Lady of Deceit (1947)

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Aka Born to Kill. Stop that phony intellectual patter you climbing faker! A cult item this, a film noir with a distinctly nasty undertow of viciousness and some droll lines. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) is freshly divorced in Reno and finds the body of another woman and her boyfriend in her boarding house. Returning on the train to her wealthy foster sister’s home in San Francisco she’s accompanied by the ambitious thuggish drifter Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) who murdered the couple. Their attraction is obvious but he marries her sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) and introduces his sidekick Marty (Elisha Cook Jr) to the mix. When philosophical private eye (Walter Slezak) turns up to investigate the Reno murders it transpires he was hired by the victim’s landlady Mrs Kraft (Esther Howard, always a joy) whose alcoholic inclinations won’t stop her from doing a Miss Marple. Helen inadvertently leads the older woman into a murderous situation engineered by Marty. Trevor’s byplay with Tierney is really something and the awfulness of everyone concerned is heightened in their verbal interactions. What this lacks in pace it makes up for in sheer psychopathy. A thoroughly febrile post-war film directed by former editor Robert Wise. It was adapted by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from the 1943 novel Deadlier Than the Male, written by that fascinating screenwriter, novelist and producer James Gunn, who specialised in the hard-boiled pulps so familiar from the period.

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Viva Las Vegas (1964)

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Aka Love in Las Vegas. The legendary pairing of The King with Ann-Margret is literally the whole show in a town full of them. Even for an Elvis film the storyline is surprisingly weak but the eye-poppingly colourful scene-setting by supreme stylist George Sidney mitigates the problem. Elvis  is Lucky Jackson, a talented singer and driver whose luck has run out so he’s in Vegas to raise money to take part in the Grand Prix. He sees dancer and swimming instructor Rusty (A-M) and is smitten. But so is his rival, Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Lucky and Rusty do some sightseeing around the Hoover Dam – nice helicopter views – and we learn a little about Nevada and her good relationship with her father (William Demarest).  Lucky winds up losing all his money in the hotel pool and having to earn his living as a waiter which leads to some nice slapstick serving Rusty and Elmo. Then his luck turns and there is the climactic race across the desert which is pretty well shot and there are some disasters along the route … The songs are terrific and the sequences of the city and casinos are wonderful. You can see Teri Garr in a bit part as a showgirl at one point but the most surprising element is that this was written by Sally Benson, responsible for Meet Me in St Louis. And then there’s the real-life romance between Elvis and Ann-Margret! In the film they marry at the Little Church of the West, the oldest wedding chapel in Vegas.

A Howling in the Woods (1971) (TVM)

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This adaptation of Gothic romance queen Velda Johnston’s novel heralded the reunion of I Dream of Jeannie‘s Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman. In truth, Hagman has a glorified cameo as her husband whom she’s divorcing. Her arrival in Lake Tahoe is not welcomed – the police follow her when she hits town and stepmom Vera Miles cannot conceal her annoyance when she walks in the door of her former home. New stepbrother John Rubinstein sees her as seducible fodder but something is up since Pop never seems to be around. She takes up residence in a cabin and soon gets the distinct impression she’s in danger and there’s that dog howling in the woods  …This NBC TVM has pedigree – adapted by Richard De Roy, directed by Daniel Petrie, scored by Dave Grusin, whose work would be so significant to so many big screen features in the coming years. It operates almost completely in the suspense mode and is all the better for it, with little relief coming from the welcome arrival of Tyne Daly down the cast. Eden does very well as the woman in jeopardy. Just a shame it’s not properly available in a decent format, like a lot of early 70s TV movies.

Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) (TVM)

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This is the VHS cover of a TVM sequel that scares the bejesus out of me – and with good reason. I’ve never been good with diabolism and the actor Stephen McHattie (who I loved since he played James Dean in the 1976 TVM) seems like he really could be the son of John Cassavetes from the Polanski masterpiece. And this was made the same year, so I guess it was kind of a moment for him, as they say.  Little Andrew as his mom Patty Duke Astin calls him is needed for a ritual but she smuggles him out of NYC and then a madam (Tina Louise) does a deal with the coven to take him herself and Patty gets taken away screaming on a driverless bus… Suddenly Andrew’s all grown up and in constant trouble with Sheriff Broderick Crawford and startled by memories of his parents and Uncle Roman and Aunt Minnie are not too thrilled with his behaviour either:  Ray Milland and particularly Ruth Gordon chew the scenery wonderfully as the devilish old pair who chide him over his lack of responsibility to his pop. Their bickering is the best thing about this. His human pop Guy Woodhouse (George Maharis) has carved out a Hollywood career which now looks like it might slide into oblivion thanks to his ingrate son. Andrew’s new female friend, Ellen (Donna Mills) gets him out of a psych ward – well, isn’t that where you end up if you claim you’re the Son of Satan – and strikes a deal with the Castevets … The devil is in the detail, isn’t he.  Sigh. This is not a worthy follow up to a classic. It was adapted from Ira Levin’s characters by Anthony Wilson who worked on Planet of the Apes and The Night That Panicked America (with Nicholas Meyer) He died two years after this was made. Another point of interest for buffs: this was directed by editor Sam O. Steen, who edited Rosemary’s Baby and he is reunited here with cinematographer John A. Alonzo from their teaming on Chinatown, another great Polanski film. Ah, cinema. Not your average TVM then – at least in terms of the talent!

Tremors (1990)

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You wanted a western monster movie homage, so here it is, the deserved cult fave with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as the laconic cowpoke repairmen bored by life in Perfection, Nevada when they find a colleague dehydrated and dead up a telegraph mast and a station wagon buried in the sand. They soon find out why – as a giant worm with massive tentacled tongues chases them across the desert. And he has some friends. They and their smalltown acquaintances have to use their ingenuity to send the monsters to kingdom come but it’s the pretty seismologist (Finn Carter) who has most of the good ideas while Reba McIntire and her hubby Michael Gross show us why sometimes it’s good to have an elephant gun in the rec room. Great fun with some cracking lines and deadpan performances, featuring a number of deadly C&W songs including Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life. Debut film by Ron Underwood, written and produced by Brent Maddock and SS Wilson and the first of a long series.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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Adapted by Nelson Gidding from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, this posits the idea that a satellite that has landed in Piedmont New Mexico was carrying an alien pathogen capable of causing mass casualties – everyone in the tiny township is dead. The scientists from Project Scoop are called in and find two people touched but still alive – a baby and an old man, who they remove to a lab. The researchers have to be decontaminated and then it’s a matter of identifying whether it is in fact an alien bacterium that is being launched on the earth’s population and it’s a race against time before a solution is found … Where you stand on this film’s success depends on your tolerance for old technology albeit with great effects for the era, devised by Douglas Trumbull who’d made his name doing 2001. The other issue is the uninteresting nature of the leads – perhaps casting Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid (a man in the source novel) was to ensure that your attention was focused on the story so that the issues of government readiness for such a potential catastrophe or alien invasion, secret projects (the left hand scientist doesn’t know what the right hand scientist is working on) and the nature of the storytelling itself are foregrounded. It’s told documentary fashion, with several interesting split screen effects and a ticker telling us what happens each day. Each specialist brings something different to the Wildfire project with their foibles and strengths exposed as things become exponentially problematic and the clock is ticking on the nuclear device should there be a containment breach – and everyone now knows that whatever this is it’s airborne and is too big to be a virus. Robert Wise directed a film that is very much a product of its time but with some astute lessons about how to deal with foreign invasions, germ warfare and what to do when your chief researcher experiences absence epilepsy and makes the wrong finding.The kind of film that makes you want to go back to the books to look at how pH range functions.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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The very essence of 70s existentialism. In a way. Perhaps those sunburst flashbacks are not a good idea. Maybe if the script had the courage of its convictions we would just experience the desert drive with Barry Newman instead of getting backstory, romance, rationale. Kinda like Falling Down, which similarly overloaded an explosively effective social drama with causes, which wasn’t really needed and deflated the message. Here we have pillhead Kowalski fresh out of Nam who is promised his next cache for free if he brings this 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T back to San Francisco from Denver in 15 hours. A multi-state police chase ensues. Cleavon Little is the radio DJ narrating his progress. Sometimes you should trust the audience a little more. And make a fully fledged classic. Unique, terrifically atmospheric, brilliantly shot by John A. Alonzo and well directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written pseudonymously by G. Cabrera Infante as Guillermo Cain.This is really something. And the car!

The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.