Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

 

Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)

Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl Durham (a scary Howard DaSilva ), and hightails it to the sedate New England burg of Lakeville.

The Lakeville Sentinel is run by ‘Our Little Margie’ Miss Storm, as Cathy Harris, who inherited the failing rag from her late father. Cathy’s reluctant to take on the aggressive hustler as her partner, but is persuaded by old-time printer George “Parky” Parker (veteran Harry Shannon). Things get shaken up in Lakeville when the wife of Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), son of publishing mogul Ed Stanton (Herbert Marshall  ) is found murdered, and Mike exploits the tragedy for all its worth, leading to the frame-up of the Stanton’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson).

THE UNDERWORLD STORY was pretty bold for it’s time in its subject matter, dealing not only with “yellow journalism”, but also issues of race and class. I had to rewind twice when rich Clark Stanton, who killed his wife and pins the blame on Molly, tells his dad, ” Who’ll believe the word of a nigger against ours?”. You just don’t hear something like that in a film made in 1950! The only complaint I have is that Anderson, who gives a sympathetic performance as Molly, is a white woman. Couldn’t the producers have hired a black actress to essay the role? It’s also implied that old man Stanton was a bit more than just fond of his daughter-in-law. The Stantons conspire to put the Sentinel out of business when Mike crusades for Molly’s innocence, using their blue-blood connections to get local businesses to stop advertising in the paper.

There are allusions to the HUAC hearings, as the case against Molly becomes akin to the “witch trials in old Lakeville”. Indeed, this was Howard DaSilva’s last film for awhile, as the actor wound up on the blacklist. He didn’t make another film until 1961’s DAVID AND LISA. Director Cy Enfield was also blacklisted, and had to move to England to continue his career with films like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and ZULU. The screenplay by Henry Blankford (adapted by Enfield) contains some great, tough dialog, delivered by Duryea and company with gusto. Also of note is the cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), whose keen eye adds immensely to the film despite its obvious low budget.

The Familiar Face Brigade is well represented by stalwarts like Phil Arnold, Art Baker , Melville Cooper, Ned Glass, Alan Hale Jr, Frieda Inescort, Donald “Devil Bat” Kerr (once again a photographer!), Edward Van Sloan (yes, of Universal Horror fame!), and ‘The Last Charlie Chan’, Roland Winters. But it’s Dan Duryea who runs away with the acting honors, making the most of his starring opportunity. Plus he gets to clinch Gale Storm in the end. Lucky bastard!

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 3: THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (United Artists 1966)

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THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY is the GONE WITH THE WIND of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, and definitely in my Top 5 Favorite Films. After turning the genre upside down with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and inside out with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Leone’s final entry in his triptych of films starring Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name is an ambitious epic about greed, revenge, and the futility of war, told with a warped sense of humor and plenty of action. Besides Eastwood and FEW DOLLARS co-star Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach joins the cast in a performance that should have won the Oscar.

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We’re first introduced to Angel Eyes (Van Cleef), who’s one mean mutha. Sent to find information on the location of stolen Confederate gold, he kills his informant, then kills the man who hired him, and begins his search for “Bill Carson”. Meanwhile, bounty hunter ‘Blondie’ (Eastwood) turns in the bandit Tuco (Wallach) for reward money. Tuco is wanted for a laundry list of nefarious deeds and sentenced to hang. But at the hanging, Blondie shoots the rope, freeing Tuco, and the two escape, forming an alliance to scam the law with their rope trick.

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Blondie gets sick of Tuco’s bitching and ends their partnership by abandoning him in the desert. Tuco survives, and reunites with his former gang members to kill Blondie. The pistoleros are no match for Blondie and all wind up dead, but Tuco sneaks in from behind. The bandit forces Blondie to wear a noose and stand on a chair, just when the Union Army decides to bomb the town, sending the rooming house crashing in a heap. Blondie escapes, but Tuco catches up with him and forces the bounty hunter to walk across the scorching desert without food or water as he sadistically lords over him.

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Just when Blondie’s about had it, a six-horse coach comes careening across the desert landscape. Curious Tuco stops the runaway horse and finds the coach full of dead Confederate soldiers. Not one to waste an opportunity, he lifts the corpses’ wallets and watches, only to discover one of them’s still alive. It’s “Bill Carson”, who tells Tuco the name of the cemetery where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco goes to get “Carson” some water, but when he returns the man is dead. However, Blondie has managed to crawl over, and now is the only person alive who knows the name of the grave where the gold is hidden.

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The two mortal enemies are now partners again. Donning the Confederate uniforms, they make their way to a mission run by Tuco’s brother, where Blondie can convalesce. The pair then hit the road, but are captured by Union forces and sent to a POW camp. Tuco has taken the identity of “Bill Carson”, which sparks the interest of the camp’s sergeant…. Angel Eyes!

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Eli Wallach totally steals the show as Tuco. A foul-mouthed, feral animal who’s not as dumb as he looks, Tuco is alternately funny and cruel, sly as a fox and twice as dangerous. Wallach has a field day in the role, and the character is more fully fleshed out than either Eastwood or Van Cleef’s archetypes. The scene where Tuco is bathing when a bounty hunter tries to take him by surprise, delivering the line “When you have to shoot, shoot- don’t talk!”, is a classic, as is the one with Tuco in the gun shop. Wallach wasn’t even nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar (Walter Matthau won for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), but the film itself wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. That year George Kennedy won for COOL HAND LUKE, but Wallach should’ve been a shoe-in either year.

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There are so many big set-pieces in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEN UGLY, none more famous than the three-way showdown between Eastwood, Van Cleef, and Wallach. Leone’s wide-angle shots and deep close-ups are interspersed with a spinning camera effect, edited to perfection, all while Ennio Morricone’s music builds to a crescendo. Speaking of the maestro, this is my favorite of his scores, a musical masterpiece on its own that was turned into a hit record by Hugo Montenegro in 1968, reaching #2 on the Billboard charts:

And yes, I still have the 45 lying around somewhere in the basement!

Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD,THE BAD, AND THE UGLY never gets old. I watch it a least once a year, and always marvel at something I didn’t quite pick up on before. Even if you’re not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, the film transcends the genre into cinematic art by one of the screen’s true masters. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go downstairs and look for that 45….

 

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 2: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (United Artists 1965)

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After the huge international success of his A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , Sergio Leone was red hot. Another Spaghetti Western was hastily written by Leone and Luciano Vincenzoni (and an uncredited assist from Sergio Donati), but FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is pure Leone, from the visual style to the bits of humor interspersed between the violence. Clint Eastwood returned as The Man With No Name, paired this time with veteran Western heavy Lee Van Cleef as the beady-eyed Colonel Mortimer.

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Eastwood’s character (briefly referred to as ‘Manco”) is a fast-drawing bounty hunter. He’s interested in the $10,000 reward for escaped killer/outlaw Indio. Mortimer is also interested in Indio, but has another motive: a young Indio raped his sister, resulting in her suicide during the act. The two meet up in El Paso, where Indio plans to rob the bank’s estimated one million dollars, kept in a secret cabinet. Manco and Mortimer engage in pissing contest in the street, shooting each other’s hats, but soon form an uneasy alliance to split the reward money. Manco infiltrates Indio’s gang, but the robbery is successful. Mortimer shows up as a safecracker willing to help for a price, followed by treachery at every turn until the final shootout between Mortimer and Indio, filmed as a warmup to the more heralded scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

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Lee Van Cleef became a star at age 40 thanks to this film. The actor had struggled for years in Hollywood, playing Western henchmen (HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), noir goons (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL), even sci-fi villains (IT CONQUORED THE WORLD), but after an uncredited role in 1962’s all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, he was absent from the big screen until Leone came calling. From the opening panoramic shot of him nailing a rider with his rifle, Van Cleef’s persona as one scary dude not to be messed with was established. Suddenly, after all the struggles, he was a star, and made Spaghetti Westerns right until the craze died down in the 1970’s. Van Cleef continued to work steadily in films, from his role in John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK to costarring in the television ninja series THE MASTER, right up until his death in 1989.

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Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojos in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) plays Indio as the meanest, craziest bandito the West has ever seen. This nut makes Liberty Valance look like a boy scout! He’s always smoking weed to obliterate the memory of what happened that night with Mortimer’s sister, and carries a chiming pocketwatch with her picture (Mortimer has one, too). Many of the cast of Leone’s previous film appear, as does another Familiar Face: German actor Klaus Kinski, making his Spaghetti debut as the hunchbacked outlaw Wild.

Lee Van Cleef (Col. Douglas Mortimer) is not interested in collecting the bounty on El Indio and his gang, motivated solely by retribution. Clint Eastwood (Manco) can collect the money.

Ennio Morricone’s music is back, a staple of these films. The hauntingly whistled theme, with it’s by now familiar whipcracks and wordless chorus, is a classic in its own right. The camerawork by Massimo Dallamano, a standout in FISTFUL, is excellent, guided by Leone’s painterly eye. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was another worldwide hit, but like it’s predecessor not released in the U.S. until 1967. Leone’s next film would be what I consider his greatest, the final chapter in the Dollars Triolgy, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

(to be continued… )

 

The Dollars Trilogy Pt 1: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (United Artists 1964)

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If the American Western film wasn’t completely dead in 1964, it was surely on life support. Television had saturated the market with weekly oaters to the point of overkill. John Wayne’s starring vehicles were still making money, but the rest of Hollywood’s big screen Westerns were mainly made to fill the bottom half of double feature bills, from Audie Murphy outings to the low budget, veteran laden films of producer A.C. Lyles.

Meanwhile in Italy, writer/director Sergio Leone was as tired of the sword & sandal films he was making as was his audience. He had a notion to revitalize the failing western genre by giving it a new, European perspective. Leone grew up on Hollywood westerns, and wanted to turn them on their ear by showing a more realistic, grittier version of the Old West. Searching high and low for an American name actor to star, Leone was turned down by the likes of Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Rory Calhoun before finally settling on a young television actor named , Clint Eastwood co-star of the series RAWHIDE. The result was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the first true “Spaghetti Western” and a bona fide film classic.

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Clint, with his iconic serape and cheroot, plays The Man With No Name, who arrives in the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, rule the roost, with violence and death as commonplace in the town as its dusty streets. He kills four Baxters and signs on with the Rojos, but ultimately plays both sides against the middle. Eastwood helps the beautiful young Marisol escape the clutches of the murderous Ramon Rojos and flee with her husband and son, only to be beaten and tortured for his troubles.  But of course, Clint escapes and returns for his revenge in a bloody five against one conclusion.

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If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Akira Kuroswa’s samurai epic YOJIMBO (1961), of which this film’s a remake, in the way THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI. Only Leone didn’t credit it as such, and a lawsuit was pressed by Kurosawa, who said it was “a fine movie, but it was MY movie”* (the suit was eventually settled out of court). Leone was also obviously influenced by the films of John Ford, with beautifully framed shots of Spain’s Tabernas Desert and Cabo de Gata-Najir National Park standing in for Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, all captured by DP Massimo Dallamano. Those trademark Leone close-ups are in evidence here, a tactic reused by virtually every man who ever helmed a Spaghetti Western. The violence is swift and unromanticised, another Leone trademark that would later be usurped by a score of directors, especially Sam Peckinpah.

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Another Leone trademark began here, his collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone. Right from those animated opening credits, we hear something out of the ordinary, as budget constrictions (the entire film only cost around $200,000) caused Morricone to improvise, using whipcracks, gunshots, a chorus, and that twanging Fender guitar to create a unique, memorable score. Morricone woud work on all of Leone’s Westerns and soon became the most sought-after film composer on both sides of the Atlantic, finally receiving his due with an Oscar for THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2016.

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A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS made Clint Eastwood an international star, and Spaghetti Western aficionados will recognize many Faces that may not be Familiar to most film fans: there’s Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon), Marianne Koch (Marisol), Jose Calvo, Sighardt Rupp, Mario Brega, Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, Lorenzo Robledo, Antonio Molina Rojo, and Jose Canalejas, all of whom pop up in dozens of other Italian horse operas, including Leone’s. It became Italy’s highest grossing film ever, but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967. It was a huge success stateside as well, and a few months later Leone’s sequel, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, opened in America. We’ll take a look at that one next time…

*quote taken from The Emperor and The Wolf (2001) by Stuart Galbraith IV, New York: Faber and Faber.

The Perfect Crime Film: KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1952)

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My friend Rob suggested I review KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL awhile back, and I’m sorry I waited so long. This is a film noir lover’s delight, packed with tension, violence, double-crosses, and a head-turning performance by John Payne in the lead. Made on an economical budget like the same year’s THE NARROW MARGIN , director Phil Karlson and George Diskant create a shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere brimming with danger at every turn.

I knew Payne mainly from his 40’s musicals and his idealistic lawyer opposite Maureen O’Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, but he’s a revelation here as Joe Rolfe, a florist truck driver who’s set up as a patsy by a gang of armored car robbers. He can dish out (and take) beatings with the best them, and delivers the tough-talking dialog with aplomb. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL helped Payne shed his lightweight image, and he went on to do other dark crime films and rugged Westerns. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them!

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The plot isn’t overly complex: ex-cop Tim Foster. aka ‘Mr.Big’, hires three hoods to commit “the perfect crime”, a meticulously planned robbery in broad daylight. He insists all four of them wear masks so no one knows the other’s identity except himself. Timed to the last second, the caper goes off without a hitch, and Foster gives the goons each a torn-in-half king playing card, telling them he’ll contact them after the heat dies down to split the loot. Rolfe is grilled by the police, but ultimately let go when his alibi checks out.

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But he’s lost his job, and the now destitute Rolfe discovers there’s a 25% reward for finding the missing $1.2 million stolen in the robbery. Getting a hot tip from his bartender buddy, Rolfe flies to Tijuana and shadows Pete Harris, a degenerate gambler who may have been involved. He confronts Harris and beats the truth out of him, and is about to accompany the crook to Barados when Pete’s gunned down by the Mexican police at the airport. Rolfe then decides to impersonate Harris, since the gang have never laid eyes on one another.

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There he encounters Tony Romano and Boyd Kane, and after a suspicious Romano tosses his room, learns the pair were in on the heist. Foster is also at the resort, and we learn why he planned it all: after being forced to retire for backing the wrong politician, Foster plans to swerve the crooks and collect that  reward himself. Complicating things is Helen, Foster’s law student daughter, who arrived on the plane with Rolfe and is romantically interested in him.

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The violence is both realistic and graphic. I found the scene where Rolfe has Romano in a stranglehold, shoving a pistol under his chin, particularly brutal. Editor Buddy Small, son of producer Edward, keeps things tight, and Diskant’s black & white photography shows why he was one of the great noir cinematographers. Phil Karlson learned his craft directing Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys entries at Monogram, and made some solid 50’s noirs, including the ferocious THE PHENIX CITY STORY . He later remade KID GALAHAD with Elvis Presley, did a pair of Dean Martin/Matt Helm flicks, and the classic 1973 WALKING TALL. His career is well worth a look for film fans.

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KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL costars four of the screen’s baddest bad guys. Veteran Preston Foster gives heft to the role of Mr. Big, Jack Elam plays the chain-smoking Harris, oily Lee Van Cleef is womanizer Romano, and Neville Brand is chilling as the gum-chewing Kane. Pretty Coleen Gray rounds out the cast as Foster’s daughter Helen. Some of the plot elements here were reworked into Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut RESERVOIR DOGS; much as I liked that film, I think KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL surpasses it. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob!