Remembering Those Artists Who Have Died……2009

They were all my friends, and they died”- Jim Carroll (People Who Died) 

A remembrance to those artists whose talents have enriched our lives, moved our hearts , inspired our minds and just plain entertained us over the years. They are gone but they have left behind legacies that we will not forget.

 Ellie Greenwich

Estelle Bennett

Paul Burke

Robert Anderson                                         

                    Karl Malden

Dan O’Bannon

Merce Cunningham

Britney Murphy

                              Jennifer Jones  

Jim Carroll (Writer, Musician)

Irving Penn

Val Avery

Maurice Jarre

Paul Naschy

Gene Barry

Arnold Laven

Michael Jackson

Soupy Sales

                      Al Martino  

Mary Travers

Patrick Swayze

Les Paul

John Hughes 

                              Budd Schulberg 

Frank McCourt

Gale Storm

Farrah Fawcett

Ed McMahon 

                           David Carradine  

Dom DeLuise

Arnold Stang

Beatrice Arthur

                                  Natasha Richardson

Horton Foote

James Whitmore

John Updike

Andrew Wyeth

Ricardo Montalban 

                             Patrick McGohoon

Pat Hingle

Donald Westlake 

Robin Wood 

                                   Charis Wilson  

Paul Wendkos 

Carl Ballantine 

                      Lou Jacobi  

Joseph Wiseman

Rosanna Schiaffino

Stuart Kaminsky 

                      Dorothy Coonan Wellman   

Henry Gibson

Larry Gelbart 

Sammy Petrillo 

                          Billy Lee Riley  

Brenda Joyce 

Koko Taylor

                       Jack Cardiff

Helen Levitt

Ron Silver

Betsy Blair

Howard Zieff 

Dewey Martin

Bob Willoughby

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The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Ida Lupino

With no major female characters, Ida Lupino’s 1953 film “The Hitch-Hiker” is somewhat idiosyncratic in her feature  film directing career. Considered a director with a strong female identity, Lupino shows she can handle a gritty all male thriller just as skillfully as one of her mentors Raoul Walsh. She was also admittedly an admirer of Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and cinematographer George Barnes. “The Hitch-Hiker” made in 1953 tells the story of  two weekend fisherman, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) who graciously but unfortunately pick up  hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters space.

    From the opening sequence, Lupino keeps you on the edge of your seat with the threat of violence about to explode at any moment. Filmed by the magnificent cameraman, Nicolas Macursa, it is filled with stark contrasty black and white imagery that enhances the moody aridness of the brutal desert heat. What is amazing is how much Lupino accomplished with such a low budget, both in front and behind the camera. Like all of Lupino’s directed features, this was a no-frills production.

The opening scenes quickly inform us what we are dealing with. A faceless hitchhiker robs and murders an equally faceless couple somewhere in Illinois as the license plate tells us. A newspaper headline flashes across the screen “Couple Murdered!” A second headline identifies the killer as Emmett Myers. We transition to another road, and another pickup and another faceless murder, this time a man. Keeping the victims faceless Lupino enhances the fear that the next murder victim could be anyone, anywhere including us, the viewer watching the film.

    We cut to two men Roy Collins and Gil Bowen; they are on a fishing trip, away from the wives, work, and life in general. Unfortunately, fate enters in the form of Emmett Myers who they misguidedly pick up. Myers quickly pulls his gun and directs the two hostages to head toward Mexico.

Unlike his previous victims, Myers does not immediately kill these men. Instead, he takes them hostage having them drive him to Mexico. On the way, he torments them with sadistic games. In one scene Myers forces Gil, Myers is holding a pistol on him, to demonstrate his hunting skills using his rifle to shoot a soda can out of Roy’s hand.

William Talman’s performance as the psychotic killer with a paralyzed right eye that remains open making it difficult for his prisoners to know when he was sleeping, is outstanding. It’s an unforgettable creepy performance packed with rage and terror. There is nothing good about this man. In a campfire scene, Myers demands Gil toss him his watch. After looking at it, Myers tells them he had a watch like this once, only he didn’t buy it, he robbed a jewelry store. Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are perfect as the two ordinary Joes on a fishing trip, away from their wives and responsibilities, inexplicably trapped in a nightmare journey toward death. The film’s tension is all in the performances of the three leads, the divergent actions and reactions between Talman’s crazed hitch-hiker and the passive hostages.

The film’s major flaw is an ending that does not reach a satisfying climax worthy of all that has come before. A massive manhunt by both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, on the same scale according to Time magazine of the manhunt for John Dillinger, results in Myers capture but is played out very low key.

  Lupino co-wrote the screenplay with Collier Young during the last months of their marriage. Daniel Mainwaring apparently contributed but due to HUAC investigations, RKO refused to give him any screen credit. Lupino and Young would remain business partners, in The Filmakers, and friends even after their divorce in October 1951 and her quick marriage to Howard Duff that same month (she was pregnant with a daughter fathered by Duff).

The film is based on the true story of mass murderer Billy Cook who in a 22-day murder spree killed a family of five and a sixth person, Robert Dewey, a salesman. He then kidnapped two hunters holding them hostage for eight days and forcing them to drive him over the border to Mexico before he was eventually captured in Santa Rosita, a coastal city in Baja California, the same location where the movie was filmed. Cook would die in San Quentin walking the last mile to the gas chamber in 1952. Like Cook, Emmett Myers in the film had a deformed eye that always remained open and was a full-blown psychopath. Cook’s reputation was so large that both Time magazine and Newsweek did multiple stories on him.

   Cook’s life was one of  luck…all bad. Born into a family of seven kids, his mother died when he was five years old. Soon after, Billy and his siblings were abandon by their father and eventually found by authorities in an abandon mine cave. Billy’s brothers and sisters all managed to be placed in foster homes with Billy the exception, possibly due to the deformed right eye. While a ward of the county, Billy began to exhibit violent behavior. When he was 17, Cook was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary where his rage continued to escalate. While there, he would have the words HARD LUCK tattooed on his knuckles (reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s phony reverend in “The Night of the Hunter” who had GOOD and EVIL tattooed on his knuckles).

Lupino was in Palm Springs, to receive the Foreign Press Association’s “Woman of the Year” award and met one of the two hunters held hostage by Cook. Fascinated by the story, The Filmakers Group soon announced they were going to do a film based on the story of the two kidnapped hunters. This was met with resounding objections from the Motion Picture Association insisting that the Production Code forbid the portrayal of modern-day outlaws. The Filmakers would eventually resign to the fact that a fictional version of the story was the only way the MPA would allow the story to be told.

By the way,  Jim Morrison’s song Riders of the Storm from their 1971 album “L. A. Woman”  is said to be partially based on or as least alludes to Billy Cook’s story. Consider the following:

There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad

Take a long holiday/Let you children play

If you give this man a ride/Sweet memories will die

Throughout her directing career, Ida Lupino was patronized as a woman doing a man’s job and certainly ignored artistically. Today, Lupino is recognized for her unique contribution to filmmaking in the early 1950’s as the first woman to direct a film noir (too bad she never had the opportunity to make more), her sparse gritty style, reminiscent of the many Warner Brothers films she acted in. Lupino stands firmly side by side, shoulder to shoulder with other mavericks from the same period like Nick Ray and Sam Fuller. That’s pretty damn good company to be in.

**** (out of five)

Merry Christmas from Rollo and Family

                     Wishing all a Happy and Peaceful Holiday 

Christmas Interlude #9 – Seasons Greetings From Elvis

elvis_christmas_tree-x600

Below is a photo of Elvis’ original Christmas Album, which came out in 1957. Since then the album has been re-released in various versions with different covers.  After hearing Elvis’ version of his ‘White Christmas’,  composer Irving Berlin wanted it banned from radio play considering it a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard.”  Most radio stations ignored Berlin’s plea. Ironically, Elvis’ version was based on The Drifters (with Clyde McPhatter) 1954 version of  ‘White Christmas’, which was hit on R&B radio stations of the day and did not cause any complaints from Berlin who I am sure did not listen to black radio stations (1). 

A 1958 rerelease of the original album with a different cover.

45 RPM sleeve from the early 1970’s 

Elvis 45 cover

45 RPM sleeve from 1965 

Santa Claus is Back in Town was written by the legendary team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.

Source: (1) Wikipedia

Christmas Interlude #8 – Strange Christmas Ads

Smokin’ Santas, smokin’ guns, smokin’ sex! Have yourself a very strange Christmas. Here are some ads from Christmas past.

Click on the ad to get a larger view.

Christmas Holiday (1944) Robert Siodmak

Have yourself a very noirish Christmas…

After recently hearing about this film, I was optimistic that I had found a gem for the holiday season, a film noir with a Christmas setting directed by one of the masters of dark cinema, Robert Siodmak. To say the least, it sounded intriguing. When the DVD arrived in the mail, I watched it that same night staying up later than I should considering it was going to be rise and shine at 5AM the following morning.

With the title, “Christmas Holiday” and the two stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, on the surface this sounds like a festive holiday film along the lines of “White Christmas” or “Holiday Inn.” However, with Robert Siodmak directing you know you are not in for bright fluffy musical extravaganza. The film is more fascinating in spots than a first-class work overall. Sad to say the two leads offer rather flat performances, though Durbin has one shining moment, and the script, by Herman J. Mankiewicz, is presented with an uneven storyline. Deanna Durbin, best known for light musicals, is unconvincing in what was suppose to be her big dramatic breakthrough, and a nervous Universal threw in two songs for her to sing, Frank Losser’s “Spring Will Be Late This Year” and the Irving Berlin classic, “Always” just to cover their bases.

    The film is set on Christmas Eve and day, though you would not know it from the opening scene. It is graduation day for a group of new cadets at West Point. Now consider what was just said, Christmas Eve, December 24th at West Point in upstate New York. It should be cold; freezing, instead the weather and the clothes all are wearing make it seem more like June in Florida. You also have to question the validity of a cadet class graduating on Christmas Eve. I won’t even mention the oddity of there being a Christmas tree in the barracks…oops I just did. I thought this was all a bit sloppy and quickly put me off.  More important is the rest of the opening sequence that introduces secondary character, Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens) to the story. After the ceremony, Mason receives a cruel “Dear John” letter from his fiancé, and decides to catch a plane for San Francisco to try and convince her the breakup is a mistake. Inclement weather, forces his plane to land in New Orleans (an indirect route to say the least, going from West Point, New York to San Francisco but this is 1944 and I have no idea what air travel was like in those days). Anyway, in New Orleans, the young officer meets Jackie Lamont (Durbin) a “hostess” at a sleazy nightclub run by Valerie de Morode (Gladys George). This is arranged by sleaze bucket newspaper reporter, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). We find out Jackie Lamont is really Abigail Manette who has had a rough go of it.  She unloads on Mason, and us in flashbacks, her tale of woe.  She first meets Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) at a concert and is quickly charmed by the young handsome man. Quicker than you can say “Gotta dance!” they marry, however it soon becomes apparent there are hidden secrets; a domineering mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), and a husband with a gambling addiction who cannot pay off his debts and eventually murders his bookie. Despite mother covering up for her son’s crime, (she burns a pair of his blood stained pants) Manette is caught, put on trial and sent to prison. Blamed by her mother-in-law for not helping Robert enough with his problems, Abigail’s dream marriage has turned into a nightmare of the darkest proportions. Back to the present, we soon learn Robert has escaped from prison and is seeking revenge.

    Based loosely on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the location was switched from Paris to New Orleans. The nightclub where Jackie/Abigail works, a bordello in the novel was turned into a nightclub in the film, though you can easily read between the lines and realize Durbin’s character is working there as a prostitute, and that newspaper reporter Fenimore has a sideline pimping for the Madam, club owner de Morode.

As a film, it is better in parts than as a whole. Director Robert Siodmak does the best possible with an uneven script and to his credit he does gives us one of his most visually startling sequences in the film. This occurs when Lt. Mason and Jackie go from the nightclub/whorehouse she works at directly to this cathedral size house of worship where midnight mass is in progress. Siodmak lingers on the ceremonial proceedings, the music, and the prayers before closing in on our couple in one of the crowded pews. Here we see Jackie breaking down and crying, overcome with the emotional pain and guilt life’s ugly events has bestowed on her. Definitely, Durbin’s one shining moment in the film.

Acting kudos go to Gale Sondergaard’s performance as the over protective mother, Gladys George as the nightclub owner and Richard Whorf as the slimy newspaperman. If you find yourself overdosing on saccharine coated festive fare, you may want to try this dark holiday treat and have yourself a very noirish Christmas.