the metrosexual male decades before the word was coined. I never really thought of that. I just liked the music.

(Not much seems to have been written about the 50th anniversary of the release of the British edition of the "Help!" album. About the movie? Yes. But not about the albums, either the British or American versions.)

Both records had two very successful singles — "Ticket to Ride" and the title song "Help!" — but the British album also contained the tune that may be the most covered song not just in the annals of Beatles music but in the history of all recorded music, "Yesterday."

To be sure, there were other songs on "Help!" that had that unique Beatles brand and probably should never be sung by anyone else — even a Beatles tribute band. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was such a song, as was "I've Just Seen a Face."

But there were also songs that merited little more than a minor mention. George Harrison's two songwriting efforts — "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much" — showed potential, but his compositions were not yet up to the level they would reach in later albums.

Personally, I have always been fond of "Act Naturally," the Beatles' cover of Buck Owens' tongue–in–cheek 1963 country chart–topper that made him a star. It was a song that went unrecorded for a few years after it was written because music publishers didn't think songs about the movie business would sell.

After Owens made it a hit, others began to cover it, and so did the Beatles. I have heard some of those covers, and I have concluded that, apart from Owens, only Ringo Starr could have sung it plausibly, and sing it he did.

Nearly a quarter of a century after Ringo recorded the cover for the Beatles, he and Owens got together to record a duet of the song.

It wound up spending a few weeks on the country charts, but Ringo didn't have the distinction of being the first Beatle to make the country charts. That honor went to Paul McCartney and Wings with "Sally G." in 1974.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

To Catch the Style of a Thief

Francie (Grace Kelly): I called the police from your room and told them who you are and everything you've been doing tonight.

Robie (Cary Grant): Everything? The boys must have really enjoyed that at headquarters.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King had a lot in common — primarily the fact that each was/is misunderstood. People like to give labels to others, but King and Hitchcock really defied being pigeonholed. As a result, people who had little, if any, exposure to their work labeled them based on a vague comprehension of that work.

For example, while he is far more talented as a writer than labeling gives him credit for, Stephen King has been known as a master of the horror genre for decades. There is some truth to that, just as there is in most stereotypes, but King's skills really are more diverse. Dismissing him as only a horror writer does him a disservice.

Likewise, Hitchcock has been known for directing scary movies — probably the legacy of 1960's "Psycho," which may be his best known movie among non–devotees of Hitchcock's work. But even if the speaker has more familiarity with Hitchcock's movies than that, the speaker is still likely to think of Hitchcock as the director of scary movies.

I take issue with that. His movies weren't scary. They were electrifying. There is a difference.

Hitchcock himself regarded his movies as thrillers, suspense flicks even, not horror movies. It is true that most of his movies had a certain whodunnit quality to them because someone usually wound up dead at the hands of another; if that happened, the audience either saw it from a distance or after the fact. It wasn't explicit. But there were exceptions. Sometimes no one died at all, and such a movie, "To Catch a Thief," premiered on this day in 1955.

There were certain themes that Hitchcock explored frequently in his movies, one of which was mistaken identity. Those movies are among the most gripping that Hitchcock ever made — and "To Catch a Thief" was one of the best from that particular subset of Hitchcock movies.

It was also made smack dab in the middle of what could — arguably — be regarded as Hitchcock's peak period — the 1950s.

Of course, it starred Cary Grant, which had a lot to do with its success. I do think Grant did star in the best of Hitchcock's mistaken identity movies, but it wasn't "To Catch a Thief." It was "North by Northwest."

But that doesn't take anything away from "To Catch a Thief." It was a stylish movie. With Grant as its star, though, could it possibly be anything other than stylish?

Grant's co–star was the incomparable Grace Kelly. She had a brief career (11 movies in six years), but she made three of those movies with Hitchcock in the director's chair. You could always tell Hitchcock's favorites among the actors with whom he worked, too. They were the ones who were in more than one movie that he directed.

Grant was a favorite of Hitchcock's, too, appearing in four of Hitch's movies. Reportedly, Hitchcock said Grant was "the only actor I ever loved in my whole life." Read into that what one will.

Grant played a retired jewel thief known as "The Cat," who was leading a quiet life tending his vineyards on the French Riviera — nice work if you can get it, right? Out of the blue, burglaries bearing The Cat's signature began happening, and the police naturally suspected Grant's character was involved. He sought a sanctuary of sorts with his old gang from his French Resistance days, but they all suspected him of pulling off the crimes while they were under suspicion.

Grant decided that the way to prove that he was innocent was to catch the actual burglar in the act — and enlisted several people to help him, including Kelly, who still harbored suspicions of her own.

Nevertheless, Kelly became something of a rival for Grant's attention with a young French girl (played by Brigitte Auber), the daughter of one of Grant's old buddies and something of a love interest at one time. Based on her apparent age, one suspected that she may have had a schoolgirl crush on Grant. Right now, I don't recall what, if anything, was said about that. My memory is that it was mostly implied. But there was something there between them — or there had been at one time.

One–sided it may have been, but there was something there.

In a memorable scene in which the two women were introduced to each other while in the waters of the Riviera, Grant (Robie) said to Auber, "Say something nice to her, Danielle."

Auber replied in her distinctive French accent, "She looks a lot older up close."

Kelly remarked, "To a mere child, anything over 20 might seem old."

I've always thought Auber's response was one of the most classic of Hitchcock lines: "A child? Shall we stand in shallower water and discuss that?"

As beautiful as Kelly was, I have a hunch that, if she had accepted that challenge from the 27–year–old Auber (who was more than a year older than Kelly), it would have been a very close contest. Clearly, Auber did not have the figure of a child. Hers was a voluptuous figure compared to Kelly's. But Kelly was regal in her beauty — fitting, considering that she married the prince of Monaco less than a year later.

Many years after that, when Kelly suffered a stroke while driving her car in the hills of Monaco, it was said that her car went out of control along the same stretch of winding mountainside road where her character terrified Grant in "To Catch a Thief." I never found out if there was any truth to that.

Hitchcock, of course, liked having beautiful women in his movies, and he really hit the jackpot in "To Catch a Thief." Not only were the women beautiful, but one of them played a significant role in the story. Auber, it turned out, was the copycat Cat.

Oh, shoot, I've given away the ending, haven't I? Well, it's still an enjoyable movie, one that everyone should see once.

"To Catch a Thief" received Oscar nominations for Best Color Art Direction and Best Color Costume Design — and won for Best Color Cinematography.