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Archive for March, 2010

Memory is a funny thing.  For decades I had recalled that as a youth, I was drawn to watch The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) by seeing commercials depicting Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine on the run in the South African countryside, shackled together like some apartheid-era variation on Poitier’s The Defiant Ones (1958).  Imagine my amused surprise when I started to read the 1972 novel by Peter Driscoll (1942-2005) on which the film was based, only to discover that it contained no such plot mechanism (although Poitier’s character, Shack Twala, is handcuffed), and then sat down to watch the film, shot in Kenya for obvious reasons, only to discover that it also contained no such plot mechanism.  Both incarnations are, however, worthy political thrillers with some interesting differences.

The film opens in a Capetown courtroom where Shack, who has spent the last ten years imprisoned on Robben Island (the longtime “home” of Nelson Mandela), is being defended by Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee) against a charge of violating the Terrorism Act.  Rina argues that Shack cannot be prosecuted retroactively under an act that was only passed midway through his incarceration, and the prosecuting counsel (executive producer Helmut Dantine) surprisingly agrees to withdraw the case, releasing Shack for the benefit of international public opinion. But en route to a bottle of celebratory champagne with her newly minted boyfriend, vacationing British mining engineer Jim Keogh (Caine), Shack is picked up on a random pass check and restrained by racist constables who rough up Rina, so the two men clobber them—narrowly avoiding being shot—and flee the scene.

Novel and film take entirely different routes to reach the same point:  in the former, Shack is unwittingly allowed to escape from prison, and the pass-check incident occurs (sans Rina) at a kind of black speakeasy where Keogh sees Shack while trying to buy some wine, driven to intervene by the constable’s brutal prejudice.  At that point, however, the two versions begin to move in parallel as Rina urges the men to travel the 900 miles north to Johannesburg, where Shack says an old friend who owes him a favor can get them across the border to Botswana, and hide out in the flat owned by her conveniently absent soon-to-be-ex-husband, the violently jealous Blaine.  Meanwhile, the district commissioner (Patrick Allen) is bemused when the roadblocks are lifted by the loathsome Major Horn (Nicol Williamson), who represents the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) and clearly has his own agenda.

Shack and Keogh are, alas, shackled together only metaphorically, since a white man traveling with his apparent houseboy is inconspicuous, and Shack’s handcuffs are removed when they break into a machine shop, whose owner first holds them at gunpoint and then helps them.  Along the way, Keogh learns that Shack—betrayed by parties unknown—was arrested and his driver killed while getting Wilby Xaba, the chairman of the anti-apartheid Black Congress, safely into Botswana, and Keogh realizes to his dismay that (unlike in the novel) Shack was the vice chairman. Feigning a chance meeting at a gas station, Horn does not identify himself but surreptitiously plants a homing device on their car, in the trunk of which Keogh later discovers the machine-shop owner, whose body Shack’s fellow Bantu tribesman conceal.

In Jo’burg, Shack asks Keogh to wait while he talks to Dr. Mukarjee (Saeed Jaffrey), whose involvement he had concealed from his interrogators, but the suspicious Englishman eavesdrops and learns of a cache of diamonds belonging to the Congress, which Mukarjee safeguarded by dropping them into a 230-foot sinkhole.  Although the film is generally serious in tone, it has its lighter moments, as when Keogh learns the identity of Shack’s contact and says, “A politically committed Indian dentist—that sounds like all the people I can’t stand at a cocktail party!”  Soon after, the BOSS man and his sadistic henchman Van Heerden (Ryk De Gooyer) interrupt Keogh during an idyllic bath with Rina in Blaine’s flat and order him to turn over the diamonds, valued at ­750,000 pounds, without which the exiled Wilby will pose little threat.

The novel’s greater complexity and next major point of departure from the screenplay become apparent during the filmed sequence in which Keogh uses his professional skills to retrieve the diamonds, aided by not only Shack and Mukarjee but also the latter’s apolitical colleague, Dr. Persis Ray (Persis Khambatta).  The identity of Shack and Wilby’s long-ago betrayer is downplayed in the film to the extent that the character (Yusuf, the brother of Mukarjee’s literary antecedent, Hassim Mayat) is effectively supplanted by the merely opportunistic Persis, who shoots Mukarjee and demands the diamonds before being thrown into the sinkhole by Shack during a struggle.  In the novel, conversely, Horn’s men mortally wound Shack and push the wheelchair-bound Mayat into the sinkhole, tossing in grenades that nearly kill Keogh as well.

The cinematic Shack survives to save Keogh from being ambushed by Blaine (a pre-Blade Runner [1982] Rutger Hauer), who is blackmailed into flying them across the border after Rina threatens to complicate their divorce proceedings by exposing his penchant for hash and mistresses.  No sooner have Shack, Keogh, and Rina been deposited by Blaine in Botswana and met by Wilby (Joe De Graft) than Horn swoops in with his soldiers to arrest the Congress chairman, his target all along, and reveals that he had recovered and replaced the diamonds with paste ten years ago.  When Wilby’s followers prevent his helicopter from taking off, Horn boasts that he will be back after the South African government frees him in a prisoner exchange, and Keogh, realizing that he is right, shoots him in the forehead.

Climaxing instead amid a brush fire caused when a train crashes into a truck, The Wilby Conspiracy was Driscoll’s second novel and the only one of his nine globe-trotting thrillers filmed to date.  As he noted in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, “The starting point for all the books I have written—and perhaps the key by which any one of them might be described—is a setting.  Often it is a place with a background of some political or social instability [e.g., Northern Ireland] which I like to examine in some detail and which gives an undertone of tension to the narrative….Beyond the obvious elements of action, conflict, and suspense, what I try hardest to communicate are authenticity, atmosphere, and—an elusive but essential ingredient—the quality of fear.”  The scene in the sinkhole, where Keogh finds the decayed body of another victim of Yusuf, offers fear aplenty, nor is authenticity in short supply, since the British Driscoll attended college and spent the early years of his journalistic career in Johannesburg, also serving intermittently in the South Africa Army.

The film was a bit of an anomaly for Rod Amateau, who co-scripted with Berlin-born Harold Nebenzal and also handled the action sequences, but more often served as the producer and/or director of such sitcoms as The Bob Cummings Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dukes of Hazzard.  Director Ralph Nelson, however, had displayed a streak of social consciousness in Charly (1968), …tick…tick…tick… and Soldier Blue (both 1970), and worked with Poitier previously on Lilies of the Field (1963)—winning the actor an Oscar and himself a nomination for Best Picture as producer—and the underrated Western Duel at Diablo (1966).  As the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that in addition to the 1956 Playhouse 90 and 1962 theatrical versions of Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Nelson directed Matheson’s Twilight Zone season-one finale “A World of His Own,” featuring Serling’s first on-camera appearance after narrating the previous episodes offscreen. 

Poitier and Caine have made far too many films for me to enumerate here, other than such personal favorites as Poitier’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night (both 1967) and Caine’s The Ipcress File (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and The Fourth Protocol (1987).  They were reunited in, and both earned Emmy nominations for, the title roles of Joseph Sargent’s made-for-cable Mandela and de Klerk (1997), and I’ve often wondered if that was just a coincidence, or if somebody thought it would be really cool to cast the co-stars of The Wilby Conspiracy in the ultimate apartheid drama.  Speaking of reunions, Khambatta and Hauer (who have no scenes together in this film) later played terrorist colleagues in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Nighthawks (1981), two years after the Indian actress achieved bald-pated fame in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

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Bradley’s Hundred #41-50

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

The Godfather: My Dad and I avoided this for many years, he because he thought it glamorized the Mafia (I don’t think it does; it’s just a good movie about bad people) and me because I thought I couldn’t take the violence. We finally caught the ten-hour TV version of parts I and II and saw what we’d been missing, though in retrospect I feel that is not the best form in which to see them. Quite simply a masterpiece, with its slow building to climactic crescendos of violence, one of my three favorite Brando roles (A Streetcar Named Desire and Apocalypse Now being the other two), and a star-making cast—yes, even James Caan is good. I also admire The Godfather Part II very much but, unlike many, don’t find the scenes with Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone to be as compelling as this (albeit without faulting his performance). “Leave the gun; take the cannolis.”

Goldfinger: The third and, in my opinion, best of the James Bond films, with Sean Connery at his peak. Features Gert Frobe (whose voice was inexplicably dubbed, although he spoke English fluently) as Auric Goldfinger, Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore (“I must be dreaming”), and Harold Sakata as Oddjob, with Shirley Bassey singing the best of her three Bond theme songs, stunning faux Fort Knox sets by Ken Adam, one of John Barry’s best scores, and a stunning climax.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo): Arguably Sergio Leone’s best spaghetti Western, featuring the unforgettable trinity of Clint Eastwood, a really nasty Lee Van Cleef as Angel Eyes, and Eli Wallach “in the role of Tuco.” The Civil War is just an inconvenience for those three as they search for a fortune in gold, with an unforgettable climactic three-way shootout in a cemetery. And dig that crazy Ennio Morricone theme song, surely one of the most recognizable pieces on earth. Several of us were able to hear the Maestro conducting selections from this score at Radio City Music Hall, which was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Great Escape: Turafish considers this The Greatest Movie Ever Made. I won’t go that far, but it’s right up there. Director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and cast members Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn are reunited from The Magnificent Seven for this true story co-scripted by James Clavell. During World War II, the Germans decide to place all of their rotten eggs in one basket by herding their most troublesome prisoners into a single camp. Naturally, this leads to a legendary, albeit only partly successful, mass breakout led by “Big X” (Richard Attenborough). The theme song is unforgettable and the cast (also including James Garner, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson) is unparalleled.

Groundhog Day: This brilliantly conceived comedy reunited Bill Murray with Ghostbusters co-star/co-writer Harold Ramis of SCTV fame, who here assumes the director’s chair. While covering the titular holiday, arrogant weatherman Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over in snowy Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and essentially learns to be a better person—earning Andie MacDowell’s love in the process—as the various permutations are worked out with impeccable logic, leading to a satisfying conclusion. Featuring Chris Elliott (also seen in The Abyss). “BING!”

Gunga Din: Old-fashioned adventure of the kind they don’t make anymore, although Sergeants 3, with John Sturges directing the Rat Pack in a Western version, was surprisingly good. Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. are three British soldiers serving in 19th-century India, who run afoul of a Thuggee cult led by Eduardo Ciannelli. Sam Jaffe plays Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous water-carrier, who saves the day at the cost of his life, and Joan Fontaine is the fiancée whose engagement to Fairbanks the others repeatedly try to scuttle; great score by Alfred Newman.

The Guns of Navarone: Immortalized by the very youthful Alexandra as Guns Forever Known. Considering the subsequent and steady decline of director J. Lee Thompson’s career, this is astonishingly good, the first of the Alistair MacLean adaptations and one of those that holds up the best. Stalwart Gregory Peck, formidable Anthony Quinn, and dubious David Niven join Irene Papas and commandos Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, and James Darren on the usual impossible mission on a German-held Greek island during WWII. Not many action films make me mist up, but this one has a beautifully reflective coda, featuring the softer side of Dimitri Tiomkin’s majestic score, that gets me every time. Despite being directed by Guy (Goldfinger) Hamilton, the belated sequel, Force 10 from Navarone (with Robert Shaw and Edward Fox in the Peck and Niven roles, plus Harrison Ford and Barbara Bach), is vastly inferior, I’m sorry to say, so stick with the original.

A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles’ first and best-loved movie, directed in pyrotechnical prototype-MTV style by Richard Lester and featuring a plethora of their best early songs, including two of my favorites, “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better,” plus the title tune, “All My Loving,” “And I Love Her,” and “She Loves You” (do I detect a pattern here?). Since I regard the Fab Four as the group to end all groups, with Talking Heads a relatively close second, I can forgive the fact that this doesn’t really have much of a story, other than trying to get the boys onstage for a TV special. “How do you find America?” “Turn left at Greenland.” With Victor (Help!) Spinetti.

Help!: Unlike most Beatlephiles, I prefer this to A Hard Day’s Night. Also directed by Richard Lester, it actually has a plot, and one loopy enough to suit my bizarre sensibilities, as the cult of Kali tries to turn Ringo into a human sacrifice. The great songs include “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “The Night Before,” “I Need You,” and the title tune. With Leo McKern as Klang (“Hold?”), Eleanor Bron (“Is not the Beatle with the ring, he!”), Victor Spinetti (“With a ring like that I could—dare I say it?—rule the world.”), and Lester regular Roy Kinnear.

High Noon: Along with For Whom the Bell Tolls, this is probably my favorite Gary Cooper movie, although there’s some stiff competition (most notably Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe). Coop is Marshal Will Kane, who’s ready to retire from gunslinging and enjoy some wedded bliss with Quaker bride Grace Kelly (who wouldn’t be?). There’s just one hitch: Frank Miller, a desperado whom Kane put away, is out of prison and headed back on the noonday train to exact a little vengeance, accompanied by several like-minded killers. Kane has no death wish, but he’s too much the pro to leave the town to Miller’s tender mercies, even though Grace is ready to leave him if he doesn’t have sense enough to head for the hills. Will the populace rally to his aid? The answer plays out (in real time) in this suspenseful classic directed by Fred Zinnemann.

P.S.  My bad—TCM’s Kurosawa retrospective is not over.  This Tuesday 3/30 at 8:00 PM you can still see Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha (my favorite among his post-Mifune films), and Ran.  But don’t forget about Justified.

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Super Mario, Part II

Before I conclude my cursory examination of the great Mario Bava’s directorial career, here are some personal reminiscences from my Filmfax interview with John Saxon, who starred in Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much:  “I ran to make this film.  It was brought to me by the girl involved, Letícia Román, who was Letícia Novarese, the daughter of [costume designer Vittorio] Nino Novarese…I was told it was an art film.  ‘Do you want to do an art film?’  I said, ‘Oh, of course, yes, in Italy, wow!’  When I got the script, I thought, ‘This is no art film,’ but nevertheless, I wanted to go to Italy….In general, to me it was a vacation.  I couldn’t believe it.  In the United States…we worked a half day on Saturday, and if you ever finished the day’s work before the anticipated time, you know, if you finished at four, they would find some other scene for you to do on another soundstage….It was unbelievably funny.  There were times that—I remember Bava got pissed off at something one day and he said, ‘I’m going home.’  It was, like, lunchtime, and he went home, and everybody went home until they did what he said.  This was something that I never would have imagined even thinking of experiencing in the United States.”

“Personally, he was peculiar with me, I thought.  He would be alternately very, very friendly, like an uncle, and then every once in a while I could hear—I understood just enough Italian; I learned quite a bit that year, because I stayed on—he would say things that were kind of sarcastic about me, and I thought, ‘What’s the matter here?  What’s going on?’  I only discovered much, much later that he might have had—I think he did have—a crush on Letícia Novarese, and he was under the assumption that I was ‘with’ her….So alternately he was friendly, and then he thought I was the person getting in between, or something like that….I [only] did one with Bava, but that particular one—I’ve seen other stuff of Bava’s subsequently—was an attempt to do a tongue-in-cheek giallo, a takeoff on the mystery story.  It was a mystery story within a mystery story.  You remember, the character of the girl is influenced by mystery novels, so he was doing one and commenting on the nature of it.  It was a matter of a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor about the subject matter.”

And now, on with the show…

Una Hacha para la Luna de Miel (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, aka Il Rosso Segno della Follia [The Red Sign of Madness], Blood Brides; 1970):  Midlevel Bava film about a young man who inherited a bridal-themed fashion house from his mother and feels compelled to kill both brides and models, each time coming closer to remembering the face of Mom’s murderer; it’s slightly misnamed, as his weapon of choice is really more of a meat cleaver.  He has a hellaciously evil wife with whom he’s impotent, and who refuses to give him a divorce, so it probably won’t come as too much of a shock to learn that she and Mr. Cleaver get pretty well acquainted before too long.  Tongue ever in cheek, Bava has the hero (?) explain to the gendarmes who visit him that the screams reported by the neighbors came from the TV, where a horror film is playing—it’s Bava’s own I Tre Volti della Paura, transformed into black-and-white.  Speaking of gendarmes, riddle me this:  why is this Italian-Spanish co-production set nominally in Paris, despite looking nothing like it, while all of the dubbed Latin-looking characters have English-sounding names?  Give up?  Yeah, me too.  Other than that, this movie isn’t as confusing as I remembered it from my youthful first viewing (you’ll never, ever, EVER guess who killed Mom), but it’s fun watching the guy cope with his compulsion and the ghost of his wife, who comes back to prove that, as promised, he’ll never be rid of her.

Roy Colt e Winchester Jack (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack; 1970):  I encouraged my friend Tom, an expert on spaghetti Westerns, to buy this one solely so I could see it.  (This was before I acquired my own copy in Anchor Bay’s outstanding 2-volume Mario Bava Collection.)  But I am sorry to say that it is not only not a good Bava movie, but also not a good spaghetti Western—and Tom is in agreement with me here—with too much of an accent on comedy.  That Brett Halsey from Curse of the Fly (1967) is the biggest name in the cast probably speaks for itself.

Ecologia del Delitto (The Ecology of a Crime, aka Antefatto [Before the Fact], Reazione a Catena [Chain Reaction], Twitch of the Death Nerve, Carnage, Bloodbath, A Bay of Blood; 1971):  Argento had barely made his first giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), before Bava made a film that was already commenting ironically on the subgenre he had pioneered (an interesting point in light of Saxon’s comment above).  This early slasher epic also prefigures Friday the 13th and its “series of creative deaths” ilk, but with an unusual twist:  the murders are committed not by a single serial killer, but by a series of perpetrators, each with his or her own agenda, and often dispatching one another.

Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga (aka Baron Blood, The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood, Chamber of Tortures, The Thirst of Baron Blood; 1972):  This is admittedly not as stylish as, say, Bava’s lyrical Lisa and the Devil or his masterpiece, Black Sunday.  It is, however, one of his most coherent films (not an idle boast if you’ve seen Hatchet for the Honeymoon or the so-called Beyond the Door II) and one of his most straight-ahead shockers.  Unwittingly resurrected by his present-day ancestors, the eponymous nobleman fires up the old torture chamber and the fun begins; I wouldn’t insult your intelligence by assuming you’d be fooled by the “surprise” twist of wheelchair-bound Joseph Cotten, who purchases the old homestead, turning out to be the Baron.

Quante Volte…Quella Notte (Four Times That Night; 1972):  As yet unviewed, this Bava rarity with Brett Halsey (the star of his lamentable Roy Colt and Winchester Jack) is reportedly a sex-comedy variation on Kurosawa’s Rashomon.  Gee, that sounds like a good idea, but hey, Bava is Bava, so I’ve gotta have it.  I’ll probably let you know.

Lisa e il Diavolo (Lisa and the Devil, aka Il Diavolo e i Morti [The Devil and the Dead]; 1974):  One of Bava’s best films, this was made after Baron Blood with the same star, Elke Sommer, and for the same producer, Alfredo (“No Relation”) Leone, who gave him a million bucks to make whatever movie he wanted.  In that sense, this might be regarded as the purest expression of Bava’s peculiar vision, and peculiar it is indeed.  Sommer plays a tourist who gets lost and ends up in a weird household headed by blind Alida Valli (The Third Man [1949], Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case [1947]); Telly Savalas is a hoot as the Satanic butler—a role which I can only think was written for him—who’s obsessed with lifelike mannequins.  Slow and dreamlike at first, with stunning color photography (natch), the film leads up to a number of really nasty killings and an ending with multiple twists.  Not surprisingly, Leone was at a loss as to how to sell this poetic yet twisted masterpiece, until in the wake of The Exorcist (1973) he came up with the brilliant idea of butchering it, which made an already confusing plot almost completely impenetrable; adding new scenes of Sommer as a possessed woman vomiting toads and Robert Alda, who’s not even in the original film, as her would-be exorcist, who’s killed by a bolt of lightning; and retitling it La Casa dell’Esorcismo (The House of Exorcism; 1975).  The result is, to put it mildly, hilariously cheesy.  The original version was long said to be elusive at best, yet I remember watching it on TV (albeit heavily censored) in the late 1970s.  Favorite line:  “I can’t with you here!”

Shock (Transfer Suspense Hypnos) (aka All 33 di Via Orologio Fa Sempre Freddo, Beyond the Door II, Suspense; 1977):  Bava’s tour de force crime thriller Rabid Dogs (aka Kidnapped; 1974) was tragically unreleased in his lifetime due to financial problems, or it might well have changed the course of his career.  As it was, it took him several years to get another project off the ground, and his last feature was co-directed, uncredited, by his son and longtime assistant, Lamberto.  Since Lamberto later broke into a solo directorial career under Argento’s aegis, is it is appropriate that this looks more like an Argento than a Bava film.  This resemblance is only strengthened by the presence of Argento’s longtime lover and sometime collaborator, Daria Nicolodi, in the lead.  She and her son and second husband move back into her old house, which is apparently haunted by the first husband’s ghost.

Go to http://www.videowatchdog.com/bava/index.htm to order Tim Lucas’s magnificent Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark (which will probably reveal some errors on my part), and be sure to check out all the latest from Video Watchdog as well.

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Kelly Robinson is no more: Robert Culp, who played said agent opposite Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott in the groundbreaking interracial series I Spy (1965-68), has died at 79; weirdly, he was born just forty-three days after my mother. I was a little young for that show, and I must confess that I’m unfamiliar with the bulk of his work, so I don’t have the ability to do Culp justice with a full-fledged obit. But I will touch on such points of interest as his multiple mentions in Richard Matheson on Screen, e.g., the fact that Steve McQueen’s star-making Wanted: Dead or Alive, for which Matheson and Charles Beaumont wrote “The Healing Woman,” was actually a spin-off from Culp’s earlier series Trackdown.

More important, Culp had the lead role in one of the least-known pieces of Mathesoniana, “Thy Will Be Done,” the unaired pilot for a proposed series entitled Now Is Tomorrow. Directed by Irvin Kershner of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) fame, it features Culp as one of several futuristic military officers who must bear up under the strain of having their finger on the button (actually a key, but you get the idea) that will trigger a nuclear war. Although he was a little disappointed when I sent him a copy and he saw it for the first time in forty years, Matheson had cited it as one of the very few cases in which what was filmed matched his vision exactly.

Culp also appeared in “The Long Years,” an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater adapted from the eponymous story in The Martian Chronicles. His role of John Hathaway, kept company by robot simulacra of his family during a long exile on Mars, had been played by Barry Morse (of The Fugitive and Space: 1999 fame) in the ill-fated 1980 miniseries based on Bradbury’s book. Interestingly, however, Matheson told me that unnamed parties actually scripted that segment to replace his own unused version of “Usher II,” which was eventually adapted on Bradbury’s series with Patrick Macnee.

In addition to having his own series, Culp guest-starred on a bewildering variety of other shows, and is best remembered by genre fans for his three episodes of The Outer Limits: “Corpus Earthling,” “The Architects of Fear,” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Written by Harlan Ellison (reportedly with Culp in mind), the latter cast him as Trent, who is sent back in time to avert a catastrophe that threatens the human race, and—like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)—made good use of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles as a shooting location. Legal action by Ellison resulted in an acknowledgment to his work in the credits of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), because of its similarity to “Demon” and Ellison’s earlier episode, “Soldier.”

Speaking of genre entries, Culp and Eli Wallach starred in one of the few that really got under my skin, the TV-movie A Cold Night’s Death (aka The Chill Factor, 1973), a virtual two-character story about scientists researching primates at an Arctic station. Watching this now-rare gem late at night, I got the heebie-jeebies as Culp and Wallach tried to figure out what happened to their predecessor—found dead under mysterious circumstances—while coping with the cold, isolation, and increasing paranoia. In another of the curious coincidences that characterize my so-called career, its director, Jerrold Freedman, later became one of my authors at Viking when I publicized his novels (written as J.F. Freedman) Against the Wind, The Obstacle Course, and House of Smoke.

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Okay, now that TCM’s Kurosawa retrospective is over, you’re all allowed—nay, encouraged—to devote your Tuesday evenings to the new Elmore Leonard series Justified on FX. I haven’t had a chance to watch the second episode yet, so all I will say about last week’s premiere is: good cast, good characters, good story, good production. Like you need any more than that, especially with Leonard’s name attached? And it seems I’m in for some remedial reading, for in addition to the story “Fire in the Hole” (found in When the Women Come Out to Dance), on which the eponymous pilot was based, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylen Givens also appears in Pronto and Riding the Rap.

Fixated as I am on the nexus between literature and film, I often encounter an author’s work initially by comparing it with its cinematic adaptations(s), and only if I really like said work, as I do Leonard’s, will I read beyond that. But I have a lot of catching up to do with his, even though Pronto was made into a 1997 cable TV-movie starring Peter Falk, with James LeGros as Givens. Leonard’s relationship with Hollywood goes back to such fine Westerns as The Tall T and the original 3:10 to Yuma (both 1957), based on his short stories, and Hombre (1967), adapted from his novel by the terrific triumvirate of director Martin Ritt and married screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.

I’m sure Dutch, as he is informally known, doesn’t remember this, but I worked with him (and the equally celebrated Ed McBain) in a very modest capacity while serving in the publicity department at Arbor House. Later “folded into” William Morrow as an imprint, Arbor House is probably now nothing more than a memory—if that—in the minds of dinosaurs like myself and Greg Cox, but it obviously had an impressive roster of writers. Back in ’87, we were launching Touch (filmed by writer-director Paul Schrader in 1997), which was such a departure from his other work that some feared it wouldn’t sell, and we were going all out to ensure that it did.  Leonard showed his appreciation by signing copies of his previous bestseller, Bandits, for the troops, and I hope to hell I still have mine.

I think it was at a booksellers’ convention in Washington, D.C., that I got a chance to chat with Leonard about the adaptations of his work, and learned that he disliked a lot of them, even including several he had worked on himself. Ironically, among those was The Moonshine War (1970), which is not only one of the many underdog films I have championed over the years, but also held in such low regard that it appears not to have been released on home video in any format. It’s the story of Son Martin (Alan Alda, whom I believe the self-adapting screenwriter felt was completely miscast) and his incomparable moonshine, which is in such demand that it sets off, well, a war.

Why do I like that film so much (or perhaps I should say “did I,” since I haven’t had access to it for more years than I care to remember, and am not sure how I’d feel about it if I saw it tomorrow)? Well, you can start with the fact that it has an interesting and unusual plot with a nice ending, which I won’t spoil—not that you can watch it anyway—and a fine villain in Richard Widmark. And you can add the totally retroactive appeal that its leading lady, Melodie Johnson, later became one of my more charming mystery writers at Viking under her married name of Melodie Johnson Howe.  But its biggest asset can be summed up in two magic words: Patrick McGoohan.

When I was a kid, watching him in Danger Man (which we saw in the States as Secret Agent, with that unbelievably great Johnny Rivers theme song) and The Prisoner, McGoohan was the guy I wanted to look and sound like. He may even have exceeded Sean Connery as Bond in that respect, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve come to suspect this is at least partly due to a perceived resemblance to my late father; I say “perceived” because, as usual, nobody else seems to see it but me. It should be noted that for the last thirty years of his life, I never saw Dad without a full beard and mustache, which made said resemblance less obvious until McGoohan showed up similarly endowed in Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) and I almost fell off my chair.

McGoohan didn’t make a lot of movies, at least not after his twin television triumphs, but one of them, Ice Station Zebra (see “Bradley’s Hundred #51-60” when the time comes), is a personal favorite. The Moonshine War was his very next film, and you can see him having a whale of a time trading his heroic image for the juicy role of corrupt revenue man Frank Long, who wants the moonshine for himself. McGoohan continued to delight me with selected appearances in the likes of Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979), as Clint Eastwood’s warden nemesis; The Phantom (1996), as Billy Zane’s father (!) and predecessor; and of course “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” the brilliant Simpsons parody of The Prisoner.

Other notable entries from the Leonard filmography include Valdez Is Coming (1971), starring Burt Lancaster; Joe Kidd (1972), which despite teaming Leonard with Eastwood and John Sturges was less than the sum of its parts; Mr. Majestyk (1974), one of the better efforts by both Charles Bronson and Richard Fleischer; John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (1986), starring Roy Scheider; the sublime Get Shorty (1995); Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), based on Rum Punch; and the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh Out of Sight (1998). And, although I may be alone in this, I enjoyed the 2004 remake of The Big Bounce, albeit without having read the novel or seen the 1969 original, which starred the dreaded Ryan O’Neal.

As for Justified, I’ll keep watching, and perhaps reporting back here, but I won’t hold my breath for it to stick around after the previous Leonard series, Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco (spun off from Out of Sight), met the same untimely death as almost every other show I’ve liked.

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The Other Titan, Part IV

Continuing our reflections on the late, great Elleston Trevor.

I didn’t get to see Elleston in person very many times, since I live in Connecticut and he lived in Arizona, which is a story in itself. Robert Aldrich’s adaptation of his novel The Flight of the Phoenix (see “Bradley’s Hundred #31-40”) was shot in the Arizona desert, which Elleston first visited as the film’s technical director. An English expatriate then living on the French Riviera, he fell in love with the area’s stark beauty, subsequently moved there with his first wife, Jonquil, and later met Chaille, whom he married after Jonquil’s death.

Elleston’s relationship with Chaille was the kind I can only aspire to in my own marriage (happy though that is). Here was a guy who routinely wrote about every kind of international adventure and cold-blooded espionage deviltry, yet when it came to her, he was like a star-struck schoolboy. Whenever I saw them, his first thought was always for her comfort, and his devotion to her was truly inspiring. He never lost that quality, remaining a hopeless—and I mean that as a compliment—romantic until the end.

At any rate, that magic day came when we finally met face to face in New York on June 3, 1991, when the Trevors were, I believe, attending the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association. They took me and my wife to dinner at the Algonquin Hotel, the home of Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table, and although most of the evening is a blur by now, I do have one very specific memory that tickles me to this day. I was utterly charmed when, after the management seated us at THE Round Table in honor of the celebrated author, Elleston asked if we could sit someplace more intimate instead! I also see from my correspondence file that it was there he gave me an inscribed copy of the manuscript for the soon-to-be-published Quiller Solitaire, a typically generous gesture he continued for the rest of his life.

By year’s end, perhaps oddly impressed with my spectacular self-immolation chez Morrow, Elleston had formalized my role of “shadow publicist” by hiring me to moonlight on Quiller’s behalf. I was to promote the fifteen new and classic titles forthcoming from Morrow, Avon, and HarperCollins (which was reissuing the older books in paperback), and to that end, I wrote the material now adorning the Quiller page accessible above. Needless to say, between nine and five I was still giving my all for good ol’ Viking—which, like the other publishers I worked for, allowed me to freelance on my own time—so it was only evenings and weekends that I had to devote to Quiller.

With the aid and patience of my phenomenal wife, who at that point had time available during the day (and, oh yeah, a two-year-old daughter) while working in retail, I turned our condo into one giant mailroom, from which we sent books and/or press materials to some 300 people. Coordinating with the publicity department at each publisher, I solicited blurbs, reviews, and interviews, urging the booksellers and critics I knew (since one of my specialties was mysteries and thrillers) to celebrate 1992 as the “Year of Quiller.” I’d be lying if I said I was especially successful, but it wasn’t for any lack of effort or enthusiasm on my part, and since I was doubling as Stephen King’s Viking publicist, I was able to elicit from him the fact that he was a Trevor fan as well.

One thing I did succeed in doing was getting an item placed in Paul Nathan’s “Rights” column in the industry bible, Publishers Weekly. I wrote to Nathan—on my thirtieth birthday, yet—to point out that amid this publishing flurry, Elleston had signed an option with Gary Lucchesi Productions for a series of Quiller films. The former president of production for Paramount Pictures, Lucchesi was then hot off the success of Jennifer Eight, but the first film, which was to have been an adaptation of the second novel (and one of the best, in my opinion), The Ninth Directive, sadly never materialized. Yet there, in black and white in the July 12, 1993 issue, Nathan’s column leads off with my item.

Next: Shadopubed.

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Reminder

I’m recording Kurosawa on TCM.  Are you?  Don’t make me come down there!

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