Some Came Running
I was looking through my electronic correspondence with my friend Joseph Failla (see below) and wanted to share some of it here. The first entry is a response to a request; I asked him, after the death of horror maven Forrest J. Ackerman, to contribute something for this blog’s own tribute to the man. The last piece of correspondence is following the death of Christopher Lee, and is, like all the other bits of writing, self-explanatory.
December 7, 2008
There’s never been any question that fantasy and horror films were the birth of my movie obsessions. But Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine was the lightning rod that brought it all home for me in a way that was attractive (colorful cover artwork), informative (how great to discover who Lon Chaney Sr. was!) and addictive (every issue packed with plenty of b&w photos, both from the films and behind the scenes). It was definitely aimed at kids but that was its genius and lasting gift. I’m still amazed I knew who Todd Browning was before I learned about Orson Welles. For a kid to long to see the lost silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, at a time when all he had access to was afternoon television is pretty unheard of.
I saw my first still from a Fritz Lang film in the pages of FM, it was a shot of the dragon from SIEGFRIED and it looked as realistic as I could imagine, I immediately tried to figure out how they made it work. And I can’t tell you how I felt seeing the surviving remnants of KING KONG’s spider pit sequence, or the only recognizable pics of James Arness in full THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD regalia, let alone all those Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen original art sketches before I understood the animation process. I vividly remember the concept drawings for an unmade O’Brien project KING KONG VS. PROMETHEUS, which I still regret never saw the light of day in the form presented.
One of my favorite articles was a piece on the 50 worst horror movies ever made called “Dante’s Inferno”, written by a teenage Joe Dante. This is where I first read about PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, I don’t remember it’s ranking but he said Tor Johnson rising from the grave was the best thing about it. Not a bad job of reporting, because when I caught up with PLAN 9 so many years later, this bit of early film criticism ran through my mind during that very scene.
Although I never made it to LA to tour the famed Ackermansion, I did get to meet the great man himself at a local collector’s convention. As this would be my one opportunity to explain how important his magazine and devotion to fantastic films had been to me, I felt a little inhibited. Once we began talking however, I could tell any apprehension I had wasn’t necessary, he was gracious and every bit the old friend FM lead me to believe. At the time, I was contributing to a mystery and nostalgia film magazine which FJA was also associated with. I pointed out how proud I was that both our names appeared regularly under the same letterhead. It certainly was something I never thought possible while I was reading FM during those days when we first learned about the films, stars and legends that would occupy so much of our time and influence us throughout our lives.
For a good look at FJA’s legacy, I recommend Criterion’s EQUINOX special edition DVD, a low budget special effects wonder, with a video introduction by Forry. THE SCI-FI BOYS, an affectionate reflection on classic sci-fi with much input from FJA, Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Roger Corman, John Landis, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren, Peter Jackson and others. RAY HARRYHAUSEN: THE EARLY YEARS COLLECTION shows exclusive footage of FJA with friends Harryhausen and Bradbury reminiscing fondly over their lives spent pursuing their dreams through a common love of all things sci-fi and fantastic.
April 6, 2009
I’m actually glad to hear ADVENTURELAND is not your usual coming of age comedy and offers quite a bit more. John Hughes by way of Truffaut? Not an easy match but I’ll take a look. I’m writing you about this because the ADVENTURELAND trailer I saw looked like anything else except what you describe in your review. It appeared to be just one more in an endless line of goofy teen comedies which I long ago outgrew (or was I ever into goofy teen comedies?). Even the theater goers sitting near me seemed to be put off by remarking how glad they’ll be to skip this one.
But that was a mistake I made with DAZED AND CONFUSED when the trailer I saw perfectly sold it as an unfunny stoner comedy. I didn’t catch up with DAZED until years later and realized how misled I could be. Sure, as a teen this was not my group of friends and I didn’t grow up in Texas, but in a way I felt I knew many of the characters depicted in that film regardless. As a result, DAZED is now a favorite trip back in time for me and I still regret not catching it when I first could. I just find it fascinating that a trailer can sometimes work in reverse and hide the special film it is by taking the hard sell approach.
Btw, speaking of comedies, I watched RACHEL GETTING MARRIED this weekend and while some of it was very funny, the performances were natural and the atmosphere inviting, I found Demme’s insistence to manufacture an “independent” film to be very distracting. Hasn’t that fly on the wall approach become tiring to anyone else but me at this point? I would have much preferred a less “observant” point of view than the one chosen as traditional techniques would have tended to call less attention to themselves. Still the film has its moments but I wish it were more of the return to Demme’s roots in the ’70s and ’80s that I heard it was. Why doesn’t someone just release HANDLE WITH CARE so I can complete my early Demme collection?
February 4, 2010
Friedkin’s TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. was almost completely ignored at the time of its release, but as you’ll remember, I couldn’t stop talking about it and saw it several times theatrically. What most people hated, was not it’s cold blooded-ness per se (there never has been any shortage of tough cop flicks), but the combination of excessive brutality and cynicism was simply too unappetizing for mass audiences to embrace.
Advertised as a big screen MIAMI VICE action pic, L.A. manages to shake that false impression fairly quickly. Not long after the film begins, anyone expecting trendy television fare, will find themselves extremely shaken. If anything the psychotic counterfeiter (Dafoe) has more scruples than the clearly unbalanced agent (Petersen) on his tail. But it’s the unexpected twist the story takes at the end that really separates L.A. from anything found on television or at the cineplex. Most folks I encountered felt confused, even cheated, but having seen CRUISING a few years prior, I was well prepared for L.A.’s transfer of personality finale.
Although coming smack in the middle of the ’80s, L.A. seems to simultaneously harken back to the gritty ’70s cop film Friedkin helped define years before (“The director of THE FRENCH CONNECTION is on the streets again!” was its tag line), while prophetically introducing us to the notion of Middle East suicide bombers, even before the film officially begins.
Is it true Scorsese was so captivated by Dafoe’s performance portraying pure evil, that he felt compelled to cast him as a complicated Christ in LAST TEMPTATION?
Quick, what is the connection between TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and TOUCH OF EVIL? Why it’s Val De Vargas of course, the creepy judge who Petersen threatens, is the same actor who plays Pancho, the Mexican street hood in leather jacket, who menaces Janet Leigh in EVIL. I didn’t realize it for years, but I always knew there was something eerily familiar about the judge’s voice. Maybe because it’s post synched, it stood out all the more.
The most amazing thing about the film on disc, is the extra offered as the deleted ending. It’s pretty incredible that such a thing was conceived, let alone actually shot. It’s a great glimpse into what compromises sometimes have to be taken to satisfy everyone who has a say. You can plainly see how it’s inclusion would have voided everything that came before.
June 29, 2010
I don’t know if this helps or hurts your stand on Reed but did you ever see FLAP (1970), his next to last film? Most folks probably never heard of it (and I’ve only watched it once many years ago), but this unfunny, totally unenjoyable tragicomedy about the plight of modern day, Native Americans was Reed’s curious follow-up to his Oscar winning OLIVER!
Although FLAP did receive a good review in the NY Times, saying star Anthony Quinn was once again given a role worthy of his talents, all I can recall is Quinn spending most of the film ranting in a drunken stupor (see some of the pics). Much of his antics are played for laughs, but the finale (in true ’70s fashion) was as depressing as they come.
Whatever your feelings for OLIVER!, it’s still quite an achievement turning the despairing, Dickensian material into such a lively musical without embarrassing itself. The Bill Sykes caper and chase in the second half is reminiscent of Reed’s hunted man thrillers and is at least as exciting. So how does this explain the dreariness of FLAP? I don’t know the circumstances that lead Reed to want to make it but having just won an Oscar (over Kubrick for 2001), he certainly would have his choice of projects and must have found something compelling here.
January 26, 2011
I’m actually glad to hear you enjoyed THE MECHANIC remake because the original was just the type of violent action pic that I used to enjoy Sat afternoons during the early days of our ’70s movie going education. I got a big kick out of the Bronson/Winner version precisely because it was so amoral and straight forward in presenting its hero as a cultured cold blooded type who took his unusual line of work extremely seriously. The film’s first murder I remember as being particularly ingenious and “executed” in a very pragmatic style. The payoff to which (a fiery inferno sparked by the killer’s well aimed, high power rifle shot) was a terrific conclusion to one of Winner’s few truly suspenseful sequences.
But in order for this kind of thing to really work, it’s all in the casting and I wonder how Statham with his nonstop energy will compare to Bronson’s steely, silent, unbreakable menace. A good part of the film’s appeal for me came from seeing the normally unvarnished Bronson, strutting about in expensive bathrobes, tailored suits and luxury living quarters. I seem to remember Bronson also being a well-read professional that stood in direct comparison with the many blue collar tough guys he was usually cast as. Now say what you want about Winner’s blunt directorial approach to the material, but there was something about the way ’72 MECHANIC slowly lumbers from one murderous set piece to the next that coincided with Bronson’s own brand of minimalist emoting which works completely in its favor.
I’m also assuming (or shouldn’t I?) that the original’s potent twist ending will be conveniently avoided in order to provide a possible follow up if necessary? It was the first film’s final chilling closing moments that perfectly punctuated all the unconscionable mayhem that proceeded it, and in a sense made the character’s lethal cunningness, easier to accept in its abrupt sense of justice.
Let’s see if they have the nerve to remake THE STONE KILLER next? Just kidding.
January 3, 2012
It took a while but when I caught up with DON’T MAKE WAVES, I wasn’t disappointed in the least. While I have a liking for some of the sillier beach movies, WAVES as directed by Mackendrick seemed to have more on its mind, basically skewering many American values of excess. This would make a good double feature with the incredibly acidic THE LOVED ONE, also helmed by an English director taking an even angrier aim at the same subject (in fact both films feature a sequence with valuable beach front property precariously teetering on the edge of destruction).
I realize to call DON’T MAKE WAVES, the LA DOLCE VITA of beach films is a stretch, although these pics from both movies are interesting to look at side by side. I may not have picked up on the white suits, but I find Tony Curtis makes for a decent Marcello Mastroianni, American style (just think of press agent, Sidney Falco in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS as a more smarmy counterpart to Mastroianni’s famous paparazzi, Marcello Rubini from VITA). While the inclusion of Claudia Cardinale reminds me of the presence of a European’s eye view of the sweet life in ’60s southern California. You may not feel both films should be mentioned in the same conversation but is there not a similar glint in Curtis’ eye for Cardinale that Mastroianni has for Ekberg?
Btw, could WAVES have been where Curtis first met up with Roman Polanski thru co-star Sharon Tate and later be cast for a voice cameo in ROSEMARY’S BABY?
March 1, 2012
By now I’m sure you know of the passing of Davy Jones but were you also aware Lina Romay succumbed last week to cancer at the far too young age of 57? A very odd week of celebrity passings indeed, having read about Erland Josephson on your blog last Sunday, I looked at CRIES AND WHISPERS to do a little reflecting. But who knew I’d have to do the same this weekend with HEAD for Jones and FEMALE VAMPIRE for Romay?
In fact the untimely passing of Davy Jones comes when I was getting acquainted with the Monkees television show all over again. What surprised me about revisiting the series was not how consistently funny the first season is but how drastically experimental (which ultimately doomed the show) the second season really was. Probably due to the boys insisting on more input themselves, the second season episodes are alternately daring, free form and even a bit irritating at times. But they are an eyeful and certainly point the way to HEAD, which seemed to have found the perfect mixture of Monkee humor while commenting on the times and their own prepackaged image. I don’t know how well the show has aged with you but I can’t recall you disagreeing with me it was anything but fun in the day.
August 22, 2012
For a better idea of how Tashlin might have tackled SEVEN YEAR ITCH, why not take another look at SUSAN SLEPT HERE? Made a year before ITCH, SUSAN also incorporates the idea of an older man (Dick Powell) sharing his apartment with (in this case) a sexy teen (Debbie Reynolds), causing him endless frustration and turning his life upside down during her overnight stay. Although he’s not married, he does have a sultry Anne Francis as his interfering girlfriend, adding even more pressure to his plight, rather than a non-present wife away on summer vacation as in Wilder’s movie.
I’m not unhappy with the way Wilder handled ITCH, although it may be a film that’s better remembered than how it actually plays and the censors would have come down hard on anyone trying to make a film version of the original show. What I do like about it is how it clearly details what was really on most folk’s minds regarding sex in the oppressive 50’s. Everything seems to simmer in the summer heat, from the fans in motion, to the underwear placed in open ice boxes, until it spills over with Marilyn’s more than suggestive bubble bath scene and the ever famous shot of her white dress billowing over the subway grating.
Incidentally, I did manage to see Walter Matthau’s screen test for ITCH years ago on a television program promoting the film. As I remember, he was much more lively than Ewell, not sad or downhearted at all, if anything, he’s overly giddy and self-satisfied. Running up and down a staircase while managing a fair balancing act with a tray of items he’s bringing to the girl waiting for him upstairs. He also worked that crick in his neck bit quite a lot, never missing a chance to bring attention to it. That said, this is one of those rare instances where Matthau can actually appear youthful in comparison to Ewell’s droopy, wannabe rebel.
September 30, 2012
This might amuse you, upon reading of Herbert Lom’s passing the other day, I immediately had this flashback to the two of us at the Oritani theater in Hackensack 1972. While waiting for a double feature of TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD to begin, the trailer for the next week’s attraction, MARK OF THE DEVIL turned up. As I recall it was a fairly no holds barred advertisement (this was widely publicized as rated V for Violence) complete with uncensored shots of sadism and bloodletting which the theater management apparently had no problem running for an afternoon audience of kids. Amid the mayhem of torture by rack, branding, stabbing, a beheading and burnings, a familiar face appeared on screen, that of Herbert Lom in full Witchfinder General mode.
At which point I exclaimed to you, “That’s the guy!”
You responded, “What guy?”
Me: “The guy from the Pink Panther!”
You: “That’s not Peter Sellers!”
Me: “Not THAT guy! The OTHER Pink Panther guy!”
Talk about “Who’s On First?”
Seriously, as popular as his Inspector Dreyfus was, my favorite Lom character was Kristo the London racketeer in NIGHT AND THE CITY, who ruthlessly ran the wrestling promotions that Richard Widmark’s small timer Harry Fabian tried to muscle in on. Lom is thoroughly sinister here (even more so than usual), you just know Widmark will suffer dearly for his ambitions. When Lom says after the death of his father whom Harry was inadvertently responsible for, “Bring me Fabian!” he can still raise the same harrowing chill within me (despite so many viewings) till this day.
I also remember him fondly as the psychiatrist who tries to help Ann Todd in THE SEVENTH VEIL, the most dangerous member of THE LADYKILLERS, the pirate who betrays SPARTACUS, the villainous Moor from EL CID, Captain Nemo in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, a very sympathetic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the Clouseau -hating Dreyfus (from A SHOT IN THE DARK in particular), a Van Helsing for Jess Franco in his version of COUNT DRACULA, a clever and suave Russian spy in HOPSCOTCH, the kindly doctor who tells Christopher Walken how he’d deal with Hitler in THE DEAD ZONE and even a buffoonish German officer in the ’80’s KING SOLOMON’S MINES remake. But can either of us ever forget the deadly, tiny mechanical dolls made in his likeness for ASYLUM?
By chance TCM was running one of Lom’s earliest films, THE DARK TOWER last week when I heard that unmistakable voice of his. As I turned my attention to the movie, there he was looking as young as I’ve ever seen him, he was thin, trim and quite dapper but already a commanding presence at the start of a very long career.
Joe’s companion at the Tales from the Crypt/House That Dripped Blood double feature at Hackensack’s Oritani Theater in 1972.
April 3, 2014
With all the distractions you have with assignments and deadlines, you may have missed that today is the 45th anniversary of the opening of the roadshow engagement of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY at the now long gone Capitol Theatre in New York City. Beginning on April 3rd, 1968 (although the film had its world premiere the evening before in Washington D.C.) 2001 ran for a total of 24 weeks in Cinerama with reserved seating arrangements.
It may interest you to know the theatre was located at 1645 Broadway, which should sound familiar, as it’s been replaced by the Paramount Plaza, the local home of Premiere Magazine (not to mention the offices of Jerry Langford in THE KING OF COMEDY).
I’ve included a few photos which should help us appreciate what the experience might have been like seeing 2001 in that wonderful setting. Note in the newspaper clipping, while 2001 was enjoying its run at the Capitol, BELLE DE JOUR could have been seen at the Little Carnegie theatre just several blocks away.
July 22, 2014
Back in its day, this James Garner western double feature laserdisc provided me a lot of welcome entertainment, both DUEL AT DIABLO and HOUR OF THE GUN are solid, adult themed genre examples that deserve to be better known than they are. However neither showcase the usually genial Garner we’re most familiar with, but a much more somber and angry fellow which broadens my appreciation for the actor who too infrequently got these kinds of opportunities. Make no mistake, we’re not in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF territory here, as directed by Ralph Nelson and John Sturges respectively, these films introduce us to a Garner more in line with James Stewart’s conflicted, complicated, Anthony Mann heroes.
In DUEL AT DIABLO (1966), Garner is out to avenge the murder of his wife by tracking those responsible and signs on to escort cavalry soldiers through hostile Indian territory in his quest. The action is violent and realistic, Dennis Weaver is particularly intolerant and twitchy, while Garner convinces as a man caught in the grip of vengeance. In that sense this does prefigure Nelson’s much more brutal SOLDIER BLUE, which was still several years off, but was not as successful as he is here thematically. DIABLO is also a progressive film for its time in presenting a very dapper Sidney Poitier (complete with designer vest) navigating a racially charged western landscape, and casts Bibi Anderson as a woman held captive by Apaches, now an object of scorn by local townsfolk and her own husband (whoever thought we’d see Bibi opposite Garner in a western no less?).
Revenge is taken to obsessive lengths in HOUR OF THE GUN (1967), with Garner as a doggedly determined Wyatt Earp hunting down the surviving Clantons in the aftermath of the O.K Corral gunfight. HOUR serves as more of an update than a sequel to Sturges own GUNFIGHT AT O.K. CORRAL from a decade earlier as attitudes during the ’60s towards violence and retribution in films reached new heights. Along with Jason Robards as a very cynical Doc Holiday, he and Garner make for the screen’s most underrated pairing of the two western legends, Garner distinctly impresses with a cruel edge not fully explored before. He brings to justice those he feels have wronged him by systematically eliminating them in a series of showdowns staged with such cold blooded bitterness, he chances alienating himself from the audience. So much so, I can somewhat understand the plight the ornery Clantons find themselves in, I mean did you ever think you’d sympathize with a villainous Robert Ryan?
Building on these, Garner made a number of films which continued to present him in a light far less appealing than you’d suspect, MARLOWE (1969) a late ’60s telling of the Philip Marlowe story “The Little Sister” with Garner, an oddly, folksy choice as the famous private eye. It’s not totally on target, but the L.A. depicted is bright, sunny, sweltering and seedy, it’s a setting Garner navigates with an unexpected naturalism (the bit with Bruce Lee is a gem) and the finale is a tense one. SKIN GAME (1971) is a western comedy of sorts in which Garner sells a slave (Lou Gossett) to various owners only to con them and meet up again afterwards to split the money. This set up immediately recalls the dubious bond between Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. It begins humorously enough as we know Garner and Gossett are working together but before long, things turn much more serious. Why this film wasn’t discussed in the wake of DJANGO UNCHAINED still surprises me. In THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972), Garner is the police chief of a small costal California town trying to solve a recent murder with the main suspect being a dangerous Doberman pinscher. At the time this was an exceptionally well-reviewed film which has seemed to drop off most everyone’s radar but it plays today as a decent mystery, low key thriller and character piece with Garner acquitting himself nicely in a moderately irritating role that makes him less likable than those he’s investigating.
The flip side of all this for me was 2000’s SPACE COWBOYS, a film I continue to enjoy despite its more farfetched and silly moments, mainly because it teamed Garner with Eastwood and the results couldn’t have been more pleasing. The scene where they meet after years apart and Eastwood discovers Garner has become a preacher is a delight as we notice Clint suppress his surprise and smile in response, giving the sense of the two old friends they really were. In a way this was my own reaction to seeing Garner in a theatrical film after far too long, my only regret is they hadn’t costarred before in a more traditional cowboy film (their MAVERICK episode not withstanding). But it was a thoughtful reminder of just how much I admired Garner and was grateful for the chance to have him on screen once again.
June 13. 2015
Believe it or not, it was my mother who first introduced me to the world of Christopher Lee when she bought me the Famous Films issue #2, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN / HORROR OF DRACULA magazine, which featured both Hammer classics in pictorial form. Except for the cover art, all the pics used were in black and white, it did however get across the unique tone of the films, already having a background in Karloff and Lugosi, I knew (so to speak), I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. It thrilled me to read a film in comic book form, in a sense becoming my first keepsake of an actual movie, if only my mom could imagine the door she was opening for me!
But more to the point, she brought me into the orbit of Christopher Lee who would have such a presence outside the confines of horror and fantasy so that when the time came for me to widen my view to other genres, Lee was still there in full force. Although, I was never quite able to separate him from the humble Hammer productions where I first learned of him, he remained a recognizable, charismatic and enduring connection to my own youth as my movie appreciation and understanding continued to grow.
To explain the longevity of my relationship with Lee and his films, the first time I saw Lee onscreen in a theatre was in DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS in 1964. The first time I saw HORROR OF DRACULA, it was on Super 8 black and white film, projected on a sheet in a friend’s garage, even though it was only snippets of the film’s highlights, it was extremely exciting to experience in any form regardless. It would be another 30 years before I could see a 35mm print with slightly faded color, projected properly in a legitimate theater.
While HORROR OF DRACULA cannot be beat for shocks, tautness and the teaming of Lee with Peter Cushing, I may actually prefer DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE as my favorite Lee Dracula film since it’s the most religious of the series, making the struggle between good and evil even more profound.
Lee was the best of all possible Fu Manchus in some of the oddest films made about the character.
He was a great Bond villain in one of the weakest Bond films, said Lee about playing a Bond villain, his only regret was “you can only do it once”.
A favorite Lee performance was in a rare turn as the hero battling sin and depravity in THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, making it a wonderful flip side double feature with HORROR HOTEL, with Lee as his own devil worshipping “opposite number”.
His expert swordsmanship was on full display in Lester’s THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS. It was here he seemed to inherit the same fate of Basil Rathbone, who also could slice up any of his fellow performers but was not allowed to win any of his screen sword scuffles as we could not ask for a more effective villain.
One of the great strengths of Jackson’s Rings Trilogy of films is the casting, even down to the smallest of roles. But no actor was made better use of in this series than Lee himself. He was a most believable practitioner of the black arts, having demonstrated an affinity for such mischief in a host of prior films setting the foundation for an evil film persona in stone.
Perhaps now his involvement in the STAR WARS prequels will garner a little more respect for the much disliked recent series of chapters. I for one couldn’t have been happier to see Lee join the ranks of STAR WARS in any capacity but his Count Dooku, while recalling his gothic villainy, complete with cape and castle bring more of a sense of symmetry and coming full circle with the original trilogy than any other element I could imagine. Although belated, Lee would now join his former screen partner Peter Cushing once again as a participating co-star, at least in spirit.
So yes, this one really hurts.