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Archive for August, 2015

Honor System

What I’ve Been Watching: They Came to Cordura (1959).

Who’s Responsible: Robert Rossen (director); Ivan Moffat, Rossen (screenwriters); Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin (stars).

Why I Watched It: Coop and Rita? Please.

Seen It Before? Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 7.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? Col. Rogers (Robert Keith, the poor man’s Les Tremayne) leads a cavalry unit of the “punitive expedition” sent to Mexico in 1916, in retaliation for Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Maj. Thomas Thorn (Cooper)—whose father, killed in action, served with Rogers—is in charge of recommending men for the Congressional Medal of Honor and writing their citations. He has suggested that his first candidate, Pvt. Andrew Hetherington (Michael Callan), be sent back to the base at Cordura until the citation is approved; most Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, and with the U.S. shortly expected to enter World War I, it is seen as desirable to have live heroes as role models.

 

For that reason, Thorn and Hetherington are ordered to hang back when Rogers leads an old-school cavalry charge on a hacienda filled with Villistas and owned by the proverbial fallen woman, Adelaide Geary (Hayworth). Although it does accomplish its objectives, Thorn considers the assault a fiasco and refuses to recommend Rogers for a medal; stung, he orders Thorn to escort Geary—charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy—to Cordura personally, with four additional nominees from the charge: Sgt. John Chawk (Heflin), Lt. William Fowler (Tab Hunter), Cpl. Milo Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York). Who among them will reach Cordura? Therein lies the tale.

 

I had only so-so memories of this film—based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, as were the likes of Where the Boys Are (1960) and The Shootist (1976)—but with two favorites toplining it, I gave it another spin, and quickly recalled that it had simply been a case of false expectations. Rita is probably my ultimate 1940s screen goddess (off-the-cuff nominees for her immediate successors being Grace Kelly and Raquel Welch, respectively, in the ’50s and ’60s) . So it was a little sad to see her so far from her luminescence opposite Fred Astaire in the aptly titled You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and yes, that number reduces me to tears faster than ever. Also, like The Shootist, this is much more than a straight-up oater, whose theme she herself states overtly: “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”

 

For we gradually learn two things, the first being that Rogers, in honor of Thorn’s father, covered up the fact that at Columbus, Thorn cowered in a ditch…and Rogers, it turns out, is not the only one who knows it. The second is that, however brave circumstances might have led them to be during the assault, each of the “hacienda quartet” is deeply flawed in one way or another, so much so that Thorn eventually has more to fear at their hands than at those of the Villistas they seek to avoid. So the story is a meditation on courage and cowardice, as he tries to understand how the others—worthy or not—found the courage he’d lacked and, perhaps (like Geary to a lesser degree), find some sort of redemption in the process.

 

There’s something fun about watching a film that, after a certain point, is restricted to seven characters—all of them played by actors I know, even if one of them, Heflin, is among my biggest bêtes noires; he and Conte, conversely an old favorite, both play pretty disreputable guys here. Yes, it’s that Dick York, the original Darrin on Bewitched (who reportedly suffered a back injury while making this film that had a detrimental effect on the rest of his life and career), and speaking of sitcoms, Edward Platt, the Chief on Get Smart, has a nice supporting role at the beginning. Hunter amply demonstrates why he never won an Oscar, although perhaps his performance was too subtle for me, because John Wayne was supposedly outraged by a gay subtext regarding him and Coop that went right over my head. The character least defined by the script is that played by Callan, recalled in BOF circles for Harryhausen‘s Mysterious Island (1961) and the Matheson-based Journey to the Unknown episode “Girl of My Dreams.”

 

Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen it, this would appear to be the stylistic opposite of Rossen’s next, penultimate, and presumably best-known film as a writer-director, The Hustler (1961), although it’s interesting that in his pre-directorial days, he worked on no fewer than three Humphrey Bogart vehicles: Marked Woman (1937), Racket Busters (1938), and The Roaring Twenties (1939). Of the two late-career leads, Coop comes off better despite having just two years and two films—The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) and The Naked Edge (1961)—ahead of him, and apparently the film was widely criticized for the discrepancy between his age and Thorn’s. Like Cary Grant and Astaire, Rita always looks better in black and white, but in fairness, her character should appear as though she (like poor Rita herself) had seen some hard living.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Coneheads (1993).

Who’s Responsible: Steve Barron (director); Tom Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner (screenwriters); Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Michelle Burke (stars).

Why I Watched It: Numerous reasons, at least partly elucidated below.

Seen It Before? Yeah, baby.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8½ (an oblique nod to my daughter’s recent wedding).

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): Off the charts. “Mebs!”

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 8.

And? Years ago—or I should say starting years ago, since it never stopped per se—the guys razzed me relentlessly for praising this film, a critical appraisal that doubtless epitomized my reputation as, shall we say, an easy lay. So it was with a mixture of nostalgic affection and profound curiosity that I finally embarked upon a re-viewing, wondering if I’d be forced to recant, but I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved it, again. If you watched Saturday Night Live back in the day (1977-’79) and simply never liked the sketches that introduced these characters, then I would understand that the feature-film spin-off is not for you, but if you were a fan, as I was, I can’t see not enjoying this.

 

The sketches—of which I was surprised to see there were fewer than a dozen—depicted the Earthbound escapades of Beldar (Aykroyd), Prymaat (Curtin), and daughter Connie (Laraine Newman) Conehead, who are natives of the planet Remulak, but explain their strange behavior by insisting, “We are from France.” I also did not know, until I started researching this piece like a responsible blogger (or is that an oxymoron?), that the film largely followed the plot of a 1983 Rankin/Bass animated special, which I avoided like the plague if I was even aware of it. And, believe it or not, Burke was so convincingly recast as Connie that throughout the entire picture, I did not know she wasn’t Newman.

 

Spinning sketch characters off into a film is usually, as my own beloved daughter would say, an epic fail, and requires a strong rationale, of which in my opinion this has not one but two. The first is a conceptually sound story too substantial to fit within the confines of a sketch, in this case the gradual realization by INS Deputy Commissioner Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean) and his delightfully slimy subordinate, Agent Eli Turnbull (David Spade), that the illegal aliens they’re tracking are literally aliens. The second is production values that, again, exceed TV’s limitations, here treating us to an actual look at Remulak, complete with a stop-motion monster by no less than Phil Phreakin’ Tippett.

 

As the credits unspooled, I was struck by the dichotomy between the largely unfamiliar names in the crew (excepting co-writer Aykroyd, who I gather was primarily responsible for developing the characters…inspired in part by 1955 Gil-fave This Island Earth!) and the comedic who’s-who of the cast. Director Barron is a TV and music-video guy, while the husband-and-wife Turners are SNL vets; seeing his name in isolation, I stupidly did not realize that this was Davis as in “Franken and.” Other roles, mostly Remulakians, are played by SNL alums Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, John Lovitz, Garrett Morris, and Adam Sandler; Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander and Michael Richards; SCTV’s Dave Thomas, et al.

 

Lovitz is magnificently deadpan as Dr. Rudolph, the dentist who helps Beldar blend in by capping his Zuni-doll teeth (later provoking the ire of Remulakian “Highmaster” Thomas), and Alexander sports a hilariously awful rug as their next-door neighbor, Larry Farber. You know a movie’s good when it gets you to like people you normally can’t stand, e.g., Sandler, who made me do a double-take in his single scene as the mobster who provides Beldar with a dead man’s Social Security number, thus alerting the INS. My heart sank when I saw the names of frequent co-stars Spade and Farley, but the former is splendidly sycophantic, while Farley’s auto mechanic, Ronnie, provides Connie’s romantic interest.

 

What can I say about the awesomeness of McKean, whose range extends from Laverne & Shirley’s Lenny during my misspent youth and the spectacularly dim David St. Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to The X-Files, for Heaven’s sake, and who is brilliant as the single-minded Seedling? I enjoyed the Coneheads’ clever speech patterns (“Maintain low tones!”) and offbeat mannerisms as much as I did in the sketches. And I loved the ingenuity with which they camouflaged their cones for the costume party: Beldar with Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, Connie with a princess’s hennin (you may have to look that one up, as I did), and Prymaat by coloring it red and going as a giant lipstick. Great stuff.

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Like a perfect counterweight, the higher On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) rises in my estimation, the lower its immediate successor, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), descends. Why?

 

Glad you asked…

 

  • Guy Hamilton. Back in ’65, having done as much as anyone to get the franchise off to a successful start with Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), returning director Terence Young had been placed in the strange position of trying to make Thunderball equal or outdo Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964), which in many ways formed the template for the rest of the series. Now, after the upheaval of OHMSS, Hamilton himself was brought back to try to replicate his monster hit, and their intent is sometimes all too transparent. Stay tuned.
  • Richard Maibaum. Not faulting him per se, since I consider him one of the bedrocks of the series, and we’ll never know just who contributed what. But if I remember my 007 lore correctly, he was behind the early concept of making the villain Goldfinger’s brother (see what I mean?), played again by Gert Frobe. As Professor Flynn would say, “Ofah.”
  • Tom Mankiewicz. If a single one of these bullets deserves the appellation “Strike One,” this is it. Much as I’ve always lamented the jokiness that increasingly infected the series during the Roger Moore-era decline, I’m obliged to admit that it didn’t start there, and Mankiewicz is widely regarded as its source, so for that alone may he be burned in effigy.
  • Sean Connery. Heresy? Look, I am second to none in my affection for Connery and my conviction that, in his prime, he was the definitive Bond. Back in ’71, it was the biggest possible deal that Sean was back in harness, even if in recent years I have reversed my contention that OHMSS would have been the ultimate Bond movie had he starred in it. (Somewhat paradoxically, although I think Lazenby was underrated, I also think it’s best that he did only one…but that’s a story for another day.) However, “in his prime” is the operative phrase, so I’ll come right out and say this: HE’S TOO OLD to be a credible Bond. No, at 41 by the time of the film’s release, he was hardly decrepit, but people age differently, and even in those five years between Dr. No and You Only Live Twice (1967), he’d been starting to show signs of wear and tear. We won’t even talk about Never Say Never Again (1983).
  • Jill St. John. Well, she’s occasionally droll, and admittedly decorative, and…that’s about it. Granted, following Emma Freakin’ Peel as the lead Bond Girl is beyond tough, but as Tiffany Case, she brings very little to the craps table besides that well-filled purple bikini (aptly, my favorite color).
  • Charles Gray. Listen, he was brilliant in The Devil Rides Out (1968), and a welcome presence in countless other films, but St. John’s predicament was a walk in the park compared to his, ostensibly playing the same character as the hands-on and superbly formidable Telly Savalas in OHMSS. “Science was never my strong suit,” Blofeld says, a bizarre claim for a chap who, when last seen, was a specialist of global standing in the field of allergies. Suffice it to say that at one point ol’ Ernst actually appears in drag (and he’s no Caitlin Jenner), presumably one more thing to lay at the doorstep of Mankiewicz.
  • Lana Wood. Yeah, okay, she was Natalie’s sister; so what? As Plenty O’Toole (“Named after your father perhaps?”—oh, Tom, you wag), she just adds to the Bond-Girl Vacuum.
  • Jimmy Dean. I initially went the obvious route and wrote, “Dude, go back to making sausages,” but as the film progressed, I realized I was being somewhat unfair. True, he stands out like a sore thumb in a Bond movie, yet he’s also a welcome breath of fresh air, enlivening things late in the game. His role of Willard Whyte (allowing for the charming pun of “The Whyte House”) was obviously inspired by Howard Hughes. Yet did you know that Hughes was a good friend of Bond producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s, and not only smoothed the production’s way on his home turf in Vegas, but also appeared in a dream of Cubby’s that inspired a major plot twist? Read my Cinema Retro article!
  • Bruce Cabot. WTF? Almost 40 years earlier, Cabot had played the—for lack of a better term—juvenile lead in the original King Kong (1933). Admittedly, he doesn’t actually do anything wrong as Whyte’s treacherous right-hand man, Bert Saxby (“Tell him he’s fired”). But still…WTF?
  • Putter Smith/Bruce Glover. I’d like to say as little about these two as possible. It’s true that hitmen Wint and Kidd were gay in Ian Fleming’s novel (only some of which made its way into the movie, naturlich). But while some—you know who you are—find these onscreen caricatures amusing, I find them hateful and offensive in the extreme. And, by the way, I don’t think a scorpion’s sting will make you drop dead immediately like that.
  • Norman Burton. Like Cabot, he doesn’t do anything wrong per se, but of all the many actors to play Bond’s CIA pal, Felix Leiter, he is almost certainly the least interesting. This guy makes Goldfinger’s avuncular Cec Linder (who played Dr. Roney in the original BBC version of Nigel Kneale‘s Quatermass and the Pit, if you can believe it) look positively charismatic in comparison.
  • Bernard Lee. Make no mistake, I love the guy, even if the movies increasingly depicted M as having a rod up his ass that was less present in Fleming. But as written here, he’s more than a little insensitive about demanding “a little plain, solid work” out of a 007 who’s recently been trying to avenge his wife’s murder. More on that in just a moment.
  • Desmond Llewelyn. Q comes off the best of the three series regulars in this installment, although that’s setting the bar pretty low. He’s understandably miffed when Bond abruptly hangs up on him, but charmingly modest about his voicebox gizmo (“an amusing little notion,” I believe he calls it), and the slot-machine bit with Tiffany is fun.
  • Leonard Barr. Come on. This guy was a punchline on The Odd Couple (“Tell us about your career, Slugger”), and he turns up in a Bond movie? Yeah, we know the real reason is that he was Las Vegas Rat Pack member Dean Martin’s uncle. The insult comedy of Shady Tree (one of whose “Acorns” is supposedly an uncredited Valerie Perrine; you can’t prove it by me, but then again, who cares?) makes Don Rickles look warm and fuzzy, although it does give me the opportunity for this observation: how perfect is it that this inexcusably—yes, I’ll use the word—schleppy film’s primary location is Vegas, a byword for flashy, empty, sleazy spectacle? They reportedly didn’t even need any extra lighting for the nighttime scenes, including that tiresome demolition-derby-style car chase, which was probably inspired by the stock-car race in OHMSS and, alas, endlessly aped in subsequent entries. That said, I’ve never outgrown my 8-year-old’s fondness for the lunacy, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the moon-buggy chase, especially seeing 007 on the mocked-up lunar surface.
  • Lois Maxwell. Same deal as with Lee, but far worse. Moneypenny was last seen weeping at James’s wedding. Now, when asked if she wants anything from Holland, she requests a diamond ring…from the guy who was widowed minutes after the ceremony. SERIOUSLY?????
  • Joe Robinson. Had to look up the name of the guy who played ill-fated smuggler Peter Franks, which tells you what a nonentity he was. But it’s the character, or rather the circumstances surrounding his death, that makes my blood boil. After Bond, posing as Franks, kills the guy and switches their i.d.’s to preserve his masquerade, Case says, “My God! You just killed James Bond!” Acknowledging Bond as a household word, that not only is an irksome little bit of metatextuality (exacerbated, not surprisingly, in the dire A View to a Kill [1985]), but also completely subverts the whole idea of a spy, whose very essence is anonymity. Duh.
  • Laurence Naismith. Again, nothing against him personally; in fact, I’m fond of him in Ray Harryhausen‘s Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—as the eponymous Argos—and elsewhere. But the establishing scene of his lecture about diamonds epitomizes what I was saying about this film as a Goldfinger wannabe, shamelessly copying that film’s lecture on gold by Colonel Smithers (Richard Vernon), right down to M’s petulance regarding the sherry.
  • Marc Lawrence. Another guy I’m not faulting personally. He was a welcome heavy in endless films, and Barbara Shelley told me he was a good friend when they were working together in Italy in the 1950s. (“He always played gangsters; as, although very kind, he looked like a gangster.”) But it says something when that guy has two of the best lines in a Bond picture: “I got a brudder” and “I didn’t know there was a pool down there.”
  • Ed Bishop. Actually, I always liked his bit as Klaus Hergersheimer, the poor schlepp from Section G who’s checking radiation shields, which also gives Joseph Furst one of the film’s best lines (to Bond) as Dr. Metz: “Will you please leave, you irritating man?” And how cool is it that the star of UFO is in a Bond movie?
  • Roy Hollis. Again, had to look up the name of the uncredited guy who plays the Sheriff (and, per the IMDb, does so again as a Louisiana counterpart in Live and Let Die [1973]). Sure, he’s tiresome. But I swear to God, he reminds me of Robert Aldrich every time…
  • Lola Larson/Trina Parks. Am I a sexist if I dislike seeing Bond get his ass kicked by the biracial Olga Korbut twins, Bambi and Thumper? (Poor Walt.) If so, I apologize, but in my defense, I get even more annoyed when—after throwing 007 into the pool—these two suddenly become as formidable as low-voltage jellyfish when subjected to…a dunking.
  • Shane Rimmer. Not a slam but a salute. Has any other actor played as many different roles in the series, culminating in the sub commander in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)?
  • John Barry. Anybody who seriously thinks I’m gonna criticize John Barry should just get the hell out of here right now. And in fact, I think his theme song (sung by Shirley Bassey, as was “Goldfinger.” Get it?) is one of the best. But it reminds me to mention that I think Maurice Binder phoned it in with a somewhat perfunctory credit sequence. Barry’s faux Vegas cues seem suitable, sometimes getting stuck in my head like Velcro, and his original “007 Theme” (introduced in FRWL) makes a welcome return appearance; at least once he also does that neat John Barry trick of hybridizing the title tune with “The James Bond Theme.”
  • Ken Adam. The justly celebrated Bond production designer neither distinguishes nor embarrasses himself with this one. Whyte’s penthouse is fine, but the sunken central scale-model bit dates back to—you guessed it—Goldfinger, and the setting of the climax is…an oil rig. Yes, it’s a very handsome oil rig, but at the end of the day, it’s…an oil rig.

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