Horror on TV: Thriller 2.17 “La Strega” (dir by Ida Lupino)


For tonight’s excursion into televised horror, we have an episode of Thriller!

This episode is called T and it deals with an artist (Alejandro Rey) who saves a young woman (Ursula Andress) from drowning.  It turns out that the local villagers believe that the woman is a witch.  The artist has no time for superstition and takes the woman back to his home.  She starts as his model and then becomes his lover.  She may not be a witch but her mother (Jeanette Nolan) definitely is…

And, of course, this episode is introduced by the one and only Boris Karloff!

The episode premiered on January 15th, 1962.

Film Review: The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960, directed by Budd Boetticher)


TheRiseFallofLegsDiamondIt’s the 1920s.  Prohibition is the law of the land and gangsters control the streets of New York City.  Jack Diamond (Ray Danton) and his tubercular brother, Eddie (Warren Oates), arrives in town.  Jack and Eddie are small-time jewel thieves but Jack has ambitions to be something more.  He works with his girlfriend, Alice (Karen Steele), as a dance instructor but he dreams of being the most powerful mobster in the world.  His first step is to get a job working as a bodyguard for New York crime lord (and fixer of the 1919 World Series), Arnold Rothstein (Robert Lowery).  Though Rothstein never trusts him, Jack works his way into his inner circle and even gets a nickname.  Because he is a dancer, he is renamed “Legs” Diamond.

From the minute that he starts working with Rothstein, Legs Diamond’s cocky personality and ruthless ambition make him enemies.  When he is shot three times, Legs shocks everyone by surviving and announces that he is invulnerable and cannot be killed.  After Rothstein is mysteriously gunned down, Diamond goes to war against Leo “Butcher” Bremer (Jesse White, better known as the original Maytag repairman) for control of the New York underworld.

The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was directed by the legendary Budd Boetticher, a bullfighter-turned-director who is best known for directing a series of low-budget westerns in the 1950s.  The violent and hard-boiled The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond was Boetticher’s only gangster film and it’s a good one.  The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is tightly-written, fast-paced, and Lucien Ballard’s black-and-white cinematography ranks with the best of film noir.

The role of Legs Diamond was originally offered to future producer Robert Evans (of The Kid Stays In The Picture fame) but when Evans turned it down, the role was given to Ray Danton.  Though he is occasionally a little stiff, Danton still gives a good and tough performance as Diamond but it is still hard not to wonder what Evans would have been like in the role.  The rest of the cast is full of recognizable B-movie actors, all of whom do a good job.  Actress Dyan Cannon made her film debut in Legs Diamond, playing one of Diamond’s girlfriends.  Meanwhile, in only his third film role, Warren Oates is memorable and sympathetic as the sickly Eddie.  Though Oates does not get to do much in the film, his performance still shows why he went on to become one of the most popular and well-respected character actors of all time.

Though hardly historically accurate (in real life, Arnold Rothstein never knew Jack Diamond and Diamond received his nickname not because he was a dancer but because of the speed with which he ran away from the police), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond is an exciting and entertaining Depression-era gangster film.

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Film Review: American Pop (1981, directed by Ralph Bakshi)


American PopLong before South Park, The Simpsons, and Pixar, there was Ralph Bakshi.  At a time when animation was considered to only be good for children, Bakshi shocked audiences and critics with animated films that dealt with mature themes and were definitely meant for adults.  His first two films, Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973), was the also the first two animated films to receive an X-rating.  Bakshi satirized racism in the controversial Coonskin (1975) and Bakshi’s adaptation of The Lord Of Rings (1978) beat Peter Jackson’s by 23 years.  It was after the critical and commercial disappointment of the heavily flawed but interesting Lord of the Rings that Bakshi decided it was time to make a film that would be more personal to him.  The end result was American Pop.

American Pop tells the story of four generations of a family of Jewish immigrants and how music affects their lives.  In typical Bakshi fasion, this animated film deals with issues of violence, sexuality, drug abuse, and poverty.  American Pop may be animated but it is definitely a film meant for adults.

In the 1890s, Zalmie (Jeffrey Lippa) and his mother escape from Russia after Zalmie’s father, a rabbi, is killed by the Cossacks.  Zalmie grows up in New York and after his mother is killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he is raised by a vaudeville comedian named Louie (Jerry Holland).  Zalmie wants to be a singer but is shot in the throat during World War I.  His voice ruined, Zalmie marries a stripper named Bella (Lisa Jane Persky) and manages her career.  His partnership with the mobster Nicky Palumbo (Ben Frommer) leads to Bella dying and Zalmie going to prison.

Zalmie’s son, Benny (Richard Singer), is a jazz pianist who, as a favor to his father, marries Nicky’s daughter.  Benny has a son named Tony and tries to pursue his career without using his father’s influence.  Then World War II breaks out.

Benny enlists in the army, seeking redemption from the crimes of his father and father-in-law.  Serving in Europe, he misses his piano and, when he finds one in a bombed-out house in Nazi Germany, he plays a few bars of As Time Goes By.  When a Nazi walks in on Benny, Benny plays Lili Marleen.  For a few seconds, Benny and the Nazi share the common bond of music.  “Danke,” the Nazi says before shooting Benny dead.

Growing up without his father, Tony (Ron Thompson) becomes a beatnik and eventually runs away from home.  He ends up in Kansas, where he has a one-night stand with a waitress and becomes a songwriter for Frankie Hart (Marya Small), a stand in for Janis Joplin.  Both Tony and Frankie start using heroin and Frankie dies of an overdose right before she is supposed to open for Jimi Hendrix.  Abandoned by Frankie’s band, Tony ends up as an addict and dealer in New York.  Accompanying him is his son, Pete, the result of his hookup with the waitress.

After being abandoned by his father, Pete (also played by Ron Thompson), follows in his footsteps and becomes a successful drug dealer.  He is dealing cocaine to all of the big rock bands but, after discovering punk rock, he realizes that he wants something more out of his life.

After announcing that he will no longer sell anyone cocaine unless he is given a chance to record a demo, Pete is given a band and a recording studio.  With the drug-craving record company execs watching, this tough and cocky punk grabs the microphone and sings…

…BOB SEGER’S NIGHT MOVES!?

The use of Night Moves, which is one of the least punk songs ever written, is one of the few false notes in American Pop.  Otherwise, this is one of Ralph Bakshi’s best films.  The majority of the film’s animation was done through rotoscoping, a technique in which animation is traced over live action footage.  (For the gang war scenes, scenes from The Public Enemy were rotoscoped, as was footage of the Nicholas Brothers used in the Sing Sing Sing With A Swing montage.)  Seen today, the technique is crude but effective at showing the contrast between the fantasy of music and the grim reality of life.  Though it has its flaws (*cough* Night Moves *cough*), American Pop is an engaging look at the history and development of American music.

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What could have been: The Godfather


I don’t know about you but I love to play the game of “What if.”  You know how it works.  What if so-and-so had directed such-and-such movie?  Would we still love that movie as much?  Would so-and-so be a star today?  Or would the movie have failed because the director was right to reject so-and-so during preproduction?

I guess that’s why I love the picture below.  Taken from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s notebooks, it’s a page where he jotted down a few possibilities to play the roles of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen in The Godfather.  It’s a fascinating collection of names, some of which are very familiar and some of which most definitely are not.  As I look at this list, it’s hard not wonder what if someone like Scott Marlowe had played Michael Corleone?  Would he had then become known as one of the great actors of his generation and would Al Pacino then be fated to just be an unknown name sitting on a famous list?

(This page, just in case you happen to be in the neighborhood , is displayed at the Coppola Winery in California.)

The production of the Godfather — from the casting to the final edit — is something of an obsession of mine.  It’s amazing the amount of names — obscure, famous, and infamous — that were mentioned in connection with this film.  Below is a list of everyone that I’ve seen mentioned as either a potential director or a potential cast member of The Godfather.  Consider this my contribution to the game of What If….?

Director: Aram Avankian, Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gravas, Sidney J. Furie, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Steve Kestin, Sergio Leone, Arthur Penn, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner, Peter Yates, Fred Zinnemann

Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando): Melvin Belli, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Callelia, Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Frank De Kova, Burt Lancaster, John Marley, Laurence Olivier, Carlo Ponti, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Raf Vallone,  Orson Welles

Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): John Aprea, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson*, James Caan, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, Art Genovese, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Margotta, Scott Marlowe, Sal Mineo, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Parks, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Romanus, Gianni Russo, Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger**, Dean Stockwell

Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan): Lou Antonio, Paul Banteo, Robert Blake, John Brascia, Carmine Caridi, Robert De Niro, Peter Falk, Harry Guardino, Ben Gazzara, Don Gordon, Al Letteiri, Tony LoBianco, Scott Marlowe, Tony Musante, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds***, Adam Roarke, Gianni Russo, John Saxon, Johnny Sette, Rudy Solari, Robert Viharo, Anthony Zerbe

Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall): James Caan, John Cassavettes, Bruce Dern, Peter Donat, Keir Dullea, Peter Falk, Steve McQueen, Richard Mulligan, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Ben Piazza, Barry Primus, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Rudy Vallee****, Robert Vaughn, Jerry Van Dyke, Anthony Zerbe

Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton): Anne Archer, Karen Black, Susan Blakeley, Genevieve Bujold, Jill Clayburgh, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Veronica Hamel, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neill, Michelle Phillips, Jennifer Salt, Cybill Shepherd, Trish Van Devere

Fredo Corleone (played by John Cazale): Robert Blake, Richard Dreyfuss, Sal Mineo, Austin Pendleton

Connie Corleone (played by Talia Shire): Julie Gregg, Penny Marshall, Maria Tucci, Brenda Vaccaro, Kathleen Widdoes

Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino): Frankie Avalon, Vic Damone*****, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Greco, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Carlo Rizzi (played by Gianni Russo): Robert De Niro, Alex Karras, John Ryan******, Sylvester Stallone

Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (played by Al Letteiri): Franco Nero

Lucas Brasi (played by Lenny Montana): Timothy Carey, Richard Castellano

Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco): William Devane

Mama Corleone (played by Morgana King): Anne Bancroft, Alida Valli

Appollonia (played by Simonetta Steffanelli): Olivia Hussey

Paulie Gatto (played by John Martino): Robert De Niro*******, Sylvester Stallone

—-

* Charles Bronson, who was in his mid-40s, was suggested for the role of Michael by the then-chairman of Paramount Pictures, Charlie Bluhdorn.

** By all accounts, Rod Steiger – who was then close to 50 – lobbied very hard to be given the role of Michael Corleone.

*** Some sources claim that Burt Reynolds was cast as Sonny but Brando refused to work with him.  However, for a lot of reasons, I think this is just an cinematic urban legend.

**** Despite being in his 60s at the time, singer Rudy Vallee lobbied for the role of the 35 year-old Tom Hagen.  Supposedly, another singer — Elvis Presley — lobbied for the role as well but that just seems so out there that I couldn’t bring myself to include it with the “official” list.

***** Vic Damone was originally cast as Johnny Fontane but dropped out once shooting began and announced that the project was bad for Italian Americans.  He was replaced by Al Martino.

****** John P. Ryan was originally cast as Carlo Rizzi but was fired and replaced with Gianni Russo.  Ryan went on to play the distraught father in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.  Russo went on to co-star in Laserblast.

******* Robert De Niro was originally cast in this role but dropped out to replace Al Pacino in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Pacino, incidentally, had to drop out of that film because he was given the role of Michael in The Godfather.