First of all, humble thanks to Cinema Retro for mentioning this blog on their site (http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php), as well as giving readers another look at my article about the relationship between superspy Matt Helm’s appearances on page and screen. It’s equally humbling to remember that when the piece debuted back in 2007, award-winning author Ed Gorman—a contributor to The Richard Matheson Companion—wrote the following on his own blog (http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/): “Even though I’m no fan of Dean Martin or the Matt Helm movies, Matthew Bradley, one of the best of all writers on popular culture, manages to make both subjects a lot more interesting than they deserve to be in his long piece now available on Cinema Retro.” You couldn’t ask for a more supportive group of guys, and I’m endlessly grateful to them all.
As long as we’re digging into the archives, here’s a piece I wrote on that dark day of July 7, 2005, back when I had no forum other than e-mail to disseminate it. Old news, obviously, but the opinions and information are, I hope, timeless. Seems a shame to waste them…
Two titans of the typewriter have left us vastly poorer by their passing, and by a curious coincidence had connecting links with not one but two of our greatest directors: The Great John Frankenheimer (aka TGJF) and Alfred “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Adjectives” Hitchcock. First, in order of both birth and death, was Ernest Lehman, whose talent was equaled by his diversity. His first major screen credit was also his first of four collaborations with editor-turned-director Robert Wise, and the films they made show both men at their protean best. Executive Suite (1954) was a knockout boardroom drama with the kind of powerhouse cast one only dreams of today: William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, and Shelley Winters. Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) featured knockouts of another kind, a biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano that gave Paul Newman one of his first star-making roles. Then came the mammoth musicals that won Wise a Best Director AND Best Picture Oscar apiece, West Side Story (1961)—for which Lehman was also nominated—and The Sound of Music (1965).
That quartet alone would have ensured Ernie immortality…but we’re just warming up here, folks. Along the way, he earned his first nomination for Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), with Humphrey Bogart (as uncomfortable in that role as Harrison Ford was in the 1995 remake), Audrey Hepburn, and Holden, and worked on another big Broadway musical, The King and I (1956). Lehman was also a published author whose works formed the basis for a memorable episode of Playhouse 90, “The Comedian” (directed by TGJF, and scripted by his frequent collaborator, Rod Serling), and one of the great warts-and-all showbiz stories, Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Lehman later worked with Frankenheimer directly on one of the latter’s best films, Black Sunday (1977), based on the first novel by a pre-Hannibal Thomas Harris.
And then came Hitch. Personally, I’ve always felt North by Northwest (1959) suffered by being too much a catalog of elements from his earlier films, but it’s easy to see why the project appealed to him after Vertigo (1958). It’s been said that Hitch’s two most frequent leads—Cary Grant and James Stewart, with four films apiece—personified him as he wished he were and as he really saw himself, and since Vertigo (which I don’t think was as revered on its release as it is now) was his most naked self-expression, it was surely a comfort to return to the old Grant glamour. Lehman received another nomination for the film and returned to write Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), a lesser if worthy end to the Master’s career.
Lehman made two films with Mark Robson (who, like Wise, had been an editor for Orson Welles and graduated to the director’s chair under the aegis of RKO’s legendary producer Val Lewton), From the Terrace (1960) and The Prize (1963); the latter is a Hitchcock pastiche starring other alumni from Newman to Leo G. Carroll. Lehman produced his next three scripts: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), an early effort by masterful Mike Nichols that won Oscars or nominations in almost every major category; Hello, Dolly! (1969), which surely drove a nail into the coffin of big Broadway adaptations; and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), which marked his one and only outing as a director, as well. Not a bad little career, eh?
Our second subject is Salvatore A. Lombino. Never heard of him? Sure you have…under one or more of his pen names. As Ed McBain, he defined the police procedural genre with his 87th Precinct novels. I don’t have handy the statistics on this amazing series but it incorporates something like fifty books written over a period of something like fifty years, which should suffice. Several of the earliest were turned into the largely forgotten films Cop Hater, The Mugger (both 1958), and The Pusher (1960), and there was also a short-lived 87th Precinct TV series in 1961, but by and large the men (and women) of the 87th have had spotty success onscreen, except as the inspiration for Hill Street Blues.
Fuzz (1972) was largely a misfire—with an eclectic cast headed by Burt Reynolds, Jack Weston, Tom Skerrit, Raquel Welch (!) and Yul Brynner—in spite of being written by McBain himself under the name of Evan Hunter, which he legally adopted in 1952. True to form, foreign filmmakers found these gritty romans policiers suitable subjects, and one of the most interesting adaptations saw King’s Ransom become Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), whereas the most recent domestic versions have been a trio of TV-movies: Lightning (1995), Ice (1996), and Heatwave (1997).
It was under the Hunter name that he had greater success in films, as both original author and screenwriter (and in some cases both). Writer-director Richard Brooks took one novel and turned it into a showcase for such up-and-coming stars as Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky and Jameel Farah (aka Jamie Farr), namely the juvenile-delinquent classic The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Hunter himself did the honors on Strangers When We Meet (1960), depicting an adulterous affair between Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, and his novel A Matter of Conviction was adapted by others into TGJF’s second feature, The Young Savages (1961), marking the first of five collaborations with Burt Lancaster. Probably his best-known work as a screenwriter was the script of The Birds (1963)…a job that some guy named Matheson talked himself out of, by telling Hitch they should show the birds as little as possible and let the audience use their imagination. Silly boy!
Somewhat more unusual were adaptations of his novels Buddwing, filmed as Mister Buddwing (1966) with James Garner as an amnesiac, and Last Summer (1969), which if nothing else must have raised an eyebrow for its strong subject matter: Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas (yes, John-Boy), and Bruce Davison (yes, Willard) play bored teens who first befriend and then rape an ugly-duckling girl at a beach resort; Eleanor Perry’s adaptation was directed by her then-husband, Frank. As if that weren’t enough, McBain/Hunter’s scripts and/or stories saw the light of day on such shows as Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Kaiser Aluminum Hour, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, Ironside, and Columbo. Again, a pretty impressive oeuvre for one man.
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