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Archive for January, 2010

Makin’ Bacon

Today we continue with some thoughts inspired by TCM’s recent Humphrey Bogart retrospective.  Unfortunately, among the few films they did NOT show were some of his earliest, rarest, and presumably worst, which I’ve been trying to see for decades.  But it’s been fun to be reminded of why some of these films occupy their lowly places in the Bogart oeuvre.  (Hmm…In a Lowly Place?)  It’s also fun to spot various trends, e.g., his collaborations with various directors.

Few of those who did repeat business made more than two with Bogie (his preferred spelling, although many use “Bogey”), although under the studio system, he may have had little say in that until late in his career.  Howard Hawks, for instance, did only two, although they’re both Top Ten or even Top Five material in my book:  To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946).

John Huston is probably the only one who can be said to have had a long AND legendary collaboration with him, as demonstrated by these films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941; Huston’s directorial debut, and the consolidation of Bogart’s stardom)

Across the Pacific (1942; loopy wartime fun with several Falcon veterans)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948; one of Bogart’s best performances, and 3 Oscars for Huston pere et fils)

Key Largo (1948; the last of Bogart’s four films with then-wife Lauren Bacall)

The African Queen (1951; Bogart’s only Oscar)

Beat the Devil (1953; a flop at the time, but now something of a cult film for subverting the whole Falcon subgenre)

When you consider that Huston previously worked as a screenwriter on Bogart’s films, including his star-stepping classic High Sierra (1941), it’s even more impressive.  Michael Curtiz made several films with Bogart; only one of them stands out, but since that’s Casablanca (1942), we’ll chalk them up as a good team.

What I find amusing is that the guy who worked most often with Bogart is a director most people have probably never heard of, i.e., Lloyd Bacon.  Again, he was probably just a contract director at Warner Brothers, where Bogart made most of his movies, and there isn’t a certifiable classic among them, but some of these are solid…

Marked Woman (1937; a rare heroic role for Bogie at that stage, and his only feature with dreaded third wife Mayo Methot)

San Quentin (1937; typical gangster role)

Racket Busters (1938; Bogie had top billing but neither his screen time nor his sullen performance merited it)

The Oklahoma Kid (1939; one of his mercifully few Westerns, as a villain opposite James Cagney)

Invisible Stripes (1939; co-starring George Raft and William Holden—some cast!)

Brother Orchid (1940; effective as another gangster villain opposite Edward G. Robinson)

Action in the North Atlantic (1943; a cracking good WW II yarn with Raymond Massey)

More next week…

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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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Dead (Reckoning) on Arrival

I’ve mentioned the recent month-long Humphrey Bogart retrospective on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).  There being only so many hours in a day, I used it primarily as an opportunity not to catch up on my favorites, many of which I own anyway, but to take another look at some of his lesser and/or lesser-known films that I haven’t seen for a long time.  I wasn’t crazy about some of them the first time around, and wondered if I’d like them better with a little distance between viewings.  One such film was Dead Reckoning (1947), and I’m afraid the answer was a resounding negative.  Here’s why:

*It’s pretentiously billed as “John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning.”  Cromwell had made some well-regarded movies (e.g., Of Human Bondage, The Prisoner of Zenda, Algiers), but come on.  I had to look him up to see what his claim to fame was, and I’d wager many of you have probably never heard of him at all.  So why the puffery?  (He is, by the way, actor James Cromwell’s father.)

*I’m normally more tolerant of voiceovers than most people (e.g., the original version of Blade Runner), but this one—in which Bogie explains his predicament (he’s gotten into a typical film noir jam while trying to solve/avenge the murder of a paratrooper buddy) to an army chaplain and fellow paratrooper over flashbacks—is the kind that gives voiceovers their usual bad name.  It has lots of lame faux-Chandler similes, and Bogart just sounds listless, which is in keeping with his whole performance.  And that brings us to…

*Most of the time, Bogie looks weary and ill at ease, but at one point he cheerily delivers an astonishingly sexist speech about how women should ideally be about four inches tall, so that men could carry them around in their pockets at their convenience, but not be bothered by them, and then return them to full size whenever they wanted some…well, you do the math.  Which brings us to…

*It took five screenwriters you’ve never heard of to concoct this ill-tasting brew, which is odd, considering the fact that most of it (situations, scenes, and characters) was simply strip-mined from other, better Bogart movies, primarily The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, with the main difference—other than quality and originality—being that here, he’s not a professional private eye but, for lack of a better term, an amateur sleuth.  Bogie’s climactic confrontation with his leading lady (whose character, in case we didn’t notice who was being ripped off, is named “Coral Chandler”) is a particularly egregious Falcon steal.  Which brings us to…

*Lizabeth Scott.  It would be too kind to call her the poor man’s Lauren Bacall, although her husky voice (which I normally hate, but not in Bacall), daffy beret, “cute” nickname (“Mike,” although she’s also nicknamed “Dusty,” but never mind), and backstory are obviously a lame attempt to evoke Bogart’s two previous pictures with Bacall, i.e., To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.  Instead of a poor man’s Bacall, she’s more like the Bacall of an unwashed, psychotic, drooling homeless guy.  According to the IMDb, the role in this Columbia picture had been written for house goddess Rita Hayworth, but she was then pre-empted by estranged hubby Orson Welles to star in his noir classic The Lady from Shanghai.  Since Rita is an eternal Word-Man fave, I don’t even want to THINK about how much more I would have liked it then…

*Two other minor peeves:  at one point, Bogart is beaten so badly by the villains that his face is supposed to look like a raw steak, yet after he sleeps for 36 hours, showers, and shaves, there isn’t a mark on him.  And playing a retired safecracker who gives him a hand is one of the era’s more annoying character actors, Wallace Ford.  When Bogie and Scott go to his house, after being referred to him by a mutual friend in Detroit (or wherever it was), Ford opens up an honest-to-God speakeasy peephole in his front door (are all the houses in this seemingly genteel community so equipped?), and Bogart says something like, “We’re from the phone company [since, as we all know, phone-company employees always travel with rich blonde widows in tow].  Have you recently had any long-distance calls from Detroit?”  Then, the second Ford lets them in, he says, “McGee?  I’m Murdock.”  Why not just say that when he opened up the peephole?  Why the stupid code?  The house doesn’t even appear to be in earshot of any others, and he’s obviously expected.

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Kurosawa Centennial

I don’t expect to be writing a lot of time-sensitive posts, but here’s one.  Those who are at all able to do so should immediately hie themselves to Manhattan’s Film Forum, now celebrating the centennial of Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa with an admirably inclusive six-week retrospective (http://www.filmforum.org/films/kurosawa.html).  Some history is in order:  my eleven years as a full-time book publicist culminated in a stint (1990-96) at the prestigious Penguin USA, where I had the honor of working with, among many other Viking authors, a guy named Stephen King.  My Penguin pals and I—friends to this day—then had the supreme luxury of being located a single block from Film Forum, one of the all-time great repertory and art-house cinemas, which back in the day had an annual festival of horror, science fiction and fantasy films, not coincidentally my area of special expertise.  Since I now work in my home state of Connecticut, it’s tougher to get there, but I’ll make the pilgrimage for something special…like Kurosawa, part of my “holy trinity” of foreign-language directors (along with Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut), each of whose work I am endeavoring to see in its entirety.

Like many people, I came to Kurosawa through his 1954 epic Seven Samurai (still my favorite among all his works), to which I was drawn in turn by its Westernin every senseremake, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  In fact, one of the reasons Kurosawa fascinates me is the frequency with which his stuff has been reworked by filmmakers from other cultures, not least of them George Lucas, who has acknowledged The Hidden Fortress (1958) as a major influence on Star Wars (1977).  Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961), which owes more than a little to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was remade as Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and that same year his breakthrough hit Rashomon (1950), whose title has become a household word, was remade by Bradley-fave Martin Ritt as another Western, The Outrage.  Kurosawa himself has adapted films from a fascinating range of works by Dostoyevsky (The Idiot, 1951), Shakespeare (Throne of Blood [1957], from Macbeth, and Ran [1985], from King Lear), Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1957), and even one of Ed McBain’s excellent 87th Precinct novels, King’s Ransom, filmed as High and Low (1963).  On top of that, Kurosawa worked extensively during what I consider his classic period (i.e., through Red Beard in 1965, although many fine films followed) with two of Japan’s greatest film actors, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, often at the same time.

The past two Sundays, I have trekked into New York to see The Idiot with my daughter and a double-bill of The Quiet Duel (1949) and Scandal (1950) with my wife.  Donald Richie, the great expert on Japanese cinema in general and Kurosawa in particular, didn’t seem to think too much of those early efforts, which may help to explain why they had eluded me up until now, but I enjoyed all of them.  Today, they are showing Kurosawa’s late masterpiece, the somber epic Kagemusha (1980), and there’s still time to see the likes of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Red Beard, Yojimbo (paired with its 1962 sequel, Sanjuro), and Ran, which will be showing for two weeks in a new 35mm print starting on February 5.  Madame B and I plan to return this Sunday to see The Lower Depths.  Hope you can join us!

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Bradley 101

Welcome to the online presence of Matthew R. “Not Matt” Bradley (known aliases include Word-Man, Thermolator, Elder Statesman, Maudlin Man, Uncle Matty).  To answer an obvious question, no, I will not be writing only about film.  I’ll also touch on television, literature, music, comic books and anything else that comes into my fevered brain…but mostly as they relate to the cinema.  Hey, that’s my thing.  For those not already expecting it, you’ll find this blog peppered with references to the object of my obsession, The GREAT Richard Matheson (aka TGRM).  A quick introduction can be found in this piece I wrote for the outstanding Cinema Retro site.  And for those who wish to cut to the chase, my book Richard Matheson on Screen is forthcoming from McFarland this spring or summer.
 
Now that we’ve got the word-from-our-sponsor stuff out of the way, a little more about what this blog will (and will not) be.  Since I am, first and foremost, a techno-moronic Word-Man, it’s going to be light on visuals and other bells and whistles in the short term, but we’ll get around to that stuff eventually.  I’ll be posting reviews of various lengths, more likely of older films, especially from what Cinema Retro and I consider the Golden Age, i.e., the 1960s and ’70s, although I still occasionally see new films upon their actual release.  (Recently seen and enjoyed:  Avatar, Nine, and The Lovely Bones.)  As I become aware of them, I’ll certainly note the passing of any filmmakers or other artists who are at all significant in my admittedly eclectic worldview.  I’ll hold forth on more general cinematic topics such as patterns and trends in various people’s careers, inspired by events like TCM’s recent retrospective of Humphrey Bogart, my favorite actor.  You’ll see me rhapsodize about some of my favorite films (#1 being Where Eagles Dare, recently the subject of Cinema Retro’s first stand-alone issue) and filmmakers (e.g., John Frankenheimer, Mario Bava, Sergio Leone, Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kubrick), and occasionally rant about some of my least favorites (e.g., Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Michael Bay, Michael Anderson).  And I’ll probably throw in a few highly subjective Top 10 (or 100 or whatever) lists to keep the pot boiling.
 
What qualifies me to blather on about all of this stuff, as if anyone truly needs qualifications in Blogoworld?  In addition to writing Richard Matheson on Screen, I’ve edited several books about Matheson and his work (most recently The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve); written introductions to limited editions of several of his novels, as well as to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist; contributed to such books as The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch and two distinct editions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute; had articles, interviews, and reviews published in Filmfax, VideoScope, Mystery Scene, Fangoria, Outré, and The New York Review of Science Fiction; created content for the Cinema Retro and late, lamented Scifipedia websites; and spent twenty years working in the book-publishing and home-video industries.  As soon as I can swing it, we’ll have a complete list of publications available.
 
Well, we don’t want to cram it all into the very first post, do we?  We (be it editorial, royal, or what have you) welcome your comments, which will be taken to heart, ignored and/or publicly mocked, whichever is deemed most entertaining.  You have been warned.  But I’ll keep writing, and you keep reading.  Deal?

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