Two on the Run: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)

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In case you haven’t noticed, Sterling Hayden is TCM’s Star of the Month and I’ve enjoyed catching up with the tall, blond and brawny actor’s filmography on Wednesday nights. Today Hayden is best remembered by film lovers for his memorable roles in a number of classic noirs and westerns that air on TCM regularly as well as subsequent standout parts in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) and Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Late in life, Hayden also made a brief but notable appearance in an unusual thriller called DEADLY STRANGERS (1975), which I was compelled to revisit again over the weekend. Directed by the talented Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS; 1960, BURN WITCH BURN; 1962, THE TRAP; 1966, REVENGE; 1971, A BRIDGE TOO FAR; 1977, Etc.) and starring Hayley Mills along with Simon Ward, this low-budget British horror effort may not rate as one of Hayden’s finest hours among his devoted fans but I think the film is worthy of reconsideration due to its smart direction and probable influence on beloved horror classics including John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN (1978).

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This week on TCM Underground: THE VISITOR (1979)

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Jesus Christ sends an old man in a fishin’ hat to Earth to stop a corporate cabal from using telekinetic children to take over the world. I think.

Cast:  John Huston (Jerzy Cosolwicz), Lance Henriksen (Raymond Armstead), Joanne Nail (Barbara Collins), Paige Conner (Katy Collins), Shelley Winters (Jane Phillips), Mel Ferrer (Dr. Walker), Glenn Ford (Detective Jake Durham), Sam Peckinpah (Dr. Sam Collins), Franco Hero (Jesus Christ). Director: Giulio Paradisi. Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis. Screenplay: Giuliano Paradisi, Ovidio G. Assonitis, Luciano Comici, Robert Mundi. Music: Franco Micalizi. Cinematography: Ennio Guarnieri.

Color – 90 min – 108 min. (depending on version)

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Actor or Director: Take Your Pick

Today on TCM, John Huston has a few movies on the schedule, including The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo.   Not showing are any of the movies he acted in but he did both and did both well.  Many actors also direct (Richard Attenborough, Robert Redford, Ida Lupino) and many directors also act (John Huston, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock) while others did both from the start and are so intertwined as actor/directors, it’s hard to single them out as mainly one or the other (Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton).   Still, we have our preferences in all things in life and choosing between an acting career and a directing career might as well be one of them, too.  When it comes to actors who only directed one or two movies, like, say, Lionel Barrymore or Charles Laughton, it’s an easy call so I won’t be talking about them.  For others, it’s harder but clear preferences still arise.

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Before Denby, Ebert, Sarris, and Kael, There Was James Agee

ageeopenerSo many faceless movie reviewers with forgettable names and interchangeable writing “styles” populate the Internet that it is hard to imagine a time when reviews were penned by established authors, historians, or intellectuals with distinctive voices. Writers and thinkers such as John Grierson, Carl Sandburg, Alistair Cooke, Vachel Lindsay, Grahame Green, and James Agee all reviewed Hollywood movies in their time. A few months ago, a colleague lent me a copy of Agee on Film published in 1958. The book consists of a collection of Agee’s reviews from The Nation and Time, plus two essays on film originally published in Life.

I became an Agee admirer after reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a chronicle of the struggles of three Southern sharecropping families. At once brutal and poetic, the book includes photos by Walker Evans. The pair was originally assigned by Fortune magazine to produce an article about the conditions of sharecroppers in the Deep South during the Depression. Agee rejected a traditional reporting style and authored an impressionistic portrait of three rural Southern families living in extreme poverty—a class of people usually ignored and generally scorned by society. Needless to say, Fortune was not thrilled with the artistic approach when they issued the articles in 1939. In 1941, Agee and Evans published their work in book form. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men flopped at the time, but it is now considered an important social document as well as a milestone in modern journalism. Though often described as a journalist, he was no mere reporter. Agee’s style was literary, evocative, and expressive but also accessible.

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Artist, Activist & Star-Maker: Photographer Eliot Elisofon

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Kim Novak & Eliot Elisofon (self-portrait; 1958)

When I first started writing about Hollywood glamor photography here at the Movie Morlocks one of the photographers I was particularly keen on featuring was Eliot Elisofon. His captivating images of numerous Hollywood stars have mesmerized me for decades but back in 2010 there was very little information about the man available online. This year that changed significantly thanks to the Smithsonian museum, which launched the first retrospective of Elisofon’s photography at the National Museum of African Art. The exhibit is titled “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” and it features an extensive selection of photographs Elisofon took for Life Magazine between 1947 and 1972 as well as pieces from his African art collection that were donated to the museum after his death in 1973 at age 61. The exhibition comes to an end on November 16th but since its debut nearly a year ago it’s received extensive media attention and sparked a renewed interest in Elisofon and his work. In an effort to keep interest in Eliot Elisofon alive I thought I’d finally delve into his fascinating career in Hollywood where he helped make Marlon Brando and Kim Novak household names and worked on a number of films including MOULIN ROUGE (1952), BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) and KHARTOUM (1966).

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Discovering John Huston

Earlier today, TCM ran The Asphalt Jungle, the great 1950 noir starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, and an early career making role for Marilyn Monroe.  The movie was directed by John Huston, one of the first directors whose career I chose to discover.  That is, once a became a full-fledged movie fanatic, certain directors (Orson Welles, David Lean, Federico Fellini) took up a special place in my heart and I decided to see as many of their movies as possible.  When I did that with Mr. Huston, the results were spotty at best, eternally frustrating at worst.  To this day, John Huston has one of the most indefinable directorial careers out there.  For someone seeking out consistency, it was a journey frought with peril.

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Of Hurricanes, Hamburgers, and Huston: Revisiting Key Largo

largohustonOne of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.

I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.

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Still Searching for Old Hollywood, Part 3

hwood3lamarr2Back by popular demand is another installment of “Searching for Old Hollywood” based on my recent trek to Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for clues to uncover some unique or forgotten insight into the lives of big-name stars and other celebrities. The first part focused on the final resting places of lesser-known film industry figures, while the second spotlighted the legendary stars of Old Hollywood’s romantic and often notorious past. As with the first two parts, I wanted to find a thread to tie together the figures for this final installment. I decided to focus on epitaphs and inscriptions.

The grave markers of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, and John Huston are across the lane from each other. The ghoulish television hostess and legendary director have nothing in common save for their markers, which display imagery that provides clues to their lives. Nurmi hosted her program of old horror movies on KABC-TV for only a year, but she parlayed the publicity into a career, more or less. Vampira became Nurmi’s contribution to popular culture, and her only claim to fame; when Cassandra Peterson came too close to her act with the character Elvira, Nurmi unsuccessfully sued. Nurmi died alone and broke on January 10, 2008, her decomposing body found by an acquaintance. With no named next of kin, red tape prevented her from being interred until February 17, when her cremated remains were buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Loyal fans spent a year throwing fundraisers to secure the money for a gravestone that befitted her image. Erected in July, 2009, it reads “Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008, Vampira, Hollywood Legend,” and includes an etching of her wearing that tattered gothic gown, which showed off her legendary 17-inch waist. In other words, the gravestone features all the signifiers to her image that a fan would want to remember. (On a personal note, I discovered that Nurmi, who was born in Finland, spent her youth in the Finnish community in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio.)

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Tracing My Irish Roots Through the Movies

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John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man (1942)

When I was a child my family regularly celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day on March 17th. My parents and grandparents encouraged me to wear green and my mother would often make my brother and I a meal that consisted of corned beef and cabbage or my personal favorite, Irish stew with dumplings. But whenever I’d ask family members about our Irish ancestors I was usually ignored or met with a wry smile and a joke about our criminal connections. The truth is that most of my Irish ancestors were apparently kicked out of the British Isles in the early 1800s and ended up in Australia, which was a penal colony at the time. As a youngster I didn’t exactly understand what it meant to the larger world to be related to convicts but I was made to feel somewhat embarrassed and ashamed due to my family’s reluctance to discuss our personal history. Now that most of my immediate family has passed on I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into our past and uncover our Irish roots. It’s been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience but I’ve had to rely on my own powers of investigation along with lots of paper documents and books to give me a better understanding of who I am and how I got here. I’ve also turned to one of my favorite obsessions for insight, the wonderful world of movies.

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“The Man with the Immoral Face”

Tomorrow evening, TCM offers five films starring Robert Mitchum: Cape Fear, River of No Return, Night of the Hunter, Rampage, and Going Home. The films represent about a twenty-year span, from 1954 to 1971, and range from an undeniable classic (Night of the Hunter) to a complete misfire (Going Home). Whatever the film, or its reputation, Mitchum will be the most watchable actor in the cast. Famous for underplaying most of his roles, especially when delivering dialogue, the actor exuded a laid-back self-confidence. His sleepy-eyed good lucks and barrel-chested physique gave him a commanding presence that was impossible to ignore, and he used his physicality to attract, seduce, intimidate, and frighten, depending on the role.  Well into his 50s, Mitchum had no qualms about going shirtless onscreen and off, driving both his female fans and his costars to distraction. If Marilyn Monroe was an icon of female sexuality for male viewers during the 1950s, then Robert Mitchum was the male equivalent for women viewers. I wonder why no one writes about that. . . except for me, I guess.

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