Saturday, January 31, 2009

In the Garish Light of the Small Curved Screen


Back in the 60s, the only way for a movie-going addict to watch movies at home was on a television set at the caprice of local programming, tormented by the agony of commercial interruption. Before the days of the VCR or DVD player, before pay-per-view, national and local channels ran a steady stream of old movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s – Saturdays and Sundays – late into the night. Consulting TV Guide, back when it was the size of a paperback and it listed ALL the shows and movies, I skimmed through the listings, searching for the magic word: “Movie,” and I pencil-marked my weekend viewings of films that were mostly TV discoveries – films I had not seen, and never would see, on the big screen.

Heaven was a weekend with a long list of movies to watch. There I sat, in the garish light of the small curved screen, to watch the old movies (all, perforce, black-and-white on my old TV) that filled my mind with images that buoyed me up against the ups and downs of life. Of course, there were many classics to watch – King Kong, My Darling Clementine, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grapes of Wrath, and seeing these enriched my knowledge of American film history long before the advent of the VCR made it easier to become a movie buff. But today, when most classics are readily available on DVD and easily obtainable through Netflix, it’s the less well-known and sometimes totally forgotten little B-movie gems that I have a special fondness for. They were highly watchable. They filled my mind with memorable images. They started what became a lifelong passion for film.

What follows is a discussion of my favorite little-known to obscure movies, grouped by genre, sort of – trying to avoid B-movies and previously forgotten gems that have become known as part of a notable actor or director’s filmography. For example, I first saw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole with Kirk Douglas on television as The Big Carnival (1951); now the recent Criterion DVD edition has brought it to the fore. Also, my favorite science-fiction film to catch on television has always been The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) but as happened with many B-sci-fi films of the 50s, it became notable for its low-budget but effective special effects and Nuclear Age commentary; most recently it was mentioned as part of the works of Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend. Finally, one of my favorite TV discoveries was Titanic (1954). What an exciting premise: conflicts between passengers are forgotten and couples are separated when the ship strikes the iceberg and goes down in icy waters. James Cameron picked up on this great plotline and made the black-and-white film with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck quite well-known by association with his mega-hit. A final note: although some of these films are available on DVD, many of them are not – much to my torture – or are part of some 50-dollar actor’s collection with a bunch of films I already have or don’t need.

Historical Adventures:

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)

Before I finally found it available on VHS, and later on DVD as part of a Films of Gary Cooper collection, my most sought-after TV viewing was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). In this less famous example of the British-in-India genre that was inexplicably popular during the 1930s (Kim, Clive of India, Gunga Din, The Charge of the Light Brigade), Gary Cooper’s rebellious Canadian, McGregor, is paired up with and pitted against Franchot Tone’s witty British upperclassman, Forsythe. Together they achieve a male buddies chemistry that is very similar to the Newman/Redford relationship that made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so popular. Their adventures lead to a gripping ending which is one of my favorite climactic scenes of all time. No matter how late this movie was showing, I had to watch it every time. There is the rattle of the machine gun as McGregor and Forsythe fight over who’s going to be the hero. “Poetry!” Kaboom! Awesome! Director Henry Hathaway would later direct John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role in True Grit.

The Real Glory (1939)

Another obscure Gary Cooper viewing was The Real Glory (1939). Try to depict the Americans as the good guys putting down the Filipino bid for independence in the early 1900s! (They could do that in those days.) This story features Cooper and David Niven, exploding Filipino terrorists, and an awesome attack on the fort at the end with David Niven faking out the enemy with candles disguised as sticks of dynamite.

Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)

This less well-known Cagney film features Cagney as a fanatical Irish Republican Army leader who is planning to shoot a gorgeous Dana Winters as an example to the Brits. Don Murray plays the American expatriate being initiated into the Republican Army’s ruthlessness. This film also features one of my favorite shootouts – on a dock when the Irish are waiting in ambush to assassinate a general and things go wrong. A very young Richard Harris blazes away with two revolvers.

African Adventures:

Untamed (1955)

In this fun epic from the decade when epics were many, Susan Hayward plays an Irish emigrant to South Africa where she endures the Great Trek of the Boers (Wagon Train transplanted to Africa), an awesome Zulu attack, and the hardships of life in the wilds. There’s a diamond mining rush, Tyrone Power as a Boer cavalryman, and Zulu assegai aplenty.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

This one is my very favorite Tarzan adventure. (I was never a big fan of Johnny Weissmuller.) It starts with a violent robbery and involves Tarzan (Gordon Scott) pursuing the murderous thieves, led by cruel bad guy Slade, played by Anthony Quayle. The gang also includes a very young and totally unknown-at-the-time Sean Connery. You get a raw jungle survival story with quicksand, a man-eating leopard, a bottomless pit, and a violent fight between Tarzan and Slade on top of a cliff with cactus spines used as a weapon – along with Slade’s sliding wire noose at the end of a stick. It now occurs to me that I first saw this movie at a Saturday afternoon matinee at the local theater, and that I walked home pretending I was Tarzan, jumping into bushes to hide when anyone approached me on the sidewalk – but it was always a good find on TV for many years.

Westerns:

The Bravados (1958)

In The Bravados Gregory Peck gives a memorable performance as a bitter rancher obsessed with avenging the rape and murder of his wife. When the four suspected killers escape from jail the night before their hanging, Peck pursues them doggedly and kills them one by one in brutal fashion. The gang leader is played by a pre-Ben- Hur Stephen Boyd, and love and salvation for Peck’s character are provided by Joan Collins.

Dakota Incident (1956)

This taut story of survival starring Dale Robertson and Ward Bond, (with B-Western regular Whit Bissell, of course), is Stagecoach with a twist: the stagecoach gets wrecked and the disparate collection of passengers is besieged in a coulee by a band of Cheyenne that cuts them down one by one. Ward Bond branches out from his usual roles by playing a bombastic Bible-beater.

Science-fiction:

Crack in the World (1965)

This fantastic disaster movie, that should be available on DVD but isn’t, involves tampering with nature, of course, when scientists use a nuclear device to bore to the Earth’s core for minerals, which causes a crack in the world. Yes – a crack in the world! You get a train wreck, crumbling buildings, a gripping descent into a volcano, a big surprise when the problem seems solved and isn’t, and an apocalyptic ending with a sexy heroine in skimpy tatters climbing up an elevator shaft. Fortunately, I saw it once at the movies in lurid 60s color; then it was relegated to television. I dream of its release on DVD!

Dark Themes:

The Great Sinner (1949)

This film blew me away when I saw it one dark night during my college days at U.C. Berkeley. Gregory Peck (again) plays a Russian writer who goes to Monte Carlo to write about gambling. Of course, you know what happens – he becomes a compulsive gambler. Ava Gardner plays an attractive countess or something. This is a dark, brooding film.

Houdini (1953)

This cheesy, wonderful film ranks as one of my most frequent on-TV viewings. Way before you had Scarlett Johansson looking good in her skimpy magician’s-assistant corset in The Prestige (2006) – there was Janet Leigh as Houdini’s curvy wife and Tony Curtis as the great escape artist. The trick with the cabinet full of water - Houdini was all over that decades before The Prestige. It’s all here – Houdini’s hazardous escape from a safe submerged in an icy river – and the infamous Chinese Pagoda trick. I love the scene in which Harry simply wills himself out of a straightjacket.

Freud (1962)

Directed by John Huston, this bio-pic casts a brooding Montgomery Clift as the famous psychoanalyst. The wonderfully sexy Susannah York plays one of his patients who has a problem with promiscuity caused by something Oedipal with her father, of course. The dream sequences and surrealistic flashbacks are chilling. One of Freud’s nightmares – and he has some doozies – involves a dark tower (yeah, phallic symbol) and the scaling of a sheer cliff to a cave where a gargantuan fertility goddess lies draped in snakes or little boys or both – an unforgettable image!

Thrillers/Crime:

Fourteen Hours (1957)

This taut suspense film, directed by the prolific Henry Hathaway, features Richard Basehart as a suicidal man perched on the high ledge of a hotel while street cop Paul Douglas tries to talk him out of jumping. A fine cast of classic Hollywood performers, including Agnes Moorehead, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jeffrey Hunter, and even Grace Kelly, appears in the hotel room, helping matters or making things worse. I won’t utter a word about the suspenseful ending.

Hoodlum Priest (1961)

This gritty tale of inner-city crime features Don Murray as a street-savvy Catholic priest and Keir Dullea as a young hoodlum who gets on the wrong side of the law. It includes a memorable running chase. (I rather like running chases – though in recent films they have become overdone.) As I recall, this one is unexpected and suspenseful. But the most memorable element in the film is a death penalty sequence that is my pick for the most gut-wrenching depiction of execution (the gas chamber here) ever filmed. It’s Keir Dullea condemned to die, and of course the Hoodlum Priest is with him to the bitter end. I wish they had shown this to us at St. Matthew's Catholic Elementary School instead of Quo Vadis.

Mirage (1965)

Along with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mirage was a most-sought-after viewing. It had a cult following of two: my brother and me; we would quote it all the time. In Mirage, Gregory Peck (yet again!) plays David Stillwell, a scientist who suffers amnesia following a trauma. When it appears that certain persons are trying to make him think he’s lost his mind so that he will reveal a secret formula (this is a 60s movie – so I bet you know what the formula is all about), David goes on the lam, pursued by the flunkies of the head bad guy played by Leif Erickson. As he runs, David experiences flashbacks which are revealed in chilling straight cuts. When the puzzle is pieced together, David will remember the big shock that he’s blocked from his memory (I won't tell you what it is) and why everybody’s after him. Great cast! Jack Weston plays an oily tough guy. “I hear the weather’s fine in Barbados.” Walter Matthau plays a wannabe private detective who takes on David’s problem as his first case. “Jump, Stillwell, jump!” George Kennedy plays a numskull gunman named Willard. “You hit me.” Diane Baker is weak as dishwater as the love interest. “Try to remember, David. Try.” But the suspenseful ending involves subjecting Stillwell to Russian roulette – with Willard holding the revolver – to force him to give over the formula. “Willard!” Click!

So, have you ever seen any of the movies reviewed above?

(I would love to receive comments by anyone who has seen any of the above movies – or go ahead and tell me about some of your favorite forgotten gems.)

2 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

"A Crack in the World" -- yes! That must come out on DVD.

Criterion! Help!

hokahey said...

Oh, God of DVD Releases - forget extended versions of recent releases; forget yet another mastering of Star Wars. It's got to be Crack in the World.