Eat To The Beat(nik): Peter Falk in THE BLOODY BROOD (Kay Films 1959)

I suppose you could categorize THE BLOODY BROOD as Canadian Beatnik Noir – and it would definitely be a category of one! But this low-budget entry from The Great White North tells its tale at a fairly swift pace (or aboot as swift as those Canucks can get, eh?), features an oddball cast of characters, and offers viewers the unquestionably non-Canadian Peter Falk in his second film as a dope-peddling psychopath who gets his kicks from “death… the last great challenge of the collective mind”.

Falk, warming up for his breakthrough role as Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles in MURDER INC. a year later, plays Nico, who  pushes his junk to the Beat Generation rejects that hang around the local cafe (“He’s a salesman, baby… he sells dreams”). When an old man dies of a heart attack before their eyes, psycho Nico thinks it’d be far-out to deliberately off a square, so he and his pal Francis give a ground-glass-laced hamburger to an unsuspecting messenger boy. The kid calls his big brother Cliff right before he croaks, and now Cliff dives into the seedy world of bongos, bad poetry, and slinky chicks in leotards to avenge the boy, despite being warned off by Police Detective McLeod and copping a beating from a pair of Nico’s leather-clad thugs, Studs and The Weasel…

Falk steals the show as the cool-but-deadly Nico, giving us a mesmerizing portrayal of a sociopath. The film serves as a showcase for the then-32-year-old Falk’s undeniable talent, and his performance is worth the proverbial price of admission. As for the rest of the cast, none of them are anyone you’d immediately know, unless you’re a fan of Spaghetti Westerns – actor Jack Betts, who plays Our Hero Cliff, later changed his name to Hunt Powers and rode the dusty trail in Italian Horse Operas like SUGAR COLT, ONE DAMNED DAY AT DAWN… DJANGO MEETS SARTANA (as Django), DJANGO AND SARTANA ARE COMING… IT’S THE END (as Sartana!), COFFIN FULL OF DOLLARS, and A FISTFUL OF DEATH (and later portrayed Boris Karloff in the James Whale biopic GODS AND MONSTERS!).

All the usual beatnik trappings are to be found here in THE BLOODY BROOD, and director Julian Roffman manages to squeeze a decent little ‘B’ out of his rock-bottom budget limitations, aided by veteran DP Eugene Schufftan, the German immigrant who worked on everything from Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS to Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE to his Oscar-winning work on Robert Rossen’s THE HUSTLER. There are four screenwriters credited, including Elwood Ullman . Wait, what? Ullman? Famous for scripting all those Three Stooges/Bowery Boys slapstick comedies? How’d he get in here? Maybe he took a side job while out on a caribou hunting trip, eh?

THE BLOODY BROOD is now available for viewing on The Film Detective

Psycho-Killer: Peter Falk in MURDER INC. (20th Century-Fox 1960)

American filmgoers have had a long love affair with the gangster movie. The Pre-Code era was riddled with rat-a-tat-tat tommy gun action from Warner Brothers, MGM, and the other studios, helping to make stars out of Edward G. Robinson , James Cagney , Clark Gable , and a host of movie tough guys. Things quieted down once the Code was strictly enforced, but the gangster was still around, sometimes in comedy masks as likeable lugs, deneutered yet always lurking on-screen in some capacity.

By the late 1940’s, film noir introduced us to a darker vision, one seething with murderous rage. Cagney in WHITE HEAT, Robinson in KEY LARGO , and virtually everything Lawrence Tierney was in showed us gangsters were no “swell guys”, but anti-social psychopaths. The 50’s saw the gangster relegated mainly to ‘B’ status, just another genre to pit the good guys against the bad guys. Then in 1959, along came TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, bringing the Roaring Twenties back to colorful life, and the gangster was back with a vengeance.

It’s here we find MURDER INC., a true-life tale about the infamous hit squad from Brooklyn’s Brownsville section who conducted a nationwide kill-spree under orders from organized crime. The film doesn’t break any new ground, but it does introduce Peter Falk as a force to be reckoned with playing Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a psycho-killer if there ever was one. Falk’s Reles fits right in with the Warner Brothers’ Gangland Rogue’s Gallery of Cagney, Bogart, et al, and earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He’s as cruel and vicious as the devil, his weapon of choice an ice pick, and makes for one memorably malevolent mug!

Reles and his band of assassins get their contracts from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (David J. Stewart), a Jewish “businessman” who controls New York vice alongside Mafioso Albert Anastasia (Howard I. Smith). Their first hit is on Catskills comic Walter Sage (Morey Amersterdam in a cameo ), and Reles recruits unwitting ex-band singer Joe Collins (Stuart Whitman), in debt to Reles up to his ears, to help set the crooked comedian up. Collins’s dancer wife Eadie (May Britt) is repulsed by Reles and insults him when he’s brought to her home; the hood later responds by attacking and brutally raping her. Reles then sets them up in a lavish apartment furnished with ill-gotten gains.

When Lepke is under indictment and forced to go into hiding, he stays with Joe and Eadie, keeping them virtual prisoners catering to his whims. Lepke sends his right-hand man Mendy Weiss (Joseph Bernard in a chilling performance) to kill the witness against him. The crime lord ends up in Leavenworth, and pressure is put on the mob by crusading DA Burton Turkus (Henry Morgan, the radio and TV personality, not the man from M*A*S*H). Lepke, feeling the heat, orders Mendy to hit everybody, including the Murder Inc. gang (which may have served as the inspiration for Michael Corleone’s revenge in Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER!). Reles and Eadie start singing like canaries; she’s killed on the boardwalk, and Reles is thrown out a window, leaving only Joe to lift the lid off organized crime and reserve a seat for Lepke in the electric chair.

There are some good flourishes in MURDER INC., with the violence coming in quick spurts, but on the whole the movie suffers from its budget limitations. Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE ) began the film as director, but was fired and replaced by producer Burt Balaban (actor Bob’s cousin). The actors, while all good, were from the Broadway (and Off-Broadway) stage, giving the film little star power. Falk was a virtual unknown at the time, and Whitman just another Fox contract player. The movie boosted both their careers, with Falk going on to much greater success as everyone’s favorite rumpled detective Lt. Columbo.

MURDER INC. features soon-to-be Familiar Faces like Simon Oakland as a dogged cop and Vincent Gardenia as Lepke’s mobbed-up lawyer. Actors Seymour Cassel and Sylvia Miles make their film debuts, and jazz singer Sarah Vaughn shows up to perform a couple of numbers. While not in the same category as gangster films past, it will certainly sate the crime buff’s appetite for destruction, and Peter Falk’s sociopathic ‘Kid Twist’ alone makes it more than worth watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tag Team Turmoil: …ALL THE MARBLES (MGM 1981)

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Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper , the worlds of professional wrestling and the movies had long been entwined. After all, they’re both show biz! Grapplers like Nat Pendleton , Mike Mazurki, Tor Johnson , Harold Sakata (GOLDFINGER’s Oddjob), and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER) made the successful transition from the squared circle to Hollywood, not to mention Mexican luchadores like El Santo and Mil Mascaras, who starred in the ring and in their own series of movies south of the border. Even early TV wrestling phenom Gorgeous George had his own feature film, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

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1981’s …ALL THE MARBLES was made just before the Hulkamania craze started a boom in pro wrestling’s popularity. It’s a serio-comic character study centering on small time manager Harry Sears and his two young charges Iris and Molly,  better known as tag team The California Dolls. Harry and Iris have an on-again/off again relationship, while Molly pops pills to bolster her self-esteem. The trio traverse the highways and back roads of American trying to make a name for themselves, working in front of small crowds for low pay. When sleazebag promoter Eddie Cisco stiffs them over twenty bucks, Harry takes a baseball bat to Cisco’s Mercedes, making a big enemy in the insular wrestling world.

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Harry manages to get the girls a non-title match against the champs The Toledo Tigers, a match they’re supposed to lose. But the Dolls, tired of third-rate paydays, pull a double-cross and pin the Tigers, earning them more animosity. When Harry can’t land his team a lucrative spot on a big card in Chicago, he books them in a mud wresting match at a small town fair. Iris and Molly are irate, refusing at first to participate in a “freak show”, prompting Harry to lose his temper, screaming “Every time you walk into a ring, you’re a freak. That’s what a wrestler is!”

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After the humiliating fracas almost ends the partnership, the girls discover they’ve been ranked number three by a national magazine. Harry uses this leverage to get them that coveted Chicago spot, where they face their rivals the Tigers, losing this time around. However, Eddie Cisco’s in attendance, and wants the Dolls to appear at his big Christmas show in Reno against the Tigers for the title. He offers a $10,000 winner-take-all purse, with a catch… he wants to sleep with Iris. She takes one for the team, earning a smack from Harry for her degradation and betrayal, but the deed’s been done, and the California Dolls are in the big time.

Harry and Cisco place bet over who will win. Harry lays out dough to get the Dolls publicized, and gives them a grand entrance dressed as showgirls, carried on the shoulders of some muscular hunks. But what he doesn’t yet know is Cisco’s hired a crooked referee to ensure victory. Can the Dolls overcome the stacked deck and win the championship? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending but, if you’ve seen sports movies like this, you can probably guess the answer.

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Peter Falk’s  charm makes the character of  Harry work. He’s a walking contradiction, spouting Clifford Odets and Will Rogers quotes, listening to his favorite opera (Pagliacci, of course) in the car, while being tight with a buck and cheating on Iris. He’s “a lousy human being” as Molly says, but you can tell he genuinely cares for Iris and Molly, and at heart only wants the best for them. There aren’t many actors that could make a louse like Harry likeable, but Falk’s acting ability pulls it off.

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Vicki Frederick (Iris) is good too, and was a dancer who worked with Bob Fosse. She was in the Broadway and film versions of A CHORUS LINE, and should have had a better career. Instead, she got stuck in junk like CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMIETOWN. Laurene Landon (Molly) had some good roles too, including Velma in I, THE JURY and the first two MANIAC COP films. The girls trained for this movie with wresting legend Mildred Burke, who held the women’s wrestling title for twenty years, and did their own wrestling in the film. The scenes are well choreographed, with moves that are still used in the wrestling business today (the more things change…). Burt Young’s appropriately sleazy as Cisco, aided by his bodyguard, the dimwitted Jerome (Lenny Montana). Mike Mazurki cameos as a referee, and L.A. sportscaster Chick Hearn appears as himself. Others in the cast you may recognize include Tracy Reed, Claudette Nevins, Clyde Kusatsu, Angela Aames, and footballer Mean Joe Greene.

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When I saw Richard Jaeckel playing the crooked ref, I wondered what the hell is he doing here? The answer’s simple: he was doing a favor for his old friend director Robert Aldrich. …ALL THE MARBLES was Aldrich’s last film, after a career that saw him work on everything from film noir (KISS ME DEADLY, THE BIG KNIFE) to action epics (THE DIRTY DOZEN , EMPEROR OF THE NORTH) to horror (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, HUSH.. HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE) to comedy (THE LONGEST YARD). While this one’s far from his best, it’s certainly a unique addition to the Aldrich filmography, and worth watching for fans of both  “rasslin'” and action movies.

(…ALL THE MARBLES is my contribution to the ” Athletes in Film Blogathon ” hosted by the wonderful Once Upon A Screen and Wide Screen World! Now playing at a blog near you!)

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Hidden Gem: Natalie Wood in PENELOPE (MGM, 1966)

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When I first recorded PENELOPE, I thought it would end up in one of my “Cleaning Out The DVR” posts. But after watching this hidden gem, I’ve decided to give it a full review. PENELOPE not only gives Natalie Wood a chance to show off her comedic skills, it’s a perfect time capsule of mid-60s filmmaking. The movie bridges the gap between the old screwball comedies and the more modern attitudes to come. That’s not to say PENELOPE is a must-see classic, but it’s an underrated film that I recommend to anyone who likes comedy, 60s style.

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Penelope Elcott is a scatterbrained kleptomanic who, feeling her husband James (Ian Bannen) is neglecting her, robs his bank. She tells it to her shrink, Dr. Mannix (the always funny Dick Shawn), who doesn’t believe her until she shows him a wad of cash. Flashbacks (including one with Jonathan Winters) reveal Penelope’s criminal history. Penelope takes the yellow Givenchy dress she escaped in to a thrift store, where an unscrupulous couple (Lou Jacobi and Oscar winner Lila Kedrova) buys it for seven bucks. Police Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk, preparing for Lt. Columbo) is on the case, and has his suspicions about the banker’s wife.

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Dr. Mannix, who’s also in love with Penelope, persuades her to give him the cash so he can return it to the bank in their night deposit box. But when he tries to do the deed, a cop siren scares him off. The loot is picked up by a hooker named Honeysuckle Rose, who subsequently gets pinched for the robbery. Penny feels bad for her and tries to confess, but no one will believe her. The scheming couple from the thrift store find a magazine clipping of Penelope wearing the yellow outfit and try to blackmail her. But she’s more than happy to let them tell James and the cops, so they figure something’s fishy and destroy the evidence. Perplexed Penelope then asks James to throw a cocktail party, where she plans to return all the jewelry she’s stole over the years. None of the victims will take it back, and Penelope runs away, later figuring out a plan to make everyone believe she’s a thief in the films madcap conclusion.

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Critics of the day unfairly savaged PENELOPE, sinking it at the box office. It deserves another look for many reasons. The cast is hilarious, balancing amusing dialogue with slapstick humor. Besides those mentioned, standouts in small roles include Arthur Mallet, Carl Ballantine, and Arlene Golonka (as the hooker). Even veteran Fritz Feld shows up in one of the flashbacks to give us his patented “pop”. The witty screenplay is by George Wells, writer of several Red Skelton vehicles, and movies like TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME (1949), ANGELS IN THE OUTFIELD (1951), and his own Oscar winner, DESIGNING WOMEN (1957). Speaking of designing women, Edith Head deserves special mention for her work, making Natalie Wood more beautiful than ever (if that’s possible). Director Arthur Hiller has done more recognizable movies (THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, LOVE STORY, THE HOSPITAL, SILVER STREAK), but PENELOPE shouldn’t be forgotten. Obviously I liked it, and I think you will, too. It’s a pleasant surprise for comedy buffs, fans of Natalie Wood, or even casual viewers. It can be purchased on Amazon, viewed online, or occasionally on TCM. Catch it when you can, you’ll thank me for it!