Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)

Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage and better mankind. But their brains shrink too, and the critters can only act when a human imposes their will on them (by thinking real hard, apparently).

Servant girl Lachna (Grace Wood), an “inbred peasant halfwit”, is next in line for testing, but when things go awry, Marcel dies of a heart attack. Lavond takes this opportunity to travel with Melita and (now) tiny Lachna to Paris, to exact revenge on the three banking partners who framed him for embezzlement and murder. Posing as the elderly dollmaker “Madame Mandilip”, Lavond goes after his crooked former friends, hoping to win back the love and respect of daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan ), who grew up hating her convicted criminal father.

Like Chaney Sr. in Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE, Barrymore is more than convincing as the old woman, and seems to be having a field day all bundled up in ladies’ garments. His tour de force performance is what makes THE DEVIL DOLL worth watching, as sadly the rest of the cast is lacking. Ottiano overacts as Melita, Frank Lawton is bland as Lorraine’s cabbie beau Toto, Walthall is wasted (and looks terrible; he died a month before the film’s release), and bad guy bankers Robert Greig, Arthur Hohl, and Pedro de Cordoba are stereotype villains. Only O’Sullivan as Barrymore’s daughter and Ford as the shrunken Lachna shine in their supporting roles. Look real quickly for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit by comedian Billy Gilbert as a butler… I’m wondering if he originally had a bigger part that got cut from the movie. Any film fans know the answer to this mystery?

The special effects can best be described as “early Bert I. Gordon“, done with superimposing and rear projection. No doubt cutting edge for their time, they don’t stand up nearly as well as John P. Fulton’s work for Universal or Willis O’Brien’s marvelous KING KONG . THE DEVIL DOLL isn’t on a par with the best horrors of the 30’s, but curious fans of Tod Browning and/or Lionel Barrymore will want to take a look. Browning would make one more film, 1939’s MIRACLES FOR SALE , before retiring. Barrymore continued his thespic career as cranky Dr. Gillespie in the ‘Dr. Kildare’ films, and he’s fondly  remembered for his role as mean Mr. Potter in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Now Henry Potter… that was one really scary dude!

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Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

Cleaning Out the DVR #14: SEX & VIOLENCE, 70’S STYLE!

Groundbreaking 60’s films like BONNIE & CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, THE WILD BUNCH, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY led to the complete obliteration of the Production Code, and by the sizzling 70’s it was anything goes! Low budget exploitation filmmakers benefitted most by this loosening of standards as the following quintet of movies illustrates, filled with bouncing boobs, bloody action, pot smoking, beer drinking, and hell raising:

THE MUTHERS (Dimension 1976; D; Cirio H. Santiago) – A Filipino-made “Women in Prison” Blaxploitation actioner? Yes, please! Former Playboy Playmates Jeanne Bell and Rosanne Katon, future NFL TODAY commentator Jayne Kennedy, and ex-Bond girl Trina Parks are all trapped on a coffee plantation run by the sadistic Monteiro with no chance of escape… until there is! Loaded with gore, torture, kung-fu fighting, bare breasts, a funky score, pirates (that’s right, pirates!), and a slam-bang run through the jungle – what more could you ask for? Forget about some of the gaps in logic, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Fun Fact: The prolific Santiago produced and/or directed such Grindhouse classics as WOMEN IN CAGES, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, TNT JACKSON, EBONY IVORY & JADE, and VAMPIRE HOOKERS, among many others.

THE POM POM GIRLS (Crown International 1976; D: Joseph Ruben)- One of the better Crown International “teensploitation” flicks is a practically plotless but immensely fun outing dealing with the high school shenanigans of football players’n’cheerleaders, featuring a pre-REVENGE OF THE NERDS Robert Carradine as the school’s “class stud” and the ever-delightful Rainbeaux Smith as (what else?) a swingin’ cheerleader. Writer/director Ruben throws in every teen flick trope in the book: food fights, dirt bikes, a groovy “love van”, a football brawl, and a “suicide chicken” race straight outta REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE! There’s plenty of gratuitous nudity and hormones running wild on display, so if drive-in movies are your thing, you can’t do much better than this one. Fun Fact: Ruben went on to helm the mainstream films SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and MONEY TRAIN.

VIGILANTE FORCE (United Artists 1976; D: George Armitage) – Crack open a frosty PBR and enjoy this slice of 70’s exploitation insanity. The small California town of Elk Hills is being torn up by rowdy oil field workers, so Jan-Michael Vincent recruits his Vietnam vet brother Kris Kristofferson and his crew to clean things up. But Kris has other ideas, and soon he and his boys take over the town, beginning a reign of terror that leads to a violent, explosive climax with Kris’s vigilantes pitted against Jan-Michael’s Green Mountain Boys. Kris is one crazy, mean sumbitch in this wild actioner! Bernadette Peters shines as his sexy off-key saloon singer girl, and Victoria Principal plays Jan-Michael’s more sedate sweetie (who takes a bullet in the back courtesy of Kris… I told you he was mean!). The better-than-average supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces: Loni Anderson (as ‘Peaches’!), Antony Carbone, Peter Coe , Brad Dexter , David Doyle (Bosley on CHARLIE’S ANGELS), Paul Gleason, James Lydon, Shelley Novack, Andrew Stevens, and a cameo by the one-and-only Dick Miller ! Hang on to your hardhats and get ready for non-stop action. Fun Fact: The producer is exploitation king Roger Corman’s brother Gene, which explains Miller’s cameo and the casting of Carbone (THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA).

THE VAN (Crown International 1977; D: Sam Grossman) – Recent high school grad Bobby (Stuart Getz) buys the “love van” of his dreams in order to score with chicks in this quintessential 70’s teen sex comedy. Hollywood car customizer George Barris created Bobby’s dream machine, complete with 70’s staples like a waterbed, 8-track player, shag carpeting, and mag wheels. It’s a genuinely funny lowbrow drive-in flick featuring a pre-TAXI Danny DeVito as Bobby’s boss at the car wash, who doubles as a bookie. And remember: “Nobody calls Doogie a turd! Nobody!”. Fun Fact: The soundtrack by Sammy Johns includes his big hit “Chevy Van” as the movie’s theme song – even though Bobby’s van is actually a Dodge!

CORVETTE SUMMER (MGM 1978; D: Matthew Robbins) – High school student Mark Hamill restores a ’73 Corvette Stingray to it’s former glory only to have it stolen, so he hitches a ride to Las Vegas with wanna-be hooker Annie Potts to retrieve his baby in this uneven but harmless ‘B’ comedy. The film shifts into high action towards the end, and the finale doesn’t really satisfy, but Potts (in her film debut) delivers a wonderfully deft comic performance as the ditzy chick in yet another 70’s-style “love van” (they were everywhere!!). The supporting cast includes Danny Bonaduce, Philip Bruns, Eugene Roche, Kim Milford, and the ubiquitous Dick Miller! The glittery lights of late 70’s Vegas (set to a glittery disco soundtrack) make it almost worth your time. Fun Fact: This was Hamill’s follow-up to 1977’s STAR WARS , attempting to break free of his Luke Skywalker image. It didn’t work.

More “Cleaning Out the DVR”:

 

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

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!