Archive for January, 2012

On Saturday, we went to our other favorite city, New York, for dinner with our good friends Dan and Marie Scapperotti (he late of Cinefantastique and Femme Fatales fame) and the Roundabout revival of the seminal “angry young man” play, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. This is the first time I’ve caught any of Osborne’s work onstage, although I’d seen the screen adaptations of both that and The Entertainer made by Woodfall Productions, the company Osborne formed with Liam Neeson’s father-in-law, Tony Richardson, who had directed both plays. The films teamed Richardson and Osborne—who later scripted Tom Jones (1963) for Woodfall—with future Bond producer Harry Saltzman, co-scenarist Nigel Kneale, and crack cinematographer Oswald Morris.

The 1959 film of Anger reunited Richardson with Mary Ure, who had created the role of Alison Porter in London and earned a Tony nomination when she played it on Broadway, also matching Richard Burton with Ure and Claire Bloom, his respective leading ladies in Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). Osborne left his wife for Ure, who then divorced him to marry frequent co-star Robert Shaw, who then cheated on her with his secretary; Ure’s unhappy life ended in 1975, at 42, with an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. Because the play kicked off British “kitchen sink” realism—e.g., Woodfall’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and A Taste of Honey (1961)—I was hungry for the full impact of seeing it live.

The play relentlessly dramatizes the emotional wounds inflicted upon one another by Alison; her trumpet-playing husband, Jimmy; their flatmate, Cliff, with whom Jimmy runs a candy store; and her actress friend, Helena. It’s grueling (we later learned that a friend from our church choir had walked out of the matinee with his wife that very day!), but the cast—especially Matthew Rhys, who as Jimmy resembled and at times seemed to be channeling fellow Welshman Burton—was electrifying and the staging brilliant. The set was only about four feet deep; as an actor, I’d be in constant terror of falling off, yet it evoked the claustrophobic flat where one could scarcely move without touching another person, visualizing what Cliff calls “a very narrow strip of plain hell.”

Addendum: Remember my repeated threats—er, promises—that my contributions to Marvel University would continue to increase? Well, I’m making good on those by taking the point (i.e., providing the synopses and primary analysis) on one of my all-time favorite strips, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which at its peak reached unsurpassed brilliance under writer/artist Jim Steranko. So check out today’s post, as the strip debuts alongside the equally classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Dr. Strange in Strange Tales #135, and in the immortal words of Agent Jasper Sitwell, “Don’t Yield—back S.H.I.E.L.D.!”

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Nom de Zoom

Caught the announcement of the major Academy Award nominations in the shuttle on the way to the office. As those of you who take the time to read the comments know, the New York Frontiersman rebutted my post on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with a review in which Peter Hichens excoriated it. While I respect Mr. Hichens’s viewpoint, I’m glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who liked the film, which garnered nominations for Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan), and Best Score (Alberto Iglesias). Although I haven’t seen their entries yet, I’ll also be championing such BOF faves as Max Von Sydow, perhaps our greatest living actor (who grabbed a supporting nom for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), and Terrence Malick, director of the criminally underrated The Thin Red Line (nominated for The Tree of Life). If it’s still playing at our local arthouse cinema, Madame BOF and I are scheduled to check out The Artist–which picked up several nominations–with the senior Mrs. B on Saturday, so that would be another contender I’ve actually seen (along with most-favored Hugo) when we gather chez Drax for the annual Oscar bash on February 26.

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Tailor Made

I had a lot of good food when the two Mrs. Bradleys and I visited my daughter in Washington, D.C., over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, where our whirlwind itinerary—with which the senior Mrs. B was hard pressed to keep up!—included the Washington, Lincoln, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, and MLK monuments, plus one building of the National Gallery. Some of said food was prepared by Alexandra herself, at the apartment Madame BOF found for her and boyfriend Thomas on Connecticut Avenue, with which they’ve done wonders during their relatively brief time there so far, and where she finally introduced the Moms to one of her favorite films, Moulin Rouge! But the best meal I had was a delicious helping of crow called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I’ve long called the 1979 miniseries based on John le Carré’s novel one of the best adaptations of anything, anywhere, ever, inspiring me to read the book, one of my Top 10, and most of his other adventures of “incongruous spy” George Smiley. I’ve watched Alec Guinness as Smiley in both the miniseries and its 1982 sequel, Smiley’s People, countless times, and despite running times of more than five hours apiece, I found them utterly riveting, to say nothing of flawlessly capturing le Carré’s characters and plots. So when I heard that this satisfyingly complex Cold War thriller was being boiled down into a two-hour feature—even one starring the formidable Gary Oldman and directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In fame—I was utterly aghast.

But then I heard about some of the other casting (John Hurt as Smiley’s erstwhile boss, Control, and Colin Firth as Bill Haydon), and I got a little encouraged, and then I read some of those rave reviews, and I started to wonder if they could really pull it off. So, is it as good or as rich as the miniseries? No. Does Oldman incarnate Smiley-as-flesh the way Guinness did, so successfully that le Carré said he could no longer write him without seeing Guinness in his mind? No. Did a superb cast and crew—including Oldman—bring to life a script (by a couple of which the wife, sadly, died before its release) that manages to distill the essence of le Carré’s epic of espionage, in the process creating a breathtakingly excellent film that is top-notch on all levels? Hell yeah.

Here’s the set-up: Control sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a Hungarian defector who will reveal the identity of a mole, or double agent, in the highest echelon of British intelligence (aka the Circus). The suspects are Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Haydon, and Control’s right-hand man, Smiley. When the report comes in that Prideaux has been shot dead, Control and Smiley are tossed out in favor of Alleline’s gang of four, but after Control dies and AWOL Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) resurfaces with a story about a mole, the reluctant Smiley is brought out of retirement by bureaucrat Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), who oversees the Circus, to pick up the trail where Control left off.

Smiley recruits Tarr’s boss, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a protégé of George’s whom the Alleline regime had shunted off to a backwater division called the Scalphunters, and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a retired Special Branch man he’d met on an earlier case. He calls upon the memories of similarly disfavored Circus vets Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham)—an amalgam of the eponymous character and le Carré’s Sam Collins—and research expert Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) to help him sift through the facts and lies. Among the casualties of the shorter format are George’s serial-adulterer wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva), and nemesis, Karla, neither of whom we see in full, although in general, the screenwriters preserve that which is most essential to the tale.

Those in our party who had seen the miniseries felt that the film might actually appeal more to viewers already familiar with the story, who would appreciate the foreshadowings and nuances, but of course it’s impossible for us to see it through virgin eyes. And, aside from the inevitable compression, it was interesting to see the choices they made, with this version depicting or even creating some things the original did not; I only noticed two notable instances of stuff that I don’t remember from either the book or the miniseries, but won’t reveal them here. As with the show, there were many unfamiliar names and/or faces in the cast, though I recognized Jones as the guy who played Arnim Zola in Captain America, mostly because he looks like a Jack Kirby creation!

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The Hole Truth

I don’t mean to turn this blog into a full-fledged promo for The Pete and John Show (although a worthier subject would be hard to find), but if you’re remotely interested in The Night Stalker or Marvel Comics, you should be reading It Couldn’t Happen Here… or Marvel University. And I say that not merely because of my own contributions to those two worthy sites, which will in fact be assuming inversely proportional trajectories from now on. Now that I have weighed in on the specifically Mathesonian aspects of Carl Kolchak’s career, I shall merely be chiming in with my little bon mots in the comments section, which always has quite a lively discussion, and whether you’re pro- or anti- a particular episode, you’re sure to find someone there who agrees with you.

Over at M.U., due to the holes in my collection, the number of issues/stories I can comment on varies from post to post; for example, yesterday and in the next two posts (which will be running on 1/18 and 1/25), I’m commenting on eight individual issues/stories apiece. But in the posts for 2/1 (for which I’ve already written my contribution) and 2/8 (which I’m working on now), I will actually be up to ten, so if you want maximum Bradley for your buck, you may look to those. As we progress, my collection will become more complete, and the number of titles that Marvel puts out will generally increase (except for their periodic contractions and cancellations), and so—for whatever it’s worth, if anything—the Bradley-percentage trend will continue broadly increasing.

A tantalizing tidbit: in November 1965 (to be covered on 2/15), after a frustratingly variable mix of Vince Colletta and Chic Stone, a seismic shift occurs in the pages of Fantastic Four when one of comicdom’s true legends, Joltin’ Joe Sinnott, takes over as inker. His tenure will last a decade and encompass the pencils of Jack “King” Kirby, “Jazzy Johnny” Romita (briefly, I presume, as his apotheosis over on Amazing Spider-Man was imminent), “Big John” Buscema, Rich “Swash” Buckler, and “Gorgeous George” Perez. A more welcome development cannot be imagined, and while it can be argued (say, by some at Bronze Age Babies) that his inks sometimes obscured the pencils, Sinnott provided continuity that gave the FF a uniform—and uniformly excellent—look.

There’s been a passel of discussions at M.U. over the fact that Fantastic Four, Marvel’s longtime flagship title (which they once immodestly billed, and perhaps still do, as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”), didn’t actually live up to its hype initially, and of course everyone has his or her own theory about when the period of its true greatness began. In advance of re-reading those actual issues, I’m gonna nominate the advent of The Sinnott Era. Meanwhile, and I hope I’m not giving away any confidences, Peter tells me that, although the announced cutoff date of M.U. is still December 1969, he’s personally determined to take it right through the 1970s, which is my own favorite comics decade, so you know I’ll still be contributing, and I hope you’ll be reading.

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Thirty Little Indians

Thinking—as we often do—of our friend Maria Towers, Madame BOF and I recently unwound after a hectic evening with the 1965 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, produced by Maria’s late husband, Harry Alan Towers. Next to the Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee, this was Harry’s most durable property, which he remade in 1974, and again in 1989. Variously published as Ten Little Niggers and And Then There Were None, the title under which it was first adapted by René Clair in 1945, this ingeniously constructed 1939 whodunit is essentially bullet-proof, so that if you have a decent script (supplied in this case by Harry, under his Peter Welbeck nom d’écran, and Peter Yeldham), a good cast, and a competent crew, you can hardly go wrong.

That was certainly so here and in Peter Collinson’s ’74 version with Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Herbert Lom, former Bond villains Adolfo Celi and Gert Fröbe, and Maria herself. I can’t vouch for the widely panned 1989 version, shot in Africa by Alan Birkinshaw—who made two low-rent Edgar Allan Poe films during the same period—with its limited star power provided by Lom (in a different role this time) and Donald Pleasence. Interestingly, according to the IMDb, the ’89 version was originally supposed to have utilized the ending of the novel, which is downbeat but intellectually satisfying, yet ultimately opted, as did all earlier films, for the happier outcome Christie herself had devised for her 1943 stage version.

’65 director George Pollock was certainly no stranger to this territory, having helmed all four of the films in which Margaret Rutherford played Christie’s Miss Marple. Television vet Yeldham was a frequent collaborator of Harry’s, as was cinematographer Ernest Steward, who worked on the first two Fu Manchu films, as well as the cult favorite The Avengers and innumerable entries in the “Doctor” and “Carry On” comedy series. The jaunty score by Malcolm Lockyer—another Towers regular, who also contributed to Peter Cushing’s Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), Island of Terror (1966), and Island of the Burning Damned (1967)—takes a very different tack than the tingling 1974 music by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, keeping things light and breezy.

Soon-to-be love interests Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton arrive at an Austrian house accessible only by cable car—subbing for Christie’s remote island, inaccessibility being essential—with six other guests and married housekeepers Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe. We learn that none of them have met their host/employer, “U.N. Owen” (get it?), and most were lured there under false pretenses, also largely strangers to one another. An audiotape in the uncredited but unmistakable voice of Towers mainstay Lee (succeeded by Orson Welles in ’74) accuses each one of causing a death that is beyond the reach of the law, and it soon becomes clear that the elusive “Mr. Owen” has brought them there to administer his own brand of justice by executing them for their crimes.

In each guest’s room is a copy of the titular nursery rhyme (“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine,” etc.), forming a template for the m.o. of each killing, after which another Indian figurine is removed from the centerpiece on the dining-room table. The cable car is wrecked, taking the fleeing Hoppe with it, which renders escape or rescue impossible for the moment, and forces the guests to fall back on their own devices. When a search of the house proves fruitless, the survivors are obliged to conclude that Mr. Owen is one of them, and various stratagems are attempted to identify him (or her) while the guests weigh the veracity of the accusations against them, and the possibility that ’fessing up may save their lives.

Of the likable leads, O’Brian was television’s Wyatt Earp, later starring in Richard Matheson’s Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of his novel Ride the Nightmare, and the gorgeous Eaton, best known as the iconic “golden girl” from Goldfinger (1964), was reunited with Towers to play Su-Muru (like Fu Manchu a creation of Sax Rohmer). Fabian stretched himself to play a teen idol, while the exotic Daliah Lavi looms large in the BOF universe for Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963), the Matt Helm film The Silencers (1966), and the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Also featured were Stanley Holloway and Wilfrid Hyde-White, both of My Fair Lady (1964); the latter appeared in multiple Towers productions, as did Leo Genn and Dennis Price.

As usual, Christie’s Swiss-watch plotting is as much the star as any member of that name cast, even with the upbeat ending, and I won’t spoil the fun by either enumerating the various deaths or revealing the solution. Although it was not included in the print recently shown by TCM, the film originally included a device similar to the “Fright Break” from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) or the “Werewolf Break” from The Beast Must Die (1974), in which the story pauses at the climax and a clock appears on the screen, ticking away to give the audience one last chance to guess the killer’s identity. But this well-produced mystery needs no such gimmick to make it work, succeeding on the merits of its premise and ensemble to offer a fine evening’s entertainment.

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1/4/12 ICHH Alert

Well, Peter, John, and Mark are a tough act to follow (man, we sound like a bunch of Apostles around here, don’t we?), and it’s always a little daunting revisiting a subject you’ve written about so many times before, but after a hearty round of back-slappin’ and log-rollin’ with Mark, my Spotlight on Matheson’s original Night Stalker TV-movie is up at It Couldn’t Happen Here… Coincidentally, and for only a few more hours, I’ll be the featured contributor both there and at Marvel University, and as usual, they’ve done a fine job matching my words with visuals. It’s nice to have that vintage ABC ad to remind us that when the series started, it was called simply The Night Stalker, without the Kolchak appended to the title since, I believe, the fourth episode.

Speaking of reminders, I needn’t post one to tell you to look for my Spotlight on the sequel, The Night Strangler, tomorrow evening, need I? ’Cause I will if I have to.

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Allow me to offer a mix of holiday greetings and sincerest apologies for the extended silences around here, but since the other blogs that are kind enough to post my musings have far greater readerships than this one, it seems logical to reach as many readers as possible, and then direct you there; more on that in a moment. We have been de-emphasizing gifts lately in the extended BOF clan, so I don’t have a big haul to report, but my darling daughter and her boyfriend did get me two singularly suitable DVDs: an Eddie Izzard documentary and the Criterion edition of one of the great films, Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. We had a crowd of 15 chez nous on Christmas, and between that and socializing with visiting family members since then, it’s been pretty hectic.

Madame BOF and I are not sorry to see the back end of 2011, with all of its natural disasters, but the changing calendar also highlights the transitions in our lives. Among the most conspicuous, in my case, is the shift in my area of current concentration from the James Bond books and films (themselves a welcome change of pace after 13 years devoted to Richard Matheson on Screen) to Silver and Bronze Age Marvel Comics, actually the resurgence of a lifelong love affair. Yes, my obsessions with Matheson, 007, and the nexus of film and literature continue dominating my life, yet maintaining a day job to support us in the humble style to which we are accustomed severely limits my writing time, so for now, you will likely find me more often over at Marvel University.

As mentioned, because I will be contributing to their regular Wednesday posts on a weekly basis, I won’t bother alerting you to those, but today they are featuring a solo piece (the first written for M.U. specifically), the latest in my series of Snapshots. I fear even these may be an endangered species, not only because of the considerable time involved, but also because as I look over what Marvel published while the ’70s drew to a close, I see less and less that excites me, so if I’m not feelin’ it, there’s no point in forcing it, especially for free. Luckily, I actually took the time over the past couple of weeks to excavate my comic-book collection, which I conservatively estimate at around 3,000 issues, thus giving me plenty on which to weigh in with those Wednesday posts.

Today also marks the long-awaited debut of It Couldn’t Happen Here…, the blog in which M.U.-meisters Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri will analyze an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker a day, just as they have previously done with Thriller, Outer Limits, and Batman. As if their own erudition and witticisms weren’t enough, they have solicited the daily contributions of Kolchak’s greatest chronicler, Mark Dawidizak, who is also a hell of a guy and was extremely helpful to me in the research and writing of RMOS. And, since I am not entirely unacquainted with the pair of Matheson TV-movies that spawned the series, they have kindly invited me to provide a spotlight article on each of those, which you’ll be able to read starting Tuesday…and yes, I’ll remind you.

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