Notorious (1946) Alfred Hitchcock

Who ever said Alfred Hitchcock was not a romantic? After all, what could be more romantic than the final scenes in “Notorious” where we see Cary Grant coming to Ingrid Bergman’s rescue just in time to take her away from the murdering Nazi Claude Rains. True for the past two hours Grant forced Ingrid to whore herself  by playing a 20th Century Mata Hari, seducing and sleeping with Rains in order to obtain secret information. He then resents her for agreeing to do this and hates himself for forcing her do it. Yep, no one knew how to treat a woman like Mr. Hitchcock, just ask Janet Leigh in “Psycho” or Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder.”

“Notorious” is a dark perverted love story. It is also a story of espionage, spies, murder and sex with Grant and Bergman as two of the most glamorous spies this side of James Bond, and wouldn’t have Grant made a great James Bond. In this seductive tale, Bergman is Alicia Huberman, daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, though Alicia herself is a patriotic American, a party girl who loves to drink and has a reputation for promiscuity, which just happens to make her a perfect choice for a dirty job planned by American agents (CIA, FBI?).  Agent Devlin (Grant) is selected to recruit her, by seduction if necessary, for the delicate mission. He does his job well, a little too well as she falls in love with him. One romantic evening, Devlin breaks the news on what she has been recruited to do. They want her to go to Rio de Janeiro where a known Nazi spy ring has congregated. There she is to ingratiate herself into the home and life of the spy rings leader, one Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a man she has previously met. In a subtle (remember this is 1946) but still clear way, Devlin tells her to do what it takes, even to sleep with Sebastian if need be, to find out what he and his cohorts are up too.  Reluctantly she agrees. In love with Devlin, she practically pleads with him to tell her not to go through with this mission but Devlin never says the magic words, he has his orders. Poor Devlin, our dark hero is conflicted; he has feelings for Alicia yet resents her for accepting the job and hates himself for not stopping her.

 And so, Alicia not only sleeps with Sebastian, she marries him when forced to prove her love when jealousies arise.  During a reception in Sebastian’s home, to which Devlin was invited, he and Alicia make their way down to the wine cellar where by chance discover uranium hidden in wine bottles. A short time later, Sebastian goes toward the cellar to retrieve more wine for the party and spots the couple. When Devlin realizes Sebastian is watching them he puts his arms around Alicia and kisses her hoping to draw Sebastian’s thoughts away from thinking they are spying. Sebastian is not fooled and to his dismay realizes he foolishly married an American spy. Mortified that he has been duped, and scared of what would potentially happen if his cohorts found out, he acquiesces to his mother’s devious plan to get rid of Alicia by slowly poisoning her. When Devlin discovers Alicia is in danger he goes to Sebastian’s house, rescuing Alicia just in the nick of time from her slow demise, and in turn leaves Sebastian and his mother to face their fellow Nazi’s and most certain death.       

Cary Grant has played his share of dark characters, especially with Hitchcock. Here Grant plays Devlin the American agent as unlikable, cold, calculating and cruel, pimping the woman he has fallen in love with to sleep with another man. Alicia marries Sebastian partially in spite to get back at Devlin for forcing her into this life. She loves Devlin but willingly sleeps with Sebastian. Devlin loves Alicia but encourages her to seduce Sebastian (all for God and Country). Sebastian, a hen-pecked mama’s boy desires Alicia and resents Devlin. Hitchcock, ever the little devil makes Sebastian the Nazi come across as the gentler, more considerate, loving and more likable man while Devlin, our alleged hero is cold and despicable forcing the woman he loves to cheapen herself.

“Notorious” is one of Hitchcock’s most visually stunning films, brilliantly photographed with exquisitely arranged camera work. In a very early scene we  see Alicia waking up the following morning from an alcoholic binge to find Devlin at her bedroom door with the camera, from her POV spinning 180 degrees to simulate her hangover. There is a superb crane shot during the reception scene at Sebastian’s home where Hitchcock’s camera begins at the top of the stairs and slowly zooms in and down to first floor continuing to an extreme close up of Alicia’s hand and a key (to the cellar) she is holding. Then of course, there is the famous kissing scene where Hitchcock out foxed the censors with their rule of  “no kisses lasting longer than three seconds” which he managed to make more erotic than the most blatantly steamy scenes we see in today’s films.  Needless to say, “Notorious” is a beautifully choreographed film.

You can add Sebastian to the list Hitchcock’s mama’s boys, which include Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest” along with good old Norman Bates. Speaking of “Psycho” Hitchcock  uses a similar opening here with  the location, time and date appearing on the screen, as he would use again  in opening scene of the  1960 horror classic. Hitchcock was forced to change the ending by Selznick. In early versions of the script Alicia dies, Hitchcock does manage to come up with a “happy ending” that is still one of the smoothest, thrilling and satisfying ending. The film opened at Radio City Music Hall in 1946, and was an immediate hit. The story was exciting and had the audiences smoking with the sexual heat generated between the two stars.  

*****

All of Me (1984) Carl Reiner

“Carl Reiner’s “All of Me” might just be one of the best comedies of the 1980’s with a career winning performance from Steve Martin. Martin’s movie career has been one of innovation, off beat (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Pennies from Heaven, The Spanish Prisoner, Shopgirl) and retreads (Sgt. Bilko, The Out-Of-Towner’s, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther’s). Generally, his more adventurous work has been at least moderately successful while the retreads have been embarrassingly bad (so beware of his upcoming remake of Topper); the track record has not been very good.  “All of Me” falls into the first category, it’s different, it exploits Martin’s talent to the outer limits and it is just plain fun.

The sickly and sickly rich Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin)  is about to expire and has embarked upon a plan to transfer her soul to that of a younger, prettier and healthier young woman named Terry Hoskins (Victoria Tennant).

“And what makes you think you can do that?” ask an incredulous Roger Cobb (Steve Martin), a reluctant lawyer assigned by his law firm to ensure Edwina’s legal papers have no loose ends and are all in order.

“Because I’m rich,” Edwina obnoxiously answers. And she is, she is filthy rich, diamonds dripping from everywhere even the oxygen tank she continually has to suck on. With the aid of her personal swami, (Richard Libertini), Edwina has arranged to mystically transfer her soul into the body of a young willing blonde.

Roger Cobb is a frustrated lawyer, who rather be a jazz musician. He works for a law firm but is getting nowhere in his career. His assignment to make sure Edwina’s papers are in order is the kind of work they dump him with; he pleads for more impressive client than crazy ladies. Through a series of circumstances when Edwina’s transference takes place, the swami’s pot, that is holding Edwina soul, accidentally goes flying out a window landing on Roger’s head, and before you know it, Roger and Edwina are sharing the same body…Roger’s!

Thus begins a battle of the sexes, only we are only one body short. With Edwina’s soul now implanted into Roger’s body an internal struggle begins filled with physical and verbal gags. There is Roger dragging himself across the sidewalk, one side (Edwina’s) ever so feminine and the other side  his masculine self. Two scenes that stand out are a courtroom scene, with Roger’s career hanging in the balance, only problem is he is dead tired and falls asleep, while Edwina isn’t, so she decides to step in for Roger. Acting in a fashion she considers macho, she proceeds to grunt, spit and scratch his/her way through the court proceedings, until at one point she screams at the top of her lungs waking the Roger side up. A second scene involves Roger having to go to the men’s room and needing Edwina’s “assistance” with unzipping his pants and  well you can imagine the rest.

Later on there is an attempted seduction scene by Roger, at least the half of Roger that he controls, of the beautiful young Terry. Of course, the Edwina side wants nothing to do with it. The whole scene is a beautiful timed combination of physical comedy and witty written dialogue played out to the hilt by the three characters.

What is most inspiring in this film is the performance of Steve Martin who is required to act as two people inhabiting one body. It is a brilliant performance, one that was recognized for its greatness by the New York Film Critics who gave him their best actor award for the year.

Also making the film such a delight is it is not just physical humor, but a witty script written by Phil Adel Robinson. At one point, the engaging Lily Tomlin after hearing Roger complain about his day says, “My day hasn’t been that great either, I died 5 minutes ago.”

Beside the two stars, director Carl Reiner had put together a great supporting cast, the always amusing Selma Diamond, as Roger’s secretary, the amazing Richard Libertini as the Swami and the cool sophisticated beauty of Victoria Tennant.  However, there is no doubt that it is Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin who carry the day right up until the closing credits.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) Robert Wise

At one point, James Dean was the leading choice to play Rocky Graziano, but when he unexpectedly and violently died in a car crash on September 30, 1955 the part was given to Paul Newman. Still living in the shadows of Marlon Brando, and whose film debut in “The Silver Chalice” almost ruined his career before it even got off the ground, this role would erase the bad taste left by his failed attempt in the religious drama.

Based on an autobiography written by Rocky Graziano and journalist Rowland Barber, with a screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the film reflects a fairly accurate portrayal of Graziano’s life as a street punk with a bad attitude and a history of petty crimes. After spending time in a reform school, followed by some prison time, Rocky is released only to be drafted into the Army during World War II which results in a year in Leavenworth after he slugs an Officer and deserts. While on the run, Rocky changed his last name from Barbella to Graziano to avoid detection. Eventually caught he was dishonorably discharged.  Finally, after a life of violent and anti-social behavior, Rocky finds his redemption in the ring.

We are first introduced to Rocky as a young kid sparring with his failed alcoholic father Nick (Harold J. Stone) for the entertainment of  his dad’s friends. When one friend makes a comment about Nick being  a loser, old pop slugs young Rocky in the jaw. We next see young Rocky, expressing his anti-social behavior by throwing a rock threw a store window displaying a sign about gifts for father’s day.  Two Irish police officers grab the young kid but Rocky manages to escape running away. As the two police officers look on, one says, “Let him go, there goes another grease ball on his way. Ten years from now he’ll be in the chair at Sing Sing.” A quick cut to about 10 years or so later and Rocky (now Paul Newman) is still running from the law.

Hot headed, anti-social, quick with his fists (there are shades of DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta here), Rocky’s life leads him to a reformatory and eventually the federal prison. In Leavenworth, thanks to the Captain of the boxing team who sees potential in the street fighter, Rocky begins to channel his built-in hate to good use in the ring. After his release from Leavenworth, he reluctantly learns to box instead of just brawl. Romance enters with the introduction of Norma (Pier Angeli), a nice Jewish girl and a friend of Rocky’s sister. She is shy, attractive and sees something beneath Rocky’s uncouth exterior. He’s clumsy around girls but they fall in love and marry. Rocky’s career as a boxer shoots skyward, undefeated until he fights for the middleweight championship at Yankee Stadium and loses to Tony Zale. After  the fight, Rocky’s past begins to catch up with him. Frankie Peppo (Robert Loggia), a small time hood he met in prison comes back into his life with a plan to blackmail Rocky, now a local hero, with his criminal past. Peppo’s plan is for Rocky to throw a fight, prior to his rematch with Tony Zale, the hood “promising” not to expose Rocky’s past history.  Refusing to throw the fight, Rocky fakes a back injury to get out of the match but that results in him facing an investigation with the New York State Boxing Commission who decide to take away his license to box since he will not cooperate in naming the hoods who were blackmailing him.  Without his license, the championship rematch with Zale is off and Rocky’s career, at least in New York is over.  Despite Rocky’s attempt to ease out of his predicament, the hoods still release to the media news that Rocky was dishonorably discharged during the war.  Deprived of his livelihood, publicly disgraced Rocky feels his life has spiraled out of control. However, Rocky’s manager (Everett Sloane) has arranged a championship fight against Zale in Chicago. At first uncomfortable with fighting outside of New York, he knows he will be booed, Rocky finds the courage, with the help of his wife, to take on Zale and win in Chicago.

As Rocky, Paul Newman, is all mumbles, hunched shoulders and dragging feet, at times funny and at times explosively violent, a man who does not give much thought to his actions. Fresh from the Actors Studio, Newman hung out with Graziano for weeks to pick up his traits, mannerisms and speech pattern. It is a controlled performance and was partially responsible for accusations by the news media that Newman was just a carbon copy of Brando. This irked Newman to no end. Compounding the situation was that Brando had previously studied Graziano’s mannerisms when he was preparing for the role of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and used some of those same characteristics for Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront.”   According to author Shawn Levy when Graziano saw the play he said, “Hey that’s me!”

  After retiring from boxing Graziano found a second career as an actor and comedic Palooka appearing in shows with Dean Martin, Merv Griffin and on “The Tonight Show.” He films include “Tony Rome” and “Teenage Millionaire.” TV series included “Naked City”, “The Mod Squad” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”

To learn how to box, Newman worked out at the famed Stillman’s Gym in New York where Rocky trained.  Newman apparently became a fairly decent boxer and sparred with the real Tony Zale at one point. Author Shawn Levy states that Newman became a little cocky and began to hit Zale a little harder than needed, at least Zale thought so and slugged Newman just to let him know who was in charge. Zale was going to play himself in the movie but after hitting Newman, he lost that opportunity and Court Shepard was hired.

The film’s direction and editing is crisp, thanks I am sure to director and former editor Robert Wise who previously directed another boxing themed film, one of the best, “The Setup.”  While mainly made in Hollywood, there were a few location scenes in and around Manhattan; the Lower East Side, Stillman’s Gym, and in Brooklyn that contribute to the fine atmosphere of the film. The early Lower East Side scene with the crowded streets, carts selling fish, fruit and vegetables, the sounds of Italian being spoken are authentically reproduced and are reminiscent of similar scenes from earlier Warner Brother gangster films like “Angels with Dirty Faces.” During this scene among the working lower class immigrants, there is one sharply dressed man who stands out. He is most likely a local Don, and as Rocky passes by he comments,  “who house are you going to rob today, Rocky?”

The scenes of Rocky’s early youth also give us a preview of two sixties superstars together for the first time on film. Newman and a then unknown Steve McQueen have a few scenes together. We first see McQueen in a pool hall shooting pool with his back to the camera. When Rocky tugs at his pool stick, he quickly swings around, a switchblade swiftly popping open in his hand. The quick editing and the medium shot of McQueen as he turns to face the camera make for a magnificent introduction to one of the great future superstars of the sixties. As Fidel, one of Rocky’s gang members, this was only McQueen’s second appearance in a film.  Also in the gang is Sal Mineo fresh from films like “Crime in the Streets” and “Rebel without a Cause.” Other future well-known actors making their screen debuts include, Robert Loggia (Frankie Peppo), Dean Jones, Joseph Campanella and Angela Cartwright. Harold J. Stone plays Rocky’s alcoholic father, a boxer, who stopped his own career killing his dream of a being a champ with his marriage to his wife played by Eileen Heckart, who despite being only six years older that Newman portrays convincingly his mother.

If there is one thing detrimental to the picture it is the over blown sappy title song sung by Perry Como. The hot air blows and you just cannot wait for it to end. The song just runs in an opposite direction to the rest of the film.

The film was greeted with good reviews, praised for it realistic New York scenes. Newman was still being accused of imitating Brando with his method style acting.  Still, the film recouped Newman’s good graces in the film community after the debacle of “The Silver Chalice.” The film won deservingly two Oscars, one for best Art Direction/Set Direction/Black and White and for Best Cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg). It was also nominated for Best Editing (Albert Akst).

 

Barefoot in the Park (1967) Gene Saks

 

In 1962, “Barefoot in the Park” was the Broadway second production for a fairly new playwright at the time by the name of Neil Simon. Simon already had a previous hit show with “Come Blow Your Horn” and a well-earned reputation as one of the team full of writers on  the classic TV show “Your Show of Shows”, whose madhouse stable included  Neil’s brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart. The play starred a young upcoming actor by the name of Robert Redford along with Elizabeth Ashley as his kooky wife Corie. This would be Redford’s last Broadway play having previously appeared in “Sunday in New York”, “Tall Story” and a couple of others.  Also in the cast were Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother and Herb Edelman as the Telephone Man, both would repeat their roles in the 1967 film. The stage version of “Barefoot in the Park” was a huge success running for more than three years. It was  Mike Nichols first Broadway production as a director and the beginning of a string of theatrical hits. At one point, Nichols had four plays he directed running on Broadway simultaneously, “Barefoot in the Park”, “Luv”, “The Odd Couple” and “The Apple Tree.” Nichols first taste of success came as half of the sophisticated comedy team of the 1950’s Nichols and May (Elaine May) who earlier had their own on stage success on Broadway with “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

    At the time, it was a common practice that the movie version of a play could not be made until the Broadway production closed or was close to its final performance. The fear was that if people saw the movie the play would lose its audience. Subsequently, “Barefoot in the Park”, the movie opened at Radio City Music Hall in May 1967 one month prior to the closing of the play.

Redford had been a frequent visitor to the world of TV shows and had already made a few films (War Hunt, Inside Daisy Clover, This Property is Condemned, The Chase) though with little impact on his career.  Therefore, it is surprising that he actually received top billing over Jane Fonda in the film who was already a more established star having appeared in both European films, most by her then husband Roger Vadim (Circle of Love, The Game is Over), and in U.S. films (Sunday in New York, The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report, Cat Ballou). Nichols was passed over to direct in favor of the more vanilla Gene Saks, a Broadway veteran director himself. Simon adapted his own play for the screen, his first.

    The film is sort of an earlier version of “The Odd Couple”, focusing on opposites, in this case newlyweds Corie Bratter (Fonda), an unconventional free spirited young woman and her husband, the uptight legal eagle Paul (Redford).  If this sounds familiar, that is because, yes, Corie and Paul are the original “Dharma and Greg.” After a honeymoon spent at the Waldorf where Corie embarrasses a stodgy Paul, heading to the elevator as he goes off to work, by insinuating she is a hooker he spent the night with (Fonda is standing outside their hotel room dressed in only the top half of a man’s pajamas). Corie goes off and rents a top floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Paul, the ever constipated young lawyer isn’t that crazy about having to climb several flights of stairs to reach the apartment, nor is he happy about the hole in the skylight where a cold front followed by snow easily passes through. Then there is the eccentric neighbor who can only access his attic apartment by going through the Bratter’s apartment.  Corie, on the other hand sees it all as an adventure. When Corie attempts to seduce Paul for a little romantic interlude that first evening in the new apartment, he is too occupied with his first big legal case and the cold air coming in from the skylight. Before you can say sing the first verse of Tammy Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E, Corie is declaring the marriage a failure.

    It is all very light, sit-comish and unbelievable. That said, Fonda and Redford make a good team; their charisma together is plainly evident and the film is fun. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for this film, one of only three I ever saw at Radio City Music Hall. It remains a guilty pleasure.

Redford came away from this film a movie star; set to explode into superstardom a couple of years later with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” At this point in her career, Fonda’s dramatic roles (The Chase, Walk on the Wild Side, The Chapman Report) did nothing to dispel the notion that she did not have any depth as a dramatic actress. Her European films were known more for their sexiness and nudity than for her talent as an actress. This would all change in a couple of years, after one more film with Vadim (Barbarella) Fonda would display her serious acting chops in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” for which she would receive her first Academy Award nomination.  It would take almost 10 years before she would return to a comedic role in “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The supporting cast is also entertaining with Mildred Natwick as Corie’s mother, Charles Boyer as the eccentric attic living neighbor and Herb Edelman providing some laughs as the telephone repairman.

   This was Gene Saks first film and like 99% of his films they are adaptations of stage plays, and like most of his other films they are all stage bound. The film is not cinema; it is a pop corn movie and in between the tired jokes about climbing five flights of stairs to reach the apartment there remains a bit of charm to the movie. The two leads win you over.

I use to like Neil Simon more than I do now. Other than “The Odd Couple”, “The Goodbye Girl” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, I find much of his work tired and generally less funny than I use too.  I imagine much of today’s audience would find the film a little too cute, dated or both, still if compared to some of the so-called romantic comedies that the studio’s release today, this film looks good. For one thing too many of the “romantic” comedies today seem to be funny at the expense of the female character’s integrity where they are either desperate (Knocked Up) or bitchy (The Proposal) or just plain stupid (All About Steve).  While I generally enjoyed “The Proposal”, the scene where Sandra Bullock had to get down on her knees in the middle of a Manhattan street to propose was pretty degrading. If nothing else, Simon was never degrading to any of his characters.

   As a play,  “Barefoot in the Park” was revived on Broadway in 2006 with Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson in the newlywed roles and with Jill Clayburgh as Corie’s mom and Tony Roberts as Victor Velasco, the eccentric neighbor in the leading roles. It ran for only 109 performances.

***

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) Steve Binder

 

“The TAMI Show”, the first rock and roll concert film, was made only months after The Beatles invaded the Ed Sullivan Theater and claimed America. Filmed in a new process called “electronvision” (an early form of High Definition), “The TAMI Show” was shot at the Santa Monica Area in California over a two day period in 1964. Directed by Steve Binder who four years later would direct “Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special.” The music director was Jack Nitzsche later one of the most influential music producers, arrangers, composers and session musicians in rock working with Phil Spector, The Rolling Stones,  Ry Cooder, Buffalo Springfield and most notably Neil Young.

The performing artists are now mostly considered legendary, artists like the pioneering Chuck Berry (Johnny B. Goode, Sweet Little Sixteen) who every rock musician that followed owes a debt too. There was also Lesley Gore with songs like “It’s My Party”, and “You Don’t Own Me” the latter considered by some an early pre-feminist anthem. Motown was well represented with the great Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (You Really Got a Hold on Me, Mickey’s Monkey), Marvin Gaye (Hitch-Hitch, Pride and Joy) and The Supremes (Where Did Our Go, Baby Love). In 1964, with British groups controlling the American charts, The Beach Boys were just about the only American group to compete with songs like “Surfin’ USA” and “I Get Around”.  Soon after this film was made, Brain Wilson and the boys went into the studio to record their classic “Pet Sounds” album.  The British were represented by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas (“Bad to Me”, Little Children), Gerry and the Pacemakers (Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying, How Do You Do It) and the closing act, The Rolling Stones singing among others songs, “Time is On My Side”, “Around and Around”, “Off the Hook”  and  “It’s All Over Now.” In looking at the list of the songs performed, once again it must be noted the influence of the great Chuck Berry, whose music was performed not only by himself but also by Gerry and the Pacemakers (Maybellene), The Rolling Stones (Around and Around) and The Beach Boys with Surfin’ USA, where Brian Wilson blatantly ripped off Berry’s melody from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” (Berry eventually sued and would receive co-writing credit).

Just before the Stones appeared, the hardest working man in show business James Brown came on and blew everyone else away with hits like “Out of Sight”, “Prisoner of Love”, “Night Train” and “Please, Please, Please.”  Brown was a wild man, his music at the time considered too black for most white teens except the most hip. His fusion of soul and rock and roll plus his extraordinary energy and dance moves are now legendary. For many white kids this film was their first exposure to James Brown, as it was for Brown his first major exposure to an almost all white audience. Brown’s performance was the highlight of one of the greatest Rock and Roll concert movies ever, and the act chosen to follow Brown would suffer by comparison. The task fell to The Rolling Stones. After seeing Brown rehearse earlier in the day, The Stones were nervous, how in the hell were they going to follow him. There was talk about them going on earlier and letting Brown be the final act. Ultimately, that did not happen. Keith Richards later said following Brown was one of the biggest mistakes in their then young career. Mick Jagger tried to compensate the best his could prancing around like a rooster, doing splits and other spastic moves. The teenager girls were hysterically screaming however performance wise Brown had stolen the show.

The concert was hosted by the pop duo Jan and Dean who broke out in the late 1950’s with a single called “Baby Talk” but really hit their stride as part of the surf music craze with songs like “Linda”, “Sidewalk Surfin’” and “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”  They and The Barbarians (Hey Little Bird) are arguably the weakest links in the film. On stage with the performers were numerous go-go dancers decorating the “mod” set. The energetic dancers included then unknowns like actress Terri Garr and chorographer Toni Basil.  The backup band for most of the artists included Leon Russell and Glen Campbell. The backup singers were The Blossoms who included Darlene Love later lead singer of such Phil Spector productions like “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” (Though billed as The Crystals it was really Love and the other Blossoms backing her up).

T.A.M.I. is an acronym standing for the “Teenage Awards Music International” or “The Teen Age Music International.” According the Wikipedia, the two were inconsistently used in advertising. The film has been among the missing since its release in December 1964. When the video revolution started in the late 1970’s a quasi-legal copy of the film was released on VHS and was sold in stores like the RKO Warner Video Store that was located on the southeast corner of 49th Street and Broadway in NYC. The store may have been under another name at the time, either way; the tape was soon pulled off the market due to multiple legal entanglements and has not been available on home video since except for bootlegs. About ten years ago, Dick Clark decided to put some money and time into getting the multiple legal entanglements straighten out with the goal to have a home video release. It took just about ten years to accomplish this feat. Thanks to DC the film is now available for the first time in its full-length version on DVD.

****

White Dog (1982) Sam Fuller

Censorship always seems to rear its ugly head. In 1982, Sam Fuller’s film “White Dog” was unjustifiably dumped from Paramount’s distribution after rumors spread that the film had a racist theme. In addition, pressure from special interest groups with threats of boycotts only confirmed the studio’s fears. Since that time, the film  had only a few rare showings on cable stations. In 1991, “White Dog” at last had its New York premiere at the Film Forum.

The irony of it all is that the film’s theme is anti racism, though in typical Fuller fashion Sam is straight talking and blunt in his story line. The fear of corporations, in this case Paramount and the ignorance of pressure groups to blindly attack and suppress works that they have not even seen is as viciously discriminatory as that of what they supposedly are fighting against. Similar ignorance was in force against Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” when special interest groups protested and boycotted the film without even seeing it. With the release of the Criterion disc in 2008, “White Dog” finally had its day.

The genesis of the film is as interesting as the film itself. Originally, a magazine story in the late 1960’s written by author Romain Gary about a group of white supremists who trained dogs to attack black people. Later on, Gary would expand the story into an autobiographical novel called “Chien Blanc” which translates to “White Dog.” The novel focused on his life with his wife the actress activist Jean Seberg.   In the novel, Gary and Seberg find a dog that is seemingly lovable but later they discover was trained to attack black people. The book’s under lying theme was one that examines racism and whether it is a learned response and if it is learned can it be unlearned. This also became the basis Fuller’s 1982 film.

At one point in time Roman Polanski was going to direct and later on Arthur Penn was even mentioned as possibly trying to bring the story to the screen. Still controversy raged, cold feet prevailed and the film continued to be delayed. Eventually, Sam Fuller was offered the job, and along with Curtis Hanson created a finished screenplay.  To Fuller, “White Dog” was a real life horror story unlike some made up thriller with a giant shark that eats people.

As a filmmaker with a history of making anti-racist films (The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, and The Steel Helmet) Fuller was one of the least likely artists to make a racist work. Paramount’s chicken livered fears along with special interest buried the film. In looking at “White Dog”, you see the work of a vibrant filmmaker (Fuller was about 68 at the time) in control of his art.  It is a bold adventurous, disturbing film, a metaphor on how humans are trained to hate.

Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is driving down a dark highway  one night in Los Angles and accidentally hits a stray dog who was crossing the highway. She takes the dog to a vet (the nurse is played by Fuller’s wife Christa Lang) and then takes the stray home putting up signs in her neighborhood  in an attempt to find the owner.  The dog is loveable and affectionate with Julie. With no owner coming forward, Julie keeps the dog.

One night an intruder breaks into Julie’s home and attempts to rape her, the dog viciously attacks the man freeing Julie to call the police. Soon after, Julie brings the dog to the studio where she is working, when the dog suddenly attacks a black female actress seriously injuring her. It gets worst as the dog’s rampage continues when he chases a well-dressed black man into a church, and though hidden from the camera by the pews, viciously attacks the man. We see the dog walk away with blood all over his white fur. Julie takes the dog to an animal camp call Noah’s Ark, run by two men, Carruthers (Burl Ives) and a black anthropologist named Keys (Paul Winfield). Keys is challenged to deprogram the dog from this learned behavior. The dog becomes fully dependent on Keys for food and all else.  Slowly Keys begins to reprogram the dog, he exposes more and more of his black skin to the dog a little at a time. Meanwhile, the dog’s former owner has appeared at Julie’s place to claim the dog back. He is a grandfatherly type, seemingly a gentle man with two young grandchildren. Julie realizes this elderly outward looking mild man is a racist and responsible for the dog’s training. Julie verbally lashes out at him, telling the grandchildren not to listen to their grandfather who is full of vile thoughts and lies.  She drives away leaving them with the grandfather screaming back at her.  At the animal training center, Keys’ begins to make a break through as the white dog has come to depend on him.  In the beginning Keys did his training all from behind the safety net of a cage but eventually as the dog responded, without protection. Has Keys been able to recondition the dog’s psyche, unleash his racist training? The ending, which I will not reveal is a pessimistic unsettling twist.

The film’s appeal, like in most Fuller films, is due to his visual style and his blunt seriousness in attacking a story. While the film starts with Julie and her new found dog as the storyline, Julie practically becomes a secondary character after about a third of the way into the film as Fuller’s focus turns to Keys determination to turn this dog around.

Paul Winfield’s performance is the acting highlight in the film, he gives Keys  character depth and understanding. The cinematography of Bruce Surtee’s provides a lurid view of the dog’s world with Fuller’s camera focusing in extreme close ups at significant times in the story. Finally, the music soundtrack is by the well-known film composer Ennio Morricone and contributes to the sinister eccentricity of the film.

****

The Snake Pit (1948) Anatole Litvak

There were few films in 1948 that match up to the power of Anatole Litvak’s “The Snake Pit,” a film that was groundbreaking in its day.  Mental Illness was not dealt with on screen, at least not at the level and detail seen here.  The institutional living conditions these people were forced to live in was swept under the rug, as they say. Mary Jane Ward’s novel was based on her own experiences as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. After reading Ward’s first person novel, director Anatole Litvak wanted to bring the harrowing story to the screen. Naturally, the subject matter was considered too controversial and downbeat for most studios. 20th Century Fox finally agreed to make the film, which Litvak would not only direct but co-produced.

Olivia de Havilland was not the first choice for the role, that spot went to Gene Tierney who had to bow out due to a pregnancy. de Havilland threw herself into the role, spending time researching, personally watching shock therapy treatments and visiting institutions, talking with doctors, nurses and patients. She apparently also was able to spend time in doctor/patient therapy sessions.  Director Litvak wanted the actors and crew members to visit mental institutions in order to experience first hand what it was like.       

The film tells the story of Virginia Cunningham, a young married woman who has a nervous breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. We follow her as she slowly finds her way back from depths of insanity. At her lowest point, Virginia is incapable of remembering who she is, where she is or why. She is subjected to electro-shock therapy and other treatments, forced to live in a dorm like environment with other patients. Eventually with the help of a caring doctor (Leo Glenn) Virginia begins to explore her subconscious delving back to her childhood, (through flashbacks), the strict upbringing by her mother and the loss of a considerate father. Here she discovers the roots of her illness, the pain and guilt she has been carrying inside, and ultimately she is cured.    

The conditions inside the institution are horrid. The nursing staff headed by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig) an obvious relative to Nurse Ratched who seems to derive pleasure, in one of the film’s most shocking scenes, when she turns on the juice over and over again during the administration of Virginia’s Electro-Shock sessions. 

While Virginia’s illness is portrayed realistically, her cure is a little too straightforward though one must remember the medical treatments are limited to knowledge and practices of more than 60 years ago. The film also gives us a strong flavor of other patients in the wards. There is Marty (Betsy Blair) who does not like to be touched and will strangle anyone who comes near her. Celeste Holms is Grace, seen early in the film who tries to comfort Virginia soon after her arrival and a host of others portrayed by some fine character actors among them Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, Minna Goombell and Katherine Locke.

There is one particularly visually stunning sequence when, after Virginia has a “relapse,” she is put into a pit like area with other patients. The theory as it is explained is that putting normal people into this pit like area would drive them insane, subsequently, putting insane people into the pit would cure them. As this sequence is filmed, Litvak’s camera is shooting down from extremely high above toward the pit, continuously pulling back revealing a long deep pit with the patients walking aimlessly around. 

Other films have dealt with mental disease over the years, (The Bell Jar, Frances) but this film still remains a harrowing experience. After its release, the film led to reforms in mental institutions in various states across the country. In England a disclaimer was added at the beginning of the film stating that everyone appearing in the film was an actor and that similar institutions in England were not like the one portrayed in the film.

 In the 1960’s there was a backlash against this film by feminist who claimed that Virginia only improved once she accepted that her role in life was subservient, first to the nurses and then as she prepares to accept a life of that of a  mother and a housewife.  A closer look at the film reveals that throughout the film, Virginia fights the authorities the best she could under the stringent circumstance and as a writer never reveals any sign that, she is giving up her career upon her release.

The film received multiple Academy Award nominations that year including Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Music Score. The film won an Oscars for Best Sound Recording.