Richard Matheson died on Sunday, June 23, at the age of 87, leaving behind a lovely wife of 60 years, three generations of literal descendants in the family that was always his greatest pride and joy (e.g., the three successful writers he sired), and at least as many metaphoric ones among the creators consciously or unconsciously affected by his incalculably influential 63-year career. We were never as close as I would have liked, and he hadn’t responded to my attempts to reach him over the past year, so I intuited that something was up. Yet he had nothing but kind words to say about my many efforts on his behalf, and the hundreds of pages I have written about the man and his work speak for themselves. He will be sorely missed.
What I’ve Been Watching: Track of the Cat (1954).
Who’s Responsible: William A. Wellman (director), A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay), Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, and Diana Lynn (stars).
Why I Watched It: Mitchum.
Seen It Before? No, thank God.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 1.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 2.
And? I thought I might have seen this one before, but I realize now that I was mixing it up with Mitchum’s later Home from the Hill (1960)—in which he appeared with a young George Hamilton, rather than a young Tab Hunter here—because if I’d seen this before, it would have been burned into my memory. Of course, it does Wellman no favors that Encore Westerns squeezed his CinemaScope opus into a pan-and-scan format, but I still expect more from the director whose credits include the winner of the de facto first Best Picture Oscar for Wings (1927). And while I can’t speak for Walter Van Tilburg Clark, on whose work this was based (ditto Wellman’s 1943 classic The Ox-Bow Incident), I do know Bezzerides as the author and/or a screenwriter of Bogart faves They Drive by Night (1940) and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), plus the immortal Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
How do I hate this film? Let me count the ways. Start with the supremely dysfunctional family at its heart. The patriarch (Philip Tonge), if you want to call him that, serves no useful purpose whatsoever, doing nothing but drink and bloviate, so it’s no surprise that the true head of the family has become son Curt (Mitchum), who lords it over brothers Arthur (William Hopper) and Harold (Hunter) and sister Grace (Wright), abetted by the sanctimonious Ma (Beulah Bondi). Remember what a horrible old bat the “alternate-universe” Bondi was in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)? Now imagine that squinty-eyed performance stretched out over an entire film. Art endures with sarcasm as his shield, while Hal spends most of the movie walking around with an expression on his face that I can only describe as looking like he’s just been sodomized, hoping to achieve manhood.
Hal, you see, wants to strike out on his own, claiming his share of the family fortune and getting hitched to Gwen Williams (Lynn), currently the world’s least comfortable house guest at the Bridges ranch, which is ostensibly located near Aspen c. 1897, but I’ll turn in my BOF credentials if it isn’t firmly planted on a soundstage. The exteriors were shot on Mount Rainier, Washington, and according to Wikipedia, “Mitchum regarded shooting in the deep snow and cold as the worst filming conditions he had ever experienced”; no big surprise to the viewer, since his character is relentlessly obnoxious. Skulking around the edges of this train-wreck clan to complete the eight-person cast is an apparently mystical Indian, Joe Sam, a kind of eminence rouge played by Carl Switzer (yes, Alfalfa, about as far from IAWL as you can get), unrecognizable—so why cast him?—in old-age makeup.
The “cat”-alyst (forgive me) for change in this long-stagnant household is the threat to its cattle by the titular panther, the subject of the worst of the film’s numbingly repetitious dialogue. If you played a drinking game in which everybody took a shot each time they talked about what a nice blanket the pelt would make, or the various scenarios dependent on the color of its fur, the entire audience would be dead of alcohol poisoning before the end of the first reel. Arthur being the most normal offspring, he is of course killed off by the unseen cat in a shockingly amateurish scene, leaving Mitchum (whose own interest in Lynn is implied as subtly as this film ever gets) to emote to himself on his solo quest for revenge, which turns into a poor man’s “To Build a Fire,” and as the rest of the Bridges Bunch frets over his lengthy absence, things take their inevitable course; you do the math.
When Carmine Infantino worked for Marvel in the late 1970s, penciling extended runs of Nova, Spider-Woman, and Star Wars, he was frankly one of my least favorite artists, yet I am the first to admit that his contribution to the comic-book industry, without which there might never have been a Fantastic Four or a Marvel Comics as we know it, cannot be overstated. In 1956, he and writer Robert Kanigher were given six months to turn around the fortunes of the Flash, and their revamped version (which debuted in Showcase #4 and played to Infantino’s flair for fast-paced, dynamic action) is now considered the start of the post-Wertham Silver-Age revival of the super-hero genre. Difficult though it may be to believe today, Batman was in similar straits by 1964, and Infantino—who later rose through DC’s ranks as art director, editorial director, and publisher—worked with writer John Broome to create the character’s “new look,” which inspired the successful but divisive live-action TV series.
Margalit Fox’s New York Times obituary also credits Infantino with luring Jack Kirby away from Marvel, “a coup akin to the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox,” so you could even say he was indirectly responsible for my beloved Bronze Age…
First and foremost, I want to apologize, especially to any new or occasional readers, for the dearth of new content on this blog in recent months. Regular readers probably know it already, but there are two main reasons: 1) My selfish preference for a roof over my head and regular meals keeps me devoted to my day job, and 2) The limited time that leaves for blogging has increasingly been channeled into Marvel University. I’m not saying it’s all about the numbers…but on a good day, the readership at MU is about five times that of BOF, so it seems silly not to reach the larger one. I completely understand if those with a less-than-obsessive interest in my blather and/or Marvel Comics choose not to wade through our weekly analysis of a month’s worth of their Bronze-Age output, but I also write some stand-alone articles, the most recent and accessible of which is this.
In terms of actual news, uppermost in my mind is the fact that my daughter, Alexandra—whose own writing has occasionally graced this blog to a warm response—has the lead role in a movie! Okay, yes, it’s a little indie short (shot in Frederick, Maryland) called My Second First Step that is still in post-production, and I have no idea how or when it will become accessible to the great unwashed masses. In fact, you may be in a position to affect that outcome, since the filmmakers have launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for post-production and the shooting of the companion piece, inadequate, in which her character will have a cameo. The clock is ticking on this one, alas; if they don’t receive pledges for the required $4,000 by Saturday, April 13, then the fundraising effort collapses (but not the films). Check out the infectiously scored teaser here.
With no books or articles to research, I’ve been a little less aggressive about Matheson news, but MGM—having rescued the rights from Eddie Murphy Development Hell at Universal—is going to be doing a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man, written by Richard and his son R.C. (or, as they put it, “Richard Matheson Jr.”), who will co-produce as part of the Matheson Entertainment deal. Richard says the story is still relevant and calls it an “existential action movie.” My response to such things, especially with this long-in-limbo property, is usually to yawn and say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But if nothing else, this project has been getting lots of ink; I’ve gotten dozens of hits on my Matheson Google Alert. So it’s great to see some attention being paid, and great to think that Richard will be back in the screenwriting saddle again…IF it happens. Fingers crossed.
I’ve been trying to keep my hand in on the print side of things, and I am proud to report that the conclusion of my two-part article on 007’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, is in the current issue of Cinema Retro (Vol. 9 #25; Winter 2013); meanwhile, the good folks at Filmfax were generous enough to stretch my reprinted interview with the late Ray Bradbury over three issues, ending in #133 (Spring 2013). And, proving that I still occasionally go to current films, I saw and enjoyed Skyfall, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and part one of The Hobbit with various family members. I missed the Bond tribute from this year’s Oscars, but saw most of the major awards, and found it interesting that no film(s) made a major sweep this year; I was surprised that Spielberg didn’t get Best Director, yet felt that if Lincoln were going to receive one major award, it got the right one.
Last, but far from least, I would like to stress that even if new posts are few and far between for the immediate future, this blog can still serve as a good source of information and entertainment. I may be taking concrete steps to make it more user-friendly in that respect in the days ahead, yet even now, for example, clicking on the B100 tab at the top of the page not only takes you to my list of favorite films (“Bradley’s Hundred”), but also gives you links to capsule reviews of each film. And aside from the obvious subjects such as Matheson, Bond, and Marvel, you can search the site for various…
- stars (Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood, Ingrid Pitt)
- studios (AIP, Amicus, Hammer, Toho, Universal)
- filmmakers (Jack Arnold, Mario Bava, Roger Corman, Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, John Frankenheimer, Ray Harryhausen, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa)
- writers (Charles Beaumont, Robert Bloch, Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, George Clayton Johnson, Nigel Kneale, Elmore Leonard, William F. Nolan, Jerry Sohl, Elleston Trevor [aka Adam Hall])
So dip in, click away, and see what suits your fancy; see you on campus!
What I’ve Been Watching: Three Days of the Condor (1975).
Who’s Responsible: Sydney Pollack (director), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (screenwriters), Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson (stars).
Why I Watched It: I like to revisit it periodically.
Seen It Before? Yes, several times.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? Joe Turner (Redford) is a mild-mannered CIA analyst who returns from buying lunch for his colleagues at the Manhattan brownstone housing their front, the American Literary Historical Society, only to find that they have been brutally gunned down during his brief absence. For years, I have argued that those who considered Redford too much of a pretty boy to be taken seriously as an actor would do well to study his reactions here, as they escalate from shock and horror to fear for his own life and the grim determination that he is not going to be next. This sequence is a tour de force in many ways, but for me at least, the film falls into the unusual trap of never living up to those first twenty minutes.
Turner’s job is to read omnivorously, sifting through novels and articles and feeding them into a computer in search of security leaks or new ideas, and he has recently run across a mystery novel with a very curious publication history. It’s now clear that his dismissed report struck a nerve somewhere in Langley, having unwittingly uncovered something worth wiping out the ALHS, and Turner—code-named Condor—is instantly suspicious when he speaks with Deputy Director Higgins (Robertson). These suspicions are in no way allayed when his last surviving colleague, who called in sick, is killed in his home, and an attempt to bring Condor in from the cold, via a rendezvous with his section chief and an old friend, goes south in the worst way, with Turner framed for his friend’s death.
A lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as Turner, unable to trust anyone he knows, forces himself into the company of a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Dunaway), first to take refuge in her home and then, as they establish a gradual rapport, to enlist her active assistance. The very fact that Turner is an analyst rather than a field agent gives him an unexpected advantage, both because of the arcane knowledge he has assimilated over the years and because his status as an amateur makes his moves unpredictable. With Kathy’s help, he moves back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C., as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and avoid getting killed by Joubert (the great Max Von Sydow), a freelance assassin and sometime Company employee who oversaw the hit on the ALHS.
Although I have qualified admiration for this film, I damn it with faint praise by saying that it’s my favorite among the seven that Redford made with Pollack, ranging from the classic Out of Africa (1985) to the soporific Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the unbearable The Way We Were (1973). If you said that their joint filmography did not augur well for a spy thriller, you’d be right, and my primary objection to the opening sequence is that the main-title theme by Dave Grusin (a lightweight if ever there was one) is too upbeat for the mayhem to follow. Likewise, by the time he shot Condor, Owen Roizman was already the cinematic poet laureate of ’70s New York for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), yet this Manhattan lacks their edge.
It’s interesting to note that the screenplay tries to amp up the tension by halving the time-frame in James Grady’s 1974 source novel, Six Days of the Condor, and the filmmakers were clearly going for a Hitchcock vibe with that whole “an innocent man running for his life must earn the trust, and the heart, of a random woman” thing. But sadly, my lifelong antipathy for Dunaway—whose films such as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 1974), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976) I loved in spite of, rather than because of, her—blinds me to any chemistry they might have achieved. By the way, I wrote my very first press release for Grady’s 1985 novel Hard Bargains, and he was very kind to a wet-behind-the-ears publicity assistant at his first real job (at Macmillan) in the big, bad city.
Overall, I found the film a little too slick for its gritty subject matter, which is perhaps not surprising coming from impresario Dino De Laurentiis, but Von Sydow predictably tries to make the most of his limited role, and I suppose that Robertson, who always seemed a little sketchy to me, is well cast as a guy who may or may not be trustworthy, interacting nicely with boss John Houseman. This is certainly one of the better efforts from Semple, whose work oscillated from the height of the superior political thriller The Parallax View (1974) to the depths of Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983); Rayfiel worked on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Valdez Is Coming (1971). Someday, I’ll have to compare this with Grady’s book and check out his 1978 sequel, Shadow of the Condor.
What I’ve Been Watching: Kansas Pacific (1953).
Who’s Responsible: Ray Nazarro (director), Dan Ullman (screenwriter), Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, and Barton MacLane (stars).
Why I Watched It: Hayden.
Seen It Before? No.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 6.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.
And? If you were going to make a Western in 1953, as Allied Artists did here, you could do a whole lot worse than entrust it to Nazarro and Ullman. The former directed scores of oaters on the large and small screens between 1945 and 1960, while the latter’s rather more diverse output also encompassed such SF offerings as The Maze (1953), BOF fave Mysterious Island (1961), and episodes of such genre series as The Outer Limits (“Cold Hands, Warm Heart”). As often noted, I watch Westerns less omnivorously, so I need a hook like a particular star or filmmaker, but we need look no further than General Jack D. Ripper himself, Sterling Hayden, who would star in Nazarro’s Top Gun two years later.
Just before the Civil War, “Bleeding Kansas” is still torn apart by pro- and anti-slavery factions, while the newly formed Confederacy is keenly aware that the Kansas Pacific Railroad now under construction will form a vital supply line for the Union’s Western outposts. Neither side wants to be responsible for starting a shooting war, so the Union declines to send troops to protect the crews, while the Confederates do everything they can—short of killing, at first—to stop them. Into this powderkeg is thrust Captain John Nelson (Hayden), an Army engineer sent undercover to help boss Cal Bruce (MacLane), his daughter, Barbara (Miller), and his train engineer pal, Smokestack (Harry Shannon).
Since the true nature of Nelson’s mission is on a need-to-know basis, the Bruces are, not surprisingly, under the misimpression that he is there to take Cal’s job, and they almost head back East, but Smokestack persuades them that with war imminent, this is no time to turn quitters. MacLane—whom I first saw as the abrasive cop Dundy in The Maltese Falcon (1941)—played so many pills in his career, and played them so well, that when I saw how prominently he was billed, I assumed he would be the villain, and I was thrilled that he got to be a good guy for a change. In fact, one of this film’s greatest pleasures is seeing him slowly begin to trust Nelson…albeit faster than love-interest Barbara, natch!
In a nice touch, when Nelson first gets to town, he sees Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley) get attacked by three ruffians who want to run him out of town; gentleman that he is, Nelson steps in to even the odds, unaware that he’s assisting the incognito leader of the very men opposing him. In an economical 73 minutes, Ullman skillfully sketches the escalation of the hostilities between the two sides; the growing camaraderie between Nelson and the railroad crew; and his rapport with the Bruces. Smokestack adds an acceptable level of comic relief, annoying Cal with his omnipresent pipe, and several familiar faces round out the cast, including James Griffith and villains Douglas Fowley and Myron Healey.
William Schoell, whose genre-film books The Nightmare Never Ends and Stay out of the Shower are in my personal reference library, has honored me with a brief but very generous review of my magnum opus on his Great Old Movies blog. Among other things, he notes that “Even if you’re not as enthusiastic about Matheson’s work as Bradley is—and he doesn’t rave about everything—you”ll find this book a good, entertaining and noteworthy film study.” Bill, 2012 had more than its fair share of unpleasant surprises, but this is the very nicest kind to help get 2013 off to a better start; sincerest thanks.