Thursday, August 17, 2017

'Invasion' Proved My Point About Remakes

I have a definite opinion about remakes.

Usually, they aren't improvements on the originals. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Oh, I concede that technical advances in filmmaking have made it possible for a remake to be better than the original. But even in the 21st century, remakes are rarely, if ever, improvements.

I offer, as Exhibit A, "The Invasion," which premiered on this day in 2007.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that "The Invasion" was "the fourth, and the least, of the movies made from Jack Finney's classic science fiction novel." I don't feel qualified to agree or disagree with that statement since I haven't seen all three of the previous incarnations. But Ebert's assessment surely affirms my own of remakes.

I also have a definite opinion about Nicole Kidman, the female lead of "The Invasion." I like her. I liked her the first time I can remember seeing her — in "Dead Calm." And I have liked other movies in which she appeared — "To Die For," "The Others" and "Eyes Wide Shut" come to mind. So does "Moulin Rouge," for that matter.

But Kidman has had about as many misses as hits in her career, especially in recent years, and I would put "The Invasion" on that list.

And it isn't necessary to see the other three film versions of the story to reach that conclusion, either.

All four movies do have a few things in common — primarily, the extraterrestrial invasion. The first couple of movies were transparently titled "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." The third was named, simply, "Body Snatchers."

(Returning — ever so briefly — to the plausibility angle, Ebert asked, "Do you expect a movie titled 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' to be plausible?" It is a fair question, and my answer, after careful reflection, would be, "Yes. It doesn't have to be completely plausible — which is good since it is hard to imagine how it could be. But there needs to be enough plausibility to allow the viewers to suspend considerable disbelief.")

As I presume it was with each movie version of Finney's novel, "The Invasion" opened with the arrival of alien spores on Earth. In the only version I saw previously (and I have heard it was the same in the other two), these spores took the form of pods that encased their victims. They changed that a bit in "The Invasion" — the spores apparently attached themselves to a space shuttle that crashed following re–entry and scattered its debris from Dallas to Washington (that's a pretty impressive debris field). The debris was contaminated, and anyone who touched it became infected. When the victims fell into deep sleep, the infection seized control of them entirely.

Replacing the pods in "The Invasion" was a kind of film that covered the victim while he/she slept.

No one really seemed to notice what was happening at first. Oh, there were reports in the news of some strange virus in the U.S., and there were more dire reports from abroad. But, like most people, Kidman (a Washington–area psychiatrist in the movie) went about her daily routine, oblivious to what was happening until one of her patients, a victim of domestic abuse (Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the 1978 version of the story), told her, "My husband just isn't my husband anymore."

Now, given the conversations those two were sure to have had in the past, it would be plausible for Kidman not to understand that Cartwright wasn't discussing abusive behavior — but rather the zombie–like behavior of those under the influence of the aliens. Her husband was one of them. The viewers never saw that character when he wasn't under the aliens' influence, but they knew it the first time they saw him sitting in Kidman's waiting room.

He had the look.

If you ever saw "The Stepford Wives," you would recognize the look — flat, dull, emotionless. Bloodless. Soulless. Measured in words and actions.

Kidman's character had to become proficient at the look, pretending to be one of them in order to maneuver around the city without drawing attention. That required her to maintain total outward neutrality no matter what was happening around her.

Absent any real plausibility, "The Invasion" suffered when it asked viewers to accept some pretty preposterous things.

Like, for example, the fact that a medical researcher (played by underrated actor Jeffrey Wright), a colleague of Kidman's love interest (played by Daniel Craig), was able to discern all kinds of information about this previously unknown virus from a single sample — in a couple of days. He was also able to determine how to eradicate the virus. Cancer researchers who watched this movie must have been jealous.

That would have been enough as far as I was concerned, but then there was a scene when Kidman and her young son were trying to get away in a car that was set afire by a Molotov cocktail. After it was struck the car could be seen virtually engulfed in flames, and I am pretty sure the windshield was broken when the vehicle was hit, but the car kept going, even seemed to accelerate, toward the occupants' appointed rendezvous with a helicopter.

I had to wonder how would it be plausible for someone to keep driving with flames all around like that? I mean, I was never any great shakes at science when I was in school, but you don't have to be a physics major to imagine what would happen to someone who tried to keep driving under those conditions.

Sorta like someone trying to continue driving with one flat tire. Common sense tells you it won't end well.

Then there were things that required specific knowledge of how they do things in Washington to comprehend how off the charts the plausibility factor had become.

For example, in Washington the law prohibits any building in the city from being taller than the Capitol — yet the movie clearly showed the helicopter landing on top of a (nonexistent) D.C. skyscraper.

I know how Hollywood loves to run a good thing into the ground, but trust me, this story has been driven deep into the ground. Let's move on to something new, shall we?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Growing Pains and Growing Up

"Not all the obstacles that can trip you up are on this base. Let me tell you something about the local girls. Ever since there's been a base here, there's been what you'd call the Puget Sound Debs. The poor girls come across the sound on the ferry every weekend with just one thing in mind, and that's to marry themselves a naval aviator. A Puget Deb will tell you, 'Don't you worry about contraceptives. I've got that all taken care of.' Don't believe it, sweet pea. A Puget Deb will do anything and say anything to trap you. I know this sounds silly, especially in this so–called modern age, but you scuzzy college pukes should watch out because they're out there, and you, sweet peas, are the answer to their dream!"

Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.)

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote this about "An Officer and a Gentleman," which premiered on this day in 1982:
"'An Officer and a Gentleman' is the best movie about love that I've seen in a long time. Maybe that's because it's not about 'love' as a Hollywood concept, but about love as growth as learning to accept other people for who and what they are."

Perhaps Ebert was right about that. I don't know.

All I know is how I felt about it when I saw it for the first time. I thought it was overly melodramatic. I thought it was probably a pretty accurate portrayal of the behavior of some single women in military base towns — but probably an exaggeration as well.

And loaded with cliches. So how come Ebert said it was "the best movie about love that I've seen in a long time"?

Perhaps I, like the pilot candidates, simply refused to believe a woman could be that conniving. I was young and naïve, and perhaps I was prone to give women the benefits of more doubts than they deserved. (The flip side of that is that there are guys who give women the benefits of too few doubts.)

I'm older now, though, and I have had experiences that I hadn't had when I first saw "An Officer and a Gentleman," and I have concluded, in hindsight, that it was better — and probably a lot more accurate — than I originally thought. At the very least, it was entertaining.

And, OK, it was kinda schmaltzy, too. But I suppose that is inevitable when the subject is growing pains and growing up. It is a universal experience, as old as human life. Is there anything new left to say about it — except that, like death, it is a personal experience and different for everyone?

Only the circumstances are different, really — and the times when these profound changes occur. For some it happens in their teens. Others are in their 20s. In rare cases, it is later.

At this point, I guess I am more inclined to give the story the benefit of the doubt. People? Not so much.

(Perhaps, as the announcer in "A League of Their Own" said, "I have seen enough to know I have seen too much.")

Anyway ...

I would say the young men who were the focus of the story — Richard Gere and David Keith — were inclined to put women on a pedestal, which probably made it easier for Puget Sound Debs, as they were called in the movie, to achieve their objective.

That changed.

The change was tragic, brought about by Keith. His character withdrew from the pilot training program, and his girlfriend broke up with him. Still believing it was the real thing, he proposed to her, but she refused. "I don't want to marry you," she told him. "I really like you, and we've had ourselves some really great times, but I thought you understood. I want to marry a pilot. I want to live my life overseas — the wife of an aviator."

Keith's character hanged himself.

But it was the real thing for Gere and his girlfriend, Debra Winger. Things were rocky near the end of the movie, but, ultimately, in a big–screen moment that has been parodied frequently in the intervening years, Gere literally swept Winger off her feet at the factory where she worked and carried her off.

Louis Gossett Jr., in the role of Sgt. Foley, became the first black actor to win Best Supporting Actor. "An Officer and a Gentleman" received five other nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Winger, and won for Best Original Song ("Up Where We Belong").

Thursday, August 10, 2017

John Ford's Irish Anthology

In nearly all of John Ford's movies, there is at least one star with whom the viewer is familiar — John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, for instance, were Ford's friends as well as frequent collaborators.

In other words, you usually knew what you were getting. And with Ford, you usually got a western — but not always.

Take, for example, "The Rising of the Moon," Ford's Irish anthology that made its debut on this day in 1957. (It took its name from Augusta, Lady Gregory's play that was first produced in 1907. That play was the basis for the third story, titled "1921" in the film.) There were no recognizable stars. It was a trilogy of short stories, and nary a one was set in the West. They were all set in Ireland.

Well, it isn't entirely true that there were no known stars in the movie. Tyrone Power served as the movie's narrator, tenuously linking each of the three stories together. Modern students of motion pictures need not rack their brains trying to remember where they might have seen any of the folks in "The Rising of the Moon."

If you are any kind of movie buff, though, you are bound to have seen at least some of them before. Some appeared in successful American movies during their careers but usually in small roles; even audiences of six decades ago would not have recognized the casts in "The Rising of the Moon" unless they had a knowledge of Irish actors.

And most Western moviegoers, then and now, knew little about Irish actors.

Neither did Western audiences know much about Irish history — and it requires a certain amount of knowledge on that topic for the stories about Irish life in the early 20th century to make sense. The viewer needs more than passing exposure to Irish traditions and customs in many cases, but knowledge of Irish history is almost entirely the key to understanding that third vignette, a darker tale that appears to support the Irish Republican Army.

Now, during the 1920s, the IRA was involved in a savage round of ethnic cleansing. In Ford's trilogy, the IRA — the Al Qaeda or ISIS of its day — was given a hero's treatment while its foes, the "Black and Tans," a British paramilitary force during the Irish War for Independence, were treated as villains.

I suppose how one interprets the roles of the groups involved in the War for Independence largely depends upon whether one supports the Protestants or the Catholics. But to choose sides it is necessary to have some knowledge of the history of the conflict.

The other two vignettes didn't rely nearly as much on historical knowledge.

But to understand what was being said it was helpful to have more than a passing knowledge of an Irish brogue.

So even though the movie has a unique charm, most viewers probably wouldn't get much from watching it.

And that really is a shame because, like all John Ford movies, it has a number of rewarding qualities. Since the audience knows few, if any, of the actors, there are no expectations, freeing the audience to revel in some great performances. And the cinematographers should have been recognized, as many of Ford's cinematographers on other projects were, for their work.

But modern movie viewers can appreciate it — if they have an opportunity to see it.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

Ben (Glenn Ford): I mean, I don't go around just shootin' people down. I work quiet, like you.

Dan (Van Heflin): All right, so you're quiet like me. Well, then, shut up like me.

Glenn Ford's character in "3:10 to Yuma," which premiered on this day in 1957, reminds me of some guys I knew in high school.

Now, when I say I knew them, I mean we were acquaintances. We passed each other in the halls. Sometimes we had classes together. But they were never my friends, and I was never theirs.

They were the kind of guys who cut corners, who figure it is easier to take what they want than to put in the effort required to acquire it, whether it is a good grade or money or a car — or the affection of a beautiful (and even not–so–beautiful) girl.

Of course, it is easier. It's always easier to cut corners. It just isn't particularly honest.

Ford was like that in "3:10 to Yuma." He was the leader of a ruthless criminal gang that started to rob a stagecoach of its shipment of gold and wound up gunning down the driver of the stagecoach. After the shooting Ford and his gang went into town posing as cowhands and got drinks at the local saloon. Ford seduced the pretty but lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr), a decision that would cost him his freedom as it gave those who were pursuing him time and opportunity to catch him.

Farr was like many of the girls I knew in high school. She was friendly enough to the males she saw each day, but she had a real weakness for the bad boys, the ones who were usually in trouble. The bad boys didn't stick around long, either. They were usually the love 'em and leave 'em types.

And the bad boys were the smooth talkers. Ford told Farr the kinds of things he knew she wanted to hear.

That made an impression on Farr, who didn't really play an extensive role in the movie. She was there mostly to give the viewers an idea of what kind of man Ford was. Mission accomplished.

"Some men you see every day for 10 years and you never notice," she remarked shortly after she apparently went to bed with Ford (1950s viewers had to make that assumption, given that they never actually saw the couple in bed together but only as they were exiting Farr's quarters). "Some men you see once, and they're with you for the rest of your life."

When they parted, Farr admitted — seemingly ruefully — that Ford would be one of those who remained with her for the rest of her life.

An observation that reeks of insincerity.

Con men are like that. History always remembers the con men, but people don't always remember history.

Some folks see right through the con men. Van Heflin was that kind of character in "3:10 to Yuma." Of course, it helped to have the insight Heflin's character possessed. He had seen how, while robbing a stagecoach, Ford's character had cold–bloodedly gunned down both the stagecoach driver and a member of Ford's own gang who had been seized by the driver and used as a human shield.

And he had seen how Ford manipulated people to get his way.

Heflin was an honest, hard–working pragmatic rancher who never seemed to catch a break. When Ford lingered in town to seduce the barmaid, Heflin and the town drunk took him into custody. Then it fell to Heflin to guard Ford until he could be put on a train to Yuma in Southwest Arizona, where Ford would stand trial.

It was during the hours of waiting for the 3:10 to Yuma — and trying to be ready in case Ford's gang tried to liberate him — that Ford and Heflin engaged in intriguing cat–and–mouse dialogue — just the sort of tactic a con man tends to use.

The audience already knew how Heflin had struggled to make ends meet and how his family had suffered because of it, and Ford tried to use that to his advantage, offering Heflin ever–escalating amounts of money for his freedom. Claimed to have the money in his pocket.

I can only imagine what a fortune that must have been in the 19th century, and Heflin's character was clearly tempted to take Ford's offer. But he resisted temptation, knowing what the money could mean to his family.

And, of course, no one could say whether Ford really had that money. No one ever saw it.

It could have been one more example of a con man doing his thing.

The story was set in the old West, but it could so easily have been set at any time in any genre. It was a tense thriller as much as a western and deserving of the praise it received.

Nevertheless, I had a couple of problems with it.

For one, it was a little spooky to hear Ford whistling the movie's theme song — which undoubtedly had not been written at the time the movie portrayed.

But that was small potatoes. In the end, Ford helped Heflin escape to safety rather than take the easy way out. It meant that Ford would go on to face trial in Yuma. His reason? Heflin had saved Ford's life earlier, and Ford didn't want to be in anyone's debt.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Connecting the Dots

Tracy (Merritt Wever): Is 'douche bag' a curse?

Graham (Mel Gibson): I suppose it would depend on its usage.

Tracy: How about 'John, you're a douche bag for kissing Barbara'?

Graham: It's a curse.

I found "Signs," which premiered on this day in 2002, to be entertaining — even though it came perilously close to violating my plausibility standard for science fiction movies. I suppose credit for that should go mostly to director M. Night Shyamalan, who seems to have a knack for making science fiction films that manage to entertain even nonscience fiction types like myself.

But his films are not created equal. "The Sixth Sense" was a remarkably good film, especially when you consider that it was only Shyamalan's third directorial effort. He's had some pretty good efforts in his career, but none of his succeeding films (at least, none that I have seen) have come close to matching that one.

He was in the ballpark with "Signs," though.

And speaking of ballparks, Joaquin Phoenix, who played Mel Gibson's younger brother, was a former minor–league ballplayer. It is important to know that — but it didn't seem important at first. Kind of like some of the details in "The Sixth Sense."

In the tradition of the great directors of thrillers, Shyamalan gives the viewers all the pieces they need to solve the puzzle — but he lets them assemble the pieces without knowing what the puzzle is ultimately supposed to look like. And then suddenly he reveals the whole picture, and the viewers begin to realize the things they got right — and the things they got wrong.

I like what film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie.

"In a time when Hollywood mistakes volume for action," Ebert wrote, "Shyamalan makes quiet films. In a time when incessant action is a style, he persuades us to pay close attention to the smallest nuances."

The core of this story was the sudden appearance of "crop circles," those geometric designs in fields that pop up in the news from time to time. The more conspiracy theory–minded among us tend to believe that they are created by aliens, but probably most people — and certainly most scientists — even those who fervently wish the existence of aliens could be proven tend to dismiss them as likely hoaxes.

Gibson's character had once been an ordained priest, but he had given it up after his wife's death in a car accident.

That didn't prevent the locals from asking him faith–based questions, though, and he constantly had to tell them that he had no faith.

But then these crop circles appeared in his field, and they began showing up all over the world, too, and other phenomena began to occur, like reports of strange lights over Mexico.

Phoenix and his young niece (Abigail Breslin) and asthmatic nephew (Rory Culkin), who became convinced early that aliens were real and hiding in plain sight, fashioned caps out of tin foil to prevent the aliens from reading their minds. That was one of those "nuances" to which Ebert referred.

And Gibson's character wasn't convinced — initially.

As the movie progressed, though, viewers discovered that the aliens did exist and had been responsible for those crop circles.

And Gibson and his family took all sorts of precautions to keep the aliens from entering their home, but they were unsuccessful.

When they were first seen, the aliens appeared as shadows or reflections on a TV screen. Later on, though, Shyamalan brought them into the light of day.

And it was under such circumstances that Phoenix, who hit a lot of home runs during his minor–league career but also struck out a lot, used his longball–hitting skill to take on the unwelcome guests.

Gibson's loss of faith, while mostly underplayed through the movie, was nevertheless a constant theme and restoring his faith was his character's purpose. In the end, he appeared to have regained his faith as a result of his extremely close encounter.

In fact, the whole family seemed to be doing better.

A happy ending.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Duke in Ireland

"He'll regret it 'til his dying day if ever he lives that long."

"Red Will" Danaher (Victor McLaglen)

When most people think of John Wayne, they probably think of cowboy movies or war movies — or, in the case of "The Alamo," I suppose, both, even though I guess the cowboys in "The Alamo" were really frontiersmen.

And I will admit that, if someone mentions John Wayne to me, my first thought will be of "The Searchers," which is my favorite John Wayne movie.

I wrote a year ago that I thought his performance in John Ford's "The Searchers" was his defining role, and I still feel that way. But a close second would have to be a movie in which he played neither a cowboy nor a soldier — another Ford–directed movie called "The Quiet Man," which premiered on this day in 1952.

Ford won his fourth and final Best Director Oscar for "The Quiet Man." His previous Oscar was for "How Green Was My Valley," which took place in Wales and also starred Maureen O'Hara (Wayne's love interest in "The Quiet Man"). Among movie fans "How Green Was My Valley" is remembered for being the movie that beat "Citizen Kane" for Best Picture. (Perhaps it was compensation for that injustice that "The Quiet Man," clearly the superior movie, was beaten for Best Picture by "The Greatest Show on Earth" — although "High Noon" was the betting favorite in that category.)

("Of all my films," O'Hara said, "'The Quiet Man' is my favorite, and John Wayne, who became a dear friend, was my favorite leading man.")

Wayne played an American boxer returning to the village in Ireland where he had been born. He had been traumatized by having killed a man in the ring so he had returned to reclaim the family farm and start a new life.

When he met O'Hara, she became part of his plan for that new life.

But there was one big obstacle — O'Hara's bullying brother played by Victor McLaglen. He had wanted that farm for himself. When the owner, a wealthy widow played by Mildred Natwick, didn't sell it to him, he declined to give his sister his consent. Then, on their wedding day, he refused to give her her dowry. Wayne's character cared nothing about the dowry, not realizing what it meant in Irish culture — and simultaneously creating a rift between them.

In those cowboy and soldier movies, the climactic moment typically had Wayne in some sort of gunfight; in "The Quiet Man," it was a fistfight as Wayne, the supposedly reformed boxer, took on McLaglen in a memorable fistfight that ended with the two of them expressing grudging admiration for each other.

Barry Fitzgerald played a curmudgeonly sort of character, the kind of part he was born to play. I doubt he ever did it better than he did in "The Quiet Man."

"The Quiet Man" received seven Oscar nominations and won two awards. Ford took home Best Director, and Winton Hoch and Archie Stout won the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.

Really, with all that gorgeous Irish countryside to work with (Ford, certainly one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation, was known for his frequent use of on–location filming), how could they miss?

On the Eve of War

On the eve of any armed conflict, there is that almost surreal will–they–or–won't–they kind of period when the people whose lives (most of them, anyway) will be shattered by decisions they do not make and actions they do not take are cast into limbo. And they wait to see if, well, they will or they won't.

Then the inevitable happens, and they must adapt to the new situation. Sometimes it requires them to shift their attitudes and their beliefs.

"One Minute to Zero," which made its debut on this day in 1952, was about such a time in the early days of the Korean War.

Ann Blyth, who was 23 at the time, played an idealistic United Nations worker in Korea just before the outbreak of the war — a pacifist who rejected all the evidence around her that a war was imminent. Like all of us, her character was shaped by its experiences, and she had lost her husband in World War II. Like many others she believed the U.N. was the legacy of the Allies' victory in World War II and that its mission was to prevent violent conflict around the world. She mistakenly believed it would do so in Korea.

I don't recall if her character's age was mentioned in the movie, but it is likely that Blyth was playing a character at least a few years older. Blyth was about 16 when World War II ended.

Robert Mitchum played a career military man who had risen to the rank of colonel. Experience had made him more pragmatic about the situation, and Blyth's character ultimately acquiesced.

Not to take a position in this, but it seemed to me that Blyth's character was eager to switch sides, perhaps a bit too eager. But that was in keeping with the rest of the movie, I thought. And it was in keeping with the times and the perceived woman's role in relationships, I suppose.

While I can think of several movies that managed to combine a good war story with a good love story in which characters didn't have to sacrifice principle, "One Minute to Zero" seemed to do little more than string together cliches from the better movies of its type — and the relationship between Blyth's character and Mitchum's character was a little too formulaic for my taste.

By and large, the females in the movies of that time yielded to the men in their lives on most things. I'm not suggesting that female leads in movies should arbitrarily take positions that are opposite of their significant others' simply to establish their independence. But neither should they go so far to the other extreme.

Perhaps that is something that was learned in that era — but is not always practiced today.

Early in the movie Blyth's character clearly had principles, but it didn't take much for her to shift to Mitchum's more pragmatic position that one had to fight fire with fire.

I learned long ago that you really can't reach a conclusion based strictly on Academy Award nominations — and the class of 1952 is a good example of that — but they can provide some insight into the quality of a movie.

And "One Minute to Zero" received no Oscar nominations.

Take from that what you will.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yes, Marilyn Could Do Drama

"The female race is always cheesing up my life."

Jed (Richard Widmark)

Even though she was before my time, I am a fan of Marilyn Monroe.

My admiration goes beyond her obvious physical appeal. I think she was a talented actress, too, unappreciated during her life and still so decades after her death.

And I thought I had seen all of her movies — until one day a few years ago when I happened to see "Don't Bother to Knock" being televised. I realized I had never seen it before so I watched it. That movie, which premiered 65 years ago today, was definitive proof of talent that did not depend on good looks.

In that sense, I was reminded of Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl."

Like Kelly, Monroe was always beautiful, but there were variations to her beauty. Sometimes she was glamorous; in "Don't Bother to Knock," I guess her beauty was more understated. It would take concentrated effort to mar her beauty, but you could drape her in clothes that were rather plain and that would bring her beauty down a notch or two.

That, I would say, is what they did in "Don't Bother to Knock."

And Monroe reciprocated with a riveting performance.

It was part of her character. At first she came across as shy and demure. Her clothes were plain. Her demeanor was almost unassuming. But that was all deceptive.

Her character wanted to wear nice clothes and expensive jewelry. But she, like so many others then and now, did not feel she could ever have the finer things she desired. Some people turn to lives of crime to gain the things they want in life. When the audience first saw her in "Don't Bother to Knock," Monroe's character was content to take risks but not necessarily to commit crimes. Well, not exactly, but we'll come back to that.

She was Richard Widmark's love interest. He was on the rebound after being jilted by Anne Bancroft, who was the real glamour girl, a sultry lounge singer. Bancroft had had a fling with Widmark, decided it was one of those things and wrote him a Dear John letter. In this case, I guess you'd call it a Dear Jed letter.

Jed came to New York to try to talk Bancroft out of it, but she didn't budge. Back in his hotel room, Jed looked out his window and saw Monroe across the courtyard, wearing clothes and jewelry that belonged to her employers for the evening, an out–of–town couple (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle) who hired her to babysit their daughter (Donna Corcoran) while they were attending a banquet downstairs.

Widmark and Monroe agreed to have a liaison in Monroe's room. Widmark was unaware that the young girl was sleeping in the adjacent room until the girl walked in on them.

As the evening progressed, Widmark became more and more aware that Monroe's character was mentally unstable. At one point, he thought Monroe would push the child out an open window — modern audiences would probably be shocked to see no barriers of any kind on upstairs windows — no rails or bars or anything at a time when air conditioning was still a rare luxury and the only relief to be found on a hot night came from open windows.

I'll leave some of the intricacies of the plot for you to discover for yourself, but Monroe's character continued to descend into a mental state in which she was convinced that Widmark was actually her deceased fiance.

She also bound and gagged the child with whom she had been sitting that evening. Turned out she had a history of mental issues. She had been institutionalized after her fiance's death. She had tried to kill herself, too, by slashing her wrists.

"Don't Bother to Knock" was a mostly forgettable movie, I suppose. The characters lacked emotional depth, and there wasn't a lot of context given until near the end (which, I suppose, was typical of film noir).

But Monroe's performance as the psychologically fragile Nell undoubtedly was influenced by Monroe's own experiences with her mother. That alone would make "Don't Bother to Knock" worth watching.

It was Monroe's first truly dramatic effort after appearing in 17 other films, mostly comedies, and it was a few years before the comedies for which Monroe is best remembered — "The Seven–Year Itch" and "Some Like It Hot."

It was Bancroft's debut.

Monroe's wasn't the first film portrayal of a mentally disturbed individual — but seldom has it been as honest.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Timeless Tale of Lou Gehrig

"All the arguing in the world can't change the decision of the umpire."

Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper)

Of all those who have worn the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, few have worn them with as much distinction as a man who never played an inning of major league ball, Gary Cooper.

Cooper portrayed Yankee great Lou Gehrig in "The Pride of the Yankees," which premiered on this day in 1942.

I'll save you from doing the math. That's 75 years ago, but the story itself is timeless.

Not only was he the pride of the Yankees. Gehrig was the pride of humanity, and it is a story that seems to be too good to be true — until you realize it is true.

Well, there were some details that only an expert of some kind would know — like the fact that even though Gehrig's jersey number could be seen in re–creations of World Series play from the 1920s, the Yankees did not start using numbers until the very end of that decade. Or the fact that some of the car models that were seen in the movie did not exist at the time when they were supposedly in use.

But Gehrig was, if anything, more noble in real life than he was in the movie. And there was no better choice to play him than Cooper, the 11th–greatest male movie star, according to the American Film Institute.

Cooper made a career of playing characters, both real and fictional, that were worthy of admiration.

He played Sergeant York, a real–life hero from World War I. After he played Gehrig, he played fictional hero Will Kane in "High Noon."

The American Film Institute included all three roles in its list of the top 50 movie heroes of all time. Deservedly so, too. If Cooper had not died in 1961, he might well have been cast to play Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," judged by AFI to be the most heroic part in movie history — but I'll tell you the truth. It is hard for me to imagine anyone other than Gregory Peck as Atticus.

To get back to the casting of "The Pride of the Yankees" ...

There were times when Cooper wasn't quite right for the part — like when he was supposed to be playing Gehrig during his college days. Cooper was in his 40s, simply too old for that. It would have been better to have a younger actor play the younger Gehrig — perhaps the movie's producers couldn't find one who looked enough like Cooper.

Other than that, though, he was perfect for the part. Teresa Wright was perfect in her role as his wife, and Walter Brennan, a three–time Oscar winner who appeared with Cooper in "Sergeant York," was ideal as sports writer Sam Blake.

Cooper and Wright were rewarded with Oscar nominations for their work. Brennan was not.

In all "The Pride of the Yankees" received 11 Oscar nominations but only won one — for Best Film Editing.

For me the defining moment of Cooper's performance was not the re–creation of Gehrig's farewell to baseball but rather when the character visited a hospitalized child and promised to hit two home runs for him in a World Series game.

Turned out there were some inaccuracies in that tale, but that really doesn't bother me. It was the kind of thing Gehrig would have done. It was just the kind of guy he was. Like when he delivered his "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech less than two years before his death.

He knew he was dying. Where many people would be thinking only of themselves and the unfairness of their situation, Gehrig's heart was full of gratitude for the love that surrounded him in Yankee Stadium that day.

He never seemed to think of himself. He was always thinking of the other guy. And when that Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day was held at Yankee Stadium in 1939, his words reflected gratitude for what was given to him, not bitterness over what had been taken away.

Those of us who are less saintly can only hope to face our deaths with that kind of dignity.

It took a special actor to bring that to the big screen, and Gary Cooper was a special actor. As great as he was as Sergeant York and Will Kane, his performance as Lou Gehrig may have been his finest.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is There Anybody Out There?

"The universe is a pretty big place. It's bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space. Right?"

Ellie (Jodie Foster)

I am not a science fiction fan. That is something I have said frequently — but I do like good stories, which is something I also say frequently, and I feel that, if you're going to make a science fiction movie, make it plausible.

In my mind, implausible science fiction is something like "Sharknado" or some similar monster wreaking havoc on civilization. Such sci–fi stories are entertaining but not once will you think that it is something that could really happen.

I like science fiction that makes a clear connection to the actual human experience. Violence and destruction need not be part of the equation, particularly if they originate with a make–believe monster. In fact, I prefer it if they do not.

See, I don't believe that a good story needs splashy special effects. And a science fiction story doesn't need to promote the worst kind of fear. The best science fiction stories explore ideas.

Film critic Roger Ebert made an interesting observation after he watched "Contact" again many years after seeing it for the first time. "'Contact' is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith," he wrote. "Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together."

No, they don't, and especially not today when we are so sharply divided along those very lines.

For that reason, I tend to think that "Contact" could not be made today. Too many groups would be offended by something that was said or done — or both — in the story. Any director who took on such a cinematic challenge would almost certainly end up with something that, at best, faintly resembled his/her original vision.

I have always felt that movies were a special kind of free speech, of self–expression. To be intimidated into not doing or saying something in a movie is a denial of one's free speech. As always, of course, there are limits to free speech. One cannot, after all, do the theatrical version of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded public place.

But as long as that line is not crossed, filmmakers should be permitted freedom of expression.

I agreed with Ebert; the movie was a lot bolder than I first thought.

The main character was Foster, who played a scientist searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Foster's character was an atheist who pursued an interest she had cultivated since childhood, inspired by her father who reasoned that, in the vastness of space, it would be a waste if the only intelligent life to be found existed on our planet. Beyond science she had no apparent faith in anything.

Representing faith was Matthew McConaughey, a Christian philosopher and member of a panel charged with selecting someone to travel in a space transport, the schematics for which had been provided to the Earth by aliens many light–years away. He was looking for much the same thing Foster was, but he readily admitted that whoever was sent to explore the heavens had to have faith in God — and that, as far as he was concerned, disqualified Foster.

The political part was represented by Tom Skerritt, the president's science adviser who wanted to halt the funding for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program for which Foster's character worked because he believed the objective was pointless.

Ebert described Skerritt's character and his ilk as "see[ing] aliens, God and messages from space all in cynical political terms. They justify their politics with the catch–all motive of 'national defense.'"

There was a time — not really so long ago — when discussions of religion or politics simply weren't done in public settings and comparatively rarely in private — at least not in the sense of whether one was good or evil for holding certain beliefs. But that time had gone long before "Contact" was made, and whereas, as Ebert wrote, "Hollywood treat[ed] movies like a polite dinner party: Don't bring up religion or politics," the subjects had been raised routinely in the movies for years before "Contact." If anything, the animosity between religion and politics has grown more intense in the intervening years.

In short, "Contact" is a movie that still has relevance to new audiences. And, in the tradition of the best science fiction movies I have seen, it raised questions as it entertained. It retains its ability to challenge once deeply held convictions.

In the movie, Skerritt was originally chosen to pilot the space vehicle, but a terrorist leveled it. A second vehicle, about which the public had known nothing, was revealed, and Foster's character was given an opportunity to operate it in space.

Then, after Foster experienced what seemed to be a remarkably revealing journey but may only have been an hallucination, she was forced to concede that, contrary to her earlier public remarks, maybe she did have some kind of faith in something after all.

An incredulous panel member said to her, "You come to us with no evidence, no record, no artifacts. Only a story that to put it mildly strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. Are you really going to sit there and tell us we should just take this all on faith?"

Foster replied, "Is it possible that it didn't happen? Yes. As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that."

Under questioning from a panel member (James Woods), Foster admitted that she had no evidence to support her story, that she might have hallucinated the whole thing and that, if she had been on the panel, she too would be skeptical.

"Why don't you simply withdraw your testimony," Woods demanded, "and concede that this 'journey to the center of the galaxy' in fact never took place?"

"Because I can't," Foster replied. "I had an experience. I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and hope. That continues to be my wish."

In other words, science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they have been explaining the same things in different ways.

A word or two must be said about the movie's director, Robert Zemeckis — although those thoughts have mostly been expressed by Ebert, who wrote that Zemeckis' work "often employs daring technical methods."

Ebert observed that Zemeckis mixed animation and live action in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" years before computer–generated imagery progressed from short to feature–length films and seamlessly inserted Forrest Gump into historic footage (something Woody Allen did in "Zelig" more than a decade earlier).

In "Contact," Zemeckis did something similar, inserting actual news anchors from CNN into the movie, reporting on this development in space travel. Zemeckis even inserted footage of then–President Bill Clinton into the story. Clinton's part was real. He wasn't performing in the movie; his words weren't about what the audience had just seen, but what he said certainly made sense within the context of the story.

Consequently it seemed real — until you remembered that you had seen nothing of this in the news.

Zemeckis didn't just break the fabled "fourth wall." He knocked it down.

"Contact" received only one Academy Award nomination (Best Sound), but, in keeping with the rest of the evening, lost to "Titanic."

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Scenes From the Swamp

This pearl of wisdom comes, as so many do, from the Bible. It is from Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Truer words were never spoken, especially in connection with the American political culture. Rabid voters who exhorted Donald Trump to "drain the swamp" may not have realized that the swamp really isn't new. Heck, you put that many politicians into a single building, and you're bound to have some pretty unsavory things going on.

And there have been at least 100 elected lawmakers in the Capitol since George Washington's day.

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to political fiction — maybe because there is so little of it and even less that is truly good. That really shouldn't be the case. After all, politicians are still people like you and me — motivated by the same virtues and vices. And a good political novel is about those strengths and weaknesses that we all possess. The people in it just happen to be in political professions.

You'd think there would be more good political fiction than there is. Or at least I would. I mean, they say that prostitution is the world's oldest profession — but the practice of politics has to be a close second. Some people would say there is no difference between the two.

Let's be clear here. I am not referring to novels that explore political themes — I would include such books as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Manchurian Candidate" in that category. I'm talking about books that examine the political process from behind the scenes, the legislative maneuverings, that sort of thing.

I recall when I was in college I took a political science course, and my teacher spoke about the Allen Drury series. I was pleased to participate in the conversation, having read all five volumes of the series less than a year before. But then my teacher told us of a 19th–century trilogy by Benjamin Disraeli that essentially did the same thing with the British Parliament. I have wanted to read those books ever since, but I have never found them, not in a bookstore, not even in a library.

If I had been able to read them, I am certain I would have found that they were much like Drury's books. The issues would have been different, but the legislative tactics would have been much the same.

Drury's books were rich in detail and full of compelling portraits of the men and women who walked Washington's corridors of power. The stories and the characters are as relevant today as they were when they were written. I would expect the same of Disraeli's trilogy.

But anyway ...

My mother was the most well–read person I ever knew, and she was aware of my interest in political fiction. As I have observed here before, she introduced me to "Advise and Consent," the first in Drury's series of political novels. Published in 1959, it was about the Senate maneuverings — on both sides — over the president's nomination of a particular individual for secretary of State.

It was a cutthroat atmosphere, one in which a senator's youthful indiscretion — a homosexual relationship — was exploited via blackmail. If that seems implausible today, it wasn't more than 50 years ago.

In the book, the senator (who represented Utah — then, as now, a conservative state) committed suicide in his office.

Drury had extensive experience covering national politics, which lent credibility to his stories. His political novels were fictional, but the plot of "Advise and Consent" was inspired by a true, tragic tale. Five years before "Advise and Consent" was published, Lester Hunt, a Democrat senator from Wyoming, committed suicide in his office.

Some Republican colleagues wanted Hunt to announce that he would not seek re–election and threatened to reveal that his 24–year–old son had been arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer — first such offenses typically were handled quietly in those days. Hunt's son was convicted and fined in 1953, and the story barely made it back to Wyoming; in April 1954 Hunt announced he would seek re–election. The threat to use his son's arrest and conviction against him in the campaign prompted him to abruptly announce that he would not seek re–election after all, ostensibly because he was worried about the impact this would have on his wife's health, then Hunt committed suicide shortly thereafter.

Hunt wasn't the only real–life personality that could be seen in the pages of "Advise and Consent." Many book reviewers observed that the nominee for secretary of State bore a strong resemblance to Alger Hiss.

I don't know if Drury covered the Hunt tragedy or not, but I do know that he was part of the Washington press at the time. Thus he was able to write a story inspired by observations of actual events.

But when he began writing his sequels — the first of which, "A Shade of Difference," was published 55 years ago — Drury started to incorporate more and more supposition. In his books, Drury was constantly asking, "What if?" His answers usually conformed to his conservative philosophy.

"A Shade of Difference" examined the maneuverings between delegations to the United Nations (and, consequently, the problems they caused for the U.S. in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union) rather than the Congress and racial tension surrounding school integration in the American South. As in real life, issues overlapped in the "Advise and Consent" series.

In that sense, the "Advise and Consent" series was truly the forerunner to the West Wing TV series — especially in its early seasons.

For awhile — largely due to issues with Drury's estate — the books went out of print after his death in 1998. But in recent years the books have been reissued in paperback and eBook editions.

Read 'em while you can. They may become scarce again someday.

Nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Birth of the Beatles

This is a milestone anniversary in the annals of 20th century music.

For it was on this day in 1957 that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, perhaps the most successful songwriting team in history, met for the first time.

Three years before forming the Beatles, Lennon and his band, the Quarrymen, were performing for the second time. They were providing the music at a church festival. McCartney was there.

Lennon asked McCartney to join the band, and he did — even though his father and aunt didn't approve of Lennon. They considered him to be beneath them — although McCartney's father allowed the band to practice in his home.

It was through McCartney that Geoerge Harrison joined the band. McCartney recommended him to play lead guitar, but Lennon thought he was too young (14 at the time). Harrison won him over by playing "Raunchy" on the top deck of a bus in Liverpool.

Ringo Starr joined the band later.

It was 60 years ago today, though, that the nucleus of the band that would dominate popular music for a decade and beyond was born.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Love That Would Not Be Denied

"There must be something between us, even if it's only an ocean."

Nickie (Cary Grant)

I'm not the kind of person who is interested in romantic movies.

But, as a writer, I do appreciate a good story, even if it is a romance — and "An Affair to Remember," which made its debut on this day in 1957, was both.

It was such a good story that more than 35 years after it was playing in theaters, it was mentioned frequently in "Sleepless in Seattle," sparking something of a revival. How much of a revival? Well, sales of the video tape went up by some 2 million copies.

Make no mistake, though. "An Affair to Remember" was melodramatic, and the story might not seem as good if someone remade the movie, scene for scene, today. You would certainly have to make some concessions. The world of 1957, after all, was quite different in many ways from the world of 2017, but I think it could be done.

In some ways, it might even be better.

Take, for example, the addiction so many people have to smartphones. Every day I see people walking along on sidewalks with their eyes glued to their smartphone screens, completely oblivious to what is going on around them. Late in the movie when Deborah Kerr's character was struck by an automobile while she was crossing the street, the reason that was given was that she was in a hurry to her meeting with Cary Grant at the Empire State Building and simply wasn't paying attention. It would certainly be plausible for her character to be so engrossed in her smartphone that she walked into oncoming traffic — but it might imply that the woman was more interested in her smartphone than the rendezvous she was on her way to keep.

(Actually, "An Affair to Remember" was a remake of a 1939 movie starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, "Love Affair.")

Yes, an updated story could be an improvement, but how could you top the casting of Grant and Kerr? Actually, Grant might have been paired with Ingrid Bergman or Doris Day. Both were considered for the role — and both would have been good, although their interpretations of the role would have been different. And "An Affair to Remember" would have been a different movie.

As it is, the American Film Institute judged it to be the fifth–best movie love story of all time — behind "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," "West Side Story" and "Roman Holiday."

Based on that, you would have to conclude that the right casting choices were made (Bergman, of course, was the female lead in "Casablanca").

To modern audiences, the story must seem almost laughable. Grant and Kerr met on an ocean liner. Although each was involved with someone else, they developed a friendship that quickly evolved into something deeper.

Upon their arrival in New York, they agreed to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months — if they had split up with their significant others and embarked on new careers.

On the appointed day Kerr's character was struck down by a car and taken to a hospital. In the meantime, Grant's character waited at the top of the Empire State Building for hours, finally conceding that Kerr wasn't coming.

Eventually, I suppose, the moral of the story was that love will find a way. Grant and Kerr were reunited at the end, pursuing professional interests both had suppressed for years.

"An Affair to Remember" was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Original Score, Best Original Song (sung by Kerr's character in the movie but actually dubbed by renowned singer Marni Nixon — who also dubbed for Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"), Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography — and lost all four.

Ship of Dancing Fools

"There's no such thing as too late. That's why they invented death."

Charlie (Walter Matthau)

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon made a wonderful comedy team. Individually, they were great; together they were even better.

And together they made nearly a dozen movies. If you want to see them at their best, though, I tend to recommend their early efforts. At some point, they began to lose their edge. Toward the end, their movies shouldn't have been made at all.

Now, that's just my opinion. I confess that there were things about some of their later movies like "Grumpy Old Men" that I thought were good, but I still think most of their later efforts shouldn't have been made.

I put "Out to Sea," which premiered on this day in 1997, at the top of that list. I know people who feel differently, and that's OK. Lemmon and Matthau were always terrific together, even when the material wasn't worthy of them.

And their efforts really were wasted in this one.

Maybe they were victims of their own success. When they were together, they were typecast in the public mind as the characters they first played in "The Odd Couple." Matthau was usually the flawed but generally affable one while Lemmon was the fussy, fastidious one — Oscar and Felix. The characters had different names — except in the thoroughly inadequate sequel the two made in 1998 — but otherwise they were quite similar.

In "Out to Sea," they were brothers–in–law, just as they were more than 30 years earlier in "The Fortune Cookie," their first (and possibly best) movie together.

But this was no sequel.

In that first movie Matthau played a shyster lawyer with a weakness for angles and loopholes. In "Out to Sea," his weakness was gambling. He liked it and he knew how to place bets; he just wasn't very good. To get away from all the folks to whom he owed money, Matthau conned Lemmon — the husband of his late sister — into accompanying him on an all–expenses–paid cruise to Mexico. But he didn't tell Lemmon the catch until the ship was on its way — Matthau had signed them up to work as dance hosts aboard ship.

Now, as I say, Matthau was a bad gambler, but he did know how to place bets. He had no clue how to dance.

Lemmon knew how to dance. By his own admission, he and his late wife had been dancing for decades.

They both ended up falling in love. Lemmon's love interest was Gloria DeHaven in what turned out to be her final movie role.

Matthau fell in love with Dyan Cannon, perhaps more because he believed her to be wealthy than because of her physical qualities. At age 60, Cannon was probably too old to be playing the kind of sexpot love interest that she did — although she did come across as younger than Matthau by comparison and was almost still capable of pulling off playing a much younger woman.

But Cannon, now 80, was one of those women who remained beautiful late in her life, and at the time "Out to Sea" was made, she still possessed attributes that the 76–year–old Matthau could appreciate. In his character's colorfully vivid way, he described one such attribute this way: "An ass so beautiful it's a shame she has to sit down on it."

The story was amiable enough, and it was always hard not to like Lemmon and Matthau, but "Out to Sea" nearly achieved the unthinkable.

"Out to Sea" should have been put out with the trash.

Just my opinion, you understand.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Irresistible Force vs. the Immovable Object

Upon first glance, Hume Cronyn seemed miscast as the ruthless prison guard in "Brute Force," which premiered on this day in 1947.

Physically unimposing as he was, though, Cronyn was the perfect choice. His performance effectively demonstrated how an apparently meek — but nevertheless narcissistic — individual can abuse even a dollop of power — and Cronyn's character had considerably more than a dollop of power. He was not above using anyone and anything to achieve his objectives, either.

I honestly felt that the character, with his sadistic personality, should have made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 50 movie villains. But it didn't.

Now, let me be clear. I don't have any issues with AFI's actual choices for its lists of villains and heroes. But the role was so unusual for Cronyn and he played it so well that I thought the performance at least deserved an honorable mention (although I don't think such a designation was available).


The story was essentially a retelling of the fabled irresistible force colliding with the immovable object. Burt Lancaster played an inmate who hated Cronyn and came up with an escape plan after having served a stretch in solitary confinement. It built up to a bloody finish, a riot when the escape plan didn't go very well.

It was good, but I'll be the first to say the movie had its weaknesses.

There were times when the story seemed a bit forced — like when the movie told the stories of the other inmates through flashbacks. To me, it seemed like a rather obvious tactic to introduce women into what was otherwise an all–male cast. And not just any women, either. These women were femme fatales, the ones who (directly or indirectly) were responsible for those men being on the inside while the women remained on the outside.

Clearly there were times when the movie was awash in stereotypes — at least those that existed in the '40s — and the references to World War II do make the story seem dated.

But for a movie that is 70 years old today, I think it has held up rather well.

"Brute Force" provides an unflinching, albeit melodramatic, glimpse into prison conditions for viewers today, but as I say, it is not without its shortcomings.

It really didn't have much to say that was new, even when it was in theaters. Prison movies weren't new when "Brute Force" was made, nor was the idea that conditions behind bars weren't good.

But it may have made that point better than any movie that preceded it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Death of a Sex Symbol

Most people living today probably have no memory of Jayne Mansfield.

In her day, she was a sex symbol — not as accomplished as Marilyn Monroe but certainly more endowed. And, by this time in 1967, Monroe had been dead for nearly five years. Mansfield had the sex symbol spotlight virtually to herself.

It was 50 years ago today — around 2:30 in the morning — that Mansfield died in a car crash in Slidell, Louisiana, less than 20 miles north–northwest of New Orleans, where Mansfield was to appear on TV station WDSU's ground–breaking Midday show.

Mansfield made two appearances at a supper club in Biloxi, Mississippi, the night of June 28, then she and five others — her boyfriend, her three children and their 20–year–old driver — began the trip to New Orleans around midnight.

The car crashed into the rear of a tractor/trailer that had slowed down behind a truck spraying mosquito fogger. The driver of the car couldn't see the tractor/trailer because it was shrouded in the mosquito fogger. The three adults in the front were killed immediately. The three children, who were sleeping in the back, escaped with minor injuries.

Mansfield was before my time, but her death became notorious. I can remember talking about it with my friends on the playground of my elementary school. I don't remember how the subject came up. One of us probably heard our parents talking about it.

Anyway, we knew the most notorious part of the story — that she was decapitated in the collision. That was an urban legend that began with pictures showing Mansfield's blonde wig in the wreckage. I have heard that she was wearing the wig at the time of the crash so there may have been parts of her scalp and strands of her real hair in the wig, but the official cause of death was given as a crushed skull, not decapitation.

Monroe's appearance as Playboy's first centerfold got the magazine off the ground in December 1953, but Mansfield's appearance as the centerfold in February 1955 gave it a real shot in the arm — as did her other appearances in the magazine (more than 30 of them).

Actually, it was a very modest pose by modern standards, but it created quite a stir in 1955.

Mansfield cultivated the role of sex symbol in a way that Monroe never did. Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" had nothing on Mansfield. Her clothes were forever falling off in public or there would be strategic bursts at the seams or she would wear low–cut dresses with no bra.

In fact, it was during a promotion for a movie ("Underwater!") that Mansfield deliberately wore a bikini that was too small. When she dove into the pool, the top came off — and attracted Playboy's attention.

But in death, Mansfield did make a contribution to the betterment of mankind. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommended installing underride guards on all tractor/trailers. The objective of the underride guard is to provide a little protection for passenger cars that collide with a tractor/trailer from behind.

It is known as a "Mansfield bar."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ooh, That Smell

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

J.J. (Burt Lancaster)

I am a fan of black–and–white movies for many reasons, but one of the things I really like about them is they remove the distraction of color.

Don't get me wrong. Color movies have their place, and some stories simply could not be told without color. But the absence of color somehow allows more emphasis to be placed on the characters and their dialogue — and that is where I think "Sweet Smell of Success," which was first shown on this day in 1957, really came through for the audience.

It came through on several levels.

Frankly, I don't care how long you have been watching film noir movies or how many you have seen. You've never seen one with dialogue that crackled like this one did — and it seemed that everyone in the movie, from the stars to the bit players, got to deliver at least one snappy line. Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman should have received an Oscar nomination for their writing. It's some of the best you'll ever experience (this is a lifetime of writing talking here).

They weren't the only ones who contributed to "Sweet Smell of Success," but no one received an Oscar nomination for work on that movie.

And that was a big mistake. Tony Curtis gave what many people regard as his greatest performance as Sidney the smarmy press agent. If he was outdone by anyone, it was Burt Lancaster who played J.J. the callous newspaper columnist who wanted to prevent his sister from marrying perhaps the only good guy in the movie. His lines in the movie were the most savage.

But Curtis had some pretty good — and pretty insightful — lines, too. At one point, he advised, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" then observed, "That gives you a lot of leeway."

I can understand why "Sweet Smell of Success" got no Oscar nominations. As I have mentioned on this blog before, the folks who vote on the Oscars seem to like to reward movies that promote the positive side of human nature — love, loyalty, honesty, integrity, that sort of thing. The Oscars rarely recognize movies that focus on the gritty reality of life with so much as a nomination. It is as if the voters don't even want to have the option of voting for such a movie, let alone rewarding it with a statuette.

Of course, there are exceptions to that, but it does seem to be an unwritten rule.

To maintain a sort of balance, the Oscars tend to avoid nominating comedies, which is why some of the greatest entertainers in movie history were never nominated for Academy Awards.

"Sweet Smell of Success" was hardly a comedy, but you really had to look hard to find a good guy in the story.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Film Farewell to Two Old Pros

"The Lord's bounty may not be for sale, but the Devil's is — if you can pay the price."

Gil (Randolph Scott)

Mariette Hartley is mostly known for her work on television programs — except for a time in the late '70s and early '80s when she was so convincing in her Polaroid commercial work with James Garner that many people apparently believed they really were married.

Consequently it is easy to overlook her movie career, but the fact is she did have a movie career, and it started with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country," which premiered on this day in 1962.

The stars of the show were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two old pros nearing the ends of their careers. It was to be Scott's final film appearance. McCrea would make a few more, but it would be his last significant role.

McCrea played an aging lawman who was hired to escort a shipment of gold through dangerous territory. In hindsight, he kind of resembled Gus and Woodrow in 1989's Lonesome Dove — he had been tough and respected in his prime, but he was way past his prime, and this represented his last opportunity to have an adventure. But he knew he couldn't do it alone. To help him with his task McCrea hired an old friend (played by Scott) who made a living as a sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid.

Scott had more on his mind than making a few dollars a day to guard someone else's money. He was bringing along a young protege and they intended to persuade McCrea to steal the gold rather than protect it. Well, they planned to steal the gold, anyway, whether McCrea went along with them or not. It would be a lot easier on everybody if he went along — but his cooperation was neither expected nor necessary.

On the way, with this as a backdrop, the men spent a night on a religious fanatic's farm where they encountered Hartley, who played his daughter. She wanted to escape her father and planned to elope with her boyfriend.

To that end, she insisted on joining up with McCrea and Scott the next day, leading to several complications and setting up an eventual reconciliation between McCrea and Scott, who had grown apart in some ways over the years, as even the best of friends can do.

As was so frequently the case, Peckinpah's film dealt largely with the human conflict between values and ideals. It wasn't as violent as his later efforts, most notably "The Wild Bunch," but it was more cerebral; thus it can be recommended to movie fans who do not ordinarily like to watch westerns. It didn't feature as much violence as "The Wild Bunch," but that doesn't mean violence was missing entirely. It simply means it wasn't as brutal as it came to be in later Peckinpah movies.

Violence was always an element — at least — of a Peckinpah movie. But "Ride the High Country" was about more than that. It was about right and wrong; even the naive character Hartley played could see that, but she could also see that it was more complicated than that implies.

"It isn't that simple, is it?" she asked McCrea at one point.

"No, it isn't" McCrea, the virtuous man in this western morality play, answered. "It ought to be, but it isn't."

Right vs. wrong was just one of many themes that were explored in "Ride the High Country." Others were: age vs. youth, chastity vs. debauchery, strictness vs. wickedness. It didn't stop there. "Ride the High Country" was loaded with conflicts.

I know people who only like westerns if they have a lot of shooting, and such people won't be disappointed with "Ride the High Country." But I have always felt that one of the main attractions of a western is the sweeping panoramic views of western landscapes. Much of the modern West is still frontier, even with modern highways running through it; still there are more and bigger cities in the western half of the U.S. than there were a century ago.

In another century it may be as congested as the eastern half of the country — which is why I am all in favor of preserving images of it while we still can.

"Ride the High Country" had some gorgeous cinematography (even though much of it was filmed in the Los Angeles area), but it received no Oscar nominations, not even for its cinematography.

In hindsight that seems odd, given how its following has grown over the years. In fact, many people will say "Ride the High Country" was Peckinpah's finest movie.

If you have seen "The Wild Bunch," you know that is high praise indeed.

And if that is true, much of the credit goes to Scott and McCrea. Not only did they give riveting performances. They were originally cast in opposite parts — and, quite quickly, came to the conclusion individually that they should swap roles — which they did, and it made all the difference.

A coin flip at the Brown Derby determined whether Scott or McCrea would get top billing in the credits. Scott won, but it could just as easily have been McCrea; their contributions to the movie's success were equal.