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Archive for March, 2011

Clock Watchers

I’ve never read or even acquired a copy of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock; in fact, I’m still kicking myself for not picking it up when, as I recall, Harper Perennial reissued it in 1980 along with Francis Iles’s Before the Fact, adapted by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion (1941).  But at that time I presumably had not yet seen John Farrow’s 1948 film version, starring Ray Milland at his most charming and debonair, and it would be another seven years before Roger Donaldson remade it as No Way Out (1987).  Just for fun, Madame BOF and I sat down this past weekend and watched them both on successive nights, thus confirming No Way Out as an exemplar of one of my cinematic principles, i.e., the best remakes tread a fine line between being too similar to and too different from the original.

Adapted by Jonathan Latimer, as was the 1942 version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, The Big Clock opens with Milland’s George Stroud hiding in the control room of the massive chronometer that forms the metaphoric heart of a global magazine-publishing empire, run with an iron fist by time-obsessed Earl Janoth (well-cast Charles Laughton).  A Hitchcockian innocent man on the run, George recalls the events of the past 36 hours, which began with him preparing to take his wife and their young son on an oft-delayed honeymoon.  Best known onscreen as Tarzan’s mate and offscreen as Farrow’s (bearing him seven children, including Mia), Maureen O’Sullivan is the long-suffering Georgette Stroud, who threatens George that if he misses this honeymoon train, it will be the last.

Georgette is already in a jealous tizzy after catching the tail end of, and misinterpreting, a chance meeting in a hotel bar between George and Janoth’s mistress, Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who has been trying to cadge more money out of him.  History repeats itself as Janoth once again tries to wreck George’s plans, and when threatened with dismissal if he does not postpone his honeymoon yet again, George tells Janoth to take his job and shove it.  When George gets a call from the equally disillusioned Pauline, he’s not quite ready to agree to her suggestion that they blackmail Janoth, but they do go on an epic bender—shades of Milland’s Oscar-winning role in The Lost Weekend (1945)!—that ends with George passed out on her couch, Georgette having left for the train station without him.

When Janoth inconveniently shows up at Pauline’s apartment, he sees a shadowy figure leaving by the back stairs just as he’s arriving, and in a jealous rage he brains her with a sundial they had picked up on their escapades.  Janoth quickly flees to the home of his sycophantic right-hand man, Steve Hagen (the ever-slimy and oh-so-good-at-it George Macready), who comes up with the ingenious solution of pinning the whole thing on the anonymous shadowy figure.  They ask George to reconsider and identify him, using the unique “irrelevant clue” method that has served him in such good stead in his tenure as the editor of Janoth’s Crimeways magazine, and because a wealth of circumstantial evidence misleadingly implicates him, George knows he has no choice but to agree.

This unusual premise is, in my opinion, the element that most makes The Big Clock stand out:  Janoth and Hagen have unwittingly assigned George to track down himself, so he must appear to be doing his job while actually stalling or deflecting the investigation.  It’s not a whodunit, because we know right from the outset, Columbo-style, that Janoth is the killer, as George himself soon realizes; it’s a question of whether he can clear himself by proving it in time, especially when the building is sealed to let one of several witnesses identify the “killer.”  Increasing the familial aspect, Elsa Lanchester (the longtime Mrs. Laughton) plays one of said witnesses, eccentric artist Louise Patterson, who agrees to create a rendering of the suspect, and then discovers that George is one of her few fans.

Not to be confused with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film of the same name, No Way Out is dedicated to its celebrated cinematographer, John Alcott, who died before it was released and had won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (1975), one of four collaborations with Stanley Kubrick.  It also features a splendid score by the great Maurice Jarre and a fine cast headed by Kevin Costner, fresh from playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables that same year; Gene Hackman, an Oscar-winner for the BOF faves The French Connection (1971) and Unforgiven (1992); and Sean Young, who achieved genre immortality with Blade Runner (1982).  Donaldson’s credits include The Bounty (1984), Dante’s Peak (1997), and The Getaway (1994), which I preferred to Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 original.

One of the interesting things about No Way Out is that despite also being related in a flashback, during an interrogation of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Farrell (Costner), the first third bears virtually no resemblance to The Big Clock.  At a ritzy Washington, D.C., function, Tom encounters Susan Atwell (Young), who cops to being the “date” of a married man, and the two fall immediately into bed together, or at least into the back seat of her chauffeured limousine, accompanied by a cheesy ’80s title song from Paul Anka.  An act of heroism at sea brings Tom to the attention of Defense Secretary David Brice (Hackman), who recruits him as his liaison to the intelligence community, and Tom is stunned to learn that the man with whom he shares Susan’s sexual favors is his new boss.

Around the 45-minute mark, synchronicity suddenly kicks in:  Brice indistinctly sees, but is clearly seen by, the departing Tom as he arrives at Susan’s love nest, and accidentally propels her over a balcony and through a glass coffee table.  Brice’s hero-worshipping advisor, Scott Pritchard, is now overtly gay (although those looking for undertones might find them in the Janoth-Hagen relationship), and played by another frequent cinematic sleazeball, Will Patton, who graduated to main villain in Costner’s The Postman (1997).  Befitting the remake’s espionage milieu, Pritchard proposes that they finger Susan’s killer as the elusive “Yuri,” a Soviet mole who has been rumored for years to have penetrated the Pentagon, and get Tom either to smoke him out or to serve as the fall guy if he fails.

Technology plays an important part in the updating, such as the computer program that can pull an identifiable image off the backing of a Polaroid photo, forcing Tom to confide in his old friend, computer whiz Sam Hesselman (George Dzundza), and ask him to slow the process.  This increases the suspense during the climactic sealed-building sequence, and Tom also has Sam insert evidence into the State Department’s system that will link Brice to Susan.  Donaldson and screenwriter Robert Garland up the action quotient by replacing Janoth’s silently sinister enforcer, Bill Womack (M*A*S*H’s Harry Morgan), with two death-squad goons and adding a car chase in which Tom tries to stop them from killing Susan’s friend Nina Beka (Iman), who knew all about her relationship with Brice.

Both films end with the Janoth figure painted into a corner and attempting to throw his loyal number two under the bus, although the outcomes are rather different, but No Way Out adds a last-minute twist that seems superfluous, and serves only to give the picture a downbeat ending.  While each has its far-fetched elements, I think the story of The Big Clock hangs together a little better, so if push came to shove, I’d probably pick that over No Way Out.  That said, however, both versions hold up extremely well as entertainment, effectively representing their respective categories of ’40s mystery-noir and ’80s action-suspense, and No Way Out demonstrates how a talented team of filmmakers can take the central elements of a vintage film and rework them into a new one that stands on its own.

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The Blob

On the occasion of Steve McQueen’s 81st birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

One of the best-remembered and most beloved films of the Fifties, in the SF or any other genre, The Blob gave the young actor then billed as “Steven” McQueen his first shot at stardom.  It was the brainchild of Philadelphia native and childhood vaudeville performer Jack H. Harris, a film distributor who left an indelible mark on the cinema with this maiden effort as a producer.

Harris wanted to take the budget of two of the black-and-white SF films he was handling and make one in color, with an alien form of flesh-consuming mineral life as its simple monster.  He then shared this formula with a friend of his, Irvine H. Millgate, a professor of humanities at Northwestern University, who developed—and received screen credit for—the idea of the film.

Director Irvin S. “Shorty” Yeaworth, Jr., was a Methodist minister recruited from an arts colony in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was making religious films.  Yeaworth had his close friend Kate Phillips (who, as Kay Linaker, had appeared in almost fifty films during the 1930s and ‘40s), then writing teleplays for Playhouse 90, polish Theodore Simonson’s script.

Yeaworth also directed the SF films 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960) for Harris, but has few credits outside of his religious pictures.  It was while McQueen’s then-wife, Neile, was appearing in one of the latter that he first made the acquaintance of Yeaworth, who took a dislike to the actor’s hellraising personality (he reportedly referred to McQueen as “a dirty guy”).

But Harris had been impressed with McQueen’s intense performance in “The Defender,” the two-part Studio One episode with William Shatner that became the basis for the series The Defenders.  Hoping they could curb his antisocial tendencies, he and Yeaworth wisely decided to take a chance on the actor, who soon hit the big time with his own series, Wanted: Dead or Alive.

Although twenty-seven at that time, McQueen was cast as teenaged Steve Andrews, who sees a meteorite fall while necking with his girlfriend, Jane Martin (Aneta Corseaut).  By the time they locate its landing site, the meteorite’s gelatinous, colorless contents have oozed onto the arm of an unfortunate old man (Olin Howlin), whom the two teenagers immediately rush to a doctor.

After dallying with Steve’s drag-racing pals, he and Jane return to the doctor’s office just in time for Steve to see him killed by the Blob, as were his nurse and the old man.  But because it completely consumes its victims, turning blood-red in the process, the Blob leaves no evidence, and the quickly summoned police write off the reports of a monster as just another teen prank.

While their friends try to warn the town’s populace of the literally growing danger, Steve and Jane investigate his father’s ominously deserted supermarket and encounter the Blob, which has eaten an auto mechanic in the meantime.  Barricaded inside the store’s walk-in freezer, they are saved when the Blob begins to squeeze beneath the door and suddenly, inexplicably, retreats.

In one of the most memorable sequences, the Blob overwhelms an entire cinema during a midnight showing of Daughter of Horror (1957).  Harris, who has a cameo as one of the patrons fleeing the theater, had distributed this recut version of writer-director John Parker’s dialogue-free cult movie Dementia (1955), adding narration by Ed McMahon, then a local TV announcer.

When Steve, Jane, and her little brother are trapped inside a diner, a power line that is dropped ineffectually onto the Blob starts a fire, and as Steve extinguishes the flames with CO2, he sees the Blob recoil.  Remembering its retreat from the freezer, he deduces that the cold is anathema to the Blob, and conveys this information to a sympathetic cop, Dave (Earl Rowe).

Quickly, the other kids break into the high school and retrieve more extinguishers, with which the Blob is frozen, contracting sufficiently to let our heroes escape through the windows of the diner.  The Blob is then airlifted to the Arctic by the Air Force, while the words “The End” appear on the screen and, in a short-lived Harris trademark, metamorphose into a question mark.

One element of The Blob’s success was its catchy theme song, “Beware of the Blob,” by future Oscar winners Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Completed in 1957, the film was awaiting its release by Paramount (which was negotiating to buy “The Purple People-Eater,” until Harris intervened) when the tune was added, so there was no space to insert a credit for its composers.

The Blob has become not only a pop-culture phenomenon, but also a kind of cottage industry for its producer, spawning a sequel, a remake, and a redubbed spoof.  Harris has also spoken of his desire to do another remake, a rock musical, and a TV series based on the film, although he resisted pressure to produce an immediate sequel, which took more than a decade.

Beware! The Blob (aka Son of Blob, 1972) was written by Harris’s son Anthony, who also co-produced the sequel, and Jack Woods.  A veteran sound effects editor, Woods directed, wrote, and starred in the finished version of Equinox (1971), one of several projects that Harris acquired and vastly revamped for release as features, sometimes to the chagrin of the original filmmakers.

Actor Larry Hagman inspired Harris, then his next-door neighbor in Malibu, to revive the idea he and his son had abandoned, which then became Hagman’s feature-film directorial debut.  He cast a number of his comedian and celebrity friends (e.g., Shelley Berman, Burgess Meredith, Godfrey Cambridge, Carol Lynley), giving the sequel a comic twist that Harris had not intended.

Robert Walker, Jr., stars in the sequel, in which Arctic pipeline worker Cambridge finds the Blob and unwittingly brings it back to civilization, where he becomes its latest victim.  The Blob once again grows out of control, consuming most of Hagman’s celebrity guest-stars along the way, until it is finally frozen once more in a bowling alley that doubles as an ice-skating rink.

Hollywood mainstay Tim Baar (aka Barr), who also had a small role as the owner of the bowling alley, provided the special effects, utilizing essentially the same pre-CGI techniques as Bart Sloane had in the original.  Sloane’s method was a simple but still impressive combination of frame-by-frame animation and in-camera effects, using colored silicone to represent the Blob.

Thirty years after the original was released, Chuck Russell directed a remake of The Blob (1988), which he wrote with future Oscar nominee Frank Darabont.  Russell initiated the project with New World, which eventually put it in turnaround, and after A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) had made him a hot property, he was able to strike a deal with Tri-Star.

Unfortunately for Harris, said deal also involved financing from another producer, Elliott Kastner, and gave Russell final creative control over the results.  Harris objected to elements like a more elaborate climax, in which the military is brought in to battle the Blob, and the choice of an effects team that was eventually—and expensively—replaced, but he had no say in the matter.

The remake follows much of the original story, but adds an unexpected jolt as its apparent hero, clean-cut Donovan Leitch, is consumed.  His girlfriend (Shawnee Smith) then joins forces with a young tough (Kevin Dillon), and eventually blows up an artificial snow truck to freeze the Blob, which can form tentacles and is revealed to be a governmental experiment in germ warfare.

In its most recent incarnation to date, the 1958 Blob was given new dialogue by a comedy group, The L.A. Connection, and became Blobermouth (1991).  Co-produced by Harris’s then-wife, Judith Parker Harris, this spoof added an animated mouth to the Blob, and re-envisions the entire tale as a rivalry between aspiring stand-up comics (embodied by the Blob and McQueen).

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Taylor Made

In one of those bizarre coincidences that seem to characterize my life, I was just introducing my daughter to Richard Brooks’s 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Sunday night, and discussing leading lady Elizabeth Taylor at some length.  Today, while The Winter from Hell reasserts itself as The Winter That Wouldn’t Die (with a second snowfall since the start of so-called spring), Liz has left us at 79 after suffering from congestive heart failure for years.  While it would be disingenuous of me to present myself as one of her bigger fans, there are enough of what I consider high points in her career to merit attention, not least of them Cat.

If I was slow to come to what appreciation I do have for La Taylor, it should be noted that in the year I was born, she was entering the most notorious phase of her marital merry-go-round, about to dump hubby #4, Eddie Fisher, for #s 5 and 6, Richard Burton, her co-star in Cleopatra (1963).  Mind you, this was after she’d already stolen Eddie—who “consoled” her while she mourned #3, showman Mike Todd—from Debbie Reynolds (doubtless earning the eternal enmity of daughter Carrie Fisher).  As I grew up, she got older, and heavier, and more often wed and divorced, and Cleopatra went on to symbolize Hollywood excess at its worst, so I didn’t take her too seriously.

Then, somewhere along the line, I saw Cat for the first time, and started to understand what all of the fuss was about; as I told my daughter, the story really doesn’t work unless you take one look at Maggie and say, “Brick, man, what the hell’s wrong with you?”  Alexandra, who has read the play and is often very critical of what she considers miscast stage roles onscreen (e.g., Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof [2005], a show she herself has directed), said Taylor was the perfect choice, and had been somewhat softened for the film.  Fine by me, since Williams’s work is often downbeat, and I found the relatively hopeful ending of Cat, or at least the cinematic one, a pleasant surprise.

Time went by and I discovered even earlier examples of the young and luminous Liz:  striking at only 11 in Jane Eyre (1943); holding her own opposite a canine superstar in Lassie Come Home (1943) and Courage of Lassie (1946); and as the object of the exercise in the original Father of the Bride (1950) and Father’s Little Dividend (1951).  In all fairness, I’ve never seen most of her movies, and through no fault of her own, many of them simply aren’t my cup of tea.  During the 1950s, she made three consecutive films epitomizing why that remains my least favorite decade in cinema history:  The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Giant (1956), and Raintree County (1957).

Several good ones teamed her with Burton (who, you’ll recall, starred in my #1 favorite, Where Eagles Dare [1969]), including Mike Nichols’s dazzling debut, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew.  I don’t remember The Comedians (1967) that well, but it reunited Graham Greene and Alec Guinness from Our Man in Havanah (1959), so how bad could it be?  And, having just seen Olympia Dukakis onstage in the Williams flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, I’m dying to see Liz and Dick’s take on it, Boom! (1968), so as we mark her passing, I look forward to discovering more of her work.

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It’s Movie Night at the Villa in Ozone Park, and we’re kicking off with an excellent choice that I provided:  Phase IV, the sole directorial effort by Saul Bass, famed for his title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, e.g., Psycho.  It’s kind of like The Andromeda Strain meets The Naked Jungle, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in, as scientists Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy grapple with the threat to humankind from ants that are, for once, not giant but super-intelligent.  The only other main character is a young woman who might be considered collateral damage, and is played by Peter Sellers’s sometime wife, Lynn Frederick.

Besotted with the ’70s as I am, I argue that a film like Phase IV seems unlikely to be made today, and it’s worth watching for the microphotography by Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle) alone.  But our follow-up film, Night of the Lepus, is quintessentially ’70s in a rather different way, featuring a dubious collection of pseudo-stars (Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley) alongside the still-luminous Janet Leigh.  We chuckle over the challenge posed to MGM’s marketing department by a film involving giant killer bunnies (someday I’d love to track down the novel on which it’s based, Russell Braddon’s The Year of the Angry Rabbit), and the hilarious special effects involving blown-up shots of real rabbits meant to look menacing.

During our affectionately raucous evening, there is considerable debate over the degree, if any, to which I dislike films specifically due to downbeat endings; Tom is asking Gilbert and me for examples fitting that description and, amusingly enough, all that keep coming up are downbeat films I DO love.  There are, naturlich, exceptions to the I-don’t-like-unhappy-endings rule, but right now it looks like more exception than rule!  This forms a pattern repeated with slight variations all night long, as my increasingly porous memory is consistently unable to exemplify various tenets of my cinematic likes and dislikes, which Gil and I know exist.

The less said about the lowbrow comedy Gentlemen Broncos the better, but Tom really knocks it out of the park with his next pick, Kelly’s Heroes, and as anyone who knows me well can tell you, for me, there’s just no bad time to watch Kelly’s Heroes.  We marvel yet again over the indomitable force of nature that is Clint, and remark upon the film’s interesting place in the Eastwood oeuvre, coming at a time when he had already made Leone’s spaghetti Western trilogy but not yet become the iconic Clint of the Dirty Harry films.  He exhibited a fun and funky dynamic while willingly sharing the spotlight with Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Don Rickles or—as he did in director Brian G. Hutton’s other BOF favorite, Where Eagles Dare—Richard Burton.

This, by the way, is what Bugs Bunny would call “a momentous hysterical occasion,” because for the first time in my memory, instead of ordering in takeout, The Host with the Most is treating us to a homemade meal of spaghetti and meatballs, a hearty and scrumptious change of pace.  At least partly out of courtesy to our late arrival, Chris, whose work schedule obligated him to come around 10:00 (Gilbert was already there when I showed up at 7:45, after a door-to-door trip of three hours and ten minutes from MBI), the pasta does not make its appearance until very late in the game.  Not surprisingly, though, it is well worth the wait, and of course we’ve had Tom’s usual snack spread—plus Madame BOF’s walnut chocolate-chip cookies—to tide us over.

Tom attempts to entertain us with some DVD extras from a recent documentary on his main man, Motorhead mainstay Lemmy Kilmister, but then appears to have second thoughts, and fortuitously hits on the beginning of BOF underdog fave Strange Days.  Unfortunately, Gil has to get up in the morning, and I don’t want to keep him awake, so shortly before 4:00 AM we reluctantly shut off Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett.  I sleep better than usual (when not in my own bed) for a few hours before Tom’s freakish-looking alarm clock gets Gil going, and gives me the opportunity to kick back for a bit before I have to begin the long journey home from the Villa.

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Sorry I’m a little slow off the mark with this one, but my online time has been extremely limited lately for a variety of reasons (not least of them a massive motivational meltdown), and I’ve only just become aware of it.  It seems that the good folks at Tor.com, fresh from a massive revamp of their already impressive website, were able on Wednesday to squeeze in my review of the latest Gauntlet special edition of Matheson’s work, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  The book is a must for any serious Matheson collector, examining this seminal creation in its multimedia incarnations, and I hope the review will whet your appetite for my forthcoming Tor.com Matheson interview.

Meanwhile, we bid a sad but affectionate goodbye to longtime genre fixture Michael Gough, a native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who—at the ripe old age of 93, and with 178 IMDb credits over the course of his 64-year film and television career—can, in all fairness, be said to have had a good run.  Sixty years ago, he appeared in The Man in the White Suit opposite Alec Guinness, with whom Gough was reunited in The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and the BOF fave Smiley’s People (1982).  He also had a small role in Laurence Olivier’s version of Richard III (1955); their other collaborations ran the gamut from The Boys from Brazil (1978) to Brideshead Revisited (1981).

Gough was in at the beginning of the Hammer renaissance with a substantial and, in retrospect, surprisingly heroic part as Arthur in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958), which marked Christopher Lee’s debut as the Count.  The following year, he had what might be considered his defining role as a crime writer who commits murder to generate his own material in Horrors of the Black Museum.  This was to be his first of five collaborations with erstwhile AIP producer Herman Cohen, followed by several similar characters in Cohen’s Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970), the latter two starring Joan Crawford, of all people.

With his talent for portraying slimy villains, Gough was a considerable asset to Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera (1962), although its disappointing box-office results gave Fisher’s career a serious hit.  His path crossed that of Lee’s almost a dozen times over the decades, and the next was in “Disembodied Hand,” a segment from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), the first of rival Amicus Productions’ many anthology films.  Further, if minor, roles for Amicus followed in The Skull (1965, again with Lee) and They Came from Beyond Space (1967), all three of them directed (as was Trog) by Hammer veteran and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Gough also found decent roles outside the genre in the likes of a television production of Pride and Prejudice (1967), and even his pairings with Lee straddled both worlds.  After they picked up a paycheck in the AIP/Tigon co-production Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), they joined an all-star cast headed by Charlton Heston for Julius Caesar (1970).  Other high-profile mainstream films from this period include Ken Russell’s D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love (1969) and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1970), scripted by Harold Pinter, and Gough appeared in such TV series as The Saint, The Avengers, and Hammer’s short-lived Journey to the Unknown.

Lest we forget the inevitable Matheson connection, Gough had an unbilled but significant role in The Legend of Hell House (1973), and then worked largely in television (including Dr. Who) for the next few decades.  Among his intermittent and noteworthy feature films were Peter Yates’s The Dresser (1983), Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), John Mackenzie’s cracking thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).  Gough’s fame with the Hot Topic generation of viewers was assured when he took the role of the Wayne family butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

While still finding time for highbrow fare like Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Gough soldiered on through the decreasing quality of the Burton-less Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).  More important, he kept working with Burton—and renewed his association with Lee—in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Corpse Bride (2005), and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, which while a bit of a disappointment to this Burton fan was a perfect capstone to his long and impressive career.  So let us salute and celebrate this consummate performer, whose many decades in front of the camera displayed such enviable breadth and depth:  R.I.P., Michael.

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The Andromeda Strain

On the 40th anniversary of its release, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Oscar-winner Robert Wise (1914-2005), a former film editor and a master craftsman who consistently excelled in many genres, directed this faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1969 bestseller, scripted by Nelson Gidding.  Their five collaborations included I Want to Live! (1958), which secured Gidding his own Oscar nomination, and the seminal classic The Haunting (1963).

When the tiny town of Piedmont, New Mexico, is wiped out overnight, scientists locate a pair of survivors and an Air Force satellite, which has apparently brought back an alien organism (code-named Andromeda).  Racing against time, they assemble a team at Wildfire, a multi-level government installation buried beneath the Nevada desert, to isolate and contain the lethal strain.

Wise cast seasoned character actors Arthur Hill, David Wayne, and James Olson instead of recognizable stars, so that viewers would more readily accept them as scientists.  At Gidding’s behest, he made one of Crichton’s male protagonists a woman, albeit a decidedly unglamorous one (Kate Reid), which—according to their scientific advisers—only added to the film’s realism.

Over the next four days, the team tries to learn why Andromeda did not kill the survivors, an old drunk and a baby who seem initially to have nothing in common.  Wildfire is equipped with a nuclear-destruct device in case of emergency, and the film reaches a dramatic climax when it is accidentally triggered, forcing Olson to run a gauntlet of lasers to abort the countdown.

It is a testament to the filmmakers’ skill, and to the wide boundaries of the genre, that this methodical search for an “antagonist” invisible to the naked eye is as exciting as any space opera.  The multitude of scientific data is presented clearly, never overwhelming the audience with technobabble, while the design of the Wildfire setting is both believable and visually interesting.

As they tell their suspenseful story, Wise and Gidding explore how human error can often undermine even the most impressive technology and preparations.  And because Andromeda is revealed to have been the result of a secret search for possible germ-warfare weapons, they are also able to shed some light on the morality of various Cold War issues, without being dogmatic.

Boasting an effective electronic score from Gil Mellé (composer of the memorable theme for TV’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and special effects by the legendary Douglas Trumbull of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) fame, The Andromeda Strain received Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Film Editing.  A bloated and superfluous miniseries remake aired on the A&E Network in 2008.

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Okay, I’m not a big comedy guy in general or a big sitcom guy in particular, as a result of which I’ve never seen a single episode of most of the sitcoms to have clotted the airwaves since I was a child and would watch any damned thing.  But there’s an exception to every rule (what we might call The Alphaville Principle, after the one Godard film I really like), and I have probably seen each episode of The Odd Couple about a dozen times since that same childhood, when one of our local independent stations, WPIX, used to run it several times a day.  Increasingly of late, I have turned to its audio-visual comfort food, either to motivate me to get up on my exercise bike or to take my mind off the woes that are 2011.

For those of you following along at home, said woes continued as the Xtreme Weather™ manifested itself in a month’s worth of rain in one day, washing out the ground under the train tracks near Bethel and knocking out service on my branch for what may be a couple of weeks.  This leaves us beleaguered commuters with two equally unpalatable options:  rely on a time-sucking fiasco of ineptly run buses, or pay double-jeopardy gas prices on top of my monthly ticket.  And we’ve had a death in Madame BOF’s extended family, a nominal aunt (in actuality my mother-in-law’s best friend’s mother, and thus not a blood relative) who had been in a nursing home, and poor health, for some time…but I digress.

Setting aside the razor-sharp line of demarcation between the first season (with its more cinematic set and visual style) and the other four, it’s only recently—since I acquired the full-season DVD sets—that I’ve been in a position to differentiate one season of The Odd Couple from another.  In terms of overall quality, I don’t think the show ever jumped the metaphoric shark, and it clearly went out with a bang when Felix remarried Gloria, which still chokes me up to this day.  But I have noticed that the fourth season seems to contain a disproportionate number of my favorite episodes, and while I won’t go so far as to state categorically that it is the best, I will commend to your attention the following highlights.

  • “The New Car”:  This may be my favorite episode, if only for the opera-contest prologue, although John Byner (“What have you got under leaky pipes?”  “Puddles.”) shines in his guest spot as the parking-garage manager.  The repeated references to Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; Oscar’s mangling the German title, Die Machte Schiksal; Felix’s mounting frustration over the constant bashing of his charts—it just doesn’t get any better than this.
  • “The Exorcists”:  Or, as we know it chez Bradley, “The Ghost in the Air Conditioner.”  A stunning guest turn by Victor Buono (whose resemblance to Richard Matheson was even more pronounced in the rent-strike episode) as Dr. Clove, who gets a little hungry around midnight and signs off with a jaunty, “So long, sport!”  And this is perhaps Herbie Faye’s finest hour in his recurring role of Mr. Selzer, the building’s aging, but still feisty, super.
  • “The Flying Felix”:  Tony Randall’s tour de force depiction of Felix’s growing hysteria, as the white-knuckled flyer tries to get to Houston to shoot an ad for Buckaroo Barbecue Sauce, is but the most conspicuous of this episode’s assets.  “I much fear serious trouble in the fuselage, Frederic.”  Add to that Teri Garr’s exasperated insurance agent, the wild ride on Belkin Airlines, and the trial flight in the apartment, and you’ve got a real winner.
  • “The Insomniacs”:  It’s a race to see who will be driven insane by Felix’s insomnia first, him or Oscar.  Once again, Randall dazzles as the increasingly sleep-deprived and goofy Felix, yet Jack Klugman, with his less showy role, matches him beat for beat.  With rock-solid support, as usual, from Penny Marshall as Myrna and Al Molinaro as Murray, this epitomizes the well-oiled machine that the show had then become, firing on all cylinders.

I haven’t even touched on such supplementary delights as the insurance-policy decathlon, lines like Felix’s “Wear your nose with pride” and Oscar’s “the Beast of Bayonne,” or the post-hypnotic suggestion that makes Oscar neater than Felix, but you get the idea.  Much as I love Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and admittedly enjoy the 1968 movie based on Neil Simon’s play, Randall and Klugman made those characters their own in a manner that few performers are lucky enough to do.  As I’ve often said, even the worst episode (a dubious distinction I have yet to bestow, although I did force myself to compile a Top 10 some time ago) is worth watching, just to see their Emmy Award-winning performances.

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