Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

One Hit Wonders #7: “Why Can’t We Live Together” by Timmy Thomas (Glades Records 1972)

I had a completely different music post scheduled for today, but with all the strife and hatred going on right here in our country, I thought I’d share Timmy Thomas’ #1 global smash “Why Can’t We Live Together”, an impassioned plea for peace and unity that’s (sadly) as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. No further words from me are necessary, just watch the video:

Action in the Alps: WHERE EAGLES DARE (MGM 1969)

Alistair MacLean’s adventure novels, filled with muscular action and suspenseful plot twists, thrilled moviegoers of the 60’s and 70’s in such big budget hits as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ICE STATION ZEBRA. In his first foray into screenwriting, 1969’s WHERE EAGLES DARE,  he adapted his own work to the silver screen, resulting in one of the year’s biggest hits, aided by the box office clout of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood . The film’s a bit long, running over two and a half hours, but action fans won’t mind. There’s enough derring-do, ace stunt work, explosions, and cliffhanging (literally!) to keep you riveted to the screen!

A lot of the credit goes to veteran stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, in charge of all the action scenes as second unit director. Canutt staged some of the most exciting scenes in film history, from John Ford’s STAGECOACH to William Wyler’s BEN HUR, and certainly keeps things busy here. Director Brian G. Hutton was a former actor whose directing debut was 1965’s THE WILD SEED, starring the late Michael Parks . He and top British cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson worked together to beautifully frame every shot, and the spectacular view of the Austrian Alps (substituting for Bavaria) is breathtaking to behold. Hutton would work with Eastwood the following year on KELLY’S HEROES; he also helmed Frank Sinatra’s comeback THE FIRST DEADLY SIN and the 1983 Tom Selleck adventure HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.

A crack team of British commandos, led by Major Jonathan Smith (Burton) and American OSS Lt. Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), is assigned a dangerous mission. American General Carnaby, who holds important information about the upcoming European Second Front, has been captured by the Germans and is being held in the impregnable Schloss Adler (Castle Eagle) high in the Bavarian Alps. The team is tasked with raiding the castle and freeing Carnaby before the Nazis force him to talk. The seven men parachute down into the frozen tundra (one doesn’t make it), but there’s another member known only to Smith… British agent Mary Ellison (Mary Ure). In addition to the nearly impossible odds against them, Smith and Schaffer must contend with a murderer within their ranks!

Burton looks like he’s having fun playing Smith, a comic book hero to rival Nick Fury. Clint is cold as the Bavarian snow playing the assassin Schaffer, mowing down Nazis with the greatest of ease. The two men have a good chemistry, and I got a kick out of when Burton gets off a line calling Eastwood “a second-rate punk”. Mary Ure is right in on the action, machine gunning Nazis side by side with Clint. Why this woman was never a Bond Girl is a mystery to me! The plot, like all of MacLean’s works, takes many twists and turns along the way to get to the real reason for the mission, and you’ll enjoy trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

There’s an odd connection among the supporting cast: all are noted for their roles in horror films! First, there’s everyone’s favorite Hammer vampire (sorry, Mr. Lee!) Ingrid Pitt , of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNTESS DRACULA fame, playing Heidi the barmaid/spy. Pitt’s part is small but pivotal to the story, and she’s a welcome presence in any film. Patrick Wymark’s (Col. Turner) horror resume includes THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, among others. Anton Diffring (Nazi Col. Kramer) was in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, CIRCUS OF HORRORS, MARK OF THE DEVIL PT. II, and THE BEAST MUST DIE. Shakespearean actor Michael Horden (Adm. Rolland) had roles in THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY and THEATRE OF BLOOD. Donald Houston (Capt. Christensen) played Dr. Watson opposite John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes, hunting Jack the Ripper in A STUDY IN TERROR. Houston also appeared in TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS and CLASH OF THE TITANS. Ferdy Mayne (Nazi Gen. Rosenmeyer) is best known as Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Robert Beatty (Gen. Carnaby) was featured in SECRETS OF DR. MABUSE and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And Derren Nesbitt (Gestapo Maj. von Hopper) starred as one of the grave robbers in the little seen BURKE AND HARE.

WHERE EAGLES DARE has plenty of action, exciting stunt work, is marvelously shot, and will whet any action lover’s appetite. It should be viewed on a big screen, where I saw it upon release, but is worth watching on “the telly”, as they say in jolly olde England. If you’re unfamiliar with Alistair MacLean’s adventure stories, you can begin here, or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL, BREAKHEART PASS…  just steer clear of FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE!

 

 

Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)

 

 

(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina Patton. Now they must cross the dangerous Colorado territory to bring the outlaw back to Kansas, encountering danger and treachery at every turn, as Ben tries to drive a wedge of greed between them.

Lanky Jimmy Stewart plays Kemp as a conflicted man, at turns downright mean yet developing feelings for the untamed Lina. She’s played by Janet Leigh , the daughter of Ben’s dead outlaw buddy torn between loyalty to him and her growing fondness for Kemp. Though Lina’s a wild, feisty  young woman, she shows tenderness towards him when he’s wounded during an Indian attack. She cries as Kemp callously shoots her sick horse, not wanting to be slowed down in bringing his prisoner to justice, yet isn’t willing to let Ben kill him. Stewart and Leigh bring great depth to these two contradictory, all too human characters.

Robert Ryan  has a field day as the snickering, scheming Vandergroat,  using Lina to seduce Kemp, tricking gold-fevered Tate into freeing him, and working on everybody’s baser emotions to his advantage. Ryan gets all the good lines (“Money splits better two ways ‘stead of three”), and makes a charming sociopath. Ralph Meeker’s   Lt. Anderson thinks he’s a charmer too, putting the make on Leigh’s character from the get-go, and that Indian attack I mentioned earlier is a direct result of Anderson taking liberties (to put it nicely) with the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Meeker’s character is driven by lust, for both money and women, and the actor does well in the part.

Character actor Millard Mitchell plays the grizzled old Tate, who’s been searching for a gold strike for decades without success. His obsession with striking it rich is his weakness and ultimately his downfall when he finally breaks his word and attempts to aid Vandergroat. Mitchell played opposite Stewart in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and enhanced many a classic film with his talent: KISS OF DEATH, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GUNFIGHTER. He was the marshal in THE GUNFIGHTER and studio boss R. F. Simpson in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and an actor who deserves more recognition for his contributions to cinema.

There are no true heroes in the script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, only five disparate characters thrown together by fate, a theme closer to Mann’s early work in film noir than the wild west. Both writers would go on to create popular TV shows; Rolfe was the man behind THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and Bloom co-created the hit EMERGENCY!. William C. Mellor’s stunning outdoor photography provides the perfect picture of man vs. nature, both the terrain and his own baser instincts. Bronislaw Kaper’s score adds immensely to the film’s overall mood. Anthony Mann is in top form here, guiding his ensemble through their paces with a strong hand. THE NAKED SPUR is grand entertainment, and has gotten even better over time. This is a film that bares repeated viewings to absorb all that’s going on, and not to be missed!

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

Confessions of a TV Addict #4 : How TURN-ON (1969) Got Turned-Off

TURN-ON made its debut February 5, 1969 on the ABC network. It was promptly cancelled a day later. Quicker at the ABC affiliate in Cleveland: after the first eleven minutes! Why? Was it that bad? What was all the hubbub about?

The brisk half-hour was produced by Ed Friendly and George Schlatter, the duo behind NBC’s highly successful ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, a subversive comedy-variety series that spoofed just about anything in its path. It was hoped TURN-ON, even more outrageous than its predecessor,  would be a hit with the same hip audience. But the world wasn’t quite ready for this non-stop assault on the senses, which used quick blackout sketches, animation, stop-motion, early computer graphics, a synthesized score, and worse of all- NO LAUGH TRACK!!

The premise of TURN-ON was that it was made by a computer, a novelty back before the days when everyone had a PC or laptop. Yes, it was the Stone Age! The jokes and gags concerned sex, sex, sex, and more sex. This was really what caused TURN-ON to be turned off by ABC’s affiliates; the smutty humor was too much for American audience’s delicate palettes.

Tim Conway was the first (and only) guest host. TURN-ON’s ensemble featured comic actors Hamilton Camp, Teresa Graves (who went on to join LAUGH-IN and the later 70’s cop show GET CHRISTIE LOVE!), Chuck McCann, and Mel Stewart. After Cleveland pulled the plug, West Coast stations in Denver, Portland, and Seattle, having viewed the East Coast feed in horror, refused to air the show at all. TURN-ON was replaced the very next week by a movie (1966’s THE OSCAR- talk about going from bad to worse!), then a revival of the saccharine, sanitary King Family Singers.

I couldn’t find any clips to show here, so I can just say from memory TURN-ON was strange but funny. Of course, I was only ten at the time, and thought anything smutty and slightly dirty was funny, even though I probably didn’t get half the jokes! Today TURN-ON would be considered relatively mild compared to what we see on the boob tube. It was a groundbreaker that was waaaay ahead of its time.

Adios, Rhinestone Cowboy: RIP Glen Campbell

There aren’t many entertainers who can boast of 9 #1 hits, 12 Gold Records, 4 Platinum, 1 Double Platinum, 10 Grammys, a hit television show, and a co-starring role in a John Wayne movie! In fact, there’s only one. Glen Campbell, who died yesterday at age 81 of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease, was more than just an average country music singer. During the tumultuous late 60’s/early 70’s, when protests and riots were common occurences, Campbell’s country/folk/pop songs were a common denominator, enjoyed by hippie freaks and establishment tools alike. Face it, Glen Campbell was The Man!

Born in humble, sleepy little Billstown, Arkansas, Glen took up playing guitar at an early age. His uncle was a musician, and teenage Glen began his show-biz career picking on his radio show. The young man soon formed his own band and toured the South and Southwest extensively. The bright lights/big city of Los Angeles beckoned, and Campbell headed to LA, joining The Champs, who’d had the hit “Tequila” (his band mates at the time included future folk/rock duo Seals & Crofts).

Glen’s musical talent got noticed, and he became a highly sought-after session musician, playing with a collective called The Wrecking Crew. These were among the top musicians on the West Coast, including during Glen’s tenure Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, and Tommy Tedesco. They backed up hitmakers from Frank Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”) to The Righteous Brothers (“You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”), The Crystals, The Ronettes, Sonny & Cher, The Mamas & The Papas, virtually every pop artist on the LA scene. The Wrecking Crew were the house band in the seminal 60’s concert film THE TAMI SHOW, backing up all those great acts. Glen also did work with The Beach Boys, playing on their hits “I Get Around” and “Help Me Rhonda”, and the album “Pet Sounds”. He filled in on tour for an ailing Brian Wilson, singing the falsetto parts and playing bass.

Around this time Campbell tried launching a solo career, with limited success. His record company was about to drop him when he suddenly found himself on top of the pop charts with the bluegrass-flavored “Gentle On My Mind”, written by his friend John Hartford:

After all those years paying dues, Glen Campbell was an overnight sensation. His smooth-as-honey voice dominated AM radio, and his Eddy Arnold-influenced country pop, combined with his clean-cut good looks and pleasant personality, made him a star at last. Among his biggest hits were his interpretations of songwriter Jimmy Webb’s tunes: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Galveston”, and the haunting “Wichita Lineman”, as perfectly crafted a piece of pop music as there ever will be:

In 1968, Glen hosted a summer replacement variety series for folk duo The Smothers Brothers. It was another hit, and the following January he began a three and a half run on THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR. This CBS series brought families together to watch and enjoy some of the best music had to offer at the time. Hartford was a regular, as was a young country artist named Jerry Reed. Not just country stars (Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash & June Carter, Roy Clark, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Minnie Pearl, Roy Rogers & Dale Evans) appeared, but rock acts like The Monkees, Linda Ronstadt, Three Dog Night, and Stevie Wonder were featured (there was even a film clip from The Beatles doing “Get Back”!). The world of show biz was well represented by Lucille Ball, Tony Bennett, Walter Brennan, George Burns, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Debbie Reynolds, and some guy named The Duke:

Campbell had made his big-screen acting debut in TRUE GRIT, Henry Hathaway’s 1968 Western that netted John Wayne his first (and only) Oscar. Glen played Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who along with one-eyed Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) and vengeful young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) hunt down killer Tom Cheney (Jeff Corey). Campbell wasn’t the greatest of thespians, but his natural charm was made for the Silver Screen. Unfortunately, his next picture was 1970’s NORWOOD, a plodding bomb that reunited him with Darby and another late 60’s/early 70’s icon, football’s Broadway Joe Namath. He was given a starring role as the Elvis-like rooster Chanticleer in 1991’s animated ROCK-A-DOODLE, which didn’t exactly light up the box office, but is a pretty decent kid’s movie (in my opinion, anyway).

Glen’s career, like many, skidded to a halt in the early 70’s. Times and tastes were changing, and his records weren’t automatically climbing the charts anymore. That is, not until 1975’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”:

The tune, an ode to surviving in the show-biz jungle, was yet another surprise smash, and Campbell was back on top. More hits followed: “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in LA)”, the theme to Clint Eastwood’s ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, and most of all the soft-rock classic “Southern Nights”:

After a bout with alcoholism and cocaine abuse, Campbell went on to continue touring and receiving accolades for his manybaccomplishments. In 2001, he bravely announced to the world he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but kept touring as long as he could. He released the plaintive 2014 song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You”, about his struggle:

The length of this post says a lot about Glen Campbell’s impact on me. There’s a lot of ground to cover in his 50 year career, and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. Singer, actor, TV star, talk show guest, Campbell was first and foremost a musician, and I’ll bid Glen a fond adieu with his rendition of “The William Tell Overture”. Rest in peace, Glen Campbell. Wherever you are, I know there’s room for you in the band: