Friday, June 26, 2009

1959: SOME FAVOURITE FILMS FROM 50 YEARS AGO. If I was to schedule a movie marathon for myself of my faves from 1959, here is what I'd probably screen.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER - Directed by Otto Preminger and nominated for 7 Oscars, this film tells the tale of a jaded lawyer who takes up a murder case of a husband who killed a man for raping his wife. Groundbreaking at the time for its simple, matter-of-fact discussion of such rarely mentioned subjects as sperm production and, most notably, women's panties! The cast is superb: James Stewart as the fed-up lawyer, Lee Remick as the hoyden of all hoydens, Ben Gazzara as the husband, veteran character actor Arthur O'Connell as the drunk has-been lawyer, Eve Arden as the wry secretary, George C. Scott as the shark-like prosecutor. . .hell, it even has one of my favourite character actors John Qualen as Deputy Sheriff Sulo! Another spectacular bit of stunt casting is having non-actor Joseph Welch play Judge Weaver; Welch was the real-life attorney who represented the Army in the famous McCarthy hearings that led to the downfall of witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy. Welch is famous for disgustedly berating McCarthy with the quote: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Duke Ellington provides the jazz score (as well as making a cameo in the film). One of the best courtroom dramas.
GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW - Note that I didn't say BEST films up there . . . I only said my faves. And for some reason this dippy movie has appeal to me. Direct from our friends at American International Pictures we have a movie that crams several different genres into one in an effort to make as much money at the box office as possible. It's a teenage/juvenile delinquent comedy that mixes in the AIP horror genre, the "feeling" of one of their beach pictures, heavy doses of middle-of-the-road 50's rock and roll music and drag-racing hot rod gangs! Basically, a Los Angeles teenage car club bops around town getting into trouble, drag-racing, fist-fighting, dodging the cops and THEN somehow or other they end up inside a haunted house giving a Halloween party! This film stars nobody and was directed by nobody (actually a man with the rather unfortunate name of William J. Hole Jr. -- um, I suppose we should be grateful his middle initial wasn't "A"!). It is, in fact, probably the quintessential example of this type of movie which AIP was so expert on putting out and which teenagers, desperate to get out of the house away from the parents and Uncle Miltie on the boob tube, would flock to the drive-ins to munch popcorn and make out to!
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL - Probably my favourite of William Castle's directorial efforts, this one features a rich guy who promises a group of people a cash prize if they can stay overnight inside a locked haunted house. Vincent Price, of course, is the perfect casting for the sly rich guy, Carol Ohmart (later featured in the cult classic "SPIDER BABY") is perfect as his flinty wife, male ingenue Richard Long (of TV's "Nanny & the Professor") fulfills leading man duties while Elisha Cook Jr. is his usual twitchy self as the lone survivor of a previous attempt. There is also a cameo by Leona Anderson as the blind scary hag; Anderson is the "singer" of one of my favourite awful records called "Music To Suffer By" which makes Mrs. Miller sound like Leontyne Price! The famous Castle gimmick of "Emergo" found a fake paper skeleton wheeled out over the audience during a key scene (which rowdy kids promptly pelted with popcorn boxes). While there is little REAL supernatural goings-on in the film, it's still a fun rollercoaster ride by a master huckster.
I'M ALL RIGHT, JACK -- One of the sharpest British comedies/satires. A naive bumbler (Ian Carmichael) from a rich family decides he wants to get into business but finds he isn't really suited for anything and has to start at the bottom on the shop-floor of a munitions factory. Unknown to him, he is being used as a pawn by his rich uncle to cause worker unrest and cause a strike so that the rich uncle can get a valuable arms contract. A biting satire of both labour and management, Ian Carmichael heads a knockout cast including Peter Sellers as the Hitlerian-looking Communist union leader Mr. Kite as well as British comedy-acting titans Dennis Price, Margaret Rutherford, Richard Attenborough, John Le Mesurier, Milles Malleson and my beloved Irene Handl! It's sad to see that the business world hasn't really changed in half a century! But that's what makes this film STILL funny!
NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Another classic Hitchcock film featuring another "wrong man" situation. Cary Grant is an advertising exec who gets mistaken for a spy, has to go on the run because people are trying to kill him and then gets mixed up in a murder. Grant is perfect in the lead role ably assisted by Eva Marie Saint, evil James Mason, even evil-er Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll. Another classic Bernard Herrmann score. One of Hitch's best.
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE - Definitely NOT the worst movie ever made! (After all, there's MANOS, HAND OF FATE, THE KILLER SHREWS, NINE MONTHS and VAN HELSING to consider). We all know the tale: Ed Wood has a couple minutes of unused Bela Lugosi footage and inserts it into his magnum opus of "grave robbers from outer space". For the record, the flying saucers WERE NOT paper plates or hub caps; they were in fact actual flying saucer model kits picked up in a hobby shop. Besides the great Lugosi (who is badly mimicked throughout most of the film by a chiropractor with a cape held over his face) we have the cult icons Vampira (Maila Nurmi) and Tor Johnson as well as the typically marvelously inept sets and directing of Edward D. Wood Jr. But the film is NEVER dull and is a hoot from start to finish. Anyone who REALLY thinks this is the worst film ever made is "stupid! Stupid! STUPID!!!!"
RIDE LONESOME - Another in the classic series of Budd Boetticher minimalist westerns starring Randolph Scott as the grizzled old cowpoke. This time Scott is a bounty hunter who is taking a wanted murderer back to be hanged. But it's not as easy as that as he rescues a woman from an Indian attack, picks up a couple of shifty characters to give him more muscle should the Indians attack again and also has to contend with the murderer's brother trying to free him. Oh, and did I mention that the Indians themselves are after the murderer so that they can turn him in and get "amnesty" as a reward? Randolph Scott is perfect as usual as the elderly western hero who has seen it all. The rest of the cast is filled out by Karen Steele ("Star Trek - Mudd's Women"), Pernell Roberts (Bonanza, Trapper John M.D.), James Best (THE KILLER SHREWS, The Dukes of Hazzard), Lee Van Cleef and James Coburn.
RIO BRAVO - One of the greatest westerns of all time. Howard Hawks' deliberate riposte to Fred Zinnemann's HIGH NOON, this is the director's own take on what happens when an outlaw and his men come back to town to take revenge of the lawman. Rather than Gary Cooper being abandoned by the town and facing them alone, this time it's John Wayne as the lawman aided by hid drunken deputy Dean Martin, young hotshot Ricky Nelson, grizzled old Walter Brennan and flashy Angie Dickinson. Ward Bond and Claude Akins round out the stellar cast.
SLEEPING BEAUTY - Animated Disney venture which, admittedly, isn't really a great film; it's actually half a great film. The first half is rather a lot to wade through but the climactic second half battle against Maleficent (one of the out and out BEST Disney villains EVER!) is a classic. Voiced by Eleanor Audley with a sense of threat AND sly humour, Maleficent is that rare thing: A Disney villain that is actually SCARY!
SOME LIKE IT HOT - Billy Wilder's wild romp about a couple of musicians (Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis) who witness a gangland killing and have to disguise themselves as women (in an all female band) in order to hide from the mob. Marilyn Monroe is funny (if looking slightly unwell) as bubble-headed musician Sugar Kane and who can resist veteran gangster legend George Raft as Spats?!?! Features one of the best final lines in a movie by classic silent comic Joe E. Brown.
SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER - Joseph Mankiewicz directs this Tennessee Williams adaptation which is actually campy and rather bad but immensely watchable. The hothouse delirium of Williams is there, all right, but the screenplay was "altered" -- the REAL play was too hot to adapt wholesale to the screen in 1959 -- and the ending is really dopey! Poor Montgomery Clift (post-car accident) is somewhat somnambulant while Elizabeth Taylor chews up the scenery like there's no tomorrow. Really, the saving grace of the picture is Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of the praying mantis-like controlling mother Mrs. Venable; who can resist her urging Clift to cut up Liz Taylor's brain!!! Not me! The cast also features the great character actors Mercedes McCambridge (JOHNNY GUITAR, THE EXORCIST) and Albert Dekker (DR. CYCLOPS, KISS ME DEADLY). Mankiewicz was impatient and cruel to the fragile Montgomery Clift during filming and, famously, Katharine Hepburn asked the director (and her old friend Mankiewicz who actually introduced her to Spencer Tracy) on the last day if all shooting had been completed. Mankiewicz said yes and Hepburn replied "You're sure?". When Mankiewicz assured her that the picture was finished, Hepburn spit right in the director's eye and vowed never to work with him again for the shabby way he treated Clift.
THE BAT - The umpteenth adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart's hoary old dark house stage play, this one ain't all that good either but there's something about it that I've always liked. Of course, it's got Vincent Price teamed up with Agnes Moorehead (something we didn't see enough of despite the fact that BOTH had been associated with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre) in a film which must have seemed old-fashioned even at the time. But that's really the film's charm. The cast also features Gavin Gordon (who played Lord Byron in James Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) as well as former "Little Rascal/Our Gang" child star Darla Hood. The story doesn't really matter; there's a maniac called "The Bat" running around killing people in an old dark house. There's also a wacky, rock & roll theme song by lounge-meister Alvino Rey. What more do you need?!?
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES - Ahh, when Hammer Horror was new. Fresh from their triumphs with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA, Hammer Films decided to produce this fine adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes story. The major problem with ANY adaptation of THE HOUND is that Holmes disappears from great chunks of the action; a severe handicap for any Sherlock Holmes film. However, Peter Cushing as Holmes and Andre Morell (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) as Watson are so eminently watchable we hardly notice. Add to the mix SIR Christopher Lee as the beleaguered Sir Henry Baskerville (plus a demonic black hound from hell) and this is one of the nicest adaptations of that novella. All the best of Hammer went into this film: James Bernard's classic score, Roy Ashton's makeup, Bernard Robinson's miraculous sets and Jack Asher's masterful photography together make this a sumptuous feast. Classic Hammer horror director Terence Fisher helms with distinction but the film, not being the "horror" film audiences expected from Hammer, wasn't successful at the time. However, nowadays fans see it for what it is: a Hammer classic. Because of the film's relative failure, a proposed series of Sherlock Holmes films from Hammer starring Peter Cushing never came to fruition. Our loss.
THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS - How many times did THIS play on Creature Double Feature during my 70's youth?!? Classic 50's b-movie horror that basically has a much nastier version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Only this time, instead of wanting to swim with Julie Adams, this monster would rather decapitate you and leave your body to wash up on the California coastal town of Piedras Blancas (yes, it's really there). I remember as a kid, this was pretty strong stuff; the monster routinely carries around severed heads! The local lighthouse keeper leaves the monster meat in the vain hope that his daughter will be safe from the monster's attack. The rest of the town, presumably, is on its own! Veteran 50's horror/science fiction actor Les Tremayne stars. A greatly beloved (if nasty) monster icon from the fifties.
THE MUMMY - Speaking of Hammer, after their mega-successful adaptations of Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula movies, what would you expect but for Hammer to do an adaptation of THE MUMMY. However, it's not the classic 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle that's being adapted here; instead, it's the later 1940's Mummy series of pictures that ultimately starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis. Peter Cushing stars as the Egyptologist who battles Christopher Lee as the cloth-wrapped mummy controlled by George Pastell's vengeful Mehemet Bey ("He who robs the graves of Egypt DIES!"). Oddly, James Bernard was not tapped to provide the musical score; however Franz Reizenstein's lush score is absolutely perfect for an Egyptian Mummy movie. Jack Asher is behind the camera while Bernard Robinson handles the superb set design and Roy Ashton returns to provide the makeup effects. The beloved Hammer horror actor Michael Ripper has one of his showiest and funniest scenes.
UKIGUSA aka DRIFTING WEEDS aka FLOATING WEEDS - The great Yasujiro Ozu directs this story of a travelling theatre troup arriving in a seaside Japanese town. The ageing head of the troupe (Ganjiro Nakamura) looks up his old flame with whom he had a son; however the son is told the man is actually his uncle. An actress in the troupe becomes jealous and manipulates a young ingenue into seducing the son. Ozu (who co-wrote the screenplay) painstakingly composes each scene and provides a magically gripping experience for the viewer. The film unfolds almost musically with a rhythm all its own.

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