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Archive for June, 2017

What I’ve Been Watching:  The Cavern (1964).

Who’s Responsible:  Edgar G. Ulmer (director); Jack Davies, Michael Pertwee (screenwriters); John Saxon, Rosanna Schiaffino, Larry Hagman (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Various reasons, chiefly Saxon.

Seen It Before?  No.

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

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  4

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

And?  This truly “international” rarity was, as star Saxon said in our Filmfax interview, “an American, Italian, German and to a small degree Yugoslav co-production….[that] was to be shot in caves in Postona, Yugoslavia, just across the border from Trieste, Italy, in November of 1963.”  In Italy, it was known as Sette contro la Morte (Seven Against Death), while in West Germany, it went by both Neunzig Nächte und ein Tag (Ninety Nights and a Day) and Helden—Himmel und Hölle (Heroes—Heaven and Hell).  The titular septet also encompasses two other nationalities, with Canadian RAF Lieutenant Peter Carter (Peter L. Marshall) and retired British General Braithwaite (Brian Aherne).

The story is, in a sense, simplicity itself:  on the Italian front in 1944, Private Joe Cramer (Saxon) and Captain Wilson (Hagman) are among those forced by a bombing raid to take refuge in a huge system of caves, where they are soon trapped by an explosion.  They are joined by locals Anna (Schiaffino) and Mario Scognamiglio (Nino Castelnuovo), as well as Oberleutnant Hans Beck (Hans von Borsody), but declare an “armistice” until they can extricate themselves from their mutual predicament, which stretches on into months.  The presence of Anna, whose attentions shift from Mario to Joe, naturally causes friction, as do debates over leadership, exploration of the caves and division of the dwindling rations.

It “was loosely based on an incident where American and German soldiers, and Italians also, became trapped in a cave that was used for munitions and supply storage.  The point being that everyone had to forget being enemies and learn how to cooperate to survive,” said Saxon.  “I’ve only seen the film once, screened at 20th Century-Fox.  I cannot tell you how successful it was in portraying this theme; I can only remember being somewhat disappointed.  Generally I used to feel a bit like this seeing any film I was in, but this production was very more clearly a disaster.”  It’s also disorienting in retrospect to see a drama featuring the soon-to-be stars of I Dream of Jeannie and The Hollywood Squares!

Anticipating Hagman’s sliminess as J.R. Ewing on Dallas, Wilson finds and conceals from the others a store of brandy, justified (when Braithwaite stumbles on and shares his secret) as a medical necessity due to his alcoholism.  Attrition begins when Wilson falls drunkenly into an underground river, and continues with two cruel twists:  Hans climbs his way to an exit, only to be shot down when his uniform is spotted, and Peter also gets out the hard way, drowning while exploring the river with improvised diving gear and emerging over a waterfall.  In a final irony, the general goes bonkers and kills himself with a grenade, setting off stored explosives and blasting a way out for the other three.

Saxon’s disappointment with the final result bookended one nine years earlier.  “My very first audition in Hollywood, a week or so after I arrived, was for a picture intended to be called The Bandit, directed by Edgar Ulmer.  My audition seemed to go well as I was considered to be the candidate for the part.  The movie’s title was changed [to The Naked Dawn] and another actor got the role I’d auditioned for.”  He also had a uniquely topical recollection from this film’s production:  “one afternoon…Shirley Ulmer, Edgar’s wife and script supervisor, was running down the boulevard toward us….screaming.  When she got closer, we understood she was saying that President Kennedy had been assassinated.”

Accounts vary as to the script’s patrimony; credited British scenarists Davies and Pertwee (the brother of Jon, the third Doctor Who) may have been fronting for a blacklisted Yank, possibly Dalton Trumbo.  The IMDb asserts that Alberto Bevilacqua, who like Saxon had worked with Mario Bava, had an uncredited hand in it, and that it draws, uncredited, from an unspecified novel by Leon Uris, although I can’t imagine which one.  Composer Carlo Rustichelli’s hundreds of credits also include several films for Bava, and indeed I sensed echoes—as it were—of some of his horror scores, while the somewhat jarring title tune, presumably never a #1 hit, was written by Carroll Coates and performed by Bobby Bare.

“Visiting the caves for the first time, I was startled by their depth and impressiveness,” said Saxon, “but also concerned about filming for ten or twelve hours a day in more or less a forty-degree temperature and constant humidity, which dripped from the walls and the stalactites.  Had we shot the whole film there we all would have likely wound up in a hospital, but the sets were not ready.  So, after waiting for three days for the sets, the company moved across the border for some shooting in the hills around Trieste.”  There, he encountered such irregularities as the close call when a special-effects explosion was prematurely detonated right under, rather than alongside, the car in which he was riding.

While shooting was suspended after a minor player twisted his ankle, Hagman, Marshall, “and Joachim Hansen [who played a German sergeant killed in the cave-in] spent a week testing the local restaurants and having a good time….[And then], an English gentleman strolled into the bar area of the hotel…[and said], ‘Gentlemen, Lloyds of London has sent me regarding your insurance claim, to inform you that you have no insurance with Lloyds of London.’  It appears that besides not having built the sets, the Yugoslavs also didn’t pay the insurance premium they were responsible for….So, not only were there no sets in Yugoslavia, I was told the company would not even be allowed to re-enter the country.”

Aboard a train that night, Saxon was aroused by another outburst of Shirley’s after Edgar awoke unable to see, reportedly due to the amount of sedatives he’d taken.  The director of The Black Cat (1934), The Man from Planet X (1951), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Amazing Transparent Man and Beyond the Time Barrier (both 1960) had apparently pushed his legendary luck with tight budgets too far.  “Ulmer’s contract was made with Marty Melcher, at the time the husband of Doris Day, and a producer at 20th Century-Fox.  Somehow I came to understand that he had entrusted Edgar with a modest sum for the completion of the film; any costs beyond that were to come from Ulmer’s pocket.”

“In Rome, things got slowly and progressively worse.  Ulmer was so harried that he once, at the end of a rehearsal, called ‘Action’ before the camera was even set up.  Another time, Nino…decided to test Ulmer’s attention by speaking gibberish during a rehearsal.  After Ulmer gave his clear approval, we all looked at each other with eyes wide open.”  Later, his “assertions of trust and collaboration with me…turned particularly nasty.  Each time a close-up of me appeared on the looping screen, Edgar would say, ‘This is very good.  But of course I will not use it in the film.’”  Saxon left after visiting friends from Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, but never saw Ulmer again; it was his last film.

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The Breakheart Kid

What I’ve Been Watching:  Breakheart Pass (1975).

Who’s Responsible:  Tom Gries (director); Alistair MacLean (screenwriter); Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna (stars).

Why I Watched It:  You might well ask, why wouldn’t I watch it?

Seen It Before?  Hell yeah.

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

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

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

And?  During the 1960s, Charles Bronson appeared in some of the foundational films of my personal cinematic pantheon, not least as an indelible member of three of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled on the screen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and The Dirty Dozen (1967), as well as working with Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  The ’70s were hit or miss, and even the success of Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) might be considered a mixed blessing, since he and J. Lee Thompson, who between them directed three of the four sequels, epitomized Chuck’s late-career plummet.  So I consider this one of Bronson’s last really good films.

It is no surprise, at least to me, that it’s the one linking him with another of my favorite authors, joining the elite company of Richard Matheson (Master of the World, 1961; Cold Sweat, 1970) and Elmore Leonard (Mr. Majestyk, 1974).  There are plenty of films based, with varying degrees of fidelity and/or success, on books by Alistair MacLean, a number of which I dearly love (The Guns of Navarone, 1961; Ice Station Zebra, 1968).  But there are only four on which he was a screenwriter, giving us an unfiltered hit of MacLean; this and the now-elusive When Eight Bells Toll (1971) reunited him with Elliott Kastner and Jerry Gershwin, the producers of my all-time favorite movie, Where Eagles Dare (1969).

This was the penultimate feature of director Tom Gries (1922-1977), who had helmed Bronson’s Breakout that same year, but most of whose largely unremarkable career was relegated to television, ranging from the lauded miniseries Helter Skelter (1976) to the tiresome TV-movie Earth II (1971) and episodes of 40-odd series.  Gries did, however, display a knack for Westerns, most notably Will Penny (1967) and 100 Rifles (1969), the latter a staple of Raquel Welch Week on The 4:30 Movie and a prior collaboration with Jerry Goldsmith, for whom my admiration knows no bounds.  He also had an affinity for the genre, e.g., Welch’s Bandolero! (1968), and his Breakheart theme is very memorable.

Lucien Ballard, best known for photographing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), contributes some gorgeously rugged Idaho exteriors, while second-unit director and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, a veteran of Where Eagles Dare whose last film it was, also earned his salary on this one.  The story is from one of my favorite subgenres, thrillers set aboard trains, in the grand tradition of Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), Horror Express (1972), and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).  As such, it’s more of a MacLean adaptation than a traditional Bronson vehicle—pardon the pun—and, despite the unusual setting, it follows his classic blueprint in several respects.

Medico-turned-desperado John Deakin (Bronson) cheats at cards in the 1870s town of Myrtle, leading to an altercation and his arrest by U.S. Marshal Pearce (Johnson), thus securing them spots on a train transporting relief troops to Fort Humboldt.  That’s easier said than done, because Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) had refused to bend the strict no-civilians rule to let Pearce fetch notorious outlaw Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier, dubbed by Paul Frees), a prisoner at the fort.  Traveling with Nevada Governor Richard Fairchild (Crenna) are Marica (Jill Ireland), daughter of the fort’s commander and obviously his lover; the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney); and Dr. Molyneux (David Huddleston).

Before conductor O’Brien (Charles Durning) even gets the train moving, trouble is afoot as two soldiers disappear—ominously soon after being asked to decipher a message that might tell Claremont Just What the Hell Is Actually Going on Here.  Yet Fairchild waits for no man, so away they go, and as with David Shire’s brilliant score for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Goldsmith’s driving theme evokes the forward motion of the train.  While they’re building up steam, however, let’s take a moment to examine this cast, which while not exactly A-list is certainly interesting, e.g., McKinney, a part of the Clint Eastwood “stock company” but most indelibly remembered for Deliverance (1972).

Just as with Clint and the execrable Sondra Locke, at this point in his career, if you got Bronson, you likely also got Ireland, his wife and/or co-star from 1968 until her death in 1990.  No doubt her first husband, David (Man from U.N.C.L.E.) McCallum, was sorry he introduced them on the set of The Great Escape, since she subsequently dumped him for Chuck.  Her spoiled-brat looks and inept emoting haven’t improved since Ireland was shoehorned into Cold Sweat—with a role that has no analog in Matheson’s source novel, Ride the Nightmare—and while I commend Bronson for showing her more loyalty than she did to McCallum, her presence is a millstone that drags down any film she appears in.

With exceptions such as Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966), I’ve never been a big fan of Crenna’s, so he seems well suited to his officious-prick role; conversely, Johnson always comes across as so likable, even when playing a killer in The Wild Bunch, that his nastiness as Pearce is surprising.  I’d never call Durning one of my favorite actors, but he does have a key role in one of my favorite films, The Sting (1973), and while given little screen time, he lets his chubby-coward flag fly in a nice “Hey, I’m no gunman” scene.  A tireless, rock-solid supporting player for almost 50 years, Lauter worked with everybody from Aldrich and Frankenheimer to Hitchcock, and does well with a rare heroic role here.

Once they’re safely outta Dodge—er, Myrtle—it’s revealed that the troops are not relief but replacements for the victims of a diphtheria epidemic, and after leaving to check on the medical supplies, Molyneux is found dead in a murder that ex-doc Deakin discovers was made to look like natural causes.  In short order, the fireman plunges from a bridge, his body reeking of alcohol despite reportedly never touching it; Peabody vanishes; and the rear cars carrying the troops are cut loose, plunging sans brakes into a ravine.  Gries handles this brilliantly as we only hear the screams and see no gore, just the slow-motion pulverization of the derailed cars, leaving the horrific carnage inside to our imaginations.

Many a MacLean story centers on a journey or mission whose true nature, along with that of one or more participants, is only made clear near the climax, and in this case, even the epidemic is a red herring.  Revealing himself to Claremont as an incognito Secret Service agent, Deakin explains that far from being a prisoner, Calhoun is in control of the fort and has made an unholy alliance with Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky), to whom he has promised the guns and ammo that are their real cargo.  The doctor was silenced to protect that secret; the firemen was killed when he found—as did Deakin—the bodies of the two missing soldiers in the wood supply; and Peabody, also found dead, was his fellow agent.

Fairchild, Pearce, and O’Brien are all in on it, even Carlos the cook (Archie Moore), who battles Deakin to the death atop the train in a nail-biter recalling Canutt’s famed cable-car clash in Where Eagles Dare.  Also echoing that film, Deakin says that he knew he could trust Claremont because the major tried so hard to stop Pearce, their prime suspect, from boarding.  Highlights of the climax in the titular pass include Fairchild shooting Calhoun, who is holding Marica hostage, only to be cut down with a sword by the mounted major; Deakin dynamiting the tracks and tricking the Indians into attacking their own allies; and his final showdown with Pearce.  Cue reprise of the Jerry Goldsmith theme.  All aboard!

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