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Archive for May, 2010

Clint is 80, and I must rhapsodize. That’s right, Clint Eastwood, probably unrivaled as the cinema’s greatest living icon, turns 80 today—a mere thirty-four days before the senior Mrs. Bradley—and I can’t think of another filmmaker who, as both an actor and a director, has been involved in so many excellent films, including a disproportionate number of my personal favorites. That remains true even if you remove #1, Where Eagles Dare (in which he played the Army lieutenant whose name appears above), from the equation, and I won’t bother cross-referencing them all with my B100 posts, although it should be noted that you can see five of them today in TCM’s 24-hour marathon; you do the math.

No, I’m not going to enumerate every Eastwood movie (I’m working partly from memory here, so if I get a historical fact or two wrong, please bear with me), and no, I don’t love all of them, but man, when he’s on, he’s really on. Even from its seemingly inauspicious beginnings, Clint’s career was special, since in 1955 he made early uncredited appearances, including his screen debut, in two of the SF films that set Jack Arnold ahead of the pack in the 1950s. In Revenge of the Creature, he was Jennings, the absent-minded technician with a misplaced white rat in his lab-coat pocket, and in Tarantula, his face concealed by a flight mask but his voice unmistakable to alert ears, he led the jet squadron that napalmed the titular arachnid.

As one of the last generation of Universal contract players, he continued making don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em appearances in the likes of Away All Boats (1956), but later made his first step toward stardom on television. Eastwood appeared as Rowdy Yates opposite Eric Fleming on Rawhide (1959-65), and during that successful show’s lengthy run, he accepted a part that had been turned down by other up-and-coming sagebrush stars such as Charles Bronson and James Coburn, who presumably kicked themselves forever after. That role was, of course, the lead in a low-budget Italian Western originally entitled The Magnificent Stranger, an uncredited reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961).

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a watershed in many ways, not only establishing Clint and director Sergio Leone as forces to be reckoned with but also cementing the success of the spaghetti Western. Joined by the great Lee Van Cleef, they completed the “Dollars Trilogy” with For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and although we could debate whether he was the same character in all three, or if the “Man with No Name” actually had one or more names, to me it doesn’t matter, with Clint, Leone, and composer Ennio Morricone working their magic. We could also debate (as some of us have) whether Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) would have been better with Clint in the Bronson role, but again, it is what is, and that’s a classic.

Even without a fourth Leone film, 1968 was a banner year for Clint, beginning with Hang ’Em High, the first of what we might call his macaroni-and-cheese Westerns, i.e., American films that seemed in one or more ways (whether intentionally or not) to be emulating Leone’s, with mixed success. Later variations on this tale of a lawman avenging his own botched hanging include High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985), with Eastwood directing himself as increasingly mysterious, perhaps even supernatural, gunslingers. But its historical significance lies more in the fact that it was the inaugural film of Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso (Spanish for “bad step,” as his agent warned him Fistful would be).

Then came Coogan’s Bluff, the fish-out-of-water tale of an Arizona cop pursuing an escaped prisoner in Manhattan, which marked the first of five collaborations with Don Siegel, a major influence on Eastwood’s own directorial career. The others were Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), a mac-and-cheese Western initiated by Budd Boetticher (famed for his many films with Randolph Scott); The Beguiled (1971), a Civil War psychodrama in which Clint bravely played against type; Dirty Harry (1971), about which more later; and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), a true story pitting him against obsessive and repressive warden Patrick McGoohan (see “Dutch Master”).

And then came Where Eagles Dare, his first of two films with otherwise unremarkable director Brian G. Hutton, the other being Kelly’s Heroes (1970), both action-packed World War II adventures (how appropriate is it that his birthday falls on Memorial Day?) and among my all-time favorites. Interestingly, each offered another facet to kick it up a notch: the former was an espionage yarn created for the screen by that master of the form, author Alistair MacLean, while the latter was a WW II caper comedy with a Vietnam-era sensibility (it’s admittedly a small niche). Each also satisfyingly sublimated Clint’s nascent superstardom by making him, respectively, second banana to Richard Burton—and you could do a lot worse—or part of an amazing ensemble that included Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Don Rickles.

In 1971, Eastwood made his directorial debut on the thriller Play Misty for Me (Siegel had a good-luck cameo as a bartender) and first played Police Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan, yet as much as I like the original, with Edward G. Robinson’s son Andrew brilliant as the slimy serial killer, the series is not in my personal pantheon. Magnum Force (1973)—which, like Hang ’Em High, was directed by his Rawhide colleague Ted Post—was a solid sequel with a memorable catchphrase, “A man’s got to know his limitations” (perhaps an attempt to equal the original’s “Do ya feel lucky, punk?”). But in The Enforcer (1976), he was saddled with a female partner who inevitably got gunned down; the catchphrase for Sudden Impact (1983), “Make my day,” now has unfortunate associations; and The Dead Pool (1988), featuring an amusing early appearance by Liam Neeson, was just plain silly.

Speaking of unfortunate associations, in Sudden Impact, Callahan took a back seat to a vengeful rape victim played by Eastwood’s inamorata du jour, Sondra Locke, and I’m sure that disastrous relationship makes their films as tough to watch for him as they are for those of us who were never in her fan club. This Locke Period also includes The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), on which Clint controversially replaced screenwriter Philip Kaufman as director; the supremely silly actioner The Gauntlet (1977); the comedy Every Which Way but Loose (1978); the sequel Any Which Way You Can (1980), which—like The Dead Pool and Pink Cadillac (1989)—was directed by Eastwood’s longtime stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn; and the offbeat Bronco Billy (1980).

Eastwood initially continued to appear in other people’s work, e.g., John Sturges’s Joe Kidd (1972) and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), but has not done so since Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993). He has been mostly a one-man band for decades, and my favorite among those efforts I’ve seen is his justifiably Oscar-sweeping Unforgiven (1992), a script by David Webb Peoples of Blade Runner (1982) fame that Clint stuck in a drawer for a decade until he felt he was mature enough to play it. Although dedicated to Leone and Siegel, it is decidedly not a mac-and-cheese Western but a mature film in every sense, with powerhouse performances by Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman and a heartbreaking score by frequent collaborator Lennie Niehaus.

Let me conclude with three reasons why I have the highest respect for Clint as a director:

*his understandably sure touch with other actors, who reportedly love to work with him and have earned an impressive number of Oscars and/or nominations under his direction;

*his no-frills-for-the filmmakers, put-the-money-on-the-screen approach as a producer, ironically said to have been inspired by wasteful excess on the sets of the Hutton films;

*his diversity of subject matter and willingness to deglamorize, poke fun at or—as in Breezy (1973), the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), and Mystic River (2003)—place himself offscreen; he has directed five films but only appeared in one, Gran Torino (2008), since Million Dollar Baby (2004).

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Yeah, I know, I just missed his 88th birthday, which was Thursday, but is there ever a bad time to talk about Christopher Lee? “Not from where I’m standing,” to quote a certain British agent in Lee’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Focusing on the films he made with Hammer and Mario Bava, as we have done here already, it’s easy to lose sight of the wonderful work he has done in other movies and television shows (some of which were otherwise not so wonderful), so we’ll attempt to rectify that oversight now. Since I’m a firm believer that Lee’s heyday in the 1960s and ’70s represented the Golden Age of cinema, this representative sampling will concentrate there, starting today with the ’60s. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his more recent collaborations with Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland), Peter Jackson (as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and George Lucas (as Count Dooku in the Star Wars CGI-fest prequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith).

La Vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, aka Horror Castle, The Castle of Terror, Terror Castle; 1963): During the Italian Renaissance of horror films in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Lee followed in the footsteps of his transplanted countrywoman, Barbara Steele, and made films with both Bava (Ercole al Centro della Terra, La Frusta e il Corpo) and Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson). This one reunited Margheriti with the producer (Marco Vicario) and leading man (Georges Rivière) of his first film with Steele, La Danza Macabra; for good measure, Vicario also published the eponymous story by Frank Bogart upon which the film is based and supplied his wife, Rossana Podestà, as the leading lady. Here, Lee has a decidedly second-banana role—dubbed by another actor, as he was in his Bava films, alas—as the scarred and sinister-seeming family retainer in a German castle. The bride of the current occupant (Rivière), Podestà is tormented by dreams of his scarlet-clad ancestor, The Punisher, who tortured girls to death in the family dungeon. But it turns out that his deranged father, turned into a living skull by Nazi scientists for taking part in the plot to kill Hitler, sees himself as The Punisher, a plot twist aped in the inferior Il Boia Scarlatto. Shot in gorgeous color, the film features some gruesome effects.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: Lee made his American debut in the 1964 episode “The Sign of Satan,” adapted by Barré Lyndon from Robert Bloch’s story, and plays Karl Jorla, whose involvement with a Satanic cult takes his acting career down a most unusual path; the creepy black-and-white cinematography is positively Bava-worthy.

La Cripta e l’Incubo (The Crypt and the Nightmare, aka La Maldición de los Karnstein/La Maledizione dei Karnstein [The Curse of the Karnsteins], Crypt of Horror, Terror in the Crypt, The Crypt of the Vampire, The Vampire’s Crypt, Karnstein, Carmilla, Catharsis; 1964): This oft-retitled Spanish-Italian co-production is a restrained adaptation of J. Sheridan le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” filmed previously and subsequently as Et Mourir de Plaisir (aka Blood and Roses) and The Vampire Lovers, respectively, although it also owes a lot to Barbara Steele’s genre debut in Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of the Demon, aka Black Sunday). That’s appropriate, as director “Thomas Miller” (Camillo Mastrocinque) went on to work with Babs in Un Angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan), apparently his only other noteworthy genre credit, but it’s a shame he didn’t have her for this film, which somewhat makes up for her absence with a boatload of black-and-white Gothic atmosphere and, above all, the presence of Lee. Unlike many of his Italian efforts, it features his real voice, to boot.

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965): The first official Amicus film, after the wonderful City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, also with Lee), written (badly) by co-founder Milton Subotsky and directed by studio mainstay Freddie Francis. Kicking off their successful series of anthology horror films, it gets better than it deserves from Peter Cushing as the titular fortune-teller and frequent co-star Lee as an acerbic art critic tormented by the hand he severs from artist Michael Gough. Donald Sutherland is a small-town doctor convinced his wife is a vampire, and Bernard Lee (“M” in the Bond films) appears in a silly story about a killer vine. One segment concerns a werewolf; another is shamelessly plagiarized from “Papa Benjamin,” a Cornell Woolrich story that was also adapted on the TV series Thriller.

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965): First and best—which isn’t saying much—of Lee’s five similarly titled (The [fill in the blank] of Fu Manchu) appearances as Sax Rohmer’s evil genius, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as nemesis Nayland Smith and old Hammer hand Don Sharp directing. Brides followed, with Sharp but sadly without Green, who was replaced by Douglas Wilmer in both that and Jeremy Summers’s Vengeance. But worse was yet to come, in the form of director Jesus (aka Jess) Franco and Richard Greene as Smith, with the two final entries, Blood and Castle. Other than Lee, the only constants in this precipitously declining quintet were writer-producer Harry Alan Towers and Tsai Chin as Fu’s twisted daughter, Lin Tang.

Circus of Fear (aka Psycho-Circus; 1966): The hooded Lee was, as I recall, a knife-throwing red herring in this big-top caper from Towers, based on an Edgar Wallace novel and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (City of the Dead). Klaus Kinski, who appeared in innumerable German krimis (crime films) based on Wallace’s work, and Leo Genn co-star.

Theatre of Death (aka The Blood Fiend, The Female Fiend; 1967): I have only the vaguest memories of this contemporary thriller with Lee playing the head of an ill-fated Grand Guignol-type theater. Director Samuel Gallu is suitably obscure; Julian Glover also appears.

Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (The Snake Pit and the Pendulum, aka The Blood Demon, The Snake Pit, The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The Torture Room; 1967): This German mishmash was allegedly inspired by Poe, with Lee as the reincarnated and vengeful Count Regula (who presumably ate all his prunes), reassembled after being drawn and quartered for killing twelve virgins—what a waste!—in his torture chamber; erstwhile Tarzan Lex Barker plays the hero. Director Harald Reinl was then married to leading lady Karin Dor (who, like Tsai Chin, also appeared in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice).

The Oblong Box (1969): An okay AIP film with an interesting history, this is another alleged Poe adaptation, which supposedly has more to do with Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast.” It was to have been the next film by writer-producer-director Lawrence Huntington, who dropped dead leaving the hilariously awful The Vulture as his last effort. Meanwhile, Michael Reeves, fresh from Witchfinder General, was slated to direct Richard Matheson’s script for De Sade with Gordon Hessler, an old friend of Louis M. “Deke” Heyward (AIP’s so-called “Third Man,” who headed their European operations), producing. When Heyward was asked to produce that film personally—with disastrous results—and Reeves bowed out due to personal problems, he and Hessler were reassigned to this project, with Huntington’s script substantially rewritten by AIP and Hammer scribe Christopher Wicking (Cry of the Banshee). But before it could even go before the cameras, Reeves bowed out once again and was soon dead of a drug overdose, forcing Hessler to tackle the direction as well. The film features Vincent Price as a nobleman who keeps his insane and disfigured brother, the victim of a voodoo curse, locked up in an upstairs room. It also marked the first teaming of Price with fellow horror legend Lee, although their sole scene together consists of Price finding Lee dying of a throat slit by the brother, so the dramatic possibilities were limited…

To be concluded.

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Bradley’s Hundred #81-90

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

The Shining (1980): Never mind what Stephen King says, this is perhaps the best adaptation of his work. Jack Nicholson is terrifying as the alcoholic novelist serving as the winter caretaker in a remote hotel, Shelley Duvall is vulnerable as his wife and the mother of their precognitive young son, and the blood pouring from the elevators and those two creepy little girls are unforgettable. Yeah, Stanley Kubrick (who co-scripted with novelist Diane Johnson) made some changes from the book, but the result is an excellent film that succeeds completely in its own right. “Here’s Johnny!”

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Perhaps my favorite of Martin Ritt’s diverse and high-quality films, adapted from John le Carré’s breakthrough novel by Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, Murder on the Orient Express). Drunken spy Richard Burton romances librarian Claire Bloom as his life is going to pieces, and decides to accept an offer from the other side (represented by Oskar Werner), but all is not what it seems. With Rupert Davies as George Smiley and fab black-and-white photography.

Star Wars (aka A New Hope): First and best of the series, although the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, is a close second. Yeah, we all saw this fifty-seven times when it came out, and it’s still a great film, even if it did help to set in motion the Decline of Cinema as We Know It by ushering in the era of the mega-box-office-blockbuster. Mentored by Obi-Wan “Old Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness), farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) allies himself with interstellar smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to rescue Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and joins the rebellion against the evil Empire, represented by Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) aboard the Death Star. Throw in a “walking carpet” (Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca), two droll droids (Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Kenny Baker as R2-D2), groundbreaking special effects that didn’t need to be fixed in George Lucas’s special edition, and an awesome score by John Williams, and stir.

The Sting: I do not hold against this film the fact that it took most of the Oscars for which The Exorcist was nominated that same year; after all, William Friedkin had quite rightly swept all of the major awards with The French Connection just two years earlier, though it was rather hard luck for author-producer-screenwriter William Peter Blatty—but I digress. (Yeah, I know, as usual.) This reunites Paul Newman and Robert Redford with George Roy Hill, their director on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while throwing in a much more upbeat story (courtesy of screenwriter David S. Ward, who later wrote and directed the surprisingly funny Major League) about Depression-era con men, with good period settings, a superb Scott Joplin ragtime score, memorable villains in gambler Robert Shaw and corrupt cop Charles Durning, and a stellar supporting cast. “Ya folla?”

Stop Making Sense: Director Jonathan (Silence of the Lambs) Demme’s concert movie documents Talking Heads, playing at top strength and peak performance through the absolute cream of their repertoire to date, as they toured for their Speaking in Tongues album. Lead singer/composer David Byrne, who conceived the show, and Demme manage to make things visually interesting as well. I can honestly say this movie changed my life. I’d heard it was great, but resisted seeing it because I was unfamiliar with, and had a completely wrong impression of, the Heads’ music. But during my sojourn in Cambridge for the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, it happened to be showing at a repertory cinema, and I said what the heck. I walked in a one-band man (not that I only liked one, but the Beatles overshadowed everybody else), and came out a Heads fan for life. Then they split…

Strange Days: I stand by my contention that this is a Blade Runner for the ’90s, and that like that film it will be better regarded in retrospect…someday. (Maybe now that director Kathryn Bigelow got the Oscar for The Hurt Locker, it will get some of the attention it deserves.) It ain’t often you find a film that is so bleak, pessimistic, and unrelenting in its depiction of a dystopic near-future world and its new technology, yet manages to end on a redemptive and (sob) romantic note. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the sleazy but ultimately sympathetic protagonist, Lenny Nero, who can’t let go of his love for opportunistic bitch Juliette Lewis, and Angela Bassett is a real revelation as the woman to whose own love he is blinded, in a role that should have made her the first female action hero. (It’s a great tragedy that, for whatever reason, Bassett did not play Storm in the X-Men movies.) My admiration for this film is no surprise given the involvement of co-writer James Cameron, Bigelow’s then-hubby; the photography, music, and acting are also uniformly excellent.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Literally from the first second, this outstanding film (one of the great New York movies of all time) grabs you and doesn’t let go, as the main-title theme representing the finest hour of composer David Shire (ex-husband of Francis Ford Coppola’s sister Talia) brilliantly evokes its subway setting. Walter Matthau, surprisingly effective in a dramatic role, is the transit authority cop who must suspend his disbelief when he learns that four heavily armed men have hijacked a subway train and are holding the passengers hostage for a million-dollar ransom. Taut negotiations ensue between Matthau and the hijackers (including Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, and Hector Elizondo) as their craftily conceived plan is carried out. The New York atmosphere and attitude are palpable, the supporting cast and dialogue are excellent, and the ending is a neat zinger. Twice remade, although why I don’t know, and as small a change as it is, I think the latest version, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the Matthau and Shaw roles, loses something by calling itself The Taking of Pelham 123. That’s Hollywood. Adapted from John Godey’s novel by Peter Stone (1776), and directed by Joseph Sargent (Colossus: The Forbin Project), whom I affectionately call “Big Joe,” this is that rare film I’ll watch at the drop of a hat.

The Thing (from Another World) (1951): Although jettisoning the central conceit of its source material, John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?”—i.e., a shape-shifting alien that can impersonate any of the characters, which later became the raison d’être of John Carpenter’s gory but great 1982 remake—this is a seminal SF classic. Producer Howard Hawks reportedly ceded directorial credit to his erstwhile editor, Christian Nyby, for union purposes, but his style is everywhere evident, particularly in the fast-paced, overlapping dialogue, male-dominated cast (led by genre mainstay Kenneth Tobey), and strong yet feminine leading lady (Margaret Sheridan). James Arness, later of Gunsmoke fame, is imposing but hardly recognizable as the vegetative alien who is unwittingly defrosted at an Arctic base and then makes mincemeat of the military personnel.

The Third Man: Probably the best Orson Welles movie not directed by the Big Guy (as it were) himself, this quintessential Cold War thriller was made just as that conflict was beginning, and set in post-war Vienna. It’s directed by Carol Reed, who almost makes one forget those damned dancing fishmongers in Oliver!, and written by Graham Greene, the unchallenged king of the thinking man’s spy story until the era of John le Carré, Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor), and Len Deighton. Featuring longtime Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten (whom I’ve never liked, but never mind) as Western writer Holly Martins; Alida Valli (later seen in Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil) as the heroine; Welles as remorseless racketeer Harry Lime, whom they both love in their own way; Trevor Howard as Calloway, the British military cop trying to nail him; Bernard Lee, best known as M in the James Bond films, as Howard’s right-hand man; and a superb zither score by Anton Karas.

This Is Spinal Tap: Rob Reiner’s hilarious “rockumentary” (actually a “mockumentary”) brilliantly skewers both the Beatles and heavy-metal bands, with script and songs co-written by the leads: Christopher Guest (who not only made a cottage industry out of creating such similar films as Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind, but also gets to go to bed with Jamie Lee Curtis every night), Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (The Simpsons). Includes such toe-tappers as “Sex Farm” and “Big Bottom,” plus cameos by everyone from Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) to Ed Begley, Jr. Rather than quote the obvious line here, I’ll simply say, “You can’t dust for vomit.”

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Far Away, So Close

The next time your tear ducts need a good workout, treat or subject yourself—depending on your point of view—to Away from Her (2006), the amazingly assured feature-film writing and directing debut of actress Sarah Polley, whose film Go (1999) I loved. At first, I had it confused with Iris (2001), which also concerns a husband (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) coping with the Alzheimer’s disease encroaching on his wife, in that case novelist Iris Murdoch (played at various ages by Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Judi Dench). So I was surprised to see that Polley had adapted it from a story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, whose work has been the basis for several previous films unseen by me.

Dominating Away from Her are two powerful performances, both brilliantly understated, one by a bona fide movie star, and one by a Canadian actor who has never gotten the attention I thought he deserved, despite working steadily for the past 50 years. I first saw Gordon Pinsent, strongly evoking JFK and aptly cast as the unnamed President, in one of my favorite underappreciated movies, Joseph Sargent’s Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), and he provides a similar gravitas here as Grant Anderson. As for Julie Christie, who plays Fiona, I’ll merely cite a few favorites from her impressive oeuvre: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).

The film’s fragmented, non-linear structure is both eminently appropriate to its subject matter and carefully calibrated so that the viewer, while sometimes off-base, is never totally at sea in understanding what is happening. Her hair streaked with a silver that is perhaps not her own, but still luminous at 65 (take that, youth-obsessed Hollywood!), Christie plays a woman painfully aware that she risks becoming a danger to herself and a burden to her husband, and the story is set in motion when she enters an extended-care facility in Ontario. The retired couple has never been apart for any significant period of time during their 44-year marriage, but the facility’s policy is to forbid family visits for the first 30 days to let the resident “settle in.”

Once he is allowed to visit, Grant is shocked not only by the deterioration that has made Fiona forget who he is, but also by her attachment to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a mute, wheelchair-bound fellow resident she now believes to be her husband. As painful as it is for Grant to see them together on subsequent visits, with Fiona regarding him merely as a friendly stranger, it hurts him much more to see her steady decline into depression after financial difficulties force Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), to remove him from the facility. Although it is made clear that he has not always been a model husband, Grant now makes a move that is at once selfless and selfish as he tries to persuade Marian to bring Aubrey back, if only for a visit.

Again depending on your point of view, it may seem either entirely inevitable or far too pat that Grant and Marian end up attracted to each other as Fiona is moved to the second floor, where residents have become less functional but sometimes regain their memories temporarily. As the film moves toward its ironic and bittersweet conclusion, its greatest strength—aside from the performances—is its tone, consistently avoiding melodrama or ham-handed musical cues. There are no breast-beating “Why have you done this to me?” (in fact, it is Fiona who insists on entering the facility, despite Grant’s reservations) or “Why is this happening to us?” scenes, which just rips your heart out even more…but in a good way, of course.

Addendum:  When I showed this to my mother (see “The Day of the Hunter”) before posting it, she said she vividly remembered reading Munro’s story in The New Yorker a decade ago.  Shows you just how powerful it is.

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Interlude 5/23/10

It’s occurred to me that as of this year (wish I had the actual date on a plaque somewhere, or the date I started Richard Matheson on Screen), I have been writing professionally in one form or another for a quarter of a century. First as a book publicist, then a freelancer, then a film journalist, then a contributor to other people’s books, then the copy manager for a home-video company, then an editor, then an Internet content creator, then the copy specialist for a collectibles company, and now the author of my own forthcoming book, I have worked in quite a few of these capacities concurrently. Strange to think that there’s anything I’ve been doing longer than being a husband (22 years) or a father (21 years).

Lacking the imagination to write fiction, I know I’ll never create the Great American Novel (or Screenplay), so I just muddle along in my modest nonfiction way. And while my current day job no longer affords me the opportunity to write about entertainment full-time, I firmly believe that any kind of writing, if done seriously and consistently, can help one’s craft for when it really counts. Like Gerard Ferguson, Felix’s writing teacher in the classic third-season Odd Couple episode “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Pencil,” I’d include almost anything there, from press releases and video jackets to stamp captions and even e-mails (especially my celebrated subject headers, an art form in themselves).

For those of you who are undoubtedly wondering by now, there’s no actual point here, and this isn’t a veiled come-on for The Matthew R. Bradley School of Writing, just some more of my musings. I feel like I’m honing my abilities in some way every single day, and of course this blog serves partly as a vehicle to do just that, when time permits. I’m enjoying the freedom to mix it up—which I hope is pleasing to the reader—in terms of the topic (Movies? TV? Music? Books? Comics?), format (List? Essay? Review? Obit? Advisory?), length, tone, et cetera, and to make a post be about something else in addition to its primary or ostensible subject, although the latter method has its detractors.

Writing comes as automatically to me as breathing, sometimes completely unbidden, and when I have something to say, be it pithy or ephemeral, it’s usually difficult for me to focus on anything else until I get it down on paper (or screen). Then I’ll spend far too long re-reading, revising, and polishing, searching endlessly for le mot juste or the right diversity of punctuation (commas, dashes, and parentheses) or the proper detail or fact or transition. And, of course, after I’ve decided it’s perfect and submitted or posted it, and then I see it in print or online…it isn’t, and there’s some nagging little thing that I wish I could do over; in most cases, it’s too late, but maybe I’ve learned a lesson for another day.

Is this a real post? I dunno. But it’s something to write about. Bradley out.

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I never thought I’d be caught dead watching, let alone writing about, an entire episode of Seth MacFarlane’s animated Fox series Family Guy, because the snippets I’d seen before had totally turned me off. But now that they’ve joined The Simpsons, Futurama, and countless other shows by jumping on the Richard Matheson bandwagon with the most recent episode, “The Splendid Source,” well, as a guy named Miller once wrote, attention must be paid. Adapted by executive producer Mark Hentemann from Matheson’s story of the same name, the episode features such guest voice actors as Marc Alaimo (Deep Space Nine’s Gul Dukat), Gary Cole (Office Space), Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards in the somewhat disappointing Fantastic Four films), and writer-director David Lynch (Dune).

Its title taken from an epigram by Balzac, “The Splendid Source” was published in the May 1956 issue of Playboy, second only to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (wherein Matheson made his professional debut with “Born of Man and Woman” in 1950) as an outlet for his short fiction. It concerns millionaire Talbert Bean III, who becomes obsessed with finding out where dirty jokes come from, using his wealth to track them via a succession of salesmen, bellhops, and bartenders. Eventually he is taken, blindfolded and at gunpoint, to a remote location where a distinguished figure known as the Dean presides over a group of men—some of them quite prominent—who write the jokes, and the story ends with Bean considering the Dean’s offer to join them.

In Volume 2 of the Edge Books edition of his Collected Stories, Matheson told Stanley Wiater, “people are forever telling dirty jokes, and to this day I don’t know where they all come from. But just as in the story, they leap across the continent and around the world in no time.” This was even more surprising decades before the advent of the Internet, which the show curiously ignores as a joke-metastasizing mechanism. As with The Box (2009), nominally based on Matheson’s “Button, Button,” his story is but the grain of sand around which a pearl of dubious value has accreted, with the episode also serving as an excuse to reunite protagonist Peter Griffin (voiced by MacFarlane himself) with his black friend Cleveland Brown, recently spun off in his own eponymous animated series.

Peter meets with his friends Joe Swanson and Glenn Quagmire, who tells him a dirty joke that literally makes him soil his pants, a tasteless gag that is belabored ad nauseam until Peter’s fascination with the source of such jokes takes them on their quest. Among the links in the chain are Futurama’s Bender, REO Speedwagon, Gus the Bartender (Lynch), and Cleveland, who leads the trio to Washington, D.C., while upping the pop-culture quotient, those working for the Dean (Alaimo) include Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. In Washington, they are abducted by Secret Service types and flown to an island fortress, which is destroyed by Peter after he effects their escape by holding hostage the greatest dirty joke in history, a clear nod to the “killer joke” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Filled with lowbrow humor that is scatological, racial (they pass the Obama Monument, a huge black obelisk dwarfing the nearby Washington Monument, presumably with phallic connotations), and sexist (the female characters are stereotypically fixated on shopping, childbirth, and backbiting), this is clearly not for everybody. While one shudders to think what Matheson made of it—I can’t quite decide whether to call and ask him—I applaud almost any effort to raise his inexplicably low profile; ironically, Talbert’s description of dirty jokes as “a phenomenon ubiquitous yet unknown” could fit Matheson’s career. He added to Wiater, “I wrote a sequel…called ‘Talbert Bean Rides Again,’ in which he tries to make really classy pornographic films. I don’t know why Playboy didn’t accept it.”

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Hel Is Other People

On Saturday, the wife and I made the obligatory trip to Manhattan’s Film Forum to see the latest restoration of Fritz Lang’s silent SF classic Metropolis, now held over through May 27. For those of you who tuned in late, the film was cut substantially after its 1927 premiere in Berlin, and much of the missing footage was thought lost, until it began turning up in various locations; previous restorations included Giorgio Moroder’s controversial 1984 version and a major reconstruction in 2002. Then, in 2008, a 16mm print was found in Buenos Aires containing about half an hour of even more footage, bringing the film much closer to Lang’s original vision…although not, as Film Forum’s marquee erroneously and annoyingly calls it, “complete.”

There was only so much to be done with the worn footage that had reportedly been in private collections since 1928, so it’s easy to distinguish it, but that’s actually a blessing for those of us who have seen the film umpteen times and wanted to be able to spot the “new” shots immediately. Further muddying our mental waters is the fact that missing scenes were previously represented by stills and/or summaries (as are a few in this version that continue to elude historians), so even if you hadn’t actually seen a missing sequence, you sorta felt like you had anyway. Just for the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume that BOF readers are already familiar with some version of the story, and if not, well, I suggest you get your ass down to Film Forum for a remedial viewing.

Certain additions offer a welcome look at daily life in Metropolis that we’ve never really had, e.g., a shot of Joh Fredersen’s henchman, the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), reading—or at least hiding behind—a copy of the Metropolis Chronicle, while others shed additional light on two complex sets of relationships. The first is between Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the master of Metropolis, and one-handed inventor C.A. Rotwang (played by Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge), whose wife Hel left him for Fredersen and died after giving birth to the latter’s privileged but idealistic son, Freder (Gustav Frölich). The second involves Josaphat (Theodore Loos, strongly resembling Lang himself), who throws in with Freder after being dismissed for keeping Fredersen insufficiently informed about unrest among the workers, and Georgy, aka 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), the worker with whom Freder trades identities.

Freed from his virtual slavery, 11811 is told to wait for Freder at Josaphat’s apartment, but now we actually see him give in to the temptations offered by the shady nightclub Yoshiwara, where the false Maria (Brigitte Helm)—originally created in Hel’s image—later does her, uh, stimulating dance. While we’re on the subject, I understand that acting styles differed in the silent era, but the amount of breast-clutching and wild gesticulation on display in Metropolis is quite astounding, and I wasn’t the only one having an affectionate laugh at the reaction to said dance by Yoshiwara’s patrons, who seem to be almost frothing at the mouth, literally coming to blows over her. In any event, when 11811 is killed in the catacombs by a knife wound intended for Freder, his dying regret over his previous failing gives the scene an extra and poignant resonance.

Some of the new shots simply reinforce or augment existing footage, so their absence was hardly crippling in previous versions, but others considerably ratchet up the tension in ways that make the film more effective. For example, when Freder, Josaphat, and the real Maria (also Helm) are rescuing the children of the workers from their rapidly flooding underground city, they reach the top of the endless stairs, only to be met by a locked gate that takes them several nail-biting minutes to force open. Sure, we know they’re going to make it, but watching the extremely athletic Frölich maneuver around the children to reach the gate is impressive, as are some additional shots of water cascading down from collapsing ceilings that I can’t imagine anyone cutting for length.

Watching Metropolis 4.0, I was struck by several things, one of which is the number of scenes in the climax reminiscent of other films that may have influenced or been influenced by Lang. Shots of Maria being chased through the streets by a mob, and of Freder battling Rotwang on the parapets of what looked like a cathedral (I don’t remember if it was specifically identified in the film), evoked similar ones from, respectively, the Lon Chaney classics The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Likewise, when Rotwang carried Maria over the rooftops, it seemed to anticipate the scene of the heroine being carried off by an ape in Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932).

Most of all, and not for the first time, I marveled at the number of seemingly flawed plans afoot, like Fredersen’s desire to foment an uprising among the workers, apparently for the sole purpose of being able to crush it with an iron hand. At the risk of sounding naïve, did he really think that encouraging better relations between them and management—as Maria sought to do, with the help of a mediator who turned out to be his own son—was a bad idea, and whom did he think was going to run the machines afterward? Similarly, once he learns from eavesdropping on Rotwang (in one of the few scenes yet to turn up) that the inventor has vengefully programmed the false Maria to make the workers destroy the city, why does Fredersen still order Grot (Heinrich George), the guardian of the Heart Machine, to admit them and allow them to run amok?

All of this makes the presumably visionary “master of Metropolis” seem like a bit of a boob, but no more so than the workers, who wreak havoc despite being warned by Grot that doing so will flood the city where their children are. Yet these are quibbles in a work whose spectacular visuals and filmmaking virtuosity remain unmatched after almost a century. And as much as I champion Moroder’s hotly contested pop score, which I think was composed with great care for the visuals and story it accompanied, I can find no fault with Gottfried Huppertz’s original, used both here and in the 2002 restoration.

I had the good fortune at the screening to bump into producer Richard Gordon, who at 84 has both lived and made genre-film history, and Tom Weaver, who has so expertly chronicled it in his fine articles and books, most notably his many interview collections for McFarland. Gordon was behind such films as The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood—both with Boris Karloff—and Fiend without a Face (all 1958), and his brother Alex was a key figure in the early days of AIP. We chatted a bit about screenwriter and novelist George Baxt, whom I befriended in his final years, and Gordon related how George never forgave him for allowing director Jim O’Connolly to rewrite his script for Tower of Evil (1972), a sad story Baxt had touched on when I interviewed him for Filmfax in the ’90s.

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