Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

A Tasty Spaghetti Ragu: A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE (MGM 1974)


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James Coburn, at the height of his career, moved from American movies to international productions with his trademark elegance and ease. He worked for the Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone in 1972’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER , then appeared for Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii in A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, a revenge tale disguised as a caper film that costars Telly Savalas and Spaghetti icon Bud Spencer. The version I viewed was the truncated American cut, missing about a half hour of footage and released stateside in 1974. If the complete version is as good as this one, I need to hunt it down and see it!

The Civil War-set drama finds Coburn as Col. Pembroke, recently escaped from a Confederate prison after surrendering Fort Holman without a fight to Rebel Major Ward (Savalas) and his forces. Fort Holman is a crucial piece of real…

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Christmas With 007: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (United Artists 1969)


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(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the…

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Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


There are two versions of Cape Fear out there.

The one that most people seem to know and which regularly shows up on cable is the 1991 version.  This version was directed by Martin Scorsese and features Oscar-nominated performances from Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis.  This is the version that has De Niro speaking in a broad Southern accent and attacking people while speaking in tongues.  If you’ve ever watched a rerun of an old sitcom and wondered why the laugh track was going wild at the sight of a tattooed prisoner lifting weights in a cell while portentous music boomed in the background, it’s because you were watching a parody of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.

That, however, is not the first version of Cape Fear.

The first version of Cape Fear came out in 1962.  It was a black-and-white film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson.  In this version, the recently released rapist, Max Cady, is played by Robert Mitchum.  Sam Bowden, the attorney that Cady blames for his incarceration, is played by Gregory Peck.  Whereas the Scorsese version was highly stylized, the original Cape Fear is brutally straight forward.  (While Scorsese’s Cape Fear goes on for over two hours, the original Cape Fear tells its story in a brisk 100 minutes.)  While I think that Scorsese’s Cape Fear has its strong points, the original Cape Fear is superior in almost every way.

The original is certainly far more frightening than the remake.  What the original may lack in stylization, it makes up for in plausibility.  It’s scary because you can imagine everything in the film actually happening.  Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck may both be iconic film stars but they’re also believable as human beings.

For modern audiences, it’s easy to smirk at Peck with his upright image and his sonorous voice but what made Peck a great actor was his ability to make it all seem natural.  Peck never seemed like he was acting like an honest man who always tried to do the right thing.  Instead, he simply was that man.  It’s perhaps significant that Peck played Sam Bowden the same year that he played another honest lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird.  The only real difference between them is that, whereas Atticus was always confident and sure of himself, Sam is frequently helpless.  He knows that Max is stalking him and his family and he’s just as aware that there’s nothing he can do about it.  When Max rapes a woman (Barrie Chase) that he meets at a bar, she refuses to testify against him.  When Sam’s dog turns up dead, everyone knows that Max killed him but there’s no way to prove it.  When Sam hires three men to intimidate Max, Max beats them up and promptly tries to get Sam disbarred.  When Sam finally resorts to plotting Max’s murder, we’re seeing Atticus Finch pushed beyond his limit.

As for Robert Mitchum, his animalistic performance is frightening precisely because it feels very real.  Everyone has known a Max Cady, even if they didn’t realize it at the time.  Max gives a fiercely physical performance, often appearing shirtless and strutting through his scenes with a sexual arrogance that’s both frightening and, at times, far more tempting than anyone would want to admit.  The scenes in which Max attacks Barrie Chase and Polly Bergen (who plays Peck’s wife) are absolutely terrifying but, for me, the most disturbing moments in Cape Fear are the moments when Max is silent.  Even when he’s not speaking, Mitchum allows you to see every depraved thought going through is head.

What’s the scariest moment for me?  When the camera catches Max watching Sam’s teenage daughter (Lori Martin).  It’s not just that I know what’s going on in Mitchum’s mind as he stares at her.  It’s because I know what it’s like to be watched.  It’s a scene that’s unsettling because it makes me consider just how many Max Cadys are out there right now.

The battle between Max and Sam is a fascinating one.  In prison, Max studied enough law to become as knowledgeable about how to manipulate it as Sam.  Under pressure, Sam grows more violent and more willing to circumvent his oath to uphold the same law that Max is now using against him.  It makes for a frightening  film, one that will stick with you long after you watch it.

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)


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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder…

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Film Review: Crooks and Coronets (1969, directed by Jim O’Connolly)


Crooks and CoronetsAfter taking off the month of October, I am now back on my Warren Oates kick.  The latest Oates film that I watched was Crooks and Coronets, a heist comedy that stars Oates and Telly Savalas as two career criminals plotting a robbery in England.

Crooks and Coronets starts with Herbie Haseler (Telly Savalas) getting released from prison.  Waiting for him is his partner-in-crime, Marty Miller (Warren Oates).  Because Herbie wants to go straight and doesn’t want to do any more time, he is not happy to learn that Marty stole a car just so he could pick Herbie up from prison.  Leaving the car behind, Herbie and Marty walk to a meeting with their old boss, New York gangster Nick Marco (Cesar Romero).  Nick reminds Herbie and Marty that they owe him money and tells them that they can not go straight until they pay him back.  Nick sends them to England to rob the estate of Lady Sophie Fitzmore (Edith Evans).

Crooks Coronets 03After arriving in the UK and meeting with Nick’s English counterpart, Frank Finley (Harry H. Corbett), Herbie and Marty infiltrate the Fitzmore estate.  Marty pretends to be a security expect while Herbie says that he is a librarian who is interested in cataloguing the Fitzmore library.  However, once they meet the kindly and eccentric Lady Sophie, neither one of them can bring themselves to rob her.  Instead, Marty helps Sophie fly an old World War I airplane while Herbie turns Fitzmore mansion into a tourist attraction.  When Nick and Frank show up and demand to know what the hold up is, Herbie and Marty have to find a way to stop the robbery.

Crooks and Coronets is never exactly memorable but it is amusing throughout.  The main reason to watch it is for the performances of Edith Evans, Telly Savalas and Warren Oates.  Though this is not one of Warren’s better-known films, it was a personally significant one for him.  It was while filming Crooks and Coronets that Oates met British actress Vickery Turner.  Turner played the role of Annie, a tour guide who helps to protect the mansion from Nick and Harry.  She did not have a big role but she did look great in a miniskirt.  She and Warren Oates were married in 1969 and, after they were divorced in 1974, she went on to have a very successful career as a novelist.

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The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Faceless (dir by Jess Franco)


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Whenever it comes time to review a film like 1988’s Faceless, movie bloggers like me are faced with a very important question.  Which name should we use for this film’s prolific director?  The director was born Jesus Franco Manera and, for a very small handful of his 200+ film, he’s actually credited by his full name.  However, for the majority of his films, he dropped the Manera.  Sometimes, he is credited as Jesus Franco and then other times, the director’s credit reads Jesse Franco or just simply Jess Franco.

Myself, I usually prefer to go with “Jess Franco,” because it just seems to go with his “never give up” style of filmmaking.  At the same time, it seems rather appropriate that Franco is known by more than one name because he was a director with a many different personas, occasionally a serious artist, occasionally a subversive prankster, and sometimes a director-for-hire.  Franco was a lover of jazz and his films often had a similarly improvised feel.  Sometimes, the results were, to put it lightly, not very memorable.  But, for every Oasis of the Zombies, there was always a chance that Franco would give the world a film like Female Vampire.  The imdb credits Franco with directing 203 films before his death in 2013 but it’s generally agreed that he probably directed a lot more.  A lot of his films may not have worked but the ones that did are memorable enough to justify searching for them.

Faceless is Franco’s take on Eyes Without A Face, as well as being something of a descendant of his first film, The Awful Dr. Orloff.  All three of these films deal with a doctor trying to repair a loved one’s disfigured face.  In Faceless, the doctor is Dr. Flammad (Helmut Berger), a wealthy and decadent Paris-based plastic surgeon.  One night, while out with his sister Ingird (Christiane Jean) and his nurse and lover Nathalie (Brigitte Lahaie, the former pornographic actress who appeared in several of Jean Rollin’s best films, including the brilliant Night of the Hunted), Dr. Flammad is confronted by a former patient.  Flammad botched her operation so the patient tries to get back at him by tossing acid in his face.  However, Ingrid shoves Flammad out of the way and ends up getting splashed by the acid instead.

Now disfigured, Ingrid spends her time hidden away in Flammad’s clinic and wearing a mask.  Flammad and Nathalie start to kidnap models and actresses, searching for a perfect face.  Flammad’s plan is to perform a face transplant, giving Ingrid a new and beautiful face.

Needless to say, a face transplant is not a simple thing to do.  In order to get some advice, they go to the mysterious Dr. Orloff (Howard Vernon) and Orloff directs them to a Nazi war criminal named Dr. Moser (Anton Diffring).  Now, if you’re not familiar with Franco’s work, the scene with Dr. Orloff will probably seem like pointless filler.  However, if you are a Francophile, you will feel incredibly relieved to see Howard Vernon suddenly pop up.  When it comes Franco’s films, a Howard Vernon cameo is usually a good sign.

Flammad’s search for the perfect face is complicated by the fact that his assistant, the moronic Gordon (Gerard Zalcberg), keeps accidentally killing and otherwise damaging all of the prospects.  As the bodies continue to pile up, Nathalie even points out that there’s “too many dead bodies” in the clinic.

(Of course, Nathalie isn’t doing much to solve that problem.  When the film got to the moment where Nathalie plunged a syringe into one troublesome patient’s eye, I ended up watching the movie between my fingers.)

Eventually, Nathalie kidnaps a coke-addicted model named Barbara (Caroline Munro).  Flammad thinks that Barbara might finally be the perfect face that they’ve been looking for but there’s a problem.  (Actually, two problems if you count Gordon…)  Barbara’s father (Telly Savalas) is a wealthy industrialist and he wants his daughter back.  He hires an American private investigator, Sam Morgan (Chris Mitchum, looking a lot like his father Robert), to track her down.

Actually, it’s not that much of a problem.  It quickly turns out that Sam is kind of an idiot.  Plus, since he’s American, nobody in Paris wants to help him.  A Paris police inspector orders him to go home, yells at him for always chewing gum, and then adds, “You are not Bogart!”

And things only get stranger from there…

Faceless is one of Franco’s better films, a mix of over-the-top glamour (Faceless was filmed in Paris, after all) and grindhouse sleaze.  Though there is a definite storyline, the film still feels like an extended improvisation, with characters and plot points coming out of nowhere and then disappearing just as quickly.  If we’re going to be totally honest, the film is kind of a mess but it’s a glorious and stylish mess, one that is never less than watchable.

One of the great tragedies of American politics is that Chris Mitchum has twice been defeated when he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (though he did come close to winning in 2014).  Not only would it be great to have Robert Mitchum’s son as a member of Congress but it would be even better to know that our laws were being written, in part, by the star of Faceless.  Unfortunately, Chris is sitting out the 2016 election.  Hopefully, he’ll reconsider and file for at least one office.

Run, Chris, run!

Horror On The Lens: Horror Express (dir by Eugenio Martin)


Today’s horror on the lens is the 1972 classic Horror Express!

You can read Arleigh’s review of this film here.

And you can watch it below!

 

Horror on TV: The Twilight Zone 5.26 “Living Doll”


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Today’s televised horror is the Living Doll episode of The Twilight Zone. This memorably creepy episode takes a look at what happens when a suburban jerk of a father (played by Telly Savalas) gets into a fight with his daughter’s doll, Talky Tina (voiced by June Foray). Things do not end well for one of them.

Seriously, don’t mess with Talky Tina.

This episode was directed by Richard Sarafain, written by Charles Beaumont, and originally broadcast on November 1st, 1963.

 

Back to School #10: Pretty Maids All In A Row (dir by Roger Vadim)


Pretty Maids All In A Row, which — as should be pretty obvious from the trailer above — was originally released in 1971, is a bit of a historic film for me.  You see, I love movies.  And, as a part of that love, I usually don’t give up.  Regardless of how bad a movie may turn out to be, once I start watching, I stick with it.  I do not give up.  I keep watching because you never know.  The film could suddenly get better.  It could turn out that what originally seemed like a misfire was actually brilliant satire.  If you’re going to talk or write about movies, you have an obligation to watch the entire movie.  That was a rule that I had always lived by.

And then, one night, Pretty Maids All In A Row popped up on TCM.

Now, I have to admit that I already knew that Pretty Maids was going to be an extremely 70s film.  I knew that it was probably going to be more than a little sexist.  I knew all of this because the above trailer was included on one of my 42nd Street Forever DVDs.  But I still wanted to see Pretty Maids because the trailer hinted that there might be an interesting hiding underneath all of the cultural baggage.  If nothing else, it appeared that it would have some sort of worth as an artifact of its time.

(If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know how much I love my cinematic time capsules.)

So, the film started.  I logged onto twitter so that I could live tweet the film, using the hashtag #TCMParty.  And from the moment the film started, I knew it wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t just that the film’s camerawork and music were all extremely 70s.  After all, I like 70s music.  I don’t mind the occasional zoom lens.  And random psychedelic sequences?  WHO DOESN’T LOVE THOSE!?  No, my dislike of the film had nothing to do with the film’s style.  Instead, it had to do with the fact that there was absolutely nothing going on behind all of that style.  It wasn’t even style for the sake of style (which is something that I usually love).  Instead, it was style for the sake of being like every other “youth film” that came out in the 70s.

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And then there was the film’s plot, which should have been interesting but wasn’t because director Roger Vadim (who specialized in stylish decadence) had no interest in it.  The film takes place at Oceanfront High School, where the only rule is that apparently nobody is allowed to wear a bra.  We meet one student, Ponce De Leon Harper (played by an amazingly unappealing actor named John David Carson), who is apparently on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because, at the height of the sexual revolution, he’s still a virgin.

(Because, of course, the whole point of the sexual revolution was for losers like Ponce to finally be able to get laid…)

Ponce is taken under the wing of high school guidance counselor Tiger McDrew (Rock Hudson, complete with porn star mustache).  Quickly figuring out exactly what Ponce needs, Tiger sets him up with a teacher played by Angie Dickinson.  However, Tiger has other concerns than just Ponce.  Tiger, it turns out, is a sex addict who is sleeping with nearly every female student at the school. But, American society is so oppressive and puts so much pressure on the American male that Tiger has no choice but to kill every girl that he sleeps with…

This is one of the only film I can think of that not only makes excuses for a serial killer but also presents him as being a heroic  character.  And, while it’s tempting to think that the film is being satirical in its portrayal of Tiger and his murders, it’s actually not.  Don’t get me wrong.  The film is a very broad comedy.  The high school’s principal (Roddy McDowall) is more concerned with the football team than with all of the girls turning up dead at the school.  The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is a buffoon.  The tough detective (Telly Savalas) who investigates the murders gets a few one liners.

But Tiger, most assuredly, is the film’s hero.  He’s the only character that the audience is expected to laugh with, as opposed to at.  He is the character who is meant to serve as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s view on America’s puritanical culture.  If only society was less hung up on sex, Tiger wouldn’t have to kill.  Of course, the film’s celebration of Tiger’s attitude towards sex is not extended towards the girls who sleep with him.  Without an exception, they are all presented as being empty-headed, demanding, shallow, and annoying, worthy only of being leered at by Vadim’s camera until Tiger finally has to do away with them.

(The film’s attitude towards women makes Getting Straight look positively enlightened.)

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ANYWAY!  I spent about 40 minutes watching this movie before I gave up on it.  Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I gave up after 5 minutes.  But I stuck with it for another 35 minutes, waiting to see if the film was going to get any better.  It didn’t and finally, I had to ask myself, “Why am I actually sitting here and wasting my time with this misogynistic bullshit?”  So, I stopped watching and I did so with no regrets.

What I had forgotten is that I had set the DVR to record the film while I was watching it, just in case I later decided to review it.  So, last week, as I was preparing for this series of Back to School posts, I saw Pretty Maids All In A Row on my DVR.  I watched the final 51 minutes of the film, just to see if it ever got better.  It didn’t.

However, on the plus side, Rock Hudson does give a good performance in the role of Tiger, bringing a certain seedy desperation to the character.  (I’m guessing that this desperation was Hudson’s own contribution and not an element of Roddenberry’s screenplay, which more or less presents Tiger as being a Nietzschean superman.).  And beyond that, Pretty Maids serves as evidence as to just how desperate the Hollywood studios were to makes movies that would be weird enough to appeal to young people in the early 70s.

Watching the film, you can practically hear the voices of middle-aged studio executives.

“What the Hell are we trying to do with this movie!?” one of the voices says.

“Who cares!?” the other voice replies, “the kids will love it!”

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