Horror on TV: Thriller 2.20 “The Hollow Watcher” (dir by William F. Claxton)


Here’s one final episode of Thriller for this October’s horrorthon!

In this episode, we learn what happens when you stuff a dead body in a scarecrow.  The scarecrow stalks you!

Seriously, scarecrows are so freaky.

Enjoy!

 

An October Film Review: The Night America Trembled (dir by Tom Donovan)


Today is the 79th anniversary of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

In 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War of the World.  Presented as a live news program, it was one of the first mockumentaries.  It also caused a panic.  How big the panic was is open for debate.  Some say only a few people took it seriously.  Other sources say that it was a nationwide crisis.  But, regardless, Welles made history on that night.  Not only did he illustrate the power of the media but he also scared the Hell out of a lot of people.  All in all, a pretty good night…

Filmed in 1957 for a television program called Westinghouse Studio One, The Night America Trembled is a dramatization of that night.  For legal reasons, Orson Welles is not portrayed nor is his name mentioned.  Instead, the focus is mostly on the people listening to the broadcast and getting the wrong idea.  That may sound like a comedy but The Night America Trembled takes itself fairly seriously.  Even pompous old Edward R. Murrow shows up to narrate the film, in between taking drags off a cigarette.  (I enjoyed the show but, whenever Murrow showed up, I was reminded of a grumpy old teacher complaining that none of his students cared about the Spanish-American War.)

Clocking in at a brisk 60 minutes, The Night America Trembled is an interesting recreation of that October 30th.  Among the people panicking: a group of people in a bar who, before hearing the broadcast, were debating whether or not Hitler was as crazy as people said he was, a babysitter who goes absolutely crazy with fear, and a group of poker-playing college students.  If, like me, you’re a frequent viewer of TCM, you may recognize some of the faces in the large cast: Ed Asner, James Coburn, John Astin, Warren Oates, and Warren Beatty all make early appearances.

As I said, it’s an interesting little historical document and you can watch it below!

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #160: Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973, directed by John Erman as “Bill Sampson”)


Sometimes, the story behind a movie is more interesting than the movie itself.

A young Steven Spielberg received a “story by” credit for Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies but, at one time, he was going to be credited with much more.  Spielberg wrote the treatment for Ace Eli and sold it to 20th Century Fox because he was hoping to make his directorial debut with the film.  However, shortly after selling the story, there was an executive shakeup at the studio.  Spielberg’s supporters were out and the men who replaced them gave the treatment to another screenwriter and director.  Spielberg was so angered by his treatment that it would be close to thirty years before he ever again worked with 20th Century Fox.  (In 2002, 20th Century Fox co-produced Minority Report with Dreamworks.)  Ace Eli ended up being directed by television veteran John Erman, who was so upset by the studio’s final edit of the film that he demanded to be credited under a pseudonym.

The plot of Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies is recognizably Spielbergian.  Ace Eli (Cliff Robertson, who was a pilot in real life and who, after he won his Oscar of Charly, was involved in several flying films) is a stunt pilot in the 1920s.  After his wife is killed in a crash, Eli and his 11 year-old son, Rodger (Eric Shea), set off on a barnstorming tour.  Going from small town to small town, Eli deals with his pain through nonstop womanaizer.  With Eli refusing to take any responsibility for his actions, Rodger is forced to grow up quickly.  It is a typical Spielberg coming of age story, combining a nostalgia for the past with a clear-eyed portrayal of irresponsible adulthood.

In fact, it is easy to imagine the approach the Spielberg would have taken if he had been allowed to direct his story.  Unfortunately, Spielberg did not get to direct the film and John Erman takes an impersonal approach to the material.  Whereas Spielberg would have captured the excitement of both flying and life on the road, Erman keeps the audience at a distance.  An underrated actor, Cliff Robertson is still miscast as the irresponsible Ace Eli.  The reason why Cliff Robertson was perfect for the role of Uncle Ben in Spider-Man is the same reason why he feels all wrong as Ace Eli.  He is just too upstanding a citizen to be as impulsive as Eli often is.  An actor like Warren Oates would have been perfect for the role.

Steven Spielberg directing Warren Oates in Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies?  That would have been something worth seeing!

The Big Let-Down: CHANDLER (MGM 1971)


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“Some (producers) are able and humane men and some are low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat, the artistic integrity of a slot machine, and the manners of a floorwalker with delusions of grandeur”- Raymond Chandler, “Writers in Hollywood”, first published in Esquire Magazine, Nov. 1945

I had high hopes for CHANDLER, I really did. An homage to the hard-boiled fiction of Raymond Chandler (born July 23, 1888) with Warren Oates as the titular detective sounded like it’d be right up my dark alley. But as much as I wanted to like this movie, I was let down by its slow pace, convoluted script, and butchering by studio execs. Much of the film was cut, scenes were replaced, and the result is an evocative mood piece that ultimately doesn’t satisfy the noir lover in me.

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I don’t have a problem with Warren Oates as Chandler, with his Bogie-esque look and low-key performance…

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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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Thank You, Mr. Peckinpah: Ride the High Country (1962, directed by Sam Peckinpah)


rideIt’s the turn of the 20th century and the Old West is fading into legend.  When they were younger, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) were tough and respect lawmen but now, time has passed them by.  Judd now provides security for shady mining companies while Gil performs at county fairs under the name The Oregon Kid.  When Judd is hired to guard a shipment of gold, he enlists his former partner, Gil, to help.  Gil brings along his current protegé, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

On their way to the mining camp, they spend the night at the farm of Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  Elsa is eager to escape her domineering father and flirts with Heck.  When they leave the next morning, Elsa accompanies them, planning on meeting her fiancée, Billy Hammond (James Drury), at the mining camp.

When they reach the camp, they meet Bill and his four brothers (John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, John Davis Chandler, and the great Warren Oates).  Billy is a drunk who is planning on “sharing” Elsa with his brothers.  Gil, Judd, and Heck rescue Elsa and prepare for a final confrontation with the Hammond Brothers.  At the same time, Gil and Heck are planning on stealing the gold, with or without Judd’s help.

Ride the High Country was actually Sam Peckinpah’s second film but it’s the first of his films to truly feel like a Sam Peckinpah film.  (For his first film, The Deadly Companions, Peckinpah was largely a director-for-hire and had no say over the script or the final edit.)  Peckinpah rewrote N.B. Stone’s original script and reportedly based the noble Steve Judd on his own father.  All of Peckinpah’s usual themes are present in Ride the High Country, with Judd and, eventually, Gil representing the dying nobility of the old west and the Hammond brothers and the greedy mining companies representing the coming of the “modern” age.  Ride The High Country‘s final shoot-out and bittersweet ending even serve as a template for Peckinpah’s later work in The Wild Bunch.

Much like the characters they were playing, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were two aging veterans on the verge of retirement.  For these two aging stars, who had starred in countless westerns before this one, Ride The High Country would provide both fitting farewell and moving tribute.  This would be the last chance that either of them would have to appear in a great movie and both of them obviously relish the opportunity.  The best moments in the film are the ones where Judd and Gil just talk with the majestic mountains of California in the background.

Among the supporting cast, Ron Starr and Mariette Hartley are well-cast as the young lovers but are never as compelling as Gil or Judd.  Future Peckinpah regulars R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, and Warren Oates all make early appearances.  Seven years after playing brothers in Ride the High Country, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates would both appear in Peckinpah’s most celebrated film, The Wild Bunch.

The elegiac and beautifully-shot Ride The High Country was Sam Peckinpah’s first great film and it might be his best.

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country

Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in Ride The High Country

Film Review: China 9, Liberty 37 (1978, directed by Monte Hellman)


c9l37Directed by the legendary Monte Hellman, China 9, Liberty 37 is a revisionist take on the western genre.  Fabio Testi plays Clayton Drumm, a legendary gunslinger who is about to be hung for murder.  At the last minute, men from the railroad company show up and arrange for Clayton be released.  They want him to kill a rancher who is refusing to sell his land.  Clayton agrees but, before he leaves for his mission, he gives a brief interview to a writer from “out East.”  Cleverly, the writer is played by director Sam Peckinpah, to whose films China 9, Liberty 37 clearly owes a huge debt.

After telling the writer that his eastern readers have no idea what the west is truly like, Clayton rides out to the ranch.  Along the way, he gets directions from a nude lady (Jenny Agutter) who is swimming in a nearby stream.  When Clayton reaches the ranch, he meets his target.  Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates) is himself a former gunslinger who used to kill people for the railroads.  From the minute they meet, Matthew knows who Clayton is and why he is there.  Both Clayton and Matthew have grown weary of killing and, instead of having the expected gunfight, they instead become fast friends.  Matthew allows Clayton to stay at the ranch and introduces him to his wife, Catherine, who it turns out was the same woman who Clayton talked to earlier.

China9Liberty37-02Catherine loves Matthew but resents his rough ways and feels that he treats her like property.  One night, she and Clayton go for a nude swim and then make love.  When Matthew finds out, he strikes his wife and, in self-defense, she stabs him in the back.  Believing Matthew to be dead, she and Clayton go on the run.

Matthew is not dead and, once he’s recovered from being stabbed, he and his brothers set off to track down the two lovers.  While Matthew chases after Clayton, he is being pursued by Zeb (Romano Puppo), another gunslinger who has been hired by the railroad to kill both Matthew and Clayton.

ftAs a western, China 9, Liberty 37 is more interested in its characters than in the usual gunfights.  There are no traditional heroes or villains and Monte Hellman emphasizes characterization over action.  Even while he is relentlessly pursuing Clayton and Catherine, Matthew admits that he does not blame Catherine for leaving him.  As for Clayton and Catherine, they are both consumed by guilt over their affair.  This is one of the few westerns where the main character often refuses to fire his gun.

As Clayton, Fabio Testi is stiff and inexpressive, but Jenny Agutter and Warren Oates are terrific.  Though their films were never as critically or financial successful, Warren Oates and Monte Hellman had as strong of a director/actor partnership as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.  China 9, Liberty 37 was the fourth and final movie that Monte Hellman and Warren Oates made together.  It was also Oates’s last western before his untimely death in 1982.

china 9 oatesDirector Monte Hellman is as well-known for the films he did not get to make as for the ones he actually did make.  (Originally, Quentin Tarantino wanted Hellman to director Reservoir Dogs.  When Tarantino changed his mind and decided to direct it himself, Hellman was relegated to serving as executive producer.  A lot of recent film history would be very different if Tarantino and Hellman had stuck to the original plan.)  Like a lot of the films that Hellman actually did get to make, China 9, Liberty 37 was only given a sparse theatrical release and was often shown in a heavily edited version.  It has only been recently that the full version of China 9, Liberty 37 has started to show up on TCM.  It is an interesting revisionist take on the western genre and must see for fans of Monte Hellman, Jenny Agutter, and Warren Oates.

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