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Talent Show

It is probably inevitable that Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who lived long in New York but spent her final years in Switzerland, will be best known for the first of her 22 novels, Strangers on a Train (1950).  Its innumerable official and unofficial adaptations will, equally inevitably, be overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version, which was co-written by BOF fave Raymond Chandler, and filmed partly at the railroad station in my former home of Danbury.  Yet five of those novels—the so-called “Ripliad,” comprising The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991)—feature her unique creation of con artist and murderer Tom Ripley.

As usual, I met Ripley onscreen, embodied by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), the first version of Ripley’s Game.  Both that and The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed by René Clément with Alain Delon as Plein Soleil (Full Sun, aka Purple Noon) in 1960, were remade under their original titles by, respectively, Liliana Cavani with John Malkovich in 2002, and Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon in 1999.  The American Friend also incorporated plot elements from Ripley Under Ground, filmed by Roger Spottiswoode with Barry Pepper in 2005, although I am unfamiliar with that or his TV oeuvre, e.g., Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a 1956 Studio One episode adapted by Highsmith’s one-time fiancé, Marc Brandel.

Years ago, before reading a word of her work—and that still shockingly includes Strangers on a Train, perhaps a post for another day—I vowed that given the opportunity, I would engage in a page-to-screen comparison.  The American Friend (for which Madame BOF developed a belated appreciation once I had persistently persuaded her to give it another chance, after my disastrous introduction) is the only film from the cinematic Ripley canon that I own, as I do the Ripliad, but recent broadcasts of Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley have enabled me to begin.  The novel is part travelogue, enumerating the European haunts of its peripatetic protagonists, and part psychological study, written in the third person yet always deep inside Ripley’s fascinating mind.

It opens in New York, where Tom has been running a minor income-tax scam and is approached in a bar by Herbert Greenleaf with an unusual request.  The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Emily, is ill, and they want their son, Richard, to return home from Mongibello, the town south of Naples in which Dickie has used his own income to buy a house, spending his time sailing and painting.  Believing Ripley to be more than the casual acquaintance he is, Greenleaf (at first mistaken for a policeman about to arrest Tom) asks him to go to Italy—all expenses paid, of course—and use his “influence” on Dickie, an offer that Tom finds quite irresistible, especially since his financial, housing, legal, and personal circumstances all make it desirable that he get the hell out of Dodge.

A solitary crossing via the Cunard Line lets us get to know Tom better (orphaned by drowning, raised in Boston by his hated Aunt Dottie, running away unsuccessfully at 17 and then at 20 to “a series of haphazard jobs,” or none at all,  in New York).  His mission begins inauspiciously when Dickie barely remembers him, further complicated by the presence of fellow American Marjorie Sherwood, an aspiring author whose relationship with Dickie is ambiguous; Tom thinks that only Marge desires more than friendship between them.  In desperation, he comes clean about his true purpose to Dickie, who is amused and asks Tom to stay with him, but several faux pas strain the situation, and after more than a month, Greenleaf writes to say he considers the mission a failure.

From the start, Highsmith has established Tom’s envy of Dickie’s privileged life, their surface similarities—same age, same height—and Ripley’s talent for mimicry (“I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impersonate practically anybody”).  Now, he hits on what is for him a perfectly logical solution:  kill Dickie during their trip to San Remo and take his place, signing his name on the monthly remittance checks.  Despite his hatred of water, he arranges for them to rent a small boat; in a nightmarish scene worthy of Hitchcock, Tom kills Dickie with an oar once they are out of sight of land and sinks his naked, weighted body, nearly drowning when he falls briefly overboard in the process, then scuttles the bloodstained boat just off of a deserted beach.

He is enjoying his borrowed life when another American, Freddie Miles, appears at “Dickie’s” apartment in Rome, having finally learned his elusive friend’s address, and is surprised to find Tom there instead.  His improvised explanations merely making Miles more suspicious, Ripley panics and kills him with an ashtray, sneaking the body out to Freddie’s car as though helping a drunken friend and hiding it behind a tomb on the Appian Way.  His web of lies begins to tighten with the sequential discoveries of Freddie’s body, the boat, the forgeries, and Dickie’s bags, which he had checked under an alias; meanwhile, he is forced to dodge and/or deceive the police, Marge, other friends of Dickie’s, Herbert Greenleaf, and a private eye he hires, Alvin McCarron.

Ironically, the police begin to suspect Dickie of killing not only Freddie but also Tom, so having relocated to Venice, he presents himself to the police as Ripley to prove he is still alive, and must regretfully abandon Dickie’s identity.  Among my bedrock personality traits is a discomfort with imposture (I practically break into a cold sweat when spies go undercover), so Ripley’s dizzying “Who am I now?” mindset was quite harrowing, also posing an unenviably internal conflict for a scenarist to portray.  As a precaution, he fakes a document “not to be opened for several months” in which Dickie bequeaths his money to Tom, and when Marge finds Dickie’s rings—narrowly avoiding ending up like Freddie—Ripley states that Dickie had wanted him to take care of them.

Tempting fate, Ripley writes to Greenleaf once the latter has returned to America, reporting the “discovery” of the will, which seems to confirm his and Marge’s suspicion that Dickie has either killed himself or changed his identity. Tom sails aboard the Hellenes on his long-awaited trip to Greece, wondering if he will be arrested at any moment, but because the fingerprints on the suitcases match those in “Dickie’s” apartment, he is assumed to have deposited them himself.  The book ends on a note that, while perhaps a tad anticlimactic for the reader, is one of qualified triumph for Ripley, who learns that the Greenleafs have decided to respect Dickie’s final wishes regarding the will, although Highsmith implies that he will always be looking over his shoulder…

Not overly familiar with Clément’s work, I know I caught up at some point with Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952), his heart-rending Oscar-winner about two children who cope with the horrors of World War II by creating a pet cemetery, and I’m sure I saw eons ago but have totally forgotten Le Passager de la Pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1969), a thriller with Charles Bronson and the all-too-inevitable Jill Ireland.  Apparently a pricey flop, Paris Brule-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?, 1966) is a Longest Day-style docudrama whose all-star cast embodies several historical figures.  Two Gil-faves, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal, adapted the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre about the liberation of Paris and Hitler’s failed plan to level it preemptively.

The effect of its ending is dramatic even by Maudlin Man standards, so those who wish to may indulge me, while the many Francophobes in my orbit skip ahead.  Believing Hitler insane and the war lost, military governor General Dietrich von Choltitz (Goldfinger himself, Longest Day vet Gert Fröbe) disobeys, surrendering to the Allies, and as they enter the city, its destruction forestalled, Notre Dame’s bells are slowly set into motion, announcing its liberation while the swastika falls, torn to pieces by a crowd that bursts into “La Marseillaise.”  All at once, Maurice Jarre’s deliriously joyful “Paris Waltz” accompanies the camera as it soars into the air with their jubilant spirits, the credits unspooling over aerial shots of Paris as black and white turns to color.

Okay, Ripley, right.  Paul Gégauff, a longtime collaborator of Claude Chabrol’s on both sides of the camera, and Clément won a 1962 Edgar Allan Poe Award for adapting Purple Noon, named Best Foreign Film.  They fast-forward 40-odd pages into the novel, joining Ripley and Philippe Greanleaf (Maurice Ronet) on their lark in Rome, where they encounter Miles, who in this case already knows, and clearly disdains, Tom.  Neither Alain Delon, in a star-making turn as Ripley (his several films with Clément include Is Paris Burning?), nor Ronet makes a very convincing American, but expat Yank Billy Kearns adds a morceau of verisimilitude as Freddy (sic); Romy Schneider, then Delon’s fiancée, has an uncredited cameo as one of Miles’s female companions.

The broad strokes of Highsmith’s plot remain, yet the erratic score by Nino “Rotta” of Godfather fame epitomizes the film’s tonal shifts.  The scenarists add a thematically interesting interlude in Rome as the two buy a white cane from a blind man (unbilled and unrecognizable Jesús Franco mainstay Paul Muller), then feign sightlessness themselves, segueing into an expansion of a brief bit in the novel where they bump into a young woman and share a cab with her.  Their frat-boy antics here seem disarmingly lighthearted, yet later, Philippe displays a real streak of cruelty, and admits to Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt, strongly resembling a Gallic Barbara Steele) that he is merely amusing himself with Ripley, who fabricates a nonexistent childhood friendship for them.

The cinematic Tom has been offered $5,000 to bring Philippe home, so when the latter reveals he has no intention of returning to San Francisco, he sets the wheels in motion for his own demise.  His relationship with Marge is overtly romantic—his sailboat is even named after her, rather than Highsmith’s Pipistrello (Italian for “bat”)—and in an effective change, the scenarists conflate the Pipi, which has very little relevance in the book, with the rented motorboat.  Much of the tension among the three main characters is played out in, and exacerbated by, the narrow confines of the Marge, creating a dynamic that, to this writer, anticipated Roman Polanski’s Oscar-nominated feature-film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), or that perennial BOF favorite, Dead Calm (1989).

Although his backstory is omitted, Ripley’s fear of water is established during a prank taken too far when, to punish him for a minor infraction, Philippe forces him to climb into the dinghy, only to have the tow-line snap, subjecting a shirtless Tom to the effect of the plein soleil for hours.  In retaliation, he slips an earring (palmed during the carriage ride in Rome) into Philippe’s pocket; in the ensuing argument with a jealous Marge, Philippe commits the inexcusable sin of throwing overboard the manuscript of the book she was writing on Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.  She then demands to be put ashore, setting the stage for the murder, and the scenarists cleverly turn exposition into dialogue by having Philippe discuss the plan with Ripley, thinking it to be a joke.

Philippe is killed abruptly, with a knife rather than an oar, yet the protracted sequence in which Ripley wraps the corpse in canvas and dumps it overboard while the boat pitches in a high sea is masterful, with only the rushing water and the wind whipping through the sails on the soundtrack as he is knocked from the deck, and must clamber back aboard before cutting the cord towing the body.  Highly compressed like much else from the novel, the cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Riccordi (Erno Crisa) focuses on Freddy’s murder, ironically with an apparent jade Buddha, but it is Philippe’s that sows the seeds of Tom’s downfall.  And although she praised Alain Delon’s casting, Highsmith was, not surprisingly, unhappy that he receives his comeuppance at the finale.

The cinematic Ripley withdraws most of Philippe’s money from the bank and appends a note to the stack of cash bequeathing it to Marge, whom he also makes the beneficiary of the faked will.  He returns to Mongibello, where the grieving Marge has become a recluse, and slowly wins her over with protestations of his own love, the authenticity of his affections being open to doubt as he relaxes and prepares to enjoy nothing but “the best.”  Yet as the Marge is being hauled ashore, preparatory to its sale, it drags behind it Philippe’s shrouded body—the cord having been fouled in the propeller—which belies his supposed suicide, triggers the watching Marge’s offscreen scream, and prompts Ripley’s summons from the beach as the persistent Riccordi waits for him…

Highsmith’s pseudonymous The Price of Salt (1952) was a landmark lesbian novel reissued as Carol, under which title it was filmed by Todd Haynes in 2015 with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  “I don’t think Ripley is gay,” his creator insisted to Sight and Sound’s Gerald Peary.  “He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true.  But he’s married in later books.  I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department.  But he makes it in bed with his wife.”  Tom is equally adamant about not being “queer” in The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet I think it would be difficult to deny assertions of a homoerotic subtext in the version written and directed by Minghella, who died of a hemorrhage after surgery at only 54, and is best known for The English Patient (1996).

Clément (who had a Hitchcockian cameo as a servant, although I wouldn’t recognize him) used Delon’s smoldering sexuality—down, Madame BOF!—to emphasize the charisma with which Ripley charms his marks.  Minghella, conversely, uses Damon’s Everyman appearance to stress the self-effacing quality that fosters his chameleonic m.o., slipping in numerous references to erasure and invisibility.  He preserves the 1950s setting and includes several characters largely or wholly absent from Purple Noon, including Alvin MacCarron (sic; Philip Baker Hall), “new Venetian friend” Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), and Herbert (James Rebhorn), who mistakes stranger Tom for a classmate of Dickie (Jude Law), due to a borrowed Princeton jacket.

Minghella does make some interesting changes, e.g., Dickie’s passion is no longer painting but jazz—his boat is named Bird after Charlie Parker—which Tom bones up on before meeting him, using it to wangle the offer to move in.  The relationship with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) is again romantic, if hardly monogamous; Tom observes his dalliance with Silvana (Stefania Rocca), and when the pregnant village girl drowns herself after Dickie rejects her plea for help, Tom offers to take the blame, claiming they are now “brothers.”  Blanchett, aptly, plays another new character, heiress Meredith Logue, to whom he impulsively introduces himself as Dickie while debarking from the Cunard liner, later manipulating her to give Marge “evidence” of her fiancé’s infidelity.

Arising out of an argument aboard the motorboat—rented at his suggestion here—Dickie’s death does not appear premeditated, and might be considered second- or third-degree murder, possibly making Tom more sympathetic.  I would like to be careful here, because I don’t pretend to know Minghella’s intentions, but Ripley comes across as a spurned lover in the unorthodox “triangle” with Marge, and his later laments to Peter (whose character is jumped up to an obvious romantic conquest) about being locked in the darkness by his lies could easily be code for a closeted gay man.  On the other hand, based on what we know of the character, Damon’s Mr. Ripley could be effectively pansexual, changing orientation as readily, and as self-servingly, as he does identities.

Again, the author’s denouement undergoes the biggest change, following a false ending close to hers in which—despite Marge asserting that she knows he killed Dickie—Ripley evades justice, assured by MacCarron that Herbert wishes to conceal his son’s hitherto unknown violent past, supporting the theory that he killed Freddie, and honor his “bequest.”  But en route to Athens with Peter, who knows him as Tom, he finds himself trapped aboard the very same vessel with Meredith, who along with her entourage knows him as Dickie.  Seeing no recourse, he sobbingly strangles (offscreen, albeit audibly) his inamorato, who would unwittingly expose him, with Minghella once again seeming to solicit our sympathy for Highsmith’s “utterly amoral” creation.

Perhaps tipping his hand, the title credit unreels the following before finally landing on Talented:  “mysterious, yearning, secretive, sad, lonely, troubled, confused, loving, musical, gifted, intelligent, beautiful, tender, sensitive, haunted, passionate.”  The film’s five Oscar nominations included Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Law, who gives Dickie much of the magnetism Delon brought to Ripley; Paltrow is equally adept at portraying the plight of the fragile Marge, who is ever mindful of his short attention span and wandering eye.  Philip Seymour Hoffman brought his gift for unflattering but fascinating characters to the expanded role of Freddie, a true ugly American killed this time with a bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

I quite liked each version on its own merits, with their lush cinematography making excellent use of the extensive Italian locations, but since they respectively subverted Highsmith’s ending—she reportedly called Purple Noon’s “a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught”—and her protagonist’s personality, I don’t feel that either one did full justice, as it were, to her conception.  She is also said to have written, while beginning The Talented Mr. Ripley, that she was “showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it,” so one can only imagine what she might have made of Minghella’s mournful apologia had she lived to see it.  Meanwhile, if the stars align, I will write a follow-up someday…

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Best-Case Scenario

Penguin Random House, my long-ago employers (then Penguin USA), have just published an elegant Penguin Classics volume, The Best of Richard Matheson, edited with an introduction by award-winning author Victor LaValle, touted as “one of horror fiction’s brightest talents.”  My old pal Greg Cox and his colleagues at Tor pretty much own Richard’s oeuvre in trade editions and, since the mid-1990s, have done a commendable job of keeping his stories in print, either accompanying his shorter novels or in their own collections.  So the last thing we needed is one whose contents represent the usual suspects…and this ain’t it, which does credit to LaValle, who deems this “The Best of Richard Matheson—at least according to me”; that’s just as it should be.

Despite starting with Richard’s 1950 professional debut, these 33 stories are otherwise presented in no discernible order.  Many are established classics, yet others were first published more than 50 years after “Born of Man and Woman” by Gauntlet Press, Tor’s counterpart when it comes to limited editions of his work, in Masques V (“Haircut”) and Matheson Uncollected: Volume One (“Counterfeit Bills,” “Man with a Club,” “The Prisoner”).  Of greatest interest, at least to me, is “Now Die in It,” which after appearing in the December 1958 issue of Mystery Tales was soon expanded into Richard’s twice-filmed 1959 novel Ride the Nightmare, and only finally saw book publication in its original incarnation in Gauntlet’s Matheson Uncollected: Volume Two in 2010.

LaValle’s well-written 12-page intro says surprisingly little about the actual tales, with more than half of it devoted to relating his own unnerving “Matheson moment,” when his teenaged self “stepped into a story he could’ve written.”  Yet letting the work speak for itself is no bad thing, and given Richard’s customary concision, those 407 pages encompass an impressive range, both chronologically and thematically.  The stories run the gamut from the horror (“Blood Son,” “Dress of White Silk”) and science fiction (“Witch War,” “The Last Day”) genres for which he is best known to crime fiction (“A Visit to Santa Claus”), Westerns (“The Conqueror”), and even a collaboration with author/scenarist son Richard Christian Matheson (“Where There’s a Will”).

Nowadays, the DIY shorts proliferating like mushrooms on YouTube—a trend that was still but nascent when I went to press with Richard Matheson on Screen—have blurred, perhaps forever, the lines demarcating what I would consider “real” movies.  Yet given the frequency with which his work was dramatized, it’s no surprise that almost half of these stories have been adapted in features (“Button, Button”), TV-movies (“Prey,” “Dying Room Only,” “Duel,” “No Such Thing as a Vampire”), or episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Third from the Sun,” “Long Distance Call,” “Mute”), Night Gallery (“The Funeral,” “Big Surprise”), and other TV series (“Shipshape Home,” “Dance of the Dead,” “One for the Books”).

Back in May, Richard’s agent e-mailed some bibliographic questions from Penguin editor Sam Raim, and since Mrs. Bradley didn’t raise any stupid children, I looped in my Richard Matheson Companion co-editor Paul Stuve, who is to his published work what I am to his screen credits.  We were, alas, not able to correct the citation misidentifying 87th Precinct creator Ed McBain as “Bain” in the title of his eponymous Mystery Book, or minor errors regarding Richard’s Twilight Zone episodes (he scripted 14—“Third from the Sun” not among them—rather than 16, basing only half on his stories).  But for non-curmudgeonly lay readers, this handsome edition, of which Sam kindly sent me a copy, can serve as a wonderful introduction to Richard’s legendary talents.

“Avenge Me, Boys!”

With those basset-hound eyes, a face like worn shoe leather, and a voice that somehow sounded perennially muffled, Harry Dean Stanton was truly one of the screen’s great character actors; he had a filmography to die for, yet when I think of Harry, who went to his well-earned rest at 91 on September 15, I think first and foremost of two roles that bookended his work in the 1970s. Then billed simply as Dean Stanton, and already a 16-year screen veteran, he was Willard, a quintessential member of the platoon in Kelly’s Heroes (1970). And as Brett in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), his lonely death while probing the bowels of the Nostromo in search of errant cat Jonesy is, I submit, an indelible scene in a uniformly unforgettable film.

The list of names linked with Stanton’s is like a Who’s Who of BOF-centric cinema: Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973), Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely, 1975), John Huston (Wise Blood, 1979), John Carpenter (Escape from New York, 1981; Christine, 1983), Sam Shepard (Fool for Love, 1985), John Frankenheimer (the frustratingly as-yet-unseen The Fourth War, 1990; Against the Wall, 1994), David Lynch (Wild at Heart, 1990, et alia), Elmore Leonard (The Big Bounce, 2004).

Perhaps inevitably, prominent billing usually eluded guys like Harry, yet when given the ball, he ran with it, e.g., as Emilio Estevez’s gruff mentor in Alex Cox’s Repo Man (“…ordinary f*ck*ng people. [Exquisitely timed beat.] I hate ’em.”), and most especially as the unlikely lead in Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (both 1984), which was already high on my list to revisit before his death. Suffice to say that even a film as lowly as Red Dawn (also 1984—a banner year!) was enhanced by his presence, braying the line that gave this post its title.

Harry, you were unique, and will be sorely missed. God bless.

Addendum: Two other recent nonagenarian passings make for a curious juxtaposition. I don’t like boxing, so I don’t like boxing movies, so I’m not a big fan of Raging Bull (1980), so I don’t care too much that Jake LaMotta died at 95 on September 19. But I do remember vividly that his ex-wife, Vikki, posed nude in Playboy (founded by Hugh Hefner, who died yesterday, also at 91) in November 1981 at 51, and blew away many of their models practically young enough to be her grandchildren. This being a family blog, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Have You Heard?

Since I can’t be the only one who sometimes confused actors John Hurt and John Heard, it seems strangely apt that they died the same year, the latter having passed at 71 on July 21.  His roles were all over the map, in the best possible way, e.g., a romantic lead in the ill-fated Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Jack Kerouac in Heart Beat (1980), the bemused zoologist in Cat People (1982, with Annette O’Toole below), the son in The Trip to Bountiful (1985), the dickish rival in Big (1988), the father in Home Alone (1990).  Heard was an Emmy nominee as Outstanding Guest Actor for his recurring role as Detective Vin Makazian on The Sopranos.

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He also appeared in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War, The Seventh Sign, Costa-Gavras’s Betrayed (all also 1988!), Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990), Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire, Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief (both 1993), Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000), and others too numerous to mention.  I don’t have immediate access to it, so I can’t treat myself to a memorial viewing, but Heard’s tour de force performance in the title role of Cutter’s Way (1981, below)—also known as Cutter and Bone after Newton Thornburg’s source novel—is but one aspect that made Ivan Passer’s criminally underrated film so extraordinary.  Highly recommended.

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You Wish

What I’ve Been Watching:  Death Wish (1974).

Who’s Responsible:  Michael Winner (director); Wendell Mayes (screenwriter); Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Countless reasons.

Seen It Before?  Many times.

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

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

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

And?  Unless I’m planning, say, a page-to-screen analysis, I rarely begin a film intending to blog about it, my Muse usually showing up a couple of reels in.  With this one, which I didn’t even know is being remade, the odds were admittedly higher, partly because I used the ensuing series to give Breakheart Pass context, and partly because I’ve lately noticed an odd phenomenon:  I often seem to post about random movies, while taking major ones for granted.  This time, I made my decision during the credits, especially as I’d forgotten that it was presented by producer Dino De Laurentiis, and marked his penultimate of six collaborations with Bronson from Battle of the Bulge (1965) to The White Buffalo (1977).

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I’d also forgotten that Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, which I’ve read but sadly don’t recall, was adapted by Mayes, as he also did for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Advise and Consent (1962), and In Harm’s Way (1965).  The supporting cast, if not major names, were of personal significance; Stuart Margolin, for example, was not only Angel on The Rockford Files but also one of Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  To me, William Redfield will always be Felix’s brother, Floyd Unger, in the Odd Couple episode “Shuffling off to Buffalo,” albeit equally indelible in Ralph Nelson’s curiously underrated Western Duel at Diablo and as Capt. Bill Owens, the pilot of the Proteus in Fantastic Voyage (both 1966).

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I’m pretty sure that my Dad, whose greatest  influence on my persona was undoubtedly cinematic, took me to this at the age of 11 upon its release.  The story is by now familiar:  a Manhattan architect’s wife, Joanna (Lange), is killed and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), raped by three freaks—including Jeff Goldblum in his scary debut—who follow them from D’Agostino’s and enter the apartment by purporting to deliver their groceries.  Growing into a gun-toting, Bernhard Goetz-anticipating vigilante, Paul Kersey (Bronson) becomes a hero to crime-weary citizens, so NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Gardenia) is ordered to scare him away quietly after violent crime plummets, which the authorities keep quiet.

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Is this a brilliantly made movie?  No.  It’s more than a little obvious in spots, e.g., when he suggests messing around on the beach during their opening Hawaiian vacation, Joanna demurs, “We’re too civilized”; friendly colleague Sam Kreutzer (Redfield) actually calls the pre-tragedy Paul a “bleeding-heart liberal”; a TV ad asks post-tragedy if he’s satisfied with his life.  Yet its box-office success, downward-spiraling sequels, and real-life echoes suggest how deeply it tapped into the Zeitgeist of the day, forming a perfect time capsule.  Is there still crime in New York?  Yes.  Have things improved?  Yes.  So, I won’t say the city was better then—if undeniably very interesting—but this is the city as I first knew it.

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It’s faint praise to say this may be director/co-producer Winner’s best film, given my low opinion of the “Turn of the Screw” prequel The Nightcomers (1971), The Sentinel (1977), and the ill-advised The Big Sleep (1978).  He did work with Burt Lancaster on Lawman (1971) and Scorpio (1973), and Chuck on Chato’s Land, The Mechanic (both 1972), and The Stone Killer (1973) as well as the first two sequels (1982 and ’85).  Cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz is no Owen Roizman—whom I dubbed “the poet laureate of ’70s NYC” for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)—but he and Winner capture the urban decay, and a feeling of danger around every corner.

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Curiously effective little touches contribute to this; a quartet of nuns virtually appears to float down the street as the freaks stalk Paul’s family, seeming to prefigure those outside the Catholic rehab center in which a catatonic Carol is committed.  When Kersey goes to the police station for a progress report (read:  not much), we see, but only from the back, a figure who looks like a quintessential ’70s pimp, yet when he speaks, it’s in a voice—possibly post-dubbed—that isn’t what we expect, asserting that his dog contributes to his livelihood by painting pictures with its paws.  Following this WTF moment is a vignette of a mugging victim asking how she can identify the perp who attacked her from behind.

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Oops!  Wrong movie.

In such a milieu, Kersey’s transformation seems reasonable, as do his reactions to his first brush with crime, hitting a would-be mugger in the face with a sock containing $20 worth of quarters.  After pouring a drink with shaking hands, he swings the sock (which breaks, spewing quarters) in a triumphant way that reminded me of bone-wielding Moonwatcher in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Raised among guns, Kersey lost his father in a hunting accident and was a conscientious objector (“an unlikely vigilante,” Ochoa drily observes) in Korea; it’s also worth noting that, like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) but in contrast to many otherwise similar “revenge” movies, the real villains get away scot-free.

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The film is no Rorschach test but, as with Dirty Harry (1971), divided many on whether it condemned or condoned vigilantism and violence.  Notable among the latter camp were Bronson’s agent, Paul Kohner, who advocated turning it down because of its “dangerous” message, and Garfield, who reinforced his position with a 1975 sequel, Death Sentence; I have neither read that nor seen the (reportedly in-name-only) 2007 adaptation with Kevin Bacon.  Your mileage may vary, yet for all the understandable skittishness of the studios and filmmakers who did wind up turning it down, and notwithstanding the often negative reviews, De Laurentiis et alia were smart enough to know that it would rake in the bucks.

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Despite its crowd-pleasing “wish”-fulfillment, as when Alma Lee Brown (Helen Martin) fends off muggers with a hat pin, I found the film surprisingly thoughtful in its depiction of Kersey’s progression.  I also liked the police-procedural aspects, as Ochoa first focuses on people who have war records and/or lost family members to violent crime, and then is able to narrow his search geographically with the receipt from the D’Ag Bag Paul leaves behind on the subway after apparently using it as a prop to make him look like a tempting target.  Winner wisely added the Hawaiian scenes to show loving interaction between the couple (which further resonates when Paul receives vacation photos after Joanna’s death).

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Several surprises, many of them uncredited, in the IMDb cast list, e.g., precinct cops Len Lesser and Olympia Dukakis, whom you probably wouldn’t spot if not on the lookout for her, and hotel lobby guard Al “Grandpa” Lewis.  More readily recognizable, at least to me, are mockumentary king Christopher Guest as discreet Patrolman Reilly; hospital cop Paul Dooley; and park mugger Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, a Welcome Back, Kotter “Sweathog.”  Subway station mugger Eric Laneuville may be found in the index of Richard Matheson on Screen for playing the ill-fated Richie in The Omega Man (1971), while train mugger John Herzfeld wrote and directed 2 Days in the Valley (1996), which I would love to see again.

What’s Lemmy doing in here?

Been watching The Last Command (1955), a movie about legendary knife-wielder Jim Bowie (the great Sterling Hayden, hence my viewing) that climaxes with…well, you know.  Seems John Wayne was supposed to star, but parted ways with longtime employer Republic Pictures when prexy Herbert Yates wouldn’t let him direct it as well, which he later did on his own elephantine version of the same historical events.

I’ve seen several Alamo-vies, but it seemed like this one did a better job than some of explaining the events leading up to the siege (sort of the anti-Zulu, if you will) and emphasizing why the Texans’ sacrifice mattered.  In other words, assuming any degree of historical accuracy here, it’s not so much, “Well, we’re outnumbered and trapped and we’re all gonna die.  Sucks to be us” as it is, “If you choose to fight—and inevitably die—rather than try to escape—and probably die—or surrender, you’ll weaken Santa Ana’s army and buy time for Sam Houston [whose namesake city has been my oldest brother Jonathan’s adopted home for about 40 years] to raise his.”  Hey, I’ll get a lump in my Maudlin Man throat from that.

No formal review/synopsis—y’all know how it comes out anyway—and I am not especially familiar with the careers of director Frank Lloyd (a silent-screen vet best known for the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty), whose last film this was, or screenwriters Warren Duff and Sy Bartlett (who wrote several vehicles apiece for, respectively, James Cagney and producing partner Gregory Peck).  But holy cats, what a cast:

  • As the señorita who—too late—captures Jim’s heart after his wife’s tragic death, the charming and fetching Anna Maria Alberghetti proves she had a career before serving as the Good Seasons pitchwoman in my youth. (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Rula Lenska.)
  • Genre star Richard Carlson (Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon) as Colonel William B. Travis, played by Laurence Harvey in Wayne’s 1960 version (which featured the formidable Richard Widmark as Bowie).
  • Arthur Hunnicutt, one of those guys you instantly recognize but (at least in my case) whose name you don’t know, as Davy Crockett. A tad less imposing than the Duke, but what the hell, I was never a big Wayne-fan anyway, and he’s pretty entertaining.
  • Up-and-coming Ernest Borgnine (later to appear in such BOF faves as Ice Station Zebra, The Wild Bunch, and Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen), who starts out looking like his typically sinister sagebrush self of the period (e.g., Aldrich’s Vera Cruz), but turns out to be an okay guy with an extra-dramatic death scene.
  • The pan-ethnic J. Carrol Naish (Sahara, House of Frankenstein, The Beast with Five Fingers, Dracula vs. Frankenstein), an interesting choice as Mexican General Santa Ana.
  • John Russell, who starred on Lawman, for which—believe it or not—Richard Matheson wrote more scripts than any series except The Twilight Zone.
  • Jim Davis, beloved of my friend Fred for his role as Jock Ewing on Dallas and, oddly enough, a fellow survivor of Al Adamson’s epically awful Dracula vs. Frankenstein.
  • Eduard Franz, best known to weirdos like me for such genre films as The Thing (from Another World) and that WNEW Creature Features staple The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.
  • Otto Kruger (Dracula’s Daughter, Hitchcock’s Saboteur), as Steve—excuse me, Stephen F.—“I Want a City Named after Me, Too” Austin.
  • Russell Simpson, another guy I instantly recognized but couldn’t name (and a member of John Ford’s stock company, e.g., as Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath), as the hilariously laconic Parson.
  • A young(ish) Slim Pickens, billed with Hayden nine years before Stanley Kubrick’s immortal Dr. Strangelove…in which, of course, they had no scenes together as, respectively, bomb-riding Major “King” Kong and “just a little funny” General Jack D. Ripper.
  • And, last but far from least, unbilled genre mainstay Morris Ankrum (Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Claw, et military cetera).

Photographed by Jack A. Marta (an Emmy nominee for Matheson’s Duel), with a title tune composed by film-scoring pioneer Max Steiner (of that other King Kong) and warbled by Oklahoma! and Carousel star Gordon MacRae.  In short, I can think of far worse ways to spend 110 minutes.  “Remember the Alamo!”

Addendum:  Be sure to check out my substantially revised post for The Fly, featuring new material on Return of the Fly.

What I’ve Been Watching:  Men in War (1957).

Who’s Responsible:  Anthony Mann (director); Philip Yordan (screenwriter); Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith (stars).

Why I Watched It:  Mann and Ryan.

Seen It Before?  Yes.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  8.

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

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

And?  I saw this as a kid, almost certainly on WOR, and disliked it.  Revisiting it decades later, I’m not surprised.  No, not because it’s bad—quite the reverse—but because it’s the antithesis of the colorful, Kelly’s Heroes-style war movies I favored then, and still prefer, yet I hope I’m a little more open-minded now.  I think the fact that it’s among a relatively few films made about the “Forgotten [i.e., Korean] War” is a significant factor.  Fresh in viewers’ minds, the war had been over for less than four years when it was released, and its narrow focus is nigh-Aristotelian as it follows a single platoon in its attempts to reach and take a barren hill on September 6, 1950, less than three months after hostilities began.

Befitting its generic title, the film opens with the epigraph, “Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I will tell you the story of all wars,” and Van Van Praag’s 1949 source novel was rebranded as the equally nonspecific Combat in 1951.  Tellingly, the book (originally called Day Without End, as in, say, “the longest day”) was about the Normandy campaign in the previous war, yet the film also seems to prefigure the next one, at a time when we still had only military advisers in Vietnam.  In Home of the Brave (1949), James Edwards played an African-American soldier experiencing racism in World War II, yet here, when he is killed after sitting down to put flowers on his helmet, it’s hard not to flash forward…

So a certain universality was achieved, especially when you throw A Hill in Korea (1956) and Pork Chop Hill (1959)—which was in, yes, Korea—into the mix.  And it’s probably no coincidence that Philip Yordan, the credited screenwriter of this film (which you could categorize just as easily as a war movie or an anti-war movie), was reportedly fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow both here and when much of the same cast and crew worked with Mann on God’s Little Acre the next year.  The films share an interesting assemblage of talent that, in addition to Ryan, Ray, and Vic Morrow, includes veteran lensman Ernest Haller, who also shot his Man of the West (1958), and famed composer Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein, whose contribution here is minimal, also scored Mann’s The Tin Star (1957), a nifty little number with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins, and interestingly, Men in War feels almost like a hybrid of the two types of films for which he was hitherto best known, noirs (e.g., T-Men, 1947; Raw Deal, 1948) and Westerns.  I regard his work with James Stewart as one of the latter genre’s best director/actor pairings:  Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953; my favorite, aptly co-starring Ryan), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955).  They also collaborated on Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and Strategic Air Command (1955).

The closest Mann came to my kind of war movie was in his late-career epic phase, e.g., producer Samuel Bronston’s El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), whose chariot race rivals that of Ben-Hur (1959).  I’m surprised he made the fact-based The Heroes of Telemark (1965) after its star, Kirk Douglas, had fired him from Spartacus (1960)—of which Kirk was also the executive producer—and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick, his director on Paths of Glory (1957).  Kubrick, ironically, had just parted ways with Marlon Brando on One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which its star directed; after Mann died while shooting A Dandy in Aspic (1968), it was completed by…its star, Laurence Harvey.

Morrow achieved his widest exposure as Sgt. Chip Saunders on Combat! (the premiere of which, “Forgotten Front,” was written by Richard Matheson under his pseudonym of Logan Swanson), and thus, as Cpl. Zwickley, is perhaps the most recognizable among the ill-fated platoon led by Lt. Benson (Ryan).  TV mainstay Nehemiah Persoff (Sgt. Lewis) popped up in occasional features ranging from Bogart’s last film, The Harder They Fall (1956), to the Byron Haskin/George Pal reunion The Power (1968).  Doubling as a writer-producer on The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)—again opposite old pal Strother Martin—and A Boy and His Dog (1975), L.Q. Jones (Sgt. Davis) also directed the latter, based on Harlan Ellison’s story.

When we meet them, the men have just lost their transport and are wondering how they’ll schlepp all of their gear to Hill 465, where they’re supposed to hook up with the division.  The timely arrival of a jeep driven by Sgt. Montana (Ray) is complicated by the fact that his passenger, known only as the Colonel (Keith)—of whom he is fiercely protective—is catatonic after a nearby blast.  So Benson ousts the abrasive Montana, turning the driver’s seat over to the unwell Zwickley, and orders the men to load the gear as they begin the trek through enemy territory, subject to attrition from snipers, artillery, and a minefield (used to great effect in Kelly’s Heroes), the fear of which drives Lewis into a self-destructive panic.

I’ve called Keith the poor man’s Les Tremayne, partly due to the many military men both have portrayed over the years, but I probably would’ve found a less flattering sobriquet if I’d known he was the father of Brian Keith, strike one against Sam Peckinpah’s first film, The Deadly Companions (1961).  The Colonel, sympathetic as he struggles to speak, is at least a change of pace from the obnoxious officers he portrayed in They Came to Cordura (1959) and Posse from Hell (1961). Similarly, I’ve always loathed Ray, yet while tough-guy Montana is not only unlikable but also positively trigger-happy, he is a perfect fit for the actor’s screen persona, and his devotion to the Colonel gives him added dimensions.

Reaching Hill 465, they find it in enemy hands, and the effort to take it wipes out almost the entire platoon plus the Colonel, who rallies long enough to take out a few “gooks” (as they are inevitably called) before being cut down.  At this point the film becomes almost existential as Benson says, “Battalion doesn’t exist.  Regiment doesn’t exist.  Command HQ doesn’t exist.  The U.S.A. doesn’t exist…We’re the only ones left to fight this war.”  Since Sgt. Riordan (Philip Pine) turns out to have survived, that is as incorrect as when he tells Montana—with whom he finally takes the hill, using a flamethrower—“We’ll never see the morning”; we close as they “award” the Colonel’s supply of medals to the dead…

Unsurprisingly, per Wikipedia, the military refused to cooperate with the account of such a, shall we say, dysfunctional unit and, “Unable to get tanks and military extras from the Pentagon, [the filmmakers] concentrate on the landscape,” aptly echoing the combination of internal tensions and rugged exteriors prized in Mann’s Westerns.  The location itself, Bronson Canyon, was ubiquitous in multiple low-budget SF films apiece from directors Phil Tucker—including the immortal Robot Monster (1953)—Roger Corman, and Bert I. Gordon.  Ryan, my main reason for giving this a second chance, appeared in BOF faves such as The Longest Day (1962), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Wild Bunch (1969).