Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 23: Spring Cleaning Edition


Continuing my quest to watch all these movies sitting in my DVR (so I can record more movies!), here are six more capsule reviews for you Dear Readers:

FIFTH AVENUE GIRL (RKO 1939; D: Gregory LaCava) – A minor but entertaining bit of screwball froth revolving around rich old Walter Connolly , who’s got  problems galore: his wife (the criminally underrated Veree Teasdale) is cheating on him, his son (Tim Holt in a rare comedy role) is a polo-playing twit, his daughter (Kathryn Adams) in love with the socialism-spouting chauffer (James Ellison ), and his business is facing bankruptcy because of labor union troubles. On top of all that, no one remembers his birthday! The downcast Connolly wanders around Central Park, where he meets jobless, penniless, and practically homeless Ginger Rogers, and soon life on 5th Avenue gets turned upside-down! Ellison’s in rare form as the proletariat Marxist driver, Franklin Pangborn shines (as usual) as Connolly’s butler, and Ginger makes with the wisecracks as only Ginger could. There are some similarities to LaCava’s MY MAN GODFREY, and though FIFTH AVENUE GIRL isn’t quite as good (few film comedies are!), it’s a more than amusing look at class warfare. Fun Fact: Screenwriter Alan Scott wrote most of Ginger’s classic films with Fred Astaire (TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME, SHALL WE DANCE, CAREFREE), and penned the Rogers/LaCava follow-up PRIMROSE PATH, costarring Joel McCrea.

THE FLYING DEUCES (RKO 1939; D: A. Edward Sutherland) – Laurel & Hardy join the Foreign Legion after Ollie is rejected by (unknown to him) married Jean Parker, whose husband Reginald Gardiner becomes their captain! To say complications ensue is putting it mildly in this fast moving (only 69 minutes) comedy, with a cast that includes L&H regulars Richard Cramer, Charles Middleton (who played a similar role in their short BEAU HUNKS), and of course James Finlayson. The gags come fast and furious in this, the best of their non-Hal Roach movies. Fun Fact: This is the film where The Boys perform their famous “Shine On Harvest Moon” song-and-dance routine, sweetly sung by Ollie.

THE TATTOOED STRANGER (RKO 1950; D: Edward J. Montagne) – A young girl is found shotgunned to death in a parked car in Central Park. The only clue to her identity: a Marine Corps tattoo. This low budget police procedural moves fast (it clocks in at just over an hour), contrasting the latest in 50’s forensic investigating with good old fashioned legwork, and benefits from it’s NYC location shooting. The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, all of whom are good, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role for a young Jack Lord. Not the greatest cops-chase-down-killer flick, but certainly not the worst, either. Fun Fact: Director Montagne went on to create the sitcom MCHALE’S NAVY, and produced most of Don Knotts’ 60’s movie comedies.

WITNESS TO MURDER (United Artists 1954; D: Roy Rowland) – Barbara Stanwyck spies George Sanders kill a woman from her apartment window across the street, but with no body or any clues to go on, no one believes her, and Sanders (who’s also an ex-Nazi!) gaslights her, leading the cops to question her sanity. Gary Merrill is the cop who helps crack the case, and the supporting cast includes brief but memorable bits by Claire Carleton and Juanita Moore as Babs’ fellow mental patients. Stanwyck and Sanders help elevate this somewhat derivative entry in the “Woman in Jeopardy” noir subcategory. Fun Fact: The real star of WITNESS TO MURDER is DP John Alton, whose dark cinematography can be found in classics like HE WALKED BY NIGHT, RAW DEAL , and THE BIG COMBO .

GUN THE MAN DOWN (United Artists 1956; D: Andrew V. McLaglen) – Big Jim Arness, TV’s heroic Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE, turns to the dark side as a bank robber who’s shot and left for dead by his compadres, who drag his woman along with them to boot! Patched up by a posse and sent to prison, he does his time and returns years later seeking revenge. A routine but very well made Western, as well it should be – director McLaglen was a sagebrush specialist, as was screenwriter Burt Kennedy , cinematographer William Clothier was a favorite of John Ford, and the producer was none other than The Duke himself, John Wayne ! The cast is peppered with sagebrush vets like Harry Carey Jr., Robert Wilke, Don Megowan, and Emile Meyer. A minor outing with major talent before and behind the cameras that’s sure to please any Western buffs. Fun Fact: A brunette Angie Dickinson is given an “introducing” credit as Arness’ love interest (though it’s actually her fourth credited film); three years later, she costarred with Wayne in the classic RIO BRAVO .

NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (MGM 1971; D: Dan Curtis) – Second feature film spinoff of the popular 60’s Gothic soap opera (following HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS ) sans Jonathan Frid (the vampire Barnabas) and Joan Bennett (matriarch Elizabeth), but featuring many of the show’s cast – David Selby, Kate Jackson, Lara Parker, Grayson Hall, John Karlen, Nancy Barrett, Chris Pennock, Thayer David – in a tale about ghosts and reincarnation, revolving around the beautiful but evil 19th Century witch Angelique (Parker). This underrated entry is slow to develop, building with an unsettling sense of dread; worth sticking with for horror buffs. Feature film debut for Jackson, who got her start on the soap before rocketing to stardom as one of TV’s original CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and the later hit series SCRECROW AND MRS. KING. Fun Fact: Robert Cobert’s appropriately eerie score incorporates several familiar music cues from the show, including the haunting “Quentin’s Theme”, which became a #13 hit in the Summer of ’69 for The Charles Randolph Grean Sounde:

 

Slashed To Thrill: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (Filmways 1980)

Brian De Palma was a big deal back in the 70’s and 80’s, and his films like CARRIE, SCARFACE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES are still discussed. Yet works such as SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION, BLOW OUT, and BODY DOUBLE seem unjustly neglected today, and some critics deride him for his over the top sex and violence. DRESSED TO KILL finds De Palma in full Hitchcock mode, an homage to PSYCHO that The Master of Suspense himself cited as more like a “fromage”, but one I find still entertaining.

The film begins with a sizzling hot shower scene with Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, remarried mother of  science nerd Peter  (Keith Gordon, CHRISTINE ). Kate has problems in her marriage and with her own mom,  not to mention being a nymphomaniac! She’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine ), but seemingly getting nowhere. We follow her to  New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she engages in an erotic game of hide-and-go-seek with a complete stranger. They have sex in the cab, and at his apartment. Leaving the encounter, Kate steps into an elevator… and is brutally slashed/hacked to death by a tall, blonde woman in dark glasses brandishing a straight razor!

When the elevator stops, young Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the horror within. She’s brought tp police headquarters where Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is investigating, where we discover Liz is a call girl, “a Park Avenue whore” as Marino calls her. Peter and his stepdad are devastated, as is Dr. Elliott, who refuses to give nay information out on his clients. Liz becomes the prime suspect, but Peter starts his own investigation, learning the tall blonde woman is one of Elliott’s patients, a patient who is now stalking Liz…

De Palma keeps things suspenseful, with a jolting scene in the subway, and the gripping psycho-sexual drama played out in Elliott’s office while a thunderstorm rages outside. I won’t spoil the killer’s identity for those of you who haven’t viewed this thriller (though it’s not hard to figure out if you’ve seen PSYCHO)… but I will tell you De Palma wraps things up with a double – make that triple! – twist ending. The director (who also wrote the screenplay) draws not only from Hitchcock, but other sources like Goddard and Antonioni, especially in the art museum scene. His use of sound, like that of Hitchcock, adds immensely to the atmosphere, and split-screen imagery is utilized in a scene with Caine and Allen. Pino Donaggio’s score evokes Bernard Herrmann , and DP Ralf Bode’s imagery is superb.

Let’s talk for a minute about Nancy Allen. The cute-as-a-button actress, who was married to De Palma at the time, makes a great woman-in-jeopardy as Liz, and was one of the brightest stars of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Allen made her film debut in 1973’s THE LAST DETAIL at age 23, and gained major recognition as “mean girl” Chris in De Palma’s CARRIE. She starred in Robert Zemeckis’s first movie I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, and was well-known for her roles in BLOW OUT, STRANGE INVADERS, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, and the first three ROBOCOP flicks. Nancy’s pretty much retired from acting, working with environmental and breast cancer causes, but it’s always nice to go back and view her work (and yes, I still have a crush on her!).

Michael Caine seems more invested in the part of Dr. Elliott than he does in other films of this era. It’s a good, juicy part, and Caine is more than up to the task. Angie Dickinson, in the Janet Leigh role, is still sexy at 49, though that’s not her nude in that shower, but a body double (former Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson). Dennis Franz as Marino is practicing for his Detective Sipowicz in TV’s NYPD BLUE, which isn’t a bad thing. Keith Gordon is good as nerdy Peter – so nerdy he even rides a moped!! And in an interesting side note, former AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff is the film’s executive producer.

I don’t know exactly why Brian De Palma’s work is largely ignored today, save for a handful of films. He’s still cranking ’em out, and has an upcoming production DOMINO scheduled for release this year. His movies, especially those made in the 1970’s and 80’s, are well worth watching, and the sexy horror DRESSED TO KILL ranks as one of his best in my book. It’s time for a new generation to rediscover De Palma!

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.

 

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)

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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills a man in cold blood. Chance ends up arresting Joe for murder, realizing Joe’s cattle baron brother Nathan Burdette will try to spring the neer-do-well before the U.S. Marshal arrives in town. Chance has Joe locked up under the watchful eye of the crippled old geezer Stumpy, whose land was taken by the evil Burdette clan.

Chance’s old pal, wagon master Pat Wheeler, rolls into town and offers to help, but Chance turns him down, not wanting to put his friend in danger. One of Wheeler’s men, the fast-gun kid Colorado, could be of service but doesn’t want to get involved. The stagecoach pulls in, carrying flirtatious card sharp Feathers, and is sabotaged by Burdette’s men, hoping to delay the Marshal’s arrival. When Wheeler is killed by Burdette’s hired guns, Colorado changes his mind and joins the fight to hold Joe as Burdette’s hired killers lay siege on the jail.

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This sets the stage for action and some fine character studies from the cast. Predominant among them is John Wayne as the stalwart Sheriff Chance, determined to uphold the law no matter what the price. It’s really the beginning of the “John Wayne Movie” formula the actor followed in his 60’s and 70’s movies. That caused many critics to complain that The Duke was basically playing the same role in all his films. There’s some truth to that in his latter-day films (notable exceptions being TRUE GRIT and THE SHOOTIST). But at this juncture of his career, Wayne was more Movie Star than Actor, his films being box office smashes no matter what he was playing. John Wayne had more than proved himself as an actor for years (check him out in STAGECOACH, RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE QUIET MAN, or THE SEARCHERS for proof of that). He may have been coasting along for the last twenty years of his career, but any notions that he couldn’t act had been dispelled long ago, and indeed, he won the Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn turn in 1969’s TRUE GRIT. If he wanted to just make “John Wayne Movies” by that point, he’d earned the right, and filmgoers didn’t seem to mind. They were always entertaining star vehicles and became a kind of genre of their own.

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Duke was surrounded in RIO BRAVO by a top-notch supporting cast. Dean Martin (Dude) was still trying to shed the “Jerry Lewis’s partner” tag in the late 50’s, and his portrayal of the alcoholic deputy went a long way towards that goal. Martin was another actor who was accused of trading in on his persona rather than giving a good performance, but he was more than up to the challenge when given solid material. Teen idol Ricky Nelson (Colorado), who shot to fame on his parents TV show THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, truthfully wasn’t much in the acting department, being cast here mainly to draw in the younger crowd. He was a better singer than actor, as Nelson proves in the middle of the film by dueting with Martin on “My Rifle, My Pony, & Me”, then a rousing “Get Along, Cindy” with Dino and (of all people) Walter Brennan ! The triple Oscar winner channels his inner Gabby Hayes here as the crotchety old-timer Stumpy, always complaining about Chance but remaining forever loyal

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Angie Dickinson (Feathers) was just beginning her career in Hollywood, and RIO BRAVO was her breakthrough role. Wayne’s old pal and frequent costar Ward Bond (Wheeler) was known by this time as another wagon master, Major Seth Adams of the TV hit WAGON TRAIN. The rest of the cast is rounded out by sagebrush vets Claude Akins, John Russell , Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Bob Steele, Bing Russell, and Myron Healey .

Behind the scenes, screenwriters Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett  crafted a great script based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell. The dialogue sparkles with wit, especially the scenes between straight-laced Chance and the seductive Feathers. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score includes the use of the haunting theme “Deguello”, played while Santa Anna’s troops laid siege to The Alamo, setting just the right mood. DP Russell Harlan worked with director Hawks on several films. He was a six-time Oscar nominee who never got his due.

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The same could be said about Howard Hawks, who only received one nomination (for 1941’s SERGEANT YORK) during his illustrious career. That may be due to the fact Hawks was so adept at any genre he worked in, whether it be western, screwball comedy, noir, even musicals and science fiction. Just a short list from his filmography highlights some of Hollywood’s greatest movies: SCARFACE (1932), BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RED RIVER (1948), THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953). Hawks was finally recognized by the Academy with a lifetime achievement award in 1975, two years before his death. He remains one of America’s most influential directors of the Golden Age.

After Colorado warns that Walter Brennan (Stumpy) is standing next to a wagon full of dynamite, the older man retrieves a box of explosives and joins Chance.

RIO BRAVO is one of nine Hawks films declared culturally significant by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry. Besides that lofty designation, it’s a fun film that moves briskly along despite its two-hour, twenty-minute running time. Obviously, I love this movie, otherwise I wouldn’t be so long-winded here. The word “classic” gets bandied about pretty regularly when people discuss older films, but RIO BRAVO is one that’s well deserving of the sobriquet. Those who’ve never watched it owe it to themselves to go out and do so. And for those who have, rewatch and be amazed at Hollywood filmmaking at its finest!

 

Let’s Get Physical: Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK (MGM 1967)

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Lee Marvin  was one tough son of a bitch both onscreen and off, awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by a machine gun blast in WWII.  The ex-Marine stumbled into acting post-war, and Hollywood beckoned in the 1950’s. His imposing presence typecast him as a villain in films like HANGMAN’S KNOT, THE BIG HEAT , and BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. A three season stint in TV’s M SQUAD brought Marvin more acclaim, and he solidified that with his Oscar-winning role in CAT BALLOU, parodying his own tough-guy image. Marvin was now a star that could call his own shots, and used that clout in POINT BLANK, throwing out the script and collaborating with a young director he had faith in, John Boorman.

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POINT BLANK is a highly stylized revenge drama centering on Marvin’s character of Walker. The nightmarish opening sequence shows how Walker was left for dead on deserted Alcatraz Island by his partner-in-crime, Reese. The pair was heisting mob money from the drop site at the former prison, when Reese shoots down Walker and absconds with not only the cash, but Walker’s wife. Somehow Walker survives the point-blank gundown and escapes the island. This is never explained, which has led some critics to believe Walker is an Avenging Angel from Hell (or “The Walker Dead”, if you will). I’m not among that crowd, but I do like the fact that Walker’s unexplained return is left open to interpretation.

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The film then becomes a series of violent set pieces as Walker goes after Reese and the men who owe him $93,000, guided by the mysterious Mr. Yost. My favorite of these is when Walker  takes used car dealer Stegman for a ride he’ll never forget, smashing the car into concrete supports under a bridge in order to learn Reese’s whereabouts. The movie continues in this vein right to its conclusion, as both Walker and Yost end up getting what they wanted all along.

British director Boorman had one feature under his belt,  the 1965 rock romp HAVING A WILD WEEKEND starring The Dave Clark Five. He makes the movie a hip 60’s take on film noir, with splashy colors in place of chiaroscuro lighting. Boorman’s shot selection and pacing gives POINT BLANK a dreamlike quality usually reserved for films more arthouse than grindhouse. The director would go on to work with Marvin again in the war drama HELL IN THE PACIFIC before scoring big with 1972’s DELIVERANCE. His body of work includes the sci-fi cult classic ZARDOZ,  the King Arthur tale EXCALIBUR, and the Oscar nominated HOPE AND GLORY.

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The cast is filled with fine character actors, with Angie Dickinson at her 60’s sexiest best as Walker’s sister-in-law, who knows more than she lets on. John Vernon (Dean Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE) makes his film debut as Reese. Keenan Wynn is the mystery man Yost, while Lloyd Bochner, Carroll O’Connor, and James B. Sikking are prominently featured. Sharon Acker plays Walker’s doomed wife, and Sid Haig, Bill Hickman, Kathleen Freeman, and Felix Silla (THE ADDAMS FAMILY’s Cousin Itt) can be found in small roles.

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POINT BLANK is based on a novel by the great crime writer Donald E. Westlake. The Edgar Award winning writer was a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and wrote the screenplays for the films THE STEPFATHER and THE GRIFTERS. Some of Westlake’s other novels adapted for the screen were THE SPLIT (starring Jim Brown), THE HOT ROCK, THE OUTFIT, and BANK SHOT. POINT BLANK was remade as PAYBACK with Mel Gibson in the Marvin role. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. POINT BLANK may be a case of style over substance, but that style is a joy to watch if you’re a lover of crime thrillers. It’s a movie you’ll want to watch again just to see if you missed anything!

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