Archive for November, 2010

After a semi-voluntary one-week hiatus, I’m back in the saddle again with the latest installment of my “Richard Matheson—Storyteller” series on Tor.com.  This one covers the first part of his association with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, and although I have mixed feelings about Curtis in general (plus a penchant for harping on his tendency to misspell collaborators’ names in his credits, which to me is inexcusable), there’s no question that when they were on, he and Mr. Matheson produced some of the best small-screen horror of the ’70s.  One need only check out The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror to understand the importance of this creative relationship.

Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper has recently claimed another twofer from the entertainment world, actor Leslie Nielsen and director Irvin Kershner.  Nielsen is best known to younger viewers for the ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker) comedies Airplane!, the TV series Police Squad!, and its three Naked Gun spinoff films.  Old goats and/or genre fans like me know him from the likes of Forbidden Planet (1956), Dark Intruder (1965), Jerry Sohl’s Night Slaves, Curt Siodmak’s Hauser’s Memory (both 1970), and as the ill-fated captain in The Poseidon Adventure (1973), although in retrospect it’s a little tough to take him seriously while watching those nowadays.

Kershner is recognized—if at all—as the director of two high-profile sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and RoboCop 2 (1990); the former alone would have earned him a footnote in film history, even though the rest of his oeuvre is far less distinguished.  Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) began as a John Carpenter script, but was heavily rewritten to his dismay, while Never Say Never Again (1983) was an ill-advised remake of Thunderball (1965) with Sean Connery looking every one of his 53 years as he recreated the James Bond role he’d quit twice before.  Not even villains Klaus Maria Brandauer and Max Von Sydow could salvage Batman wag Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s jokey script…

But I’ll bet you that none of the Kershner obits in the mainstream media mention his connection with Richard Matheson:  about fifty years ago, he directed “Thy Will Be Done,” the Matheson-scripted pilot episode for an abortive anthology series called Now Is Tomorrow.  Since the show never aired, it is difficult to date with any accuracy, and appears in very few sources, but luckily I was able to score a copy of it on VHS and discuss it with the man himself in Richard Matheson on Screen.  He paid it the ultimate compliment of explaining that it was a rare case in which what ended up on screen exactly matched what he saw in his head, so bravo, Kersh, wherever you are.

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Believe it or not, it’s been almost fifty years since Swiss goddess Ursula Andress arose from the sea, clad only in a white bikini with a knife at her hip, and set the standard unbelievably high for all future Bond girls in 007’s first big-screen adventure, Dr. No (1962).  That’s only tangentially related to the subject of my post, but since a more attention-grabbing piece of pulchritude could scarcely be imagined, she can certainly serve the same purpose here.  Robert Aldrich wisely built up to another memorable Andress entrance in 4 for Texas (1963) as she directs a fusillade of rifle shots at Dean Martin from offscreen, before realizing he is her new partner and revealing herself.

Aldrich’s film is one of a quartet with Martin, Frank Sinatra and, in some cases, other members of the Rat Pack such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop, each of which has a numeral as part of the title.  The others are Lewis Milestone’s Ocean’s 11 (1960), on which our very own George Clayton Johnson shared story credit with Jack Golden Russell; John Sturges’s Sergeants 3 (1962); and Gordon Douglas’s Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964).  I’m no numerologist, but I noticed, back when they used to air some of them on The 4:30 Movie during my youth, that the numbers added up in several ways (e.g., 3 + 4 = 7, 4 + 7 = 11); maybe it’s a gambling thing?

I’m also no expert on Aldrich—I’d love to read a good book on him, if there’s one out there—yet knowing what I do, I had trouble imagining such a strong personality getting on with the notoriously volatile Sinatra.  Then I read on the IMDb that he “intensely disliked Frank Sinatra’s non-professional attitude and tried unsuccessfully to have him dismissed from the film” (since it was produced by The SAM Company, as in Sinatra And Martin, it’s a wonder it wasn’t the other way around).  It’s certainly interesting that each film had a different director, although Douglas did work with Sinatra on Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), and several others.

It’s also interesting, in light of the lounge-lizard personae of the Rat Pack (epitomized by Oceans 11), that two of the films were Westerns made by masters of the form.  Sergeants 3 transplanted Gunga Din (1939) to the West, and featured Martin, Sinatra, and Lawford in the roles created by Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., with Davis as the Din analog.  Sturges made Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), its underrated sequel, Hour of the Gun (1967), and The Magnificent Seven (1960)—itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954)—while Aldrich directed Burt Lancaster in Apache, Vera Cruz (both 1954), and Ulzana’s Raid (1972).

Although by no means a classic, 4 for Texas has several things going for it, including Andress (who, in my view, completely eclipses co-star Anita Ekberg) and Charles Bronson as Matson, the killer hired by crooked banker Harvey Burden (Victor Buono).  Both men appeared in other Aldrich films—most notably The Dirty Dozen (1967) and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), respectively—as did Martin’s right-hand man, Nick Dennis, who essayed a similar role in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  But along with The Choirboys (1977), disowned by original author Joseph Wambaugh, and The Frisco Kid (1979), it showed that comedy was not Aldrich’s forte.

Fortunately, 4 for Texas is more of an adventure film than a comedy; such inanities as Martin’s mugging and double takes (including his reaction to a walk-on by Arthur Godfrey), plus a cameo by the Three Stooges, take a back seat to the action.  Bronson gets to kill Jack Elam in an early scene, as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), and is gunned down twice by our boys, finally succumbing to a head shot on the paddle wheel of a riverboat that is central to Frank and Dino’s rivalry as would-be gambling bosses of Galveston.  I seem to recall reading somewhere that Bronson later sued somebody for promoting this as a starring vehicle for him.

I’ve been wanting to write something about Aldrich here for a long time, something a little more substantive than including several of his films in the B100, and this post is a roundabout excuse to do so.  I can’t think of a single filmmaker, alive or dead, who could do no wrong, be it Bava, Hitchcock, or Kubrick, and Aldrich is certainly no exception, but he had more than his fair share of noteworthy credits in his oeuvre.  Among other things, he worked with Lancaster, a big BOF favorite, on four films—more than any other director except The GREAT John Frankenheimer—which in addition to those aforementioned Westerns included Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).

At his best when prefiguring or subverting entire genres and subgenres, Aldrich made heroes of a sympathetic Indian in Apache, at a time when few would do so, and unsympathetic—but weirdly compelling—p.i. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me DeadlyThe Flight of the Phoenix (1965) anticipated the wave of all-star disaster films launched, as it were, by Airport (1970), and Ulzana’s Raid used a Western setting to make a statement about the war then raging in Vietnam.  In The Dirty Dozen, he turned the star-studded WW II epic on its head twice, first by making a bunch of convicted criminals his main characters, and then by making us really care about them.

With Baby Jane, Aldrich could lay claim to creating an entire subgenre of his own, unleashing a torrent of “dotty old lady” thrillers, which he perpetuated as both a director (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964]) and a producer (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? [1969]).  In fact, he often produced his own films and, like Dino De Laurentiis, used his early success to establish his own production company, only to have it shuttered by a series of flops.  Among his directorial efforts, he’s credited as a writer on only three (Ten Seconds to Hell [1959], 4 for Texas, and Too Late the Hero [1970]) and, perhaps predictably, was never so much as nominated for an Academy Award.

Clearly, Aldrich inspired loyalty among his actors, many of whom worked with him repeatedly, from stars like Lancaster to such supporting players as Richard Jaeckel.  Lee Marvin appeared with Jaeckel in the anti-war film Attack (1956) and The Dirty Dozen, also starring in the Tom Flynn fave Emperor of the North opposite Aldrich regular Ernest Borgnine, while Jack Palance toplined the Hollywood exposé The Big Knife (1955), Attack, and Ten Seconds to Hell.  Other familiar faces include Cliff Robertson (Autumn Leaves [1956], Too Late the Hero), Bette Davis (Baby Jane, Sweet Charlotte), and Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard [1974]; Hustle [1975]).

I won’t keep you from your DVD player much longer, but I can’t resist closing with a couple of quotes, courtesy of the IMDb.  On Davis:  “[She] is a tough old broad and you fight.  But when you see what she puts on the screen you know it was worth taking all the bull.”  On Lancaster:  “He has matured gracefully, plays men his own age and understands the need not to win the girl.  He is much more tolerant of other people’s point of view.”  On Marvin:  “Look, this feller is a pretty good boozer, he’s got a short fuse, but he can be handled okay.”  And, finally, on Sinatra:  “Unpleasant man.  No one has yet worked out what really makes him tick.  But he sings well.”

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A few random thoughts as we celebrate Harvest Home:  first, while I was working on last night’s obituary for Ingrid Pitt, I went to insert a link to my B100 review of Where Eagles Dare, only to discover that there was nothing to link to.  That’s right, I must have been so busy doing whatever the hell I was doing in the aftermath of posting “Bradley’s Hundred #81-90” back in May that I plum forgot, and the sad thing is that nobody noticed, not even me.  So, one of my first orders of business when time permits (“Aye, there’s the rub”) will be to rectify this shocking oversight and treat you all, if that is the word, to the final installment of my 100 more-or-less favorite movies.

Second, on a seasonal note, I have, as always, much to be thankful for throughout the year.  I am grateful for our wonderful friends and family (both two- and four-legged), gainful employment, relatively good health, and a home I love, even if its perennially chaotic condition does drive my long-suffering spouse to distraction.  I am grateful for the long-awaited publication of my book, although I wish it had made more of a ripple; for this humble little weblog and its “small, deeply disturbed following” (per William Hurt in The Big Chill); and for the legacy of those wonderful authors and filmmakers who ensure that I might run out of time to write this, but never material.

Finally, Bruno’s puckish comment on my recent Thriller post—yes, I’ll wait while you go and check it out—reminds me that I never did recount the story of this blog’s abortive original title, obliquely promised back in March, so, as the saying goes, there’s no time like the present.  You will be unsurprised to learn that my home-video library is vast indeed, requiring me to catalog its contents.  Possibly inspired by my Penguin pal Tom (I forget the chronology here), I wanted said catalog to be much more than a mere list of titles, but a collection of capsule reviews, written in a customarily off-beat, in-joke-laden style for the benefit (?) of the few who would actually read it.

Thus was born an ever-expanding document known as “Holdings of the Bradley Video Library” or, less formally, The BVL Catalog, which I (never one to waste good material) sometimes draw upon when creating posts for BOF.  The need for such a catalog became increasingly acute as the BVL grew exponentially, and I could no longer remember all of the riches it contained.  For that, I am eternally thankful to have known my friend Brian G. Ehlert, and although he did not live to see this blog, which I fancy myself he would have richly enjoyed, he is integral to this story, and indeed, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to say that without him there might be no story.

Brian was, shall we say, a compulsive giver, and as compulsions go you could do a lot worse; we used to call him “the gift that keeps on giving” and Santa Ehlert.  He had a home-video library to dwarf any I’ve seen before or since, including not only professional releases but also stuff he had been taping from TV for ages, with many rarities that were—and perhaps remain—commercially unavailable.  Because he subsisted on an annuity, he didn’t work, which left him all day to make me (and my friends) copies of countless films and television episodes, first on VHS and then on DVD when burners became available, refusing reimbursement for blank tapes, discs, or postage.

Needless to say, we gratefully bombarded him with gifts at every available holiday, but nothing could equal his relentless generosity.  As a result of various upgradings and downsizings (he and his surviving significant other relocated a lot), he even gave us a laserdisc player, with more than a hundred discs, and our very first DVD player.  We had many interests in common, and we met through a personal ad courtesy of the now-defunct Movie and Entertainment Book Club, which I had posted in search of The Beat Generation, one of at least two Richard Matheson movies that, to the best of my knowledge, has never gotten a legitimate release…but of course he had a copy.

So I ended up with a document approaching 200 pages, complete with cross-referenced alternate titles, and the longer it got, the more often it occurred to me that this might make a book of some sort, kinda like Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide on acid, but what to call it?  It had to have a title that was catchy and hip and irreverent, while giving the reader some idea of the recurring elements that characterized many, if not all, of the films covered therein.  The genres most often represented were, naturlich, horror, science fiction, war, Westerns, mystery/noir, and exploitation, and after pondering what several of the categories had in common, I came up with Guns, Monsters, and Naked Women.

Obviously, that book never happened—or has yet to happen?—yet fate intervened when my friend Gilbert urged me to launch a website, which might serve both to promote Richard Matheson on Screen when it was released, and as a vehicle for some of my material that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day, except to a [smaller] handful of people.  My natural impulse was to retain the GM&NW title, which would have pleased me mightily, but I was afraid that “naked women” might give people the wrong idea (I don’t exactly review porno films here) and scare them away from what is, essentially, a family blog, so I wimped out and went with BOF.  And that’s the long of it, as Gilbert would say.

Bradley out, wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

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Presumptuous though it may be, when someone I’ve interviewed dies, I always feel like I’ve lost one of my own, and this is truer than usual in the case of Ingrid Pitt, who left us Tuesday at 73, although she seemed far younger—fitting for a star who embodied a vampire more than once in her memorable career.  First and foremost, of course, she played Heidi in my favorite film of all time, Where Eagles Dare (1968), as well as appearing in two other works that loom large in my legend, The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Smiley’s People (1982).  When I spoke with Ingrid for what became the cover story in Filmfax #62, I felt both an incredible vivacity and a far stronger connection than I have had with many of my other “victims,” despite her being an ocean away.

Ingrid’s relationship with the horror/SF genre dates back at least as far as her early Spanish credit El Sonido Prehistorico (The Prehistoric Sound, aka The Sound of Horror, 1964), which concerns an invisible dinosaur…one way to economize on special effects, I suppose.  Her other pre-Eagles roles reportedly included uncredited appearances in films ranging from Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (both 1965) to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).  Just before being featured in Alistair MacLean’s blockbuster, Ingrid starred in W. Lee Wilder’s justly obscure genre effort The Omegans (1968); I’ve already shared some of her recollections about that film and the Brothers Wilder in “The Wilder Bunch, Part I.”

Ingrid related an amusing story about being cast as Heidi:  “I was doing [an episode of] Dundee and the Culhane with John Mills.  Ralph Meeker was also on it.  He rang me up and asked me if I would like to go and play poker at [famed stuntman] Yakima Canutt’s house.  I had laryngitis but I thought, well, I couldn’t miss a big opportunity like that.  We went and it was absolutely amazing….When I’d lost all my money and had to cry ‘Uncle,’ Yak walked me to the door.  As I got in the taxi, he leaned in and said, ‘There’s a part in the film I’m just starting, why don’t you go for that?…Mention my name,’ he said as he slammed the cab door.  Of course, mentioning certain people’s names is magic.  I got to see Brian Hutton for three seconds the next day…”

Ingrid had several memorable scenes, and inspired a hilarious line from Richard Burton:  “She’s been one of our top agents in Bavaria since 1941, and…[leering at her ample décolletage] what a disguise.”  She enjoyed making the film, but lamented that “they gave me really lousy billing.  [Producer] Elliott [Kastner] had promised me, ‘Introducing Ingrid Pitt’…[but] it didn’t happen.  He forgot—he said.…I was just at the very end, since my name starts with ‘P,’ and the cinemas are empty by the time my name comes around.”  She experienced another disappointment with Hutton’s follow-up film, which reunited him with Clint Eastwood:  “I was going to be in Kelly’s Heroes [1970], and then he decided he didn’t want women in it after all.  I nearly killed him.”

Eagles is best known for action sequences such as its legendary fight atop a cable car.  “Yak was doing the great shot of the stuntman, Alf Joint, jumping from one cable car to the other….Alf was hovering in front of the camera as the cable car started to go.  (And didn’t he look just like Richard hovering there?)  The next cable car came towards him, and you must imagine hundreds of people, everybody watching.  They got into frame and Yak said, ‘Get those people out of the way!’…Anyway, when Yakima…said, ‘GO!,’ Alf went.  Unfortunately, the force of the thrust as he leapt for the other car caused the cable car to swing and the camera fell off.  Luckily none of the crew followed it.  Elliott went berserk.  They had to shoot the whole dodgy sequence again.”

Next, Ingrid appeared in a trio of films that ensured her iconic status among horror fans:  Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers and Peter Sasdy’s Countess Dracula (1971) for Hammer, and the Robert Bloch-scripted anthology film The House That Dripped Blood (1971) for Amicus.  As fond as I was of Ingrid, I’ve never been a big fan of Countess Dracula, which in spite of its title concerns not a vampire but Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614), the Hungarian countess who was said to retain her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins.  At least I’m consistent, because I feel the same way about other films directed by Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970; Hands of the Ripper, 1971) or inspired by Báthory (Daughters of Darkness, 1971; Blood Castle, 1973).

Of her nude bathing scene in The Vampire Lovers, Ingrid said, “I had asked Jimmy [Carreras] to call his two producers [Harry Fine and Michael Style] up to London to show rushes.  I thought I might be a little inhibited.  They had this way of looking at me.  I thought, if they’re in London with Jimmy, then maybe it would be a sort of closed set…I came out of my dressing room and saw [the two producers] coming down the corridor en route to the car park with heads hanging down, very sad.  I thought, ‘God damn it, look what I’ve done!’  I had this terrycloth robe on and felt an uncontrollable urge to brighten their lives, so I whipped it open, did a bit of a jiggle and said, ‘Woo-whee!’  I tell you, Matthew, it made them so happy!  They were so bloody happy!”

Ingrid shared billing with Peter Cushing in The Vampire Lovers and The House That Dripped Blood, and with Christopher Lee in the latter, although the three starred in separate segments; she also appeared with Lee in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), written by Anthony Shaffer of Frenzy and Sleuth (both 1972) fame.  Other credits included two multi-part episodes of Doctor Who (“The Time Monster” and “Warriors of the Deep”) and the Reginald Rose-scripted action films The Final Option (aka Who Dares Wins, 1982) and Wild Geese II (1985).  But it is for the sanguinary roles she approached with such good humor and joie de vivre that we will remember Ingrid, and for the enthusiasm that made the word “fantastic” a veritable mantra in our interview.

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I realize the expression “late to the party” doesn’t even begin to describe my situation, but now that John Scoleri and Peter Enfantino have expertly explicated all 67 episodes on their ambitious and highly entertaining blog A Thriller a Day (ATAD), I finally have the Image Entertainment 14-DVD boxed set of the entire series.  (It was supposed to be a belated birthday present—from last June—but that’s another story.)  I won’t waste your time or mine by rehashing their post on Matheson’s sole episode, “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” yet this does give me an opportunity to discuss the audio commentary, one of those special features that have Thriller fans so excited.

Matheson adapted this second-season script from the story by H.P. Lovecraft disciple August Derleth and Mark Shorer, which debuted in Weird Tales in September 1932.  It appeared in their 1966 Arkham House collection Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People, whose title tale became another memorable Thriller episode, “The Incredible Doktor Markesan.”  Ellis Corbett (director John Newland) inherits the home of his uncle, Amos Wilder (Terence de Marney), and joins forces with Dr. Weatherbee (Philip Bourneuf) and Rev. Burkhardt (Oscar Beregi) to protect Amos’s remains from ghostly sorcerer Bentley (Reggie Nalder) and his familiar (Tom Hennesy).

Image provides commentaries by various genre historians for almost half of the episodes, and the pedigree of those tackling “Bentley” is impeccable.  Gary Gerani was one of the producers of those very same DVD special features, while novelist and screenwriter David J. Schow, as well as being a Thriller aficionado and the author of The Outer Limits Companion, is cited more than once in Richard Matheson on Screen.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Messrs. Scoleri and Enfantino will be giving The Outer Limits the ATAD treatment on their newest blog, We Are Controlling Transmission (hereinafter WACT, pronounced “whacked”), which debuts on New Year’s Day.

Gerani and Schow intone the inevitable litany of other genre credits for the cast and crew, e.g., Antoinette Bower (featured as Ellis’s wife, Sheila), who starred in “Waxworks” and “Catspaw,” written by Robert Bloch for Thriller and Star Trek, respectively.  Newland is best known for helming and hosting every episode of One Step Beyond (aka Alcoa Presents) and directing Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973).  Ken Renard, who played ill-fated caretaker Jacob, was also seen in Newland’s “Pigeons from Hell,” widely regarded as Thriller’s finest episode, and de Marney appropriately appeared in the Lovecraft film Monster of Terror (aka Die, Monster, Die, 1965).

“Bentley” is well-regarded among Thriller experts, popping up on several top ten lists by the ATAD creators and commentators (who occasionally included yours truly), and Gerani and Schow have fun enumerating sets and visual motifs familiar from other episodes.  Thriller was produced by Universal’s television arm, Revue Studios, and they point out that although the whale-like face of the Lovecraftian familiar (with Jack Barron’s makeup obscured by a smeared lens) was unique in the Universal canon, his claws were in fact those of the Creature from the Black Lagoon!  Aptly, Hennesy played the Gill Man on land in Revenge of the Creature (1955).

Gerani and Schow observe that while Matheson typically depicts an element of the extraordinary intruding on the lives of ordinary people, the average episode of Thriller inverts this framework, with ordinary people like the Corbetts intruding on extraordinary events.  They argue that he and Thriller were perhaps not the best match, a sentiment Matheson might share.  Despite publishing two stories (“Wet Straw” and “Slaughter House”) in Weird Tales himself, he noted in one of our Filmfax interviews that he did not care for Lovecraft’s kind of writing, and lamented the changes made to his teleplay, which toned down the bantering relationship he’d intended for the Corbetts.

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Tor.com Alert 11/16/10

I apologize for the minimalist nature of this post, which is basically intended to let you know that as usual, you can find the most recent installment of my “Richard Matheson—Storyteller” series, devoted to Duel, on Tor.com.  I’d hoped to be able to share some more news about the book, but after that first flurry of a reprint, a review, and an interview, things seem to be pretty quiet on the McFarland front.  God willing, this just means that the world is catching its collective breath and waiting to unleash a second wave of enthusiasm for my little opus, Richard Matheson on Screen.

Bradley out, in more ways than one, after burning the candle at both ends for far too long…

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When Richard Matheson published Journal of the Gun Years in 1991, he won the Golden Spur Award for best novel from the Western Writers of America straight out of the gate.  This was quickly followed by The Gun Fight, the collection By the Gun, the horror-tinged Shadow on the Sun, and the fact-based The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok.  Many readers might not know that, rather than representing yet another new facet to the ever-protean author’s oeuvre, these books marked a return to territory he had trod at the beginning of his career on both page and screen.

While recuperating in a British hospital from combat-related injuries suffered in Germany with the U.S. Infantry in World War II, Matheson read two Westerns a day.  He did not neglect the genre when he began publishing stories in a wide variety of magazines a few years later.  His contributions were “They Don’t Make ’em Tougher” (Dime Western, May 1951), “The Hunt” (West, March 1952), “The Conqueror” (Bluebook, May 1954), “Too Proud to Lose” (Fifteen Western Tales, February 1955), and “Son of a Gunman” (Western Magazine, December 1955).

At the time Matheson and his friend Charles Beaumont eagerly plunged into the burgeoning medium of television, Westerns ruled the airwaves; 29 sagebrush series reportedly aired in prime time in 1959 alone.  The fledgling screenwriters decided that they would benefit from a little mutual support outside their normal bailiwick of horror, science fiction, and fantasy.  This led them to collaborate on episodes of various oaters and the now-obscure detective shows Bourbon Street Beat, The D.A.’s Man, Markham, Philip Marlowe, and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

They fared better with Westerns, co-writing episodes of the classic series Wanted: Dead or Alive (“The Healing Woman”) and Have Gun—Will Travel (“The Lady on the Wall”), as well as the lesser-known Buckskin (“Act of Faith”).  Matheson went solo on one episode of the long-running Cheyenne (“Home Is the Brave”) and six for Lawman, more than he wrote for any series except The Twilight Zone.  Producer Jules Schermer ensured that his teleplays, including two based on unsold stories later published in By the Gun, were filmed as written, and used talented directors.

Other series to which Matheson contributed are readily available on DVD, including Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and now Thriller.  But Encore Westerns has been airing episodes of Lawman weekdays at 9:00 AM, giving viewers a chance to catch some of his work that might previously have eluded them.  The show features John Russell—who later popped up in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Honkytonk Man (1982), and Pale Rider (1985)—as the titular lawman, Marshal Dan Troop of Laramie, Wyoming, with Peter Brown as his young deputy, Johnny McKay.

In the second season’s “Thirty Minutes,” adapted from “Of Death and Thirty Minutes,” Jack Elam is the heavy who holds the occupants of a saloon hostage, demanding that Troop disarm.  Matheson won the Writers Guild Award for his first of four third-season episodes, “Yawkey,” with a gunman (Ray Danton) stating his intention to meet Troop in the street and kill him.  Stuart Heisler directed both “Yawkey” and “Samson the Great,” in which Walter Burke offers fifty dollars to anyone who can stay in the ring for two minutes with Mickey Simpson, previously seen in “Home Is the Brave.”

“Cornered,” based on “Little Jack Cornered,” puts Johnny at center stage as he is forced into a fatal confrontation with Frank DeKova, and then endures pressure to face up to his presumably vengeful son.  “Homecoming” evokes the real-time structures of both “Thirty Minutes” and the classic High Noon as Troop awaits the arrival of escaped convict Marc Lawrence (also the director of “Cornered”).  In the show’s fourth and final season, John Carradine made a memorable guest turn as “The Actor,” an alcoholic Shakespearean who brings dramaturgy and tragedy with him to Laramie in equal measure.

Long ago, Matheson adapted The Gun Fight into an unproduced screenplay with his friend William R. Cox, stuck the then-unsold novel into a drawer…and forgot he had written it in prose form, until he stumbled across it after the success of Journal of the Gun Years.  I remember him telling me that he’d heard Martin Scorsese was interested in the genre, and he hoped to get a copy of Journal into Scorsese’s hands, but I don’t think anything ever came of it.  He later adapted it for a miniseries to have been directed by Dan Curtis, only to have the project fall apart, yet we can still savor Lawman.

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Dino’s Paradox

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that the name of Dino De Laurentiis, who died on Thursday at the ripe old age of 91, conjures up mixed emotions in me.  On the one hand, he produced David Lynch’s Dune (1984), which—despite its many detractors and my own bitterness over Lynch’s inability (or unwillingness) to create a true director’s cut, after it was severely truncated for its original release—I have spent the last 26 years defending against all comers.  On the other hand, he also made the 1976 version of King Kong, which not only was one of the most reviled genre films of its era, but also could serve as a poster child for today’s tsunami of ill-advised remakes.

I find it telling that we think of it as “the De Laurentiis Kong” rather than “the [John] Guillermin Kong,” because we usually refer to a film as either, say, “a Humphrey Bogart movie” or, if we’re the type who pays the slightest attention to credits, “an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”  We’ll make an exception if it’s based on a book by a household name like Stephen King or, perchance, made by a rare craftsman such as Ray Harryhausen, who always outshone his directors.  But how often do we identify a film first and foremost by its producer, unless it’s Val Lewton (and I don’t mean to take anything away from his fine directors, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise)?

This is not to say that Dino didn’t work with distinctive directors, e.g., John Huston (The Bible, 1966), Mario Bava (Danger: Diabolik, 1968), Sidney Lumet (Serpico, 1973), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, 1975), Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 1976), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg, 1977), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone, 1983), Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986).  It is also not to say that we necessarily think of a De Laurentiis movie as “a De Laurentiis movie.”  And yet, if Orca (1977) and Flash Gordon (1984) can be said to have a distinctive stamp, it is more likely his than those of directors Michael Anderson or Mike Hodges.

I know little of Dino’s early career in Italy, where he married Silvana Mangano, who starred in his first hit, Bitter Rice (1949); bore him producer Raffaella and three other children; played Rev. Mother Ramallo in Dune; and stayed married to him until she died in 1989.  After a partnership with Carlo Ponti, including Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), he established his own production facility, Dinocitta, in Rome.  A string of flops forced him to sell it and, having relocated his base of operations to the U.S., he repeated the same scenario with the DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina in the 1980s.

Dino enjoyed one of his longest collaborations with Charles Bronson, ranging from the actor’s supporting role in Battle of the Bulge (1965) through Michael Winner’s mega-hit Death Wish (1974) to the bizarre The White Buffalo (1977), which I rather enjoyed despite its representing Bronson’s nine-film wallow with declining director J. Lee Thompson.  It also included Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers (1972), Winner’s The Stone Killer, and John Sturges’s Chino (both 1973).  Dino also followed The Dead Zone with four decidedly lesser King pictures:  Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet (both 1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986), and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).

In the final analysis, I probably disliked—or was at best indifferent to—more of Dino’s movies than I liked; for example, as much as I admire Manhunter, my regard steadily lessened through Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002), and I skipped Hannibal Rising (2007) altogether.  He also worked with some of my least favorite filmmakers, e.g., John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), Michael Cimino (Year of the Dragon, 1985; Desperate Hours, 1990).  And yet he made a few films I truly love, including not only The Dead Zone and Dune, but also The Bounty (1984), so let us focus on the quantity if not always the quality of his oeuvre, and hits rather than misses.

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Tor.com Alert 11/9/10

Well, Tor.com has actually formalized the whole “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” thing, noting today that, “Every Tuesday, Matthew R. Bradley takes us through the career of Richard Matheson,” and sure enough, there’s my latest post, devoted to Hell House.  The funny thing is, it didn’t start out to be that formal; it was just going to be, as I called it, “A Series of Irregular (Sometimes Highly Irregular) Posts,” with no particular scheme or structure.  Yet I’ve spent so many years trying to explicate Richard’s film and television oeuvre within the context of his overall career that I think my mind just naturally works that way, and structure came unbidden.

When I started the “Richard Matheson—Storyteller” series, my main concern initially was that I not simply regurgitate big chunks of the book, and only partly because I feared that McFarland might object.  I don’t mind if the posts seem like a great big ad for the book, yet I’d like to feel that those who will read the book might enjoy them in their own right, so without reinventing the wheel, I have tried to write each one mostly from scratch, to use a somewhat less academic tone, and to throw in some tidbits that didn’t make it into the book.  Meanwhile, as noted, John Scoleri has been writing a series of parallel posts for the bare•bones e-zine, and in his latest installment of “Richard Matheson—The Original Stories,” he calls my book “exhaustive and indispensable.”

But, in the immortal words of Al Jolson, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, because the first honest-to-God review of Richard Matheson on Screen, promised a few weeks ago by John Kenneth Muir, is in, and if I may say so myself, it’s a humdinger.  Man, I’m not even gonna TRY to appear cool and professional about this, because I am so stoked it’s not even funny, not only because he liked the book (obviously), but also because he so completely got what I was going for, letting Richard tell as much of the story as possible in his own words, preferably (but not necessarily) said to me.  Tempting as it is to quote the whole damn thing in its entirety, I’ll restrict myself to a few gems:

“Bradley is resolutely the right man for this task.  Without relying on hyperbole, without resorting to blind praise, Bradley carefully and patiently charts [Matheson’s] multi-decade film and television contributions…Because of Bradley’s attention to detail and straight-forward, informative writing style, [this] is a work of solid scholarship, and more than that, a compelling window on a one-in-a-million career….Bradley is excellent with words and with organizing his material, but he never makes the book about him [Hey, there’s a switch!]; or how he turns a sentence.  He willfully keeps out of the limelight and at the same time weaves an extremely thoroughly [sic], extremely involving narrative. His writing is crisp and clear.  He’s a good guide.”

Well, that’s enough.  You can read the rest for yourself.  STOKED!  Bradley out…on Cloud 9.

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It’s Always About Me

Although this post was inspired by the recent deaths of two figures in the entertainment world, I wish to stress at the outset that is it is not an obituary per se. I have neither the first-hand knowledge of their careers nor the time to research them sufficiently to write proper obituaries. It is more of a recollection of two specific ways in which my life indirectly intersected those of composer Jerry Bock, who died on Wednesday at 81, and actress Jill Clayburgh, who died yesterday at only 66.

Let’s start with Clayburgh, a perfect example of the sad fact that when people die and you read actual obituaries of them, you learn things you never knew, like the fact that she was married to playwright David Rabe since 1979. Rabe has written several screenplays, adapting Clayburgh’s I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can (1982) from the eponymous memoir by a former Valium addict, Barbara Gordon. For the record, he also scripted Streamers (1983), Hurlyburly (1998)—both based on his own plays—Casualties of War (1989) and The Firm (1993)…but I digress, as usual.

Clayburgh made dozens of movies, most of which I have never seen, although I do recall a few such as The Terminal Man (1974), a Michael Crichton adaptation that I hated, albeit through no fault of hers; Silver Streak (1976), a Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor vehicle that I quite liked at the age of 13, especially with Patrick McGoohan as the villain; and First Monday in October (1981), a Supreme Court comedy—it’s a small niche—with Walter Matthau. There’s another I’d love to catch, Costa-Gavras’s Hanna K. (1983). More recently I’ve seen her do solid supporting work in films as varied as Rich in Love (1992), Fools Rush In (1997), and Running with Scissors (2006).

But what I remember most about Clayburgh is that when I was 15 and my best friend Fred was a little older than I (as he remains to this day, oddly enough), my mother took us to see her in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). For those unfamiliar with the Mazursky oeuvre, he started out as an actor in the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s obscure Fear and Desire (1953) and the Richard Brooks j.d. classic Blackboard Jungle (1955). He later became the writer-director of Tempest (1982), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Moon Over Parador (1988), The Pickle (1993), and others that I either haven’t yet seen or liked less.

In An Unmarried Woman, Clayburgh earned her first of two Oscar nominations as Erica, whose husband (Michael Murphy) has an affair, forcing her to confront her identity and—via her own subsequent fling with Alan Bates—sexuality. What on earth Mom thought she was doing taking two teenaged boys to a total chick flick, or why the heck we thought we wanted to go (other than the prospect of seeing some skin, which I believe we did), I can’t imagine, but we surprised her, and perhaps ourselves, by liking it a lot. I suppose it’s the very absurdity of the situation, and the fact that I’ve seen so little of Fred since he moved up north, that makes this such a nice memory.

As for Bock, he is best known for his collaborations with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, most notably Fiorello! (a biography of New York City’s Mayor La Guardia, seemingly as unlikely a subject for a musical as the Declaration of Independence, which inspired my beloved 1776) and a little number you may have heard of called Fiddler on the Roof. Their Broadway show She Loves Me was based on the same Hungarian stageplay that has been filmed as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and You’ve Got Mail (1998). It is, however, with The Apple Tree, a trilogy of playlets based on Mark Twain’s “Diary of Adam and Eve,” Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?,” and Jules Pfeiffer’s “Passionella,” that we are concerned.

As some of you may know, I was quite the thespian in high school, bonding with my future wife in Dracula and two other plays; in retrospect, it’s quite a hoot that the woman who now shares my bed was cast as my Aunt Martha in Arsenic and Old Lace. I continued to tread the boards in college, and in both venues, with my somewhat imposing physique and voice, I was (willingly) typed as royalty, e.g., Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days, opposite my future sister-in-law in the title role, and Creon in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. Then, one of Trinity’s dramatic troupes decided to present the “Diary of Adam and Eve” section of The Apple Tree as a stand-alone play.

The show starts with a sleeping Adam being awoken by the voice of an offstage God and told to name the animals in the Garden of Eden. By now, you’ll have guessed that yours truly provided said voice, which was pre-recorded and electronically enhanced to give my booming tones even greater heft, also giving me the unusual opportunity of enjoying my brief performance from the comfort of the audience. I remember virtually nothing else about the show after almost thirty years, but I must offer Mr. Bock my posthumous thanks for letting me (literally) play God.

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