Off-Brand Spaghetti: MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (United Artists 1969)

It’s hanging day at a remote Arizona prison outpost, and four men are scheduled to swing from the gallows. After they’re executed, the four pine boxes pop open, and outlaw Luke Santee and his gang commence firing, their six-guns blazing, as they try to free Luke’s baby brother. The escape attempt is an epic fail as ‘Killer’ Cain, a prisoner for 18 years now up for parole, stops the brother from leaving his cell and getting slaughtered, with Luke vowing revenge…

That opening scene, a violent, gory bloodbath, makes one think MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE is going to be a Sergio Leone-inspired American Spaghetti Western. It even stars a former TV Western hero named Clint – big Clint (CHEYENNE) Walker ! But the episodic nature of George Schenck’s script kills that idea, as the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Spaghetti or Traditional Western? Character study, comedy, drama? It plays more like an extended pilot episode for a new TV series, thanks to director Robert Sparr, who worked with Clint on CHEYENNE and whose credits include episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE RAT PATROL, STAR TREK, and THE WILD WILD WEST.

Clint does get to encounter some colorful characters along the way. Chief among them is Vincent Price , taking a break from his AIP horrors, as carny spieler Dan Ruffalo, who goads Clint into picking up his gun once again and traveling through the Southwest as part of a Wild West sideshow. Price is worth the price (sorry) of admission, though he can’t help looking somewhat demonic after spending all those years with Roger Corman. Anne Francis plays a pretty artist from back East who meets and falls in love with Clint. Another brawny actor, former NFL star and movie Tarzan (and the future Junior Justice of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT!) Mike Henry is the vengeful Santee. But Paul Hampton, whose claim to fame is as cowriter of the early rock hit “Sea of Heartbreak”, overacts as young psycho sharpshooter Billy, who’s jealous when Clint joins the carny. Some Familiar Faces on the trail include Frank Baxter, Robert Foulk, Emile Meyer , and William Woodson, whose face may not be all that familiar, but you’ll immediately recognize his voice as the narrator of TV’s SUPER FRIENDS and THE ODD COUPLE.

So the question remains, is MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE worth your time? Well, I guess if you’re a Western buff, Clint Walker die-hard, or Vincent Price completist, then you’ll want to view it. I stuck with it til the end (which was quite bizarre and unexpected), but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s one of those kinda, sorta in-the-middle movies that are okay for a late-night-can’t-sleep or rainy-day-let’s-clean-out-the-DVR watch. Don’t run away from it, but don’t go out of your way to see it, either.

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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:

 

New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Wild Wyler West: Gary Cooper is THE WESTERNER (United Artists 1940)

It’s hard to believe that, except for two films in which he cameoed, I haven’t covered any movies starring my namesake, Gary Cooper . Nor have I written anything about any of major Hollywood director William Wyler’s works. So let’s kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1940’s THE WESTERNER, one of the best Westerns ever. It’s a highly fictionalized account of the life and times of Judge Roy Bean (1825-1903), played by Walter Brennan in his third and final Oscar-winning role, with Cooper as a drifter at odds with “The Law West of the Pecos”.

That “law” is Bean, who sides with the open range cattlemen against the homesteaders who’ve moved into the area. Into the town of Vinagaroon rides Coop as Cole Harden on his way to California. Unfortunately for Cole, he rides in on a horse stolen from one of Bean’s cronies, and is put on trial in Bean’s saloon-cum-courthouse. The sly Cole is saved from the hangman’s noose thanks to some quick thinking, gloming onto Bean’s obsession with singer/actress Lili Langtry. Cole claims to not only have met “The Jersey Lily” but possess a lock of her hair, and smooth talks his way into Bean’s good graces.

The homesteaders are disheartened by the cattlemen’s constant harassment, and begin leaving West Texas in droves. Cole stops by one of the ranches to thank Jane Ellen Matthews, who tried to stand up for him at his trial, and finds out some of the sodbusters have ridden into Vingaroon to lynch Bean. Cole rides ahead to avert catastrophe, and an uneasy truce between cowboys and farmers is formed. That truce doesn’t last long, and Cole is forced to choose sides between Jane Ellen and the sodbusters and Bean’s men, while the judge awaits the coming of Lily Langtry herself to nearby Fort Davis…

The interplay between Cooper and Brennan is a master class in screen acting. The two actors made six features together, and were friends offscreen as well. Whether feeling each other out while guzzling some ‘Rub of the Brush’ (so strong it eats right through Bean’s wooden bar!), Cole’s fanciful tales of Lily Langtry captivating the enamored Bean, or their final showdown (which heavily influenced the finale of Don Siegel’s THE SHOOTIST ), these two are perfection. The taciturn, boyish Cooper is a movie star like they don’t make anymore, and Brennan matches him scene for scene.

Wyler came up through the ranks making silent Westerns at Universal, and his resume reads like an All-Time Great Movie list: DEAD END, JEZEBEL, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, THE LETTER, MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, DETECTIVE STORY, ROMAN HOLIDAY, BEN-HUR. He directed fourteen actors to Oscar victories, which must be a record! Wyler and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Gregg Toland , create a deep-focus Western world, and though the screenplay by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch may be historically inaccurate, the film’s look certainly isn’t. There’s an ambitious, exciting scene where the cattlemen burn out the homesteaders, and the “special photographic effects” are credited to another ace cinematographer, Archie Stout .

Doris Davenport plays Cooper’s love interest Jane Ellen – wait, who? Miss Davenport was a former model who was a contender for the Scarlett O’Hara role in GONE WITH THE WIND (wasn’t everybody?), and has but nine credits on IMDb. Apparently, she quit acting after 1940’s BEHIND THE NEWS, but her performance here shows she could’ve been a star given half the chance (at least in my opinion). A very young Forrest Tucker makes his debut as a farmer, while veteran Fred Stone appears in his last as Jane Ellen’s father. Others in the cast are a young Dana Andrews , Stanley Andrews, Trevor Bardette, Lilian Bond (as Lily Langrty) , Charles Halton, Paul Hurst, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Tyler , and Chill Wills.

THE WESTERNER is full of so many great bits it would take me all day to point them all out. So I’ll just say, putting all those bits together adds up to a classic Western that’s hard to resist for film buffs. The performances, the dialog, the camerawork, direction – what are you waiting for, go watch it now!

 

 

Christmas With 007: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (United Artists 1969)

(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the action, romance, and quips more than adequately, and makes Bond all-too human. Perhaps that’s the trouble, that they wanted their super-spy to be super, but personally I think Lazenby made a fine Bond, and wish he’d continued in the part.

(courtesy ‘Art of the Title’ website)

Along with humanizing 007, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE gives us a back-to-basics approach, with more emphasis on plot and less gadgets and gimmicks. This is evident in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond (whose new face isn’t fully shown until around the halfway mark) saves a young woman from drowning herself in the ocean, then is attacked by and fights off some unknown assailants (and gets off the witty line “This never happened to the other fellow”). There’s no bombastic theme song; what we get instead is a montage of the previous Bond films inside a stylized martini glass, as if to state “out with the old, in with the new”!

The young woman is Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, who prefers to be called Tracy (“Teresa was a saint; I am not”), who turns out to be the daughter of European crime boss Draco, who may have information leading to the location of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. But Bond is taken off the Blofeld case by M (still played by Bernard Lee ), and the licenced-to-kill agent angrily submits his resignation. The loyal Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell ) arranges instead for Bond to be granted two weeks leave. Bond travels to Portugal to meet Draco, who thinks Bond would make a good match for Tracy, and uses his information as leverage.

Bond and Tracy fall in love for real, and 007 then goes back on Blofeld’s trail, disguising himself as a genealogist to infiltrate the SPECTRE chief’s Swiss Alps mountaintop lair. Blofeld is posing as a benevolent research scientist seeking to cure the world’s allergies, and his patients are twelve beautiful women – Bond’s in heaven! But heaven can wait, as he discovers Blofeld’s fiendish plan to use the girls as his “Angels of Death” and spread his deadly “Virus Omega”, which will cause infertility among all species of life on Earth and the destruction of the human race unless his demands are met…

There’s no lacking on the action front, with exciting sequences like Bond’s daring escape down the mountain on skis while pursued by Blofeld and his minions, an icy stock car race in Tracy’s Mercury Cougar XR7, Bond vs. Blofeld in a bobsled chase, and Draco’s team assault on Blofeld’s lair. First time director Peter Hunt had been an editor on several Bond films and was more than familiar with the territory. Editing chores were taken over by John Glen, who’d eventually move to the director’s chair for five Bonds (the final three with Roger Moore, two with Timothy Dalton).

Diana Rigg  was no stranger to the spy game, having spent three seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel on TV’s THE AVENGERS. Diana makes a great Bond girl as Tracy, the only woman he’d ever fallen in love with to this point, and can hold her own in the action department (*SPOILER ALERT* her death by Blofeld’s assassin after her wedding to James comes as a sad but necessary shock, as Bond must always remain a man alone). A pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas is an elegantly evil Blofeld (though my favorite is still Charles Gray ). Italian star Gabrielle Ferzetti (L’AVVENTURA, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) is equally elegant as the cultured crime lord Draco. Among those “Angels of Death” you’ll find Julie Ege (Hammer’s CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT), Joanna Lumley (ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’s Patsy), Catherine Schell (SPACE: 1999’s Maya), and Angela Scoular (the ’67 Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE).

As for George Lazenby, he marched to his own drum, and has had a varied career, including the Italian giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?, some kung-fu films for producer Raymond Chow, and the French soft-core EMMANUELLE series. His post-Bond work doesn’t amount to much, but he’s happy. We’re happy too, if only for his one appearance as Her Majesty’s Greatest Secret Agent. I’ll leave you with James & Tracy’s love theme, “We Have All the Time in the World”, sung by jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong:

Outrageous Fortune: Vincent Price in THEATER OF BLOOD (United Artists 1973)

Vincent Price  traded in Edgar Allan Poe for William Shakespeare (and American-International for United Artists) in THEATER OF BLOOD, playing an actor’s dream role: Price not only gets to perform the Bard of Avon’s works onscreen, he gets to kill off all his critics! As you would imagine, Price has a field day with the part, serving up deliciously thick slices of ham with relish as he murders an all-star cast of British thespians in this fiendishly ingenious screenplay concocted  by Anthony Greville-Bell and directed with style by Douglas Hickox.

Edward Lionheart felt so slighted by both scathing criticism and once again being stiffed at the prestigious Critics’ Circle award, he broke up their little soiree by doing a swan dive into London’s mighty Thames. His body was never found, and everyone assumed they had seen Lionheart’s final performance, but unbeknownst to all he was fished out of the river by a band of drunken derelicts. Two years later, a series of gruesome murders based on Shakespeare’s plays begin to strike down the critics one by one, baffling Scotland Yard, until critic Peregrine Devlin puts two and two together and comes to the realization Edward Lionheart is alive and well and hell-bent on sweet revenge…

The murders get more and more ghastly as the film moves forward, as Lionheart rewrites Shakespeare to fit his bloody agenda and pick off some of England’s finest actors as the critics. His ragged followers descend on Michael Hordern ala JULIUS CAESAR, Dennis Price is speared and dragged behind a horse (TROILIUS AND CRESSIDA), Arthur Lowe is decapitated in a scene from CYMBELINE that’s reminiscent of Price’s Dr. Phibes films, Harry Andrews has a pound of flesh extracted (THE MERCHANT OF VENICE), Robert Coote’s  drowned in a vat of wine like the Duke of Clarence in RICHARD III (a part Price played in Universal’s 1939 TOWER OF LONDON, later graduating to essay Richard in Corman’s 1962 version), a neat twist on OTHELLO features Jack Hawkins and Diana Dors , Price’s future wife Coral Brown is burned to a crisp under a hairdryer in a campy take on HENRY VI, and flamboyant Robert Morley gets served his just desserts in a terrifying retelling of TITUS ANDRONICUS. Ian Hendry as Devlin is spared during a swashbuckling scene from ROMEO AND JULIET, only to have to be rescued at the finale in a nod to KING LEAR.

Price claimed THEATER OF BLOOD was one of his favorite roles, and it’s easy to understand why. Not only does he get to recite Shakespeare, he has the pleasure of offing his critics with gleeful delight! His contract with AIP had expired (though they would release the similar Amicus production MADHOUSE with Price the next year), horror films were beginning to go in a new direction, and Vincent Price was the last man standing of the classic horror era. He gives the part of Edward Lionheart his all, as he always did, playing to the balcony to deliver the gory goods his fans paid to see. THEATER OF BLOOD is the last of what horror fans consider the “Vincent Price Movie” subgenre, begun with his late 50’s William Castle shockers and continued with Roger Corman’s Poe films. It’s a fitting coda, though Price would keep making movie and TV appearances right up until his death twenty years later.

Diana Rigg gets a fun, showy role as Lionheart’s daughter/accomplice Edwina, a special effects person who aids and abets dear old dad on his murder spree. Rigg matches Price in the ham-slicing department, no small feat, and the Shakespearian trained GAME OF THRONES actress is a delight. Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes represent the law, and Hammer veteran Madeline Smith is on hand as Devlin’s secretary. Yet everyone takes a backseat to Vincent Price at his bombastic best, making mincemeat out of his critics and making THEATER OF BLOOD a whole lot of fun for horror fans in general, and Price fans in particular.

(And don’t forget… the 4th annual “Halloween Havoc!” Horrorthon begins Tuesday, Octobrrr 1st here at Cracked Rear Viewer! 31 horror classics in 31 days!)