Friday, December 31, 2010

AFTER THE THIN MAN: Ringing in a New Year and a Classic Film Series

This revised post appears as part of of the

Classic Film & TV Cafe  Dogathon, running from February 19th to 22nd. It's doggone fun!

When The Thin Man (TTM) became a surprise smash hit in 1934, a sequel was inevitable. Already frequent co-stars and close platonic friends, William Powell and Myrna Loy teamed up again onscreen in 1936 as Dashiell Hammett’s husband-and-wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, introduced in Hammett's 1933 novel. We film aficionados know all too well that at best, sequels are often a pale shadow of the original film. Happily, that wasn’t the case with After the Thin Man (AtTM). (Enjoy the attached trailer!) Retired detective Nick and his heiress wife Nora are as happily into each other as before, still slinging cocktails and witty banter while looking for clues. The original gang’s all here: Powell and Loy are again joined by director W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke and screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, working from an original Hammett story and earning Oscar nominations for their screenplay; and Loy is once again stylishly clothed by designer Dolly Tree. The production values are a little glossier this time around; even the opening credits sequence (including a sketch of Asta looking eagerly at a fire hydrant) looks smarter and snappier than in the first film! There are even musical numbers, including “Smoke Dreams” by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (yes, that Arthur Freed, for all you movie musical fans). 

Although two years passed between the two movies in real life, the events of AtTM take place immediately after Nick and Nora’s Christmas adventures in New York City (hooray for my hometown!), and our sassy lovebirds look more appealing than ever. In fact, we first see Nick and Nora on the train with Asta, their cute wirehaired fox terrier, all of them eager to return home to San Francisco. Their TTM traveling companions, Tommy and Dorothy, last seen as Newlyweds On A Train, are nowhere to be seen; I’m guessing they’d either already left or are *ahem* still aboard, enjoying their honeymoon (and they deserve it, after the agita they went through in the first film!). The quips start as soon as Nick and Nora prepare to disembark:

Nora: “Are you packing, dear?”
Nick (knocking back booze): “Yes, darling, I’m just putting away this liquor.”

Once poor exhausted Nick and Nora get off the train, they can’t catch a break, let alone their breath! For starters, they open the door of their home to discover a raucous  welcome-home surprise party where there seem to be way more party-crashers than guests, including Ward Bond, and Charles Arnt, who played golfer/mental patient Crawford in My Favorite Brunette. Also, watch for Billy “Whitey” Benedict in an early scene where Nick and Nora drive through the streets of San Francisco. Wouldn’t you think that with Nick and Nora’s kind of money, they could afford better home security?  Our soignee sweethearts’ hopes of kindly but firmly bidding their unexpected guests adieu and sleeping through New Year’s Eve are dashed by a desperate phone call from Nora’s favorite cousin, Selma Landis (Elissa Landi of The Count of Monte Cristo; The Warrior’s Husband; and The Sign of the Cross. Also, according to the IMDb, Landi was rumored to have been the secret granddaughter of Sissi, Empress Elizabeth, the beautiful consort of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. But I digress….).

Seems Selma’s husband Robert Landis (Alan Marshall of Tom, Dick, and Harry; The White Cliffs of Dover; and many TV series, including 77 Sunset Strip and Surfside Six) is missing. No big loss: Robert is an unrepentant wastrel playboy fortune-hunter type who only married Selma for her money. While Nick and Nora (in her nice way) feel his disappearance is good riddance to bad rubbish, Selma is nevertheless stuck on the guy even though she hates herself for loving him. What’s more, Robert’s being scammed out of money at the Lichee Club by club owner Dancer (Joseph Calleia of The Glass Key and Gilda, among others) and on the side, he’s been seeing the club’s two-timing chanteuse, Polly Byrnes, played by singing, dancing, scene-stealing Dorothy McNulty — before she went all flaxen-haired and became a star as Penny Singleton in the Blondie movies from 1938 to 1950, not to mention the voice of TV's animated Jane Jetson!
Seems Mrs. Asta made a friend while
Asta and family were away!
Intruder in the dust!
If you thought TTM’s Wynant family was a dysfunctional bunch, wait until you get a load of Nora’s dreary (yet funny) Nob Hill clan! I was itching to smack Nora’s domineering, pompous Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph), who’s more interested in covering up scandalous family skeletons than letting Selma have a life of her own. For that matter, I longed to give put-upon Selma a smack, too, or at least a good tough-love talking-to; someone’s gotta help that girl stop being such a spineless wuss! Consider my little rant as a compliment to writers Goodrich and Hackett’s ability to engage my emotions, and the excellent acting of both Ms. Ralph and Ms. Landi; they’re maddeningly convincing in their roles!

Then there’s Nick and Nora’s family friend David Graham (young James Stewart in an early role), who’s still in love with former fiancĂ©e Selma despite her wishy-washy qualities. David made a deal with Robert to pay him $25,000 in exchange for divorcing Selma, after which she and David could presumably live happily ever after. Before you can say “Dr. Phil,” the plan goes awry in myriad ways. Robert rings in the New Year at the Pearly Gates after being shot dead (ding-dong, the jerk is dead!), and Selma may end up hanging from a noose instead of hanging around with dreary Aunt Katherine and the other elderly “waxworks” in the family mansion. It’s up to Nick, the underfoot-but-eager Nora, and the put-upon Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene, one of my favorite character actors.  I first saw him in his scene-stealing role in the 1979 thriller Last Embrace, but after AfTM, Levene originated the role of Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls on Broadway, among many other memorable roles) to save the day — right after a good night’s sleep and some tasty scrambled eggs, of course….

Cousin Selma isn’t the only one in AtTM having relationship issues: while Nick, Nora, and Asta were away solving their Manhattan murder mystery during Christmas week, Mrs. Asta and a randy black Scottie dog came out to play — and Asta’s wondering what side of the family that new black puppy came from! Asta’s not rolling over and playing dead, though. Indeed, he gets more to do in AtTM than in TTM: when a rock with a message gets thrown through Nick and Nora’s window, Asta thinks they’re playing and lead our spunky couple in a merry chase to try to rescue the rest of the clue before Asta eats the whole thing!

Hey, that bubbly brunette is Blondie!

In Hammett’s original novel, Asta wasn’t a male wirehaired fox terrier, but a female Schnauzer! However, when the hit novel became a hit movie, every dog lover wanted a pooch like Asta, as played by Skippy in the first two Thin Man films. In later Thin Man movies, the job was taken over by other fox terriers trained by ace trainer Rudd Weatherwax and his family, in addition to Frank  Inn; these folks brought us Lassie and Benji, among other animal performers. To this day, Asta is one of cinema’s most beloved dogs. For instance, the name “Asta” is a frequent answer in The New York Times crossword puzzles in response to clues such as “Thin Man dog” or “Dog star.” Skippy was quite the in-demand canine star back then, bless him; click here for Skippy’s filmography!

Nick and Nora go over scrambled yeggs
over scrambled eggs!
 AtTM is good, zesty, quotable fun, another one of those delightful films where if I tried to quote every line I like, I’d end up quoting virtually the entire script. Here’s my favorite, discussing New Year’s resolutions at the Lichee Club after ringing in the New Year in wild and wacky style:
Nora: “Any complaints or suggestions?”
Nick: “A few.”
Nora: “Which?”
Nick: “Complaints…You don’t scold, you don’t nag, and you look far too pretty in the mornings.”
Nora: “I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, mustn’t be too pretty in the mornings.” (They kiss.)

Even walkies are a wow with  the Charles clan!
As New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent said in his 1936 Christmas Day review, “Nick’s ultimate solution of the case—which we could not reveal if we would—is about the most thoroughly upsetting denouement of the year and is practically enough to drive the second-guessers in the audience to the nearest soda fountain for a sedative or a rhubarb and soda.” Without giving too much away, I’ll only say that I’m not surprised that the appealing thespian playing the killer ably tapped into his darker side in much later roles. There’s another, happier surprise at the end, but if you haven’t already seen AtTM, I urge you to buy or rent it and enjoy it for yourself. Heck, give the other four Thin Man films a try, too. They may not all be as perfect as the first two, but they’re all great fun to watch, and Powell and Loy are always charming cinematic company on New Year’s Eve, or any time! 

Asta picks the darndest times to play hide-and-seek! Gimme that clue!
Oh, that Nick and Nora, always on a toot!
Can we come along?

Lt. Abrams and our heroes realize the check is not in the mail!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Thin Man Meets Fitzwilly! Team Bartilucci's Favorite Christmas Movies

As The Beatles once sang, Christmastime is here again! Here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., that means it’s time for family, festivities, and films! Ah, but our favorite Christmas-themed films go well beyond the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life. (Call us Grinches, but we find that particular Frank Capra classic so dark and downbeat before the happy ending that it’s always struck us as a film noir.)

Dorian’s Christmas Fave:  The Thin Man (TTM), 1934

This smart, snappy romantic comedy-mystery couldn’t have avoided becoming a classic if it wanted to, despite its relatively humble beginnings as a B-movie shot in about two weeks by director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke.  TTM is so wryly sophisticated that, among other things, it makes boozing look fun (but please drink responsibly. Okay, sermon over!). The romance between TTM author Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman inspired the dashing, retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell) and his beautiful, effervescent heiress wife Nora (Myrna Loy in a performance that forever changed the exotic temptress stereotype she’d been stuck in).

Nora: "What hit me?" Nick: "The last martini."
(Actual dialogue from the film!)
The couple and their adorable terrier, Asta, visit NYC during Christmas week, but there’s no time for sightseeing or caroling: murder’s afoot! Nick and Nora find themselves plunged into a murder mystery involving old friends, the eccentric Wynant family. Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan at her most endearing) enlists Nick’s help in seeking her beloved father, who had promised to return to New York in time for Dorothy’s December wedding.  Dorothy’s missing dad is absentminded genius Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), the “thin man” of the film’s title, though the name stuck to Nick when the film became a hit, spawning a six-film series. Our happy, cheeky duo wade through gunplay; glam gowns by Dolly Tree; drinks mixed to dance rhythms (“A Manhattan, you shake to fox-trot time….”); witty repartee, courtesy of Oscar-nominated screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (in fact, major Oscar nominations went to everyone in TTN except Loy! Her Oscar snub is the only thing I don’t like about the film! But I digress….); and swell parties, including a dizzy Christmas Eve soiree that perhaps later inspired Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the swanky dinner party where villains are revealed and tough-guy waiters snap, “Have a cocktail!” to rattled guests/suspects. (We taught the kids in our lives to say it, too!)

Aw, who can resist Nora's cute "scrunchy face"?
Still, tenderness shows between the bouts of zaniness. In addition to the breezy, loving chemistry between Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora, Dorothy has affectionate relationships with her dad and her supportive fiancĂ© Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Thank God she had them, because all the rest of the clan is either screwy or greedy! TTM proves that when a film is well-written and performed, a happily married couple can be far more witty, sexy, and just plain fun to watch and hear than the childish bickering that too many writers mistake for sexual tension. A good bit of the dialogue was taken verbatim from Hammett’s novel, including this Team Bartilucci favorite from Gertrude Short as Nunheim’s (Harold Huber) fed-up moll Marion:
“I don’t like crooks. And if I did like ’em, I wouldn’t like crooks that are stool pigeons. And if I did like crooks that are stool pigeons, I still wouldn’t like you!”

Is it any wonder that TTM, along with the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1942 film version of The Glass Key, got me interested in reading Hammett’s books, turning me into one of his fans?  TTM is not only one of my favorite lighthearted mysteries, it’s also one of my favorite New York-set movies; as a native New Yorker, I’m a sucker for flicks set in my hometown. Considering TTM takes place during Christmas week, it quickly became one of my fave Christmas movies, too. The whole Thin Man movie series is a joy to watch, but in my opinion, the first one is still the best!

Vinnie's Christmas Fave: Fitzwilly, 1967

Dick Van Dyke is one of those misleading actors, the ones you think has a limited skill set, and then a film comes along that shows a whole new direction and ability. Van Dyke is a stellar comedian and song & dance man, but some of his other works display a varied dramatic ability. He did a TV movie about alcoholism called The Morning After, and an all but forgotten film called The Comic about a fictional silent film star that fell on hard times. This past year, the darling people at the MGM arcives (their Print-on-Demand service) released two of my favorite films of his on DVD, Cold Turkey (about which I can and shall wax rhapsodic another time) and Fitzwilly (about which I shall wax rhapsodic now)

Van Dyke plays the titular character, Claude "Fitzwilly" Fitzwilliam, the latest in a family line of 13 butlers in the service to Miss Victoria Woodworth, played by the delightfully wacky Dame Edith Evans. As the film starts, we see Fitzwilly engage in a series of amazing con-jobs with the assistance of his domestic staff, massive purchases on Fifth Avenue being charged to other millionaires, diverted to other addresses via moles in the shipping room, and liquidated for cash. We learn quickly that he's not doing it for himself, but to keep Miss Vicki solvent. She's bankrupt, and Fitzwilly and his staff spend nearly every waking moment scrambling to rake in enough cash to keep her living in the style to which she's been accustomed, never letting her know of the situation. At the same time, he's manufacturing hobbies for her to keep her mind active, including a pseudo-Cub Scout troop for sons of millionaires and a dictionary for mis-spellers. For the latter hobby, she needs the assistance of a secretary; she hires Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon), the only person in the house who isn't in on the scam, and is immediately seen as a threat to the operation. So while they're trying to keep her out of the loop, they're still trying to bring in enough money to cover the occasional checks Miss Vicki sends out to charities that they can't intercept.

Lovebirds Juliet and Fitzwilly get face time between capers
As time passes, Juliet begins to realize that Fitzwilliam's standoffish attitude is merely overprotectiveness for Miss Vicki.  Her curiosity continues to prove troubling, and by the time she and Fitzwilly fall in love (like you doubted?) and she's let in on the totality of the operation, she's already inadvertently sent the ledger wildly into the red by mailing out a $50,000 donation.  Fitzwilly is forced to concieve a massive Superfly-like "One Last Big Deal" to cover the donation, various other operations that have fallen behind, and set up enough of a nest egg to keep Miss Vicki set for the rest of her remaining days.  He hatches a scheme to rob Gimbels on Christmas Eve in a style and grandeur worthy of (either version of) Ocean's 11.  It's a wonderful climax that runs smooth as silk...rather.

"Dad, I see Miss Vicki's household is chock full o'nuts."
This is a wonderful bit of work which provides a new entry in the classic "Gentleman Bandit" genre. Indeed, it's so good a film that I want to do a remake starring Will Smith and Thandie Newton in the leading roles.  Ever since their planned appearance in Jonathan Demme's remake of Charade went awry back during the Writer's Strike and became the abysmal, Smith-less The Truth About Charlie, The Wife and I had been trying to come up with a fun project to get those two glorious people together.  An all-black cast would be a neat idea.  I'd always imagined Lena Horne as Miss Vicki, but alas, that was rendered impossible this year. No worries, Nichelle Nichols was my backup all along, and I think she'd kill it.  Will Smith played an excellent con man in his first film, Six Degrees of Separation, and sadly, he's never gone back to the type.  If I can't have him as Raffles, I think Claude Fitzwilliam will do nicely.

Friday, December 17, 2010

REAR WINDOW: Neighborhood Watching

Lisa's goodnight kisses keep red-blooded Jeff wide-awake!
L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a man on the go, a globe-trotting photographer who’s no stranger to danger. But when he breaks his leg in a speedway accident, Jeff finds there’s no place like home — for sweltering in non-air-conditioned discomfort, and discovering what just might be a murder taking place across the way in his Greenwich Village apartment complex. Who’s responsible for the sinister events over at 125 West 9th Street? Alfred Hitchcock, who else?  One of Hitchcock's most beloved and brilliant films, Rear Window (RW) brims with The Master of Suspense’s trademark wit, suspense, and romance kissed by tension, thanks to John Michael Hayes’s witty, suspenseful script. It’s also a brilliant technical achievement, one of Hitchcock’s best crafted, cleverly staged movies. In fact, even though RW is based on the great Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 story It Had To Be Murder, I can’t imagine this tale being told as effectively in any medium but film. Little details mean a lot here, like DP Robert Burks’s sinuous camerawork, and the popular tunes woven into Franz Waxman’s score, heard wafting from other apartments in the courtyard.

Upside to wheelchair: Lisa gets to sit on Jeff's lap!
According to the IMDb, RW’s utterly convincing Greenwich Village set was the biggest indoor set built at Paramount Studios at that time. The set was so humungous, Hitchcock’s crew had to excavate the soundstage floor. Ironically, this meant Jeff’s second-floor apartment was actually at street level! One thousand arc lights were used to simulate sunlight. Thanks to extensive pre-lighting of the set, the crew could make the changeover from day to night in less than 45 minutes. It was said that Hitchcock felt like he had his own giant doll house to play with.

Right neighborly of Mr. Hitchcock to drop by so late to fix Mr. Seville's metronome!
However, RW’s technical achievements (explained entertainingly in the DVD's documentaries) would be nothing without its engaging characters. Hitchcock’s gift for visual storytelling is on display from the start with Jeff’s photos telling his life story — literally, with the Life-like magazine cover (also seen in photo negatives; a touch of symbolism, no?) of the fashion spread where Jeff presumably met his soignee fashionista sweetheart Lisa Fremont. As Lisa, the luminous Grace Kelly in her gorgeous Edith Head fashions proved again why she became one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading ladies. Lisa gets one of cinema’s most sensual introductions, kissing the sleeping Jeff awake in glorious slow-motion. Of course, this being a Hitchcock thriller, we see a somewhat sinister shadow before the kiss. That Hitch—such a tease! Thelma Ritter steals her scenes as Stella, Jeff’s cynical yet lovable insurance company nurse, and Wendell Corey makes a fine foil as Tom Doyle, Jeff’s skeptical police detective pal.

Jeff, are you peeking at Lars' law exam test answers again?
Jeff’s neighbors are interesting enough to warrant their own movies, and I don’t just mean the secretive murder suspect Lars Thorwald, played with a fine blend of menace and pathos by Raymond Burr just before Perry Mason made him a TV star. Reportedly, Hitchcock deliberately made Burr look like David O. Selznick as a tiny tweak of revenge for the agita Selznick gave Hitchcock when they worked together in the 1940s on Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. In addition to providing a wry microcosm of New York City life (the only dated thing about it is the lack of air conditioning), they all reflect possible outcomes for the tug-of-war romance between Jeff and Lisa. There’s a hot young honeymoon couple (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport); Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a ballet dancer with a seemingly active love life; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), a lovelorn Woman of a Certain Age with a drinking problem; a couple (Sara Berner, and Frank Cady of TV’s Green Acres and Petticoat Junction) who dote on their little dog and sleep on their fire escape to beat the summer heat; hard-of-hearing sculptress Miss Hearing Aid (Jesslyn Fax); and our favorite, the frustrated composer played by Ross Bagdasarian, a.k.a. David Seville of Alvin & The Chipmunks fame. The tunesmith gets a visitor: Hitchcock in a cameo about 26 minutes in, fixing the composer’s clock!

Lisa, you vixen, you'll use any excuse for a slumber party!

Sorry, couldn't resist adding this! Besides, I liked Disturbia, so there!
It's a paranoid day in the neighborhood, a paranoid day for a neighbor; won't you be mine?
As Brent Spiner said while hosting a showing of RW on TNT several years ago, the real perversion of the film is Stewart's reluctance to commit to the irresistible Kelly! I was rooting so hard for Jeff and Lisa to stop being so damn stubborn, I felt like smacking them (but only because I cared about them). In fact, one of the things I like about the movie is the way it shows these two very different people gradually learning to compromise and work together. I love how Lisa and Jeff are all smiles and exhilaration after Lisa’s initial triumph of slipping in and out of Thorwald’s apartment. Everyone seems to have a different opinion about the piquant final shot. (Spoiler Alert!) To me, it shows that a woman can have a happy relationship with a man without abandoning her own interests or submerging her own personality; refreshing for the 1950s!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Restoring MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE: Is There Hope?

"He's a hilarious hawkshaw...with a case on Dottie!"
Many of my best-loved classic films have been restored to their original pristine (or close to it) condition, such as Vertigo, Rear Window, and Touch of Evil. But it’s always irked me that a full-blown restoration has so far eluded one of my favorite movies, literally: the 1947 comedy-thriller My Favorite Brunette (MFB), written by Edmund Beloin & Jack Rose, and directed by Elliott Nugent. For my money, this comic gem is the best of Bob Hope’s three movies in the “Favorite” series. The first one, My Favorite Blonde (1942), teamed Hope with Madeleine Carroll in a zany yet suspenseful adventure reminiscent of her Alfred Hitchcock thrillers The 39 Steps (1935) and Secret Agent (1936). The last of the trilogy was My Favorite Spy (1951), in which Hope teamed up for similarly funny, frantic shenanigans with the beautiful and brainy Hedy Lamarr. Although I enjoyed all three “Favorites,” I was drawn most strongly to MFB because it affectionately spoofs one of my favorite genres, the private eye mystery. We meet our hero, San Francisco baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Hope), on Death Row—this is comedy? Oh yes it is, smarty, because there’s a gaggle of reporters interviewing our hero as he gets a chance to tell his side of the murder frame-up he’s embroiled in. In true 1940s-style detective voiceover, Ronnie admits, “I wanted to be a detective too. It only took brains, courage and a gun---and I had the gun!" When Ronnie office-sits for Sam McCloud, the tough, suave private eye down the hall, he finds his dreams of playing detective coming all too true all too soon when a mysterious damsel-in-distress, Baroness Carlotta Montay (no relation to Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdes) slinks into the picture, wearing fabulous Edith Head fashions. Thinking Ronnie is Sam, she begs him to help her find Baron Montay (Frank Puglia in a dual role), her older husband…or is he? 

Time to open the mailman?
I see a babelicious mystery woman in your future....
Whatever Carlotta is to the Baron, her entrance brought a smile to my face immediately, because she’s played by Bob Hope’s quintessential leading lady, Dorothy Lamour, a long way from the exotic Jungle Princess sarong that catapulted her to stardom in the 1930s! Soon Ronnie is up to his ski-nose in trouble as he and the comely Carlotta are chased by a gang of cutthroats with designs on Baron Montay’s uranium. That's right, uranium—the MacGuffin of Hitchcock’s thriller Notorious from the previous year!  When things go from bad to worse, will our hero sit down to “the worst last meal I ever ate,” or can he clear himself as he ducks flying bullets and one-liners between make-out sessions with Carlotta? One of Hope's best comedies, MFB deftly spoofs hard-boiled private eye thrillers of the era with a barrage of uproarious quips and set pieces in a private sanatorium and an atmospheric mansion (Ronnie: “Nice cheerful place. What time do they bring the mummies out?”). It’s like The Big Sleep on laughing gas, and makes about the same amount of sense. I’m tempted to quote more of Hope and Lamour’s witty quips, but I’d probably end up typing almost the entire zingy script verbatim. 

Is Carlotta giving Ronnie a private screening?
Hope and Lamour's usual comic/romantic chemistry is at its finest. I especially enjoyed the fact that more often than not, Carlotta was able to think on her feet and get the bumbling Ronnie out of one jam after another while he either went to pieces or let his little bouts of success go to his head. You go, girl!  The nifty supporting cast includes Peter Lorre as a knife-throwing henchman and assassin studying to pass his U.S. citizenship exam (he makes the phrase “What does the executive branch of our government do? It carries OUT the laws!” sound sinister and hilarious at the same time); the unfairly uncredited Jean Wong, endearing as Mrs. Fong, mother of a tot so loathe to smile that Ronnie quips, "This kid's gonna grow up to be a sponsor!"; Lon Chaney Jr., essentially playing his classic and oft-imitated Of Mice and Men role for laughs; Jack La Rue, the lone American in 1948’s Brits-trying-to-sound-like-New-Yorkers adaptation of the notorious oddball crime drama No Orchids for Miss Blandish; and a couple of delightful star cameos sure to bring a smile to any classic movie fan’s face, especially the Paramount tough guy who plays Sam McCloud! The movie is a delight, but the DVD print, not so much, alas, despite a handful of nice interactive features. 

Carlotta wants,
Carlotta gets!
Somewhere along the way, MFB slipped out of Paramount Pictures’ hands and wound up in Public Domain Hell!  The Madacy DVD currently available doesn't have the most pristine print; it’s got more scratches than a nudist who stumbled into poison ivy. Nevertheless, my scratchy copy of MFB is still a far better copy than the one that Turner Classic Movies periodically runs!  Heck, the TCM print is actually missing a few minutes in the scene taking place just after the rained-upon Ronnie and Carlotta return to McCloud’s office. I noticed the Columbia Pictures Television logo at the end of TCM’s recent MFB broadcast. Should we be pestering and persuading Columbia Pictures using every known form of communication in order to get a gorgeous print of MFB available to the world again? Please, motion picture historians and fellow film fanatics, let’s find a way to give this cheeky, cheerful farce a restoration and the Criterion-caliber treatment it deserves!

Guess  Mrs. Fong's baby isn't a vegetarian!

Update for 2011: My husband Vinnie gave me The Shout! Factory's deluxe Bob Hope DVD set, including a gorgeously remastered version of My Favorite Brunette! Many thanks to fellow Peter Lorre/Bob Hope fan Cheryl Morris for bringing the set to my attention!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LAST EMBRACE: When Harry Met Ellie

"It begins with an ancient warning.  It ends at the edge of Niagara Falls.  In between there are 5 murders.  Solve the mystery.  Or die trying."

Harry DOES believe in spooks!
The poster for Jonathan Demme’s 1979 thriller Last Embrace grabbed me during its release in 1979!  The multi-Oscar-winner The Silence of the Lambs was Demme's first major suspense thriller, but it wasn’t the first film he’d made in that genre. That honor goes to Demme’s 1979 thriller Last Embrace (LE), which I first saw and loved during its original theatrical run. 

Despite the romantic beginning,  Last Embrace means business!
Poor Harry and Dorothy Hannan should've gone to Westworld instead!
At the time, LE was touted as a romantic Hitchcockian thriller. While LE definitely has strong elements of Vertigo and other Hitchcock classics, I’ve always considered it to be more of a paranoia thriller with film noir touches, which, as a friend quipped, perhaps makes LE
a kind of  “film shachor.”   Roy Scheider, cool and craggy yet suave, had long been one of our family’s favorite tough-guy actors.  At first glance, he might not seem vulnerable enough to be convincing as a beleaguered paranoia film hero.  However, Scheider proved to be perfect casting as Harry Hannan, a government agent with more baggage than Louis Vuitton. Harry is still heartbroken and guilt-ridden about his beloved wife, Dorothy (Sandy McLeod from Romancing the Stone, and Demme's Something Wild), getting killed while she accompanied him as cover on one of his assignments.   After he spends time in a Connecticut sanitarium recovering from his nervous breakdown, Harry has barely had a chance to lose his institutional pallor when he’s almost shoved in front of an express train. When he returns to his spy agency in New York City, his slippery spymaster Eckart (Christopher Walken from Pulp Fiction; Oscar winner for The Deer Hunter; and Oscar nominee for Catch Me If You Can; and so much more!) keeps him at arm’s length.  Maybe Eckart thinks Harry’s sharp cream-colored suit makes him too conspicuous for undercover work. Worst of all, Harry discovers he’s one of several Jewish men getting death threats written in Biblical Hebrew from an unknown “Avenger of Blood”…and so far, he’s the only one still alive!
Don't mess with New York commuters, especially spies!
Everyone scoffs at poor Harry’s jitters. Who can he trust? Certainly not his brother-in-law (Charles Napier from The Blues Brothers; Melvin and Howard; the animated TV sitcom The Critic), a fellow spook who blames Harry for his sister Dorothy's violent death: “You’re careless with people, Harry.”  I think it's safe to say holiday dinners at the Hannan household are tense at best! Our hero eventually joins forces with Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin from David and Lisa;  Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run;  Annie Hall).  Ellie is a pretty New York grad student who sublet his apartment while he was in the sanitarium.  But the vulnerable Ellie seems to have her own issues and secrets.  Will that spell doom for both Ellie and Harry? And how does a turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish brothel figure in the sinister fix Harry has found himself in?

"Next time, we're taking the bus!"
 Scheider and Margolin had fine chemistry together; their characters’ sensitivity and wariness made me feel for them, and they even had playful moments along the way.  Ms. Margolin was at her loveliest, too. (Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer in 1993 at the age of 50. Janet, we hardly knew ye.)  Scheider, Margolin, and Walken are aided and abetted by a rogues’ gallery of stellar New York character actors, including John Glover as Ellie’s insecure professor boyfriend; Marcia Rodd as Harry’s nervous agency contact; David Margulies (best known to Team Bartilucci as the Mayor of New York City in Ghostbusters, and Michael Caine's psychiatrist colleague in Dressed to Kill) as a rabbi with connections; Joe Spinell and actor/director Jim McBride as thugs; Captain Arthur Haggerty as a bouncer waiting to use the phone; Mandy Patinkin and Max Wright in bit parts as commuters who may or may not have some ’splainin’ to do; and one of my very favorite character actors, scene-stealer Sam Levene (from After the Thin Man; The Killers; Crossfire; The Mad Miss Manton) as the crotchety but likable head of a secret Jewish society; and director Demme himself cameo-ing as a stranger on a train.
As Sam Urdell, Sam Levene can still give any
stranger on a train what-for!
Either the milkman is a lousy speller,
or Harry's getting death threats in Hebrew!

It's Christopher Walken, yes indeed, as Harry's spymaster!

No spy work for Harry?  At least they can enjoy a few bars of "Singin' In The Rain!
Super Harry leaps over the sidewalks of New York in a single bound!
Wine thing, you make Harry's heart sing!  Is Ellie dressed to kill, or what?

In the bell tower, bells are ringing for me and my prey!
Those Blues Brothers are driving me crazy!
Some critics complained that despite Demme’s obvious affection for the Hitchcockian material, LE could have used more of The Master of Suspense’s zest, wit, and verve. I won’t deny that the pace slows down at times, but with Roy Scheider at his peak and Janet Margolin’s touching, multifaceted performance, I was willing to be patient.  Demme and screenwriter David Shaber (adapting Murray Teigh Bloom’s novel The 13th Man) make up for the film’s flaws with plenty of appealingly quirky Demme-style characterization.  Judaism’s key role in LE’s plot was fresh and intriguing, as well as making excellent use of an elaborate, well-crafted red herring. The settings contribute to the film’s Demme-ness; his ace Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto really makes the New York City and Princeton, NJ locations integral to the plot and its Hitchcockian motifs, especially the bell tower sequence and an exciting climax at Niagara Falls (I can hear you making lewd jokes). The film brims with only-in-New-York characters and situations; for instance, the competition for living space in Manhattan provides amusing undertones to Harry’s first awkward encounters with Ellie, kind of like The More, The Merrier with edgy film noir trimmings.  Miklos Rozsa’s swooningly romantic yet forboding score pulls together the film’s emotional undercurrents beautifully.  Between Last Embrace and Still of the Night, if I’d been Roy Scheider, I’d have stayed out of Central Park and environs for fear of elusive assailants!  If anyone knows of a soundtrack for Miklos Rozsa's  Last Embrace, let me know, won't you?

Harry and Ellie fall in love -- but can love last
when the girl of your dreams  has a centuries-old vendetta?


Can this romance be saved, or will their love be on the rocks?

Find out more about Last Embrace at the MGM Archives:

Here's a fond farewell to Roy
Scheider from a fan: