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Archive for April, 2010

Put on a Happy Phase

Time for a history lesson, Tom Flynn-style…or, I should say, this will be ancient history for old-timers like myself, but might be news for some of you young’uns, so I hope you enjoy the enlightenment or the memories, as the case may be. And since I don’t have Tom’s facility for explicating record albums, it’s about comic books (Marvel, natch), so those of you interested only in the cinematic side of things should feel free to go out for a smoke until the next post. Disclaimer #1: I stopped buying new comics when the shockingly pervasive marketing gimmick that was Secret Wars II began to metastasize in 1985, so any observations or generalizations I make apply only to prior years.

The oldest Marvel Comics I own—meaning those that were purchased on their original publication, presumably by an older brother—date back mostly to the early ’70s. But between reprints and back issues picked up at various comic shops over the years, I now have the majority of superhero strips going back to the dawn of the Marvel Age in 1961 with Fantastic Four #1, so my frame of reference basically comprises their first quarter-century. There is no doubt in my mind that the most significant development during that time was the period dubbed Phase II by Marvel frontman and über-creator Stan Lee in one of his “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials.

I’m no expert on the business end of Marvel’s history, but if I recall Les Daniels’s excellent book correctly, they were constrained by an arrangement with their distributor (ironically, chief rival DC Comics) to publish a limited amount of titles. This led to a bizarre situation in which many of what became their most popular characters were relegated to half a book apiece, and furthermore were shoehorned into what had been SF anthology books. Captain America (a Golden Age character revived in an early issue of The Avengers) and Iron Man shared space in Tales of Suspense; the Hulk (whose original book tanked after six issues) and the Sub-Mariner (replacing a long-running strip featuring Ant-Man, later Giant-Man) divvied up Tales to Astonish; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (replacing the Human Torch’s solo strip) and Dr. Strange aptly appeared in Strange Tales.

A banner year for genre films, 1968 saw the release of such game-changers as Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (there, I mentioned movies anyway; that’s like asking me not to breathe), but it was also the year in which Marvel’s success put them in a position of strength, from which they could renegotiate their distribution deal. With that, the floodgates opened and each character was granted his own title, although for some strange reason it was considered necessary or desirable for half of them to continue the numeration, if not the name, of the prior book. Disclaimer #2: the dates I’m about to start throwing around, courtesy of my handy Overstreet guide, are cover dates, which as all true believers know bear no resemblance to when the books actually appeared; as I recall, back in my day they were about three months ahead of real time.

March 1968 saw the final issues of Suspense and Astonish, which mysteriously morphed into Captain America #100 and The Incredible Hulk #102 in April, while that same month saw one of the weirder manifestations of Phase II. Apparently caught standing when the music stopped, the orphaned Iron Man and Sub-Mariner each occupied half of the first and only issue of the logically titled Iron Man & Sub-Mariner before their solo titles debuted the following month. May also saw Strange Tales end, while Dr. Strange “began” in June—as did Fury’s own book—with #169; as if that weren’t enough, Captain Marvel (introduced in Marvel Super-Heroes #12) and Fantastic Four guest-star the Silver Surfer also got their own books in May and August, respectively.

Not surprisingly, Marvel was unable to sustain such a dramatic expansion for long, especially since the industry then went into an ill-timed slump, at least partly in connection with rising cover prices. It should also be noted that spread-too-thin Stan the Man was then serving as both editor-in-chief and the writer of most of Marvel’s major books, until he was succeeded in many of those capacities by Roy Thomas and others. While I wouldn’t go as far as Tom does in arguing that Stan’s creations (albeit aided by artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) rival Shakespeare’s oeuvre, I might be so bold as to compare his Marvel Universe with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and coming from me, that’s saying something.

Among the first casualties was Dr. Strange, which folded with #183 in November 1969, and Doc spent a distressingly long time wandering in the wilderness before finally getting another eponymous book in 1974. The Surfer, too, was a little far outside the mainstream to last more than 18 issues (I mean, what was he going to do, fight the Ringmaster and His Circus of Crime?), while writer-artist Jim Steranko’s inability to be brilliant on a strict schedule led Fury’s book to devolve first to lesser creators and then to reprints before also ending with #18. Marvel books usually seemed either to die off very quickly or to last for hundreds of issues, but both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel were among their more notable middle runs, ending in 1974 and ’79 after 72 and 62 issues, respectively (the latter having soared to unprecedented heights under writer-artist Jim Starlin).

I’m not sure when Phase II officially ended, if ever, but to me, the point is not that only three of those eight new (or “new”) books—Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man—outlived the ’70s, but the maturity in writing that the expansion helped to engender. With their breakneck pace and inevitable cliffhangers, the half-book stories suffered from the same kinds of dramatic limitations as any other serial, and although they had their undeniable charms, they then gave way to more substantive scripting that was only possible in full issues. There followed a period of experimentation, as Marvel tried out a variety of new books and strips with varying degrees of success, that made the mid-’70s easily my favorite period in the company’s history.

Perversely, just as The Silver Surfer and Nick Fury were in their death throes, Marvel revived the split-book format in August 1970 with Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures, which quickly transformed into single-story try-out books, and were cancelled in 1976 after fewer than 40 issues. Astonishing began by double-featuring X-Men guest-star Ka-Zar and—in an unusual move—Fantastic Four archenemy Dr. Doom (prefiguring a BOF underdog champion, Super-Villain Team-Up), and ended by introducing the ill-fated Deathlok the Demolisher. Amazing initially starred FF pals the Inhumans (who, like Ka-Zar, graduated to their own short-lived book) and villain-turned-hero the Black Widow, later showcasing ex-X-Man the Beast’s solo strip and Killraven.

Another try-out book, Marvel Spotlight, debuted in November 1971 and had a comparable run until 1977, siring an impressive number of titles: Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Moon Knight, and Spider-Woman. Less successful were Marvel Feature (December 1971) and Marvel Presents (October 1975), each of which lasted only a dozen issues; Feature introduced the Defenders and briefly revived the Ant-Man strip, while Presents hosted the Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps the hardiest of the try-out books, Marvel Premiere (61 issues, starting in April 1972) introduced the Warlock strip—later Starlin’s other cosmic triumph in a revived Strange Tales and his own on-again, off-again book—as well as temporarily housing Dr. Strange and launching Iron Fist.

One final innovation during this period began with Marvel Team-Up (March 1972), which paired Spider-Man with other superheroes in most of its 150 issues, and was later followed by Marvel Two-in-One (January 1974). Teaming other heroes with the Thing, the latter strip actually began in Marvel Feature #11, and was supplanted by The Thing (July 1983) after a respectable 100 issues. These team-up books were inevitably a mixed bag, but at their best they offered entertaining chemistry and interesting multi-part sagas by the likes of Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, and Chris Claremont, often enabling Marvel to tie up the loose ends of cancelled strips, for better or worse.

So that’s an overview of Marvel As I Knew It, away from the stomping grounds of 800-pound gorillas such as Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, The Avengers (my personal long-term fave), Daredevil, X-Men and, yes, Cap, Greenskin, and Shellhead. But we can talk about those another time. Until then, Make Mine Marvel. Excelsior!

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On the Fritz

Okay, I will leave the explication to the professionals, but I do feel obliged as a kind of public-service announcement (and no, I don’t get kickbacks!) to point out that the restoration du jour of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis is coming to Manhattan’s Film Forum May 7-20. I say “du jour” because this is now the third restoration since my college days, and I don’t just mean a gussied-up negative; we’re talking boatloads of “new” footage found in Argentina (hmm…), the whole nine yards. It is, naturlich, a mixed blessing for those of us who ponied up to buy the previous restoration on DVD, but when the opportunity presents itself to own a more definitive version of a—some might say the—masterpiece of silent film, one does try to accentuate the positive.

Of course, some of us WOULD have bought the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration on a legitimate DVD, were such a thing ever made available, which I don’t believe it has. For those of you unfamiliar with that (hardly surprising, in light of its veritable suppression), pop-music magnate Moroder added not only rediscovered material but also tinting—common in silent films—and a contemporary score featuring artists such as Adam Ant, Pat Benatar, Queen’s Freddy Mercury, Billy Squier, and Bonnie Tyler. Inevitably, many purists howled, but we proponents loved the score, commending Moroder for trying to win the film a new audience as well as restoring it, and although we would never say his version should supplant any others, we feel it should be available for those who want it.

The soapbox is now closed. See details from Film Forum below. Bradley out.

http://www.filmforum.org/films/metropolis.html

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Bradley’s Hundred #61-70

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

Laura: Closer to the spirit than the letter of, and decidedly superior to, Vera Caspary’s novel, Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece is highlighted by David Raksin’s unforgettable title song, delectable dialogue, and a superlative cast: Gene Tierney, luminous in flashbacks as one of the world’s loveliest murder victims; Dana Andrews as the cop who, understandably, falls in love with the girl’s portrait; Clifton Webb in the role of his career as her acerbic mentor, Waldo Lydecker; Vincent Price in a pre-horror icon performance as her spineless boyfriend; and Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, Judith Anderson, in one of her patented evil-woman turns.

Local Hero: A unique and delightful comedy from writer-director Bill Forsythe. Peter Riegert is a smooth-talking oil-company executive sent from Houston by boss Burt Lancaster to acquire some property for a refinery in a Scottish coastal village. His interactions with the eccentric locals, who believe the deal is going to make them all rich, are just priceless. Trust me on this one; lots of fun.

The Longest Day: Perhaps the greatest World War II film ever made, this gargantuan, star-packed epic based on Cornelius Ryan’s bestseller details the planning and execution of D-Day. The amazing international cast includes Henry Fonda, Christian Marquand, Robert Mitchum, Wolfgang Preiss, Robert Ryan, and John Wayne. It’s so realistic that officers who had been on the beach at Normandy were shown the film and swore it utilized actual combat footage, but it didn’t. Still stirring and impressive after repeated viewings; forget the overrated Saving Private Ryan. For you trivia buffs, Richard Burton has a scene in a pub with Donald Houston, whom he would kill in the legendary cable-car fight in Where Eagles Dare seven years later, while Sean Connery went from a few lines in this to international stardom in Dr. No. “The bridge—in forty-five minutes.” MWAH!

The Magnificent Seven: Surprisingly, this Western (in every sense) remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai works. In the hands of director John Sturges, with Elmer Bernstein’s classic theme song spurring them on (as it were), the seven—Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, and Brad Dexter—defend penniless Mexican peasants from brutal banditos Eli Wallach and friends (in most cases at the cost of their own lives).

The Maltese Falcon (1941): The film that justifiably solidified Humphrey Bogart’s stardom. John Huston’s directorial debut, which he adapted almost verbatim from Dashiell Hammett’s first and best novel (of which this is the third version, believe it or not), it features a stellar cast (Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan) enacting some of the most delicious scenes ever put on film. One pet peeve: Bogart describes Cook’s character as being “about twenty,” when at thirty-eight he was nearly twice that!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: I consider the Pythons’ first full-length narrative their greatest achievement, co-directed by the two Terrys, Gilliam and Jones. The members of the troupe get to display their chameleonic natures by playing multiple parts, most notably the Knights of the Round Table who follow King Arthur (Graham Chapman) in his quest for the Holy Grail: Lancelot (John Cleese), Galahad (Michael Palin), Robin (Eric Idle), and Bedevere (Jones), with Gilliam as Arthur’s “trusty servant, Patsy.” I can quote distressingly large bits of this one from memory, or close enough. “Bring out your dead!”

Murder on the Orient Express (1974): Subsequently remade for TV (no, I didn’t subject myself to the ordeal), this paved the way for star-studded Agatha Christie adaptations for years to come, but none enjoyed the advantage of Oscar-nominated Albert Finney, who in my book (as it were) could have stepped off the page as her fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The ever-versatile Sidney Lumet displayed a rare period flavor, in tandem with Finney’s fellow nominees: screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), composer Richard Rodney Bennett, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, and costume designer Tony Walton. Sadly, and perhaps inexplicably, only Ingrid Bergman took home a statue for the film despite its stellar cast (Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Casell, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York). Suspects abound when hated American bad guy Richard Widmark is stabbed to death in the Calais Coach.

Mysterious Island (1961): You can keep your Jasons and your Sinbads; this is my favorite Ray Harryhausen film. It has a much more solid script than most, rather than being just a flimsy excuse for the awesome stop-motion animation effects, and so what if the giant crab, bees, Phororhacos (try spelling that one three times fast [and you thought it was just a chicken]), and nautiloid cephalopod weren’t in the book? It’s otherwise surprisingly faithful. Herbert Lom is a satisfactory Captain Nemo; Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of four he composed back-to-back for Harryhausen.

A Night at the Opera: To me, the Marx Brothers’ two best films were the first ones they made at each of their major studios, i.e., The Cocoanuts for Paramount and this for MGM. Alan Jones is a tolerable Zeppo-substitute (he even looks like him), and his duet with Kitty Carlisle is much more bearable than the musical interludes (read “intrusions”) in other Marx films. Of course, the fact that the story is set in a musical milieu (the opera is Verdi’s Il Trovatore) also makes the tunes more organic than elsewhere. Sig Ruman makes an excellent foil for the brothers; in all, this is a delight.

The Night Stalker (1972): On its first telecast, this was the most-watched TV-movie in history, and rightly so. Richard Matheson adapted The Kolchak Tapes, a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice (who, in an interesting twist, subsequently novelized Matheson’s sequel, The Night Strangler, as a companion volume when his book was finally published in the wake of the film’s success). His teleplay superbly mixes wit and horror, while still taking its subject matter of a vampire on the loose in modern-day Vegas with, dare I say it, deadly seriousness. But its greatest achievement is his interpretation (which differs substantially from Rice’s) of wisecracking reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin—who was born for the part—in the aforementioned sequel and the eponymous series (aka Kolchak: The Night Stalker) that followed. Dan Curtis produced; John Llewellyn Moxey (Horror Hotel) directed; the stellar supporting cast includes Simon Oakland (who co-starred in the series) as Kolchak’s perennially harried editor, Tony Vincenzo; Carol Lynley as his girlfriend; Claude Akins, Kent Smith, Ralph Meeker, and Larry Linville as various law-enforcement types; and Barry Atwater as the feral vampire, Janos Skorzeny.

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The Day of the Hunter

Mother’s Day came early this year, at least in the BOF branch of the Bradley clan, when I took Wednesday off to treat Mom to a showing of Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975), brought briefly back to Manhattan’s Film Forum by popular demand after its inclusion in their centennial retrospective (see “Kurosawa’s Hundred (Years) et al.”). I told my colleagues, “I’m taking her to a long, slow, sad, Russo-Japanese film about two guys in Siberia…and she’s gonna love it!” I wasn’t kidding: it had been twenty-five years, minimum, since I’d seen the film in college, and my only crystal-clear recollection was that it had her name written all over it.

Something of an anomaly in Kurosawa’s career, it came during a difficult time following Red Beard (1965), his final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune, which marked the end of his classic period. Sometimes due to poor box-office and/or elusive funding, a five-year gap elapsed before each of his next five films:  Dodes’ka-Den (1970), Dersu, Kagemusha (1980)—arguably his post-Mifune masterpiece, financed in part by well-heeled admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas—Ran (1985), and Dreams (1990). An abortive attempt to film his script Runaway Train (shot in 1985 by Andrei Konchalovsky), the fiasco of his involvement with Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and the commercial failure of Dodes’ka-Den had led Kurosawa to attempt suicide, feeling that his creative powers had ebbed, but he survived and accepted an offer from Soviet studio Mosfilm to make this adaptation of Captain Vladimir Arsenyev’s eponymous memoir.

An Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Dersu can be a bit disorienting for those more accustomed to the likes of Seven Samurai (1954), right from the first three words to appear onscreen: “Roger Corman Presents.” While laughing out loud, I remembered that exploitation-movie king Corman burnished his image by acquiring U.S. distribution rights for his New World Pictures to this, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978), and Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975) and The Green Room (1978), neatly encompassing all three of my favorite foreign-language art-house directors. It’s also a little jarring to see a Kurosawa film in color (only his second, after Dodes’ka-Den), and featuring a minimal non-Japanese cast speaking Russian, complete with those big-ass ’70s subtitles, but two minutes in, Mom leaned over and whispered, “I like it already!”

The story opens in 1910 as military surveyor Arsenyev (Yuri Solomin) seeks the unmarked grave of his friend, Goldi tribal hunter Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), in an area aptly being uprooted for new development. It then flashes back to 1902 as Dersu first meets Arsenyev, whom he charmingly refers to only as “Captain,” and agrees to be his guide through the remote Sikhote-Alin region of Siberia. Blowing away Arsenyev’s amused (and sometimes bemused) soldiers with his woodcraft, Dersu is like a superannuated Siberian Tarzan, and when the two men become separated from the rest of their party, the hunter saves Arsenyev from freezing to death on the desolate tundra by erecting a grass hut around his tripod as night falls and a blizzard looms.

The first half includes a poignant encounter with an elderly Chinese hermit (Mom’s major Kleenex action kicked in here), and ends with Dersu being invited to the departing Arsenyev’s home in Khabarovsk, but declining in favor of profitable sable-trapping. We then flash forward to their reunion in 1907 during Arsenyev’s next topographic expedition, and endure another nail-biter as Dersu is swept toward roiling rapids on a raft, narrowly rescued with a tree chopped down by the Russians. An incident with a Siberian tiger convinces Dersu that he has angered the spirit of the forest (known, in a moment of hilarity for A.A. Milne fans, as Kanga), which along with his failing eyesight persuades him to accept Arseneyev’s hospitality, but he is unsurprisingly miserable in the city, and his decision to return to the forest leads indirectly to his death.

Mom was captivated by Dersu’s humor, wisdom, simple humanity, and ultimate plight; by the respect and unselfish friendship between the two men; and by Kurosawa’s spectacular widesecreen vistas of the rugged Siberian countryside in various seasons. In particular, the wintertime shots of Arsenyev and Dersu, dwarfed at sunset by the featureless wasteland that threatens their lives, command deep respect for filmmakers who spent two years on location in Siberia without CGI at their disposal. After the obligatory sushi dinner (one could argue that Russian food would have been more appropriate, but the only place I know is the astronomical Russian Tea Room, and in any event the siren song of what Dad used to call “dead fish” is too strong in the blood), we returned home, and she uttered the magic words: “That was a perfect day.”

I love you, Mom.

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Byron Haskin

On the occasion of his 111th birthday, we revisit this SF-oriented profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

While Byron Haskin worked in many genres during his four decades as a director, dating back to the silent era, he is best known for his work with producer George Pal on The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), and The Power (1968).  He also contributed to the seminal SF series The Outer Limits in various capacities, some uncredited.

From 1922 to 1937, Haskin was primarily a cinematographer, with occasional directorial credits, and in the second phase of his career, through 1944, he worked mainly in special effects.  He was nominated for four consecutive Oscars in that category, after winning the 1939 technical achievement award for the development and application of the triple head background projector.

So, Haskin was ideal for the effects-heavy War of the Worlds, with Barré Lyndon’s script updating H.G. Wells’s novel to the present, and Gene Barry as the scientist coping with invading Martians.  Ironically, Gordon Jennings won an Oscar for his effects; War was also nominated for its film editing and sound recording, as well as earning the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Based on Carl Stephenson’s classic tale “Leiningen vs. the Ants,” The Naked Jungle was not SF but still required copious effects, as Leiningen (Charlton Heston) takes on the marabunta (army ants) threatening to overwhelm his Brazilian plantation.  Screenwriters Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougall added a love interest, in the form of Eleanor Parker as his mail-order bride.

Conquest of Space was the last Haskin/Pal collaboration for more than a decade, and its problems were legendary.  The four credited screenwriters—with Lyndon, Yordan, and George Worthing Yates providing the adaptation, and James O’Hanlon the script—were unable to craft a satisfactory cinematic narrative out of the nonfiction book by Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley.

“There was a personal story introduced into this thing, which was utterly incredible,” as Haskin told Joe Adamson in his interview for a Directors Guild of America Oral History.  “The personal story and the technical story—oil and water.  We had Werner Von Braun on the set all the time…as a technical advisor.  He kept it straight, but I don’t know—it’s a mish-mash thing.”

Equally unsatisfying was From the Earth to the Moon (1958), based on the Jules Verne novel and its sequel, Round the Moon.  Although keeping the period setting that The War of the Worlds lacked, the script by Robert Blees and James Leicester was slow and implausible, while the Victorian spacecraft—piloted by Joseph Cotten and George Sanders—was utterly outlandish.

More highly respected today, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) was a space-age version of the Daniel Defoe classic, scripted by John C. Higgins (who reportedly jettisoned most of Ib Melchior’s monster-filled treatment).  The barren landscape of Death Valley stood in for Mars, with its skies turned red by optical effects, and Paul Mantee starred as the marooned astronaut.

Haskin then segued into television, and called The Outer Limits the climax of his small-screen career.  “I was aide to Joe Stefano, the producer, and also directed half a dozen of them…. I was in charge of designing the monsters.  A great deal of the inner planning of the show was in my hands.  I supervised the special effects, which were very important,” as he told Joe Adamson.

Although he worked closely with the effects team at Project Unlimited (e.g., Wah Chang, Gene Warren, Tim Baar, Jim Danforth), Haskin took no credit for that aspect of his involvement with the show.  His best-known episode as a director was Harlan Ellison’s “Demon With a Glass Hand,” with Robert Culp (see “Culp Ability”) as a time-traveling robot trying to save humankind from alien invaders.

A victim of friction between Pal and MGM, The Power was Haskin’s final feature before he retired, with George Hamilton as a scientist trying to identify the telekinetic superman who is killing off his colleagues one by one.  Adapted from Frank M. Robinson’s novel by John Gay, it was a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has steadily grown in stature since then.

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Word is out that work on the as-yet-untitled twenty-third film in the official James Bond series has been stopped indefinitely, due to the ongoing financial woes of distributor MGM. You might reasonably expect that the reaction of a guy who saw his first theatrical Bond in 1969 at the tender age of 6 (Dad was awesome!), and hasn’t missed one since, would be unadulterated rage and/or sorrow. But my feelings in this matter are more nuanced.

Sure, it’s sad that MGM’s presumed mismanagement—and I mean “presumed” very literally, since I haven’t followed their travails at all—might kill off Bond, or at least Bond as we know him, in a way that his arch-enemy, SPECTRE’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld (on whom I’d love to do a page-to-screen analysis someday), never could. But I’d started feeling around the mid-Pierce Brosnan era that maybe, just maybe, it was time for him to hang up his shoulder holster, or at least take a hiatus similar to that between Timothy Dalton’s last Bond film, License to Kill (1989), and Brosnan’s first, GoldenEye (1995).

Mind you, that’s no reflection on Brosnan, who I thought was one of the best Bonds, probably second only to Sean Connery, and GoldenEye was very promising, with one of the best Bond theme songs in years. It’s just that the movies themselves started to lose their magic, to the point where I objected to them as much as or more than Roger Moore’s aging and overly light-hearted portrayal, and although Dalton was a welcome corrective in that regard, he just looked like he was in a bad mood all the time. In short, the problems with the films threatened to offset Brosnan’s contribution, although I would have been glad to see him do at least one more, as I believe he wanted to.

I had mixed feelings about the third version of Casino Royale (following the abysmal 1954 Climax! television adaptation and the 1967 spoof that Dad and I surprisingly loved) in 2006. I liked the movie very much, thought it wise for them to bring back GoldenEye director Martin Campbell—who was at one point slated to launch the Quiller franchise—and much admired Daniel Craig in the role, despite wishing that Brosnan had been allowed to return. “So what’s the problem?,” I hear you ask. It’s that the movie was a so-called reboot, which seems to be Hollywood’s answer to everything these days.

The film industry apparently believes that simply hitting the “restart” button abdicates them from the need to make a better mousetrap. And, as with unnecessary remakes, the window between versions gets narrower and narrower, as demonstrated by the perceived need to reboot the Batman franchise just sixteen years after the Tim Burton classic. I’m not saying the Joel Schumacher movies didn’t suck, or that Batman Begins (2005) wasn’t great, but for heaven’s sake, just make a new one that doesn’t suck and get on with it! I’m sick to death of “reimaginings” and retcons.

Quantum of Solace (2008) was, if not the last straw, then at least the film that made me think more seriously than ever that it was time to move on. I won’t even say it was a bad movie on any sort of empirical level, just that it was…not…Bond. It seemed like a lot of running around, another symptom of contemporary cinema, and half the time I had no idea what was going on. It’s okay for a Bond film to have a complex plot, but not to the extent that you just give up and go, “Whatever.” I’m told it resembles the Bourne films, which I’ve never seen, but the point is, if it’s not going to be like a Bond movie, then why call it Bond?

Okay, we can debate the need/desirability/possibility of putting a new spin on an old series or character all day, and everybody’s got their own opinion, and maybe MGM will pull out of its tailspin and this will all be academic anyway. I’m just saying, if this is the end of the line, at least for the foreseeable future, is that really the end of the world?

Bradley out.

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The Other Titan, Part VI

Continuing our reflections on the late, great Elleston Trevor.

After our initial meeting in New York, the few times I was blessed to see Elleston and his charming wife, Chaille, in person were at the annual conventions for mystery writers, readers, and publishers that are held in different cities each year. I was able to represent Viking and my many genre authors at Bouchercon (named for author and critic Anthony Boucher, who as a founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction also published many of Richard Matheson’s short stories, including his first) in Omaha in 1993 and Seattle in 1994. And when the 1995 Left Coast Crime Conference miraculously took place in Scottsdale, Arizona, I was able to visit their home in nearby Cave Creek, where Chaille painted and raised her celebrated Brusally Arabian horses.

It bespeaks the warm relationship I had with my authors—one of the reasons I most regretted leaving Viking—that two of them, Justin Scott and Stephen White, got me a British first edition of my favorite Quiller novel, The Tango Briefing, in the dealer’s room in Omaha. Among my most treasured possessions, it had been inscribed to its original recipient twenty years earlier (“Christmas ’73: May you enjoy this story as much as we enjoyed giving it to you. Love, Anthony & Shirley”), but they bought it, had Elleston re-inscribe it (“For my generous friend,” so forth), and presented it to me. I will never forget their kindness, and although I own multiple editions of the novel, I have just been reading that one to reconnect with his great spirit before writing the last and most difficult in this series of posts.

I can’t recall when I first found out about the cancer that killed Elleston on July 21, 1995, but as Chaille’s “impressionistic literary biography” reminds me, they put out a cover story—how apt for Quiller’s creator!—that his weakened appearance in Seattle was due to a fall from a horse. I have a fragmentary, and possibly false, memory of his confiding in me while sitting in his car at the horse ranch a few months before his death, but in any event I believe that when I got the news from Chaille’s mother, Sally, it was not unexpected, albeit no less a blow. I wish I remembered more of our last meeting; vestiges include being awed by the 360-degree Arizona desert sunset, accustomed as I was to concrete canyons and green mountains, and my introduction to Quiller’s favorite drink, Fernet Branca, which to a guy who favors white Zinfandel tasted like road tar…but road tar being savored with Elleston Trevor!

It doesn’t help that our correspondence became much sparser once we were no longer working together on my ill-fated “shadow publicist” campaign for Quiller or in an editorial capacity on Flycatcher. As gracious and friendly as Elleston invariably was, I always hated to disturb him unnecessarily, in case he was working, and I’m sure that only increased when he was fighting both for his life and to finish his last book, Quiller Balalaika. Yet we did have one last professional association when I conducted a lengthy telephone interview with him.

What little I have in my file indicates that the interview was conducted on behalf of my former St. Martin’s Press author and sometime mentor, John McCarty, but whether for its eventual home, Mystery Scene (where it appeared in issue #49, Sept.-Oct. 1995), or for another venue that fell through, I don’t know. Clearly, there was some sort of delay, because I had an original deadline of April 22, 1994, to turn in the piece, yet Elleston did not live to see it published with my introductory tribute as “The Trevor Memorandum: A Final Interview with Elleston Trevor.” It goes without saying that he was generous, cooperative, and patient throughout the process of my preparing the questions and conducting and transcribing the interview, which Chaille later called “the best of what I remember hearing or reading.”

The last written communications I have from Elleston are some reviews of Quiller Salamander that he sent me in November 1994, and a quick fax from the same period asking me if the title Quiller Balalaika “grabbed me.” (Thumbs up, natch.) But my file also contains letters and notes I have continued to receive from Chaille and Sally in the years since his death, accompanied by photos from my visit; updates on his delightful dog, Katrina, and the abortive Quiller film series; copies of his earlier books; and various pieces Chaille has written about Elleston, herself, and their life together. Five words stand out above all others: “You were like a son,” from Chaille’s letter of August 14, 1995, in which she added, “Your phone calls, notes and faxes did much to enrich his life.” Mind you, this was a man with a perfectly good actual son, Jean-Pierre, born in 1948 to his first wife, Jonquil, who died in 1986, but come to think of it, Elleston was very close in age to my own father.

I was able to meet J.P. (who has a wonderful essay about his father on the Quiller site) on September 27, 1995, at a memorial tribute to Elleston at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which I attended with my parents. I was tremendously honored when Chaille asked me to speak, and while many of my remarks merely echo my earlier posts, these will serve as a fitting conclusion: “Seeing him in action…at conventions and booksignings, one of the things that most struck me was the way he made every fan, no matter how tediously persistent—and I suppose I’ll have to put myself in that category—feel like the most important person in the world. Well, I never did get to be his official publicist, though I was able to act on occasion as what Quiller would call his shadow publicist, but I did get to be his friend, which is more than I ever dared to dream.”

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Continuing our idiosyncratic survey of some noteworthy Hammer films and related items.

The Snorkel (1958): Right around the time they began continuing the adventures of everybody’s favorite bloodthirsty Baron in Terence Fisher’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), Hammer made this neat suspense film. Except for director Guy Green, the crew is pretty much the usual suspects right down the line. Ice-cold killer Peter Van Eyck (The Wages of Fear, The Longest Day, The Brain) knocks off his spouse in the opening scene, and then must cope with the suspicions of his step-daughter. The attractive and charming Betta St. John (Horror Hotel) co-stars. The title is the key to not one but two aspects of the murderer’s unusually clever m.o., and the ending is superb.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): Fisher et al. tackle Sherlock Holmes, and the results are quite impressive. Peter Cushing is second only to Basil Rathbone as an outstanding screen Holmes (a role he later played in a BBC-TV series I’ve never seen), Andre Morell is a reasonably intelligent Watson for a change, and Christopher Lee is definitely an also-ran but welcome as always as the imperiled Baskerville heir. “Elementary, my dear Watson; there are no tarantulas in South Africa.”

The Mummy (1959): Fisher’s remake conflates several films in the Universal quasi-series (i.e., it actually involved two different mummies). Lee has little to do except get his tongue cut out before he’s bandaged up, and then stomp around strangling people, but Cushing is great as the archaeologist, particularly in the brilliantly-written scene where he deliberately baits Ananka-worshipper Mehmet Bey (George Pastel) to elicit some information. He’s so acerbic it’s hilarious.

Brides of Dracula (1960): Fisher’s non-Dracula Dracula movie. Cushing returns as Van Helsing, and the annoying David Peel plays Baron Meinster, an alleged “disciple” whose connection to ol’ Vlad is never elaborated, despite the title, although there are a lot of fetching young women flitting about, with and without fangs as the story progresses. It’s not bad, considering Lee didn’t come back to the role of the thirsty Count for six more years, but his absence is keenly felt. Nice climax.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (aka Never Take Candy from a Stranger; 1960): Offbeat effort about child molestation, photographed by future Hammer director Freddie Francis. I’ve only seen this once, and don’t remember it well, except that its treatment of the subject is mature and tasteful.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (aka House of Fright; 1960): Fisher’s version of the R.L. Stevenson classic has Lee…in a supporting role. He had to wait until the lamentable Amicus film I, Monster to get a shot at the dual role himself, and it’s a shame, because this cries out for a real star like Lee instead of Paul Massie (who he?), while that film gave it to him but just wasn’t very good. Lee also had a supporting role in Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear; 1961), Hammer’s first psycho-thriller.

Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Hammer had less luck with werewolves than with Dracula and Baron Frankenstein, or even mummies; in fact, Fisher’s film, adapted from Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris by screenwriter John Elder (aka producer Anthony Hinds), is their only stab at lycanthropic legends. It’s a bit slow, but features the handsome young Oliver Reed in the title role.

The Shadow of the Cat (1961): Both star Barbara Shelley and writer George Baxt told me director John Gilling was a real pill to work with on this fun film about a group of people who kill an old lady for her inheritance, and then go nuts trying to kill off the black cat who knows they are guilty.

Captain Clegg (aka Night Creatures, Dr. Syn; 1962): Cushing stars as a clergyman who doubles as the masked leader of a band of British smugglers in this version of the same spooky story filmed by Disney with the late, great Patrick McGoohan in the title role of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The Phantom of the Opera (1962): As with Dracula, some say this version is the most faithful to Gaston Leroux’s lousy novel, but don’t you believe it. In fact, “Elder’s” script not only transposes the story to London, but also conflates and subverts its traditional set pieces of the unmasking and the falling chandelier in an offbeat ending. With Herbert Lom as the composer betrayed á là Claude Rains in the 1943 version, Heather Sears as the object of the exercise, the strangely underutilized Edward De Souza as the stalwart hero, Patrick (Dr. Who) Troughton as an ill-fated ratcatcher, and Michael Gough as the true villain, who oddly enough goes completely unpunished, except for having to look at the Phantom sans mask. Sadly, the same can’t be said for Fisher, who found himself wandering in the wilderness for two years after the film (a comparatively lavish one by Hammer’s frugal standards, and intended as a vehicle for Cary Grant, believe it or not) flopped.

The Damned (aka These Are the Damned; 1963): While churning out one-word-title post-Psycho thrillers like Michael Carreras’s Maniac (1963) and Francis’s Nightmare (1964), both written by Hammer mainstay Jimmy Sangster, the studio released this little-seen SF effort, which I believe had been filmed a couple of years earlier. Directed by blacklisted American expatriate Joseph Losey—previously bumped from X the Unknown—it stars Alexander Knox (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a scientist who creates a group of irradiated children intended to survive a possible nuclear war. Macdonald Carey (Shadow of a Doubt), Shirley Anne Field, Reed, and Viveca Lindfors also star.

Paranoiac (1964): Reuniting the Francis/Sangster team, this stars the then-ubiquitous Reed as an unstable young man who is more than mildly discomfited when his dead brother reappears. All is, of course, not what it seems here… Janette Scott (The Day of the Triffids) is the lovely leading lady.

The Gorgon (1964): In 1964, Hammer was temporarily floundering with the more traditional movie monsters in the likes of Carreras’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, which sounds like another Universal rehash but has no connection with their earlier The Mummy, and The Evil of Frankenstein, with Francis directing Cushing but, by his own admission, not really engaged. Luckily, Fisher returned to the fold with this minor but worthwhile effort co-written by Gilling and featuring the powerhouse team of Lee and Cushing. Shelley plays the titular mythological villainess who turns folks to stone, which is supposed to be a surprise (sorry, spoiler) but, trust me, is decidedly obvious.

To be continued.

Addendum:  Coincidentally, four of the films in this installment have just been released on DVD as part of Sony’s “Icons of Suspense: Hammer Films” collection. I can’t vouch for the set itself, which I have yet to see, but The Snorkel, Never Take Sweets [aka Candy] from a Stranger, and [These Are] The Damned are all eminently worthy of your attention. The other titles are The Full Treatment (aka Stop Me Before I Kill!), Cash on Demand—a crime thriller with Cushing that I’d love to see—and Maniac.

To be continued.

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I wanted to wait until just the right moment to say something substantive about Elmore Leonard’s new Tuesday-night FX series Justified, and with this week’s fifth episode, “The Lord of War and Thunder,” I knew the moment had come. First, a quick word about the show’s other primary creative force, head writer Graham Yost, who gets the “developed for television by” credit and serves with Leonard as one of the executive producers. Yost has worked mainly in television, but did script a few features, including John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996) and a little number called Speed (1994), which I loved, not least for putting poor, beloved, betrayed Sandra Bullock on the map (“Stay on or get off?”).

Rather than muddying my mental waters, I decided to wait until the season is over before I catch up on the literary exploits of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Pronto, Riding the Rap, and the show’s official source, “Fire in the Hole”), so I can’t say how well his backstory has translated to the screen. But since the show’s premise is that Raylan (the excellent Timothy Olyphant) has been reluctantly reassigned from Miami to his boyhood home in Kentucky coal-mining country, you just know those loose ends aren’t going to dangle forever. Back in the day, the stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes of The X-Files alternated with those detailing the show’s central, and ultimately unmanageable, mythology; similarly, Justified tacks back and forth between fugitive-of-the-week and backstory episodes concerning Raylan’s family and (sometimes former) friends.

“The Lord of War and Thunder” features Raylan’s oft-invoked but hitherto unseen father, an old reprobate named Arlo, who is prone to heart attacks and reportedly suffers from both bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders. The show has already displayed a penchant for interesting guest casting, e.g., last week’s “Long in the Tooth,” which offered not only Speed’s Alan Ruck as Raylan’s quarry du jour but also a hilarious turn by Clarence Williams III, late of TV’s The Mod Squad and Twin Peaks and a frequent collaborator of John Frankenheimer’s. So it’s no surprise that Arlo is played by Raymond J. Barry—not exactly a household name…except in the Bradley household, since he was Senator Richard Matheson on The X-Files, in a nod by creator Chris Carter to the man whose Kolchak telefilms inspired the show.

I gather from some Internet comments that Justified is derived in large measure from Riding the Rap, and there is a precedent for adapting a Leonard novel episodically rather than as a film (the ill-fated Karen Sisco doesn’t count, as it was only spun off from Out of Sight). That would be the limited series Maximum Bob, which ran for seven weeks of glorious Twin Peaks-style weirdness during the summer of 1998, with the promise of a regular gig if it did well, which of course it didn’t, since I loved it. I remember the timing precisely, because that was the summer we sold our condo and bought our house, only our original deal fell through, forcing us to move twice and live for a single month in half of the duplex adjacent to my sister-in-law’s while we found another house.

The premature cancellation—or, in the case of Maximum Bob, non-continuation—of such shows as Twin Peaks, Karen Sisco, and Commander in Chief epitomized the fate of almost every show I’ve championed for decades, and made David-Lynch-abusing ABC second only to Carter-abusing Fox on the BOF merde-list. That’s why I gave up on dramatic television, watching only The Simpsons (since Fox criminally mishandled Futurama as well as the Carter oeuvre, not to mention cancelling Firefly and freakylinks), The Office, and its sister show, Parks and Recreation. That’s also why it took an artist of Leonard’s standing to get me to give it another try, and although I’m probably condemning Justified to an early death by watching and enjoying it, I’ll continue to do so as long as I can.

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Bradley’s Hundred #51-60

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

Horror Express (aka Panico en el Transiberiano [Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express]): One of those little gems I stumbled onto years ago and started telling everybody about. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Telly Savalas star in this nifty Italian-Spanish co-production about an alien intelligence that hops from body to body and leaves its victims bleeding from every facial orifice. Wow! This reportedly came about because the producer got a good deal on the model train used in Nicholas and Alexandra. It’s unusual and action-packed, with a high body count and great lines (“Monster?! We’re British, you know.”). On a sadder note, Lee apparently talked Cushing into making this to help take his mind off the grief he suffered for the rest of his life over the death of his wife, Helen.

Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead): Great ’60s British chiller about New England witches, directed by John (The Night Stalker) Moxey, with Christopher Lee in a supporting role. Story credit went to Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky, whom scriptwriter George Baxt claimed wrote only one scene—the worst! A college student disappears after traveling to the Raven’s Inn in secluded Whitewood to research witchcraft; when her boyfriend and college-professor brother investigate, they find more than they bargained for. With spooky chanting and a slam-bang climax.

I Love You to Death: Knowing how my wife shares my affection for this highly underrated black comedy from Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill), I bought it for her as an anniversary gift.  This is ironic in that it concerns a philandering pizzeria proprietor (Kevin Kline) whose wife (Tracey Ullman) decides to kill him, but neither she, her vengeful mother (Joan Plowright), nor the two stoners (William Hurt, Keanu Reeves) she brings in to do the job can carry it out successfully. The cast is uniformly hilarious, especially Kline, and the fact that the film is based on a true story just adds to its offbeat appeal. Why it didn’t do better is an absolute mystery to us both. “I’m an Italian—I cannot make love to a woman with a German shepherd watching!” (A slight paraphrase.)

Ice Station Zebra: Howard Hughes reportedly watched this movie over and over and over during his reclusive last days. He could have done worse. Rock Hudson, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, and the great Patrick McGoohan (see “Dutch Master”) star in this exciting Alistair MacLean yarn about an undersea voyage, ostensibly to rescue the survivors of a fire at the titular installation—but we know better. Directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), with a superb score by Michel Legrand, excellent submarine sequences, and nail-biting Cold War tension throughout. At one time, I actually memorized a ten-minute scene from this film, and could recite it given the proper provocation and sufficient time to bone up on it beforehand, but now I’m too rusty.

In the Heat of the Night: This adaptation of John Ball’s first Virgil Tibbs novel won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor (Rod Steiger), and Adapted Screenplay (Stirling Silliphant); director Norman Jewison was also nominated. Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a big-city black cop passing through a small, sweltering Southern town who is first suspected of, and then helps local sheriff Steiger solve, a murder while staying one step ahead of racist rednecks. Interestingly, although Poitier returned as Tibbs in two less satisfying sequels, They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (one of the more memorable lines from the original) and The Organization, neither utilized Ball’s six sequels as their source, but were written directly for the screen. This also spawned a long-running eponymous TV series.

It’s a Gift: What I consider the definitive W.C. Fields film. As with the Marx Brothers (see A Night at the Opera in our next installment), I feel his early work at Paramount, which seems to have been THE place for comedy in the 1930s and ’40s, was far superior to his later (albeit worthy) efforts at Universal, and this is the quintessence of that early work, an undiluted dose of Fields at his most brilliant. Virtually plot-free (which for once is a blessing in my book, as it gives Fields the liberty to concentrate on his unique comic sketches), the film depicts the trials and tribulations of grocer Harold Bissonette (“Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”) and his hateful family, most memorably an extended sequence in which the long-suffering Fields tries to get some sleep on a porch swing and is tormented by everyone from fruit-bearing Baby LeRoy to a pesky insurance salesman seeking the ever-elusive Carl LaFong (“capital L, small a…”). They don’t get any better.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Earning my Maudlin Man nickname, I cry at regular intervals every time I see this film, which is probably my second favorite after Where Eagles Dare (now there’s a pair). I watch it every Christmas Eve, when my wife makes me stay up all night wrapping presents, and have indoctrinated my daughter into the cult as well. Frank Capra’s masterful storytelling style has never been put to better use than in recounting the trials and tribulations of George Bailey (James Stewart, also never better), whose efforts to keep a small-town building and loan association afloat leave him wishing he’d never been born. Enter Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), Angel Second Class (he hasn’t won his wings yet), who grants his wish by showing him what a poorer place Bedford Falls would be without him. You can’t watch this for five minutes without tripping over another memorable moment, brilliant character and/or delicious line; I practically know them all by heart now. Lionel Barrymore is the splendidly hissable villain, and I’d trade the entirety of Donna Reed’s remaining career for her role as Mary, the quintessential girl-next-door-turned-wife. A superb score by Dimitri Tiomkin. “My wild Irish rose…” BANG! “I’m all right, I’m all right!”

Jaws: Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg made movies that really scared people, as demonstrated by this and Richard Matheson’s Duel (see “Bradley’s Hundred #21-30”). This one’s pretty damn near perfect and spawned three sequels (so far) of varying quality; ironically, Matheson’s original script for Jaws 3-D was disastrously re-written by Carl Gottlieb, who had adapted this with author Peter Benchley. When a great white shark starts snacking on the inhabitants of Amity Island, threatening the tourist trade that is the community’s lifeblood, an uneasy triumvirate mobilizes to stop it: water-hating Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), freelance shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), and ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). John Williams outdid himself with the stellar score. Everybody quotes, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” but my favorite line is Scheider’s frustrated, “That’s great! That’s just great! Now where the hell are we?”

Kelly’s Heroes: Quite coincidentally, this group includes a disproportionate number of my absolute favorites. Clint Eastwood was reunited with Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton for this humorous caper film with a World War II setting and a Vietnam-era sensibility, filmed in Yugoslavia. The members of Clint’s platoon have been getting the short end of the stick since they hit the beach at Omaha, so when they learn of a fortune in Nazi gold kept in a bank behind enemy lines in occupied France, they decide to do a little extracurricular activity. With a stellar cast (Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O’Connor), excellent dialogue courtesy of the late Troy Kennedy Martin, an outstanding score by Lalo Schifrin, and a Leone/Wild Bunch parody.

Kiss Me Deadly: Robert Aldrich, in his finest genre-subverting style, turns a typically hackneyed Mickey Spillane novel into the ultimate Cold War SF parable. Ralph Meeker is dazzling as the brutish Mike Hammer, a not-overly-principled private eye who slaps those of both sexes around (and admittedly takes his share of lumps in the bargain) while following a trail of bodies that leads from slain asylum escapee Cloris Leachman to a mysterious metal box, whose contents smell of Armageddon. Repo Man contains a direct visual homage to this film—just one of many, I presume.

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