A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
May’s Star of the Month, Robert Ryan, has over 90 movie and television credits to his name. His last film was The Iceman Cometh in 1973, shortly before he succumbed to lung cancer. Ryan was born in Chicago on November 11, 1909, to a wealthy family who owned a real estate firm. He attended Dartmouth College, where he worked on the campus newspaper and joined the boxing team, compiling a 5-0 record. Ryan moved out to California in the late ‘30s, studying acting under Max Reinhardt, and it was here that he met his wife, fellow student Jessica Cadwalader. After their marriage, she retired from acting to raise a family and became a successful children’s book author. He served in the Marines during World War II as a drill sergeant and was a boxing champion, both of which served him well in the movies. He first gained attention as the anti-Semitic villain in 1947’s Crossfire and as the washed-up boxer who refuses to take a dive in The Set-Up (1948). These set the tone for the rest of his career, which took advantage of his athletic build, handsome looks and authoritarian voice and bearing. He was made for the shadowy world of film noir and especially for war films, as some of his best remembered roles were in both genres. The irony in Ryan’s acting career was that, while he often played violent men, he himself was of a gentle nature and a pacifist – a founder of the antinuclear weapon group SANE.
May 20: Not a whole lot to choose from tonight. At 10:00, there’s The Outfit (1973) with Ryan as a crime boss targeted for revenge by ex-con Robert Duvall for murdering Duvall’s brother. This is followed at midnight by the pick for the evening, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), a wonderful violent over-the-top Western with Ryan as the leader of a group of bounty hunter out to snare his old gang, with an ending only Sam Peckinpah could come up with. Highly recommended despite the violence.
May 27: Ryan kicks off The Memorial Day Marathon with four of his war films, starting at 8:00 pm with Battle of the Bulge (1965), a wildly fictionalized account of the famous World War II battle. Ryan plays General Gray, leader of the American troops at Bastogne and a fictional double for General Anthony McAuliffe. At 11:00. Ryan co-stars in one of the most famous war movies ever made, The Longest Day (1962), as General Gavin. The movie is unique in that it covers the viewpoints of the Allies, the Germans, and the French Resistance. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name, the movie is almost three hours long, with five directors and an all-star cast led by John Wayne, Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton.
At 2:00 comes another of Ryan’s most notable war movies, The Dirty Dozen (1967). Ryan has a supporting role as Colonel Breed, who opposes Major Reisman's (Lee Marvin) idea of fashioning a commando unit from 12 convicted military convicts. Of course, Breed’s opposition dies out after the Major’s men capture his entire staff during war games, or we wouldn’t have had any movie. It’s a lot of fun for the eighth grader in all of us as Marvin and the boys successfully infiltrate the chateau where top ranking German officers are busy planning the war.
Rounding out the evening during the graveyard hour of 4:30 am is Men In War (1957), a taut story about a band of American soldiers trying to survive a mission behind enemy lines during the Korean War. Ryan is their leader, Lt. Benson. Directed by Anthony Mann, the film is unique in that it shows the action from the viewpoint of the average GI, much like Sam Fuller’s earlier Korean War drama, The Steel Helmet. It’s a film that deserves to be seen despite the unfortunate hour and we recommend recording, unless insomnia gets the better of you.
May 19: Tonight the focus is on AIP in the ‘60s, beginning with Beach Party (1963) at 8:00, the movie that, while it didn’t start the “beach movie” craze (Gidget did), probably did more to popularize the craze than any other movie. It also began the biker craze phenomenon in a way with Harvey Lembeck playing biker boss Eric Von Zipper.
At 10:00 comes The Wild Angels (1966) from director Roger Corman starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. There were other biker films in the past, most notably The Wild One (1953), but Corman’s low budget flick ignited the biker craze of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Whereas Eric Von Zipper of the Beach Party films was played for laughs, Corman’s films were serious, celebrating youthful rebellion, free love, and anti-authoritarianism, all to the merry jungle of the cash register.
Corman continues to cash in at 11:45 with 1967’s The Trip as Peter Fonda drops acid in search of a cure for his troubled emotional life.
At 1:15 comes a film we’re surprised Corman didn’t make: Wild in the Streets (1968). Get this lot: Max Frost (Christopher Jones) its elected president of the United States after managing, by doping Congress with LSD, to have the voting age lowered to 14. President Frost decrees that anyone over the age of 30 is to be sent to a concentration camp, where they’re forced to take hallucinogens. It’s ham-fisted satire at its very best. Watch for Shelley Winters as Max’s mother giving one of the most bizarre performances of her career. That alone is worth tuning in to see. When liberal senator Hal Holbrook drops in to see her to complain that her son is paralyzing the country, she answers, “I’m sure my son has a very good reason for paralyzing the country.” The ultimate stereotypical Jewish mother.
At 3:15, it’s Three in the Attic (1968), a black comedy whose quasi-feminist theme was somewhat ahead of its time. When three college students (Yvette Mimieux, Judy Pace, and Maggie Threat) discover their erstwhile boyfriend (Christoper Jones) is sleeping with all of them, they take him captive and keep him in an attic, where they take turns hoping to service him to death.
Finally, at 5:00 am, it’s Vincent Price at his hammiest in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). Price is a mad scientist (What else?) out to ensnare the fortunes of the world’s wealthiest men through the use of the beautiful bikini-clad robots he manufactures in his laboratory. Out to stop the mad doctor is secret agent Frankie Avalon of S.I.C. (Secret Intelligence Command). A film that’s perfect for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
May 26: The evening is devoted to AIP in the ‘70s, beginning at 8:00 with Vincent Price totally enjoying himself in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), a definite Must See for those of a psychotronic bent. At 10:00, it’s Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), starring the then husband-and-wife-team of David Carradine and Barbara Hershey. At midnight, it’s yet another Hitchcock imitation from director Brian De Palma – Sisters (1973) – starring Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt. Journalist Salt sees a man brutally murdered in Kidder’s neighboring apartment, but the police aren’t buying her story. She enlists the help of private detective Charles Durning to get to the bottom of things with the usual strange results.
At 2:00 am, Shelley Winters chews clear through every piece of scenery she can find as Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970). The most interesting thing in the film is the young Robert De Niro as son Lloyd Barker. At 3:45, it’s renowned Shakespearean actor William Marshall taking the lead role in the camp cult blaxploitation classic Blacula (1972). And, finally, at 5:30 am, it’s Liza Minelli and Ingrid Bergman in the 1976 romantic drama, A Matter of Time, directed by Liza’s father, Vincente. Liza is a young woman who helps eccentric elderly countess Bergman deal with old age, and Bergman, in turn, introduces Liza to the world of the upper crust. It could have been a really interesting film, but the low budget and overuse of stock footage does in whatever director Minelli is trying to create. But worth seeing, especially for Bergman completists.
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
May 16: At 2:45 am, it’s the sublime House of Pleasure (1954) from director Max Ophuls. Co-writers Ophuls and Jacques Natanson adapted three short stories by Guy de Maupassant that relate the joy and irony of romance. "Le Masque'' is about an elderly man who recovers his youth with the aid of a magic mask. "Le Maison Tellier'' sees a bevy of prostitutes embark on their annual holiday in the countryside. And in "Le Modele,'' a free-living artist weds a model after she cripples herself in a failed suicide attempt. The film is a typical lush Ophuls’ production with his trademark fluid camera and baroque art decoration. Narrated by Peter Ustinov (the English version; Jean Servais narrates the original) the film has an all-star cast featuring Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon, Claude Dauphin, Gaby Morlay, Pierre Brasseur, Pauline Dubost, Madeleine Renaud, and Daniel Gelin.
May 22: Two rarities beginning at 8:00 pm with Henry Hathaway’s 1933 revenge Western, To the Last Man starring Randolph Scott, Esther Ralston, Barton MacLane, and Buster Crabbe. It’s followed at 9:30 pm by the 1962 animated, educational feature film Of Stars and Men. Based on the 1959 book of the same name by astronomer Dr. Harlow Shapley, it’s an engaging movie about theories concerning space and time, matter and energy, and our place in the universe. Though it can be a bit dry at times, it still enchants and educates. A film truly ahead of its time.
MEMORIAL DAY MARATHON
May on TCM means the annual Memorial Day Marathon, saluting movies about war and our reaction to war. Though nothing new is added to this year’s schedule, there are still several favorites being run for our enjoyment.
May 28: Begin at 9:00 am with the wonderfully weird Behind the Rising Sun (1943). The best bad movies are those that take themselves very seriously, and this film, with J. Carroll Naish, Tom Neal, and Margo playing Asians, comes close to being an outright laff riot. It’s in the “must be seen to be believed” category, and we urge you to tune in.
Later that day is the marvelous The Caine Mutiny (1954) at 3:30, followed by the tense The Hill (1965) with Sean Connery and Ossie Davis. In the evening, it’s the oft played The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), followed at 11:00 by the not-so-oft-played A Bridge Too Far (1977).
May 29: Two classics running back to back beginning at 8:00 with the magnificent Civil War drama Glory (1989) about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African-American regiment in war. Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington (who got the Oscar), and Morgan Freeman (who steals the movie). Following at 10:15 is William Wyler’s perceptive drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) documenting the difficult adjustment veterans and their families must make after war is over.
May 30: At 9:00 am, it’s Howard Hawks’ durable Sergeant York (1941) with Gary Cooper as the man who captured 132 Germans in one battle during World War I. At 2:15 comes The Great Escape (1963), based on the true story of a mass escape from a German POW camp during World War II. Richard Attenborough, James Garner, and Steve McQueen star. Immediately following at 5:15 is The Guns of Navarone (1961), adapted from the novel by Alistair McLean starring Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn as a team of Allied saboteurs who must disable a huge pair of Nazi cannon making life tough for the Allies in Greece.
The evening begins at 8:00 with another McLean adaptation, this one being Where Eagles Dare (1968), starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as part of a team of commandos parachuted into the Bavarian Alps to rescue an Allied officer held prisoner at a castle-fortress known as the “Castle of the Eagle.” At 10:45 pm, Eastwood stars in Kelly’s Heroes (1970) based on the true story of a group of GIs out to rob a bank in occupied France containing 14,000 bars of gold. Originally a subtle anti-war film, Eastwood and director Brian G. Hutton were forced to make cuts by their studio, MGM, that resulted in a different film from the one they originally made. It wasn’t until 1999 that the same plot of soldiers taking leave of a war to find hidden gold was employed for the movie Three Kings, which was not cut by the studio.
Finally, at 3:30 am comes Errol Flynn and company fighting the Japanese in Raoul Walsh’s 1945 actioner, Objective, Burma!
May 17: Three solid Pre-Codes, beginning at 6:00 am with Warren William obsessed with his building in Skyscraper Souls (read our essay on it here.) At 9:15 am, it’s the irrepressible Marie Dressler (June’s Star of the Month) in one of her finest roles as Tugboat Annie (1933) co-starring Wallace Beery, Robert Young, and Maureen O’Sullivan.
We now have to wait until the late hour of 3:15 am for the rarely shown film Are These Our Children? (1931). It's the story of a youth (Eric Linden) from a decent background who falls in with the wrong people and is led down the road to juvenile delinquency, and ultimately, death row. With Beryl Mercer in her usual role of the suffering relative, Rochelle Hudson, and Ben Alexander. I caught this years ago at a midnight show and can testify to the fact that it’s a real corker. Definitely worth catching.
May 31: At 8:00 pm, it’s Lew Ayres starring in the 1930 flawed gangster epic The Doorway to Hell. Ayres was miscast as ruthless gang baron Louie Ricarno, who “retires” from the rackets to his Florida mansion to write his memoirs. Co-star Jimmy Cagney steals the film as Ricarno’s right-hand man, Steve Mileaway. There's also a brief, but unforgettable performance by the underrated Dwight Frye as hitman Monk, who packs his chopper in a violin case.
May 22: Enigmatic German director Rainer Warner Fassbinder dominates the late night beginning at 2:00 am with two of his more popular films: Lola (1981), and 1969’s Love is Colder Than Death. The former is Fassbinder’s take on the classic The Blue Angel, from 1930, with Armin Mueller-Stahl as Von Bohm, an upright building commissioner who’s smitten with his landlady’s daughter, a single mother named Lola (Barbara Sukowa). What he doesn’t know is that she’s a singer at a local bordello and the mistress of Schukert (Mario Adorf), a developer whose profits rely heavily on Von Bohm’s projects. The question: Can Von Bohm discover Lola’s real occupation and what Schukert is up to? A clever and perceptive social satire.
Love is Colder Than Death is a rather unusual gangster story. Small time pimp Franz (Fassbinder) is torn between his mistress Johanna (Hanna Schygulla) and Bruno (Ulli Lommel), the gangster sent after him by the syndicate that he has refused to join. Things are turned upside down when Franz and Bruno strike up a friendship that evolves to the point where Franz shares Johanna with Bruno. They also form a crime trio with Bruno doing most of the dirty work. It’s a film I have a hard time recommending because of its uneven style, but it’s one that should be seen at least once. Think of Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou with a nihilistic bent.
PSYCHOTRONIA AND THE B-HIVE
May 18: Tune in at 6:15 for the classic and unsettling Eyes Without a Face (1959). Pierre Brasseur stars as a surgeon who accidentally disfigured his daughter (Edith Scob) in an auto accident and now lures young women in order to graft their face onto that of his daughter.
May 21: At 9:15 am, the Lone Wolf series hits rock bottom with the last (thankfully) in the series, The Lone Wolf and His Lady (1949). The role of Michael Lanyard, once played with with style and grace by Warren William is now in the hands of Ron Randell, an actor who also put the Bulldog Drummond series out of its misery. Alan Mowbray takes over for Eric Blore as Jamison, but there’s little he can do given the script. It’s followed at 10:30 am by The Bowery Boys in Let’s Go Navy (1951), the second of their four “service” comedies. In this surprising lively entry, the Boys enlist in the Navy to catch some crooks posing as sailors.
May 22: At 2:00 pm it’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), followed by Forbidden Planet (1956) at 4:30 pm, and Village of the Damned (1961) at 6:15.
May 26: Six vintage John Wayne B’s from the early ‘30s begin with Ride Him, Cowboy (1932) at 6:00 am. At 7:00 am, it’s The Big Stampede (1932); followed by Haunted Gold (1932) at 8:00 am; The Telegraph Trail (1933) at 9:00; Somewhere in Sonora (1933) at 10:00; and The Man From Monterey (1933) at 11:00.
May 31: At 6:00 am, it’s Leo Gorcey’s swan song as a Bowery Boy, 1956’s Crashing Las Vegas. The plot is typical: an electrical shock gives Sach (Huntz Hall) psychic powers, so the boys decide to make a killing in Las Vegas, where Sach cleans up at roulette. For Gorcey, this was the end on the line. He had been in bad shape since his father, Bernard, was killed in an auto accident. To deal with his grief he drank heavily and the results can be seen in the movie, where he clearly appears intoxicated. He also trashed the set a couple of times between set-ups in frustration and grief. After filming ended, Gorcey demanded a huge increase in his salary. The studio (Allied Artists), noting his behavior, refused and Gorcey left the series. Watch for the scene in Sach’s hotel room, where, after his soliloquy, Gorcey comes in too early with his line, “What time do they give out the awards?” He then cracks up laughing and looking skyward, as if to his father for approval.