Saturday, May 20, 2017

#2,356. The Entertainer (1960)

Directed By: Tony Richardson

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Roger Livesey

Tag line: "As the applause grew fainter ... As the spotlight grew dimmer ... His women were younger!"

Trivia: Roger Livesey plays Laurence Olivier's father in this film, yet was less than one year older than Olivier in real-life

The show must go on”. It’s an adage as old as show business itself, yet for Archie Rice, the lead character in the 1960 film The Entertainer, it’s more than a motto. For him, being on-stage is synonymous with being alive. It’s when he steps behind the curtain and faces reality that Archie Rice gets himself into trouble.

Archie (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, reprising the role he made famous on-stage) is a comic well past his prime, telling stale jokes in a dilapidated Lancashire theater to audiences that get smaller by the day. Still, Archie remains optimistic, and is busy trying to put together a new show he’s convinced will be a smash hit. His long-suffering wife Phoebe (Brenda de Banzie) is at her wit’s end; not only is she afraid that Archie, already up to his ears in debt, will end up in jail, but the couple’s son Mick (Albert Finney), a soldier in the army, has just been taken prisoner while fighting in the Suez. Archie’s father, Billy (Roger Livesey), who lives with them in their tiny apartment, was himself a well-known performer in his day, and Archie’s and Phoebe’s other son Frank (Alan Bates) manages things behind-the-scenes for his father, doing his best to ensure the shows, however pitiful, run as smoothly as they possibly can.

Into this domesticated nightmare comes Jean (Joan Plowright), Archie’s daughter from a previous marriage. Leaving her fiance Graham (Daniel Massey) behind in London, Jean travels to Lancashire to spend a weekend with the family, only to discover her father, a notorious womanizer, has cooked up a scheme that threatens to tear their world apart. While serving as emcee for a local beauty pageant, Archie meets, and then seduces the runner-up, 20-year-old beauty Tina Lapford (Shirley Anne Field), by promising to make her the headliner of his next production. He then cozies up to Tina’s well-to-do parents (Thora Hird and Tony Longridge) in the hope they will finance their daughter’s big debut. Archie is so keen on the idea that he actually considers divorcing Phoebe so he can marry the much younger Tina! Jean, the only member of the Rice family who knows what’s going on, tries desperately to talk her father out of it, but for Archie, there’s more than love involved; this move could finally make him a star, something that has eluded him his entire life.

Will Archie actually go through with his devious plan, or will fate somehow intervene?

Produced during the early days of the British New Wave, The Entertainer was shot (for the most part) on-location, bringing a sense of realism to many of its scenes (the beauty pageant is set entirely outdoors, and later in the film, Jean and Archie enjoy a picnic while perched on a hill that overlooks a seaside amusement pier). The Entertainer also marked the screen debuts of Albert Finney (he has one brief scene early on), Alan Bates, and Joan Plowright (who, a year later, would become Mrs. Laurence Olivier); and was only the second feature film directed by Tony Richardson (the first being Look Back in Anger, released a year earlier). In addition, Brenda de Banzie delivers a searing performance as Archie’s mostly inebriated, yet dutiful wife Phoebe, while Roger Livesey is superb as Billy, Archie’s lovable father who, back in the day, achieved a level of stardom that his son has never known.

But The Entertainer is Archie Rice’s story, and contains what is, hands down, one of Sir Laurence’s all-time best performances. Even when he isn’t standing in front of a microphone, Olivier’s Archie is always “on”, telling jokes to his family, his friends at the pub, and pretty much anyone who will listen to him. Life does sometimes throw off his timing, like when he receives the telegram informing him that Mick was taken prisoner, but Archie always manages to put his troubles aside, even the ones that he himself creates (having already declared bankruptcy, Archie must now rely on Phoebe to sign the checks that they don’t have the money to cover). Throughout The Entertainer, Archie Leach is a cad of the highest order, a womanizer and a beggar who puts his own needs, his own ambitions, ahead of everybody else’s. And yet he’s so damn charismatic that you can’t help but like the guy; whether belting out his signature tune “Why Should I Care?” or cracking jokes that were old twenty years ago, Archie always manages to convince those around him that he’s as adorable in real life as he is on stage. The truth, however, is that Archie Rice is going down for the count, and uses humor to forget his worries. We get the feeling throughout the movie that if Archie ever stopped laughing, he’d probably break down and cry.

As engrossing as it is tragic, The Entertainer is an exceptional motion picture, featuring a world-class actor at the top of his game.

Friday, May 19, 2017

#2,355. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Directed By: Arthur Crabtree

Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow

Tag line: "It Actually Puts YOU In The Picture - Can You Stand It?"

Trivia: This was the first American International release to be in color, and was also their first Cinemascope movie

It starts innocently enough; a delivery man drops off a package for Gail (Dorinda Stevens), a single woman living in a London apartment building. There’s no return address on the box, and no note of any kind to indicate who sent it. Gail’s roommate, Peggy (Malou Pantera), teases her, saying it must be from an anonymous admirer. Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Excited, Gail rushes to the window to try them out. A few seconds later, she lets out a scream. A horrified Peggy looks on as Gail covers her eyes with her hands, blood pouring through her fingers. Gail then falls over dead, and we notice that the binoculars (lying next to her) now have two large, blood-stained spikes in its back lenses, which jutted out moments after Gail raised her new gift up to her eyes.

The violence in this opening sequence proved unsettling for a good many people. After seeing the movie in a Times Square theater, photographer Diane Arbus was so shaken by this scene that she snuck a camera into a later showing and snapped a picture of the screen the moment actress Dorinda Stevens covered her eyes (This snapshot is still part of the Diane Arbus collection, and is titled “Screaming Woman with Blood on her Hands”). But as you’ll discover while watching 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum, this is but one of several gruesome deaths featured throughout the film.

Poor Gail was actually the third young woman murdered in the past two weeks, and Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) of Scotland Yard, who has taken charge of the investigation, still has no idea who the killer is, or what his motives are. As if the case wasn’t difficult enough, a series of sensationalized newspaper articles pertaining to the killings, written by Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), have whipped the public into a frenzy. What the police don’t realize, though, is that Bancroft is much more than an interested bystander in this sorry state of affairs; he’s the responsible party! To gain publicity for his work, Bancroft has hypnotized his valet, Rick (Graham Curnow), and, arming him with a variety of weapons he’s collected over the years, sends the young man out into the streets with instructions to kill. Thus far, Bancroft’s murderous plan has gone off without a hitch, but with the police doubling their efforts to try and prevent further slayings, it may only be a matter of time before his entire scheme comes crashing down around him.

Michael Gough is at his slimy best as Bancroft, the arrogant writer who not only reports the news but also creates it; and actress June Cunningham has a small but memorable role as Joan, a prostitute that Bancroft visits regularly. Yet what makes Horrors of the Black Museum so… well, horrific, are its murder sequences, with Rick (who, while under hypnosis, undergoes a physical change that makes him look more like a monster than a man) employing a variety of weapons to finish off his victims. While the binoculars from the opening are, without a doubt, the most ghastly of the bunch, there’s also a decapitation that’s pretty shocking (mostly because we don’t see it coming).

As with many older movies, the violence in Horrors of the Black Museum may seem tame by modern standards; we never actually see any of the kills take place, and quite a bit of time passes between each murder (though Michael Gough’s boisterous performance ensures that even the movie’s bloodless scenes are fun to watch). But compared to other films released around the same time, it’s easy to see why Horrors of the Black Museum caused such an uproar.

And don’t be surprised if its opening scene comes rushing back to you the next time you’re holding a pair of binoculars.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

#2,354. Deadlier Than the Male (1967)

Directed By: Ralph Thomas

Starring: Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina

Tag line: "For Hire: Deadly Weapons! - Blonde, Brunette, Redhead"

Trivia: In a later interview, director Ralph Thomas said that the movie was made with the intention of kicking off a TV series

Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, World War One veteran and self-proclaimed adventurer, is a fictional character created in 1920 by British author H.C. McNelle, and like most popular literary heroes he eventually made his way from the printed page to the big screen (the earliest movie to feature the character, the appropriately titled Bulldog Drummond, was released in 1922). Deadlier Than the Male was the 22nd Bulldog Drummond film, but the first produced in the post-James Bond era. Hoping to duplicate the cinematic success of Ian Fleming’s super spy, the creative minds behind this 1967 movie decided to give ‘ole Hugh Drummond a makeover, taking what had been a rough and rugged adventurer and transforming him into a suave ladies’ man whose skills as an investigator would give 007 himself a run for his money.

Two oil company executives have died under mysterious circumstances, and Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), am Insurance claims investigator for Lloyds of London, wants to know what happened to them. While Drummond is busy piecing together clues, several more businessmen turn up dead, and it isn’t long before he himself becomes a target. To Drummond’s surprise, a pair of gorgeous female assassins, Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina), are responsible for all of the murders thus far, and with the help of his nephew Robert (Steve Carlson), Drummond learns that the girls’ next intended victim is King Fedra of Akmatan (Zia Mohyeddin), an old college chum of Robert’s who, at present, is vacationing on his yacht in the Mediterranean Sea. Should Fedra die, the world’s oil supply will be controlled by only a handful of men. The question is: which of these powerful magnates hired Irma and Penelope to do his dirty work for him?

Released less than two years after Thunderball (and a few months before You Only Live Twice), Deadlier Than the Male is a straight-up Bond clone, borrowing many of the elements that made the 007 series popular with its fans. In addition to an exciting pre-title sequence (where we witness the death of the first executive, who is killed on his private jet) and a very “bond-esque” theme song (performed by The Walker Brothers), Deadlier Than the Male has plenty of action, some nifty gadgets (though the coolest, including a bullet-laced cigar and a life-sized computerized chess board, belong not to Drummond, but the criminals), and a highly-skilled hero who never loses his cool (as Drummond, Richard Johnson pulls off the seemingly-impossible task of making an insurance investigator as cunning and debonair as one of her Majesty’s top agents). And like all Bond films, Deadlier Than the Male is chock full of attractive women (Sommer and Koscina may just be the most beautiful assassin team in cinematic history).

The movie does falter a bit in the final act (the chief villain’s identity is revealed far too soon, forcing the filmmakers to put him in more scenes than they should have), but as Bond-inspired pictures go, Deadlier Than the Male is the most entertaining I’ve ever seen.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#2,353. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Directed By: Karel Reisz

Starring: Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Rachel Roberts

Tag line: "Saturday night you have your fling at life...and Sunday morning you face up to it!"

Trivia: Albert Finney learned to use a lathe during filming

Right around the time that Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were shaking things up in France, the UK film industry was experiencing a “New Wave” of its own. Taking a page from their French counterparts, filmmakers like Tony Richardson, Lindsey Anderson, and a handful of others (many of whom were already movie critics and documentarians) put the focus squarely on working class Britain, a group that had been roundly ignored up to that point. Released in 1960, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning stands as a shining example of the British New Wave movement, and is the film that introduced audiences to a 23-year-old actor by the name of Albert Finney.

Arthur Seaton (Finney) spends his weekdays working as a machinist in a dingy Nottingham factory, and his weekends living life to its fullest. Come Saturday, you’ll usually find him getting drunk at the local pub or fishing in a nearby stream with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington). If not, then you can be sure Arthur is out and about with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), a married woman he’s been seeing for some time. The whole situation is a bit dicey; Brenda’s husband, Jack (Bryan Pringle), is a co-worker of Arthur’s, and the two lovers must go to great lengths to ensure that their illicit affair remains a secret.

Then, at a pub one afternoon, fate throws a monkey wrench into the works when Arthur meets the beautiful Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), with whom he falls instantly in love. As if that’s not enough, Brenda drops a bombshell that threatens to tear his world apart: she’s pregnant with Arthur’s child! Hoping to avoid a scandal, Brenda decides abortion is her best option, and Arthur promises to help her out any way he can. But will his continued involvement with Brenda destroy any future he might have with Doreen?

Like many films of the British New Wave, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning boasts an almost documentary-like feel; director Karel Reisz shot the majority of the movie in and around Nottingham (the very first scene is set inside the factory where Arthur works, while the opening credits play over images of him riding his bike through the streets). By relying on actual locations as opposed to a studio soundstage, Reisz infused the film with a gritty realism that, from start to finish, enhanced its blue-collar mentality.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also made Albert Finney a star, and the actor did his part to make the role of Arthur Seaton a memorable one. “What I’m out for is a good time” Arthur says during the opening narration, and this is how he approaches life throughout the entire film. He drinks heavily, stands up to the older generation (his nosy neighbor Mrs. Bull, played by Edna Morris, is a regular target of his aggression), and has no qualms about being seen in public with a married woman (Arthur genuinely cares for Brenda, yet we get the feeling it’s the dangerous nature of their relationship that really appeals to him). Though he’s clearly an angry young man, we nonetheless identify with Arthur’s desire to break free of the monotony of his working-class existence, and Finney’s lively, heartfelt performance is the reason why.

Upon its release, the BBFC saddled Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with an “X” rating, due mostly to the film’s unapologetic depiction of abortion and extramarital sex. The movie-going public, however, saw things differently; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a box-office hit, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that, like their compatriots in France, UK audiences were ready for a change.

And thanks to Karel Reisz and his pals, a change is exactly what they got.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

#2,352. The Working Girls (1974)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Sarah Kennedy, Laurie Rose, Mark Thomas

Tagline: "They'll do anything for money!"

Trivia: Cassandra Peterson plays a stripper in this film, years before being cast as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

One look at the poster for writer/director Stephanie Rothman’s The Working Girls and you know what you’re getting, right? That’s what I thought, anyway. But the truth of the matter is this 1974 film isn’t jam-packed with nudity and sex, as its promotional material suggests. In fact, aside from a risqué moment or two, it isn’t a sex comedy at all.

So what is it then? Damned if I know. I just finished watching The Working Girls and I’m still trying to figure it out!

The Working Girls follows the exploits of three roommates living in an apartment in Los Angeles. Honey (Sarah Kennedy) recently arrived in town and is desperately looking for a job. Jill (Lynne Guthrie) was lucky enough to find employment working as a waitress at a strip club, a position that will open more doors for her than she ever thought possible. Denise (Laurie Rose), who manages the building where the three of them live, is an artist by trade, painting signs for various customers. Denise’s relationship with Mike (Ken Del Conte), a street guitarist Honey brought home, seems to be going well, but Mike is hiding a dangerous secret, one that could get him and his three new friends in hot water with some very bad people.

At least the tagline for The Working Girls is correct: these ladies will do anything for money! At one point, Honey is contracted by an elderly woman (Mary Beth Hughes) to kill her husband; and later on, she’s hired by Vernon (Solomon Sturges), a millionaire, to be his constant companion (in a non-sexual way). As for Jill, she goes from being a waitress at the strip club to one of its headline performers (Jill’s strip routine makes her the only member of the main cast to appear in the nude). As if this promotion wasn’t enough, Jill is eventually asked to run the place when the club’s owner Sidney (Eugene Elman) decides to take a vacation!

The Working Girls has its share of romance as well; aside from Denise’s and Mike’s relationship, Jill meets, then falls in love with, a mobster named Nick (Mark Thomas).In addition, actress Cassandra Peterson, years away from becoming her alter ego, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, makes an early screen appearance as Katya, the stripper who teaches Jill the ropes. But despite its plethora of characters and a handful of engaging situations, The Working Girls is a movie that, for the most part, just kind of coasts from scene to scene. It’s not particularly funny, and rarely catches our attention long enough to leave an impression.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

#2,351. The Cossacks (1928)

Directed By: George W. Hill

Starring: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Ernest Torrence

Tag line: "Stirring romance, hard riding, desperate fighting with the Cossacks playing their game of war and chivalry"

Trivia: The film was originally to have been directed by Viktor Tourjansky, but it took such a long time getting the script together that he moved on to another project.

The story of actor John Gilbert is a tragic one. A star during the silent era whose popularity rivaled that of Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert had a tempestuous relationship with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (the two allegedly detested one another), and as a result, he was assigned to a series of low-grade pictures. By the time he completed his 6-film contract with MGM, Gilbert was all but forgotten by the movie-going public. Greta Garbo, who was once engaged to Gilbert, tried to rescue his career by getting him a role in 1933’s Queen Christina, but it was too late. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, John Gilbert died of a heart attack at the age of 36 on January 9, 1936.

To see him in 1928’s The Cossacks is to realize just how talented John Gilbert was, and while the movie itself hasn’t aged well, its star shines brightly throughout it.

For the Cossacks of Southern Russia, life hasn’t changed in centuries: the women still stay home and work while the men ride into battle against their enemy, the Turks. It is said that all true Cossack men love the smell of blood, the glory of war, but Lukashka (Gilbert), the son of the Cossack Chieftain Ivan (Ernest Torrence), sees things differently, and would rather stay with the women then fight with the men.

Lukashka’s views make him very unpopular, and even his childhood sweetheart Maryana (Renée Adorée) wants nothing to do with him anymore. A free spirit, Lukashka doesn’t mind the constant barrage of insults. That is, until the night two drunken Cossacks grab him, put him in a ladies dress, and tie him to a pole in the village square. Taunted by the women (including Maryana), an embarrassed Lukashka is eventually set free, and still fuming over the incident he gets into a fistfight with his father, then helps track down a group of Turkish prisoners trying to escape (during the ensuing chase, he kills his first man).

Hailed as a hero for his role in recapturing the prisoners, Lukashka (realizing he does, indeed, enjoy the thrill of battle) goes on to become the bravest warrior of them all. Yet despite his new outlook, he refuses to forgive Maryana for turning against him. Then, fate intervenes; while Lukashka and the other men are off fighting the Turks, Prince Olenin Stieshneff (Nils Asher), the son of the Czar, pays a visit to the Cossack village. Instructed by his father to marry a Cossack girl, the Prince sets his sights on the beautiful Maryana. At first, she rebuffs the Prince’s advances, but when Lukashka once again scorns her, a humiliated Maryana agrees to the marriage, all the while hoping her true love will eventually come to his senses.

Even for a movie made in 1928, The Cossacks seems terribly old-fashioned; as the film opens, Ivan and his men are returning home from war. To celebrate their victory, they head straight to the local bar and drink as much vodka as they can get their hands on. The debauchery is interrupted, however, by the ringing of the church’s bells, at which point the men stop the party in its tracks and head outside, kneeling down on one knee until the bells stop clanging (because, as we’re reminded several times throughout the movie, “above all, there is God”). In addition, there are aspects of the story, especially early on, that won’t sit well with modern viewers. Lukashka is called a “woman-man” for refusing to fight, and his disgruntled father declares that he doesn’t have a son (“I have a daughter with a fine nose”, he says). Some of the insults tossed at Lukashka don’t even make sense; when he tries to cozy up to Maryana in a field, she pushes him away, calling him a “chewer of sunflower seeds”!

Its questionable dialogue aside, The Cossacks is, at times, a thrilling adventure film, and features a number of memorable scenes (including a torture sequence towards the end that’s hard to watch). Rising above it all, though, is star John Gilbert; whether playing a pacifist or a fierce soldier, Gilbert’s charismatic performance ensures that his Lukashka is always the movie’s most interesting character, and we root for him even when he seems to have lost his way (at one point, Lukashka tries to hurt Maryana, who is anxious to win him back, by kissing a Gypsy woman in front of her).

Without John Gilbert, The Cossacks still would have been a mildly diverting adventure. With him, it became something more substantial, and serves as a reminder of what it was that Hollywood lost when John Gilbert was allowed to fade away.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#2,350. The Corpse Grinders (1971)

Directed By: Ted V. Mikels

Starring: Sean Kenney, Monika Kelly, Sanford Mitchell

Tag line: "the Corpse Grinders Turn bones and flesh into screaming, savage blood death!"

Trivia: The writer of this film, Joseph Cranston, is the father of Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston

When it came to dreaming up enticing film titles, writer/director Ted V. Mikels was an absolute master. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie called The Black Klansman, Ten Violent Women, or Astro-Zombies? Even if the films themselves weren’t all that impressive (I wasn’t a fan of his 1966 flick Blood Orgy of the She-Devils), Mikels sure as hell knew how to get your attention, and most of the time it worked to his advantage.

Take, for example, The Corpse Grinders; in an interview conducted by author John McCarty for the book The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures in Exploitation Filmmaking, Mikels claimed this 1971 film cost around $47,000 to produce and took in over $3 million at the box office! As for its quality, I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Corpse Grinders a “good” movie, but it definitely kept me entertained.

The Lotus Cat Food Company, owned and operated by Landau (Sanford Mitchell) and his partner Maltby (J, Byron Foster), has found a way to save thousands of dollars in production costs: instead of the typical ingredients, they use nothing but the finest human corpses to make their cat food! Aided by the ill-tempered Caleb (Warren Bell), whose job as a cemetery caretaker provides them with all the dead bodies they can handle; and with the help of their trusty corpse-grinding machine, Landau and Maltby have cornered the pet food market, and are pulling in more money than they ever dreamed possible.

There’s only one problem: their cat food is turning even the most docile kittens into carnivorous beasts with a taste for human flesh! With dozens of attacks reported already, Dr. Howard Glass (Sean Kenney), who was himself nearly mauled to death by a cat belonging to his nurse/girlfriend Angie Robinson (Monika Kelly), begins to wonder if there’s a connection between Lotus’ cat food and the violent behavior of local felines. Together with Angie, Dr. Glass decides to look into the matter. But the closer he gets to uncovering the truth, the more dangerous his investigation becomes.

I’m not sure what percentage of its $47,000 budget was dedicated to building sets and props for The Corpse Grinders, but I’m guessing it wasn’t much; the entire Lotus factory looks like a dank basement (including the main office that Landau and Maltby share), and the “hospital” where Dr. Glass and Angie work is nothing more than a room in somebody’s house. As for the film’s main attraction, aka the dreaded corpse grinding machine, it may not look like much (according to Mikels, it was made out of plywood), but it gets the job done; bodies (underwear and all) go in one end, and a disgusting meat mixture comes out the other (The Corpse Grinders won’t be the most frightening horror film you’ll ever see, but the image of this ground meat pouring from the machine is sure to turn your stomach).

While most of the acting in The Corpse Grinders is less than stellar, both Sanford Mitchell (as the increasingly maniacal Landau) and Sean Kenney (whose Dr. Glass is the hero of the story) do, on occasion, manage to rise above the others; and there are enough oddball moments scattered throughout the film to keep things interesting (no explanation is given as to why Caleb’s wife, played by Ann Noble, walks around with a baby doll, treating it like it was a real child).

In the end, I didn’t enjoy The Corpse Grinders quite enough to seek out its sequels; the direct-to-video The Corpse Grinders II, released in 2000, was also written and directed by Mikels (an entirely different crew took the reins for 2012’s The Corpse Grinders III). But as “so-bad-its-good” movies go, The Corpse Grinders is, at the very least, unique, and this alone makes me happy that I saw it.