Once a Thief (1965) Ralph Nelson

Thief7   The first time I saw Once a Thief was back in 1965. It was at a third tier theater called the Harbor located in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Why do I remember this? Most likely, because watching the film back then, with a non-critical eye, I just liked it. I always liked crime films and having already discovered Cagney, Bogart and Garfield on TV it seemed like a pretty good fit. It may have also had something to do with Ann-Margret who for a few years in the sixties I possibly had a crush on. Well, alright I did have a crush on her! Can you blame me? If I remember correctly, every time I saw an Ann-Margret film back in those days I had to spend extra time in the confessional revealing a few additional impure thoughts. If case you were wondering I never mentioned her name to the priest. I don’t kiss and tell, not even in my dreams.  Anyway, enough confessional time. Back to the show. Continue reading

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The Cincinnati Kid (1965) Norman Jewison

By 1965, Steve McQueen was a star with hit films like “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape” already behind him. Yet, McQueen still had not proven he could carry a film, films where he alone was the big name. “The Honeymoon Machine,” “The War Lover” and “Hell is For Heroes” did little at the box office no matter what their quality. McQueen was still chasing the one actor who he saw as his rival, Paul Newman. With the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” Steve would be on a cinematic roll pushing him through the stratosphere for the next few years equal to that of his screen rival.

I first saw “The Cincinnati Kid” in 1965 at a little theater in Downtown Brooklyn called the Duffield. Back in those days, this area of Brooklyn was a sort of mini Times Square with the boroughs largest and fanciest movie palaces all within walking distance. The Loew’s Metropolitan, RKO Albee, Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount were all large grand scale theaters, each seating more than 3,000 people. The Duffield, on the other hand, was a small theater, approximately 900 seats, located on a side street (Duffield Street) just off Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare. McQueen was cool, as Eric Stoner, aka The Cincinnati Kid, his screen persona in full bloom. He had the walk and the look. He doesn’t talk too much but McQueen was always at his best when playing the silent type, it was all in his face and his body language. In truth, I was always more of a Paul Newman fan, but in this film McQueen was it, total sixties cool. Continue reading

Magic (1978) Richard Attenborough

If ones idea of a horror film is a madman’s unrelenting attacks on young girls with plenty of blood and guts spilling out then “Magic” directed by Richard Attenborough will be sure to disappoint.  Screenwriter William Goldman and director Attenborough take a more serious, quiet and psychological approach to madness. The horror is in the terror of watching a personality crumble, split apart, ruining not only his life but others who he comes into contact with.

Corky Withers magic act is a flop until he hits on the idea of adding a ventriloquist dummy named Fats to his act. We first hear Fats voice heckling Corky from the rear of the audience, the wilder Fats responds the more the audience eats up the act. Corky is soon on the verge of signing a network TV contract thanks to his manager Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith) however, Corky is getting cold feet, or is it something else that will not make him sign the contract.  You see one of the stipulations of the contract is Corky must succumb to a “routine” psychical which he refuses to do. He instead flees to upstate New York where he grew up; there he comes upon Peggy Ann Snow (Ann-Margret), the woman of his dreams during his high school years, now the aging wife of philandering former ballplayer “Duke” (Ed Lauter) who is away on a hunting trip. They get reacquainted and soon fall into bed together.  They talk of packing up and leaving. Corky prefers to do this before old Duke comes home while Peggy feels somewhat obligated to inform Duke that she is leaving even though their marriage has been on the down side for some time.

 Corky’s breakdown continues to slide downhill as the film progresses with Fats seemingly taking over and being in charge. Fats face eerie becoming more demonic as the film progresses.  This leads to the death of Ben Greene when he shows up to take Corky back to the city and get him some psychiatric help.  There is an interesting scene just before Ben’s demise where he attempts to get Corky to put Fats down and make him not communicate via Fats for just five minutes. Corky tries to convince Ben, and himself, that this “experiment” is ridiculous but we see the tenseness and sweat building on Corky’s face as the minutes tick by. He cannot do it.   

One must keep in mind the horror in all in Corky’s head, this is no “Chucky” filled with voodoo rituals or a Zuni doll (1975 TVM Trilogy of Terror) coming to life with some nasty teeth. As I mentioned, the horror is all in Corky’s unstable mind.

A young Anthony Hopkins plays the personality challenged schizophrenic ventriloquist Corky, with a very charming Ann-Margret as his former high school crush, now an unhappily married woman. Hopkins also was the creepy piercing voice of Fats which was quite a contrast from the dull Corky.  Burgess Meredith as Ben Greene who unfortunately is killed off too early in the story also does a fine job. The film is aided by the fine eerie cinematography of Victor Kemper whose vision fits the cold winter air and the dark eerie atmosphere that prevails throughout the second half of the film and the music of Jerry Goldsmith. For director Richard Attenborough, this was a different type of project to tackle than what you would expect from the director of “Gandhi” and “Oh, What a Lovely War.”   

The idea of menacing ventriloquist dummies has been used before as far back as 1925 in the silent Tod Browning classic “The Unholy Three” with Lon Chaney, remade in 1930 as a talkie, again with Chaney in his final film, also in the excellent horror anthology film “Dead of Night” and again in one of the most memorable “Twilight Zone” episodes, “The Dummy.”,  In 1976, novelist and screenwriter William Goldman felt there was still some life in the story and wrote what would become a bestselling novel called “Magic.” Two years later 20th Century Fox released a film version from a screenplay by Goldman.  

“Magic” is not a great film but it seems to have fallen under the radar and should not be. Yes, there are some plot holes and it would not rank high on the “gore” meter still just look at the photo of Fats above and you have to admit that is one scary looking dummy.

***1/2

Kitten With a Whip (1964) Douglas Heyes

 

One of the traits of being a cinephile is having masochistic tendencies that seem to never be satisfied. Why else would I sit through torturous atrocities like the Bowery Boys in “Live Wires” or “Bowery Bombshell’, just because they were directed by Phil Karlson? Why would I admit publicly that an unintentional laugh a minute drama like “The Oscar” is a favorite guilty pleasure? Just the other evening I watched an Ann-Margret vehicle called “Kitten with a Whip.” The title itself has celluloid masochism written all over it, a guilty pleasure to be sure.  AM had just exploded on movie screens the previous year in the already dated musical “Bye Bye Birdie”, a fictional version of the Elvis going into the army story. In 1964, The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion were taking over the country, AM meanwhile  was teamed with the real Elvis in “Viva Las Vegas”, another in a production line of low budget flicks that sterilized the former King of Rock and Roll, who was pumping them out at the rate of three films a year. The film studios jumped on this success and AM began a series of her own low budget films. “Kitten with a Whip” was her first post Elvis work and her first dramatic role.

The film is impulsively watchable, you sit their asking yourself “why? why? The opening credits hook you right away, maybe the best part of the film. With a jazzy musical score and title designs reminiscent of Saul Bass; the first scenes set you up for high expectations, which the rest of the film cannot unfortunately sustain. The film proper opens up at night in a train yard with Jody Dvorak (Ann-Margret) in a nightgown on the run. This early scene is actually pretty good, dark black and white photography almost noirish in its quality. However, this all soon changes after Jody, a schizoid juvenile detention escapee, enters an empty home only to snuggle up in a bed with a child’s stuffed monkey. When middle-aged square politician David Stratton (John Forsythe) whose family is away, comes home, he discovers Jody sleeping in his daughter’s bed. Jody cries that she is one of these  kids who has never gotten a break in her life, coming from a broken family. Feeling sorry for her, David buys her some new clothes and a bus ticket back home. Only problem is when he arrives back at his house, Jody is there wrapped in a towel and not much of anything else. David becomes an easy prey for the crazed delinquent who at one moment is vulnerably childlike, then reveals a sexy seductive side, and then switches again to a cat like, claw scratching she-devil when she does not get her way including threats she will scream rape if David attempts to call the police. Jody spends a lot of time pouting, shaking her bootie, smearing lipstick on a photo of David’s wife and speaking  in pseudo  Hollywood hip 60’s dialogue (“I feel so shiny good about you, about everything! Like wonderful.”). She is soon joined by some unsavory friends played by Peter Brown (50’s western “Lawman” and movies like “Foxy Brown”) and Skip Ward (Myra Breckenridge, Hombre) who assist in making David’s life a nightmarish trip to hell.

The plot is contrived to say the least, David is an intelligent middle-aged man wronged by a group of JD’s only because he is unwilling to call the police and risk a scandal. Considering that this man is well connected in the community he could have most likely contacted some friends and ended the entire episode without much damage to his political career. David also honorably fights off Jody’s sex teasing wrestling match while he is on the phone talking to his wife. John Forsthye who portrays David is just a dull actor,  a blank piece of white bread who seems to react innocuously to whatever threats and sexual come on’s are thrust upon him. Then there is our perky star, Ann-Margret playing seventeen-year-old jailbait. Just the previous year AM played high school teenager Kim McAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie” and looked too old for the part even then. While she looks great, she does not look seventeen and by the way, nearly never is a hair out of place no matter what trauma or gyrations she is going through. With her eyes at times bulging out of her head to display her fierce determination, her sex kittenish looks seductively vampish one minute, then, overly emoting and clawing like a trapped tigress the next, subtlety is not in her performance vocabulary. Simply out of the sheer force of her sexy personality she overshadows the rest of the cast.  What is worth noting is how far AM has come as an actress. Only a few years later in Mike Nichols “Carnal Knowledge”, AM gave a stunning and a surprising performance deserving all the accolades she received.

Director Douglas Heyes was primarily a TV director, and his flat style reflects this, probably is best known for some “Twilight Zone” and “Thriller” episodes he directed and as a writer for the miniseries “North and South.” Heyes also wrote the screenplay for “Kitten with a Whip” adapted from a novel by William Miller and Robert Wade written under the name Wade Miller released by Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks in 1959.

Over the years the film has gained a bit of a cult status mainly due to AM’s sexy snarling performance and bad dialogue. The film has been selected as one of “The 100 Most Amusing Bad Films Ever Made” in the “The Official Razzie Movie Guide.” Finally, there are rumors going around that Lindsay Lohan may be interested in doing a remake. Oh, the horror, the horror!

**

Middle Age Crazy (1980) John Trent

   

    In “Middle Age Crazy”, Bobby Lee (Bruce Dern) is turning forty. It seems he can no longer take the pressure of being married to sex-loving Sue Ann (Ann-Margret), or that his college age son is dropping out, or his father dying or the pressure put upon him at his job. So Bobby Lee decides buy a new sports car and has an affair with a Dallas Cheerleader, to get away from all this pressure. Sue Ann, feeling rejected and abandon has an affair of her own. In the end, they finally decide to talk and jump into their hot tub fully clothed and make up. Credits roll. The problem, or should I say one of the problems, is that it is hard to feel sorry for Bobby Lee since, looking at the home he lives in, he obviously is making a good living. In addition, he has a beautiful wife who loves him and whose only fault seems to be is that she likes to have sex with him (she screams out “Bingo” every time she has an orgasm). Poor Bobby Lee, my heart goes out to him. The script attempts to make a point about entering middle age and the realization that life is passing you by however, it just comes off as dull and duller and in the end, nothing much happens.

 

    Uninspired direction by Canadian John Trent keeps the pace slow, as does a TV of the movies script by Carl Kleinschmitt. The title song was written and sung by Jerry Lee Lewis.

    The big question is how this film ever was made as a big budgeted feature and not as a movie of the week. Today it would be on the Lifetime channel. The cast is fine and it is good to see Bruce Dern play a regular guy for a change instead of a whacked out loser or a killer. Ann-Margret looks beautiful and does a nice job as the adoring Sue Ann as does Deborah Wakeham as Nancy, the Dallas Cheerleader, Dern hooks up with.     

     The film has not had a DVD release however, it was released on VHS years ago it is possible  it may be found at a video store that still rents them. “Middle Age Crazy” is worth a look if you like either Bruce Dern or Ann-Margret however, even their fans will have a tough time keeping focus.