Tuesday, June 23, 2020


During the recent shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, it's been a dizzying time for me. Work has reached an all-time level of cray-cray and when I'm finished, I only want to veg out, often with undemanding, stringently-formatted programming like Flea Market Flip, Going RV or Lakeside Living (all 30-minute non-think shows found in marathon form on the Great American Country channel.) But there have also been some nights when I've taken time to watch movies that I otherwise might have skipped over or wouldn't have ordinarily DVR-ed. I've seen a LOT of movies, good and bad, during this lockdown. One movie that found its way onto my widescreen TV was a lesser-known 1956 Robert Mitchum picture called Foreign Intrigue.

The film was produced by a man named Sheldon Reynolds. Interestingly, he had previously created a syndicated spy TV series called Foreign Intrigue, of which there were 78 episodes and a few cast changes (and series name changes) along the way. This film is tied to the series in the remotest of ways with one supporting character from the show appearing in the movie. I found Reynolds' penchant for having his name appear in fancy-pants script (twice!) amid the otherwise standard typeface in the opening credits to be about the gayest thing evah, but he was apparently heterosexual. As producer, writer and director, it's more than clear who was in charge!

I'm not going to delve into the myriad plot details of this movie, but instead am merely going to point out a few points of interest and make a few comparisons that occurred to me while watching it. From the very start, Intrigue takes on the feel of a Hitchcock thriller. It's got portentous music (a concerto, in fact, created for it), eye-popping locations, unusual camera angles, deliberate use of color and - a particular Hitchcock motif - an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Mitchum, as a press agent for a mysterious millionaire, finds himself mired in mystery and danger upon the man's death and skips around Europe as several bodies pile up.
Mitchum is hardly an "everyman" and is sort of out of his comfort zone here, but gives it a college try. 

The film also contains a woman whose motives and morality aren't always made clear. The widow of the fallen (and rather aged) millionaire isn't exactly crestfallen over his demise.

This gal is portrayed by auburn-haired Genevieve Page. Decked out in a variety of carefully structured Pierre Balmain designs, she cuts quite a lithe figure throughout. One big blooper stood out to me, however, in one scene. She is seen wearing a lovely pair of brooches along her right shoulder, whose color complements her red gown. However, mid-scene, the brooches are suddenly facing the opposite direction! It's surprising that no one caught this gaffe on set.
A change of direction...
But no Hitchcock-style suspense film, actual or faux, would be complete without a blonde on hand. In this case, the young lady is portrayed by Ingrid Thulin. (She's billed as Ingrid Tuelin in this early role.) Strangely, both Thulin and Page receive "Introducing" credit in the film's opening even though they had both been working in movies for a period of years!

In time, Thulin would emerge as a highly-regarded actress in quite a few Ingmar Bergman films along with some decidedly cutting edge movies such as The Damned (1969) for Luchino Visconti. And she is a member of our very own (imaginary) Disaster Movie Club thanks to her appearance in 1976's The Cassandra Crossing.

Mitchum has a vaguely amusing cat & mouse association with a diminutive, bald man of espionage played by Frederic O'Brady. O'Brady's role is showy, unusual and pretty entertaining. He and the much bigger and brawnier Mitchum establish a certain degree of chemistry (and had fun palling around off-screen during filming as well.)

One thing Hitchcock films are decidedly NOT known for is beefcake. One is usually lucky to see a glimpse of the male form in one of Hitch's movies. Not so the case here as one sequence contains the sight of our hero removing his shirt (as O'Brady looks on with interest.)
"See somethin' ya like?"

Mitchum proceeds to shave while O'Brady looks on. There's a mild element of homoerotica, intentional or not, within the scene. The two eventually square off for a scuffle, though it isn't hard to guess who wins that one!

Peculiarly, Mitchum winds up in the unusual outfit of a suit jacket with no shirt underneath...!

There's a chase sequence that starts off on a winding stairwell. One might look down the middle and experience vertigo. But as I watched his film, whose plot admittedly has nothing whatsoever to do with Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), I couldn't help but take note of some visual similarities. Now I'm not accusing Hitch or anyone else of plagiarism. I'm merely saying that some of the visual (and marketing) elements of Foreign Intrigue seem to have perhaps, consciously or not, influenced artistic choices made in Vertigo.

It's easy enough to point to the ice cool, very lovely Grace kelly-ish blonde - a Hitchcock staple. (And Thulin might really have shone had she ever wound up working for the Master of Suspense. He is on record as having admired her and finding her understatedly sexy.)

But what of this? The spiraling twist of white-blonde hair, curving up and around in a whirlpool to nowhere...
...that emerged as a key motif in Vertigo with mystery woman Kim Novak.

Novak was styled (and lit) in a far more "Hollywood" way than Thulin, with heavier brows, but lighter lips. However the general visual aura is similar in many ways.

Still not convinced? Take a look at the tightly-structured, grey-toned suit that Miss Thulin wears in Intrigue and compare it to Novak's from Vertigo. Different fabric, yes, and different detailing, but with the same basic silhouette and with turned up cuffs on the sleeves.

Thulin as an actress bears little similarity to Novak, but the overall type of look she was given in this film does lend itself to comparison to famous Hitchcock blondes, notably the heroine of Vertigo. To me she looks at times much like one Kristin Scott Thomas (the merits of who I am occasionally debating with a good pal of mine!)
"The Swedish Patient?"
Thulin's mother is one of those highly elegant, but rather controlling, types that Hitch liked to use in some of his films. Think Leopoldine Konstantin in Notorious (1946) or even Miss Jessica Tandy in The Birds (1963.)

Like I say, the scenarios are vastly different, as are the personalities involved, but there's just that certain something that made me associate one film with the other.

Vertigo is a top ten favorite film of mine and, though it was a sometimes difficult role and experience for Novak, I don't think she was ever better in a movie. And as most of us know, she was a replacement for Vera Miles, who'd already been planned for the film from practically the start.

The uncanny or coincidental similarities I've been remarking upon in this post extend beyond the films to even the marketing portraits that were generated to sell them to the public:

Or how about this?
I leave it in your hands to decide whether one film may have influenced another.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Editor's Note~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
As I was (finally) getting around to posting again, I was informed by my company that I'm going to have to take on even MORE work than I already am. As a result, it's going to make posting here regularly even more scarce than it has been (and that's saying something!) I am going to attempt to switch formats for a while, putting up briefer posts but hopefully with more frequency. Also, as a turd cherry atop the shit sundae I'm already going through, blogger suddenly will not let me upload multiple pictures at one time, allowing me to then click on the ones I want and putting them where I choose. I have to do each. one. singly. So that's another reason why I'm going to have to switch to less labor-intensive posts for a while. Wish me luck! Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Time to Get Wise

Every once in a while, I am approached by an author for the purposes of reviewing a new book of theirs in exchange for a copy. I've occasionally agreed to do this, being a voracious reader of any sort of non-fiction book on television and film. Now I'm not a whore, darlin'...! I have to already have a level of interest in the subject matter in order to agree to such a thing. Such was the case when I profiled Mr. Novak and The Wizard of Oz (1939.) Recently it happened again when I was approached about a book about the films of skilled director Robert Wise. I have always been aware of Wise, as he directed one of my favorite movies, The Sound of Music (1965), along with other notable films, but really didn't know a great deal about him or his body of work.

Citizen Kane
The book "Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures" focuses primarily on the man's work rather than his life, though biographical details show up as the timeline progresses. Also, recollections about him from people who worked with him along the way paint the picture of a highly detailed and extremely personable and fair man. Most people are aware that Wise started out as an editor. He began in that capacity in 1939 and among his efforts are such notable films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), My Favorite Wife (1940), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and a little number called Citizen Kane (1941!) Associations with gifted filmmakers like Orson Welles and Val Lewton helped to forge his own way into the position of directing.

In his earliest years as a director, Wise was not permitted to select the projects he was assigned. He was a studio (RKO) contractee and was told which projects were his to helm. Thus, his early works were dotted with thrillers like The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945) or potboilers such as Criminal Court (1946) and Mystery in Mexico (1948.) The book, by J.R. Jordan, however, gives each film that Robert Wise directed close to equal time and attention, allowing the reader to learn not only what the movie was about, but how Wise approached it and what touches he was able to give it.

With fiery (and later fired) co-director Jerome Robbins.
A pattern (which may please those who enjoy structure and consistency - or who perhaps are OCD!) is established right off the bat as each chapter for the given film is begun with a carefully selected quote, often unrelated to the film, which characterizes the nature of the piece. And each chapter has a plot rundown, a selection of dialogue from the script and then a segment devoted to delving further into the story and how and why decisions were made or highlighting symbolic motifs, etc... Once the movies begin edging closer to our current time, when participants from them may still be alive, someone associated with the production is interviewed regarding his or her experiences both with the movie in question and with Mr. Wise himself. I found these interviews to be the most compelling part of the book, even if some of the people called upon only enjoyed small roles in the project. They were there nonetheless.

Wise with Peter Fonda and Lindsay Wagner during Two People (1973.)
A few of the more notable names who were inter- viewed for this book are Janette Scott, George Chakiris, Heather Menzies-Urich, Gavin McLeod, Lindsay Wagner and Marsha Mason. It is through these and others that we really get an inside view of the dynamics that were going on behind the scenes. Scott, for example, was rightly mystified as to what Rossana Pedesta was doing in the title role of Helen of Troy. To a person, though, the recollections paint Wise as a thorough, polite and highly-prepared man.
Rossana Podesta, speaking phonetically and not exactly killing it in Helen of Troy.
If I were to come up with any negatives regarding the book, they are relatively minor. One might be the incon- sistency with regard to illustrations. The first chapter on The Curse of the Cat People is liberally sprinkled with photos, which might lead the reader to expect the same as the book goes on, but several films have far fewer pictures to represent them. And some of the plot summaries (particularly for the more obscure movies) can be hard to follow because the character names are unfamiliar and the writing in this portion can get a little formal and almost textbook-like. Yet one can hardly expect someone writing a virtual guide to someone's career to be snappy and snarky as I sometimes can be in my own (quite lengthy!) story-line descriptions.

With Paul Newman during Until They Sail.
What is remarkable about Wise is that he covered such a wide range of genres. He started in the afore- mentioned chillers and program- mers, then dabbled in everything from westerns (Blood on the Moon, 1948, Two Flags West, 1950, and Tribute to a Bad Man, 1956) to war movies (Destination Gobi and The Desert Rats, both 1943) to Oscar-caliber biopics (Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956, and I Want to Live!, 1958.) Then there were dramas like So Big (1953), Executive Suite (1954) and Until We Sail (1957) and even a widescreen epic (Helen of Troy, 1956.) All of these movies, some of them enduring favorites among film buffs, were prior to a string of considerable successes that came later.

Wise with Natalie Wood during West Side Story.
Penetrating dramas include the racially-charged Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) and Two for the Seesaw (1962.) There was the submarine thriller Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) and the thought-provoking navy drama The Sand Pebbles (1966.) And, of course, his most famous projects include the musicals West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), for which he won two Oscars apiece as producer and director. A third go resulted in Star! (1968), which was a decided flop regardless of the content and lavish budget. 

Wise (and creator Gene Roddenberry) with the venerable Star Trek cast.
Also, having already provided a bonafide science-fiction classic in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), he later directed other films of a para- normal or sci-fi nature such as The Haunting (1963), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Audrey Rose (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), whose title inspired the name of this book and whose highly-troubled production signaled the beginning of the end of his esteemed directorial career.

Wise even stepped into disaster movie territory when he directed The Hinden- burg (1975), whose reputation has grown over the years since the advent of high-def widescreen DVD and the quality of the cast assembled within it.

McQueen insisted that many scenes be performed both Wise's way and his way. And often Wise preferred McQueen's.
Reading the book, I was reminded of how many of his movies I've personally enjoyed (one early one is 1950's Three Secrets, which had Patricia Neal, Eleanor Parker and Ruth Roman awaiting the fate of a little boy who is the child of one of them.) Strangely enough, just about the time the book arrived, I happened to have recently viewed for the first time Odds Against Tomorrow, which was very tight, and The Sand Pebbles, which included a great performance by Steve McQueen. The film garnered the actor his only Oscar nomination as Best Actor (Paul Scofield won for A Man for All Seasons.)

Beymer with Natalie Wood.
McQueen's role in Pebbles was fitting as Wise had given him one of his very earliest feature film assignments about a dozen years prior in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Time and again in Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, we're shown examples of the director utilizing actors and actresses who he'd worked with before, giving them a bigger shot at a later date. For example, did you know that Richard Beymer of West Side Story had previously appeared in Wise's So Big? Granted, Beymer has his share of detractors, but when looking at Wise's trajectory, one can see why he might have had a bit of an edge going in, having worked amiably with the director on a prior movie. Similarly, Wise had worked with Robert Mitchum early on in Blood on the Moon and later selected him for Two for the Seasaw. Trivia like this, and much more, can be found in the book.

Keeping warm on location for The Sound of Music.
Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a book published by Bear Manor Media, who offer up countless show business related books of a sort that are unlikely to be spotted in a local bookstore (actually, these days, local bookstores can be hard to spot!)  They specialize in the type of books that you see and then remark, "Man, I thought I was the only person who would want a book on him!" I encourage you to read this book as it offers a wealth of information about a man whose career with movies spanned half a century and yielded a wide array of acclaimed movies. I learned a lot from it and left with a stronger appreciation for the man's cinematic contributions.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Celebrity Smash-Up: Semple Minds!

Before Miss Bette Davis passed away in October of 1989, the cigarette-thin movie legend made the rounds of countless talk shows. She was not only promoting her 1987 book This 'n That, in which she responded to her daughter's incendiary, unflattering memoir My Mother's Keeper, but also let loose on several other people who'd rubbed her the wrong way during her monumental career. She took special care to pummel the long-dead Miriam Hopkins (who memorably costarred with Davis twice in The Old Maid, 1939, and Old Acquaintance, 1943.) She then aimed her sites at Miss Faye Dunaway, who had starred in the 1976 Hallmark Hall of Fame production The Disappearance of Aimee, with Davis on board as her mother.

Aimee was the depiction of but one chapter in 1910s-1930s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's storied life. A monumentally popular figure who could fill auditoriums (with hordes lined up outside) as she spoke in tongues, faith-healed and preached the gospel, she eventually used radio to get her message across to, literally, millions of intrigued listeners (and visitors to her newly-constructed Angelus Temple.) She also became heavily involved in charity and disaster relief efforts. But the flamboyant minister also had a big-time scandal hit in May of 1926. She went missing from a California beach and was presumed dead for over a month before being discovered in an Arizona town near the Mexican border, weary and claiming to have been kidnapped!

Her return to Los Angeles in the wake of this bizarre scenario attracted between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators; more than the number of people who had greeted President Woodrow Wilson seven years prior during his visit to L.A. It eventually came to be that Semple McPherson was brought before a Grand Jury because she was suspected of having run off with a male lover and made up her tale of woe. The charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, but a feeling of uncertainty about it prevailed.

A 1931 film The Miracle Woman, starring Barbara Stanwyck, had been inspired by Aimee and the 1939 novel (and later 1975 film) Day of the Locust also contained a fictionalized version of her persona. Geraldine Page played the role in the movie. Jean Simmons had played a similar type of role in 1960's Elmer Gantry (based upon a 1927 novel.) Prior to (or after) all of these projects, Bette Davis had also hoped to throw her hat in the ring as the flamboyant evangelist during her tenure at Warner Brothers, but nothing ever came of it.
Simmons (inset) and Page in their Semple drag.
By 1976, a television project was planned to illustrate the events of Aimee's disappearance which, still today, isn't a completely solved mystery. Ann-Margret was approached to portray the superstar sister of salvation and when she was still attached to the project, Davis signed on to play her ever-present mother, a woman of considerable backbone herself. Davis had played A-M's mother in the young girl's movie debut Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and had remained fond of her since. But soon enough Ann-Margret dropped the role and that's when Faye Dunaway was contacted to play it.
Ann-Margret not long after the period during which she nearly played Aimee Semple McPherson.
Things were chilly between the two head-strong actresses from the start. Dunaway was at the time one of Hollywood's go-to leading ladies who'd enjoyed a string of commercially and often critically successful films from 1967's Bonnie and Clyde on. She rarely did TV and when she did it was to film a stage adaptation or take part in a prestige project like this one promised to be. She'd just had another hit with the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor opposite Robert Redford.

Davis had seen many highs and lows over the long haul. A two-time Oscar-winner, she had suffered a decade of declining parts since 1964 when she did Where Love Has Gone and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, both of which included highly-charged, phlegmatic conflicts with her fellow leading actresses (Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford - who was replaced by Olivia de Havilland) respectively. Her most recent work had included failed TV pilots and movie-of-the-week thrillers, though she did have Burnt Offerings (1976) in the can which offered a modicum of big screen success.

Davis, already disappointed at not getting to work with Ann-Margret again and dejected that a role she had always wished to play was being - in her eyes - phoned in by an unprofessional star, dug in her heels pretty swiftly on the set.

The telefilm's director, Anthony Harvey of the Lion in Winter (1968), would block scenes before the camera then turn around to find Davis (forgive the expression) social-distancing from Dunaway! She didn't want to appear too close to the still-young movie actress and draw unfair comparisons.

Though it's true that Davis never feared looking awful on film if it benefited the role or the project (one only need watch her final moments in Burnt Offerings for proof!), she still had enough vanity to want to look good some of the time, especially in the authentic 1920s costumes that Edith Head had rounded up for the production. She was lit in a way for Aimee that was later adopted for her appearance in Disney's The Watcher in the Woods (1980), with a flood of key lighting directly in front of the camera.
Bette sporting reduced makeup for a nighttime scene.
Dunaway had developed a documented tendency of showing up late onto film sets for whatever reason. (She might say due to preparation, but most people believed it was endless obsessing over her appearance.) She incurred the wrath of William Holden one day during The Towering Inferno (1974) when she held up filming to perfect the goddess-like look she was sporting there.

During Aimee, she allegedly kept over a thousand extras waiting in a sweltering un-cooled auditorium whereupon Davis finally opted to sing "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" in order to keep them occupied during the delay. True as this may be, Davis was certainly off-base when she assessed Dunaway's performance as being phoned in. Dunaway always was - and still is - positively fanatical about every conceivable detail about the characters she portrayed, no matter the project. Once, during the filming of the lightweight romantic caper film The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Steve McQueen was about to question Dunaway about her choice to sport talon-like fingernails. As he approached her, he spied her script which scarcely had a sliver of white space left on it, she had made so many notes regarding her characterization, motivation, subtext, etc... He simply turned and went the other way.

The already tenuous relationship between the intense and often driven Dunaway and the command- eering Davis really came to a head when the date of a climactic scene between the two was imminent and Davis had the scene rewritten in order to shore up her participation. Dunaway, who in truth had already had her sermon speeches rewritten to suit her, declined to accept the new scene as prepared (correctly) citing that she would concede 50/50 between the actresses, but not 90/10 as she perceived Davis' rendition to be. (Davis had earlier attempted this same gambit during Where Love Has Gone, but was told just what she could do with it by an iron-willed Susan Hayward.)

Conditions on location in Denver were positively sweltering, which didn't aid in alleviating tension. None of this was made any easier by the significant lamps used to light the stars. The dressing rooms were air-conditioned, but not the large public venues used for settings. And both ladies were dressed in heavy costumes, Dunaway in flowing, long-sleeved robes with capes and Davis in sturdily built period clothing with hats. Davis invented a fanciful tale told to one writer that her costar was riding around the streets at night in a limo swilling champagne! 
Davis had learned the hard way from Hollywood's greatest scene-stealers how to distract the eye in two-shots. Hence, she made use of a wafting hanky to ensure we noticed her in the courtroom scenes.
No, I mean it...!  Ha ha!
Regardless of both ladies' reputations as actresses and the sometimes showy aspects of their respective roles, The Disappearance of Aimee received no award recognition of any kind. For Davis, the caliber of her television roles did improve (and she was cast in the splendid Death on the Nile, 1978.) She won an Emmy for Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter and picked up two more nominations thereafter.

Dunaway won the Best Actress Oscar for Network (1976) and though she was granted a couple of Golden Globe Awards and further nominations, she had to wait until 1994 to receive her first and only Emmy Award and nomination (for her spectacular appearance on a memorable episode of Columbo opposite Peter Falk.)

Both ladies proceeded to attract horror stories surrounding their interactions with costars along the way. Davis famously clashed with Lillian Gish during The Whales of August (1987) and reportedly mistreated Helen Hayes (!) during Murder with Mirrors while Dunaway found herself being stung by Mommie Dearest (1981) costar Rutanya Alda in a published diary and recently lost a highly promising Broadway gig over reputed verbal abuse towards the crew. Even so, both women's cinematic legacy is permanently assured.

Before Davis passed away, she made multiple television talk show appear- ances, seemingly sharp as a tack and yet clearly reveling in a relentless barrage of attacks on Dunaway (egged on by the bemused hosts) who had, by then, become famous for portraying one of Davis' other irritants, Joan Crawford. Somehow, out of the sands of time, she focused all her venom on this one brief partnership to the delight of gossip mavens.
Davis on DunawayTo Johnny Carson when asked who she wouldn't want to work with again -- "One million dollars, Faye Dunaway. Everybody you can put in this chair will tell you exactly the same thing...totally impossible...uncooperative...unprofessional...difficult." To Larry King -- "She's so well known to be this, Faye, she must know it's how we all feel. difficult costar; unprofessional, self-centered"  To Gary Collins -- "[the most] incredibly inconsiderate woman I have ever worked with." "I'll raise my glass never to Miss Faye Dunaway. Never, never."
To her credit, Dunaway did not retaliate in kind. She was justifiably stunned that their just over three-week association had somehow resulted in a volcanic eruption of condemnation a decade later. Her later reaction was thus: "Watching her, all I could think of was that she seemed someone caught in a death throe, a final scream against a fate over which no one has control. I was just the target of her blind rage at the one sin Hollywood never forgives against its leading ladies -- growing old."

She continues, "But I thought it incredibly sad that this woman, who had given a voice to so many classic roles, in her last TV appearance before her death could find so little to talk about beyond a month-long television production with me. It was if in some weird way she was railing against herself." Her rebuttal was, naturally, something of a backhanded indictment cloaked in pity.
Both of these gals have offered me countless hours of entertain- ment, so I take no side definitively in their squabble. Generally, things fall somewhere near the middle in rifts like this. The biggest crime of all is that the movie doesn't seem to exist for viewing in anything but hideous third generation video when it ought to be pristinely presented on DVD so that we can see these two go at it in all their restored glory!