Archive for April, 2011

Au Revoir, Colette

Long before Audrey (Amélie) Tautou portrayed the young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in Coco Before Chanel (2009), Marie-France Pisier essayed the role in Chanel Solitaire (1981), which I quite enjoyed when I first saw it under rather unusual circumstances. I was on an ocean liner, accompanying an elderly aunt on a cruise around Norway, and since few (if any) of the other passengers were below retirement age, the movies they screened were a welcome diversion, and I even managed to befriend the projectionist. As I recall, the film held up less well when I saw it again years later, but without reflecting badly on the beauty or talent of La Pisier, and it marked early encounters with Rutger Hauer and Timothy Dalton, who would shortly be important to me.

Pisier has apparently drowned in her own swimming pool at the age of 66, and although I wasn’t familiar with most of the films she made in her 48 years on the screen, her debut alone makes her worthy of inclusion here on BOF. In “Antoine and Colette,” François Truffaut’s segment of the anthology film Love at Twenty (1962), she starred opposite Jean-Pierre Léaud as the first love of Truffaut’s alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (introduced in 1959 in The 400 Blows, one of the films that launched the French New Wave). After an uncredited appearance in Antoine’s next “adventure,” Stolen Kisses (1968)—my favorite of Truffaut’s films to date—she reprised the character in, and even co-wrote, the fifth and final Doinel entry, Love on the Run (1979), which I have yet to see.

Although Pisier failed to establish herself with such American productions as the Sidney Sheldon adaptation The Other Side of Midnight (1977) and the TV miniseries The French Atlantic Affair (1979) and Scruples (1980), she had greater success at home. There, she was able to work with Luis Buñuel and Jacques Rivette, respectively, in The Phantom of Liberty and Celine and Julie Go Boating (both 1974), and enjoyed great commercial success with Cousin Cousine (1975). I searched in vain through my copy of Truffaut by Truffaut for some bon mot regarding Pisier with which to close this post, but found only photos capturing her radiant beauty, most notably the one from Love on the Run that is reproduced here, so let it serve as a far better epitaph than my poor words.

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Givens and Take

I’ve been boning up on the literary exploits of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in Elmore Leonard’s Pronto and Riding the Rap (although I’ve yet to score a copy of “Fire in the Hole,” the nominal basis for Justified, in his collection When the Women Come Out to Dance), with an eye toward comparing them with the first-season DVD I just bought, and possibly blogging about the whole thing.  Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a blog with the memorable name of Existential Ennui and discovered that its author, Nick Jones, had beaten to me to the punch with a four-part post that starts here.  I’m man enough to admit that he’s probably done a better job than I could, so I’ll just bow out gracefully and urge you to read his excellent series on Givens.

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Drax has correctly pointed out that The Sunday Drax evolved into Hexes: The Sunday Spectra.  What I neglected to clarify was how much I loved the name of “The Sunday Drax,” which to me had overwhelmingly evoked—and thus tied in perfectly with my item on—Pogo.  We regret any misimpression.

It should be noted, first, that I used the exact edition of Conjure Wife depicted in today’s Hexes while writing my section on Matheson’s adaptation Night of the Eagle and, second, that Peter Saxon was also the author of The Disorientated Man, filmed as Scream and Scream Again.

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In the grand tradition of the late, lamented Sunday Drax, here’s a BOF buffet of unrelated items:

  • Those of you who, like me, enjoy fond memories of the immortal comic strip Pogo (written and drawn by Walt Kelly from 1948 until his death in 1973), and won’t rest until there is a Complete Pogo to accompany the volumes of The Complete Peanuts gradually accumulating on my shelf, will appreciate this.  The other day I stumbled across the “online reading journal” Hal’s Quotes & Notes, which has a whole section devoted to Kelly.  Those unfamiliar with the strip may find its Southern-fried dialogue a little perplexing at first, and of course you need the visuals for the full experience, but it’s a great way for Pogophiles to relive some of those memorable moments.
  • For decades, people have entertained themselves by looking for connections between Patrick McGoohan’s great series Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) and its maybe-kinda-sorta sequel The Prisoner, especially as they apply to the whole “Is John Drake Number Six?” parlor game.  I’ve recently resumed working my way through my complete collection of Secret Agent DVDs and, by a curious coincidence, in both of the first two episodes I watched, “That’s Two of Us Sorry” and “Such Men Are Dangerous,” Drake used the omnipresent Prisoner catchphrase “Be seeing you.”  Make of that what you will; for myself, I’m of the belief that Number Six is indeed Drake.
  • Matheson completists, take note!  For years, one of the Holy Grails of elusive items was “The New House,” his pilot for the William Castle-produced anthology series Ghost Story, which left a conspicuous hole in Richard Matheson on Screen until my main man Gilbert Colon saved the day—as usual—by acquiring a crappy gray-market DVD for me.  Yesterday I finally got a copy of its legit release as an extra on the Mr. Sardonicus disc in The William Castle Film Collection (much as I resent having to pay through the nose for the entire set just to get that, since it’s not on Columbia’s stand-alone Sardonicus DVD), and can’t wait to see a decent copy of this thing.
  • Last but far from least, it’s a crime that Sutton Foster isn’t a household name…although, to be fair, our showbiz-savvy choir director tells me that she IS one in Broadway circles.  Last night, Madame BOF and I had the pleasure of attending Roundabout’s revival of Anything Goes, part of a package we signed up for this season, which I expected would be piffle punctuated by great Cole Porter songs.  Well…it is, but with Foster’s outstanding singing, dancing, acting, and looks headlining a cast that includes Joel Grey and Jessica (Play Misty for Me) Walter, we were mighty glad of our second-row orchestra seats; this review by Ben Brantley is absolutely on the money.

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Many factors led me to start writing Richard Matheson on Screen in 1997, only the most obvious one of which was my growing obsession with Matheson’s work.  I did not record for posterity the date when I conceived or started working on it, but if I’d known it would take thirteen years, I would have erected a plaque in what was then my office at the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, where the book was born.  My job as copy manager entailed a lot of down time, or I never would have attempted it, and I was going through some personal stuff that made it desirable to channel my energies in a productive direction.  In addition, I had already interviewed Matheson and some of his friends and fellow writers, and written introductions to limited editions of several of his novels.

The most specific impetus was the slow-motion train wreck of a proposed Matheson biography that he initially cooperated with but ultimately, and wisely, disowned.  The author (who shall remain nameless) was someone I’d known from my years as a book publicist and—due to my excitement over an actual book about Matheson, unprecedented at that time—foolishly tried to help.  Luckily, his editor was a friend of mine, and when he showed me an early draft of the manuscript I saw that the author had plagiarized my introductions, among other things, which is one reason why it was cancelled and later self-published.  It was during this fiasco that I hit on the idea of writing my own Matheson book, albeit with a focus more suited to my longstanding interest in the relationship between literature and film.

In 2003, I met Simon Drax as a fellow commuter from Bethel to Manhattan, and had been working on the book for about six years.  Around that time I also embarked upon the first of several related projects that repeatedly sidetracked my own when I agreed to edit Matheson’s Duel & The Distributor for Gauntlet.  Imagine my surprise after I learned that Drax was not only a fellow writer and publishing professional, but also an honest-to-God Matheson fan who took a genuine interest in my work.  When The Danbury News-Times wanted to do a story on Duel & The Distributor, it was Drax who brought his camera over to GoodTimes to snap the shot of me that accompanied the article…and now graces this blog.

Drax was then working on his own long-gestating book, the magnificent prose-manga epic Doomtroopers (more on that in a moment), and while riding the rails together we struck up the most congenial creative interplay imaginable.  I did not and do not own a laptop, so I would sit relentlessly poring over printouts of the day’s work, while across the aisle Drax was furiously typing away on his Mac.  We would critique each other’s efforts, and I had the honor of reading Doomtroopers almost literally as it flowed forth from his fingertips.  It was a heady, fruitful time.

Drax’s love for Matheson in general and I Am Legend in particular, his fascination with the seemingly endless saga of my writing the book (interrupted again when I was pressed into service as the co-editor of The Richard Matheson Companion and its revised version, The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson), and his equally endless creativity inspired him to write a unique pastiche.  Its title a play on the first film version of I Am Legend, “The Last Manuscript on Earth” had me mysteriously appearing in the depopulated L.A. hitherto occupied only by Robert Neville and a horde of vampires, clutching my now-completed magnum opus and, as usual, proselytizing about Matheson.

While artistic license led Drax to mischaracterize my work in progress a bit, overall it was a touchingly personal tribute and a hilariously dead-on evocation of Matheson’s style, although Drax was more than a little chagrined when I sent it to the man himself and received a comment along the lines of, “Cute.”  Corporate layoffs ended our time together on the train, but I eventually finished my book, and am thrilled to announce that the Kindle edition of Drax’s Doomtroopers is now available here.  Other projects will undoubtedly ensue for both of us, and we will continue to reach across the aisle, in spirit if not in fact.  I couldn’t ask for a better travelling companion—it’s been a hell of a ride.

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Eyes Without a Face

On the occasion of Georges Franju’s 99th birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, aka The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus; 1959) prefigured several films in which scientists denude women while attempting to restore scarred beauties.  Director Franju (1912-1987) had drawn notice with his slaughterhouse documentary Le Sang des Bêtes (The Blood of Beasts, 1949), and later made the offbeat thriller Judex (1963).

The screenplay was adapted by Jean Redon from his own novel, in collaboration with Franju, Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar, and the famed crime novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.  The work of Boileau-Narcejac, as the team was known, was the basis for classic films such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Alida Valli, who had appeared in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and opposite Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949), is Louise, the nurse of Prof. Génessier (Pierre Brassuer), who dumps a faceless victim in the river.  When it is found, Génessier misidentifies the body as that of his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), to allay any suspicions regarding her disappearance.

Wearing a featureless white mask, Christiane has been a virtual prisoner in the house ever since her face was badly burned in a car crash caused by her father.  Lured there on the pretext of renting a room, Edna Gruberg (Juliette Mayniel) is chloroformed and, in a scene that still shocks today, Génessier removes her face—in full view of the camera—and grafts it onto Christiane.

The bandaged Edna knocks Louise unconscious and frees herself, but dies in a fall from a window, either committing suicide or attempting to escape.  Christiane, who must don the mask again when the operation proves only temporarily successful, cannot resist calling her fiancé (also her father’s assistant), Dr. Jacques Vernon (François Guérin), who believes she is dead.

He informs Insp. Parot (Alexandre Rignault), who forces a shoplifter, Paulette Mérondon (Béatrice Altariba), to serve as bait, and after a visit to the clinic she is abducted.  As her father prepares to operate, Christiane frees Paulette, stabs Louise with a scalpel, and releases a pack of hungry dogs that, ironically, tear off Génessier’s face before she wanders away into the night.

Scob’s Christiane is a fragile, ethereal creature, who hates her horrifying visage but hates what must be done to repair it even more, and becomes convinced that the repeated operations will never cure her permanently.  Eugen Shuftan’s gorgeous cinematography emphasizes the contrast between her delicate, angelic appearance in the mask and the horrors in Génessier’s lab.

At once poetic and gruesome, with a lovely Maurice Jarre score capturing its conflicting moods, Les Yeux Sans Visage easily outshines its successors.  These include Seddok—l’Erede di Satana (aka Atom Age Vampire, 1960), Jesús Franco’s Gritos en la Noche (Cries in the Night, aka The Awful Dr. Orloff, 1962)—as well as several sequels—and Corruption (aka Carnage, 1967).

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Dangers on a Train

Last night, only hours after posting my obituary on Sidney Lumet, I treated myself to a memorial viewing of Murder on the Orient Express, which may be my favorite of his films, certainly in my top five (along with 12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, Network, and The Verdict).  It still holds up like a rock after many viewings, although I’ve had a soft spot for it since I saw it with my parents at the age of 11 when it was released.  Lumet was aided immeasurably by screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had the enviable task of adapting films from works by Ian Fleming (Goldfinger, 1964) and John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1965; Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1966) as well as Agatha Christie, and contributed  to all four sequels to the original Planet of the Apes (1968).

From the first frame, Richard Rodney Bennett’s score impresses with not only its excellence, but also the skillful way Bennet and Lumet use the music, as the jarring opening chords warn us that something mysterious and deadly is afoot.  Then it settles into a sophisticated piano theme suited to the lush 1930s setting as its incredible cast unspools:  leading man Albert Finney; pal Martin Balsam; suspects Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bissett, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, and Michael York; and victim Richard Widmark.  It crescendos as the title appears, and after the credits it shifts to uneasy strings over the eerie montage of the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping case (hear it all here).

As the film progresses, Lumet keeps it from getting too stage-bound by cross-cutting scenes in the compartments with exteriors of the Orient Express making its way through the countryside.  He and Bennett complement these visuals by giving the train its own theme, which cleverly starts slowly as the locomotive builds up steam while pulling out of the station, then picks up speed to a jaunty yet majestic pace.  And when Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) finally reveals the solution to the case, which requires that we see events from earlier in the film a second time, Lumet again keeps things visually interesting by shooting the same action from different angles, rather than simply repeating the exact same footage we saw before; it’s a very effective device.

Finney, Dehn, and Bennett all scored Oscar nominations, as did costume designer Tony Walton and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, yet only Bergman took home the gold for her role as a “backwards” Swedish missionary.  Why her halting speeches about “little brown babies” were considered Best Supporting Actress material might be considered as big a mystery as the titular murder, but less so than why Finney didn’t win.  I have so far read about two-thirds of Christie’s three-dozen-odd books about Poirot, and it’s my informed opinion that Finney, almost literally unrecognizable, embodied a literary character as few actors have, and could have stepped off the page (a feeling I also got when Ian Carmichael played Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey).

While others tried their hands at the star-studded Christie adaptation in the years to come, it was clear when Death on the Nile (1978) devolved from Lumet and Finney onto John Guillermin—fresh (?) from the travesty of the Dino De Laurentiis King Kong (1976)—and Peter Ustinov that lightning would not strike twice in the same place.  At least the cast and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer kept that one afloat, as it were, and Ustinov went on to play M. Poirot five more times on screens both large and small, although he came nowhere near to inhabiting the role as Finney had done.  But The Mirror Crack’d (1980), with Angela Lansbury seemingly well cast as Christie’s other main sleuth, Miss Marple, was reputedly such a fiasco that to this day I haven’t subjected myself to it.

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