Happy Birthday John Wayne: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO 1949)

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My all-time favorite actor was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. But John Wayne the movie star was born in 1930 when, after years of bit parts, he landed the lead role in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office, but it got Wayne noticed. After scuffling along in low-budget, juvenile B-Westerns for most of the 30’s, Wayne was cast as The Ringo Kid in John Ford’s blockbuster STAGECOACH , and his career took off like a wild stallion.

“The Duke” (a nickname he picked up as a kid) was an A-Lister now, the biggest star at Republic Pictures. Wayne and Ford continued their film collaborations throughout the 40’s. At the end of the decade RKO released the second of the Wayne/Ford “Cavalry Trilogy”, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. The film was a smash hit, a rousing adventure bolstered by Wayne’s portrayal of a man twenty years older than himself, Captain Nathan Brittles.

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Nathan Brittles is a  by-the-book horse soldier who rose through the ranks to make captain. He lives by his choices, his code summed up in his favorite saying: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”. His practical, no-nonsense manner make Nathan a well-respected cavalry officer, but mask his softer side. Nathan Brittles is a true sentimentalist, making nightly visits to speak with his deceased wife at her gravesite. He’s loyal to his men, especially his Irish Top Sergeant Quincannon, who has a penchant for the bottle. And his gruff demeanor with Lieutenants Cohill and Pinnette are designed to bring out the best in them. Nathan Brittles is a completely different performance from Wayne’s other two 1949 roles (John Breen in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN and Sgt. Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA), and The Duke proves once again he’s not only a “star”, but a fine actor.

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Nathan’s just six days away from retirement, eager to ride west to the untamed California territory.  His superior officer Major Allshard gives him one last assignment: a final patrol to talk peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who’ve left the reservation to band together with renegades seeking to wage war with the whites after The Battle of Little Big Horn. But there’s a catch, as the Major wants Nathan to take his wife and young niece Olivia along, sending them away from the potential threat of war. Nathan protests (in writing, according to protocol), but reluctantly leads the troop through hostile territory, assisted by his lieutenants Cohill and Pinette, both of whom are vying for Olivia’s affections. They’re to drop the ladies at the stagecoach station on the way. However, advance scout Sgt. Tyree discovers a horrific tableau, and Nathan and his men ride out to discover the station burned, the man and woman who run it dead, their children left orphans. Now Nathan must take these children along and return to Fort Starke, his mission a failure.

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Nathan, disheartened by his perceived failure, inspects the troops one last time, the men presenting him with a silver watch for his retirement, inscribed “To Captain Brittles from C Troop, Lest We Forget”, choking the stoic leader up. He tricks Quincannon into donning civilian togs and gives him money to spend at the bar. Quincannon is arrested for this and put in the guardhouse, after a comic barroom brawl. Nathan has done this for Quincannon’s own safety, as he knows the Irishman has two weeks to go before his own retirement, and his fondness for whiskey would probably end up with Quincannon getting booted from the service without Nathan to keep him in check. (Plus, the brawl itself is hilarious, staged by some of Hollywood’s top stuntmen, including Frank McGrath and Gil Perkins. And what’s a John Ford film without a good barroom brawl!)

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Nathan has four hours remaining before his time with the Cavalry is up, so he rides with Tyree straight into enemy camp. He has a powwow with Chief Pony-That-Walks, hoping to avoid the potential bloodshed. The two old warhorses believe that “old men should stop wars”. Pony-That-Walks agrees, but believes it’s “too late, young men don’t listen…many will die”. Having failed, Nathan and his men devise a nighttime raid that scatters the Indian’s horses, thus leaving them on foot. The Indians, having lost face, must now walk back to their reservations, and the war has been averted. Nathan Brittles, “ex-Captain of Cavalry USA”, now heads west to California, “towards the setting sun, the end of the trail for all old men”. Suddenly, Tyree rides up on him with news from the war department… Nathan has been made Chief of Scouts, and given the rank of Lt. Colonel by his contacts in Washington (including President Ulysses S. Grant!). Nathan and Tyree return to Fort Starke, where a dance is being held in his honor. But first, he excuses himself, returning once again to his wife’s grave to give her the good news.

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John Ford  surrounds Wayne with a solid supporting cast. John Agar and Harry Carey Jr. play the rival Lieutenants, with Joanne Dru (Wayne’s RED RIVER costar) as the object of their affections. Victor McLaglen (Quincannon) is the comic relief, and almost steals the picture. George O’Brien (Major Allshard) was a silent star thanks to Ford’s 1924 THE IRON HORSE and F.W.Murnau’s classic SUNRISE, and later made a series of B-Westerns. Ben Johnson (Tyree) was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman, a favorite of both Ford and his spiritual heir Sam Peckinpah. Johnson won a supporting actor Oscar for 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Other Ford favorites here are Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald), Ford’s own brother Francis, Chief John Big Tree, Noble Johnson, Tom Tyler, and Paul Fix. Actor/director Irving Pichel narrates the tale.

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John Wayne’s main costar is once again Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite shooting spot. Its rugged terrain forms the perfect background for Nathan’s rugged individualism, and Winton Hoch Technicolor cinematography won the Oscar for his breathtaking filming of the beautiful scenery. Hoch had honed his skills as cameraman on the James A. Fitzpatrick TRAVELTALKS shorts, and was awarded the Oscar on four separate occasions.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the best of the Ford/Wayne “Cavalry” films, a colorful, grand entertainment that provides another acting showcase for John Wayne. So here’s to The Duke on his 109th birthday anniversary, continuing to bring the American West to vibrant life in films like this one. And remember, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”!

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A Fast Look at THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (AIP 1955)

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I’ve never seen any of those FAST AND FURIOUS movies with Paul Weller, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (yeah I know, Dwayne Johnson, but he’ll always be The Rock to me). Nope, not even one. I just never had much interest in them. I’d heard of the 1955 THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, an early Roger Corman production, but never watched it either, until now. Seems I wasn’t missing anything.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is Corman’s second film as producer, and first release for American International Pictures, under the moniker American Releasing Corporation. It’s an inauspicious debut for the company, to put it mildly. The story concerns escaped con Frank Webster, who kidnaps sports car racer Connie Adair and her white Jaguar (which is a nice car, by the way). They bicker with some tough-talking dialogue, as Frank plans on crossing the border to Mexico by driving the Jag in a road race to Mexico. The movie only comes to life during the racing scenes at the end. Otherwise, it’s pretty dull going.

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Corman wrote the story because of his love for racing. Allegedly, he does the driving of the car racing neck and neck with Webster. Corman got John Ireland to star as Webster by promising him the chance to codirect. Ireland handled the dramatic scenes, while editor Edwards Sampson did the racing action. It’s Ireland’s second stint as a director. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get a third. Roger Corman figured he could do much better, and took the director’s chair for his next film FIVE GUNS WEST, beginning a long and prosperous career.

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Dorothy Malone  adds sex appeal as Connie, if nothing else. Not her fault, as the script isn’t all that good. Iris Adrien, the poor man’s Joan Blondell, as a bit as a brassy diner waitress. Corman regulars Bruno Ve Soto and Joanthan Haze appear, as does Roger in a Hitchcockian cameo as a state trooper. Silent comedy star Snub Pollard has a role as a caretaker. Hmmm, what else… oh, did I mention the racing scenes are cool?

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t very impressed with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. It’s historically important as AIP’s first film, and Roger’s second, but it’s lackluster thanks mainly to Ireland’s uninspired direction. Maybe I should give those newer FAST AND FURIOUS flicks a chance. What do you think, Rock?

Rockin’ in the Film World #3: BEACH PARTY (AIP 1963)

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Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.

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Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh. Even the old “haunted house” chestnut got used in the series’ last entry, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley replacing Frankie & Annette).

Here, the beach antics involve Frankie & Annette on school vacation, where horny Frank plans to spend quality time alone with her. But not so fast: Annette’s invited the whole gang to join them at their rented beach house. Frankie is pissed, and gets with Hungarian hottie Ava (Eva Six, Miss Golden Globes of 1963), a waitress at the gang’s hang-out, Cappy’s (played by Morey Amsterdam). Cappy’s an overage beatnik who harbors Big Daddy, a mysterious beachfront guru from whom everyone’s waiting to hear “the word”.

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Bearded anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is on the beach doing research, studying the mating habits of teens. He compares them to Aborigine tribal customs, with their slang talk and wild watusi-ing.  Sutwell’s accompanied by assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner for WRITTEN ON THE WIND), who pines for the uptight, clueless professor. Annette uses the older man (who the kids mockingly call “pig-bristles”) to get back at Frankie’s philandering with Ava.

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Enter Eric Von Zipper and his Rats. Arguably the most popular character in the entire series, he’s played by Harvey Lembeck, memorable in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 and as costar of Phil Silver’s SGT. BILKO show. Von Zipper’s clearly patterned after Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE, but this bumbling biker’s dumb as a bag of rocks. With his catchphrase “You stupids!” and exaggerated Brooklyn accent, Lembeck steals the film with his comic zaniness. The best part is when he confronts Sutwell, who gives him the ancient “Himalayan finger”, causing its victims to revert to a state of suspended animation.

Also appearing in the cast and subsequent “beach party” flicks is pushing-30 John Ashley, who was in AIP’s 50’s epics HOT ROD GIRL and MOTORCYCLE GANG, and went on to star Eddie Romero’s Filipino “Blood” trilogy, and later produced TV hit THE A-TEAM. Candy Johnson was the girl in the fringe whose wild shimmying literally knocked the boys off their feet. Jody McCrea, son of Western star Joel, makes his debut appearance as Deadhead, the loveable goofball of the gang (later changed to Bonehead for some strange reason). Andy Romano and Alberta Nelson are the most recognizable Rats, while Meredith McRae, Valora Noland, and Gary Usher represent the surfers. And cult star Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT LEECHES) has an uncredited bit as one of Cappy’s yoga girls.

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Plenty of music is provided by surf guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones, who perform “Swing’ and Surfin'” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot”. Frankie rocks out to the twist number “Don’t Stop Now”, while Annette sweetly sings “Treat Him Nicely”, and the duo duets on the theme song “Beach Party Tonight”. All these hijinks are ably handled by veteran director William Asher, who directed the bulk of TV’s I LOVE LUCY episodes, and produced and directed the series BEWITCHED for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher’s flair for comedy is highlighted by  wild brawl that turns into a pie fight at the conclusion.

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Oh, and Big Daddy is finally revealed to be none other than our old friend, Vincent Price, who gives us “the word”: “The Pit… bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin'”. Yep, it’s a plug for Vinnie’s upcoming Edgar Allan Poe flick THE HAUNTED PALACE. AIP may not have been known for highbrow product, but they sure knew how to cross-promote!

Take it away, Candy!!!:

 

On Willis O’Brien and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists 1959)

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Willis O’Brien was the pioneer stop-motion animation wizard who fathered the immortal KING KONG . For that alone, he will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s giants. O’Brien started at the dawn of film, working for the Thomas Edison Company. He created an early dinosaur movie THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, which was cut down to eleven minutes by one Herbert Dowley, who took credit for O’Brien’s work. His crowning silent achievement was 1925’s THE LOST WORLD, an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story that astounded filmgoers of the era.

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That same year, O’Brien married Hazel Collette, who bore him two sons. The O’Brien’s marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1930. Hazel was mentally unstable, and diagnosed with tuberculosis the following year. Willis, whose drinking and philandering contributed to the marriage’s deterioration, remained devoted to his boys, especially young Willis Jr., who was born tubercular, and eventually lost his eyesight. After the success of KONG, O’Brien embarked on the sequel, SON OF KONG, and his sons visited the set to watch dad work. A short time after that visit, Hazel Collette O’Brien took a gun, murdered her own children, and attempted a botched suicide. She died in a Los Angeles prison hospital a year later.

This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of Willis O’Brien. He went back to work with his friend, producer Merian C. Cooper, on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and did some work on Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE. But despite a loving and successful remarriage, the rest of his life was filled with unfinished dreams of film projects that never came to fruition. A small comeback was mounted in 1949, when O’Brien and his latest protégé Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a Cooper production that garnered an Oscar for the film pioneer. But by the late 50’s, Willis O’Brien was reduced to creating effects for low-budget monster movies like THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH was O’Brien’s last “giant monster’ movie. It starts off with a bang: an A-bomb explosion! A group of scientific minds has gathered in Britain to watch footage and hear a lecture from American Marine Biologist Steve Kearns (Gene Evans) on atomic waste. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing off the coast of Cornwall, as dead fish are washed ashore, and a pulsating mass is causing those near it to burn. Kearns and Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) investigate, and the fish test positive for radiation. Rumors of a “sea monster” run rampant, and when the steamship Valkyrie is found beached with no survivors, Kerns and Bickford are convinced a Behemoth is on the loose!

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Alerting the local navies of England, France, and Germany, the search for the monster begins. Kearns and Bickford visit eccentric Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowan ), who helps them identify Behemoth as a prehistoric creature. Behemoth hits land and attacks London, the military is called in (of course), but they’re no match for the berserk Behemoth. It returns to the sea, and Kearns and the forces of good track it down in a sub, blasting it with a torpedo hit and ending Behemoth’s reign of terror (though there’s a neat little twist at the film’s end!).

Sound familiar? Hell, yeah. Director Eugene Lourie was brought in to make the original script (from blacklisted writer Daniel James) more like his 1953 hit THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. He certainly succeeded in that respect. Star Gene Evans is about as credible a scientist as I am, but does make a sturdy hero. The acting honors go to MacGowan (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE EXORCIST) as the slightly daft Dr. Sampson. But THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is fun on a Saturday matinée popcorn movie level, and though it’s derivative of Lourie’s other monster movie (and GODZILLA, to a certain extent), it does feature O’Brien’s visual effects. In fact, the scenes of Behemoth terrorizing London stomping on cars and spreading his deadly radioactivity, are the film’s highlights.

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Willis O’Brien contributed to one more movie, some scenes at the end of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , before his death in 1962. His life story is tragic, but his artistry lives on through legendary movies like KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. And as much of a rehash as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is, it’s still a last chance to see the screen’s mightiest maker of monsters work his magic one last time.

 

 

Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)

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Mel Brooks loves films as much as the rest of us do. After skewering Westerns in BLAZING SADDLES and horror movies in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel set his satirical sights on Alfred Hitchcock in HIGH ANXIETY. The result is a film buff’s dream, with the gags coming fast and furious as Mel and his band of merry pranksters pay a loving but hysterical homage to the films of the Master of Suspense.

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Mel takes the lead here as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s aide, the inept Brophy, thinks the former director was “a victim of foul play”. At the Institute, he meets oily Dr. Montague and starched Nurse Diesel, whose S&M/B&D relationship isn’t their only secret. Thorndyke has an ally in his mentor, Prof. Lilloman (say it slowly). The professor works as a consultant, and tries to help Thorndyke conquer his own phobia, “high anxiety” (fear of heights to you laymen).

Thorndyke discovers some very rich patients are being held there, but Montague assures him they’re very sick people, such as Zachary Cartwright, who sees werewolves, and Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he’s a Cocker Spaniel. After the mysterious death (“murder… I mean accident, accident”, sputters Montague, Thorndyke is encouraged to attend the psychiatric convention in San Francisco. A “Mr. McGuffin” called and moved his room to the 17th floor! Once he makes it up there, a typical Hitchcock blonde bursts in, saying “They’re after me!” Turns out she’s Victoria Brisbane, daughter of Arthur. Thorndyke shows her a picture and she tells him the Cocker Spaniel-wanna-be is not her father at all!

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After completing his lecture on penis envy (which he has to alter when a colleague show up with his two young daughters!), Thorndyke and Victoria meet up in the piano bar, where we get to hear Mel croon his self-penned “High Anxiety” in his Sinatra-via-the-Catskills style. Monatgue and Diesel have hired a killer named “Braces” to disguise himself as Thorndyke and commit murder. Now Richard Thorndyke must clear his name and find out the truth about what’s really going on at the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!

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Brooks loaded the cast with comedy pals like Harvey Korman as Montague, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, who’s a cross between REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Nurse Ratched. Madeline Kahn (Victoria), draped in a blonde wig, spoofs Hitchcock leading ladies like Grace Kelly and Tippy Hedren. Ron Carey, Charlie Callas, and Jack Riley add to the fun, and Oscar-winning Special Effects genius Albert Whitlock (who worked on nine Hitchcock films) plays the real Brisbane. Even Mel’s co-writers get into the act, including future director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) as a deranged bellboy.

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Fans of the Master will get most of the jokes right off the bat. Besides the obvious shower scene from PSYCHO and Mel being chased by THE BIRDS (pigeons who shit all over him… hey, nobody ever said Mel Brooks was subtle!), there are references to THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SABOTEUR, SPELLBOUND, REAR WINDOW, DIAL M FOR MURDER, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and of course VERTIGO. Even Hitchcock supposedly liked HIGH ANXIETY, sending Mel a case of expensive wine after watching it with a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this”(1). Movie fans will have a ball picking out the Hitchcock allusions in HIGH ANXIETY…. once they stop laughing!

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(1) quote from “It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks” by James Robert Parrish (2008, Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780470225264)

Madeleine LeBeau: Vive La France!

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I’ve mentioned many times before CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite movie. News came across the Atlantic today that Madeleine LeBeau, the last surviving cast member, passed away May 1, 2016 at age 92. Mademoiselle LeBeau’s early life reads like the CASABLANCA script, as she and her then-husband Marcel Dalio (who played the croupier in the film) fled Paris during the Nazi occupation to Portugal, receiving letters of transit in Lisbon. The letters turned out to be forgeries, and the couple were stranded in Mexico before emigrating to America, landing in Hollywood to resume their acting careers.

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Madeleine’s stateside credits are brief, and can be divided into pre- (HOLD BACK THE DAWN, GENTLEMAN JIM) and post- (PARIS AFTER DARK, MUSIC FOR MILLIONS) CASABLANCA films. After divorcing Dalio, she returned to Europe in 1947. She made movies in her native France (the all-star NAPOLEON and LA PARISIENNE with French cinema icons Charles Boyer and Brigitte Bardot), England (CITY OF GOLD with Jean Simmons), and Italy (Fellini’s 8 1/2, the early Spaghetti Western GUNMEN OF RIO GRANDE).

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But it’s as Rick’s jilted lover Yvonne that she will forever be remembered. Her scenes with Humphrey Bogart are brief, but Madeleine shines as she drunkenly gets thrown out of Rick’s Café American, only to return later on the arm of a Nazi soldier to make him jealous. The scene where Paul Henreid leads the café guests in singing “La Marseillaise”, shouting down the Nazi revelers, is one of Hollywood’s most iconic, and it’s Madeleine who puts the icing on the cake by shouting, “Vive La France!”. I’ve posted this scene before, but it’s definitely worth a repeat viewing:

Still gets me teary-eyed, every time. Rest in peace, Madeleine LeBeau. Your place in Hollywood history is secure until the end of time.

“and then all is madness”: PIT AND THE PENDULUM (AIP 1961)

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How have I ignored Roger Corman here for so long, save for a short “Cleaning Out the DVR” review of THE TERROR ?  The King of the Low Budget Quickies has long been a favorite filmmaker of mine, and has probably had more impact on American cinema than people realize. Well, now that TCM is running its month-long salute to AIP, I’m about to rectify that oversight. (By the way, Corman himself is cohosting the retrospective every Thursday night along with TCM’s own Ben Mankiewicz!)

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American International Pictures scored a hit with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation starring Vincent Price and directed by Corman. Studio honchos James Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff looked at the box office numbers and, realizing they had a cash cow on their hands, asked Corman to produce a follow-up.  Rapid Roger decided on PIT AND THE PENDULUM, shot in 15 days for less than a quarter million dollars. The result was one of the series best, a moody piece that reportedly influenced Italian horror maestros from Mario Bava to Dario Argento.

Poe’s original story was very short, so screenwriter Richard Matheson concocted a new framework, using Poe’s torture tale for the final act. Matheson was a giant of horror fiction himself, a prolific writer of novels (“I Am Legend”, “The Shrinking Man”, “Hunted Beyond Reason”), short stories (“Death Ship”, “Steel”, “Button Button”), teleplays for THE TWILIGHT ZONE (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), TV Movies (“Duel”, ‘The Night Stalker”, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, “Trilogy of Terror”), and films (including five Corman/Poe collaborations and DIE DIE MY DARLING, THE DEVIL’S BRIDE, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, JAWS 3-D, STIR OF ECHOES).

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM begins with Francis Barnard arriving at the Spanish castle of Don Nicholas Medina. Francis’ sister Elizabeth has recently died, and he’s come to find out what really happened. He’s greeted at the door by Nicholas’ sister Catherine, who’s reluctant to let him enter. Francis demands to see her brother, so Catherine takes him “down below”, into the catacombs of the castle. Weird noise are emanating from behind a large, foreboding door. Undaunted, Francis approaches the door, just as it opens and….

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…out pops Vincent Price as Nicholas, startling both Francis and the audience! It’s a grand entrance, and another showcase role for Price. He’s subdued at first as Nicholas, slowly building over the course of the film as he’s tortured by Elizabeth’s memory, finally descending into full-blown madness as only Vincent Price can. Price’s Nicholas Medina is a tour-de-force performance that stands tall among his pantheon of great horror depictions (HOUSE OF WAX, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, etc, etc). Price plays it low-key in the beginning but, once Nicholas snaps, out comes the ham he’s so famous for slicing. And here, it’s spicy and delicious!

Back to the story: Nicholas tells Francis his sister died from “something in her blood”. Francis is skeptical, and will stay the night (“and more, sir”) in order to get to the truth. At dinner, a caller drops in, Dr. Charles Leon, who lets the black cat out of the bag, that Elizabeth “literally died of fright”! They take Francis below again, and the secret behind that door is revealed: it’s the torture chamber of Nicholas and Catherine’s father, Don Sebastian Medina, the infamous torturer of the Spanish Inquisition.

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Flashbacks saturated in blue and red show happy couple Nicholas and Elizabeth living a serene life. But soon she begins to change, obsessed with Sebastian’s chamber of horrors, hearing strange voices call to her. Nicholas plans on taking her away from the castle, but on the day they’re to depart, he hears “the most hideous, bloodcurdling scream I have ever heard in my life”. Rushing to the dank basement, Nicholas is shocked to discover Elizabeth has locked herself inside the iron maiden. Before she dies, she whispers a name to him: “Sebastian”.

A second flashback sequence shows us that Nicholas, as a young boy of 10, wandered into the dungeon to witness his father accuse his mother Isabella and Uncle Bartolome of adultery, then murder them both in his insidious torture devices. Later that night, harpsichord music is heard playing from the parlor. Her ring is found on the keys. “It was Elizabeth”, says Nicholas in a state of shock. They put him to bed, then Leon has another revelation: Nicholas fears that Elizabeth was “interred prematurely”, as his mother was, walled inside her tomb while still alive.

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A scream from Elizabeth’s room sends everyone running, finding the frightened maid Maria there, the place trashed. Maria insists she heard Elizabeth’s voice, and while they comfort her, Francis finds a secret passageway leading directly to Nicholas’ room. Francis accuses Nicholas, but he denies it, while beginning to doubt his own sanity. Dr. Leon suggests they exhume Elizabeth’s tomb to soothe Nicholas’s dread, and they do, only to discover her body frozen in horror, buried alive after all. “True!”, Nicholas repeats over and over, having crossed the threshold of madness. “True! True!”

Nicholas, alone in his room, hears Elizabeth calling out to him. He trudges down to the dungeon, and recoils in terror as a bloodied Elizabeth rises from the grave. His mind has gone, and we learn Elizabeth and Dr. Leon planned this all well in advance; like his father before him, Nicholas is a victim of his wife’s adultery. But something’s happened to Nicholas: he now believes he’s his father Sebastian, and history is about to repeat itself. “I’m going to torture you, Isabella”, he proclaims as he traps Elizabeth in the iron maiden. Leon falls into the pit unseen by Nicholas, and when Francis barges in on the commotion, Nicholas transfers his evil intentions, believing Francis is Bartolome. Strapping Francis to a cold stone slab, he puts the razor-sharp pendulum into motion, the blade slowly swinging back and forth, inching closer and closer toward Francis’ prone body…

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Corman and his crew created a psychedelic nightmare of a movie with PIT AND THE PENDULUM. DP Floyd Crosby and set designer (and future AIP director) Daniel Haller work their magic within the budget limitations, giving it an expensive look. Les Baxter contributes another moody score, as he did in many an AIP production. The cast features another horror icon, beautiful Barbara Steele as Elizabeth. While her role is brief, Steele conveys the evil of Elizabeth in her scenes with Price (watch out for that final shot!). John Kerr (Francis) was known for more mainstream films like TEA AND SYMPATHY and SOUTH PACIFIC; he later dropped out of movies and became a successful lawyer. Corman regulars Luana Anders and Antony Carbone round out the cast.

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PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a must-see film for horror lovers. Corman and Price would go on to make five more Edgar Allan Poe shockers together before Corman tired of them, and moved onto more experimental works, eventually becoming a mini-movie mogul by founding New World Pictures. Nicholson and Arkoff, not willing to put the Poe cash cow out to pasture, hired other directors, and persuaded Price to star in more Poe offerings. While THE CONQUEROR WORM (aka WITCHFINDER GENERAL) is considered a modern-day classic, THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE suffered without Roger Corman and his band of merry moviemakers, and the AIP/Poe series ended in 1970. All of the Corman/Price/Poe pictures are worth watching today, and if you’re late to this Poe party, PIT AND THE PENDULUM is an excellent place to start.

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