Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny, but at least Roy gets seven decent tunes to sing. Familiar Faces Lyle Bettger, Iron Eyes Cody, John Doucette , Joan Freeman, and Douglas Kennedy try to help, but the story kind of just limps along. Worthwhile if you’re an Orbison fan, otherwise a waste of time. Fun Fact: Roy’s MGM Records label mate Sam the Sham (of “Wooly Bully” fame) has a small part as a guard at the mint.

 

KILL A DRAGON (United Artists 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) – Minor action yarn with ruthless Fernando Lamas out to hijack a load of nitroglycerine washed upon a small Japanese island, and the villagers hiring soldier-of-fortune Jack Palance to protect them and their bounty. Palance gives an engaging, tongue-in-cheek performance, Lamas makes an evil adversary, and Aldo Ray is among Jack’s mercenary crew… seeing Aldo in drag is something you won’t wanna miss!! Nothing special, but an adequate time filler for action fans. Fun Fact: Director Moore (who also helmed FASTEST GUITAR) was a former silent film child star (his first film was 1919’s THE UNPAINTED WOMAN, directed by Tod Browning ) who began working behind the scenes in the 1940’s. He became one of Hollywood’s highest regarded Assistant and Second Unit directors, and worked on films ranging from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, KING CREOLE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, PATTON, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (and it’s two subsequent sequels), and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. His last was 2000’s 102 DALMATIONS before retirement; Moore passed away at age 98 in 2013. His contributions to Hollywood movies may be unsung, but for people like Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg, Michael “Mickey” Moore was the go-to guy for action scenes. Job well done, Mr. Moore!

PSYCH-OUT (AIP 1968; D: Richard Rush) – A Hippiesploitation classic! Susan Strasberg stars as a runaway deaf girl looking for her brother Bruce Dern in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. She hooks up with pony-tailed rock musician Jack Nicholson and his bandmates (Adam Roarke, Max Julien) in a drug-soaked film full of far-out thrift store fashion, plenty of hippie-dippie jargon (“Peace and love, baby!”), LSD and STP induced nightmares, and classic rock from bands Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds (featuring their immortal lead vocalist Sky Saxon!). A group called Boenzee Cryque (with future Poco members Rusty Young and George Grantham) plays a sideways instrumental version of “Purple Haze” called “Ashbury Wednesday” during Henry Jaglom’s trip scene, and the cast includes Dean Stockwell as a philosophical, groovy satyr, future producer/director Garry Marshall as a cop, and low-budget stalwarts John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Gary Kent, and Bob Kelljan in support. Director Richard Rush went on to films like THE STUNT MAN and COLOR OF NIGHT, and the cinematographer is none other than Laslo Kovacs (EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, PAPER MOON). It’s a psychedelic artifact of its time, and a treat for exploitation fans. As Stockwell says, “Reality’s a deadly place”! Fun Fact: One of a handful of late 60’s youth films produced by the legendary Dick Clark, of TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND and NEW YEAR’S ROCKIN’ EVE fame.

THE BIG CUBE (Warner Brothers 1969; D: Tito Davison) – Glamorous Lana Turner plays a glamorous stage actress who marries rich Dan O’Herlihy against the wishes of his daughter Karin Mossberg. Dad drowns in a yachting accident, and daughter conspires with LSD-making gigolo George Chakiris to drive Lana mad by slipping acid in her sleeping pills! This awful attempt at mixing Lana’s Ross Hunter-era soap operas with 60’s “youth culture” features bad acting, a putrid script, heavy-handed direction, and is a total mess all around. Even the presence of Lana, O’Herlihy, Chakiris, and Richard Egan couldn’t stop this movie from stinking up my living room! No redeeming qualities whatsoever (except the fact that the wooden Miss Mossberg was never heard from again!) Fun Fact: As I sat watching this bomb, slack-jawed and shaking my head, I kept muttering to myself, “This is bad. Just… bad”. The film’s worse than a bad acid trip, but I stuck with it for this review. You have other options. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!

I hate to leave you on such a sour note, so here’s Roy Orbison doing “Pistolero” from Mickey Moore’s FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE! Take it away, Roy:

Experience Matters: THE PROFESSIONALS (Columbia 1966)

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A quartet of macho mercenaries – Lee Marvin Burt Lancaster Robert Ryan , and Woody Strode  – cross the dangerous Mexican desert and attempt to rescue a rich man’s wife kidnapped by a violent revolutionary in writer/director Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS, an action-packed Western set in 1917.  The film’s tone is closer to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns than the usual Hollywood oater, though Leone’s trilogy wouldn’t hit American shores until a year later.

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Rich rancher J.W.Grant (screen vet Ralph Bellamy ) hires the quartet to retrieve wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Jesus Raza (Jack Palance ), formerly a captain in Pancho Villa’s army, now a wanted bandito. Marvin is the stoic leader, a weapons expert who once rode with Raza for Villa, as did Lancaster’s explosives whiz. Ryan plays a sympathetic part (for a change) as the horse wrangling expert, while Strode is a former scout and bounty hunter adept with the bow and arrow. The four men face huge odds but successfully pull off the job and rescue Maria, only to discover she hadn’t been kidnapped at all – she’s Raza’s long-time love, and it’s Grant who stole her from Raza! But Marvin, ever the professional, gave his word to Grant the job would be completed, and they trek back to Texas with Maria in tow, pursued by Raza and his minions. There’s a twist ending and a classic final line delivered by Marvin with style.

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Richard Brooks doesn’t get a lot of attention these days, but he’s a seminal figure in classic films. He wrote the screenplays for the noir gems BRUTE FORCE and KEY LARGO before becoming writer/director on films like the juvenile delinquent drama THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, the psychological Western THE LAST HUNT, the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the Oscar-winning ELMER GANTRY, the groundbreaking true-crime IN COLD BLOOD, and the dark 70’s masterpiece LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, among many others. Brooks is one of the few filmmakers who bridged the gap from studio contractee to independent auteur, and has earned his place in the conversation on great directors.

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This was Brooks’ first film with cinematographer Conrad Hall, who perfectly captures the action in Nevada’s oppressively hot Death Valley and Valley of Fire State Park. They would team again for the black and white IN COLD BLOOD, and Hall quickly became one of the era’s top DP’s, with films like COOL HAND LUKE , BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, John Huston’s FAT CITY, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and MARATHON MAN to his credit. Hall took a decade-plus break to work with Haskell Wexler in a television commercial production company, but returned to Hollywood in the 80’s with TEQUILA SUNRISE, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and ROAD TO PERDITION. In all, Hall was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three.

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THE PROFESSIONALS is a fun adventure with plenty of action, humor, and star power, made by professionals who knew their stuff when it came to putting together an entertaining film that audiences would enjoy. If you’re not familiar with Richard Brooks’ or Conrad Hall’s work, go seek out some of the films I’ve cited. You won’t be disappointed.

Halloween Havoc!: MAN IN THE ATTIC (20th Century Fox 1953)

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The story of notorious 19th Century serial killer Jack the Ripper has been told countless times on the screen. The case has never been officially solved, and there are probably more theories about Jack’s identity than there were victims. Author Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote “The Lodger”, a speculative fiction novel based on the Ripper murders, that was in turn made into a silent film by the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock  in 1927. The film was remade in 1932 with the same star, Ivor Novello, then again in what’s probably the most famous version, 1944’s THE LODGER , starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, and George Sanders. Almost a decade later, the tale was again remade, this time with Jack Palance as the mysterious MAN IN THE ATTIC.

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Fog shrouded London’s Whitechapel District is being terrorized by a fiend known in the press as Jack the Ripper. Scotland Yard is baffled, police patrols have been doubled, and the female populace is in fear of their lives. It’s during this time Mr. and Mrs. Harley advertise for a lodger, and Mr. Slade answers the ad. Slade tells them he’s a pathologist working odd hours, and rents not only the room, but the attic room above, so he can conduct his experiments in privacy. The Harleys also house their niece Lily, a music hall actress about to make her stage debut.

Lily’s visited backstage by Anne Rawley, former star now working as a prostitute, offering her best wishes. We then see Lily perform a musical number, while Anne meets her doom at the hands of the Ripper. Inspector Warwick questions Lily about the visit, and states there’s a witness who describes Jack as wearing an Ulster (top coat) and carrying a black bag. Coincidently, this also describes Slade’s attire. Aunt Helen begins to have suspicions about her new lodger, but Uncle Henry dismisses them as feminine nonsense.

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Slade opens up to Lily about his childhood. His mother was an actress who cheated on his father and ended up a prostitute. Lily feels sorry for him, and thinks he’s innocent, even after he’s caught burning his bag and Ulster. Inspector Warwick doesn’t, and when the Ripper strikes again, he leaves a thumbprint in his victim’s apartment. Warwick wants to use the new technology to compare it with Slade’s prints and, while in the lodger’s room, discovers a picture of Anne Lawrence, first victim of the Ripper. After another musical number (a Can-Can dance!), Slade appears in Lily’s dressing room, asking her to run away with him. When she rebuffs his advances, he pulls a knife, revealing himself to be Jack the Ripper after all.Warwick and the police arrive and bust down the door, but the Ripper escapes, commandeering a carriage, careening down the streets of Whitechapel with the police in hot pursuit. Slade walks out into the river, and a search proves fruitless. Jack the Ripper is dead… or is he?

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Jack Palance gives a creepy, understated performance as Slade, and in fact saves the film from the doldrums, for MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t all that suspenseful. There’s really no doubt he’s the Ripper, mainly because there are no other suspects. Palance was fresh off his success as the gunslinger in that year’s SHANE, and this low budgeter was his first starring role. He illicits some sympathy as the lonely, isolated Slade, though his Scottish accent comes and goes.

Hey, it's Aunt Bee!
Hey, it’s Aunt Bee!

It’s a rare chance to see THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s   Frances Bavier (Helen) play something besides Aunt Bee, but if I told you I didn’t think of Mayberry’s favorite aunt while watching I’d be lying. Character actor Rhys Williams does well with the part of Uncle Henry, but the two young leads, Constance Smith (Lily) and Byron Palmer (Warwick) leave much to be desired. Quite frankly, they’re both boring, even during Lily’s musical numbers. Horror vet Lester Matthews (WEREWOLF OF LONDON, THE RAVEN  ) has a small part as Warwick’s superior, while other Familiar Faces include Sean McClory, Lillian Bond (THE OLD DARK HOUSE), Harry Cording, and Isabel Jewell.

Director Hugo Fregonese had more success in Europe and his native Argentina then he did in Hollywood, due to the lack of quality scripts he received in America. There are some atmospheric scenes here, but they’re few and far between. MAN IN THE ATTIC isn’t the best adaptation of THE LODGER (that would be the ’44 version), but it’s not the worst. That dishonor goes to the 2009 remake, updating the story to modern-day LA, with a copycat Ripper on Sunset Strip. It’s just kind of bland and mediocre, and if you’re not a big Jack Palance fanatic, there’s no reason to watch this one.