Confessions of a TV Addict #11: The Small Screen Adventures of Larry Cohen!


I was a Larry Cohen fan before I even knew there was a Larry Cohen! Before IT’S ALIVE! , before  BLACK CAESAR , I was watching the following Cohen Creations on my parents big, bulky TV console:

BRANDED (ABC 1965) – Cohen’s first series as creator debuted as a midseason replacement for Bill Dana’s failed sitcom. THE RIFLEMAN’s Chuck Connors  returned to TV as Jason McCord, a disgraced Cavalry officer court martialed and drummed out of the service after being falsely accused of cowardice. McCord then wanders the West getting involved in a new adventure every week while trying to clear his name. Viewers welcomed Connors back to the small screen, and the half-hour black and white Western was renewed for a full season – this time “in living color”! The show featured a memorable opening theme song by Dominic Frontiere and Alan Arch…

… unfortunately, Jason McCord never did get to clear his name, as the show was sent scampering away by ratings juggernauts THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and THE FBI. BRANDED can be viewed Saturday afternoons on the INSP Network’s Western lineup, and still holds up well today!

BLUE LIGHT (ABC 1966) – Spies were the “in” thing, and this half-hour World War II drama cast deep-voiced singer Robert Goulet as David March, a traitorous American journalist now working for the Nazi propaganda machine – only he’s really a double agent working for the Allies undercover in a project called  “Code: Blue Light”! All his fellow spies have been discovered and assassinated, and now March is pretty much on his own, trying to maintain his cover and do what he must without getting killed himself. French actress Christine Carere costarred as French underground agent Suzanne Duchard, under deep cover as a member of the Gestapo. and one of only a handful of people who know David’s true identity. Larry co-created the series with film director Walter Grauman (LADY IN A CAGE), and BLUE LIGHT was noted for being one of TV’s most violent at the time (are you surprised, with Cohen and Grauman at the helm?). The show was a midseason replacement for Sally Field’s GIDGET, who moved into THE DONNA REED SHOW’s old time slot,  and from what I can remember was pretty darn good, but didn’t catch on and lasted just 17 episodes.

THE LEGEND OF CUSTER (ABC 1967) – Or “Counter-Culture Custer”, in this series “suggested by Larry Cohen”. Young Wayne Maunder, with his long golden locks, starred as young Lt. Col. Custer, in charge of a bunch of misfits and reprobates known as the 7th Cavalry. Custer’s methods were always at odds with his commanding officer General Terry (Robert F. Simon), representing the establishment. Western vet Slim Pickens was cast as scout California Joe to give the series some sagebrush cred, but after 17 episodes CUSTER was defeated, not by the Sioux at Little Big Horn, but by another establishment figure – James Drury’s ratings monster THE VIRGINIAN. As for Maunder, he survived to costar on the Western LANCER for two seasons, the short-lived Jack Webb/Stephen J. Cannell crime drama CHASE, and the Russ Meyer film THE SEVEN MINUTES. Maunder recently passed away on November 11 at age 82.

CORONET BLUE (CBS 1967) – Cohen switched from ABC to CBS for this summer replacement series, which only lasted 13 episodes. The pilot found Frank Converse as a man attacked, drugged, tossed in the river, and left for dead… but lives, and the only thing he remembers is the phrase “Coronet Blue”! The now-amnesiac man assumes the name ‘Michael Alden’ and wanders about seeking to uncover clues to his true identity while trying not to get killed by assassins. This was a good premise, one I really enjoyed, and apparently CBS did too, wanting to renew CORONET BLUE for another season. However, they waited too long, and star Converse had already accepted a part in ABC’s new crime drama NYPD, alongside Jack Warden and Robert Hooks (which as I recall was also pretty damn good!). Oh well, I guess we’ll never find out who ‘Alden’ really was, or who was out to kill him.

THE INVADERS (ABC 1967-69) – This was Larry Cohen at his best, a paranoia-filled science-fiction extravaganza, and one of my favorite shows of the era. Aliens have infiltrated Earth bent on conquering the human race, and architect David Vincent (actor Roy Thinnes) runs around America trying to expose them (they can only be identified by their crooked pinky fingers and a tendency to turn red and disintegrate when killed!), while warning everyone he comes across of impending doom! Yep, it’s another 60’s Cold War allegory, substituting spacemen for Commies, and it clicked with viewers young and old (my Dad loved it!) for different reasons. The kids dug the sci-fi stuff, and THE INVADERS proved a marketing cash cow, with comic books, paperback novels, and even an Aurora plastic model spaceship (just don’t sniff the glue, kiddies!). The series debuted as a midseason replacement for another show Cohen was associated with – THE FUGITIVE, which concluded it’s run when David Janssen finally caught up with that One-Armed Man (Larry had written a couple of early episodes).

Larry Cohen soon moved to feature films, and his singular, somewhat loopy  vision has kept fans like me happy for decades. But don’t discount his TV efforts, many of which are available on YouTube and DVD collections. Catch them when you can, they’re a blast!

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Heavy Hitter: THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (Warner Brothers 1974)


The last time we saw BILLY JACK , he was being hauled off to jail – and raking in about 60 million bucks at the box office! The eponymous hero of the surprise 1973 indie hit struck a chord with young audiences disillusioned with the Establishment’s endless wars and crushing their hobnail boots on the throats of dissidents (like I always say, the more things change…), and cheered as Billy Jack struck karate blows and Hapkido kicks in the cause of freedom. A sequel was inevitable, with Tom Laughlin returning as star/director/co-writer (along with wife Delores Taylor, who plays Jean) in a film loaded with political and spiritual philosophies designed to open those young moviegoers’ hearts and minds (not to mention wallets!).

But while BILLY JACK (and its predecessor, BORN LOSERS ) are fun flicks, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK suffers from that dreaded disease many filmmakers are prone to – pretentiousness. I didn’t totally dislike the movie, it has its moments, but at a running time of almost three hours, it just goes on too damn long. There are important points to be made, no question (comparing the slaughter of innocent civilians in Vietnam to the slaughter of protesting college students on campuses such as Kent State), but those points surely could’ve been made in two hours. Laughlin and Taylor’s screenplay just seems to meander on and on, and though the two are sincere in their effort to Make A Statement, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK would have benefitted from tighter editing (even though FIVE editors are credited on IMDB!).

Visually, the film’s quite impressive, with much of it shot in John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley by DP Jack Marta. The scenes dealing with Billy’s “vision quest” are gorgeous, and the Cave of the Dead scene is a Cormanesque fever dream. This is where THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK comes to life; when we get into the Freedom School’s dealing with interference from state and Federal authorities, the plight of Native Americans, etc etc, things tend to bog down. Director Laughlin should have told his editors to get their scissors out to make his point more concise, especially some of the lame student songs, but since it’s his daughter Teresa singing most of them, well… nepotism wins out!

There’s some action, but it’s not enough to satisfy the action lover in me. Laughlin’s Billy Jack still kicks some righteous ass, especially when teamed with his Hapkido mentor Master Bong Soo Han , but again it’s too few and far between, as the Freedom School vs Establishment storyline takes up way too much time. The film does too much pondering and hammering the viewer over the head with it’s message to succeed, and suffers for it. That message is important to be sure, and still resonates today, but THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK finds Laughlin taking himself much too seriously as a filmmaker with Something To Say. The movie found an audience though, hungry for a champion of the oppressed, and Billy Jack was a box office sensation once again. The third and final chapter, which we’ll take a look at in a few days, finds Billy Jack up against his toughest foe… Washington D.C.!!

Face the Darkness: Bogie & Bacall in DARK PASSAGE (Warner Brothers 1947)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” concludes with the genre’s biggest icon, Humphrey Bogart (and he’s bringing Lauren Bacall along for the ride!):

The year 1947 belonged to film noir, as some of the dark genre’s true classics saw the light of day: Robert Mitchum donned that iconic trenchcoat in OUT OF THE PAST , Richard Widmark snarled his way through KISS OF DEATH, Burt Lancaster battled sadistic Hume Cronyn with BRUTE FORCE , Tyrone Power got trapped in NIGHTMARE ALLEY , Rita Hayworth bedeviled Orson Welles as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , Ronald Colman won an Oscar as a cracked actor leading A DOUBLE LIFE, and Lawrence Tierney terrorized the hell out of everyone in his path in BORN TO KILL . Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, noir’s power couple thanks to the previous year’s THE BIG SLEEP , teamed again for DARK PASSAGE, an slam-bang crime drama that may not be quite on a par with those mentioned above, but more than holds its own in the film noir canon.

The movie starts in a unique way, as the subjective camerawork by DP Sid Hickox allows us to see things through the eyes of Bogart’s Vincent Parry, a convicted wife killer who’s escaped from San Quentin. I found this to be most annoying in Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (released earlier in ’47), but unlike that film, not every frame is shot from Parry’s perspective, proving one again that less is more. Parry hitches a ride with a stranger who recognizes him, and he’s forced to knock the dude out. Pulling him into the roadside brush and changing clothes with him, Parry is stunned when a woman he’s never met, Irene Janson, pulls over and offers to help him.

Turns out Irene knows Parry’s former flame Madge, who was instrumental in getting Parry convicted. Irene’s own father was falsely accused of murdering his second wife and died in prison, and Irene believes Parry’s innocent as well. Now calling himself Alan Linnell, Parry meets a chatty cabby named Sam, who  hooks him up with Dr. Coly, a disgraced plastic surgeon who gives him a new face. When Parry goes to his pal George’s apartment to heal, he finds his friend’s also been murdered, and now he has to turn to Irene for help in clearing himself in two murders…

We don’t get to see Bogie’s mug until almost halfway through the film, which went up Jack Warner’s craw sideways, but once we do things really begin to heat up. Writer/director Delmer Daves crafted a corker of a tale based on a novel by hardboiled pulp author David Goodis, though there are some gaps in logic and too much reliance on coincidence to make this one thoroughly believable. But that doesn’t really matter, as we get a fast-paced thriller with Bogie and Bacall torching the screen once again. Daves started as a screenwriter (including Bogie’s early hit THE PETRIFIED FOREST) before making his directorial debut with DESTINATION TOKYO. He has many good-to-great films on his resume, like THE RED HOUSE, BROKEN ARROW, JUBAL, 3:10 TO YUMA , KINGS GO FORTH, THE HANGING TREE, and the blockbuster A SUMMER PLACE, and if you haven’t discovered his work yet, you should!

Agnes Moorehead  is a real bitch as Madge, the jilted lover who got Parry nailed for murder, though cinema crime solvers will have ‘whodunnit’ figured out pretty quick. Bruce Bennett appears as Irene’s wannabe beau Bob, Tom D’Andrea is good as Sam the cabby, Douglas Kennedy plays a detective on Parry’s trail, and ex-Our Gang member Clifton Young is the jerk Baker, a self-described “small time crook” who first gives Parry a lift, then returns with blackmail on his mind. And that picture of a pre-surgery Parry in the newspaper pre-plastic surgery is actor Frank Wilcox.

Franz Waxman  contributes another memorable score, and the song “Too Marvelous for Words” (written by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting) serves as a love theme, vocalized by big band singer Jo Stafford. DARK PASSAGE may not be 1947’s top film noir, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest all the way til the end. Plus, it’s got Bogie and Bacall – what more could you ask for?

Rockin’ in the Film World #18: The Who’s TOMMY (Columbia 1975)


Before MTV ever hit the airwaves, there was TOMMY, Ken Russell’s stylized cinematic vision of The Who’s 1969 ‘rock opera’. It was a match made in heaven, teaming Britain’s Wild Man of Cinema with the anarchic rock and roll of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon (not to mention England’s own enfant terrible, Oliver Reed ). Russell both captures the spirit of Townsend’s hard rock opus and expands on it visually with an all-out assault-on-the-senses musical featuring an all-star cast that includes an Oscar-nominated performance by Ann-Margret as the mother of “that deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball”!

The Who’s original album cover

Townshend, the group’s primary songwriter, had been experimenting with long-form rock’n’roll since the beginning, notably the nine minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” on their second album A QUICK ONE (retitled in America HAPPY JACK). TOMMY was born after The Who’s concept album THE WHO SELL OUT (everybody did concept albums back then), and was a critical and commercial success. Six years later, Russell adapted the rock opera for the screen; he was considered a true maverick in the filmmaking world, on which he’d unleashed such films as WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS, and especially THE DEVILS, a film so controversial that it still shocks audiences to this day, and has never been shown in it’s raw, uncut version.

Russell threw everything into this psychedelic wonderland (with more cinematic references than I could count!), including that all-star cast I mentioned from the worlds of both Hollywood and rock. The Who’s charismatic lead singer Roger Daltrey plays Tommy, and his performance led to the lead in Russell’s later LISZTOMANIA and other film roles. Guitarist supreme Eric Clapton is The Preacher singing Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues standard “Eyesight to the Blind” at the Church of Marilyn Monroe, while Britain’s premier soul screamer Arthur Brown as The Priest belts out “Religion”. Tina Turner, dolled up like some kinda perverted Countess Dracula, does “The Acid Queen” amidst a sleazy porno shop setting. Maniac Keith Moon , The Who’s deranged drummer, is the perverted “Uncle Ernie” – and Moon’s propulsive drumming throughout most of the film (his successor Kenney Jones subs on a few tracks) is nothing short of astounding. No question: Best Rock Drummer Ever! Elton John knocks “Pinball Wizard” out of the park in a particularly bizarre sequence. Jack Nicholson’s singing as The Doctor is the only real disappointment – stick to acting, Jack!

Oliver Reed, who starred in Russell’s THE DEVILS and was a drinking bud of madman Moon, plays Tommy’s stepdad. He mugs it up shamelessly, fitting right in with the film’s lunacy, but as a singer… well, he’s a great actor (Ollie also sang in the 1968 Oscar-winning musical OLIVER!). Ann-Margret deservedly copped an Oscar nomination (losing to Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) as Tommy’s mother, even though she was just three years older than Daltrey as Tommy. She’s the star of this show, giving a spectacular performance, and her scene during “Smash the Mirror”, where she’s deluged with detergent, baked beans, and melted chocolate oozing through the TV screen, is an hallucinatory delight! And God, was she hot!

Russell “fiddled about” with some of the song sequences, adding some and  deleting others in order to make Townshend’s opus more of a cinematic experience, and succeeded. The composer, who based his rock opera on the teachings of his spiritual guru Meher Baba, had no objections, and still praises Russell’s vision of his work. TOMMY is meant to be seen on the Big Screen, but even on the telly, it’s a rock’n’roll masterpiece you don’t want to miss!

 

 

One Hit Wonders #23: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass (Epic Records 1972)

You couldn’t go into any bar, pub, or tavern in my fishing port hometown of New Bedford, MA for literally decades without someone playing Looking Glass’s #1 hit from 1972, “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” on the jukebox – usually more than once a night!:

(And yes, that’s future country legend Kenny Rogers doing the introduction!)

The song/story of a barmaid in love with a sailor she can never truly have, because as he says “my life, my lover, my lady, is the sea” resonated with us locals, as I’m sure it did in every “harbor town” where barmaids work “layin’ whiskey down” to hard working seafaring men (not to mention that fact that it made a helluva great slow-dancing tune as closing time neared – ah, those were the days, my friends!).

The band Looking Glass was from New Brunswick, New Jersey, and consisted of Elliot Lurie (lead singer, guitar), Larry Gronsky (keyboards), Pieter Sweval (bass), and Jeff Grob (drums). While “Brandy” was a smashing success, their self-titled debut album only made it to #113 on the Billboard LP charts. A follow-up LP, SUBAWAY SERANADE, did worse, though it did yield a minor hit in “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne”, which crawled up to #33. After Lurie left the group disbanded, with Sweval and Grob forming the late 70’s glam-metal band Starz, who had some small success in 1977 with “Cherry Baby”:

Elliot Lurie, who wrote “Brandy”, had a brief solo career before moving to Hollywood and becoming a music supervisor for both films (THE SURE THING, ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, ALIEN 3, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, SPANGLISH) and television (CLUELESS, NASH BRIDGES, LIZZIE MCGUIRE, THE 4400). But for most of us, he’ll be forever immortalized as the man who gave voice to a girl who “wears a braided chain, made of finest silver from the North of Spain”, and who, “at night, when the bars close down,..walks through a silent town, and loves a man who’s not around”….

A Thanksgiving Without Turkey? Say It Ain’t So!

Yet that’s what the Johnson family faces in this corny time capsule “A DAY OF THANKSGIVING”, made in 1951 by the Centron Corporation of Lawrence, Kansas, purveyors of educational and industrial films from the late 40’s up until the 1990’s:

You know something? Maybe those Johnsons aren’t so corny after all!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

FROM

CRACKED REAR VIEWER!

Dark Genesis: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (RKO 1940)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” continues with what many consider to be the first film noir…

Fans of the film noir genre often cite movies like THE MALTESE FALCON or REBECCA among the first entries in this stylistic category, but a case can certainly be made for STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, a bizarre B-film made by director Boris Ingster. It features all the elements associated with the dark genre: a big city setting, interior monologues, an extended nightmare sequence, flashbacks, Expressionistic set design… hell, it’s even got noir’s favorite patsy Elisha Cook Jr ! The only thing missing is that downbeat cynicism you find in post-war films, but since America hadn’t yet entered World War II, we can forgive the happy ending and concentrate on what makes this movie the seminal film noir.

First, there’s the plot: star reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder case against young Joe Briggs, an ex-con who swears up and down he’s innocent. Though the evidence is circumstantial, Briggs is found guilty and sentenced to die in the chair. Ward’s fiance Jane has doubts and is upset about the whole thing. When Ward’s neighbor Meng, a crusty old cuss who Ward’s had trouble with in the past, is found murdered in his bed, Ward becomes the prime suspect. Jane tries to find the mysterious man Ward saw lurking around the rooming house, a man with “big, bulging eyes, thick lips”, and a flowing white scarf, leading her to danger…

The innovative camerawork is by one of film noir’s masters, DP Nicholas Musuraca, heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Musuraca’s chiaroscuro lighting, drenched in inky shadows, and oddly tilted camera angles help evelvate this low-budget programmer to high art. His work on producer Val Lewton’s 40’s horror films like CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM , GHOST SHIP , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, and BEDLAM set new standards in that genre, and he collaborated with some of film noir’s best directors: Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST ), John Farrow (WHERE DANGER LIVES ), Fritz Lang (CLASH BY NIGHT), Ida Lupino (THE HITCH-HIKER ). RKO’s music maestro Roy Webb provided the score, as he did for MURDER MY SWEET , NOTORIOUS , THE LOCKET, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and those aforementioned Val Lewton chillers.

Leads John McGuire (Ward) and  Margaret Tallichet (Jane) never rose above the B ranks, but both are more than competent in their parts (Miss Tallichet retired from the screen after marrying director William Wyler). “The Man with the Flowing White Scarf” is none other than Peter Lorre , who is just a shadow throughout most of the film until the very end, where we learn he’s an escaped lunatic. Though his part is small, Lorre’s creepy as hell! Elisha Cook (Briggs) had already been around a few years in small parts; it’s kind of nice to see him as an innocent victim for a change, instead of his usual weaselly punk parts. Sour old Charles Halton plays sour old Mr. Meng, and you’ll spot Familiar Faces Cliff Clark, Donald Kerr, Paul McVey, Oscar O’Shea, and Herb Vigran in small roles.

Boris Ingster is somewhat of an enigma to me. Born in 1903, he apparently had worked with Sergei Eisnestein in his native Russia before immigrating to America. Married to German actress Leni Stengel in 1930 (they divorced in 1944), Ingster has but three directing credits – this one,  the 1948 comedy THE JUDGE STEPS OUT, and the 1950 low-budget noir SOUTHSIDE 1-1000. He later became a television producer on such series as WAGON TRAIN, CHEYENNE, and most notably THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  Judging his work solely on STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, I can’t understand why he didn’t have a bigger career as a director. The film moves swiftly, and is full of little touches that would make some big-budget directors green with envy. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to be grateful for this dark gem of a film, the first of the stylistic films noir, and still (despite that happy ending) one of the best.