Archive for February, 2010

Third in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.

Accepting an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for The Twilight Zone in 1961, Rod Serling thanked the “three writing gremlins who did the bulk of the work: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson.” Born in a barn outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on July 10, 1929, Johnson has enriched the genre on both page and screen.

As an author, Johnson is best known for the classic 1967 novel Logan’s Run, written with William F. Nolan, which spawned an Academy Award-winning film in 1976, a CBS-TV series the following year, a Marvel comic book, and two sequels penned by Nolan. His stories have appeared in 100 Great Fantasy Stories, Author’s Choice #4, Masters of Darkness, and elsewhere.

Twilight Zone Scripts & Stories contains Johnson’s teleplays for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “A Game of Pool,” “Nothing in the Dark,” and “Kick the Can,” plus stories adapted by others into episodes like “Execution” and “The Prime Mover.” His collection All of Us Are Dying and Other Stories includes scripts and treatments, some unproduced, as well as nonfiction.

Johnson has also written episodes of Honey West, Kentucky Jones, Kung Fu, The Law and Mr. Jones, Mr. Novak, and Route 66. He had hoped to launch a screenwriting career with Ocean’s Eleven (1960), until the script he wrote with Jack Golden Russell was bought “blind” as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” and heavily rewritten, earning them only a story credit.

Years later, he told this writer in an interview for Filmfax, “I was breaking into writing television, after having spent about five years digging dry holes in the desert, so to speak, not striking any water, and wondering what had happened to this credit that I could use to pry open the door…It wasn’t too helpful to me as I struggled.” Of far greater value was his relationship with several other writers.

Johnson cites as his “teachers” Beaumont, Matheson, Nolan, Serling, Robert Bloch, Jerry Sohl, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury, who was a mentor to many of them. “If you look at those names, you’re looking at a little literary movement that took place on the West Coast,” he said, and as authors and screenwriters, they revolutionized the field of SF, fantasy and horror.

Serling adapted two of Johnson’s hitherto unpublished stories into first-season Twilight Zone episodes: “The Four of Us Are Dying” (based on “All of Us Are Dying”) and “Execution.” At the urging of his friends and fellow writers, Johnson then insisted to producer Buck Houghton that the sale of a third story, “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” be contingent on adapting it himself.

Recalled Johnson, “I found it rather terrifying. I could see the great additional material that Rod had tacked onto my stories in order to make them filmable, to give them the fullness of a half-hour show. So I looked at that with great trepidation, although it was fairly simple and straightforward.” The episode stars Dick York as a man who can suddenly read people’s minds.

Beaumont’s legendary ability to charm producers landed him more assignments than he could handle himself, so he often farmed them out. “Beaumont had a very strange group of friends, and each one of his friends had his own kind of power, but a number of them, like OCee Ritch or Bill Idelson, contributed material to The Twilight Zone pseudonymously,” Johnson said.

Acting as a kind of front, Beaumont would secure the assignment and split the fee with a friend who provided an original story or first draft, sometimes without credit. In Johnson’s case, this included “Angels of Vengeance,” an episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive, the Western series with Steve McQueen, and “The Prime Mover,” both of which were credited solely to Beaumont.

Johnson and Nolan acted in Roger Corman’s The Intruder (aka The Stranger, I Hate Your Guts, 1961), adapted by Beaumont from his novel. “I loved being an actor, and between Bill and me we set up a couple of very archetypal evil guys,” he recounted. “It all came about because the people we were hiring on the spot [in Missouri] to read for these parts…could not say lines.”

“A Game of Pool” portrayed a match between young shark Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) and deceased legend Fats Brown (Jonathan Winters), who is called back from the hereafter to play the challenger for the title of the world’s greatest player. Johnson was displeased when Houghton and Serling reversed his ending, in which Jesse loses—but vows defiantly to improve.

“Rod thought the idea of a limbo, where there sits the legend waiting to be summoned forth, and to which the newcomer will be doomed to replace him while he goes off to go fishing…was cute, and I thought that was dismal,” he said. During a writer’s strike, CBS remade the script without his approval for a 1980s Twilight Zone revival, ironically restoring his ending.

Johnson is especially proud of “Nothing in the Dark,” which, like “Kick the Can,” was directed by future filmmaker Lamont Johnson (no relation). In an early role, Robert Redford plays a wounded policeman given refuge by terrified tenement dweller Gladys Cooper, who finally realizes that this beneficent figure is the chameleonic “Mr. Death” she has so long feared.

“It isn’t an impossible dream to write some piece that is really perfection, does its own thing so well, is such a clean statement of itself—its intention, purpose, direction, message, all the things that are in it—that it’s a whole world all in itself, and in that world is totally complete…I must say in all modesty, I…achieved it myself with ‘Nothing in the Dark,’” he said.

“Kick the Can,” about retirement-home residents rejuvenated by the titular game, was remade as Steven Spielberg’s episode of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). Matheson’s script, rewritten by “Josh Rogan” (Melissa Mathison), used a new ending devised by Johnson himself, in which the children finally elect to return to their “old, nice bodies, but with fresh, young minds.”

Bradbury collaborated with Johnson on Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), an Oscar-nominated short film about the history of flight. “It was a way of adapting his five-page short story into seventeen pages of lyrical prose in which I would try to visualize paintings merging and melting into each other, so as to use superimposure and the moving camera on works of art.”

Johnson adapted the teleplay “Tick of Time” from his story “The Grandfather Clock,” but a staffing change ended his Twilight Zone run. “The new producer [William Froug] didn’t like it that much and wanted to change it around and brought in another writer, Richard DeRoy, who rewrote and retitled [it as “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”]. When I looked at it I was horrified,” he said.

Contributing to another seminal series, Johnson wrote “The Man Trap,” the first episode of the original Star Trek to be broadcast. “That title was tacked on it by [series creator] Gene Roddenberry. Originally it was called ‘Damsel With a Dulcimer,’…who in some mystic way could cast a spell upon you and make you see her the way you wanted to see her,” as he recalled.

Star Trek producer Herbert Solow “later on hired [The Green Hand, a corporation formed by contributors Johnson, Matheson, Sohl, and Sturgeon] over at MGM studios to try to develop a pilot or two. We never managed to get one developed to anyone’s satisfaction, that is to say we could never sell anything to the network, although we turned out various interesting notions…”

Logan’s Run depicted a dystopic, overpopulated future in which deadly Sandmen hunt those who “run” from society’s mandatory death age of twenty-one. Although disappointed that their own screenplay was not used when the novel was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, authors Nolan and Johnson had the satisfaction of seeing it turn into a multimedia phenomenon.

“We plotted all of this in advance, prophesied it all,” Johnson said. “We saw just exactly how it could be marketed as a movie, a comic book, and this and that. We had it all planned out, talked enthusiastically to everybody about it, and kept getting delays. It took some nine years to get Logan’s Run to the screen.” (As of this writing, a remake has been announced.)

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Bradley’s Hundred #11-20

Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.

Blade Runner: As is often the case, I prefer the original version, with the narration and quasi-happy ending that bothered so many, to the subsequent director’s cut (of which I believe there are now at least two), but no matter how you slice it, this is still one of the most amazing films ever made. The titular operative (Harrison Ford) is brought reluctantly out of retirement to track down a group of deadly androids with a built-in lifespan, played by Rutger Hauer (never better as Roy Batty), Brion James, and the up-and-coming Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy. Questions of identity permeate his encounters with these Replicants, their creator (Joseph Turkel), and his niece (Sean Young). Loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, whose work was later adapted—with varying degrees of success—into Total Recall, Screamers, Impostor, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, and Next. The real star is Ridley Scott’s evocation of overpopulated 21st-century Los Angeles; the top-notch supporting cast includes Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, and William Sanderson. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai: No offense to Lawrence of Arabia, but I think this is David Lean’s greatest film. It swept the major Oscars (obviously excepting Best Actress) and deserved all of them. William Holden and Oscar-winner Alec Guinness are at their stellar best as, respectively, an American who leads a demolition team back to the Japanese POW camp from which he’s just escaped, and the British colonel who wages a war of wills with the commandant (Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa) and ends up taking too much pride in the bridge his men are building. Originally omitted from the credits in favor of Pierre Boulle (author of Planet of the Apes), who wrote the novel, blacklisted screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman received posthumous Oscars in 1984. The ending is somewhat different from Boulle’s but, not surprisingly, more cinematic. With Jack Hawkins, James Donald, André Morell, and a superb Malcolm Arnold score.

A Bridge Too Far: I’m one of the few people who really liked this adaptation of Cornelius (The Longest Day) Ryan’s bestseller. A financial failure, it dramatizes the equally ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, in which paratroops attempted to seize three bridges in occupied Holland that would have enabled the Allies to cross the Rhine into Germany; the title tells it all. The wonderful score is by John Addison, and I don’t see how you can dislike a film with Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Edward Fox, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, and Liv Ullmann. Well, okay, admittedly we have to put up with James Caan, Elliott Gould, and Ryan O’Neal (three of my least favorites), too, but still.

Carnival of Souls (1962): I was one of the first to spread the gospel about this no-budget stunner starring Candace Hilligoss (who also appeared, but whose head did NOT end up on a platter, as a friend dutifully corrected me, in Del Tenney’s Curse of the Living Corpse). Shot in Kansas, it features Hilligoss as a young woman who emerges from the river after the car in which she was a passenger plunges from a bridge, and begins to experience strange visions and other odd occurrences. Moving to a new town to take a job as a church organist, she is drawn to a dilapidated carnival fairground nearby. A unique and truly creepy film that scared the hell out of me when I was a nipper. The director, Herk Harvey (who previously made industrial films), plays “The Man.”

Casablanca: An outstanding score and cast, plus one of the most quotable scripts and unforgettable collections of minor characters ever, place this in the top echelon of the cinema. Humphrey Bogart runs Rick’s Café Americain in the titular city during the early hours of World War II, sticking his neck out for nobody (demonstrated by the fate of Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre in one of his briefest but most memorable roles) and nursing a heart broken by a love affair in soon-to-be-occupied Paris. Suddenly, up pops the breaker herself, in the heart-melting form of Ingrid Bergman, who turns out to have been married all along to the presumed-dead Resistance leader Paul Henreid. The problems of three little people add up to much more than a hill of beans in Bogart’s best-known film, featuring Claude Rains as the corrupt (but not TOO corrupt) Inspector Renault, Dooley Wilson as piano-playing Sam (who performs the unforgettable “As Time Goes By”), Conrad Veidt as nasty Nazi Major Strasser, and Sydney Greenstreet as Rick’s competing nightclub owner, Signor Ferrari.

Casino Royale (1967): It all started when producer Charles K. Feldman snapped up the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel (which, for trivia buffs, was originally dramatized for television on Climax!, with Barry Nelson horrifically miscast as an American [!] James Bond and Peter Lorre as the villain, LeChiffre). The rights to the rest were then bought by the team that has since produced the official series, which by the time this was made encompassed five films. Realizing he could not compete with Sean Connery (and who could?), Feldman decided to make this a spoof, though ironically more of the novel remains amid the gags than in some of the later “adaptations.” And what a spoof it is (albeit widely despised), combining the work of five directors, including John Huston (who plays M) and Val Guest; comic geniuses Peter Sellers (as baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble), Woody Allen (as Bond’s hapless and traitorous nephew, Jimmy), and Ronnie Corbet of Two Ronnies fame; distinguished actors such as David Niven (as Bond), Deborah Kerr, William Holden, and Charles Boyer; the formidable Orson Welles as LeChiffre; a host of references to the earlier Bond films, including a golden girl, a villain named Dr. Noah, and the stunning Ursula Andress; cameos by everyone from George Raft to Peter O’Toole and Jean Paul Belmondo; and a score that includes Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Oscar-nominated “The Look of Love” and the title song (a Word-Man fave), played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Citizen Kane: Often called the greatest movie ever made; pretty damn good either way, and shows Orson Welles at his best. Given carte blanche after his many successes on stage and radio, Welles directed, co-wrote (with Herman J. Mankiewicz), and stars as Charles Foster Kane, a self-centered newspaper magnate based on William Randolph Hearst, whose efforts to sabotage the film helped prevent it from being a success at the time. Although some of the cinematic techniques used here had been pioneered by others, Welles’s mastery of the form is undeniably brilliant, and the film remains as a bittersweet reminder of what he was capable of, given the money and the opportunities.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This was criminally mishandled by Universal, which didn’t know what to do with a film about a computer taking over the world in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, although the brilliant novel by D.F. Jones predated Kubrick’s movie. Eric Braeden had appeared on The Rat Patrol as Hans Gudegast, but was forced to change his name to something a little less obviously German in order to secure the lead role of Dr. Charles Forbin, the inventor of Colossus. The idea is to take the decision to launch The Bomb out of the hands of fallible humans, and give it to a supercomputer that will make judgments coldly and rationally, based on facts rather than emotions. But no sooner is it switched on than Colossus detects a Soviet counterpart called Guardian, and together, with their metaphoric finger on the nuclear trigger, they assume control of the world. I’ve prayed for years that someone will film the remainder of Jones’s trilogy, The Fall of Colossus and Colossus and the Crab. Both Braeden and director Joseph Sargent are still alive, but screenwriter James Bridges is gone, and since this was a financial flop, I’m not holding my breath.

“Crocodile” Dundee: At once an adventure, a comedy, and a romance, this film makes effective use of Australian star Paul Hogan’s considerable charm. Hogan co-wrote the film and four years later married his bewitching co-star, Linda Kozlowski…a native, I might add, of my Mom’s hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut, to whom he remains wed even now. She’s Sue Charlton, a Newsday reporter who goes Down Under for a story on Outback phenom Mick Dundee, and when she brings him back to New York, he finds himself as much a fish out of water as Sue was on his turf. With a wonderful score by Peter Best and a supporting role for go-to Aborigine David Gulpilil of Walkabout fame. The surprisingly good “Crocodile” Dundee II reverses the formula: Mick and Sue run afoul of Colombian drug lords in New York, and return to Australia for a showdown on Mick’s terms; I anticipate finally seeing “Crocodile” Dundee in Los Angeles with some trepidation.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): One of the three seminal SF films to open the 1950s (the others being Destination Moon and The Thing), and one of several superb genre films directed by Val Lewton alumnus Robert Wise, this features a true sense of the 1950s’ Cold War paranoia. Michael Rennie has the best role of his career as Klaatu, who lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in his flying saucer, accompanied by a towering, death-beam-wielding cyclopean robot, Gort. Before he can deliver his vital message, Klaatu is gunned down by a trigger-happy solider; after recovering from his wounds, he escapes from Walter Reed military hospital and poses as a human to learn more about our nutty race. His encounters with widow Patricia Neal and her young son prove fateful as the truth of Klaatu’s mission and abilities becomes clearer. “Klaatu barada nikto.”

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I have been taken to task for not mentioning Bucky Barnes in my recent discussion of Captain America (see “The Sentinel of Liberty”), which was never meant to be a comprehensive analysis of Cap’s career in the first place.  Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I feel no guilt whatsoever for that omission.  In the Silver and Bronze Age comics that constitute my frame of reference, sidekicks were frowned upon at Marvel, with Rick Jones being a conspicuous but hardly representative exception.  First, he was not allied to one specific superhero but gravitated among the Hulk, Captain America, the Avengers, Captain Marvel and Rom.  Second, he usually neither wore a costume nor actually mixed it up in battle with said heroes, but rather was essentially a tagalong supporting character.  Finally, in the case of Captain Marvel, Rick became much more than a mere sidekick when his use of the Nega-Bands enabled him to spell Mar-Vell in the Negative Zone, making him a veritable alter-ego.

Teen sidekicks were more of a D.C. (think Robin the Boy Wonder) and Golden Age phenomenon, and indeed, Cap’s wartime adventures in The Invaders featured not only Bucky but also Toro, the original Human Torch’s incendiary companion.  In the contemporary stories, Bucky was seen only in flashbacks, usually in connection with Cap’s long-standing angst over his death, for which he blamed himself.  Reason enough, thought Cap and many others—myself included—to refrain from putting other youngsters in the same kind of jeopardy.  And quite honestly, I never thought they brought a lot to the table.  So, no apologies for not bringing up Bucky.  Why would I?

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The Other Titan, Part I

Those of you who have heard or read me going on at great length about The GREAT Richard Matheson may be surprised to know that for many years, he was but one of my “Twin Titans,” two authors whom I not only greatly admired and tirelessly championed as criminally underappreciated, but also was blessed enough to befriend.  The other was Elleston Trevor (1920-1995), famed for his nineteen novels featuring the British spy known only as Quiller, which were written over thirty years under the nom de plume (one of many, as it turned out) of Adam Hall.

I was devastated when Elleston died of cancer, a piece of news that his mother-in-law, of all people, had the unenviable task of reporting to me.  I vividly remember standing in the kitchen of the condo where we lived in Danbury at the time, breaking down in tears and near-hysterics when I got the call.  Since then, I have kept in sporadic contact with Elleston’s widow, Chaille (pronounced, and alternately spelled, Shelley), who recently sent me a marvelous manuscript that has catapulted me back to the days of our friendship.  Borrowing its title from the 1970 World War I novel that he considered his greatest achievement, it is called Bury Him Among Kings: Intimate Glimpses into the Life and Work of Elleston Trevor.  May this essay, a somewhat impressionistic response to Chaille’s manuscript (bolstered by consulting my fat correspondence file), and the Quiller page added above serve as my own tribute to Elleston.

A quarter-century later, I can’t recall exactly why I picked up my first Quiller book (which was actually the eleventh), published simply as Quiller in the U.S. and as Northlight—the code-name of that particular mission—in England.  I’m 90% sure I spotted it in a rack of paperbacks at a convenience store and simply grabbed it on impulse.  It was 1985, the year I graduated from college, and I was most likely looking for adventure (the same spirit in which I attended a showing of Day of the Dead in Times Square that summer, which was an adventure of another kind).  I was dimly aware that there had been a movie years earlier called The Quiller Memorandum, which I probably hadn’t yet seen, and since I loved spy stories, I guess I figured that if this guy was still at it, he must know what he was doing.  Did he ever.

There’s an element of irony and chance here that I find fascinating.  That was, I believe, the first of the series to be published as a paperback original, at least in the U.S., and also marked a departure in the style of their titles.  The Quiller name had hitherto been used only on the film and the U.S. edition of the first novel, The Berlin Memorandum.  The succeeding books had titles with the same construction (e.g., The Ninth Directive, The Striker Portfolio), and I recall thinking, in my ignorance, that he had stolen the style from Robert Ludlum (e.g., The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Osterman Weekend), until I learned that Quiller predated Ludlum’s work.  It had been four years since The Peking Target, the longest gap in the series, and I’ve speculated that the new title was an attempt to “rebrand” the books, since each subsequent one started with the word “Quiller.”

The point (you knew there was one, right?) is that if the book had been published as a hardcover instead, it wouldn’t have been sitting on that mass-market rack and I never would have seen or bought it, and you wouldn’t be reading this post today.  Adding to the irony is the fact that in publishing circles, at least in those days, paperback originals had something of a stigma attached to them, as books that weren’t “good enough” to be hardcovers.  But more on that later.  Then came Quiller’s Run and Quiller KGB, and I was absolutely hooked by this spy whose adventures were consistently more entertaining than John le Carre’s, more plausible than Ian Fleming’s, and more comprehensible than Len Deighton’s (although I dearly love all of those in their own right).  In the meantime, I ransacked my local library for the earlier books, devoured them all, and settled on The Tango Briefing as my favorite, which it remains to this day.

To be continued.

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Shameless Nepotism 2/23/10

If you’re in or near Ithaca, New York, over the next four days, treat yourself to a performance of Neil Simon’s Broadway hit Biloxi Blues—memorably filmed by Mike Nichols with Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken—at Cornell University’s Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.  (For details, see http://theatrefilmdance.cornell.edu/news/detail.cfm?customel_dataPageID_18256=62864)  Yes, that’s my daughter playing Rowena; my wife and I will be there with the Bradley Matriarch, cheering her on at Saturday evening’s performance.  Alexandra is currently battling projected budget cuts to the Department of Theatre, Film & Dance, so by showing up you support not only the greater BOF family but also the performing arts at Cornell.  I know at least one of those is a worthy cause!

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The Sentinel of Liberty

Among Saturday’s other cinematic blather, we also touched on the well-deserved hoopla surrounding Captain America’s 70th birthday, and the proposed film to be directed by Joe Johnston.  Since Johnston’s The Wolfman (not to be confused with The Wolf Man, of which it is a remake) is getting kicked around the block in certain circles, I’m not sure if the latter is cause for celebration or not, but I did like one of his efforts, Hidalgo, very much.  And I find it extremely encouraging that the film has been announced as The First Avenger: Captain America.

Here’s the thing:  I’ve been a Cap fan for decades, but I always liked the character—who, let’s face it, represents America at its best—better than his actual book.  (Standard disclaimer:  I bought and read Marvel Comics religiously up through the mid-1980s, but my frame of reference ends there, so I can’t comment on anything done since.)  I became a regular reader of Captain America just before Jack Kirby’s return in #193, while simultaneously catching up on his earliest Silver Age adventures, reprinted from Tales of Suspense alongside Iron Man’s in Marvel Double Feature.

I was as excited as anyone else when King Kirby returned to the fold from D.C., yet in retrospect, I think the decision to elevate him to writer-artist status—presumably a condition for his return—was a mistake.  Kirby’s visual prowess was undimmed, but I didn’t really care for his writing in Captain America, The Black Panther, or The Eternals, although I did buy all three books faithfully, albeit not Kirby’s short-lived 2001.  It’s perhaps just as well, then, that Kirby’s “triumphant” return didn’t last all that long.

Similarly, as I look over the preceding Captain America covers on the invaluable Cover Browser website (http://www.coverbrowser.com/), I don’t see any individual ones, let alone sustained runs, that stand out in my memory.  But I still find I’m excited by looking at these issues, many of which I later acquired.  They feature fun villains (e.g., the Stranger, Mr. Hyde, the Scorpion, the Serpent Squad, the Yellow Claw and, of course, Cap’s arch-enemy, the Red Skull) and have nice cover art, although at some point the interiors fell to Frank Robbins, probably one of my two least-favorite pencillers, along with Carmine Infantino.

The point is that as much as I liked Cap, I always preferred seeing him as a member, and often the leader, of the Avengers, rather than in his solo title (and even that he shared for years with the Falcon).  This is partly just my bias in favor of team books, which I’ve consistently preferred.  In fact, setting aside brief bursts of glory like Steranko’s Nick Fury and Starlin’s Captain Marvel and Warlock, and several underdogs that I championed to no avail (e.g., Super-Villain Team-Up), The Avengers was my favorite book over the long haul.  Through the many changes of roster down the years, Cap was a pretty consistent member, and always seemed to me like the heart and soul of the group.

I’m not sure why they’re referring to Cap as “The First Avenger” when he wasn’t a member of the original team:  Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp.  He didn’t get discovered, defrosted, and recruited until #4, although that’s pretty early.  Maybe they mean “First” chronologically, since as a Golden Age WW II superhero (whose exploits I enjoyed, for far too short a time, in another beloved team book, The Invaders, once again initially penciled by the dreaded Mr. Robbins), he certainly predated the founding members.  Since Cap’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, was one of the few Marvel superheroes who had actually fought in uniform—a distinction I believe he shared with Ben (The Thing) Grimm and Reed (Mr. Fantastic) Richards of the Fantastic Four—that military background helped make him eminently suitable to lead the Avengers.

Perhaps his finest hour came during the era of “Cap’s Kooky Quartet,” beginning in #16, when every remaining founding member (the Hulk was already long gone) left for various reasons, although all later returned at one time or another.  It was left to Cap to hammer out a viable team with three new, and comparatively weak, members, Hawkeye and the mutant siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, all of whom had ironically been villains before.  Bereft of the raw power of Iron Man and Thor, they had to make do as much with their wits and Cap’s leadership skills as anything else, which led to some great storytelling, to which artist Don Heck (Shellhead’s co-creator, let us remember) was eminently well suited.

There’s talk of Johnston’s Hidalgo star, Viggo Mortensen, playing Cap.  He was terrific as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, so God knows I’m not knockin’ the guy (and we’re both part Danish, so rock on), but despite his being born in Manhattan, it’s a little hard for me to envision him as the quintessentially all-American Sentinel of Liberty.  I’d love to be wrong, though, and to see both him and the film be a resounding success.  Time will tell.

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February of the Penguins

As obliquely alluded to in “My Green Heaven,” I recently enjoyed one of the periodic gatherings of primarily ex-Penguin pals that we call Movie Nights, although since Tom and I kicked off around 2:00 this time—on Matheson’s birthday, yet—“Movie Day” would be more apt.  Chris joined us at 7:00, which with an unusually high number of scheduling conflicts put us at only half-strength vs. our full merry band of six, but we made a maximum effort in the viewing department.  Here are some random observations, not at all to be confused with full-fledged reviews, partly because some of these films are on the B100 list anyway, and partly because with all of the chit-chat and ingestion going on, any film we’re “watching” is lucky to get partial attention at any given moment.

After spotting it on my list, Tom realized he had a laserdisc of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and pulled that out for starters.  He questioned whether the costumes—especially those on what I believe he called “the cleanest peasants in the world”—were historically accurate, but I countered that they sure looked good in Technicolor, which is probably all that mattered.  And yes, we Movie Night Musketeers (aka the Movie Knights) are big proponents of laserdiscs, which for you young’uns is basically what DVDs used to be before there were DVDs.  Not much to add to my B100 listing, except that in addition to Warner Brothers, Rains, and Curtiz, it has one more thing in common with Casablanca, i.e., one of the most impressive collections of memorable minor characters around.

I can’t recall what inspired me to suggest The Green Slime, but I think my previous post demonstrates that it was ideal for our purposes.  ’Nuff said.

We’ve had a lot of internal debate over whether The Wild Bunch or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid represents Sam Peckinpah’s best work.  Since only one of them made it onto the B100, you can guess where I stand, but Tom dragged out his laserdisc of Pat and, while we were watching it, offered a plausible theory as to why.  After Billy (Kris Kristofferson) did something disreputable, I said it seemed strange for the guy I always took to be the film’s nominal hero, but he pointed out that you’re not really rooting for either Pat (James Coburn) or Billy.  Admittedly, the members of the Bunch are thieves and murderers, but by the end their particular code of honor definitely leaves us at least partly in their corner.

Chris had asked us to save Once Upon a Time in America until he arrived.  It struck me as funny that Leone, who might by some standards be considered Italian, would make a movie about the Jewish rather than the Italian mob, but perhaps he didn’t want to be seen as ripping off The Godfather, especially since he borrowed the time-jumping structure from The Godfather Part II.  Again, no need to pre-empt my B100 listing, yet we remain aghast that the studio’s initial U.S. release was not only shorn of something like an hour and a half, but also re-edited into chronological order, thus destroying all of the skillful transitions and ironic juxtapositions on which Leone obviously worked so hard.  Duh!

Chris was kind enough to bring the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, about which we’d heard so much.  Frankly, without having seen the Richard Lester version for some time, we really didn’t detect much difference between them.  Although I’m a Marvel rather than a D.C. man, I stand by my opinion that Donner’s original Superman remains one of the best comic-book movies ever, marred only by excessive jokiness and Christopher Reeve’s overly nerdy interpretation of Clark Kent.  But as Superman, I think he incarnated a superhero better than almost anyone.

After Chris left, and our planned program was exhausted—a state we were approaching as well—we went into channel-surfing mode and stumbled on a showing of Dario Argento’s The Mother of Tears that had just started.  In my book, it matters less whether that film is any good (especially since I’m not a big Argento fan) than it does that after almost thirty years, he finally finished the “Three Mothers” trilogy he began with Suspiria and Inferno.  Since we were well into the wee hours at that point, I missed more than a few nuances, but suffered through the usual sadistic excesses.  One character has her jaw popped by some sort Saw-style screw gizmo; another undergoes the obligatory Italian eye-gouging with a tool that seemed to have been created especially for that purpose; and another has a huge spear shoved between her legs.  These are all women, of course, and once again, Argento throws in some nude shots of his daughter and leading lady, Asia.  So, yeah, tell me again what a well-adjusted, normal guy he must be in real life.

Last, and quite possibly least despite stiff competition, after Tom turned in I chanced upon Jaws III just as it was beginning.  Although TGRM shared script credit on this film, it does not appear on the B100, and you can read all about why in Richard Matheson on Screen.  Suffice to say for the moment that Richard’s script was rewritten by Carl Gottlieb, who worked on both of the previous Jaws films (the first of which is, not coincidentally, the only good credit on his resume), and that it was a good choice on which to doze off.

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My Green Heaven

Dateline—Woodside:  In a BOF first, I’m reporting live from Casa Flynn to run down the reasons why The Green Slime is one of the greatest schlock-SF films ever.  (Surrounded by my host’s Molson-centric decor reminds me to recommend that you kill as many brain cells as possible while watching this film, if only to bring you down to the level of the script.)

The Memories: For many of us, this film is inextricably linked with “Monster Week” on The 4:30 Movie.  To those of my generation—i.e., the last gasp of the Baby Boom—and the first of the Gen-Xers who followed, few film-viewing memories are as potent as that daily after-school ritual (which originally followed Dark Shadows, and later The Edge of Night, on New York’s ABC station, as I recall), with its themed weeks.  Sure, the films were butchered to fit the time slot, unless shown in multiple parts as some of our favorites were, but we didn’t know that then, and they featured much of the cream of 1960s and ’70s cinema, our Golden Age.

The Title: Talk about short and to the point.  Not many people going to be scratching their heads and saying, “But what’s it about?”  It promises something cool and maybe gross, although—since this is 1968, and on The 4:30 Movie, no less—not too gross.

The Cast: Grumpy-looking leading man Robert Horton was reportedly best known for TV’s Wagon Train, which makes a weird kind of sense when you remember that Gene Roddenberry conceptualized the contemporaneous Star Trek as “Wagon Train in space.”  Similarly, second banana Richard Jaeckel was known for his military roles, well suited to this film’s militaristic astronauts, and I’ll wager he’s the only cast member in both The Dirty Dozen and its fact-based follow-up, The Devil’s Brigade.  Leading lady Luciana Paluzzi was one of the more memorable Bond Girls as Thunderball‘s lethal and ill-fated Fiona Volpe.

The Crew: On the face of it, this looks like a U.S.-Japanese co-production—the first official one, according to Phil Hardy—with a primarily American cast and Japanese crew.  Director Kinji Fukasaku made a few other genre films (e.g., Message from Space, Virus), but is perhaps best known for directing the Japanese sequences in a somewhat higher-class co-production, Tora! Tora! Tora!, after a disastrous attempt by Akira Kurosawa.  (American director Richard Fleischer, who had an eclectic and unusual resume, told his side of the story in his memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry.)

Yet that ignores the third leg of this film’s international tripod, for it is in fact a U.S.-Japanese-Italian co-production.  Just a few years earlier, Sergio Leone had made history by turning Kurosawa’s Yojimbo into his seminal spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars.  Now, the mind boggles at a kind of spaghetti-sushi-sci-fi mashup.  Producers Ivan Reiner (who also supplied the story) and Walter Manley had just finished their quartet of films directed by Antonio Margheriti and set on space station Gamma I, in which La Paluzzi would not have been out of place.  This was apparently intended as a kind of kissin’ cousin, set on Gamma III.

The Theme Song: That this film even has one may be sufficient, but the rock ‘n’ roll ditty was also co-written by Charles Fox, who scored two of Richard Matheson’s TV-movies.

The Story: One of those pesky asteroids is on a collision course with Earth, so a team is sent from Gamma III to blow it up.  That’s right, films like this and Margheriti’s Battle of the Worlds are the great-granddads of Armageddon, God help us all.  In the process, some of the titular substance gets aboard the station and wreaks havoc, morphing inexplicably into tentacled monsters, with the three leads playing out a love triangle over this backdrop.

The Effects: My initial impression is of the Xenomorphs from Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space gone horribly awry…and that was in the better scenes, as opposed to those showing the exterior of the station supposedly swarming with slimes.  As with Margheriti’s purely Italian space operas, the miniatures and vehicles are always interesting, if not necessarily realistic.  And, to the filmmakers’ credit, much as these scaly critters suck, “they’re not shy about showin’ ’em,” as my host (who was kind enough to help with the photo) would say.

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Charles Beaumont

Second in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.

The life and career of Charles Beaumont (1929-67) blazed, briefly but brightly, like a comet crossing the sky; he has been called the hub of the Southern California School of Writers (aka The Group), with such celebrated “spokes” as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, Ray Russell, Jerry Sohl, and John Tomerlin.  All of these paid tribute to Beaumont in his posthumously published Selected Stories (reissued as The Howling Man), which—like The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont, Volume One—was edited by Roger Anker, according to whom he produced ten books, almost a hundred short stories, thirteen screenplays (nine of them produced), more than seventy teleplays, forty comic-book stories, and dozens of articles, profiles, and columns.  This was in thirteen short years, before Beaumont was rendered unable to work by the incurable degenerative disorder (either Alzheimer’s Disease or Pick’s Disease) that in 1965 consigned him to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where he died at the age of thirty-eight, prematurely aged and senile.

Especially close to Beaumont, both personally and professionally, Matheson said he was “my best friend for many years.  We wrote together for a period of time when we first went into television (until we decided that we would do better each going solo) and acted as ‘spurs’ to each other creatively.  I had sold my first collection of short stories [Born of Man and Woman] before Chuck, which spurred him on to get his first collection [The Hunger and Other Stories].  We both wrote ‘mainstream’ novels about the same time [The Beardless Warriors and The Intruder, respectively].  We both went into TV at the same time.  We both wrote films in the same period of time.  There was competition but only of the friendliest sort….He was tremendously magnetic.  I am a quiet person—although there is an antic spirit underneath the surface which some people see, most normally my family.  Chuck was a meteoric type of person.  His sense of humor was devastating.  He was a very funny, very witty person.  He had interests in so many things and pursued them all fully,” as he recounted to Marc Scott Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion.

Born Charles Leroy Nutt in Chicago, Beaumont was raised by five widowed aunts in a Washington State rooming house, and before selling “The Devil, You Say?” to Amazing Stories in 1950 he held a variety of jobs ranging from actor to comic-book editor.  The year 1954 marked both the breakthrough appearance of “Black Country” in his best-known fiction outlet, Playboy, and his first screen credit on “Masquerade,” an episode of Four Star Playhouse; unfortunately, neither cast nor crew of Queen of Outer Space (1958) realized that his script was written as a spoof, but he fared better in the burgeoning medium of television.  “When we joined this agency [Adams, Ray, and Rosenberg] together, it was such a strange new world out there that we decided to work together,” Matheson told this writer.  “We collaborated on a lot of different shows….We knew each other, our families knew each other, our kids knew each other.”  Each had four children of similar ages, and when Beaumont’s wife, Helen, died of cancer just four years after him, the Mathesons acted as the foster parents for the orphaned Beaumont brood, the youngest of whom was only seven.

Beaumont and Matheson shared story or script credits on episodes of the detective series The D.A.’s Man (“Iron Mike Benedict”), Markham (“The Marble Face,” originally titled “Spirit Unwilling”), and Philip Marlowe (episode title[s] unknown), and the Westerns Buckskin (“Act of Faith”), Wanted: Dead or Alive (“The Healing Woman”), and Have Gun—Will Travel (“The Lady on the Wall”).  While obviously prolific, Beaumont frequently found himself overextended with commitments to the producers he was so famously adept at schmoozing, and sometimes split his fees with friends who would provide a first draft or an original story—often uncredited—which continued as his health declined and his medical bills increased.  This resulted most notably in Twilight Zone scripts ghost-written by Sohl (“The New Exhibit,” “Living Doll,” “Queen of the Nile”) and Tomerlin (“Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” based on Beaumont’s story “The Beautiful People”), but credited to Beaumont; he and Matheson had seen no need to collaborate on the show because of their already solid literary credentials in the SF, fantasy and horror genre.

Beaumont based many Twilight Zone scripts on his own stories:  “Perchance to Dream,” “Elegy,” “The Howling Man,” “The Jungle,” “The Fugitive,” “Person or Persons Unknown,” “In His Image” (from “The Man Who Made Himself”), “Printer’s Devil” (from “The Devil, You Say?”), and “Passage on the Lady Anne” (from “Song for a Lady”).  Matheson told this writer that they “were both already well established in the magazine field, we knew how to write that kind of story, and we were very adaptable.  We could fit the Twilight Zone pattern almost instantly…The pattern is:  a teaser that gets your interest, and then Rod [Serling] making a comment, and then your first act with a cliffhanger, and then to your ending, which hopefully has a surprise.”  Beaumont also wrote the original teleplays “Long Live Walter Jameson,” “A Nice Place to Visit,” “Shadow Play,” “Valley of the Shadow,” and “Miniature,” and based “Static” and “The Prime Mover” on then-unpublished stories by Ocee Ritch (who later ghosted “Dead Man’s Shoes”) and Johnson, respectively, while “Long Distance Call” was a joint effort with another friend, William Idelson.

When William Froug took over as the producer of The Twilight Zone during the fifth and final season, he cancelled a number of teleplays written by Group members, including “Gentlemen, Be Seated” (published in The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont, Volume One) and Matheson’s “The Doll.”  Matheson said Froug “didn’t like my writing.  As a matter of fact, when I was collaborating with Chuck…I made the mistake of saying, because I didn’t like to go out, ‘I’ll do the first drafts, and you go out and do the office meetings.’  So because of that, everybody got the impression that I was like the retarded country cousin he was supporting out in the sticks.  And Froug, the producer who we did Philip Marlowe for, was totally convinced of that.”  Credited on Sohl’s scripts for Naked City and Route 66, Beaumont also contributed to Suspense, One Step Beyond (“The Captain’s Guest,” “Brainwave”), Thriller (“Girl With a Secret,” “Guillotine”), The Outer Limits (“The Guests,” based on his teleplay “An Ordinary Town”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Backward, Turn Backward”), and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“The Long Silence”).

When producer-director Roger Corman filmed The Intruder in 1961, with William Shatner playing the titular racist instigator, Beaumont adapted his own novel, as well as joining Johnson and Nolan in supporting roles, and continued their relationship on the Edgar Allan Poe series that Corman had initiated with Matheson at American International Pictures (AIP).  He wrote The Premature Burial (1962) with Russell, based The Haunted Palace (1963)—which took its title from a poem by Poe—on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and scripted The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which incorporated Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” and was rewritten by R. Wright Campbell.  Beaumont also worked for producer-director George Pal on The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), with an all-star cast dramatizing the story of the brothers and enacting three of their fairy tales, and the Oscar-winning 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), which he adapted from Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao; Tony Randall starred as the chameleonic Lao, who brings self-awareness to small-town citizens with various fantastic guises.

Matheson and Beaumont adapted their only feature-film collaboration, Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962), from Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife.  Matheson told this writer, “We just went to a bar one night, we were chatting, and we decided, ‘Let’s write a movie together.’  We both loved Conjure Wife, and we knew that it had already been filmed, so we just ignored the fact and did it anyway.  We were both working for American International at the time, and they liked the script very much, but since they had to buy the rights from Universal, who had made Weird Woman [1944], the one with Lon Chaney, Jr., I think we split $10,000 between us for the script, that’s all we ever made….Actually, it doesn’t seem like it when you read our short stories, but when it came to scripts we wrote pretty similarly.”  Directed in England by Sidney Hayers, it starred Peter Wyngarde as skeptical college professor Norman Taylor, who destroys the supernatural paraphernalia with which his wife Tansy (Janet Blair)—a literal witch—protects him and furthers his career, leaving him vulnerable to attack by another witch among the faculty.

Beaumont’s work continued to reach the screen after his death; as early as the following year, his stories were being adapted into “The New People” and “Miss Belle” (based on “Miss Gentilbelle”) for Journey to the Unknown, the short-lived anthology series produced by 20th Century-Fox and England’s Hammer films, with many of the latter’s personnel participating.  The mid-1980s Twilight Zone revival essayed remakes of two Beaumont episodes, one of them with a change in gender (“Dead Woman’s Shoes” and “Shadow Play”), while writer-director Adam Simon resurrected his unfilmed 1963 screenplay Paranoia as Brain Dead (1990), which was made for Corman’s company, Concorde, and deals with an experimental treatment referred to as “the kindler, gentler lobotomy.”  But true immortality has come through the enduring popularity of his books and films, and especially of The Twilight Zone, for which he wrote more scripts than anyone but its creator, Rod Serling, as well as through the work of the writers whom he inspired or instructed, guaranteeing that the Group’s influence will outlive all of its members.

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Bradley’s Hundred #1-10

As mentioned earlier (see “My Filmic Valentine”), this will kick off the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.  And now, let the games begin…

The Abyss:  I regard this as writer/director James (The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, Avatar) Cameron’s greatest achievement, although admittedly I have an unreasoning bias in favor of films set underwater.  I also consider it a tear-duct-stimulating love story, although it is more obviously an SF action-adventure movie.  Its only flaw, in my opinion, is that the benign nature of its aliens makes this more like Close Encounters of the Third Kind underwater than Alien underwater, which took some of the edge off it for me.  Estranged spouses Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are uncomfortably brought back together aboard an underwater oil-drilling rig when something brings down a nuclear sub nearby.  Turns out to be extraterrestrial visitors, which makes the military team led by Michael Biehn and sent down to check out the sub more than a mite nervous.  A hurricane cuts the rig off from the surface, leaving the cast in various types of peril.  As usual, Cameron went all-out to ensure that the underwater scenes were state of the art, and created some groundbreaking CGI effects for the scene in which the aliens manifest themselves in a tentacle made of seawater.  I find the story and characters much more satisfying than those in his later films, and actually prefer the original theatrical version to the director’s cut that was later made available.

The Adventures of Robin Hood:  For my money, this is not only Errol Flynn’s best film, but also the best swashbuckler, and the best sword fight, in Hollywood history.  Flynn is backed up by one of the greatest casts Warner Brothers could assemble, with Basil Rathbone enjoying one of his best roles as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains deliciously duplicitous as King John, and even Olivia de Havilland, whom I normally loathe, luminous as Maid Marian.  That’s to say nothing of such supporting cast members as Alan Hale, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette (among the funniest men on the screen), and Ian Hunter; absolutely stunning color photography, which doubtless helped make this Warner’s most expensive film to date; and a rousing Erich Wolfgang Korngold score.  Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) co-directed with William Keighley, reportedly to beef up the action.

Alien:  This might have been Ridley Scott’s masterpiece if he hadn’t outdone himself completely with Blade Runner just three years later.  When the mining spacecraft Nostromo is diverted from its course by the computer, “Mother,” the crew is prematurely awakened from hypersleep and ordered to investigate a distress call from a storm-swept planet.  There they pick up an unwanted passenger that systematically destroys most of the crew until Sigourney Weaver, in her star-making role of Ripley, dukes it out in the tense climax.  Still packs a punch after many repeated viewings; superb special effects and a stellar, as it were, cast:  Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, the especially ill-fated John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto.  Spawned three sequels (not counting those Alien vs. Predator spinoffs), all of which I enjoyed in their own right, not least because each film in the tetralogy has a distinctly different flavor.  Not to be viewed while eating!

The Andromeda Strain (1971):  This faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s early bestseller is another one-two punch from The Haunting’s knockout writer-director team, Nelson Gidding and Robert Wise.  A satellite containing an incredibly lethal space germ lands in a New Mexico town and the fun begins, with most of the action set inside a mammoth underground lab with a nuclear-destruct device.  Taut and absorbing, with rare lead roles for Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, and Kate Reid, whose character was a man in the novel.  In an interview, Wise told me he deliberately did not cast major stars (or Raquel Welch-style babes) in their roles, so that the audience would more readily accept their characters as scientists.  In 2008, A&E remade this as a bloated, totally superfluous miniseries.  “Have a look at his buttocks.”  “That’s not funny.”

Apocalypse Now:  For me, this and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket are the only Vietnam films worth having.  I hated The Deer Hunter, and although I enjoyed Platoon, I didn’t go nuts over it the way some people did.  While filming in the Philippines, director Francis Ford Coppola entered his own “Heart of Darkness” with this modernized version of the Joseph Conrad tale, with Marlon Brando as the renegade Colonel Kurtz (“…the horror, the horror…”) and Martin Sheen, replacing Harvey Keitel, as the assassin sent to terminate him.  I love Keitel, but Sheen seems perfect in this part.  Robert Duvall has a memorable role as a surfing-enthusiast colonel, as does Dennis Hopper as an eccentric photojournalist, and even Harrison Ford pops up in a supporting role in the opening scenes.  Songs by The Doors, including “The End” (heard, ironically, at the beginning); Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” is used to brilliant effect during a helicopter attack.  Again, I prefer the original version to the expanded Apocalypse Now Redux cut, although that has its points of interest.

Arsenic and Old Lace:  A great movie in its own right, and also a sentimental favorite, for my wife and I co-starred in this venerable Broadway comedy in high school, although she played my aunt, so forget any passionate clinches.  (Actually, we were just friends at the time, but never mind.)  Cary Grant—who, let’s face it, is the guy every guy wants to be (and, yes, I had his role)—is Mortimer Brewster, a marriage-hating dramatic critic whose conversion by new bride Priscilla Lane (an effective proselytizer, I might add) is interrupted by the revelation that his two eccentric aunts have poisoned eleven lonely old men, and had them buried in the cellar by a second nephew who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.  Further complicating things is the arrival of a third and final nephew, the villainous Jonathan (Raymond Massey, standing in for Boris Karloff, who was still performing in the play; alas, this takes some of the bite out of the in-joke about his character resembling Karloff), with his cringeing assistant (Peter Lorre) and another body in tow.  Frank Capra directed, and as always has filled his cast with memorable character actors, including James Gleason in one of his innumerable police detective roles, Jack Carson as a beat cop and aspiring playwright, and the inimitable Edward Everett Horton (another of the funniest men ever to appear on the screen, in my opinion) as the emissary of Happy Dale, the rest home to which Mortimer hopes to commit Teddy.  Just a delight.

The Big Chill:  Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s hilarious yet often touching film boasts a stellar cast and a superb Motown score.  The use of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” over the main titles sets the tone, as it were, perfectly.  Out-of-touch college chums Tom Berenger (“Look out for the stick shift—ohhhh!”), Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum (“Just good investigative journalism.”), William Hurt, Kevin Kline (“Be right back, baby!”), Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams gather over a weekend to mourn their suicidal friend, and end up renewing their old ties (and values).  Sure, it rips off John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus Seven.  So what?  It’s great!

The Big Lebowski:  I’d like to think that my friends and I were in the vanguard of those who have made this hilarious and endlessly quotable Coen Brothers film a cult favorite.  Jeff Bridges stars as The Dude (aka Jeff Lebowski), a mysteriously well-off unemployed stoner whose home is invaded and his rug defiled by thugs trying to collect on a debt run up by the wife of a rich man also named Lebowski.  When the other Lebowski refuses to make good on The Dude’s losses, he and his bowling buddies (John Goodman, in a role reportedly modeled on John Milius, and Steve Buscemi) embark upon an increasingly outré quest to achieve some sort of justice.  (“Dude, he peed on your rug?”)  Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, and Ben Gazarra are along for the ride.  The characters, the interplay among them, and the dialogue are all priceless here.

The Big Sleep (1946):  Sublime, with Humphrey Bogart as the best of the screen’s Philip Marlowes (although the competition is admittedly a mixed bag, at best).  Very few liberties are taken with Raymond Chandler’s complex first novel; most involve tailoring it to the team of Bogie and soon-to-be fourth and final wife Lauren Bacall, which had been introduced by Howard Hawks in To Have and Have Not.  In fact, reshooting before this film’s general release was done to add some of that unique chemistry, and to offset Lauren Bacall’s poor reviews for Confidential Agent.  (The earlier preview version of The Big Sleep is available, and makes for a fascinating comparison.)  Hawks directs at the epitome of his noirish yet wisecracking style; Dorothy Malone’s few minutes as an antiquarian bookseller are probably the best in her career; Max Steiner scored it—and some guy named Faulkner (one of my all-time favorite authors) co-wrote it!  What’s not to like?  In 1978, after Robert Mitchum had starred in one of the best Marlowe movies, Dick Richards’s moody period-set Farewell, My Lovely, the aptly named Michael Winner remade this with Mitchum, but inexplicably reset it in contemporary London.  Even a supporting cast that included Jimmy Stewart and Oliver Reed couldn’t salvage that mess…

Black Sunday (1960; aka La Maschera del Demonio [The Mask of the Demon]):  This is the first film Mario Bava directed single-handed—after “assisting” Riccardo Freda uncredited on I Vampiri (The Vampires, aka The Devil’s Commandment) and Caltiki, il Mostro Immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster), both of which he photographed—and the first horror film of Italy’s venerated scream queen, the ironically British-born Barbara Steele.  Sadly, neither ever equaled, let alone surpassed, this classic, and they never collaborated again.  Babs has a dual role as a vampire witch executed in 1630, with a spiked mask hammered onto her face, and her lookalike descendant, whom she possesses when a careless doctor accidentally revives her 200 years later.  One of Bava’s few directorial efforts in black and white, this movie simply oozes atmosphere and is a cult favorite.

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