Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’

It’s Movie Night at the Villa in Ozone Park, and we’re kicking off with an excellent choice that I provided:  Phase IV, the sole directorial effort by Saul Bass, famed for his title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock, e.g., Psycho.  It’s kind of like The Andromeda Strain meets The Naked Jungle, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in, as scientists Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy grapple with the threat to humankind from ants that are, for once, not giant but super-intelligent.  The only other main character is a young woman who might be considered collateral damage, and is played by Peter Sellers’s sometime wife, Lynn Frederick.

Besotted with the ’70s as I am, I argue that a film like Phase IV seems unlikely to be made today, and it’s worth watching for the microphotography by Ken Middleham (The Hellstrom Chronicle) alone.  But our follow-up film, Night of the Lepus, is quintessentially ’70s in a rather different way, featuring a dubious collection of pseudo-stars (Stuart Whitman, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley) alongside the still-luminous Janet Leigh.  We chuckle over the challenge posed to MGM’s marketing department by a film involving giant killer bunnies (someday I’d love to track down the novel on which it’s based, Russell Braddon’s The Year of the Angry Rabbit), and the hilarious special effects involving blown-up shots of real rabbits meant to look menacing.

During our affectionately raucous evening, there is considerable debate over the degree, if any, to which I dislike films specifically due to downbeat endings; Tom is asking Gilbert and me for examples fitting that description and, amusingly enough, all that keep coming up are downbeat films I DO love.  There are, naturlich, exceptions to the I-don’t-like-unhappy-endings rule, but right now it looks like more exception than rule!  This forms a pattern repeated with slight variations all night long, as my increasingly porous memory is consistently unable to exemplify various tenets of my cinematic likes and dislikes, which Gil and I know exist.

The less said about the lowbrow comedy Gentlemen Broncos the better, but Tom really knocks it out of the park with his next pick, Kelly’s Heroes, and as anyone who knows me well can tell you, for me, there’s just no bad time to watch Kelly’s Heroes.  We marvel yet again over the indomitable force of nature that is Clint, and remark upon the film’s interesting place in the Eastwood oeuvre, coming at a time when he had already made Leone’s spaghetti Western trilogy but not yet become the iconic Clint of the Dirty Harry films.  He exhibited a fun and funky dynamic while willingly sharing the spotlight with Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Don Rickles or—as he did in director Brian G. Hutton’s other BOF favorite, Where Eagles Dare—Richard Burton.

This, by the way, is what Bugs Bunny would call “a momentous hysterical occasion,” because for the first time in my memory, instead of ordering in takeout, The Host with the Most is treating us to a homemade meal of spaghetti and meatballs, a hearty and scrumptious change of pace.  At least partly out of courtesy to our late arrival, Chris, whose work schedule obligated him to come around 10:00 (Gilbert was already there when I showed up at 7:45, after a door-to-door trip of three hours and ten minutes from MBI), the pasta does not make its appearance until very late in the game.  Not surprisingly, though, it is well worth the wait, and of course we’ve had Tom’s usual snack spread—plus Madame BOF’s walnut chocolate-chip cookies—to tide us over.

Tom attempts to entertain us with some DVD extras from a recent documentary on his main man, Motorhead mainstay Lemmy Kilmister, but then appears to have second thoughts, and fortuitously hits on the beginning of BOF underdog fave Strange Days.  Unfortunately, Gil has to get up in the morning, and I don’t want to keep him awake, so shortly before 4:00 AM we reluctantly shut off Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett.  I sleep better than usual (when not in my own bed) for a few hours before Tom’s freakish-looking alarm clock gets Gil going, and gives me the opportunity to kick back for a bit before I have to begin the long journey home from the Villa.

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Eighty-fifth birthday wishes to Richard Matheson as we belatedly conclude the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.

Touch of Evil:  Beginning with a single, unbroken, three-minute crane shot following a car with a bomb in the trunk until it explodes, this is one of Orson Welles’s best films.  Welles directed, adapted Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil, and plays the corpulent sheriff of a spectacularly sleazy Mexican border town; a mustachioed Charlton Heston stars as a Mexican-American cop trying to enjoy his honeymoon with Janet Leigh (and who wouldn’t?) when the explosion changes his plans.  Brilliantly shot, written, and acted, it creates a palpable atmosphere of corruption and evil.  With Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor (!), and Mercedes McCambridge (who dubbed the nasty bits for Linda Blair in The Exorcist) in supporting roles of various sizes and a splendid jazz score by Henry (The Pink Panther) Mancini.

2001: A Space Odyssey:  Madame BOF is perhaps not the only one whose patience is put to the test by this film’s rather, shall we say, leisurely paced 140-minute running time.  But she is too quick to dismiss its technical expertise, its profound script by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (at that time an extremely rare cinematic venture by a world-famous SF writer, who expanded considerably upon his short story “The Sentinel” and, at Kubrick’s insistence, took sole authorial credit for the novel they wrote simultaneously), that famous Strauss theme song, and the sheer ballsiness of MGM in making the damn thing, which render it unique and influential.  A huge, featureless black monolith appears at various points in humankind’s development, its purpose initially unknown, and so begins Keir Dullea’s voyage aboard the aptly named Discovery.  “Open the pod bay door, Hal.”

Unforgiven:  To date, this is my favorite among Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts, and I seem to be in good company, because the Academy awarded it not only Best Picture and Director but also Best Actor (Gene Hackman) and Film Editing.  He supposedly acquired the script by Blade Runner co-writer David Peoples (who also copped a nomination, as did Clint for his performance) and stuck it in a drawer for a decade until he thought he was ready to play the part of Bill Munny, who hung up his guns out of respect for his late wife, and only reluctantly picks them up again to support his two children when times get tough.  Joined by old pal Morgan Freeman and young gun Jaimz Woolvet, he goes after a bounty offered by a group of prostitutes for the cowboys who defaced one of their own.  But things don’t go according to plan, and he runs afoul of brutal sheriff Hackman.  Clint dedicated the film to his directorial mentors, BOF faves Sergio Leone and Don Siegel; the heart-wrenching score, guaranteed to choke me up, is by his longtime collaborator, Lennie Niehaus.

Up in Smoke:  Although I think one of my brothers started it by bringing home their album Big Bambu, my late father and I shared a perhaps inexplicable fondness for the drug-(dis)oriented humor of Richard “Cheech” Marin and Thomas Chong, who made their film debut in this stoner comedy that made “Low Rider” one of my theme songs in later years.  Their next movie (titled, with breathtaking originality, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie) was followed by the likes of Nice Dreams, Things Are Tough All Over, and Still Smokin’.  Those looking for detailed descriptions of and/or penetrating insights into those later films are, at least for now, doomed to disappointment, because I haven’t seen most of them for years.  They do all tend to blend together, and quite frankly they’re probably all terrible in hindsight, but this one, at least, stands up to repeated viewings, and since my wife and daughter—who would no more toke up than ski down Everest—love it as well, it’s not just me.  In this, they unwittingly smuggle a van made of dope across the Mexican border.

Vertigo:  A Hitchcock masterpiece, probably almost neck and neck with Psycho in my book, featuring a stunning James Stewart performance (as an obsessive character whose make-over of a woman is, for Hitch, stunningly self-revelatory) and an absolutely shattering final scene.  Say what you want about Kim Novak’s acting, I think she does just fine with her dual role, and as always, Bernard Herrmann’s score is superb; the credit sequence alone is a breathtaking mix of image and music.  You’ll catch many nuances after mastering the complex plot, based on a novel by celebrated French crime-writing team Boileau-Narcejac.  “I don’t want to get mixed up in this darn thing!”

Walkabout:  Erstwhile cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (The Masque of the Red Death) made his solo directorial debut with this unique film.  Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run), stunningly beautiful on the cusp of womanhood, and her younger brother (Roeg’s son Lucien John) are forced to embark upon an odyssey through the Australian Outback that intersects with, and in some ways parallels, the titular coming-of-age ritual of Aborigine David Gulpilil.  The bittersweet (or, per the somewhat less nuanced response of Madame BOF, “sad”) story is perfectly complemented by the film’s ravishing cinematography, also by Roeg, and its heartbreaking score by the late, great John Barry.

Where Eagles Dare:  Quite simply The Greatest Movie Ever Made.  Okay, I’m kidding, but it is my personal favorite.  Only Alistair MacLean could have concocted this complex tale of triple agents, centering on a commando mission ostensibly to rescue an American general—who knows the details of the D-Day invasion plans—from an inaccessible Bavarian chateau!  Only Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Mary Ure could play the stalwart leads, who massacre countless German soldiers with only one flesh wound among them!  Only Ferdy Mayne, Anton Diffring (Shatter), Donald Houston (The Longest Day), and Derrin Nesbitt could play the nasty Nazi villains!  Only Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes) could direct the exciting action scenes, including the famous cable-car fight!  Only Ron Goodwin could compose the rousing, unforgettable score; I even have the soundtrack album on both LP and CD!  I also have a first edition of the novel (based on MacLean’s script, but published before the film was released), and even the Mad magazine parody.

The Wild Bunch:  In my opinion, this is director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest achievement, although Tom is free to prefer Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (admittedly one hell of a film).  William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, Bo Hopkins, and Edmond O’Brien are among the members of this aging gang, running out of banks to rob and pursued by ex-member Robert Ryan, railroad man Albert Dekker, and sleazy bounty-hunters Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones.  The sanguinary finale is the apotheosis of Peckinpah’s “poetry of violence.”  Absolutely superb.  Even my Mom liked this, surprisingly.  My favorite quote says it all:  “When you side with a man, you stay with him.  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal—you’re finished.”

The Year of Living Dangerously:  I don’t think anybody saw this one and didn’t like it.  Reporter Mel Gibson and diplomat Sigourney Weaver mix it up in politically unrestful Indonesia in 1965 to spectacular effect.  This exceptional thriller was directed by Peter Weir, is extremely faithful to the excellent novel by Christopher J. Koch (who also co-scripted with Weir), has a score by Maurice Jarre (although I later learned that my favorite piece was written by Vangelis for another film entirely), and co-stars Linda Hunt in her Oscar-winning performance (as a man, yet).  Note for trivia buffs—Gibson’s character is the namesake of Goldfinger’s director, Guy Hamilton.  Coincidence?

Yellow Submarine:  I think you either love this one, as Alexandra does, or hate it, like Loreen and Gilbert.  Since the Beatles are my favorite group EVER, you do the math, even though the Fab Four did not voice the dialogue for their animated likenesses.  It features a bunch of their best songs (e.g., “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “All You Need Is Love,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Nowhere Man,” “A Day in the Life”), amidst surrealistic Peter Max-style animation, as they try to save Pepperland from the ravages of the Blue Meanies.  “O-BLUE-TERATE THEM!”

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Happy Halloween!  In honor of the (apparently) late, lamented Watching Hammer, I offer this nostalgic list, written at their request just before the site ceased posting new material:

Sincerest thanks to Watching Hammer for inviting me to contribute a Top Ten.  Since Hammer’s heyday ended when I wasn’t quite old enough to drive, I haven’t had the experience other contributors did of seeing these films on the big screen, and was forced to content myself with TV, home-video and convention screenings over the years.  In my infancy as a genre-film aficionado, I thought Hammer was a bunch of pretenders who had the audacity to remake our beloved Universal classics, but our friends across the Pond had the last laugh because now, at any given moment, I’d probably rather watch a Hammer than a Universal, much as I love them both.  And the fact that my future wife and I bonded in high school by chatting about these films during chorus class didn’t hurt.

As the guy who had a hard time getting his list of favorite films on his own blog down to 100, I found it difficult to limit myself to ten, and must give an honorable mention to The Phantom of the Opera before beginning.  So, rather than subject myself to further agony, I am listing them in chronological order.  I make no apologies for including both of the films written by the object of my obsession, Richard Matheson, because I genuinely believe they were two of Hammer’s best, although this is really a list of favorites rather than those I would rank as “best” by some mythical objective standard.  Here goes…

The Quatermass Experiment:  Given my focus on writers, it’s no surprise that I think Nigel Kneale was one of the best things ever to happen to Hammer.  He might not have agreed at the time, since he was unhappy with both the casting of Brian Donlevy in the lead and the adaptation (by Richard Landau and director Val Guest) of his seminal BBC serial, but since some chapters of the TV version are lost, we’ll never be able to compare them in their entirety.  Be that as it may, Quatermass’s struggle to learn what happened to the three-man crew of his first space rocket is eerie and suspenseful from the start, as he learns that contact with an alien life-form has made one astronaut (Richard Wordsworth) absorb the others and begin mutating.  It was Hammer’s first big success, and rightly so.

Quatermass 2:  Many years ago, when New York’s outstanding Film Forum repertory cinema was still in its old Watts Street location, I arranged with my friend Greg Cox (now Matheson’s editor at Tor and a successful author of franchise fiction) to attend a screening of the Quatermass trilogy.  When I told him we might want to arrive early, he laughed and said, “Matthew, these are old British SF films from the ’50s and ’60s; we won’t have any trouble getting in.”  Well, the line was literally around the block, but we did get in.  Due to the vagaries of television programming, I think this was the first time I’d seen the original since childhood—perhaps the first in its entirety—and the first time ever for the sequel, which really wowed me.  Donlevy and Guest were back (the latter sharing script credit with Kneale this time), as Quatermass copes with a government conspiracy that turns out to represent an alien invasion.  The scene of the politician who has fallen into a vat of toxic liquid is a particular standout in this gripping and inventive thriller.

The Curse of Frankenstein:  With its unprecedented full-color gore and sumptuous period production values, this set the template for Hammer’s most famous films and established the “dream team” of their early days, including director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, composer James Bernard, and up-and-coming genre superstars Peter Cushing (as Baron Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Creature).  Cushing’s Baron is a fascinating character, and Hammer wisely built the ensuing series around him rather than the Creature, who gets dissolved in a vat of acid at the end.  Hazel Court is the delectable cherry on top as Elizabeth, and I love Cushing’s chutzpah as he yells, “Look out, Professor!”…while pushing the poor old guy—whose brain he needs—off a balcony, in order to throw anyone within earshot off the scent.

The Hound of the Baskervilles:  In all fairness, I haven’t seen a number of the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, but of those I have, I would rank Peter Cushing as second only to Basil Rathbone in the role.  In most cases, Rathbone easily surpassed his material, much of which was not derived from Conan Doyle, but here, the above dream team (minus Sangster) provided a top-notch vehicle, complete with the always-welcome Andre Morell as an unusually intelligent Watson.  Although relegated to the role of the imperiled Baskerville heir, Lee adds considerable heft, and Cushing is a delight as he rips into lines like, “There are many strange things to be found upon the moor—like this, for instance!”  (Cue the loud “Thwock!” as he slams the ceremonial dagger into the table.)

Fanatic:  One might be forgiven for mistaking this as another of Hammer’s post-Psycho psycho-thrillers, written by Sangster and bearing similar one-word titles:  Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, Hysteria.  But as much as I love Sangster’s seminal scripts for Hammer in the ’50s, I think Matheson far surpasses him in this adaptation of Anne Blaisdell’s Nightmare (whose title presumably had to be changed to differentiate it from the Sangster film).  Stefanie Powers is lovely and believable as the American girl imprisoned by her late former fiancé’s mother, equally well played by Tallulah Bankhead, and her growing realization that her captor is a dangerous religious fanatic rather than a harmless eccentric gives the film a satisfying dramatic arc.  Throw in the young Donald Sutherland as a mentally challenged servant, and you’re good to go.

Dracula—Prince of Darkness:  This is my wife’s favorite movie, but that’s not the only reason I’m including it.  I’m sure many would consider it sacrilege to give this the nod over what we Yanks think of as Horror of Dracula, especially since Lee’s distaste for the script (Distaste the Script of Dracula?) led him to omit his dialogue.  Still, I’ve always preferred Prince; maybe I never got over the fact that Sangster had Harker get turned into a vampire, just as Dan Curtis did in the Jack Palance television version—a plot point, I might add, that is not found in Matheson’s published teleplay.  But I digress.  Andrew Keir pinch-hits beautifully for Van Helsing as rifle-toting Father Sandor, and rich entertainment is provided by the interplay among the ill-fated Kent family, with Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer amusingly cast as Charles and Diana and the ever-popular Barbara Shelley as the prim Helen, whose transformation into a sensuous vampire is most extraordinary.

Quatermass and the Pit:  Feel free to criticize me for devoting almost a third of my list to ol’ Bernie, but remember, I could have included Kneale’s The Abominable Snowman, as well.  Reuniting Keir (as Quatermass) and Shelley, this is truly a thinking man’s SF film, as Quatermass discovers a five-million-year-old Martian spacecraft that is buried beneath London and holds surprising secrets about mankind’s evolution.  With Roy Ward Baker [see “A Career to Remember”] succeeding Guest, and Kneale bearing sole script credit, it once again showed the triumph of good writing over pathetic special effects—in this case, those finger-puppet Martians.

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave:  Yeah, we Bradleys love us our vampires (Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter almost made the list as well), and I’ve always had a big soft spot for this follow-up to Prince, an affection that not merely the presence of Veronica Carlson can explain.  The redoubtable Rupert Davies as the monsignor has a lot to do with it, as does the spectacular climax, with Dracula knocked over his own battlements and impaled on a giant cross.  One of Fisher’s periodic hospitalizations forced Freddie Francis to direct this, but although he told me when I interviewed him that he was more interested in the young lovers than in Dracula, I think that once again, the story of the non-nosferatu characters is strong enough to keep us going in between visits from Lee.

The Devil Rides Out:  A pinnacle for all concerned.  Dennis Wheatley justifiably praised Matheson for his exciting adaptation of Wheatley’s somewhat verbose novel, and Lee has a rare heroic (not to mention sizeable) role as the Duc de Richleau.  Charles Gray is also outstanding as the Satanist villain, Mocata, and although the usual complaints are leveled at the skimpy special effects, see Quatermass and the Pit for my response to that.  With the usual superior contributions from Fisher and James Bernard, this is horror at its fast-paced, non-jokey and intelligent finest.  Lee and others have argued that it is ripe for a remake, but since you know it would just turn into another CGI-fest, I’m not sure I agree.

The Vampire Lovers:  I’d be lying if I said that naked women in general, a naked Ingrid Pitt in particular, and lesbian vampires didn’t influence this choice.  But, in my defense, look at the record:  you’ve got Cushing as the devoted and devastated father, General von Spielsdorf.  You’ve Jon Finch, soon to be brilliant in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, in a supporting role.  And, perhaps most of all, you’ve got what may be the most faithful adaptation of J. Sheridan LeFanu’s oft-filmed “Carmilla,” with Baker at the helm.  Threadbare production values be damned, this is a good movie.

BOF Addendum:  Now I’ll sit back and wait for Drax to complain (albeit with love) about the absence of visuals.  I keep telling him I am the Word-Man.  Word-Man.  WORD-MAN!  BWUHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

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The Grim Reaper was unusually busy in the entertainment world this past week, claiming Arthur Penn, director of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Little Big Man (1970), on Tuesday and Stephen J. Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files and The A-Team, on Thursday.  But Tony Curtis’s passing in between was a little unnerving, because he had already been much in my mind as I planned to mark today’s sixth anniversary of Janet Leigh’s death.  During their marriage from 1951 to 1962, Tony and Janet co-starred in several films, including George Pal’s Houdini (1953) and Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), as well as producing the genetic miracle that is Jamie Lee Curtis.

It would be polite but disingenuous of me to call Curtis one of my favorite actors, yet this has a lot to do with the fact that many of his films were comedies, a genre on which I am very tough, although as always, I’ll gladly make an exception for Billy Wilder.  Seeing Tony woo the plotz-inducing Marilyn Monroe with a Cary Grant accent in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), joining Jack Lemmon as fugitive jazz musicians in drag, is a rare treat.  For trivia fans, its setting of the Hotel del Coronado figured prominently in Richard Matheson’s Bid Time Return, but could not be used for the movie, Somewhere in Time (1980), as it looked too modern for the period scenes.

I don’t know if this constitutes a guilty pleasure, or how I’d feel about it if I saw it now, but I did love Curtis’s admittedly silly comedy Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969).  At least, that’s the title under which I stumbled across it on the beloved Late Show in my youth, immediately pegging it as the late Ken Annakin’s follow-up to his own Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), but back in Britain it was the more manageable Monte Carlo or Bust!  Interestingly, Blake Edwards’s similar The Great Race (1965) left me cold; Edwards also directed Curtis in Operation Petticoat (1959), teaming him up with none other than Grant.

Those who have checked out my “Bradley’s Hundred” list and/or reviews know that Curtis did appear in one of my all-time favorite dramas, chained to Sidney Poitier as convicts on the run in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958).  There’s not a trace of the grinning pretty-boy here, and Curtis earned a richly deserved Oscar nomination for the role.  Due to less familiarity, I have less distinct memories of his dramatic work opposite BOF fave Burt Lancaster in Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957); in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960); or as Ira Hayes, the ill-fated Native American WW II flag-raiser of Iwo Jima, in The Outsider (1961).

As for Leigh, I wouldn’t have placed her in the pantheon either until I had one of those forehead-smacking moments when I suddenly say, “My God, So-and-So starred in [fill in number] of my favorite films!”  In her case, the four are Touch of Evil (1958), Psycho (1960), The Manchurian Candidate (1960), and The Fog (1980), all but one of which (Candidate, cancelled out by other John Frankenheimer films) is also in the B100.  And let’s not forget The Naked Spur (1953), one of the Westerns in which Anthony Mann—who was replaced by Kubrick on Spartacus—directed James Stewart, with a terrific supporting cast including Leigh, Robert Ryan, and Ralph Meeker.

In preparation for this post, I finally read Janet’s book Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (written with celebrity biographer Christopher Nickens), which nicely details the making and after-effects of the film, including interviews with Hitchcock’s assistant, Hilton Green, and screenwriter Joseph Stefano.  She offers a unique perspective on how her character of Marion Crane pulls off that Third Man/Exorcist trick of dominating the film despite limited screen time.  We were lucky enough to meet Leigh and have her sign a copy at a convention some years ago, as well as having her autograph a photo for my mother-in-law, whose name is also Marion.

Robert Bloch, whose contribution to the film’s gigantic success as the original author of Psycho sometimes goes underappreciated, paid Leigh perhaps the ultimate compliment when he said, “I wish I had written the character as well as she played her.”  Simply put, she is not only gorgeous (Hitch wasn’t dumb enough not to promote the film with photos of Leigh in her undies), but also immensely appealing; viewers care about her and are devastated by her abrupt death.  Marion is an indelible creation, of the type that any actor would be lucky to create once in a lifetime, so let us hope that Tony and Janet, though long since divorced, are now sharing some happy memories.

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Joyous tidings have recently been announced for fans of both classic television and the Southern California Sorcerers (aka “The Group”), namely that the anthology series Thriller will be released on DVD in its entirety by the ever-outstanding Image Entertainment on August 31.  Thriller ran for two seasons (1960-62) on NBC, initially following the same network’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents; both shows were produced by Universal’s television arm, and Hitchcock supposedly pressured them to cancel Thriller because he thought it was too similar.  Indeed, Thriller had much in common with his show:  suspenseful stories, an instantly recognizable host in the form of Boris Karloff, and many of the same personnel (e.g., Herschel Daugherty and John Brahm, who with fifteen and eleven episodes, respectively, were its most frequent directors).

Among those personnel were several Group members, with episodes written by Richard Matheson (“The Return of Andrew Bentley”) and Charles Beaumont (“Guillotine,” based on the story by Cornell Woolrich, and “Girl with a Secret”).  By far the most active was Robert Bloch, who supplied scripts or original stories for many episodes of both shows, including some of the most memorable.  But as with the Hitchcock series and England’s Amicus Productions, which filmed Bloch’s “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” as The Skull (1965) before hiring him as a screenwriter, he was recruited for Thriller only after three episodes (“The Cheaters,” “The Hungry Glass,” and “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”) had been adapted from his work by other writers.

Never as well known as The Twilight Zone or the Hitchcock show, Thriller has its adherents, including Stephen King, who called it “probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” noting in Danse Macabre that “after a slow first thirteen weeks, [it] was able to become something more than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be…and took on a tenebrous life of its own.”  The show initially focused more on crime and mystery, and many of its early problems can be traced to uncertainty regarding its direction and the tensions between creator Hubbell Robinson and his original producer, Fletcher Markle.  The latter and his associate producer and story editor, James P. Cavanagh (a veteran of  Alfred Hitchcock Presents), were soon supplanted by two new producers, Maxwell Shane and William Frye, brought in to handle Thriller’s crime and horror episodes, respectively.

Shane, who had already adapted Woolrich’s work in Fear in the Night (1947) and Nightmare (1956), left after basing “Papa Benjamin” on another of his stories, and Frye, who produced the remaining episodes, soon gave the series a distinctive flavor by mining the pages of Weird Tales.  That famed fantasy pulp is, of course, best known for featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft and such protégés as August Derleth and Bloch himself.  Directed by Brahm and written by the show’s most prolific contributor, Donald S. Sanford, “The Cheaters” was one of only two episodes—the other being the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation “The Premature Burial” —that were actually introduced with the host’s frequently quoted tagline, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”

This was to be the first of ten episodes written and/or based on works by Bloch, including William Shatner’s only two appearances, “The Hungry Glass” and Daugherty’s “The Grim Reaper”; coincidentally, Matheson scripted Shatner’s only two Twilight Zone outings, “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and both writers later contributed to his best-known series, Star Trek.  Bloch adapted “The Weird Tailor” and “Waxworks” (both directed by Daugherty) from his own stories, which he later recycled in the Amicus anthology films Asylum (1972) and The House That Dripped Blood (1970).  His other Thriller episodes were “The Devil’s Ticket,” Brahm’s “A Good Imagination,” Daugherty’s “’Til Death Do Us Part,” and John Newland’s “Man of Mystery,” all based on his own work.

Newland, whose Thriller episode “Pigeons from Hell” is often called the single most frightening story ever done on television, also directed “The Return of Andrew Bentley,” which Matheson adapted from a Weird Tales story by Derleth and Mark Schorer.  Although Beaumont and fellow Group member Jerry Sohl adapted Lovecraft’s work in The Haunted Palace (1963) and Die, Monster, Die (1965), respectively, Matheson never did, despite his successful Poe films for the same studio, AIP.  “He wasn’t my kind of writer—too heavy,” he told me in an interview for Filmfax.  “Heavy stuff.  You know, he’d spend fifty pages talking about some Eldritch horror that is so horrible to describe that he can’t possibly do it, and then in the last ten pages he describes it.  I mean obviously, the man was brilliant, I just don’t care for that kind of writing….But the show Thriller, the whole thing had a Lovecraft atmosphere to it.”

For the full story of this neglected show, see Alan Warren’s This Is a Thriller: An Episode Guide, History and Analysis of the Classic 1960s Television Series, to which I am greatly indebted.  For a blow-by-blow account of Bloch’s involvement, see my contribution to Benjamin Szumskyj’s The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch, some of which I have drawn on here.  And, needless to say, you can read more about “The Return of Andrew Bentley” in Richard Matheson on Screen; all three books are, or will be, published by McFarland.

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Comfortably situated at the nexus of film and literature were French writers Pierre Boileau (1906-89) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-98), often billed simply as Boileau-Narcejac, who—like some two-headed Gallic Matheson—excelled at thrilling audiences on both page and screen.  They wrote the novels upon which H.G. Clouzot’s oft-remade Diabolique (1955) and Eric Red’s Body Parts (1991) were based, and helped adapt Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) from the novel by Jean Redon.  Perhaps the best-known entry in their filmography is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), based on their 1954 novel D’Entre les Morts (From Among the Dead), published in Geoffrey Sainsbury’s 1956 translation as The Living and the Dead.

The screenplay for Vertigo is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, yet according to Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, he used only Taylor’s material after rejecting earlier versions by esteemed playwright Maxwell Anderson and Coppel.  Anderson (in whose Anne of the Thousand Days yours truly starred as Henry VIII in high school) had shared script credit on Hitchcock’s previous film, The Wrong Man (1956), with Angus MacPhail, who similarly rewrote his work.  Taylor adapted Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) from his own stageplay Sabrina Fair, along with Wilder and Ernest Lehman, who would write Hitch’s next film, North by Northwest (1959).

The majority of Hitchcock’s films were literary or stage adaptations, yet he was known for taking one or two elements that had drawn him to the material, and inventing the rest in close collaboration with his screenwriters.  Sometimes he started with a potboiler such as Francis Beeding’s The House of Dr. Edwardes, which became Spellbound (1945), but he claimed that even John Buchan said Hitchcock had improved upon his novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and an adaptation as faithful as Psycho (1960) was rare.  However, although Vertigo updates the story from 1940s Paris to contemporary San Francisco, and invents the character of Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a surprising number of elements in the novel have specific analogs in the film.

Police detective Roger Flavières left the force after his fear of heights indirectly caused a colleague to fall from a roof during an attempted arrest, and now reluctantly accepts an assignment from an old school friend, Paul Gévigne. The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Madeleine, periodically appears to be possessed by her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who  killed herself when she was Madeleine’s age, and whose necklace Madeleine inherited.  Flavières follows the seemingly oblivious Madeleine to various locations—including Pauline’s grave and a small hotel that had been her home, where Madeleine rents an upstairs room—and saves her life when she tries to drown herself, just as Pauline did.

No longer able to follow Madeleine anonymously, Flavières begins joining her in her travels, falling in love with her in the process, and recognizes her detailed description of a small town she has seen in her “reveries” as an actual location.  They visit the village and enter the church with its tall tower, but as she ascends to the belfry Flavières is overcome by his acrophobia, and watches in horror through a window as Madeleine plunges to her death from the tower, an apparent suicide.  And yet, some time later, he chances to spot a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine, and obsessively begins following her as well.

Flavières starts a relationship with the woman, who swears she is not Madeleine but Renée Sourange, and begins trying to remake her in Madeleine’s image, down to her hairstyle and grey suit.  When he discovers Pauline’s necklace in her possession, the truth comes out:  Gévigne had recruited Renée to impersonate Madeleine in order to murder his wife, knowing that his vertigo would prevent Flavières from reaching the top of the tower and seeing Gévigne push the real, dead Madeleine—whom Flavières had never met—to the ground below.  Renée dies during their final confrontation, leaving the devastated Flavières as a man who has lost the woman he loved…twice.

If that sounds to you like a recap of Vertigo with the names changed to protect the guilty, you’re not the only one, and it was a little disorienting to read the book with scenes from the film playing in my mind’s eye, right down to the detail of the green light coming through the window of Renée’s hotel room.  But for all its fidelity, it has three main points of departure from the novel:  the aftermath of Madeleine’s death, the manner in which John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) encounters Judy Barton (Kim Novak), and the circumstances of her own death.  In each case, with all due respect to Boileau-Narcejac, I think Hitchcock and Taylor surpassed their source.

Scottie does exactly what Flavières was expected to do, providing Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) with the perfect alibi by testifying to “Madeleine’s” suicidal tendencies at an inquest presided over by the hilariously sarcastic coroner (Henry Jones).  Flavière, on the other hand, throws a monkey wrench into Gévigne’s plan by concealing the fact that he was present when she died, leading the police to investigate her husband and beneficiary as a natural suspect, since she was seen driving toward the village with an unidentified man.  This leads, again indirectly, to a comeuppance that Elster does not meet, or at least is not shown to, when Gévigne’s car is machine-gunned by a plane (presumably German) as he tries to flee Paris and police scrutiny.

In the film, Scottie is institutionalized for an unspecified period after the tragedy, while Flavière, rejected by the army for medical reasons, sits out the war with a lucrative legal practice in Dakar, and soon after returning to Paris spots Renée in a newsreel.  This seems even unlikelier than Scottie happening to see Judy on the sidewalk, as Flavières uses his detecting skills to track Renée down, and in an amazing piece of luck discovers that she is still staying at the same hotel in front of which the newsreel footage was shot.  Finally, the enraged Flavière strangles her, apparently unintentionally, after he learns the truth, whereas having Judy’s death mirror Madeleine’s provides an ending whose circularity befits the film’s spiral motif and Möbius-strip plotting.

As Taylor told Spoto, Hitchcock “knew exactly what he wanted to do, and he explained several scenes in meticulous detail.  But…I realized that the characters had to be personalized and humanized, and further developed.”  In that light, Midge fulfills two functions, not only aiding in the exposition—as does Argosy Bookshop owner Pop Liebl (Konstantin Shayne), another invented character—but also humanizing Scottie through their somewhat troubled relationship.  Casting Stewart, that most amiable of actors, probably helped the most, yet it is the intensity of Scottie’s darker aspects, however much more likeable he may be than the crotchety Flavières, that makes Vertigo one of his and Hitchcock’s best films.

It’s been said that Hitch’s primary leading men reflected him as he wished to be—Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest—and as he saw himself:  Stewart in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  The nakedly self-revelatory Vertigo dramatized a penchant for remaking his leading ladies, most notoriously with Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), and it is no surprise that he retreated to safe, if familiar, entertainment with North by Northwest.  Hitchcock felt betrayed when a pregnant Vera Miles, who had starred in The Wrong Man, turned down Vertigo; ironically, by the time the script problems and other delays were resolved, she was available, and although sticking with Novak, he later cast Miles in Psycho.

Needless to say, Robert Burks’s dreamlike photography and Bernard Herrmann’s aptly vertiginous score contributed immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness, as did the well-chosen northern California locations.  Opinions differ regarding the quality of Novak’s performance, yet many felt that she was eminently suited to the dual role of, first, a woman who is out of it half the time and, second, a Kansas shopgirl molded by an obsessive Svengali.  Hitchcock’s controversial decision to tip the audience off sooner than the authors did makes Scottie’s manipulation of Judy less objectionable, since we already know—even if he does not—that she is an accomplice to murder, but in any case, the result is an unforgettable characterization and a cinematic masterpiece.

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