One of the things I’ve hoped to do with my new “What I’ve Been Watching” posts is to entertain readers with the eclectic nature of my viewing habits, and although I won’t devote separate posts to the individual items, this weekend’s programming achieves that objective admirably. Kicking off my research on a new project for Cinema Retro (which recently gave such a nice presentation to the William Peter Blatty interview I did with main man Gilbert Colon), I reread Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, on Saturday. While I was at it, I took another look at the 1954 adaptation done as an episode of the live CBS anthology series Climax!, even if it seemed a bit superfluous to watch the love-it-or-hate-it 1967 spoof, which I adore, for the umpteenth time.
Fleming’s primary narrative thrust is retained, as Bond survives several attempts on his life and defeats Le Chiffre (a subdued Peter Lorre) at baccarat in the eponymous gambling house, thus preventing him from replacing the funds he has embezzled from his Soviet bosses. The teleplay by Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett (the longtime collaborator of Hitchcock and Irwin Allen) does monkey around with the characters and their relationships, e.g., Bond’s American friend, Felix Leiter, is now Clarence (Michael Pate). To accommodate the casting of the decidedly non-British Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” (!) Bond, their respective employers are reversed, with Leiter reporting to the British Secret Service and Bond to the U.S. “Combined” Intelligence Agency.
More important, they have conflated Bond’s Secret Service colleague and love interest, Vesper Lynd, and his French ally from the Deuxième Bureau, René Mathis, into Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian). Here she is an old flame rather than a new acquaintance, and instead of an unwilling Soviet double agent whose suicide ends the novel, she is a crony of Le Chiffre’s who is revealed as a Deuxième operative and survives to enjoy the final clinch with Bond. It’s easy to mock the casting of Nelson, but the novel was only published the previous year, so 007 was not the iconic figure we know today, and his final confrontation with Le Chiffre (restored in the video version hosted by Retro’s own Lee Pfeiffer) avoids Fleming’s long, and rather melodramatic, anticlimax.
Just for fun, Madame BOF and I have been slowly working our way though a budget 50-movie pack from Mill Creek Entertainment called Horror Classics, a misleading moniker if ever there was one, since many of the films fail to meet one or both criteria. On Saturday night we watched a film that I didn’t remember ever hearing about, Maniac (1934), and while it wouldn’t rank as a classic of anything other than Bad Cinema, it was certainly an unforgettable viewing experience. Unlike The Mad Monster, which I slept through in its entirety on Friday night (and although I did go back and watch it mostly in its entirety, I will direct you to the review by the ever-entertaining El Santo for that little lycanthropic opus), Maniac held me riveted—in jaw-dropping amazement.
Immediately following the credits, I realized why I’d never heard of Maniac, because its horrific goings-on are intercut with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, which purports to explain that these scenes exemplify various types of mental illness. Yes, children, we’re in the realm of that special kind of exploitation movie in which all sorts of unsavory stuff is given socially redeeming value, so-called, by being “educational” or a cautionary tale, sort of like a sex-hygiene film without the hygiene. Suffice to say that director Dwain Esper and his wife, screenwriter Hildegarde Stadie, were also the perpetrators of Narcotic, Marihuana (“Weed with roots in hell!”), and the immortal How to Undress in Front of Your Husband, to which she presumably brought real-world insights.
Vying for the scenery-chewing honors are Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter), a Depression-era Herbert West who has invented a serum that can raise the dead, and his assistant, Don Maxwell (Bill Woods), an impersonator on the lam whose special abilities come in mighty handy. They revive and steal a chick from the morgue, with Don posing as the coroner, and then Meirschultz wants to go to the next level: he produces a gun and urges Don to kill himself with it, so that he can replace Don’s heart with one he has beating away in a jar. Perhaps understandably, Don is less than keen on this plan, so he grabs the gun and shoots the doc instead, but is forced to cover this up by assuming his identity after Mrs. Buckley (Phyllis Diller—no, not that one) barges in.
Seems Madame B is a bit distraught because her hubby (Ted Edwards) thinks he’s the orangutan from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and if you think that’s the last we’ll hear of Poe, you have another think coming. Intending to give Buckley a harmless injection of “sedatives” (i.e., water), Don shoots him up with “super-adrenaline” by mistake, and Buckley joins the overacting derby as he goes totally off the deep end, carrying away the attractive revenant for unspeakable purposes. Don, meanwhile, gets a rude shock when he finds the lab’s black cat, Satan, nibbling on that experimental heart; taking a leaf from Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the incensed Don pops out one of Satan’s eyes (which he then eats), inadvertently walling him up in the cellar with the doc.
Things get really weird when Don’s estranged wife, Alice (Thea Ramsey), learns that he’s just inherited a fortune from a distant relative, and decides this might be a good time to patch things up between them. The increasingly paranoid Don hits on the idea of pitting Alice against Mrs. Buckley, who has her own poorly defined evil schemes afoot, and locks the two of them in the cellar, where they proceed to start beating the crap out of each other. All of this ruckus finally draws the attention of the cops, and the final resolution, if nothing else, is faithful to Poe, despite the fact that in his wildest nightmares, ol’ Edgar could never have conceived of anything like this film’s indescribably bizarre plot, impoverished production values, or over-the-top performances.
Interspersed among this other viewing, since my schedule often forces me to see films in bits and pieces, was The Informers, about which I knew little more than its stars, Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger, and alleged genre (per the usual minimalist description in the satellite-dish guide), crime drama. In contrast to Did You Hear About the Morgans?, I would have been less likely to watch it if I’d known that it was co-written, and based on the book, by 1980s literary “Brat Pack” member Bret Easton Ellis. I absolutely loathed the adaptation of his novel Less Than Zero (thus permanently souring me on stars Andrew McCarthy, Jamie Gertz, and Robert Downey, Jr.), and although American Psycho made a slightly more interesting film, they both defied any empathy.
The Informers returns to the style and drug-soaked ’80s milieu of Less Than Zero, epitomizing what I call the “turning over a rock” film, in which we gaze at the vermin squirming underneath like some kind of alien life-forms. Hollywood mogul William Sloan (Thornton) tries to reunite with wife Laura (Basinger), despite having no intention of giving up newscaster Cheryl Moore (Winona Ryder). Meanwhile, Peter (Mickey Rourke in full slimeball mode, making us long for his wholesome international terrorist in Double Team) kidnaps a boy for unspecified nefarious purposes; Les Price (Chris Isaak) tries vainly to connect with son Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci) on a trip to Hawaii; the lead singer of the titular rock band behaves badly; sex is had; AIDS looms…