Friday, April 29, 2011

I WAKE UP SCREAMING: Obsession, You are My Obsession….

Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis had all been in movies together in various combinations (mostly musicals) but the suspenseful 1941 murder mystery I Wake up Screaming (IWuS) was the first film noir all three of them starred in. Indeed, on the DVD’s commentary track, film historian Eddie Muller dubbed it “proto-noir,” since it was in fact 20th Century-Fox’s first film noir. Maybe that’s why IWuS still feels fresh today; everyone in it and everything about it brims with verve and brio, as if all concerned were eager to start filming.

The great Steve Fisher’s original 1941 novel was set in Hollywood, but Darryl F. Zanuck had apparently put the kibosh on Hollywood exposés, so screenwriter Dwight Taylor transplanted this “wrong man” tale of love, murder, and obsession to New York City. I must admit that as a native New Yorker, I loved the idea of relocating the story to Manhattan and environs, with the glamour of Broadway, supper clubs and Big Apple-style brassiness. I just think of IWuS as the East Coast version of the story, while Fisher’s version is the West Coast version.  Fair warning to those who haven’t read the novel but want to: go out of your way to find the original version, because Fisher’s updated 1960 edition feels unstuck in time, and not in a good way. Fisher (or perhaps his publisher?) tried to shoehorn in then-modern references, with mixed results.

Iron bars do not a prison make - but they sure feel like it!
IWuS’s plot starts more like Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady if you prefer musicals) than Fisher’s pulse-pounding crime fiction.  It starts in a Manhattan police station, with “the bulls” sweating our beleaguered yet determined hero, promoter Frankie Christopher (Team Bartilucci fave Victor Mature!). In flashbacks, we learn how Frankie and his friends, Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray), a veteran actor, and Larry Evans (Allyn Joslyn), a newspaper columnist (ah, the newspaper column, the granddaddy of the blog! But I digress...), grabbed a bite at a Times Square eatery one night and ended up betting they could transform their tart-tongued but beautiful waitress, Vicky Lynn (the incandescent Landis), from a hash-slinger to a headliner by putting her name in ads, newspapers, and magazines, and plastering her lovely kisser all over town. Vicky’s more practical sister Jill (Betty Grable) is skeptical, but supportive nevertheless.

If you woke to see Ed Cornell in your pad, wouldn't you scream?
The starmaking scheme works all too well:  dazzled by her own success, Vicky snares a Hollywood screen test and contract right under her shocked benefactors’ noses, only to be murdered on the eve of her Tinseltown departure.  Jill finds Frankie standing over Vicky’s body, swearing he didn’t kill her, he just found her that way. Hotshot Police Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) insists that Frankie’s lying.  Fifteen-year veteran Cornell has never been wrong, and he’s obsessed with making an example out of hapless Frankie.  But does justice alone explain Cornell’s unwavering, obsessive zeal, or does he have a hidden agenda?

Boxing is nothing compared to Frankie and Cornell's battle of wits!
The cat and mouse game is afoot between Frankie, hell-bent on proving his innocence, and Cornell,
a smoothly sinister behemoth of a man who’s ready, willing, and able to go to any lengths to railroad Frankie. Undeterred by the lack of a search warrant, Cornell even manages to sneak into Frankie’s bedroom to watch him while he sleeps (“Someday you’re gonna talk in your sleep, and when that day comes, I wanna be around.”), doing his damndest to wear Frankie down with smilingly delivered threats and manipulation. With wily Cornell’s festering resentment of Frankie, you can’t tell what he’ll pull next. Always a formidable, menacing presence, Cregar rocks in the role.  His silky voice and charming smile somehow make him even scarier; no wonder IWuS helped to make him a sought-after character actor of stage and screen. Victor Mature’s Frankie is a great match for Cregar’s Cornell, with his outer charm and inner toughness. Always an appealing presence, Mature was a better actor than he got credit for; people often underestimate his talent and screen presence because he always makes it look so easy. Mature was a hottie, too; no wonder Cornell sneeringly calls Frankie “Handsome Harry!” Elisha Cook Jr. is fine as Harry Williams, the oddball switchboard operator and original suspect.  Fun Fact on film historian Eddie Muller’s commentary track: Cook filmed his role as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon for John Huston at the same time he was filming IWuS for (H.) Bruce Humberstone. It’s a shame that both Landis and Cregar died so young, though: suicide for Landis and crash-diet-induced heart failure for Cregar. But their performances in IWuS are unforgettable.

The future Mr. & Mrs. Botticelli
Getting back to our plot, things heat up as Jill and Frankie acknowledge what sharp Vicky had already realized:  they’ve fallen in love, and they’re eager to protect each other. When the plucky Grable’s wholesome sexiness meets Mature’s playful yet virile allure, it’s Chemistry City! It’s so cute and typical of the era to see Jill get all starry-eyed when Frankie admits he wants to marry her.  It’s even cuter when Frankie
reveals his original surname as Jill dreamily sighs, “Mrs. Botticelli.”  Still, Vicky’s whirlwind trajectory from waitress to glamour girl to murder victim plunges Jill into a world of murder, terror, and obsession, propelling her to flee with the man she loves, dogged by Cornell at every turn. Taylor’s screenplay tightens Fisher’s sprawling novel almost to the point of claustrophobia (this time, it is in a good way!), with sharp, witty dialogue and comedy relief balancing the nerve-racking tension. The dialogue is snappy, suspenseful, and poignant in all the right places.  Loved that “key” exchange scene early on!  Edward Cronjager’s lush, expressionistic black-and-white photography is a thing of shadowy beauty, used especially well in Cregar’s early scenes as combinations of heavy shadows and bright interrogation lights hide him from view.

Even with studio sets, IWuS evokes early 1940s NYC right up to the rooftops. When Frankie shows Jill his old East Side neighborhood, it’s fun as both a getting-to-know-you sequence and a mini-travelogue of the non-touristy places where native New Yorkers go. This continues when the lovers become fugitives and Frankie shows Jill where to hide in the big city, including the library and a 24-hour grindhouse. Even the swimming pool scene has that spirit; sure, it’s there primarily to show off sex symbols Mature and Grable in their swimsuits (with today’s athletic types being so buff and ripped that you could cut yourself if you touched them, it’s interesting and refreshing to see what kind of physiques were considered hot back in the 1940s), but it reminded me of the city’s neighborhood pools at their best. One bit that’s ironic in retrospect, considering IWuS came out before the U.S. entered World War 2:  when Larry spots Frankie and Jill dancing at a nightclub soon after Vicky’s murder, he angrily calls in a blind item about them for his column, snapping, “Scrap the stuff about the Japanese spy with the Kodak and run this!”

Apparent nods to Steve Fisher’s pulp roots:
  1. Frankie takes Jill to The Pegasus Club, possibly a shout-out to the novel’s narrator/writer hero, nicknamed “Pegasus,” a.k.a. “Peg.”
  2. During a Cornell/Frankie confrontation, a newsstand features Black Mask Magazine. Incidentally, this scene gets my vote for most resourceful use of a Tootsie Roll.
  3. Finally, according to Muller’s DVD commentary, dogged Detective Ed Cornell was named after Fisher’s pal and fellow pulpster Cornell Woolrich. Skinny, sickly Woolrich looked nothing like big, beefy Cregar—but it’s the thought that counts! 
I like the quirky use of music here, too; you might never listen to “Over the Rainbow” quite the same way ever again.  Fans of vintage movie music will notice that the opening credits music, an Alfred Newman piece known as “Manhattan Street Scene,” is the same theme used in a few years later in the 1946 thriller The Dark Corner (which I must blog about sometime, as it’s one of my faves; but again, I digress...).  When Jill brings Frankie home to show him an incriminating letter, listen carefully: in the background, “Over the Rainbow” and “Manhattan Street Scene” cross-pollinate into a sinister new theme, courtesy of music arranger Cyril Mockridge.

Ironically, although Mature and Joslyn each have scenes where they awaken with a start, nobody in I Wake up Screaming ever actually wakes up screaming!  How can you wake up to find a huge, imposing cop like Cregar’s Cornell staring at you and not scream?  And hey, if you’re a completist like I am, you might want to check out the 1953 remake, Vicki, though it struck me as a pale imitation. Here’s a link to my IMDb review, if you’re interested:

Also, dig this deleted scene with Betty Grable warbling “Daddy,” pre-Tex Avery!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hollywood Haiku Writing Competition for Fun and Prizes!

Do you love contests? Sure, we all do! J My fellow classic movie bloggers Clara from Via Margutta 51 and Becky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food brought the U.K.-based Hollywood Haiku contest to my attention. Try your luck at a movie-based haiku and maybe win cool prizes and/or bragging rights, as described below!  You must submit your haikus by Friday, May 20th, 2011! 

As they explain on the Hollywood Haiku Web site at

Enter your Hollywood Haiku and win a Blu-Ray Player and links to your blog!

The concept is pretty simple: rather than write hundreds of bloody words describing, assessing and ultimately judging a film, we want you to pour all of your analytical juices into a lovely haiku (ie, 3 lines: 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables – we know that’s not technically how it works, but let’s not get snarky, eh?) The best one will win a brand new Blu-ray player worth £140, and pride of place on Best For Film! See below for prizes.

“Some examples DAMMIT”, we hear you demand like a pack of rabid, poetry-loving apes. Here you go then…

Just goes to show you
Never throw out old carpets
and keep your lamps buff

Okay, TotED Followers, you get the idea! Good luck, everyone!

On behalf of Team Bartilucci, I'm tossing my hat into the ring, too. Here's my Hollywood Haiku:

Sunset Boulevard

I'm still a big star
It's the pictures that got small
Face-down in the pool
This is an entry for the Best For Film Hollywood Haikus blogging competition. Enter now.

How to submit your Hollywood Haiku to our writing competition

Closing date for entries: 20 May 2011
1. Review the film of your choice in the form of a haiku (3 lines: 5-7-5 syllables). Don’t forget to state which film your Hollywood Haiku relates to.
2. Post your Hollywood Haiku on your blog. You can enter as many times as you like – but please make a new blog post for each haiku.
3. Include the following link under your haiku, copy and pasting the yellow text below:
4. Email the url of your blog’s haiku entry to Put HAIKU in the subject header of the email. In the body of your email, include your entry’s url, and the description of your blog you’d like us to use if you win.

Friday, April 22, 2011

DEAD RECKONING: “If You’re Looking for Easter Bunnies, You’re a Day Early”

Many people celebrate Easter with colorful eggs; candy; church; bonnets and similar festive finery; a nice dinner with (or even without) their family; and Easter-oriented TV shows and films. Team Bartilucci’s celebration also includes watching the 1947 Humphrey Bogart film noir Dead Reckoning (DR). After all, DR takes place during Easter weekend, hence the subtitle above! If Bogart had ever opted to film one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer thrillers, it would have turned out like DR. Although director John Cromwell (the 1934 version Of Human Bondage; Anna and the King of Siam; the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda; Caged, among others) didn't actually base DR on a book, this tautly-directed suspenser owes more than a little of its plotting and characterization to earlier classic crime novels-turned-classic Bogart movies. Indeed, when Vinnie entered the room the first time I watched DR on TCM, he began watching it with me and soon asked, “Is this The Big Sleep, or The Maltese Falcon?” However, DR is steeped in the kind of bitter post-war viciousness that distinguished Spillane’s writing — not that there’s anything wrong with that! 

When "Geronimo" leaves a message, Rip jumps!
Bogart commands the screen as Warren “Rip” Murdock, a former Army paratrooper (lots of colorful references to parachutes and jumping here) and one of the most misogynistic good guys Bogart ever played. Who can blame Rip, after the wringer he’s put through in this film? Captain Rip tries to find out why his Sergeant and best pal Johnny Drake (William Prince from Destination Tokyo; the Oscar-winning 1950 Jose Ferrer version of Cyrano de Bergerac, playing Christian; Cinderella Jones; and regular roles on TV soap operas such as The Edge of Night, Search for Tomorrow, and Another World) happens to have a Yale pin with the name “John Joseph Preston” on it, and more importantly, why Johnny bolts rather than accept the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime heroism, to his peril. It turns out Johnny had been accused of murder before he hightailed it out of town and enlisted under an alias. Johnny’s trail ends in a fatal car crash, but Rip’s trail of vengeance has just begun. Indeed, Johnny’s ultimate fate haunts the film like a ghost, and Bogart’s performance is both rugged and poignant as he turns amateur detective in order to make sure his friend is posthumously cleared and the real killer nailed.  Rip’s investigation leads him to Gulf City, Tropical Paradise of the South. Don’t take my word for it, check out the neon sign in the upper right-hand corner of the screen in the opening establishing shot! Soon Rip is sucked into a whirlpool of murder, Mickey Finns disguised as Ramos Gin Fizzes, flashbacks, secrets, mysterious codes, double-crossing, and such inventive mayhem as tossing “creeping jelly” grenades (a German precursor to napalm) at sinister smoothie Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky, Yiddish theater stalwart and blacklist victim) and his music-loving psycho henchman Krause (Marvin Miller from the 1950s TV series The Millionaire, as well as the voice of Filmation’s Aquaman) to make them talk.

A Ramos Gin Fizz! You are getting thirsty....
and sleepy the way they make 'em for Rip
at the Sanctuary Club!

"Keep watching the skies, Mike!"
Standing in for quintessential Bogart leading lady Lauren Bacall — and original leading lady Rita Hayworth, who got hung up making The Lady from Shanghai with then-hubby Orson Welles — is Lizabeth Scott as Johnny’s sweetheart, Coral Chandler, who has an air of jasmine and mystery about her. To paraphrase Double Indemnity, how was Rip to know murder could smell like jasmine? It’s soon apparent that Coral knows more about Johnny’s fate than she’s telling. She’s the kind of dame that guys go gaga for against their better judgment. This sultry chanteuse (singing dubbed by Trudy Stevens) has so many pet names from her various beaus that the first time I saw DR, I wasn’t quite sure whether her name was “Coral,” “Dusty,” or of all things, “Mike” (after Mr. Hammer, perhaps?)! Don’t get me wrong, Lizabeth Scott fans, I like her, but I’m afraid that to my ears, her husky voice always sounds more phlegmy than sexy. Every time Scott speaks, I half-expect someone to offer her a cough drop! But although Scott is no Bacall (who among us is?), she’s nevertheless chock full of luminous blonde beauty, plus she has an enchanting smile and an air of wounded vulnerability that makes me empathize with her in spite of myself.

Call McGee for all your napalm needs!
Perhaps because five writers worked on the script, including Steve Fisher of I Wake Up Screaming fame, DR is filled to the brim with memorable dialogue — and is often deliriously, gloriously nutzoid. For instance, Bogart’s speech to Scott early on about how men should be able to reduce women to pocket-size when necessary, and Scott’s interpretation of this theory, must be heard to be believed ( But when DR works, it’s dynamite — literally, when Rip and the lovely “Mike” join forces with safecracker and explosives expert McGee, played by scene-stealing Wallace Ford (Freaks; All Through the Night; Spellbound; Crack-Up, and more)! Even when the situation gets ugly, this movie is always gorgeous to look at, thanks to the stunning use of shadows and light in Leo Tover’s black-and-white photography. Also, keep your eyes peeled for two brief but memorable uncredited performances: grown-up Matthew “Stymie” Beard of The Little Rascals fame as a bellboy stiffed out of a tip by cheapskate cop Charles Cane; and Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy’s mom, as Coral’s lovable maid Mabel! If you love Bogart and you like your film noir grim yet glamorous and over-the-top at times, DR is well worth a look, so break out the night-blooming jasmine, grab a tall, cool Ramos Gin Fizz (hold the knockout drops, please) and enjoy!

They drive by night! Guess the convertible top's on the fritz again!


Friday, April 15, 2011

DRESSED TO KILL: It's Delightful, It's Demented, It's DePalma!

DANGER! You have entered The House Where Spoilers Dwell!

Before I talk about this week’s movie, Dressed to Kill (1980), please allow me to share the story of my one-scene stand with writer/director/producer Brian DePalma and a guy named Joe during a press junket for a different DePalma movie.
Yes, you read that right! It was 1984, and I was a Junior earning my B.A. in Communications at Fordham University. I wrote for the more freewheeling of the school’s two newspapers—titled the paper, appropriately enough. So I was invited, along with my fellow college film critics, to attend a press screening of DePalma’s upcoming thriller Body Double at Columbia Pictures’ Manhattan headquarters. Before and after the screening, I’d been chatting pleasantly about movies and such with a young fella we’ll call “Joe.” After the screening, DePalma was peppered with questions. One guy was particularly eager to learn more about the filming of the super-hot, marvelously over-the-top make-out-verging-on-sex scene on the beach between stars Craig Wasson and Deborah Shelton, a sexy homage to Vertigo with the camera swooning and swooping around the couple. (Ironically, both actors were dressed.)

DePalma said he’d be glad to demonstrate how he’d done it, if he could have a male and female volunteer from the audience. Just for fun, Joe and I volunteered. We figured DePalma would just walk around us and discuss the blocking of the scene and such. To our surprise, DePalma said, “Okay, start kissing.” We thought he was kidding, but no, our fearless director said, “Okay, roll ’em. Put your arms around her….” Honest to God, there we were, two college writers who barely knew each other, kissing and moaning and manhandling each other just like in the movie scene, while DePalma simultaneously directed us and explained the anatomy of the scene to the audience. I can’t speak for Joe, but I must blushingly admit I was so caught up in our hot love scene, I barely heard a word DePalma said! I guess Joe and I displayed natural chemistry together, because DePalma seemed quite pleased and our audience was
clearly enjoying themselves, too. We each had a honey at the time, so nothing else came of our little one-scene stand, but I won’t lie to you: it was lots of fun. I’m glad we didn’t have to undress, though!
Yikes! Is Liz seeing a body double?

The more sensitive moviegoers among us have often accused DePalma of exploiting women; shamelessly manipulating audiences (but isn’t that part of a director’s job?); and ripping off classic directors, especially Alfred Hitchcock (for plots and camerawork) and Dario Argento (for stylish giallo-style bloodletting). But just like Hitchcock had been at the peak of his powers during the 1950s, DePalma was
similarly riding high from the 1970s through the ’90s, giving thriller-lovers the ride of their lives. Since he began making movies in the 1960s, DePalma has embraced many genres, including offbeat comedies; horror; gritty crime dramas (including Scarface and The Untouchables, both stylish and suspenseful remakes); war dramas, and even science fiction. But DePalma was best known to movie buffs of my generation as our Master of the Macabre. Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976), Carrie (1976), and The Fury (1978) were fine warm-ups, but I’ve always felt that it was DePalma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill (DtK) that really put him on the map and set his style in stone. 

*YIKES!*  Er, sorry, lady, wrong floor, gotta run!"
DtK was the first R-rated, “mature”-themed film that my friends and I were truly eager to see. Controversy, sex, transvestites, gore, naughty words—and nobody was more eager to see it than us Catholic high school girls! But for the first month of DtK's run, every showing was sold out all day, every day, whether we tried to see it in our Bronx neighborhood or midtown Manhattan. Every theater had lines around the block, brimming with people waiting to get into the next show in the days before Moviefone or Fandango. Undaunted, my best high school bud Cris Yablonsky and I braved a still-long line at the Beekman Theatre on a weekday (the film came out in July, so we weren’t skipping classes). At last, we reached the box office, money in hand—only to have the ticket-seller peer at 16-year-old Cris and 17-year-old-but-younger-looking me, muttering, “Youse kids’re too young to get in widdout a parent or guardian.”  Our pleas to the contrary fell on deaf ears, and we stomped up Second Avenue, ranting about the unfairness of it all in language that made DtK's  salty dialogue sound like a lecture from our Religion class! Eventually my older brother Peter took me to see DtK. I was wowed, even if I did end up watching the scarier, gorier scenes between my fingers! 

"Whadda ya wanna do tonight, Liz?"
"I dunno, Peter, whadda you wanna do tonight?"
At 17, I thought DtK was the height of sophisticated suspense, with its elegant New York City locations, Ralf Bode's dreamlike cinematography, frank-for-1980 sexual shenanigans, and its air of playful luridness, accompanied perfectly by Pino Donaggio’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score, complete with shrieking violins as needed. When reviewers described DtK as a sexier, bloodier remake of Psycho, I eagerly sought out Hitchcock’s classic. I loved it as much as DtK, though I’ll admit I found Hitchcock’s brooding atmosphere and gradual menace just as mesmerizing as DePalma’s visual pyrotechnics and gore. Both DVDs are sitting together in our home video library, of course!  A movie ticket to DtK was a passport to The Wild World of Brian DePalma. We put logic aside and enjoyed the Hitchcock-Meets-Argento ride. In the context of DePalma’s fictional universe, the plot plays less preposterous than it sounds on paper. We start with the first of DtK’s bevy of beautiful neo-Hitchcockian New York blondes, Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson). Lonely, sexually frustrated Kate hooks up with a handsome stranger (played by Ken Baker, whose two-tone shoes would have done Bruno Anthony proud) after a sexy cat-and-mouse pursuit in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the interiors were actually filmed at The Philadelphia Museum of Art). A passionate time is had by both until Kate discovers Health Department paperwork revealing that her handsome stranger has an STD—the gift that keeps on giving! But Kate won’t have to worry about fessing up to hubby; on her nervous way out of the STD stud’s apartment house, poor Kate is brutally murdered in the elevator by a tall blonde woman wearing sunglasses and wielding a mean straight razor. (Love that cute yet unnerving kid in the elevator!) Ever notice how these kind of controversial thrillers, with their oh-so-modern mores, use the most old-fashioned murder weapons? DtK had its straight razor, Basic Instinct had its ice pick, and so on.

With DtK’s Janet Leigh manqué dead, the leading-lady crown is passed to high-class blonde call girl/stock-market whiz Liz Blake (Carrie’s Nancy Allen—Mrs. DePalma at the time). Liz witnesses the murder as she leaves a “date” she had in the building. Police Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) growls, “What kind of building is this? Everybody’s gettin’ laid after lunch?” (Is that an asset or a liability to the local housing market?) Like so many thriller protagonists, Liz just had to pick up the straight razor and get her fingerprints all over it!  Since no one else saw the real killer, Marino tells Liz she’s the most likely suspect. Marino also grills Kate’s psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who pleads patient confidentiality. “Mrs. Miller is beyond the point of bein’ embarrassed by anything you might have to tell me,” snaps Marino.  Dr. Elliott knows the truth: the killer is one of his patients, Bobbie, a transvestite who leaves threatening messages on Dr. Elliott’s answering machine (played by the voice of Phantom of the Paradise’s William Finley), sneering that he killed Kate to take revenge on Elliott for nixing his sex-change operation (or gender reassignment surgery, as we say here in the 21st century). Having made eye contact with Liz at the murder scene, Bobbie’s got her on his hit list.

Luckily, Kate's teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon, on whom I had a crush at the time; now he's a film director himself with films like A Midnight Clear and the film version of The Singing Detective), has been playing amateur detective with various DIY gadgets his electronics-whiz brain has cooked up, including hidden mics and cameras and homemade mace with which he saves Liz on the subway after she’s trapped by both Bobbie and a street gang. Grateful Liz and vengeful Peter team up to smoke out Kate’s killer. Their only weapons are Peter’s inventions and Liz’s, um, feminine wiles. She strips to black undies and lacy garters, talking dirty in a nighttime therapy session with Dr. Elliott in order to distract/seduce him long enough for her to find his patient records and get the suspected killer's name. Nancy Drew was never like this!
But, surprise—Dr. Elliott himself is Mrs. Bates, er, Bobbie!  NYPD officer Betty Luce (Susanna Clemm), whom Liz thought was Bobbie when she spotted Luce tailing her just before the subway scene, shoots Dr. Elliott in the neck before he can murder Liz, and he’s off to Bellevue. The Psycho motif comes full circle as kindly Dr. Levy (David Margulies) explains to Liz, Marino, and Luce that Elliott was a dual personality, with Bobbie going homicidal whenever Elliott became “masculinely sexual,” like when he was attracted to Kate and Liz. But the end of DtK is more DePalma than Hitchcock or Argento, starting with a hilarious scene at Windows on the World, where Liz cheerfully explains the fine art of gender reassignment surgery while a horrified lady lunching at the next table overhears them.  (This scene usually suffers in TV’s “pan-and-scan” version—like cutting out all the gore and sex wasn’t enough!)  The film ends with a “The nightmare’s not over!” set piece involving the most surreal view of Bellevue you’ll ever see; a sexy nurse; and Elliott on the loose to menace poor Liz as she tries to unwind in Peter's shower.  Don’t worry, Liz is just having a bad dream after her nerve-shattering experience.  Luckily, the caring Peter is there to comfort her just before the end credits.  *Whew!* Any questions?

The passing years have made DePalma's once-controversial attitudes towards women and sex, at least as portrayed in DtK and his other thrillers, seem almost naïve at best, and sometimes nastily sexist at worst. Much as I enjoyed Nancy Allen and Keith Gordon in the movie, can you really see lovable nerd Peter ending up with sexy, worldly call girl Liz in the real world?  Granted, opposites reportedly attract! Having said that, as a filmmaker, DePalma knows his craft, having learned it from the masters, making his work seem like homages rather than rip-offs.  In DtK, his lush visual style is aided and abetted by Ralf Bode’s gorgeous cinematography.  DePalma has a terrific eye for composition, making effective use of screen tricks such as split screens and 360-degree shots, conveying lots of info in each shot.  For instance, pay close attention to the scene where Angie Dickinson steps out onto the Met’s steps and sees her handsome stranger proffering her lost glove from the cab’s window. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss Caine as Bobbie during the camera’s glide from Dickinson to the taxi!  DePalma plays with the audience’s emotions like a master puppeteer; he knows how to time events and effects for maximum suspense. Moreover, DtK successfully combines laughs and scares, especially when it comes to urban terrors like subway thugs.  (Ironically, one of the actors who plays one of the thugs who chase Nancy Allen in the subway scene was later arrested for assault in real life.)

DePalma’s directorial style strikes a fine balance with the actors’ genuine warmth and spunk. As Dr. Elliott, Michael Caine comes off as urbane yet concerned about Kate and his other patients, at least until we see his true colors. (And Caine looks surprisingly convincing in drag, too, though I understand body doubles were sometimes used as well.)  As Kate Miller, Angie Dickinson makes your heart go out to her, with her gentle voice, sad brown eyes, and wistful, hopeful smile.  When Dickinson sets out for a sexual adventure, she seems like a lonely soul looking for love and affirmation, not some bold hussy. When she’s brutally murdered, you feel terribly sorry for her and furious at the bastard who’d do this to such a sweet lady. In their only scene together, Dickinson and Gordon project real warmth and caring about each other.  You can believe this kid loved his mom, in a healthy way (something you sure didn’t see in Psycho!), enough to want to nab her killer himself. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from Diva (1981), the role of hard-bitten call girl Liz Blake suits apple-cheeked girl-next-door Nancy Allen so badly that it suits her very well!  If DePalma was counting on his then-wife’s wholesome aura (Allen is one of the few people who can make the foulest swear words sound cuddly) to make her raunchy character appealing, he was right on the money. I really liked the gentle tenderness that grows between Allen and Gordon; it makes their characters’ unlikely relationship more believable in spite of itself.  I also found it endearing that with everyone else in the film, Allen’s Liz wears either slutwear or elegant yet sensual dressy outfits, but with Gordon’s Peter (Peter & Gordon!), she wears demure sweater-and-skirt ensembles, T-shirts (not tight ones, either) and jeans, and flannel pajamas.  Even her hairstyle looks more wholesome in her scenes with Peter!  Finally, let’s not forget Dennis Franz, who steals every scene he’s in as polyester-and-vinyl-clad, crude, no-bullshit New York cop Marino. Franz was so good in this role, he’s been pretty much playing it ever since:  After teaming up with DePalma and Allen again as a sleazy photographer in Blow-Out (1981), Franz went on to greater fame playing crude but essentially likable cops on TV, most notably on Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.  Vinnie and I love Franz’s sarcastic way of expressing himself; it’s as if he’s mentally making quotation marks with his fingers.

Unlike his beloved Hitchcock, who let his blonde heroines smolder from within, DePalma puts his female characters’ sexuality right out front and center where moviegoers could see it!  Every woman in DtK but Angie Dickinson seems to have super-glossy fire-engine-red lips, making them look, depending on your mood, either sexy in a trashy way, or as if they’d just bitten someone and drawn blood.  And wouldn’t you know they all have sexy underwear! How come we never see the guys’ underwear?

Finally, I just couldn’t wrap up this look back at DtK without mentioning something that I, as a native New Yorker, always get a huge kick out of. Filmmakers often play fast and loose with a major city’s geography so as to be able to use its more picturesque sites for key scenes.  DePalma is no exception.  Angie Dickinson’s museum scene, the interiors and paintings,  actually belong to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but when Ms. Dickinson goes outdoors, she’s definitely on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vinnie and I always joke that she gave that handsome stranger one hell of a merry chase!
"Didja hear the one about the
Hitchcockian Blonde? This'll kill ya...."
So does DePalma with DtK — a merry, mad chase through cinematic plot devices old and new.  Whether you enjoy the film for what it is or squawk about its cheerfully “politically incorrect” mindset, you sure as hell won’t be bored!  I guess that’s why it’s stayed with me when so many more “respected” films haven’t.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 comedy The Trouble with Harry (TTwH) truly lived up to the movie poster’s assessment: “The Unexpected from Hitchcock!” The novel was based on British pulp writer Jack Trevor Story’s 1949 novel, but Hitchcock transplanted the action to a picturesque Vermont hamlet in autumn, full of likable eccentrics who find themselves playing hide-and-seek with titular corpse Harry Worp (the uncredited Philip Truex). Instead of the sleek, sinister suspense that was Hitchcock’s trademark, TTwH is more like an Ealing comedy with a gleefully puckish sense of gallows humor. Vinnie and I have always enjoyed well-played comedy with a slow fuse, so TTwH endeared itself to us right away. No wonder Hitchcock showed TTwH to the writers on his long-running TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; what better way to show the writers exactly what Hitch wanted from them? Even though TTwH wasn’t a box office hit during its original U.S. theatrical release, it was a smash in France for a record-breaking 18 months, and much like Hitchcock’s 1958 spellbinder Vertigo, TTwH finally has the acclaim it always deserved!
Renowned illustrator Saul Steinberg's slyly funny opening credits sequence sets exactly the right tone. Cute little tyke Arnie Rogers (Jerry Mathers, pre-Leave It to Beaver) is the first to find Harry. The kid’s just minding his own business, dashing around the countryside with his toy space gun and his own scrambled way of telling time, when he hears the sound of gunshots and a man’s angry voice yelling, “Okay, I know how to handle your type!” Soon there’s a *thud,* and before Arnie can say, “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” (no, smarty, not Pennsylvania’s governor!), the lad discovers Harry lying supine in a clearing. I love how Arnie innocently stands over Harry’s corpse in a way that looks like they’re sharing the same body. Nobody points fingers at Arnie (what do you think this is, The Bad Seed?), but many of the townspeople seem to have potentially murderous motives. There’s Captain Wiles (appealingly played by that Oscar-winning Kris Kringle himself, veteran Hitchcock supporting actor Edmund Gwenn), who was out hunting and fears he accidentally bagged Harry instead of wild game. But the game gets plenty wild soon enough, in its own droll, understated yet cheeky way. Could that have been Harry’s angry voice threatening one of the other townsfolk, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick, one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite character actresses)? A gentle lady of a certain age, Miss Gravely admits that the then-alive Harry had “annoyed” and attacked her for no apparent reason; did her sensible hiking shoes multitask as murder weapons? If so, Harry’s outburst might have been a case of mistaken identity (after all, this is a Hitchcock movie, “unexpected” or not!). 

I wouldn't want to be in Arnie's shoes -- or Harry's!
Apparently Harry was really looking for Arnie’s pretty young mom, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine, making her film debut fresh from the Broadway hit The Pajama Game), who happens to be Harry’s estranged wife. Arnie was the son of Jennifer’s late husband Robert, Harry’s brother. Jennifer had truly loved the late Robert, but Harry, not so much. Still, Harry was all set to marry her just to be noble, so Arnie would be a little dickens and not a little bastard. Alas, Harry ducked out on Jennifer on their wedding night, citing a horoscope warning: “Don’t start any new projects…They could never be finished.” After all that, I don’t blame Jennifer for “knock(ing Harry) silly” with the nearest milk bottle once he finally showed up out of the blue to reboot the loveless marriage. Well, good riddance—any man who’d abandon a sweet dish like Jennifer on account of some silly horoscope prediction doesn’t deserve her, especially considering she’d gone to great pains to show off her nightie to its best advantage! Just as well, since Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) is developing a case on our Jen. No, not that kind of case! Although Sam’s name evokes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (as well as being the name of the protagonist of Andrew J. Fenady’s 1980 comedy-mystery The Man With Bogart’s Face…but I digress), Sam isn’t a detective; he’s a handsome abstract painter who takes wry amusement in helping his friends scramble around alternately burying and exhuming Harry’s corpse as needed.

Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s subtle humor steadily tickles our collective funny bone throughout the film, while good-natured eccentricity abounds and romance blossoms for young and old as Harry goes from dust to dust. Much as I adored MacLaine and Forsythe as the younger romantic leads, I’d go so far as to say that TTwH’s most charming and satisfying romance belongs to Gwenn and Natwick! The dry-humored Mrs. Wiggs, a.k.a. “Wiggy” (Mildred Dunnock of Death of a Salesman fame), postmistress and proprietor of the Wiggs Emporium general store, teams up with Sam to give Miss Gravely a makeover that’ll “take ten years off your birth certificate.” (What would What Not To Wear’s Stacy and Clinton think?
) Now if only Sam would stand still long enough for that New York millionaire (Parker Fennelly, from Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” radio troupe) to buy his paintings, maybe both he and the preternaturally patient Wiggy could make a few bucks!

Harry may be dead, but there’s plenty of life in the characters around him. The denizens of the hamlet treat Harry’s corpse like a whimsical prop, tripping over him (Dwight Marfield cracks me up as absentminded Dr. Greenbow, who I suspect would be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome today), swiping his shoes, making dates over his corpus delicti—if they’d had WiFi back then, no doubt some enterprising jasper would have built a Starbucks around Harry! As the befuddled Captain Wiles mutters at one point, “Couldn’t have had more people here if I’d sold tickets.” How’s that for recycling?
  Harry’s done the hard part by dropping dead—the real challenge is not only putting him six feet under, but keeping him there! Good thing the action took place in the cool fall instead of Indian Summer, otherwise our heroes wouldn’t be able to keep Harry’s death a secret for long, especially with wary Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) making like a bloodhound! I love Jennifer’s wry take on the “paranoia explanation,” too, but that’s a blog post for another time.

Hitchcock teamed up again with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who also did the honors for Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), and the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock’s trusty Director of Photography Robert Burks captured the beauty of the location’s autumn colors brilliantly. I’ve always liked the irony of the leaves being at their most colorful during a season in which the plants are in fact dying. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock had been thinking along those lines, too, scamp that he was! Even the costume designs by the ever-wonderful Edith Head all have fall colors or earth tones to some degree.

The TTwH ensemble cast is spot-on, working beautifully together. That said, I’ll admit that when I first saw the film in the now-defunct D.W. Griffith Theater in New York City during my college days, my reaction to Forsythe reminded me of a line from Diva (1981): the role suited him so badly that it suited him very well. But Forsythe’s performance has grown on me over the years, and anyway, I’ve always liked his piquant chemistry with MacLaine. By the way, before MacLaine was cast, Hitchcock’s first choice was Grace Kelly (who’s surprised? Anybody? Anybody?), but she wasn’t available. Besides, in my opinion, much as I like Kelly, I think maybe she was a bit too regal for the wholesome yet quirky Jennifer.  Hitchcock also briefly considered Brigitte Auber from To Catch A Thief, but decided Auber’s strong French accent would be too distracting for what had become a very American story. As fans of Raymond Scott’s music, Vinnie and I loved the song “Flaggin’ the Train from Tuscaloosa,” with Scott’s music and Mack David’s lyrics. TTwH was the first score that Bernard Herrmann had ever composed for a Hitchcock film! Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on 8 more scores, including my favorite, North by Northwest, until their unfortunate falling-out during the making of Torn Curtain in 1966. Herrmann’s score was replaced with John Addison’s, although the unused Torn Curtain score is available on for completists (like me!).
It sure socks to be Harry!

Friday, April 1, 2011


This week, my husband Vinnie and I are again putting on our Team Bartilucci caps—and Hazmat suits, because our currently topical topic is disaster films: why people like them (or don’t), and our own particular favorites. Let’s start with a Vin’s-eye-view:

After the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan, well-meaning busybody Graeme McMillan wrote a piece for Spinoff Online which basically asked Hollywood to stop making disaster movies. His argument was that since we have had so many REAL disasters, disaster movies are insensitive to people who have lived through them.  Happily, the replies (mine and The Wife’s included) skewed more to the “Get off your high-horse, you politically-correct crybaby” variety.

Disaster stories are a staple of entertainment.  The Bible is rife with them—The Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, not to mention the entire book of Revelations.  People love seeing and reading about shit blowing up real good.  Real disasters do not reduce that interest.  Some disaster films are pure fantasy, like the endless alien invasion films, one of which will be dissected below.  Others are intended to be “warning” films, attempting to alert people as to what might happen if we “go too far”; examples include The Day After Tomorrow, a film that far too many people think is a documentary.  Another category is a more direct exploitative variety of the second, using some topical event as the catalyst for the chaos that is to follow.  Day of the Animals is a film about beasts of the field run amok, caused by a patch of the ozone layer breaking loose and falling to Earth, driving the poor little four-leggers mad.  Quite often, disaster films are allegorical; Godzilla was a physical manifestation of the danger of “atomic” power, as were so many giant animal films of the 1950s. 

We’ll never see the end of disaster films, and that’s a great thing.  So this time around, we’re taking a look at the (usually destroyed) world of the Disaster Film.  Dori, it’s your turn!

Dorian’s Disaster Flick Pick: Independence Day (1996)

1996 was a banner year for us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. First, I had just begun my third trimester of being big with child, an exciting and nerve-wracking time in itself. Siobhan, our literally bouncing baby girl (we went to see the percussion-heavy Off-Broadway show Stomp, you see. No, really!) was finally born on October 30th, and bless her, she still hasn’t stopped bouncing! The second bit of excitement that summer was the release of Independence Day (ID4, as it was dubbed in the movie posters). A far more exciting follow-up to Stargate, the 1994 SF collaboration between director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin, ID4 was an uber-blockbuster, the cinematic rollercoaster ride of the summer of ’96, eventually pulling in a cool $817,400,891 worldwide. This rock’em-sock’em science-fiction action-adventure further confirmed the stardom of both Will Smith, then best known and loved as a popular rapper and the star of TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Jeff Goldblum, the endearingly quirky character actor who’d stolen the show in Jurassic Park (1993) and had been one of Team Bartilucci’s longtime faves ever since he’d co-starred with Ben Vereen in 1980’s playful but unfairly short-lived private eye TV series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. Frankly, Goldblum was my first teenage celebrity crush (not to be confused with my childhood crush on Danny Kaye). Admittedly, I’ve always gone for the so-called offbeat types, including my own dear hubby…but I digress! J 

An eye-popping, nerve-wracking rendition of the classic trope “Alien Invaders Try to Take Over Earth and Drain our Natural Resources Dry Before We Humans Beat Them To It,” ID4 was like an Irwin Allen disaster movie updated for the 1990s. Oh yes, I absolutely meant that as a compliment!  ID4 grabs the audience and runs with it, supplying warmth and human interest in addition to the action, suspense, and cool F/X, even when the action reaches “Oh, come on!” levels. For example, Vivica A. Fox as Smith’s sweetie Jasmine, the world’s most wholesome stripper, saves her kid and their dog just in time to avoid alien annihilation. But hey, with a flick like ID4, that’s part of the fun; it’s a thrill ride, not a documentary!  That said, I’ll admit the New York City scenes and its shots of the World Trade Center, have become doubly poignant since 9/11, especially for those of us who are native New Yorkers. 

As Captain Steve Hiller and science whiz David Levinson, Smith and Goldblum end up as a fine buddy team, and the other actors in the large ensemble cast are impressive, too, including Bill Pullman as the beleaguered President Whitmore; Mary McDonnell as his endangered First Lady; Brent Spiner as the wild-eyed but well-meaning chief scientist in the fabled Area 51; Randy Quaid as the drunken pilot who’s seen the aliens and gets his shot at redemption;  Harvey Fierstein as David’s panicky boss; Margaret Colin as David’s ex-wife, who’s also President Whitmore’s most trusted advisor; and my favorite, Judd Hirsch’s underrated seriocomic performance as David’s elderly dad. When ID4 first hit theaters, it seemed like our family and Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum were the only people who didn’t take offense at the portrayal of the unabashedly Jewish senior Levinson and his Bronx-by-way-of Omsk accent. (Fun Fact: According to the IMDb, Goldblum and Hirsch improvised quite a bit of their dialogue.) Come to the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where our family lived for many years, and to this day you’ll still find plenty of old Jewish guys like Hirsch’s character hanging around the neighborhood schmoozing with each other!

Vinnie’s Disaster Flick Pick: Crack in the World (1965)

Recently, a news item appeared about a scientist’s plan to drill down to the mantle of the Earth to get unpolluted samples of magma and other scientific discoveries.  As most of my thought processes are directly connected to films and TV shows I saw as a child, my first thought was “Oh, geez, we’re gonna have a Crack in the World scenario.” 

Crack in the World (CinW) was a classic “Science Gone Wrong” movie.  The idea was to drill to the mantle and use its incredible energy as a heat source for generating electrical power, as well as gaining access to already-melted minerals and ores.  And it was going well, until Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews, alumnus of too many sci-fi films to count) planned to use a A-Bomb to burn through the last layer of the crust.  Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) disagrees, claiming it will cause the crust to fissure.

Wanna guess whose theory holds?

The titular crack appears, ripping across the surface of the Earth like a run in a fat chick’s nylons.  They attempt to stop it in its tracks by setting off (now get this) ANOTHER A-Bomb, in the hope of creating a sort of firebreak.  It fails spectacularly, and now there’s TWO cracks, cutting a big divot out of the planet which, if Sorenson is right, will cause a massive chunk of the planet to pop off like a bottlecap, releasing the pressure.

Sure, NOW he gets it right...

Despite an ending that will deplete your suspension of disbelief for three days, the science and terminology of the film is fairly well-grounded.  The concepts sound plausible enough to keep your OH-COME-ON buzzers from going off; indeed, they go to such lengths to explain the science and their plans, the film drags a bit at times.  The special effects are well done for the time, a combination of on-set work, miniatures and some pretty solid animation as the crack rips across the firmament.  Kieron Moore works better as a romantic lead than a scientist — he’s got a body that seems genetically bred to stand on an outcropping, arms akimbo, wearing a jaunty come-hither smile.  Andrews does well as the guy who knows he’s screwed the pooch, and is doing everything in his power to fix it, before his own personal issues (he’s dying of an undisclosed cancer-like movie disease) catch up with him. 

As opposed to most “End of the World” films, they don’t fix the problem.  The two cracks meet, back at the science lab that spawned them of course, the geographic trepanation flies into space, forming a second moon, and the planet has a massive wound, the mantle exposed, with presumably trillions of gallons of seawater pouring into it.  But because the romantic leads, Moore and Janette Scott (playing the far-younger wife of Dana Andrews), escape from the lab before it’s popped off into space, it’s viewed as a happy ending.  There they are, at the edge of the explosion, exposed to hellish temperatures and the shock wave of a portion of the planet being blown into the stratosphere, and they’re perfectly fine, save for an attractively torn shirt and dress and a bit of dirt on their faces.

Ah movies, where you can survive an atomic detonation by jumping into a ditch (or refrigerator), and radiation is only dangerous if you touch it. You don’t see that happen in too many of these types of films, you usually get that timer clicking down to one second and everybody getting saved.  When Worlds Collide is another example of that type of film; from square one, they know there’s no way to stop a fabulous evening’s apocalypse, so they spend the whole film simply trying to find a way off beforehand.  In both cases you’re spared having to think about the countless deaths caused by the events of the film, so long as the people you’ve been paying attention to are okay.

CitW is a solid film, just recently released on DVD and worth an evening’s viewing.