The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

pelham22raff_subway3When I lived in New York City, I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan every workday. The ride from where I lived to 23rd street in Manhattan took about forty-five minutes to an hour each way. It was perfect reading time. There was nothing else to do but stare at other passengers and that could only get you in trouble. I cannot count the number of books I read during that daily trek. One of them was John Godey’s bestselling urban thriller, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three.   Both the book and the 1974 film exploit the always present fears New Yorkers internally experience when they find themselves caught in enclosed spaces and escape is out of your hands. Continue reading

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Bigger Than Life (1956) Nicholas Ray

Ozzie Nelson goes bonkers in Nick Ray’s drug induced destruction of a “perfect” 1950’s American family. James Mason is a well liked, though a self confessed, straight laced “dull” person, that is until he is diagnosed with a rare disease and the only known cure is the then new miracle drug cortisone. When he begins to abuse the medication, Ozzie, I mean Ed Avery, turns into an egotistical know it all, spitting out strange child rearing theories at a PTA meeting. At home, he brow beats his son, withholding meals until his homework is done correctly. From there his delusions only get worst, until one day, he pronounces God was wrong when he spared Isaac. Ed is even willing to surrender his family in a biblical sacrifice. In “Bigger Than Life,” Nick Ray tears down the walls of the phony 1950’s facade of white picket fences and elegant worry free suburban living. He also takes a hard look at the abuses of prescription drug use long before it was ever considered a problem. Continue reading

A Face in the Crowd (1957) Elia Kazan

I originally had Orson Welles “Touch of Evil” scheduled for today, however, with the death of Andy Griffith earlier this week I decided to repost an old review of A Face in the Crowd I wrote a few years ago for the now defunct website Halo-17. Then the horror struck. I had no copy of my original review saved! The website was shut down, so I could not even retrieve anything from on-line. I generally keep a copy of all my reviews on my PC, but this one apparently got away. All I could find was a paragraph of notes I had taken for background. Still determined to put out a review, I began with those notes and, though a bit rushed, came up with what you will read here. It is not the best, but it will have to do.  Oh yeah, Welles Touch of Evil, which has been brewing on the back burner for a month or so now, has been rescheduled once again, and will  appear here two weeks from today.

The rise of the media star as an influence in our lives has never been greater. From Presidential politics to what we watch on television and listen to on the radio; the media star influence’s us all.  Oprah Winfrey can persuade millions on what book to read or who to vote for in an upcoming election. Since the 1950’s the power of television cannot be under estimated. Mass communication was now available at a level undreamed of and unavailable before. As far back as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, when the camera revealed JFK as good looking, confident and in control, while his opponent then Vice-President Richard Nixon appeared with a five o’clock shadow and a sweaty brow, the use of television had the power to shape voters opinions and ideas then and ever since. In the most recent Presidential debates, between Obama and McCain in 2008 your saw it once again. As Obama explained his policies, the camera showed McCain tightlipped and anxious, almost itchy or unwilling to wait for Obama to finish so he could jump in. Continue reading

Charade (1963) Stanley Donen

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“Charade” is a light Hitchcockian thriller with two of the most charming stars to ever grace the screen. A lively screenplay, a catchy title song that you cannot get out of your head and a superb cast of supporting actors, most of who would soon go on to become stars in the late 1960’s and beyond.  Directed with a light touch by Stanley Donen, best known for his wonderful musicals with Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town and It’s Always Fair Weather) and without Gene Kelly (Funny Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Pajama Game) glides elegantly and smoothly into the world of The Master of Suspense. Donen actually complained about the comparison to Hitch, claiming that Sir Alfred did not have a monopoly on this kind of film. While he is right about that, there no denying the similarities. First, you have the main character Reggie (Hepburn) being accused of something, she knows nothing about (the whereabouts of stolen money). Then we have a script filled with dark humor, another Hitchcock trademark and finally Miss Hepburn’s co-star, Cary Grant, a Hitchcock alumnus with an outstanding record.

    Audrey Hepburn is Reggie Lampert, a UN Interpreter, whose husband is murdered and tossed off a moving train right at the start of the movie. His only possession is a small travel bag that the police will return to her. Just prior to learning of  her husband’s death, whom she was planning to divorce, she meets the charming Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) at a ski resort. They are attracted to each other. At the funeral palor where her husband’s body is on view, an assortment of odd strangers appear, each one substantiating personally that he is dead; one even sticks the deceased with a pin to ensure he is really dead. 

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Soon after, Reggie is requested to come to the U.S. Embassy where she meets Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), a CIA agent who informs her that her husband was involved in a robbery during World War II, stealing two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, belonging to the government. Hamilton shows Reggie a photo of three men who were in the Army with her husband and were part of the gang that pilfered the dough. Reggie recognizes the men; they are the same three strangers who came to her husband’s funeral. Bartholomew wants the government money back though Reggie insists she does not have it nor know where it is.  Peter Joshua reappears willing to help Reggie anyway he can to find the money, which he eventually admits he wants for himself. He also informs her that his name is really Alexander Dyle. Soon bodies are dropping like the proverbial fly. Reggie and Peter/Dyle fall in love as they continue to search for the missing money. I won’t reveal the ending but suffice it to say most of the characters are not who they say they are, maybe.

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   The film is filled with twist and turns, and plenty of sophisticated and sometimes ghoulish humor, courtesy of screenwriter Peter Stone. Grant is in familiar territory having covered this type of film with Sir Alfred many times before (North by Northwest, Rebecca, and Notorious). He is charming as ever, even if he is looking a touch older. Grant was concerned about the romantic angle of the script due to the age difference between Hepburn and himself. He requested changes in the script, specifically that they make Hepburn’s character the aggressor in their relationship. Hepburn always seemed to be involved with older men in many of her films (Cooper, Bogart, and Astaire) and it always looked a bit uncomfortable except with Grant who is able to carry it off unlike the others. Despite their age difference, Grant and Hepburn have a magical chemistry working between them. They are perfectly matched. Hepburn is beautiful and sophisticatedly sexy as one could be. There are no two actors today who glow with  the appeal, the sophistication, the style these two stars radiate. They had faces then and charisma. 

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The film’s list of supporting actors is nearly a who’s who of future celluloid stars. Walter Matthau, who already had a long career in supporting roles would soon break out, win an Academy Award for his role as Whiplash Willie in Billy Wilder’s “The Fortune Cookie” and become the oddest of leading man. Here he is perfect as the underhanded “CIA Agent.”  Like Matthau, James Coburn had been slowly building a resume of wonderful character parts, one of which is in this film, and he would soon reach stardom with the “Our Man Flint” films. The great George Kennedy would soon become best known for his role as “Dragline” in the classic “Cool Hand Luke.”   The cast also includes the wonderful character actor Ned Glass best known for his role as Sgt Pendleton in “The Phil Silvers Show” (aka Sgt. Bilko). Finally and certainly not least is Henry Mancini’s wonderful score and title song, which is eerily played throughout the film and an integral part of the film’s success.

    “Charade” was Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas attraction in December of 1963 opening to mixed reviews though the public came in droves. In 2002, Jonathan Demme, made a valiant attempt to remake this light classic called, “The Truth About Charlie.” Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg is a long distance away from Cary Grant and though the beautiful Thaddie Newton comes somewhat closer to capturing the elf like sophistication of Hepburn, the film remains okay to watch but it is “Charade” you will come back to watch again and again. 

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You may notice on IMDB, they say the screenplay is based on a story (The Unsuspecting Wife) credited to Peter Stone and Marc Behm. If you check out the photo of the paperback above it states, “A novel by Peter Stone.”  On the inside of the book, it reads that it is dedicated to suspense writer Marc Behm. So what goes on here? Stone is a playwright and a screenwriter and he is not known to have ever written a novel. The “novel” is a novelization of the screenplay and “The Unsuspecting Wife” was a short story by Stone that originally appeared in Redbook magazine. The most likely scenario of the credit to Behm is he wrote the novelization based on Stone’s screenplay thus, the dedication to give Behm credit.

King Creole (1958) Michael Curtiz

     “King Creole” is arguably Elvis Presley’s best film. This may sound like a dubious achievement but “King Creole” is a movie that you do not actually have to be an Elvis fan to like. The film has a lot more going for it than most Elvis films. A good solid Hollywood director in Michael Curtiz, the man responsible for made “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and so many others.  A cast of actors that would do any film proud including Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Dolores Hart and the wonderful sexy off beat Carolyn Jones…and of course, Elvis. Also contributing is Russell Harlan’s moody photography that captured the seedy French Quarter atmosphere so well.

    “King Creole” was only Elvis’ fourth film and the last before military service cut his hair and other more vital organ parts, at least symbolically. The music was still good (King Creole, Hard Headed Woman, Trouble) and had yet to disintegrate into fetal filler like “It’s A Dog’s Life” and “Song of the Shrimp,” that would become typical of his movies within only a few years. The movie was based on an early novel by Harold Robbins, one of the most successful authors or the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Robbins works included “The Carpetbaggers,” “Never Love a Stranger,” “Where Love Has Gone” and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” all eventually made into movies. “A Stone for Danny Fisher” was retiled “King Creole” when adapted into a screenplay (co-written by Michael V. Gazzo) for Elvis. The location was changed from the streets of New York to New Orleans to accommodate Elvis’ southern accent and of course, now Danny can sing.

     Danny Fisher is a high school student just about to graduate when family problems, his dad is out of work, and a hot temper result in Danny dropping out of school and falling in with a group of young punks who plan to rob a five and dime store using Danny’s singing skills as a diversion. The punks, lead by Vic Morrow, as Shark,  work for Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) a minor local hood who owns a club where Danny works mopping and sweeping because his father can’t hold down a job.  Danny leads a double life. There’s Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), Maxie’s kept woman, who is attracted to Danny and Danny is attracted to her, as he is to Nellie (Dolores Hart), a nice girl Danny meets at the five and dime store he was mixed up in robbing. There’s also, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), a honest rival club owner (he owns the King Creole) of Maxie’s, who gives Danny a break singing there, and then there is Maxie Fields, a viciously vile and abusive thug representing the dirtier underworld  side of the nightclub life. Danny is pulled in both directions; the unhappy Ronnie abused and used by Maxie and the sweet more innocent Nellie, the nice girl who a good life can still be possible with.

“King Creole” would be Elvis’ last ‘rebel without a cause’ style film. He would go into the army an anti-hero and when he came out two years later, like Samson once his hair was cut, he lost that rock and roll spirit. He turned into a cleaner cut friendly all American Elvis, a pod that would carry him through approximately thirty more films with little or no redeeming value.           

  King Creole has plenty of good moments in it like the opening scene; we see the wet empty streets on an early New Orleans morning. A black woman, riding in a wagon calling/singing out “Crawfish” as she slowly strolls the empty street. “See I got’em, see there size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes”.  A bongo beat begins and suddenly from up on a balcony above we hear Elvis sing out “Crawfish,” back and forth with the black woman.  What great opening scene. There a lot of other good stuff in this film, Elvis in a switchblade fight with Vic Morrow and his gang; Walter Matthau’s performance as the slimy hood Maxie Fields;  Elvis singing “Trouble” on top of a bar proving to Maxie that he can sing and Carolyn Jones giving another great performance as a sensitive good-hearted loser.  

It’s sad that Elvis rarely got to use his acting chops again (only in Flaming Star did he have that chance). In “King Creole” he shows flashes of acting talent that if nurtured could have potentially gave us some memorable performances. At one time or another Elvis was considered, or offered such roles as Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the Kris Kristofferson role in the Streisand remake of “A Star is Born.”  It would have been interesting to see what a director the caliber of a John Scheslinger could have done with Elvis.