Monday, February 27, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for March 1-7

March 1–March 7


TWO WOMEN (March 1, 2:30 pm): This is Sophia Loren's best film and put her on the map as far as being an outstanding actress and not just an incredibly beautiful woman. She plays Cesira, a Roman woman who has to flee her hometown with her 13-year-old daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown) during World War II with the Allies bombing the city. She goes to incredible lengths to protect her child only for the two to be raped in an abandoned church by Moroccan Allied soldiers. It's a hard-hitting film with a powerful message and brilliant acting – Loren won the Oscar for Best Actress, the first to earn that honor in a non-English speaking role.

WOMAN IN THE DUNES (March 3, 3:45 pm): The story is a parable about an entomology teacher out in the sandy dunes of a small rural village in Japan collecting beetles. He oversleeps and is stuck there for the night. The villagers invite him to stay in a deep sandpit with a woman who lives there. It turns out to be a trap, and no matter what he does, he cannot escape – kind of like a sandy Hotel California. On top of that, the sand on the pit's walls fall making life in the house at the bottom very dangerous. He decides to take on various tasks to pass the time, and after seven years in the pit, the man has the chance to legitimately escape. But he's found his purpose, and after all that time, the life he had in Tokyo is long gone. It takes an impossibly unlikely scenario and makes you believe it is actually happening.


UMBERTO D (March 1, 6:15 pm): Director Vittorio DeSica was known for his realistic portrayals of life in Postwar Italy. Next to The Bicycle Thieves, this is his most important – and best – film from that time. It takes a long, hard look at the problems of the unwanted elderly, the protagonist being a retired professor of linguistics at bologna who can no longer survive on his meager pension. Thrown out of his apartment for back rent, he wanders the streets with his faithful terrier, Flike, Be warned, this is the saddest owner and pet drama since Old Yeller, and I'm not kidding when I say that this is a five-hankie picture. The film was instrumental in helping to reform the Italian pension system into something more humane. Critically lauded in the '50s, it's almost forgotten today, much like it's protagonist.

WHITE HEAT (March 2, 5:45 am): Jimmy Cagney was never better or more frightening than in this gangster saga of a psycho gang leader dominated by his mother. Edmund O’Brien is terrific as the federal agent that goes undercover to help catch him. And don’t forget Margaret Wycherly in probably her best performance as Cagney’s mother. With Virginia Mayo as Cagney’s disloyal wife and Steve Cochran as gang member “Big Ed,” a man with big ideas and nothing else. It boasts one of the best endings in the history of film, but watch for the prison scene when Cagney gets some bad news. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.


ED: A. This is a wonderfully old-fashioned Gothic horror set in then contemporary Los Angeles. It's sort of a combination between PsychoSunset Boulevard and theater of the absurd. It comes across to us today as part macabre gothic horror, part dark comedy and a good part camp, due to the histrionics of leading ladies Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I'm surprised that there was anything left of the old house where they resided after all their scenery chewing. But it works and works well, thanks to the talent and work ethic of both actresses. Knowing the sub-text of the heated rivalry and mutual hatred between Davis and Crawford makes for even better viewing. You'll delight in watching them trying to top each other with some sort of trick or mugging before the camera. But with all that aside, it's a good story and well directed by Robert Aldrich. As Jane (Davis) begins to descend into madness, this is where the camp stops and the real horror begins. It makes for compelling viewing and Victor Buono adds nicely to the horror as a mama's boy on the make whom Jane takes a liking to, thinking that he's in love with her, and enlists him as the piano player for her "comeback" act. As mentioned before, Aldrich does a wonderful job of directing, keeping a deliberate pace that serves to intensify the horror and allows us to identify with Blanche's predicament. Do not reveal the ending and be sure to duck if Jane ever offers to cook you "din din."

DAVID: D+. I dislike this film for a variety of reasons. To see two formerly great actresses, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, reduced to doing a film this outrageously bad and over-the-top is depressing. To make matters worse, it spawned a new genre, known as psycho-biddy films. They were low-budget (at least in appearance) movies starring older actresses playing emotionally-disturbed women. Because of the box-office success of this film, Davis and Crawford became the queens of this genre. They followed this up with Strait-JacketHush... Hush, Sweet CharlotteThe Nanny, and Beserk! I like B-movies, but this one is uncomfortable to watch because you see what had become of these two screen legends. Hollywood no longer wanted them, and they were such divas that they opted to make this horrible horror/suspense film for reduced salaries in exchange for a percentage of the film's profits. This film is little more than Jane (Davis) reliving her glory days as a child performer with reality long forgotten in her mind, and doing whatever she can to make the life of her sister, Blanche (Crawford), a living hell. That wouldn't be so bad except the stunts she pulls are juvenile and ridiculous. Blanche loves her parakeet so Jane kills it and serves it to her sister for a meal. Staying with the dead-animal-for-a-meal theme, Jane also serves Blanche a dead rat. Yum! She also has no qualms about physically beating up Blanche. The only saving grace of this film is the ending, and it's quite the surprise. Unfortunately, you've got to watch about two hours to get to the interesting last 15 minutes. 

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Great Wall

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Great Wall (Universal, 2016) – Director: Yimou Zhang. Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro & Tony Gilroy (s/p). Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (story). Stars: Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Lu Han, & Pedro Pascal. Color, Rated PG-13, 3D, 103 minutes.

Have you ever said, “I don’t want to see that movie because he (or she) is in it?” That was unfortunately my approach to The Great Wall. Matt Damon has done nothing in his career that has impressed me so far and I went to see the movie expecting nothing.  What a surprise!

Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro gave him a script he could handle with minimal lines and short sentences and it worked perfectly! That, and their ingenious teaser at the beginning – “The Great Wall took 1,700 years to complete and stretches for 5,500 miles and this is one of the legends.” – blasted apart all my misgivings and caught my interest right away. It even made me delve into Chinese history.

The earliest record of the building of the Great Wall was in 771 BC in the Chu Dynasty.  1,700 years later would be 929 AD. The story in the film takes place some time during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1129 AD). William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are mercenaries from Europe who, with a band of 20 men were traveling to China in search of “black powder” to make their weapons more deadly. More than half of their group is murdered in attacks by Khitan bandits and they are still on the run. They divide up the supplies of their fallen comrades and William makes sure to keep a large piece of magnetite – which he calls simply a magnet – to hopefully make into compass.

One night around the campfire, the remnant fellowship are beset by strange, voracious beasts and William kills one and lops off one of its forelegs. Against Tovar’s advice, he keeps this as well. With the bandits in hot pursuit, the two top a ridge and find themselves swiftly surrounded by a circle of arrows rained down from a titanic wall manned by hundreds of archers and soldiers. Wisely, they surrender and are taken to Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) of the Nameless Order, a specialized division of the royal army, commissioned by the royal court to defend the Great Wall. No one believes that one man killed the beast they call Tao Tie (pronounced “Dow TeeYeh” – although it was misspelled Tao Tei in a couple of places in the movie). The two are manacled together and prepared for execution when hordes of the creatures attack the wall.

Rather than let them die in the fearsome jaws of the Tao Tie, Peng Yong (Lu Han) frees the Europeans and they prove themselves in battle, William with his bow and arrows and Tovar with his axe and quick movements. William further proves his archery skill at a banquet held in their honor. They learn from Strategist Wang (Lau) that 2,000 years ago, probably in the Zhou Dynasty, the emperor misused his power and was punished by a green meteorite which crashed into Gouwo Mountain, releasing the Tao Tie. The Tao Tie attack every 60 years (hence the building of the wall). The Nameless Order is trained from birth in their various (color-coded) skills.

Those wearing black are foot soldiers the “Bear Troop” melee-specialists, those in red are archers, the Eagle Troop (those in blue, all women) are bungee jumpers with spears, the Crane Troop (in yellow) the siege-engine specialist Tiger Troop. The fifth troop, the horse-mounted “Deer Troop” is also in black. I couldn’t help wondering why no one was wearing green.

They also meet Sir Ballard (Defoe), who has lived with the Nameless Order for 25 years and who taught Commander Lin English and Latin, but who still dreams of escaping with “black powder.” He now sees his opportunity with the two mercenaries.

Commander Lin and William strike up a cautious friendship. He tells her of how many armies and “flags” he fought for and how many causes. She tells him of the concept of “Xin Ren” (“trust” in Mandarin). When a couple of Tao Tie mount the wall one night and mortally wound General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), they decide to capture one of the beasts to figure out the most efficient way of killing them. William’s “magnet” pacifies the beast and cuts off communication with the “Queen” (the Tao Tie have a hive mentality and she directs the entire horde).

The biggest mistake they could have made is to take the creature to the capital, Bianliang (actually Bianjing) to place before the Renzon Emperor (Karry Wang). As near as I can figure, of the eight emperors of the Song Dynasty, the closest one to his youthful appearance would be Emperor Zhezong, who ascended the throne at age nine and died at age 24. Well, things go south from there. The monster awakens when the magnet is taken far enough away and it signals the Queen, and she and the horde attack the capital via a huge hole they’ve excavated in the Great Wall – one of which the Nameless Order were completely unaware. (They heard nothing?)

It’s understandable why The Great Wall had a $150 million budget. They had to build their own Great Wall sections for sets because the Chinese government forbade them to shoot on the actual wall. That, and paying the hundreds of extras needed to defend it, made it the most expensive movie shot in China. Filmed in Qingdao and also New Zealand, the countryside scenes are amazing, with the colorful hills and valleys.

The powerful music by Ramin Djawadi emphasized the dire situation and the strength of the remarkable creation. There was even a suspenseful quiet moment with a sudden action that made the audience jump, as without warning a Tao Tie attacks. The 3D effects were put to good use – several things come at the audience (including a few jaws full of sharp teeth).

Mandarin with English subtitles is used throughout the film to add authenticity. The acting is nowhere near Oscar quality but is never unbelievable. Matt Damon, as I said, is at his best. But Tian Jing outshines him in majesty as well as beauty. The Great Wall is an action-packed fantasy providing a far-fetched (but hey, why not?) reason for the wall’s existence. I was never a fan of history as a subject, but this movie had me researching the Dynasties of China. I was fascinated.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Cut by Wolfgang Puck
99 Church St.New York

Downtown Manhattan has been in a continuous state of flux since 9/11 and the block facing Church Street between Barclay Street and Park Place seemed like it would always be vacant. Suddenly up popped an 82-story skyscraper in that spot. Nobody paid any attention because we have so many large buildings in this neighborhood. In September 2016, the brand new Four Seasons Hotel opened its doors to the first 24 floors. (The remainder is luxury residences.) In October of 2016, Wolfgang Puck opened his first New York restaurant, Cut, on the Church Street side.

I knew what I was getting into from the start. It would be a jacket and tie night; it would be expensive; and, having dined at other Chef Puck restaurants, I knew it would be good. Outside, a simple brown awning looking like it was made from I-Beams has the name of the restaurant on all sides in white lettering slashed horizontally to further accent the meaning of the word. The glass doors lead to a lit display of wines behind glass and from there to the Captain’s Station. A turn to the left and I was in the dimly lit main dining area.

Every table was occupied with the servers bustling back and forth. I received the cocktail and wine list and had a good laugh at the sheer number of three- and four-digit wine prices. My server, Carly, asked if I wanted a cocktail. When she confirmed that they had Beefeater’s gin I ordered my favorite martini. It was very near perfect.

The sommelier noticed my constant page turning of the wine list and asked if I needed help. To which I replied that I had already chosen my wine, the 2014 Flam winery “Classico” – a varietal blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah from the Judean Hills in Israel. I chose it as much for its uniqueness as a blend, as a conversation point later on and for its affordable price.

Another server brought a black oblong box with thin cheesy breadsticks protruding and a small napkin-lined basket containing three of the best garlic-knots I’ve ever had. Carly was very helpful with choosing my courses and with her help I narrowed three appetizers down to two. Then she asked me a question I’ve never heard before: “Which filet mignon will you be having?” There were four different cuts, sizes and beefs. Another server arrived with a selection of meats all wrapped in white linen and stacked on a tray. Once she explained the differences I made my choice.

The young lady who brought the beef was also the bread lady, and she carried a selection of five breads. I chose pretzel roll, and sour dough with raisin and focaccia. I would have chosen all five but they didn’t fit neatly on my bread plate. Later on I ordered two more pretzel rolls (very addictive).

The sommelier had poured a taste of my Israeli wine and it had a delightful fruity nose hinting of spice, and an equally fruity, medium body taste with a slight peppery aftertaste. Excellent. My first course had arrived. The homemade tortelloni with black truffles were stuffed with kabocha squash and pumpkin and were in a sage butter sauce and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top as well as shaved black truffles. It was totally heaven and I said so to Carly.

The second appetizer was the Maine lobster and Maryland blue crab “Louis” cocktail with tomato-horseradish dressing. This was nothing like a run-of-the-mill shrimp cocktail, but more like a fluffy crab cake/ceviche hybrid. The shredded crab meat was the main flavor with vinegary overtones. The deconstructed “sauce” surrounded the main part of the dish and only accented it if you chose to let it.

I mentioned that there were four different filet mignons and the American Wagyu 6 oz. appealed to me. It was served with four dips: sea salt, Chinese mustard, Dijon, and red wine bordelaise. Surprisingly enough, the Chinese mustard worked best with the tender, juicy steak that was nicely blackened on the outside, while red on the inside.

The side dish was another of those experiences you wish there was more of: wild mushrooms sautéed with Japanese Shishito peppers. It had all the wonderful earthy flavors of nicely sautéed mushrooms; not overcooked, but still crunchy and with the added kick of the peppers.

For dessert they might have gilded the lily a bit. The Boca Negra chocolate dessert was served on a deep chocolate–colored plate. The tiny, rich cake was topped with glazed chestnuts and sided with a dollop of whipped cream and a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Twin wafer cookies sprouted from it like wings. Very nice, but I would have liked it to be bigger.

Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida, was where I last experienced Wolfgang Puck’s style of cuisine and I remember enjoying it. It was definitely brighter lit than Cut. Cut is equally up to his expertise. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Emmanuelle Riva: In Memoriam

By Christine

She once told me she never wanted to be a star, that the pleasure of acting itself was enough for her. Perhaps that is why she always returned to the stage, although she could have made much more money just doing films.

Yet Emmanuelle Riva learned she could not have her privacy and enjoy it, too. “If I took a break from movies, they soon forgot about me. They stopped calling. Looking back, I suppose I was too selective. It’s what I call ‘the savage’ in me, the urge to just go off by myself and do what I want.”

If there was one word to describe Riva, it was “independent.” She never married, had no children, and lived in the same Latin Quarter Paris apartment for over 50 years. She also chose not to have a television or a cellphone. Her apartment had a radio, a place for art, and shelves of books. Above the fireplace was a chalkboard on which she wrote quotes she heard on the radio, quotes about her favorite subjects – freedom, love, and time.

Her passion for privacy made the announcement of her death on January 27, 2017, a surprise to even some of those who knew her. According to her agent, Anne Alvares Correa, the cause was cancer. After a memorial service on February 4, 2017 at Saint-Germain de Charonne church (located on the Right Bank), she was buried in Charonne cemetery.

Riva never took the road frequently traveled. Born Paulette Germaine Riva on February 24, 1927, in Chenimenil, a village in the mountains of northeastern France, she grew up in nearby Remiremont. Her father, René Alfred Riva, was a sign painter; her mother Jeanne (Fernande Nourdin), was a seamstress. An only child, she had always wanted to act, performing in school plays and later in a local theater troupe. Because of the objection of her parents (Riva said her father was a strict disciplinarian to whom the word “actress” was merely a synonym for “prostitute”), she trained as a seamstress and worked at that craft after graduation from high school. One day, however, she spotted an advertisement for auditions at the Dramatic Arts Centre of Rue Blanche in Paris. She knew she had to go – if she remained a seamstress where she was she would have gone mad, she said. After long discussions her parents gave in and agreed to let her go. Her audition was conducted before none other than one of the leading actors and directors of the Comédie-Française, the great Jean Meyer. “All I remember was standing there, a nice little country girl in a little skirt.” She acted a scene from Alfred Musset’s play, There’s No Trifling With Love. Meyer and the other teachers on the jury were impressed and awarded her a scholarship, with Meyer himself acting as her mentor.

After completing her studies in 1954, she landed her first role on the Paris stage in George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. She followed that with roles in several stage productions, including Shaw’s Mrs. Warren's Profession, Bernanos’ Le dialogue des Carmélites, and Racine’s Britannicus.  

In 1957, she made her television debut in an episode of the history program Enigmes de l’histoire entitled "Le Chevalier d'Éon." She played the Queen of England opposite Marcelle Ranson-Herve as the cross-dressing knight in the service of the French crown. In 1958 came her first film appearance, an uncredited role in The Possessors, starring Jean Gabin.

The following year marked her breakthrough in film. While appearing on the Paris stage in L’Epouvantail (“The Scarecrow”), she was visited in her dressing room by Alain Resnais, a young documentary director looking for a leading lady for his first feature film, Hiroshima mon amour. He told Emmanuelle he was very impressed with her performance, especially her voice, which he felt had the right quality for the lengthy dialogue scenes in the film. He sent photos of her, along with a report, to the film’s screenwriter, Marguerite Duras, who agreed with his assessment. 

Hiroshima mon amour is a beautifully constructed film about memory and forgetfulness, recounting a series of conversations that take place over a 36-hour long period. In the movie, Emmanuelle plays a unnamed woman, known only in the credits as “Her.” She is an actress who comes to Hiroshima to make an anti-war film. There she meets and falls into an affair with a Japanese architect played by Eiji Okada and listed in the credits as “Him.” The affair has ended and she is preparing to leave.

Their dialogue is conducted in voice-overs and discusses both the bombing of Hiroshima and her early life during the war in Nevers, a town in Occupied France, were she had an affair with a German soldier. Her living and dead lovers – as well as the horrors of Nevers and Hiroshima – become linked.

Riva’s performance is the linchpin around which the film revolves. Speaking her character’s thoughts through a voice-over, she translates each of her feelings to delicate expressions with such eloquence that her face became the mirror of her soul, enabling the audience to understand what was going on inside her mind. The intelligence and intensity of her performance made "Elle" one of the most indelible characters in film history. 

Critic Jean Domarchi noted that "In a sense, Hiroshima is a documentary on Emmanuelle Riva.” It is a portrayal unlike anything ever seen before on the screen and one that was noticed by commentators from Jean-Luc Godard to Eric Rohmer, who hailed her performance as that of a new type of heroine, “at least not one that a certain classical cinema has habituated us to see from David Griffith to Nicholas Ray.” 

Though the Academy ignored her performance, she won the “Étoile de Cristal” (France’s top film award between 1955 and 1975, given by the “Académie française” and later replaced by the César) for Best Actress.

She followed up this groundbreaking performance with an excellent turn in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960) as a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. In 1961, she starred opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville’s shocking for its time Leon Morin, Priest as an atheist widow who develops an all-too-intimate relationship with Belmondo’s young and seductive priest. In 1962, her performance in Georges Franju’s Therese Desqueyroux (1962), based on Francois Mauriac’s novel about a miserable wife who tries to poison her husband, won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 23rd Venice Film Festival.

Other notable films include The Hours of Love (1963), Thomas the Impostor (1965), Liberte, le nuit (1984), Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993), Venus Beauty Institute (1999), and Julie Delpy’s  Skylab (2011).

In 2011, Austrian director Michael Haneke asked Emmanuelle if she would like to star in his new film Amour, about a retired music teacher named Anne who is failing mentally and physically as a result of a series of strokes. Her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), devotedly cares for her as the proud woman battles the ravages brought on in the twilight of her life. The film is a moving and stark portrait of a couple and their love in the last days of life.

Amour was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and Emmanuelle was nominated for Best Actress (the oldest person ever nominated). The film won while she lost out to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. However, she won the César, the French version of the Oscar, and a BAFTA film award for the role.

Emmanuelle also devoted much time to television, appearing in both series and made-for-television movies including La fin de la nuit (1966), a sequel to Therese. She also returned frequently to the stage. In 1966, she won the “Prix du syndicat de la critique” for Best Actress for her performance in L'Opéra du monde. In 2001, she made her last theatre appearance (at the time) performing in Medea at the Festival d’Avignon. But with her success in the 2012 film Amour, she returned to the Paris stage in 2014, co-starring with Anne Consigny in the Marguerite Duras play Savannah Bay, for which she won the 2014 Prix Beaumarchais.

Away from the stage she loved to write poetry and had three books of poems published: Juste derrière le sifflet des trains (Just Behind the Train Whistle, 1969), Le Feu des miroirs (The Fire of Mirrors,1975) and L'Otage du désir (The Hostage of Desire, 1982). She also authored a book of photographs, Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima (You Did Not See Anything In Hiroshima), she took during the filming of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. And in 2014 she published her autobiography, C'est délit-cieux!: Entrer dans la confidence (It’s a Heinous Crime: Enter in Confidence).

In February 2013, she gave an interview to London’s Guardian newspaper in which she summed up her career: “If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great. I think that being an actor is like being a cat. You have the opportunity to go out and live nine lives. And then you can come home and sleep by the fire.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for February 23-28

February 23–February 28


STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (February 25, 4:00 pm): This is one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films and that is saying a lot. Robert Walker as the crazed Bruno Anthony is hypnotically amazing. His character wants his father dead and believes he's struck a quid pro quo deal with tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Walker and Granger were solid actors, but Hitch brought out the best in them. Also, the plot of this film is unique and interesting. The two are strangers who meet on a train, talk about solving their problems, namely Walker's father and Haines' wife. Walker suggests they kill the other's problem and no one will be the wiser as they don't know each other. Haines thinks Walker is kidding until the latter kills the former's wife and wants Haines to kill Walker's father. The tension and drama are top-shelf.

THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (February 28, 8:00 pm): More than any film made after Casablanca, this 1948 classic showed Humphrey Bogart's versatility at a time when he could have played the tough guy with a heart of gold for the rest of his career. In this film, he is down on his luck and desperate enough to do anything. He meets another guy (Tim Holt) in a similar situation. They meet an old kooky prospector (Walter Huston in one of his finest roles) and the three decide to search for gold. Huston's son, John, wrote and directed this movie. Things go well, but Bogart's character becomes consumed with paranoia and convinced the others are trying to cheat him. While Holt holds his own, this is Bogart and Walter Huston's film. It's an excellent morality tale with an ironic ending. 


STAGECOACH (February 25, 10:00 am): This John Ford movie was not only a big hit with moviegoers at the time, but also marked a change in the maturing of the Western, emphasizing character development over mere bang-bang, shoot ‘em up action and bringing the Western out of the Bs and onto the top of the marquee. Oh yeah, there’s lots of action sequences in the film, but they’re nicely balanced by character with depth and about whom we actually care. Even John Wayne does a nice job here, though it took Ford lots of work to wrangle a good performance out of him. Watch for the Indian attack and keep your eye on the peerless stunt work by second unit director Yakima Canutt. In his Westerns, Ford always provided work for neighboring Navaho tribesmen, and even made sure they received union wages. They, in turn (as per his biography) named him “Natani Nez,” which means “Tall Leader.”

THEM! (February 26, 3:45 pm): Not only is this the best of the “big bug” films that came out in the 1950’s, but it also has elements of a noir mystery. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also one of the best “Red Scare” films of the period. The cast is terrific: James Whitmore, pre-Gunsmoke James Arness, veteran supporting actor Onslow Stevens, promising actress Joan Weldon, a young Fess Parker, and the great Edmund Gwenn. And look sharp for a very young Leonard Nimoy in a small role. It’s proof that when a sci-fi film is made intelligently, it’s a legitimate classic.

WE AGREE ON ... THE THIRD MAN (February 26, 9:45 pm)

ED: A+. The zither music by Anton Karas is the most unforgettable feature of the film and leads us to think the movie is optimistic in tone. Nothing could be further from the truth. This film is an ironical jape at postwar politics and a Europe recovering from an apocalypse. The most famous collaboration of director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, it has the outward structure of a suspense thriller with an inner core of postwar grotesque decadence. Holly Martens (Joseph Cotten) a simple writer of pulp Westerns, has come to Vienna to see his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to be told that Lime had died in an accident. In his attempt to learn the facts of his friend’s death, Cotten finds out so much that when he finally finds Lime alive and well, he wishes he were dead. Harry Lime is the epitome of decadence: evil with sardonic wit and somewhat inscrutable. Trevor Howard, as Major Calloway, gives the movie’s most understated performance as the person who clues Martens in to the seamier side of life while repeatedly telling him to just go home and forget it. Greene sees Martens as the typical American: wide-eyed, naive and trusting and it is up to the other characters in the film to disabuse him of these notions. This is so thorough that in the end he is even robbed of the illusion that Harry’s former lover, Anna (Alida Valli), actually cares for him, although the fact that she can never remember his name should have told him something.

DAVID: A+. This is, no doubt, one of the finest film noirs ever made. I'm a huge fan of Joseph Cotten, and while his performances in many movies – Citizen KaneGaslightThe Magnificent Ambersons (last week's We Agree film), Shadow of a Doubt, and Portrait of Jennie being a few examples – are great, his best is in The Third Man. The 1949 film noir has quite the pedigree. In addition to Cotten, it stars Orson Welles, Trevor Howard and Alida Valli, is directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene. The acting is outstanding as is the cinematography, particularly the use of shadows, and a brilliant plot with great pacing. Cotten is Holly Martins, a pulp fiction novelist who travels to post-World War II Vienna to take a job offered by Harry Lime (Welles), a longtime friend. But before they meet, Lime dies in what appears to be a car accident as he is walking across a street – or is he? Martins asks a lot of questions and get some disturbing answers about Lime selling diluted penicillin on the black market, which has led to a number of deaths. This film has two scenes that are among cinema's best – one is on the Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna's famous Ferris wheel, with Cotten and Welles, and the climax in the sewers of that city.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Top and Bottom 10 Movies of The Past Year

By Steve Herte

Two thousand sixteen was a banner year
For 3-D films and animation’s glory,
For stunning effects and new tunes we could hear,
For Acting, Pathos, Morals, Laughs, and Story.

You may have heard the movies “they” acclaim,
And read my list with doubts about my choices,
These are the ones I’ve seen. It’s not the same.
But in the mix you’ll hear some other voices.

The Runner-Up this year is Dr. Strange,
His levitation cape has chosen well.
The great effects and story did not change
The missed tenth spot from which it fell.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them showed
How great imagination moves the mind,
Computers bring to life what myths bestowed
On us. Tenth place to this film’s more than kind.

In ninth we find girl-power, Hawaiian style!
Moana from the Disney lots breaks out,
With music, moral, lines to make us smile
And animation so superb, to think about.

Accomplished singers find it hard to try
To Murder operatic songs and smile.
But Florence Foster Jenkins showed us why,
Her eighth place finish beats all by a mile.

Will Smith takes seventh place this year with grace,
Collateral Beauty tells us we can reverse
Our situation, no matter how sad our place,
By writing lonely letters to the universe.

Lost children’s plight is sixth upon my list
With Lion, Dev Patel did make us think,
In India, how many lost are missed,
 And how few are returning from the brink.

The Finest Hours made it to number five
A stormy ocean rescue by Coast Guard,
How many men they saved, returned alive,
The bravery when things get really hard.

The movie magic shows in number four,
As Now You See Me 2 explodes onscreen,
And eight magicians wow the crowd and more,
Perform the greatest robberies you’ve seen.

An animated feature’s number three.
Zootopia takes creatures from the wild,
Predator and Prey live civilly,
Not eat or eaten, cowed or riled.

Conundrums caused by terrorism’s two,
Eye in the Sky had true white-knuckle-tense,
High tech surveillance, high tech weapons too,
To keep us in the grip of its suspense.

The space race of the Sixties took the lead
As three black women proved they could compete
With men in mathematics and succeed,
At Number One, Hidden Figures is a treat.

Mind you, my opinion’s just my own;
And you can have the rankings you respect,
So now it’s time for films where fame has flown,
The bottom of the list, the low select.

The highest of the low presents a feud
Two races should cooperate, but no,
The Runner-Up is Warcraft, though it’s food
For thought, it’s not much of a show.

A space adventure just for two is ten,
The Passengers awakened way too soon,
But not too soon for love, and then
They saved the ship, but didn’t shoot the moon.

At ninth, Captain America: Civil War
Pits hero against hero for some weak cause
We wonder what they all were fighting for?
Well maybe it was simply, just because.

A child with glowing eyes is number eight,
And we know ev’ry ET must phone home;
But Midnight Special wasn’t very great,
As were the search lights shooting from his dome.

Tom Hanks takes seventh place this sixteenth year
Preventing potent plague by puzzles solved,
Inferno trotted globally from here,
But went nowhere as far as I’m involved.

The Kindergarten Cop 2, what a bomb!
Made Arnold look like Gable as compared,
While proving “Sequel Theory” with aplomb,
At six, it ended happy, no one cared.

Alien Arrival’s fifth place win
Made “septipus” a household word again,
(A Disney fish was first.) Plot thin,
Banana ships, good aliens, bad men.
In fourth place is the “musical” La La Land;
Whose op’ning number is its greatest scene;
Compared to classic song-fests, wasn’t grand,
Bad acting, clumsy dancing, not too keen.

Ratchet and Clank deserves number three
An animated feature that fell flat,
A video game-made-film shouldn’t be,
There must be more ideas out than that.

In second place, The Girl on the Train,
A thriller that really failed to thrill,
Much touted, it failed to contain
The myst’ry, suspense, it should fill.

And now, the big moment, the big number one!
The 5th Wave clinched that spot without a doubt,
Predictable and rarely good, glad when ‘twas done,
The “aliens” are us, you figure it out.

So, if I’ve made you think, I’ve proved my case,
And if I’ve made you laugh, then good for me;
Yes, there are missing movies ev’ry place,
But I cannot rank the ones I didn’t see.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Return of Doctor X

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Return of Doctor X (WB, 1939) – Director: Vincent Sherman. Writers: Lee Katz (s/p), William J. Makin (story). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Wayne Morris, Dennis Morgan, John Litel, Lya Lys, Huntz Hall, Charles C. Wilson, Vera Lewis, Howard C. Hickman, Olin Howard, Arthur Aylesworth, Cliff Saum, Charles Wilson, Joseph Crehan, Creighton Hale, & John Ridgely. B&W, 62 minutes.

Before High Sierra began to turn his fortunes around in 1940, Humphrey Bogart played many types of roles for the Warner Bros. factory. But his strangest may have been that of a vampire.

A vampire? Strange as it sounds, it’s true. No, Bogart wasn’t running around in a cape with a cheesy Hungarian accent calling himself Count Bogula. This is Warner Brothers, for whom horror pictures do not carry supernatural plots. Bogie is a deceased deranged scientist brought back to life by a living deranged scientist to help him with his research on blood. We hope that’s clear.

Though not a direct sequel to 1932’s Doctor XThe Return of Doctor X does share one small plot point with its predecessor, which we shall see later.

Bogie was billed third behind Wayne Morris (Kid Galahad), and Rosemary Lane (Four Daughters), both of whom the studio was grooming for stardom. As with Doctor X, the hero is a reporter. Morris is reporter Walter Garrett, known as “Wichita” around the office for his Kansas roots. Looking for an easy story he notices that European stage star Angela Merrova (Lys) is in town. He calls her up to arrange an interview, and by the tone of their conversation it seems as if he’s interviewed her before, for she wastes no time telling him to come over. When she hangs up we see a shadow lurking behind her and a gloved hand comes down over her mouth.

When Walt arrives at her hotel for the interview he finds the door unlocked. He enters and looks around, only to find her lifeless body on the floor with a neat, surgical stab wound right above the heart. Does he call the police? Not our boy. He calls his editor (Crehan) to report the incident and gives his story over the phone to the rewrite man. A real scoop.

When the police arrive later, to Walt’s surprise there is no body and the cops, led by Detective Ray Kincaid (Wilson), accuse him of making the whole thing up. But things are about to get worse, for the next day his boss calls him to the office where sitting across the desk is none other than Angela Merrova herself, who, along with the hotel, is suing the paper over the adverse publicity. The boss tells his reporter that he’s fired.

Walt is not the sort of person to take something like this lightly. Things just don’t add up, so he goes over to the hospital to talk things over with good friend Dr. Mike Rhodes (Morgan). Mike tells Walt that he’s getting ready for surgery, but to stick around, even though he tells him that the situation as Walt describes it is patently impossible. However, to placate his friend, Mike will bring the matter up to his colleague, Dr. Flegg (Litel), with whom he’s performing the operation.

But an odd complication arises: the operation calls for a rare blood type and the professional blood donor, who will give the necessary transfusion, has failed to arrive. Flegg is about to call off the operation when one of the nurses, Joan Vance (Lane), steps forward to inform Dr. Rhodes that she has that rare blood type and would be happy to be a donor. The operation goes off without a hitch. As they scrub up after, Rhodes mentions Garrett’s dilemma to Flegg while Flegg, a noted hematologist, is lecturing Rhodes on the importance of blood. Flegg also poo-poohs the notion.

Mike is called to the phone. It’s the police and they want him to come to the blood donor’s apartment. With Walt in tow, Mike arrives and learns the reason why the donor didn’t show up this morning: he’s dead. And what’s more, there isn’t a drop of blood in his body. Not only that, there’s scarcely a trace of spilled blood in the apartment. But Mike notices a few drops on the floor and takes them back to his lab for examination. The blood is determined to be from blood group IV (type O today). But the dead man’s blood was the rare blood group I (type AB). And further, to his surprise, he finds it isn’t human blood. Nor is it animal blood. He tells Walt that if he didn’t know better he’d swear it’s manufactured.

Mike tells Walt that he’s calling it a night and will pick up tomorrow, but he takes a cab to Dr. Flegg’s home. Walt trails him without his knowledge and spies through a window into Flegg’s office. While waiting for Flegg to return, Mike meets a strangely pale man with a white streak through his hair petting a white rabbit in his arms. He introduces himself as Dr. Flegg’s assistant, Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Kane”). Thus, after the film is nearly halfway through we finally see Bogart as Quesne. When Flegg returns Mike gives him the slide for examination. Flegg looks at it through his microscope and declares it to be nothing more than ordinary group IV blood. As Mike discusses the blood with Flegg, Quesne becomes noticeably distressed, and when Mike describes the blood as “artificial,” Quesne becomes so worked up that he crushes a beaker in his hand, cutting it and is reprimanded by Flegg.

After Mike leaves, Walt gets ready to depart when he spots none other than Merrova coming into Flegg’s building. He rushes to tell Mike about it and the next day they visit Merrova at her apartment. She confirms Walt's story and promises them that she’ll elaborate more on it the following day, as she’s waiting for Dr. Flegg to minister to her. But after Mike and Walt leave, it’s not Flegg who comes to see her, but Quesne. Uh oh. And the next day she is reported as not merely dead but really most sincerely dead. 

This, and the nagging feeling he has that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, gets Walt to thinking. Cajoling Pinky (Hall), the keeper of the paper’s morgue, to let him in, Garrett begins going through past clippings before finally coming to a picture and story of Quesne from two years back. He discovers that Quesne’s real name is Dr. Xavier and was put on trial for starving a baby to death in an experiment. Found guilty of first-degree murder he was electrocuted in the chair.

When Walt and Mike visit the cemetery and find Xavier’s grave empty, they pay a visit to Flegg. Confronted with the evidence, Flegg confesses. He had been working on a technique for the reanimation of the dead at the time of Xavier’s execution and realized this was the perfect opportunity to test his theories with Xavier as the ideal guinea pig. If successful, Xavier’s vast knowledge would help him perfect the technique. He stole Xavier’s body, hooked it up to his machines, and was successful in restoring the doctor to life. However, he ran into a hurdle when he discovered that a complete change of blood was necessary for the process to work. Flegg, a noted hematologist, developed a synthetic blood he hoped would do the trick. It brought Xavier back to life but also created a need within him for fresh blood to stay alive. He has become, in a sense, a technical vampire. The only blood that will keep him going is the rare blood type that only one in 10 people has. Angela Merrova had that exact type and Quesne killed her to obtain it. He doesn’t drink it in the sense that a normal vampire would, but rather transfuses it into his body. 

Flegg goes on to tell them that when he discovered what Quesne had done to Merrova he used a new experimental version of his synthetic blood to save her, but ultimately the new version proved no better than the older one. Mike’s “professional blood donor” also had blood compatible with Quesne’s, and he was the next victim.

After Mike and Walt leave, Quesne, who had been spying at the window, appears. Flegg tells him that he confessed all to the duo, but the only thing Quesne is interested in is Flegg’s book of donors. Flegg refuses to surrender the book and Quesne shoots him to get it. The sound of the gunshots brings Mike and Walt back to the office. Flegg is barely alive, but has enough time to tell them what Quesne was after. They realize that Joan’s name is in the book and they rush out to grab her before Quesne gets to her. But it's too late. Quesne has tricked her into a cab and is taking her to his secret laboratory for dinner. They try to figure out where Quesne could have taken her before Walt remembers that in the articles he’s read Quesne had a secret laboratory in the swamps outside Newark. Contacting the police, they race to the scene, where Quesne is just about ready to link Joan up to his equipment. A gunfight breaks out, and as Quesne attempts to escape over the roof, he is shot down and killed.


A film buff who has never seen this before has probably been warned that it’s one of the worst movies ever made. At least, that’s the opinion of many critics and bloggers. Truth be told, it’s not a good movie, but it’s far from the worst. It is what it is: a B-programmer, made in a hurry and on the cheap. It’s Bogart’s only horror/science fiction movie and I think the reason why many people downgrade it so radically is the bizarre makeup Bogie wears. With that pasty face and white streak through his flattop he looks positively ridiculous. One would surmise that considering the movie and his role therein that he would either ham it up or walk through it. He does neither, actually turning in a good performance. 

Over the years it’s been said that The Return of Doctor X was a punishment film for Bogart; that it was Jack Warner’s way of getting back at him for all the complaining Bogart did about the sorts of movies he was in over the years. And there may be some truth to that. Bogart was under contract, and to those under contract it’s either ‘my way or the highway,’ the highway being a suspension without pay and the added suspension time added to the end of the actor’s contract. Bogie may have been assuaged by the fact that good friend Vincent Sherman was making his directorial debut. Later in life, Bogart was quoted saying about the vampire role, “If it had been Jack Warner's blood maybe I wouldn't have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie.”

There’s also a rumor that Bela Lugosi was offered the role, and when he turned it down, the studio turned to Bogart. I’m not buying this for two reasons: (1) Lugosi may have been in England at the time, filming Dark Eyes of London; and (2) Lugosi would never turn down a role offered by a major studio. He was not renowned for carefully choosing his projects; he went where the money was, and if it was coming from Warner Bros., with the promise of future roles if the film did well, he certainly would have signed on. 

What makes the film so much fun to watch, besides Bogart, is Vincent Sherman’s direction. Incidentally, he was almost canned after his first day. Even though he was working in the B-movie unit with veterans like producer Bryan Foy and cameraman Sid Hickox, Sherman began by shooting the film as if he was making an A picture. When he took 10 takes for a simple 45-second shot, Jack Warner sent Foy a memo that was a short, but not sweet: "If he does this again he won't be on the picture any longer.” But when the picture made a handsome profit Sherman was forgiven his past sin and added to the roster of Warner directors, going on to make such notable films as All Through the NightOld AcquaintanceMr. Skeffington, and Nora Prentiss.

With The Return of Doctor X, Sherman keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, not giving the audience time to rest, lest they consider the holes in the plot. For instance, consider that Walt (who is a friend of the cemetery’s caretaker) suggests breaking into Dr. Xavier’s grave to Mike, and without taking any time to think it over, readily agrees, as if Walt was inviting him to the local saloon for a drink or two. Then after they exhume the body, they walk away, telling the caretaker to fill it in. I suppose this was supposed to pass as a lighter moment.

But with the help of cinematographer Sid Hickox, Sherman crafts a film with loads of stylish but unreal atmosphere. Hickox and Sherman do an excellent job in using underlighting for almost every medium shot and close-up to project the characters in our minds. Litel, for instance, is shot in such a way that he seems sinister, with his goatee and lectures on the nature and importance of blood, though as soon as we get a load of Bogart we know right away who the bad guy is, but is he working with the mysterious Dr. Flegg? And what about Angela Merrova? Shot in this way, she comes across as an otherworldly vamp. Huge shadows are seen on the walls, especially in violent scenes, such as the murder of Merrova. Though shot on an obvious studio set, Sherman takes pains to give it a sort of surreal quality.

As noted before, Bogart gives a wonderful performance as the bizarre Dr. Xavier. John Litel also shines as Dr. Flegg, keeping us guessing to the last about his true involvement with Xavier. And Dennis Morgan gives a performance that promises better things – and bigger roles – in the future. Wayne Morris, on the other hand, plays his usual “Gee Whiz, Aw, Shucks” type of character, and Rosemary Lane is given little to do other than to be a plot device, despite her second billing.

Although we’re somewhat led to think this is going to be a sequel to 1932’s Doctor X, the fact is the plots have almost nothing in common save for the fact they are murder mysteries cantered around a reporter-hero, and both are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But there is one small plot point both movies share. As I mentioned earlier: Doctor X was concerned with synthetic flesh while The Return of Doctor X was concerned with synthetic blood. But the real fun of the sequel is to watch Humphrey Bogart, long before he became a mega-star, vamping it up in the role of an undead bloodsucker.

Watch closely for future psychotronic stars Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man) and William Hopper, here billed as “DeWolf Hopper,” using his middle name (20 Million Miles to Earth).

From the Life Imitating Art Department: Japanese medical researchers are working on perfecting an artificial blood to be used in operations and lessening the need for frequent donors.