Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)

Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He also hires a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey ) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to create diversions in order to insure the heist’s success.

And indeed the robbery does go off without a hitch… but there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment. Seems timid Cook has a bitchy wife (Marie Windsor ) who constantly berates him for being such a loser, so he spills the beans to her about his upcoming good fortune. She in turn gives the info to her young stud lover (Vince Edwards ), who gets ideas of his own. I won’t say anymore for those of you who haven’t seen this marvelously malevolent movie, among the finest films noir you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable final line delivered to perfection by Hayden.

Kubrick’s photographic eye captures every detail, from the mundane day-to-day lives of these people to the audacity of the crime itself. He sometimes repeats scenes to show them from different character perspectives, giving them added depth. Kubrick began as a photographer for LOOK Magazine, and then got into films directing several documentary shorts. He wanted to be his own cinematographer for this film, but the union wouldn’t have it, and the veteran Lucian Ballard was hired, but make no mistake, every shot in THE KILLING is pure, unadulterated Kubrick!

The cast is perfect, but Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor absolutely steal the show as the weak, mousey husband and his unfaithful wife. Cook, unquestionably the Crown Prince of Film Noir, adds to his Rogue’s Gallery of weaselly types as a schlemiel who only wants to please his rotten wife. And Windsor is rotten indeed, the ultimate Queen of Mean, a beautiful package on the outside that masks an ugly black soul. Their scenes together are sheer dynamite, and Kubrick allows both actors to shine.

The oddball Timothy Carey gives yet another oddball performance here, but it’s brief and it works. Kubrick’s chess playing friend from New York Kola Kwarianai, a real-life professional wrestler and promoter, plays the goon hired to create a distraction. Under Kubrick’s watchful eye, Kwarianai does well with his dialog, and excels in the wrestling-inspired scene at the track. There’s so much going on in THE KILLING at all times (something that definitely caught my eye: a poster for a Burlesque show MC’d by Lenny Bruce) it takes more than one viewing to take it all in. And I’m OK with that; THE KILLING is worth watching over and over again.

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New Recipe: HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI (AIP 1965)

HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, the sixth entry in American-International’s “Beach Party” series, attempts to breathe new life into the tried-and-true  formula of sun, sand, surf, songs, and corny jokes. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are still around as Frankie and Dee Dee, but in this go-round they’re separated; he’s in the Navy stationed on the tropical island of Goona-Goona, while Annette has to contend with the romantic enticements of Dwayne Hickman .

Frankie’s part amounts to a cameo, enlisting local witch doctor Buster Keaton (!!) to keep those girl-hungry beach bums away from Dee Dee (while he frolics unfettered with lovely Irene Tsu !). Keaton’s magic ain’t what it used to be, so he has his daughter conjure up a knockout named Cassandra, who first appears on the beach as an animated bikini. All the boys go ga-ga for Cassandra, including a go-go ad man named Peachy Keane, who wants to promote her and Hickman as the ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ in a series of ads for a motorcycle. And where there’s “sicles”, there’s Erich Von Zipper, who “adores” the stunning Cassandra and wants to enter the cross-country motorcycle race with her against Hickman and Dee Dee to win the coveted ‘Boy and Girl Next Door’ titles… even going as far as changing his image from black leather clad hood to button-down Madison Avenue man!

The movie’s a mash-up of beach party silliness and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, playing more like a traditional musical instead of a rock’n’roll dance party. In fact, the only rock ‘guest act’ in this one are The Kingsmen (of “Louie, Louie” fame), who get one song during a nightclub scene. Substantial time is given to the Madison Avenue Madmen, led by Mickey Rooney as Peachy, who mugs his way through the part in his own inimitable style, and even gets to sing a couple of numbers. Rooney’s boss is veteran Brian Donlevy as B.D. “Big Deal” McPherson, getting a chance to play a comic role for a change, and he’s fun to watch. Harvey Lembeck does his own mugging once again as Von Zipper, while comedian Len Lesser replaces Timothy Carey as ‘North Dakota Slim’s’ even meaner brother, ‘South Dakota Pete’.

Annette’s more covered up than usual, due to the fact she was pregnant during the film’s shoot. The producers got pretty creative hiding her bulge, even using a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken at one point – how’s that for product placement! Beverly Adams , the future Mrs. Vidal Sassoon, makes a sexy (if extremely klutzy) Cassandra. Regulars Bobbi Shaw (as Keaton’s assistant Khola Koku), Alberta Nelson, Andy Romano, Michael Nader, and Marianne Gaba are on hand, and reportedly Beach Boy Brian Wilson is in the movie as… well, a beach boy! And there’s a cameo appearance at the end by everyone’s favorite TV witch as Keaton’s daughter:

Yep, Elizabeth Montgomery, star of BEWITCHED and then-wife of director William Asher! The slapstick cross-country race shows signs of Keaton’s handiwork; alas, this was his last in the franchise. The formula had worn pretty thin by this point, and the next ‘Beach’ movie, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, didn’t even feature Frankie and Annette, and is a disappointing end to the series. HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI is a game try to resuscitate the franchise, but failed to keep the ‘Beach Party’ money machine running.  Frankie and Annette went on to star in a racing drama, 1966’s FIREBALL 500, but fans would have to wait thirty years to see them get back to the beach… in 1987’s aptly titled BACK TO THE BEACH!

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE (United Artists 1968)

In the wake of 1967’s THE DRITY DOZEN came a plethora of all-star, similarly themed films. THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE is one of those, though just a bit different: it’s based on the true-life exploits of the First Special Service Force, a collection of American misfits straight from the stockades and the crack, highly disciplined Canadian military, forging them into one cohesive fighting unit.

William Holden  heads the cast as Lt. Col. Robert Frederick, tasked with putting the units together. His seconds-in-command are the cigar chomping American Major Brecker (Vince Edwards) and proud Canadian Major Crown (Cliff Robertson). The Americans, as rowdy a bunch of reprobates as there ever was, include Claude Akins , Luke Askew, Richard Jaeckel, and Tom Troupe, while the Canadians are represented by the likes of Richard Dawson, Jeremy Slate, and Jack Watson , war movie vets all.  Andrew Prine is also aboard as an AWOL soldier looking for a chance to see combat.

There’s plenty of conflict at first between the uncouth Americans and their regimented Canadian counterparts, but they’re soon resolved in the obligatory barroom brawl scene with some townsfolk that include NFL star Paul Hornung (Green Bay Packers) as a local lumberjack and ex-middleweight champ Gene Fullmer as a bartender. The men are now acting as one, but the powers-that-be decided to disband the unit, prompting Frederick to head to Washington and argue his case before Guest Stars Michael Rennie (as Gen. Mark Clark) and Dana Andrews (Brig. Gen. Naylor). They’re given a chance to prove themselves in Italy, and capture  an entire town away from the Germans on their own, despite the protests of Commanding Officer Carroll O’Connor .

The Devil’s Brigade, as the Nazis have dubbed them, are rewarded with a dangerous mission to scale a rugged, rocky hill and take out a German artillery stronghold. Many of the all-stars die heroically before the mission is accomplished, and the Allied forces are now able to march into North Italy. Action veteran  Andrew V. McLaglen directs competently, and stunt coordinator Hal Needham keeps things moving, yet it feels like we’ve seen this movie before, different characters maybe, but same results, and at 130 minutes is way overlong. It’s not a bad film, it just suffers from same old formula syndrome.

The real men of the First Special Service Force (1942-44)

The real First Special Service Force were an elite commando unit who first saw action in the Aleutian Islands, then were sent by Gen. Clark to Naples, where they served with dignity and honor. Following their bloody success (91 dead, 313 wounded), they were sent to Anzio where they stormed the beach and fought behind enemy lines, and later to the South of France during Operation Dragoon, with major victories (12,000 German casualties, 7,000 Nazi prisoners). The Force was disbanded in December 1944 with full honors, their mission accomplished and their efforts helping to speed the war’s end. Let’s not forget this Memorial Day not all those who fought and died for freedom were American, and remember our brave Canadian allies of the First Special Service Force.

One Hit Wonders #14: “The Ballad of The Green Berets” by SSgt. Barry Sadler (RCA Victor Records 1966)

The year was 1966. The month was May. The Vietnam War was dividing the country as the U.S. made their way into Cambodia, civil rights marchers were  protesting across the nation, and China set off their third nuclear bomb. Rock and roll ruled the pop charts, as The Rolling Stones were having their 19th nervous breakdown, Nancy Sinatra’s boots were made for walkin’, Bobby Fuller fought the law (and the law won), but it was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an Army medic who served in Vietnam, who began a five-week run at #1 on the Billboard charts with “The Ballad of The Green Berets”:

The music charts weren’t as polarized then as they are now. Besides all the latest rock hits, you could find traditional pop (“My Love”, Petula Clark), R&B (“Uptight”, Stevie Wonder), country (“Cryin’ Time”, Ray Charles), instrumentals (“Theme from Zorba the Greek”, Tijuana Brass), even blues (“Scratch My Back”, Slim Harpo). Sadler’s solemn tribute to the troops, co-written by Robin Moore (whose novel “The Green Berets” formed the basis for John Wayne’s 1968 movie), struck a chord with many Americans, even those who opposed the war, honoring those elite soldiers who put country before personal feelings and served with pride.

As for SSgt. Sadler, his music career faded after his mega-hit, and he found a second career writing paperback novels about Casca The Eternal Mercenary, a Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus on the cross with his spear, and was cursed to wander the world in eternal combat until The Second Coming. Tragedy struck Sadler when, in 1978, he shot and killed one Lee Emerson Bellamy, ex-boyfriend of Sadler’s then-lover. In 1988, Sadler himself was shot in the head in Guatemala City, becoming a quadriplegic suffering from brain damage. He died in a Tennessee VA Hospital in 1989. Sadler was 49.

As we celebrate Memorial Day today, take the time to reflect on those who fought and died in the cause of freedom. Though it seems our country is even more divided today than it was in 1966, remember we’re ALL Americans, and would not have even half the privileges we have today if it weren’t for those who gave all, men like those of The Green Beret.

A Public Service Announcement

That mysterious respiratory ailment I had a couple weeks ago is back with a vengeance, with my fever spiking at times to 102. In order to beat this thing once and for all, I’ll be taking a (hopefully very brief) hiatus from the blog and it’s Facebook page. While I’m gone, feel free to scroll around the site – with 762 posts to choose from, I’m sure there’s something that’ll grab your interest!  –  Gary Loggins

Remembering Cheyenne: RIP Clint Walker

At six-foot-six, Clint Walker certainly rode tall in the saddle. The actor, who died yesterday at age 90, was television’s first cowboy hero developed for the medium, and his popularity opened the floodgates for a slew of TV Westerns to follow. Walker also fared well on the big screen, and while not in the same stratosphere of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, his movie career deserves a second look.

As Cheyenne Bodie (1955-63)

Born in Illinois in 1927, the seventeen year old Norman Walker joined the Merchant Marines for a spell, then worked a series of blue-collar jobs before being discovered by talent agent Henry Willson, who got him a small part in the 1954 Bowery Boys comedy JUNGLE GENTS, playing an ersatz Tarzan. Bit parts followed, until his burly presence and rugged good looks landed him the lead in a new TV series called CHEYENNE. Cheyenne Bodie was television’s first original Western character, raised by the Cheyenne tribe until the age of 18, when he struck out on his own, wandering the  West in search of adventure. The series was part of WARNER BROTHERS PRESENTS, a rotating show featuring three different series (including a TV version of CASABLANCA – blasphemy!!). The sagebrush saga proved the most popular of the trio, and CHEYENNE was a huge hit. But by 1958, Walker had grown tired of the role, and went on strike for better pay. Ty Hardin stepped in as Bronco Layne, a character similar to Cheyenne, and when Walker returned BRONCO was added to the rotation, along with Will Hutchins in SUGARFOOT.

Clint with Edd Byrnes in “Yellowstone Kelly” (1959)

After his strike, Walker was allowed to star in some Western films for Warners, all directed by veteran Gordon Douglas , with two written by Burt Kennedy . The first, 1958’s FORT DOBBS, is a minor effort, but the next is a personal favorite. Originally written by Kennedy as a John Wayne outing to be directed by John Ford, 1959’s YELLOWSTONE KELLY casts Walker as a fur trapper who helps avert a war between the Sioux and the Cavalry. Along for the ride are Familiar TV Faces Edd Byrnes (77 SUNSET STRIP) and John Russell (LAWMAN), Ray Danton, Claude Akins, and making his film debut, Warren Oates. While no classic in the Wayne/Ford mold, it will satisfy any Western buffs. The third Walker/Douglas film, 1961’s GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS, finds Clint teamed with Roger Moore in a tale of gold and greed.

On the golf course with Tony Randall, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day in “Send Me No Flowers” (1964)

Walker showed off his comedy talents in 1964’s SEND ME NO FLOWERS, with hypochondriac Rock Hudson, thinking he’s on the verge of death, trying to pawn off wife Doris Day to millionaire Texas oilman Walker. Clint is big and boisterous in the part, and plays off the two stars well. His next, 1965’s NONE BUT THE BRAVE, is a flawed but interesting war film directed by star Frank Sinatra. MAYA (1966) served as the pilot of a TV series about an elephant and his two young friends (Jay North, Sajid Khan). The same year’s NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY returned Walker to the saddle, as a Marshall threatened by land grabbers, a vengeful outlaw, and a killer grizzly on the loose.

Don’t piss off Posey! With Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967)

1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN is probably Walker’s best screen role, as the gentle giant Posey. Posey doesn’t want to hurt anyone anymore, but he’s goaded into fighting by tough Major Lee Marvin. It’s a different take on Walker’s screen image, and he surely fits in with the rough-and-tumble ensemble cast. Next up were a trio of Westerns released in 1969: the bizarre MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE co-starring Vincent Price, the Burt Reynolds vehicle SAM WHISKEY, and the comedy Western THE GREAT BANK ROBBERY, featuring Zero Mostel, Kim Novak, and Larry Storch, that isn’t half as bad as some critics will tell you.

Clint vs aliens in the cult classic “Kildozer” (1974)

After a cameo in the execrable THE PHYNX , Walker was involved in a skiing accident in which a ski pole went right through his heart! Rushed to the hospital, he was officially pronounced dead, but a quick-thinking doctor did more tests and performed emergency heart surgery, saving the big man’s life. A grateful Walker went back to work in television, starring in the brief 1974 series KODIAK, and a pair of TV Movies: SCREAM OF THE WOLF cast him and Peter Graves as big game hunters tracking a werewolf, with surprising results, and KILDOZER is a cult classic with Clint a construction foreman menaced by an alien possessed bulldozer! Walker slowed down some, making appearances in the 1977 Charles Bronson epic THE WHITE BUFFALO, the TV Miniseries CENTENNIAL, and reviving his Cheyenne Bodie character for the TV Movie THE GAMBLER RETURNS: LUCK OF THE DRAW (along with RIFLEMAN Chuck Connors, BAT MASTERSON Gene Barry, THE WESTERNER Brian Keith, MAVERICK Jack Kelly, and WYATT EARP Hugh O’Brien) and an episode of KING FU: THE LEGEND CONTINUES. His last screen role was as the voice of Nick Nitro in 1998’s SMALL SOLDIERS before retiring to his ranch. Clint Walker may not have been a great actor, but his imposing presence made him ideal for the Western genre, and he proved when given the right material he could shine with the best of them. Rest in peace, Cheyenne.

A Quickie with The King: Boris Karloff in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (AIP 1965)

All you Cracked Rear Viewers know by now my affection for the King of Monsters, Boris Karloff . His Universal classics of the 30’s and RKO chillers of the 40’s hold an esteemed place in my personal Horror Valhalla. Karloff did his share of clunkers, too, especially later in his career. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is one such film, it’s good intentions sunk by bad execution.

It’s the second screen adaptation of a story from the fertile mind of author  H.P. Lovecraft; the first, 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE, was a mash-up of Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe as part of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price series. Corman’s longtime Art Director Daniel Haller made his directorial debut, and the film certainly looks good. Veteran sci-fi writer Jerry Sohl contributed the screenplay, which was then tinkered with by Haller. Therein lies the problem; Haller’s changes drag down what could have been an exciting little horror tale to junior high level.

 Boris plays Nahum Whitley, a wheelchair bound curmudgeon living in a creepy old mansion in the English town of Arkham. Nick Adams is Stephen Reinhart, summoned by Nahum’s bedridden wife Letitia (Freda Jackson) to take daughter Susan (Suzan Farmer ) away from the strange happenings occurring at the house. Nahum keeps demanding the young man leave., as he’s been experimenting with a weird, radioactive meteor and tampering with forces beyond his control.

This all leads to Steve and Susan sneaking into Nahum’s mysteriously glowing greenhouse, where they discover giant vegetation growing – Susan is even attacked by a strangling plant! The ill Letitia becomes a monster, and attacks the two, then Nahum takes an axe to the meteor, unleashing horrors from the Other Side, and turns into a mutated demon out to kill. He is then killed himself and the movie ends with the obligatory Cormanesque conflagration as the house burns down.

Karloff at age 77 still commands power as Nahum, even though he’s confined to his wheelchair through much of the film. The King was still The King, an actor of great presence dominating every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do except skulk about and looks mysterious. His mutant monster is actually a stunt double, as arthritis and emphysema had taken their toll on his body, but even without much mobility, Karloff’s the best thing in this one.

Nick Adams was Oscar-nominated just two years before for TWILIGHT OF HONOR, but personal problems had caused his star to swiftly fall; from here, he went on to star in kaiju eiga movies in Japan. Farmer has nothing to do but look pretty and say “Oh, Steve” about ten times too often. DIE, MONSTER, DIE! goes for cheap chills (a tarantula, bats attacking Adams, weird noises) instead of Lovecraftian horrors, and winds up as just another “old, dark house” movie with a radioactive twist, falling far short of its source material. Haller made another Lovecraft-inspired film, 1970’s THE DUNWICH HORROR , before turning to TV; it took twenty years and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR to finally do cinematic justice to H.P. Lovecraft on the screen. For Boris Karloff fans, DIE, MONSTER, DIE! stands as a flawed failure, interesting only because of The King.