City on Fire (1979, directed by Alvin Rakoff)


In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery.  Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do.  He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals.  One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.

While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital.  Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor.  Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her.  When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic.  Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters.  (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.)  At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.

Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad.  The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast.  It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures.  He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing.  Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.

What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue.  From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection.  It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world.  What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school.  It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital.  It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.

Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection.  A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.

Horror on the Lens: Night Slaves (dir by Ted Post)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have the 1970 made-for-TV movie, Night Slaves!

In this atmospheric film, an estranged married couple (James Franciscus and Lee Grant) find themselves in a small town.  It seems like a friendly enough place.  I mean, Leslie Nielsen is the sheriff!  How could anything go wrong in a town protected by Leslie Nielsen?

However, at night, the town changes.  Only Franciscus seems to notice all of the townspeople wandering about like zombies.  Is he going crazy or has he stumbled across something sinister?

You’ll have to watch find out!

Enjoy!

Italian Horror Spotlight: The Last Shark (dir by Enzo G. Castellari)


Chances are this is going to sound familiar to you.

The 1981 film, The Last Shark (a.k.a. Great White), takes place in a small seaside community.  A teenager goes out in the water, doesn’t pay enough attention to the surroundings, and ends up getting eaten.  Local civic leader named Peter Benton (James Franciscus) wants to shut down the beach.  A crusty old shark hunter named Ron Hammer (Vic Morrow) says that he can take care of the problem.  However, Mayor William Wells (Joshua Sinclair) refuses to even admit that there’s a shark in the water.  After all, sharks are not only bad for business but also could potentially keep him from being President someday!

However, the shark attacks continue.  After his son is nearly eaten by a shark — a great white, to be exact — even the mayor is forced to admit that something must be done….

If you think that the plot of The Last Shark sounds like it has a lot in common with Jaws …. well, you’re right.  And you’re not alone!  Universal Pictures though that The Last Shark borrowed a bit too much from Steven Spielberg’s seminal film as well.  In 1982, Universal filed a lawsuit to block the film’s distribution in the United States.  Though the film played for a month (and grossed 18 million dollars) while the case worked its way through the legal system, a federal judge eventually ruled that The Last Shark was too similar to Jaws and, as a result, The Last Shark was not only yanked from theaters but it also didn’t even get a proper video release until 2013!  Because of all this, The Last Shark has developed a cult following.  It’s literally the film that the major studios didn’t want people to see.  Of course, The Last Shark was neither the first nor the lat film to rip-off Jaws.  It was, however, one of the few to make a good deal of money and I imagine that was the main motivation behind Universal’s lawsuit.

Interestingly enough, The Last Shark actually has more in common with Jaws 2 than with Jaws.  Just as in Jaws 2, a bunch of stupid teenagers make the mistake of going after the shark themselves.  Also, much as in Jaws 2, the shark manages to bite down on a helicopter and pull it under the water.  A quality shark movie always features at least one helicopter getting destroyed.  That the original Jaws become a classic despite not featuring any helicopter destruction is a testament to Steven Spielberg’s ability as a director.

As for The Last Shark, it’s a thoroughly shameless and undeniably entertaining film.  Director Enzo G. Castellari (who directed several Franco Nero films and might be best-known to American audiences for directing the original Inglorious Bastards) keeps the action moving at steady pace and even manages to give us a few striking images of shark mayhem.  (The scene where a man gets bitten in half manages to be both shocking and ludicrous at the same time.)  James Franciscus appears to be taking himself far too seriously in the role of Peter Benton but Vic Morrow seems to be having a good time as the ill-tempered shark hunter.

A few other thoughts on The Last Shark:

Mayor Wells, who has presidential ambitions, also has a mustache and a haircut that makes him look like a 70s porn actor.  (In fact, with the exception of James Franciscus, nearly every adult male in this movie has a mustache.)  Whenever Mayor Wells walked through a scene, I found myself expecting to hear a lot of bass and plenty of wah wah on the soundtrack.

Secondly, it would appear that the best way to track down a shark is to drop a steak in the water.  At least, that’s the lesson I learned from watching The Last Shark.  There are actually a handful of scenes of shark hunters announcing that they’re about to go hunt for the shark and then holing up a steak.  Forget about using blood or noise to attract your prey!  Instead, just toss some spare ribs in the ocean and wait for the shark to show up!

Anyway, Italian filmmakers were always fairly shameless when it came to ripping off successful movies.  In fact, one reason why I love Italian cinema is because of that very lack of shame.  Whatever its flaws, The Last Shark is a film totally without shame and, for that reason, it’s more than worth viewing.

The Films of Dario Argento: The Cat o’Nine Tails


(I’m using this year’s horrorthon as an excuse to watch and review all of the films of Dario Argento.  Yesterday, I reviewed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.  Today, I take a look at The Cat o’Nine Tails.)

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In 1971, Dario Argento followed up the massive success of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage with his second film as a director, The Cat o’Nine Tails.  While The Cat o’Nine Tails was another huge financial success, it’s never been as a critically acclaimed as Argento’s first film.  Argento, himself, regularly cites The Cat o’Nine Tails as being his least favorite of all of the films that he’s directed.

Much like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’Nine Tails is a giallo that uses it’s rather complicated mystery as an excuse (a MacGuffin, to quote Hitchcock) for several suspenseful set pieces, the majority of which end with someone suffering some sort of terrible fate.  In this case, a series of murders are taking place around a mysterious medical complex, the Terzi Institute.  The murders are connected to some research being done at the institute.  I’m not going to spoil things by revealing what exactly is being researched but I will say that the key to the mystery is vaguely ludicrous, even by the typically flamboyant standards of the giallo genre.

But, then again, so what?  The fact that the genre’s mysteries are often overly complex and feature solutions that don’t always make sense is actually one of the appeals of the giallo film.  You don’t really watch a giallo for the mystery.  You watch it to see how the story will be told.  Perhaps more than any other genre, giallo requires a director with a strong vision.

And, if nothing else, Argento has always had a strong directorial vision.  Even when you may disagree with the choices that he makes (and I’m sure we all wonder why, in his later films, Argento grew so obsessed with telepathic insects), you can’t deny that they’re always uniquely Argento.  Though the film never reaches the delirious heights of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’Nine Tails still has several strong set pieces.  There’s a sequence involving a poisoned glass of milk that I particularly appreciate.  And then there’s the long scene at the crypt, in which our two protagonists realize that they don’t really trust each other all that much.  And, of course, there’s the ending.  For a film that’s often dismissed as being lesser Argento, The Cat o’Nine Tails features one of Argento’s darkest endings.

The Cat o’Nine Tails is unique as being one of the only Argento films to regularly show up on TCM.  A lot of that is because The Cat o’Nine Tails is perhaps the least gory of all the films that Argento has made.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of death and mayhem.  There is.  Blood is spilled but it never exactly flows.  The Cat o’Nine Tails is an Argento film that you could probably safely watch with an elderly relative.  That’s not necessarily meant as a complaint.  It’s just an observation that, when compared to the panty murder in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage or the skewering in The Mother of Tears, Cat o’Nine Tails is definitely a toned down Argento film.

The other reason why The Cat o’Nine Tails is popular on TCM is because it stars none other than that classic film mainstay, Karl Malden.  Continuing the Argento tradition of featuring protagonists who aren’t sure what they’ve witnessed, Malden plays a former newspaper reporter who is now blind.  He teams up with another reporter (played by James Franciscus, who may not have been a great actor but who did have perfect hair) to solve the murders.  Franciscus has the eyes.  Malden has the brains.  And Malden’s niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis), is largely present to provide the film with its final ironic twist.

Malden does a pretty good job in the role, too.  I’ve read some reviews that have complained that Malden overacts but actually, he gives the perfect performance for the material.  In fact, Malden’s unapologetically hammy performance contrasts nicely with the work of James Franciscus, which could  charitably be called subdued.  (Perhaps a better description would be dull…)

Cat o’Nine Tails may not be Argento’s best but I still like it.  If for no other reason, watch it for Malden and that wonderfully dark ending.

 

Netflix Noir #4: The Mugger (dir by William Berke)


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For my final Netflix Noir, I watched The Mugger, a film from 1958.

The Mugger is a police procedural.  Taking place in an unnamed city, it stars Kent Smith as Dr. Pete Graham.  Pete’s both a psychiatrist and a cop and, needless to say, he has a lot to deal with.

For one thing, his girlfriend, Claire (Nan Martin) is also a cop.  In fact, she’s apparently the only female cop on the entire force!  (“Woman cops?” another detective is heard to say, “Do we really need them?”)  Claire spends most her time working undercover on the dance hall circuit.  Pete wants to get married.  Claire wants to solve a few more cases before making that commitment.  Pete says that’s okay, as long as her plans “include me, a home, and children.”

Pete has also been forcefully recruited to counsel a Jeannie (Sandra Church), the sister-in-law of a local taxi driver.  As the driver explains it, Jeannie is “about 18 and is she built!”  Pete replies, “You shouldn’t get excited about a kid who wants to have a good time,” which seems like an unusually progressive attitude for a cop in the 1950s.  Still, Pete agrees to try to encourage Jeannie to be a little bit less rebellious.  Jeannie, by the way, is my favorite character in the film because she is never in a good mood and she gets to dismiss her older sister’s concerns by saying, “Maybe she’s getting a little old, a little jealous.”

It also turns out that Jeannie’s neighbor, Nick Greco (George Maharis), has a crush on her and apparently, just hangs out in her house all day.  While this seemed rather creepy to me, the film seemed to suggest that this was just normal 50s behavior.  Apparently, since nobody bothered to lock their doors back then, it was also totally appropriate to just hide in someone’s house and listen in on private conversations.

Peter’s other big problem is that there’s a mugger who is robbing women and cutting their cheek with a knife.  I have to give the film some credit here because it doesn’t shy away from discussing the sexual subtext to these attacks, which I imagine was quite daring for a film in the 50s.  Pete comes up with a detailed profile of the attacker, the sort of thing that would make the cast of Criminal Minds jealous.  Claire goes undercover to catch the mugger and there’s a great scene where a drunk sailor tries to harass her and she threatens to shoot him in the knee caps.  Again, this is not the sort of thing that we typically associate with a 50s film…

Which is not to say that The Mugger is not clearly a product of its time.  For one thing, just check out the police force in this city, which is all white, all middle-aged, and — with the exception of Claire — all male.  As well, this is one of those old movies where any woman who walks down a street will be leered at by every guy she passes, including the film’s heroes.  One of the reasons why it was so great to see Claire threaten to cripple that soldier was because it came after 50 minutes of watching Pete and every other man in the film do a double take whenever she entered a room.

Clocking in at a little over 70 minutes and obviously low-budget, The Mugger is an undeniably obscure film.  Checking with the imdb, I discovered only two reviews that had been previously written for this film and one of them was in Turkish!  When I went onto YouTube to look for a trailer, I found nothing.  The Mugger is forgotten and hardly a lost classic but I still enjoyed watching it.  What can I say?  I love my history and, if nothing else, The Mugger is definitely a time capsule.

Watch it on Netflix while you can!

The Mugger

Embracing the Melodrama #31: When Time Ran Out (dir by James Goldstone)


If I had been alive in the 70s, I would have been terrified if I had ever found myself in the same general location of Paul Newman, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Jacqueline Bisset, or Burgess Meredith.  Just based on the movies that they spent that decade appearing in, it would appear that disaster followed them everywhere.

Just consider:

Both Paul Newman and William Holden were trapped in The Towering Inferno. 

Ernest Borgnine and Red Buttons both ended up taking an unexpected Poseidon Adventure together.

Jacqueline Bisset was a flight attendant in the first Airport and nearly got killed by a mad bomber.

And finally, Burgess Meredith was a passenger on The Hindenburg.

Seriously, that’s a dangerously disaster-prone bunch of thespians!

So imagine how terrifying it must have been on the set of the 1980 film When Time Ran Out when all 6 of those actors — along with a lot of other disaster film veterans — were first gathered in one place.  People were probably running for their lives, both on-screen and off.

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When Time Ran Out takes place on an island in the South Pacific.  Shelby Gilmore (William Holden, playing yet another ruthless but essentially good-hearted businessman) owns a luxury resort that happens to be sitting dangerously close to an active volcano.  Oil rigger Hank Anderson (Paul Newman) is convinced that the volcano is about to erupt but Shelby’s son-in-law, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), refuses to listen and claims that even if the volcano does blow, the resort will be safe.

(As a sidenote, why were William Holden’s son-in-laws always too blame in disaster movies?  First, you had Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno and now, it’s James Franciscus in When Time Ran Out…)

Suspended over a volcano

Suspended over a volcano

You can just look at the film’s title (When Time Ran Out!) and guess that Bob is probably wrong.  However, Bob has other things on his mind.  First off, he’s cheating on his neurotic wife (Veronica Hamel) with a native islander (Barbara Carrera) who happens to be married to the hotel’s general manager, Brian (Edward Albert).  Brian also happens to be Bob’s half-brother and is therefore owed at least half of Bob’s fortune but nobody but Bob realizes that.

And, of course, there are other colorful guests at the hotel who will soon find themselves either fleeing from or drowning in molten lava.  There’s a white-collar criminal (Red Buttons) who is being pursued by a detective from New York (Ernest Borgnine, of course).  There’s also two retired tightrope walkers (Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese) and you better believe that there’s going to be a scene where one of them is going to have to walk across a plank that happens to be suspended over a river a lava…

Told ya!

Told ya!

Eventually, that volcano does erupt and…well, let’s just say that When Time Ran Out is no Towering Inferno as far as the special effects are concerned.  The scene where one random fireball flies out of the volcano and heads for the resort is particularly amusing for all the wrong reasons.  Not only does the volcano apparently have perfect aim but it’s also painfully obvious that the fireball is streaking across a matte painting.  This is the type of film where, when people plunge into a river lava, they do so with heavy lines visible around their flailing bodies.  That, along with the cast’s obvious lack of interest in the material, adds up to make When Time Ran Out a film that is memorable for being so ultimately forgettable.

The Horror!

The Horror!

(It’s odd to consider that this film was directed by the same James Goldstone who directed such memorable films as Rollercoaster and Brother John.)

When Time Ran Out is something of a historical oddity because it was the last of the old 70s all-star disaster films.  (This may have been released in 1980 but it’s a 70s film through and through.)  The movie was such a monumental failure at the box office that it pretty much ended an era of disaster films.

For that reason, it also feels like an appropriate film with which to close out the 70s.  Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1980s.

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Embracing the Melodrama #30: The Greek Tycoon (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


Theo and Liz: A Love Story

Theo and Liz: A Love Story

“The characters in this film are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”. — Completely And Totally False Disclaimer From The Greek Tycoon (1978)

In order to appreciate a film like 1978’s The Greek Tycoon, it helps to be a history nerd like me.

If you are, then you probably know that, 5 years after her husband was assassinated in Dallas, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy remarried.  Her new husband was Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate who was 23 years older than her and who had an unsavory reputation.  Onassis was one of the world’s richest men and was known for both his extravagant life style and for being a ruthless operator.  Depending on which books you read, Onassis is portrayed as either being either one of the world’s greatest villains (and, in fact, there’s a whole school of conspiracy theorists who believed that Onassis was somehow involved in John Kennedy’s assassination) or just a casually amoral rich man who treated his new wife like his latest trophy.  Either way, he was not the sort of person who Americans expected to become the second husband of a widowed first lady.

Of course, the Greek Tycoon is not about Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.  It’s about another Greek shipping magnate with a ruthless reputation who shocks the world by marrying the widow of a martyred President.  And, if you stick with the film all the way through the end credits, you’ll even see a disclaimer to prove it!

Anthony Quinn plays Theo Tomasis.  When we first meet him, he’s content to spend his time making crooked business deals and attending parties on a seemingly endless collection of white yachts.  He is grooming his son (Edward Albert) to take over the family business.  He loves both his wife Simi (Camilla Sparv) and his mistress (Marilu Tolo).  In fact, the only problem he has in his life is his business rival, Spyros (Raf Vallone, who played another Greek tycoon in The Other Side of Midnight).  Spyros happens to be Theo’s brother.  But other than that, Theo is content to spend all of his time dancing and breaking plates because, as the film reminds us every chance that it gets, he’s Greek.

However, things change for Theo when he meets Liz Cassidy (Jacqueline Bisset), the wife of young and charismatic Senator James Cassidy (James Franciscus).  Within minutes of meeting her, Theo is hitting on her but Liz loves her husband.  However, Sen. Cassidy soon becomes President Cassidy and this, of course, leads to Cassidy being assassinated while he and Liz are strolling down the beach.

Liz is soon married to the freshly divorced Theo and proving herself to be far more strong-willed than anyone realized.  Despite the anger and efforts of both Theo’s son and the dead President’s brother (Robin Clarke), Liz and Theo’s love endures and soon, they are such a glamorous and famous couple that its surprising that nobody ever suggests making a movie about them.

The Greek Tycoon is a big mess of a movie but it’s enjoyable if you know what inspired it.  (Of course, if you’re not into history and you don’t know anything about Aristotle and Jackie then you’ll probably find The Greek Tycoon to be one of the most boring movies ever made.)  To be honest, the story is never important in a film like this.  Instead, you watch for the clothes and the sets and they’re all properly glamorous in a 1970s sort of way.  Finally, you can watch this movie for Anthony Qunn’s unapologetically over-the-top performance as Theo.  I don’t know if you could necessarily say that Quinn gave a good performance here but, watching the film, it certainly does look like he was having fun.

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