Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Three Faces of The Maltese Falcon, Part One: The Maltese Falcon, 1931

Hey, I didn’t see this at the Book of the Month Club!
One of my favorite Christmas presents I received from Vinnie is a gift that we both enjoy to this day:  the three-Disc Special Edition DVD set of The Maltese Falcon (TMF for short) I received from him last Christmas!  What a treasure trove!   It contains a stellar print of writer/director John Huston’s classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s seminal detective novel about cynical private detective Sam Spade’s adventures with the alluring bur treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, alias  Miss Wonderly, alias Miss Leblanc, and a bevy of greedy no-goodniks vying for the titular falcon statue.  But wait, there’s more: this set also includes the first two TMF adaptations, including the first two movie adaptations: an entertaining and informative documentary The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Bird; and oodles of fun extras, including Humphrey Bogart’s movie trailers, a “Night at the Movies” compilation, including newsreels, cartoons, trailers, the whole shebang; Warner Bros. movie blooper reels; and even an audio-only TMF radio adaptation starring  two of Team Bartilucci’s favorite actors: Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade, and Laird Cregar as Casper Gutman!

One Magnificent Bird is chock-full of info about both Hammett and the films—including the fact that the name “Dashiell” is apparently pronounced “Da-SHEEL, at least according to TCM’s beloved Robert Osborne.  I swear, ever since I became a Hammett fan back in my teens, I’d never heard the “Da-SHEEL” pronunciation   before.   Of course, I usually just read Hammett’s name, as opposed to hearing it said out loud, but the few times I did hear the name “Dashiell” pronounced, it was always as “DASH-ell.”  Go figure!  Nit-picks aside, all kind of fascinating folks with lore about Hammett’s life and the creation of his fiction are interviewed in One Magnificent Bird, including, among many others, Hammett‘s granddaughter Julie Rivett; writer/directors Larry Cohen and Peter Bogdanovich; Frank Miller; Henry Rollins; actors James Cromwell and Michael Madsen, presumably interviewed for the documentary because they’ve starred in such hard-boiled crime films as L.A. Confidential and Reservoir Dogs; Eric Lax, Humphrey Bogart’s biographer, who also provides an excellent commentary track for the superb 1941 TMF DVD; and Joe Gores, author of the mystery novel Hammett, filmed in 1982 by Wim Wenders, starring Frederic Forrest (The Conversation) in the title role; and Elisha Cook Jr—Wilmer Cook  in his final role as a cabbie!

Dr. Cairo is no match for our man Sam!
Think he makes house calls? 
In real life, the dark cloud of Hammett’s ill health ironically had the silver lining of turning Hammett into a renowned author.  A resident of San Francisco, Hammett had chronic pulmonary problems, forcing him to retire from his career as a Pinkerton detective, as well as forcing him to live apart from his daughters and his then-wife.  To fill his spare time, Hammett began writing stories and novels inspired by his Pinkerton experiences, including Red Harvest.  This was the uncredited inspiration for the Akira Kurosaka film Yojimbo, as well as being influenced over time by Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing and The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, who even has a character in the film who looks like Hammett!.  And of course, don’t forget Hammett’s great novels The Thin Man and The Glass Key, among many others, eventually being adapted for the movies!  In any event, when Hammett’s first novel was published, it was a best-seller, with Hammett being favorably compared to Ernest Hemingway’s work!

The first film version of The Maltese Falcon came out in 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth (Ziegfeld Follies; Born to Dance).  It was known variously as both The Maltese Falcon and Dangerous Female, but for convenience’s sake, let’s call this version Maltese 1.  This 1931 version was reviled by reviewers, but it was a big hit with moviegoers during those Pre-Code days!   Our private eye protagonist Sam Spade was played by Ricardo Cortez.  Born Jacob Kranz in Austria, Cortez came to Hollywood during Rudolph Valentino’s heyday, so the publicity machine turned him into a Latin lover type, albeit without the cliché Latin Lover accent.  Cortez’s films and TV appearances included films  I Am a Thief; Behind Office Doors; The House on 56th Street, among others).  Fun Fact:  Cortez’s brother Stanley Cortez was twice nominated for Oscars as Director of Photography, for The Magnificent Ambersons (1943) and Since You Went Away (1945), as well as an American Society of Cinematographers, USA Lifetime Achievement Award! Screenwriters don’t always agree with the original authors, and Hammett was no exception.  Still, like many writers, they were paid by the word, so they were quite at peace with padding the word-count when necessary.  Hey, writers have to eat, too!  So here’s Hammett’s description of Sam Spade, straight from Chapter 1 of The Maltese Falcon:

Sam sure knows how to reassure
a client, especially pretty ones! 
“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin jutting a v under the more flexible v of his mouth.  His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead.  He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.”

Sam doesn’t look much like Humphrey Bogart, does he?  For that matter, neither did Warren William’s character in the second film version, Satan Met A Lady (1936), but we’ll discuss him and that delightful underrated comedy (yes, a comedy!) in our next installment!   In any case, unlike Cortez or William, both of whom concentrate on the Lothario aspect of Spade’s personality, Bogart had Spade’s cynical, wily-yet-basically honorable attitude down perfectly—more about that when I discuss the 1941 version in depth in our upcoming big finale; but I digress!  In Maltese 1, Cortez is all smooth moves and toothy smiles, which he flashes even while he’s trying to speak!  By any chance, did Cortez have a contract with a big toothpaste company?

"Iva" idea Hot Toddy's too clingy for Sam’s liking!  
Anyway, Cortez’s Sam Spade may or may not always get his man, but he sure does get his women!   We first see Spade as a silhouette kissing and fondling a female silhouette behind his glass office door.  When Spade isn’t ravishing his female clients, he’s slyly making time on the side with his secretary, Effie Perine (a playful Una Merkel ); talk about perks in the office!  As if that wasn't enough office drama, Sam's partner's wife Iva (Thelma Todd—“Hot Toddy” herself, in happier times) is still crazy about Sam, but he's tired of the needy Iva getting all clingy on him all the time.  Clearly Sam isn't interested in wedding bells despite Iva's wishes, but no doubt Iva won’t let Sam go without a fight!  Ah, but there's nothing like a murdered partner to change things, and when your partner's bumped off, you're supposed to do something about it, so the sleuthing begins!  No doubt it's also partly because the Hays Office hadn’t completely succeeded in spoiling moviegoers’ naughty film fun!  When Spade isn’t ravishing his female clients, or Iva, or the mysterious Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels from 42nd Street),  he’s kissing office secretary Effie and who knows who else.  It’s a miracle Sam gets any work done at all, but it sure looks like fun.  Lucky for Sam, that little tease Effie likes it and the story’s set in 1931, or Spade would find himself slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit!

I’m always intrigued at the elaborate wording of the credits of films of this era, like “Screen Play and Dialogue by Maude Fulton & Brown Holmes.”  Don’t screenplays automatically have dialogue?  Holmes is also credited with the script for Satan Met a Lady (1936) which I also think of as Maltese 2, and which you'll see sometime next week.  Good thing the writers left the writing to John Huston for the classic 1941 version! Like many early talkies I’ve watched, I found Maltese 1 had a slow pace.  It’s only 78 minutes long, and yet to me, the time seems to crawl by for my 21st century attention span.  Having said that, I found the 100-minute Maltese 3 1941 version seemed to fly by because I was so caught up in the crackling intrigue and the dazzling performances.  Still, I’m impressed with how closely the 1941 version held, having me spellbound with suspense and snappy dialogue. 

Just how squeaky clean is Miss Wonderly? 
Sometimes it adhered a little bit too closely.  For instance, in the 1931 version of the film, Ruth Wonderly, as Brigid is named in this version, sleeps with Sam.  But while she sleeps, Sam stealthily ransacks the apartment for the Falcon, taking the joint apart in his search.  Yes, it’s true to the novel, but the plodding pace and static camerawork drains the scene of any suspense that this scene might have had; even Cortez seems bored.  By the way, all three versions leave out the scene from the novel with Gutman’s daughter waylaying Spade, as well as my own favorite bit, Sam’s Flitcraft story, but even I realize they’re not truly essential.  Besides, as I've said, I’ve always suspected that Hammett included the Flitcraft story simply to increase his paycheck, since he was being paid by the word.  Hey, Hammett had to eat, too! TCM’s Frank Miller says, “The Maltese Falcon earned solid reviews and did well at the box office, but its shelf life was limited.  Four years after its release, threats of national boycotts of ‘bad movies’ inspired the studios to accept strict Production Code enforcement  under the decidedly tough Joe Breen.”  And what a fascinating cast:  Dwight Frye as “gunsel” Wilmer Cook; Dudley Digges as a more slender, almost more comical Kasper Gutman.  Much of the dialogue in  Maltese 1, is devoted to plot exposition, as opposed to the classic 1941 version’s storytelling style: sleek, economical, more showing, less telling.  While John Huston was a master of dialogue, he also reminded us viewers that film is a visual medium.

Hold onto your hat, Wilmer, they’re selling you out!
Even the establishing shots of San Francisco somehow manage to be slow-paced; the legend “San Francisco”  lingers onscreen so long, I found myself thinking, “All right already, we know it’s San Francisco!”  It didn’t help that the music by the Vitaphone  Orchestra, conducted by the usually capable Leo G. Forbstein, sounded to me like an Italian concerto for hurdy-gurdy and violin; I half-expected a street musician  with a monkey to stroll onscreen.  But then, keep in mind that if I’d been alive in 1931, I’d think this was cutting-edge music, so feel free to take my comments with a hefty helping of salt!
As portrayed by Bebe Daniels (42nd Street), Ruth Wonderly came across to me as more like a miffed flapper than a beguiling, mercurial femme fatale.  Cortez utters the famous line to Daniels about “the throb you get in your voice…” when she begs for Sam’s help, but her so-called throb is barely perceptible.   Indeed, Sam cheerfully mocks Ruth like a he's teasing a bratty little sister; certainly no match for the palpable throb in our beloved Mary Astor’s voice in the 1941 masterpiece!

Joel Cairo gets upgraded to the Eurotrash Dr. Cairo, as played by Otto Matieson (Surrender!; Beau Ideal).  He’s not as memorably colorful as Peter Lorre in the 1941 version, but he’s still just as overdressed and exotic. Dr. Cairo also tends to inexplicably turn up out of nowhere in Sam’s  apartment when Lt. Dundy and Det. Sgt. Polhaus (played here by Robert Elliott and J. Farrell MacDonald) show up, which doesn’t work as well as the 1941 version with Sam, Dr. Cairo, and Ruth; somehow I simply didn’t feel any sense of urgency or suspense.  

Then there’s Dudley Digges as Caspar Gutman, the formidable “Fat Man.”  Digges tries hard, but he comes off as more of a slimmer, sweatier Falstaff than Sydney Greenstreet.  On the positive side, Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, adds another great supporting role to his repertoire as Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s gunsel in every sense of the term! 

Next time: The 3 Faces of The Maltese Falcon: Satan Met a Lady (1936)

Friday, December 6, 2013

North by Northwest: Mad Men and Englishmen

This post has been revamped and republished for the CMBA Blogathon: Film Passion 101, from December 1st through December 6th, 2013. Enjoy!

Danger: Beware of Spoilers!
For me, my fascination with Alfred Hitchcock first started with my sister having the flu.  My big brother let me stay up with him to watch Strangers on a Trainhalf of it anyway, once Mom put me back to bed.  But it was like a “gateway drug” for movie fans, and the biggest score of all was North by Northwest!  It all began when composer Bernard Herrmann (On Dangerous Ground; Vertigo; Psycho) introduced his friend, screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success; West Side Story; Sabrina), to director Alfred Hitchcock.  As Lehman explained, “I sat in my office, trying to construct a story which began at the United Nations…I said, ‘I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.  Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action, and lots of changes in locale…And that’s when I started writing.”  Well, Lehman did all that and then some, in my absolute favorite film of all time, which also happens to be my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film:  North by Northwest (1959).  When there weren’t enough Hitchcock movies available in theaters or on home video (remember Blockbuster and such?), I filled the gap as best I could with Stanley Donen’s own delightful comedy-thrillers: Charade; Arabesque; Mirage; and Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, also penned by Peter StoneSilver Streak was also a favorite of mine during its original theatrical run, when I was a fresh-faced lass of 13.  I was eager to see more of Hitchcock’s own films, but at that point in time, few if any of us Average Joes and Josies owned VHS players, and DVDs weren’t even a twinkle in technology’s eye yet. Therefore, if I wanted to watch honest-to-goodness classic Hitchcock movies, I had to wait for them to turn up on TV, often in the wee hours of the night , or sometimes I’d be lucky enough to find them playing at one of the many revival theaters operating in my hometown of New York City back then. 

Mr. Thornhill, your horoscope predicts
you'll have a most unusual day!
Believe it or not, I first saw the Hitchcock film destined to become my all-time favorite in a tiny movie theater in midtown Manhattan. Appropriately enough, it was called The Mini Cinema. As I recall, it was in a brownstone; I only remember maybe twenty seats in the screening room. I was there to see North by Northwest, having heard it was one of Hitchcock’s very best films. Well, they had me at Saul Bass’s sleek green skyscraper in the opening credits!  The print was excellent, and all of us in the audience were enthralled.  By the time the film ended and I emerged into the sunshine, I was in love. So a short time later, when my mom took my friends and me to see Silver Streak at East Tremont Avenue’s now-defunct Interboro Theatre — so named because it straddled the Bronx/Manhattan border — I was just film-savvy enough to pick up on Silver Streak’s tips-of-the-hat to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and of course, North by Northwest.

See no evil, drink no evil,  frown no evil!  
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers with Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder; Dial M for Murder; Rear Window; The Trouble with Harry (more renowned in France at the time); the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo (even if the latter wasn’t fully appreciated until years later). But North By Northwest was truly the jewel in Hitchcock’s crown at that time; heck, it’s still the champ as far as I’m concerned!  MGM originally wanted Hitchcock to film Hammond Innes’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare from a Lehman script, but both men soon realized they were far more interested in making North by Northwest.  Slyboots that Hitchcock was, he and Lehman devised a way to slip out of …Mary Deare by colorfully describing the high points of North By Northwest to the MGM brass, leaving them thinking they’d get two Hitchcock pictures!

You’ve got me all wrong, fella, I’m a teetotaler! 
… Mary Deare
was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, and everyone got what they wanted—except James Stewart. According to the IMDb, while Stewart and Hitchcock were filmimg Vertigo, Hitch gave Stewart a taste of what he had in mind for North By Northwest.  Stewart was hooked—but as much as Hitchcock liked Stewart, he felt (rightly) that Cary Grant was the ideal choice for the lead.  Rather than disappoint his old friend and frequent leading man, Hitchcock delayed production on North By Northwest until Stewart found himself committed to shooting Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder—and then he offered the role to Stewart, who of course had to turn down the offer by then. Oh, that Hitchcock—such a finagler!
Even Hitch can't control NYC traffic!

The opening credits alone sweep us viewers into the action before the bad guys even show up. Saul Bass’s sleek opening credit sequence works beautifully with Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-style opening theme, swirling tempestuously along as Manhattan’s bustling citizens rush into subways and taxis—except for that distinguished, imposing gent who’s just missed the Fifth Avenue bus. Yep, it’s Hitchcock himself, literally trying to catch up with the credits. This is New York City, all right, with its boisterous, cocky attitude, like this dialogue from Eddie,  the elevator operator:
Roger: “Say good night to the missus.”
Eddie: “We’re not talkin’!”

Strangers on a train, exchanging cigarettes! 

What’s the world coming to when even your mom, Cyrano Jones,
the Chief of CONTROL, and the SIA won’t believe your life is in danger? 

Just as well Hitchcock's cameo came early, because our hero gets few opportunities to relax and enjoy the film’s fabulous locations, what with the wringer he’s about to be put through! Talk about Mad Men: as Roger Thornhill, the ad man who became a bewildered red herring, Cary Grant’s romantic panache and flair for comedy perfectly suits our literally dashing hero, Roger O. Thornhill. The “O” stands for "nothing", much like Roger himself at first.  He’s a charming, slick executive who's used to having his own way in business and the boudoir, judging from the fact that he’s been married twice and is currently wooing a new gal with “candy from Blum’s. Each piece wrapped in gold paper. She’ll like that; she’ll think she’s eating money.” Indeed, those aforementioned opening credits move at a rapid-fire pace, almost like one of the screwball comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”
We see that Roger is a man of smooth confidence, always in charge—until that fateful day at The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar when the name “George Kaplan” is called out at the wrong time, turning our hero’s life upside down!  Roger has barely had time to knock back his cocktail before he’s kidnapped by the coolly sinister henchmen of a suave gent calling himself Townsend (James Mason of Lolita; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; and Team Bartilucci’s Suave Hall of Fame!).  It seems these wicked jaspers are convinced that Roger is really George Kaplan, a government agent, and they’re not playing on Kaplan’s team. Roger is outraged and bewildered, but his frustrated insistence that “I’m not Kaplan!” falls upon deaf ears. Instead, Roger gets bourbon forced down his throat in Townsend’s Glen Cove home, thanks to reptilian henchman Leonard (Martin Landau before TV’s Mission: Impossible and his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood), and is nearly killed in a drunk-driving frame-up.  From there, things go from bad to worse as Roger’s visit to the U.N. to confront Townsend results in more mistaken identity and worse: our hero gets framed for murder!  And so the chase begins, monitored by a spymaster known as “The Professor” (Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll, looking remarkably like one or both of the Dulles brothers)!

Not one, but TWO fist-i-cams in one film!
North By Northwest is truly the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, with all his pet themes covered with maximum wit, panache, and suspense: a wrongly-accused hero on the run; mistaken identity; a romance between Roger and soignée spy Eve Kendall (played by On the Waterfront Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint in a sexy-cool change of pace) that's tender, sensuous, and full of surprises, on a chase that takes our hero from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore.  Fun Fact:  Hitchcock took our gal Eva Marie to Bergdorf Goodman in New York City for a fabulous new wardrobe for her, all seen in the film (look sharp in the scene where she’s wearing the red dress; you can see the Bergdorf label).  In the movie’s extras, she playfully called Hitch “my one and only Sugar Daddy.”  But as engaging and dashing as Grant is, the smoothly villainous James Mason nearly out-suaves him.  My husband Vinnie and I have joked that if Mason had played Roger O. Thornhill, the film would have been over in minutes. With all due respect to Grant, if the imperious, unshakably confident Mason asked the Glen Cove police, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?", they would immediately reply, "Er, no, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you."

North By Northwest was nominated for Oscars for George Tomasini’s film editing, the art direction and set decoration of Robert F. Boyle (who you may remember from the sterling documentary Something’s Gonna Live), Merrill Pye, William Horning, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvy (but not Best Director or Best Score, alas). Best of all, North By Northwest was nominated for Lehman's screenplay; in fact, he borrowed from it liberally for his suspenseful, rollicking script for the film version of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, starring Paul Newman! 

Roger wanted to catch a plane, but now the plane’s trying to catch him!  

As auctioneers, Les Tremaine and Olan Soule
want to ditch troublemaker Roger at any price! 

“Stop!  (She looks closer and gets swoony.) Stop.”
(The female patient wants more of Grant’s bedside manner as Grant flees
Who could blame her?)

For more information about North by Northwest, here's a post I wrote about the 2001 Oscar nominee The Man on Lincoln’s Nose; and the 2010 documentary Something’s Gonna Live, produced by Norman Jewison.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Morely, The Merrier! A Thanksgiving Weekend Double- Feature Saluting Robert Morely

British character actor Robert Morley (1908—1992) was one of cinema’s wittiest character actors—but if it had been up to his family, he would have ended up in the diplomatic service instead!  Luckily for us Morley fans, he was much more interested in acting instead.  His accolades included a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his comical turn in Marie Antoinette (1938), and classic movies including The African Queen; Topkapi; Beat the Devil; Around the World in 80 Days; Theatre of Blood; and so much more!  We of Team Bartilucci are spotlighting two of our favorites for our Robert Morley double-feature—enjoy!

Dorian's Pick: Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)

Good to see you, Mr. Hitchcock! 
Oops, so sorry, Mr. Vandeveer, my mistake!
Ah, here come the holidays!  With Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza, and any number of festive food-centric holidays descending upon us, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (let’s save time and call it Great Chefs for short, shall we?) is a delicious way to kick off the first of half of our Robert Morley double-feature.  Before there were Julia Child, The Food Network, and The Cooking Channel, there were Nan and Ivan Lyons’ witty 1976 whodunit novel Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1976). I read the novel when it was on best-seller lists, and it certainly had its moments of wit, sex, and clever violence.  Still, it seemed to me that the authors were so determined to cram in as much plot as possible that, for me, I’m afraid I eventually found it more exhausting than entertaining.  Nevertheless, the Lyonses wrote a 1995 sequel, Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of America, so brava to them, I say!

Happily, I found Ted Kotcheff’s 1978 film adaptation, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (from Lorimar/Warner Bros.  Best of all, the script was from one of Team Bartilucci’s favorite screenwriters, Peter Stone (Charade; Arabesque; Mirage), a funny, suspenseful, romantic romp, with plenty of wit and fabulous food to boot! (Fun Fact:  director Kotcheff also co-starred in the 2003 fact-based drama Shattered Glass.) Just hearing Henry Mancini’s majestic yet playful score had me smiling!  Even when the characters are trading witty bon mots, there’s always a subtle, almost candlelit touch of sexy romance in the air, courtesy of Director of Photography John Alcott (The Shining; A Clockwork Orange; Barry Lyndon). 
And dig this international cast:

*Jacqueline Bisset — Her first name is pronounced “Jacque-lean,” and her last name rhymes with “Kiss It.” After debuting as “Miss Goodthighs” in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, Bisset was on her way with such hits as Airport; Two For the Road; Rich and Famous; Murder on the Orient Express; The Deep.  I liked Ms. Bisset’s fashions by Oscar-winning costume designer Donfeld (not for Great Chefs, though.)  I admit Bisset's wardrobe might not work for every gal, but I rather liked Bisset’s rakish woolen coat and her Civil War outerwear; if it doesn’t bother Civil War re-enactors, I’m OK with it!  Fun Fact: Bisset is Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie’s Godmother!

*George Segal  Ship of Fools; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; The Hot Rock; A Touch of Class; TV’s Just Shoot Me, and The Goldbergs.  Segal and Bisset had a delightful Tracy & Hepburn vibe in Great Chefs that I really enjoyed, especially with Stone’s aforementioned sparkling dialogue!

Robby's making plans for Nigel to turn that 
sweet little health food joint into 
Ranger Pete's Texas Burgers, complete with 
slaugherhouse! Another coup for 
American Fast Foods!
When we first meet Epicurious  publisher and gourmand Maximilian Vandeveer (Morley), we see that Max is a mountain of a man, huffing and puffing and scaring innocent pedestrians as they try not to be steamrollered by Max’s formidable girth. Dr. Deere (John Le Mesurier from I’m All Right, Jack; The Pink Panther; The Italian Job ).  Max is always accompanied by his assistant, Meacham (Madge Ryan of A Clockwork Orange), Max's assistant. As usual, Max is being a wiseacre, calling Dr. Deere “Doctor Darling” and such other wry barbs, but this time, Dr. Deere has worrisome news for Max:

Dr. Deere: “Would you care to remove your overcoat?”
Max: “Why? Is your diagnosis going to take us through a change of seasons?”
Dr. Deere: “Mr. Vandeveer, you are not a well man.”
Max: “That’s why I came to you instead of my florist.”

Dr. Deere cuts to the chase:  “Mr. Vandeveer , you are suffering from gout, enlarged liver, duodenal ulcer, spastic colon, heart murmur, and severe hardening of the arteries.  You are suffering from these maladies because you are calamitously fat. Unless you drastically alter your eating habits, you are most certainly going to die.”

Max: “Dr. Sweetheart, deprived of everything I adore, what makes you think I want to live?  Come along, Beecham!” 

Beecham looks like a woman thinking, 
a la Bugs Bunny, "Oh, brother! There goes 
me bread and butter! I gotta do something!

Why did the chickens cross the road? So Robby
could pitch an omelet franchise!
Of course, here in the 21st century, Max’s health can be improved with less-draconian methods than they had in 1978, but since that’s when Great Chefs was made, feel free to consider it a period piece if you like! (Or watch The Biggest Loser, if that’s your cup of Spirulina or whatever.) 

Enter Robby Ross (Segal), head honcho of food conglomerate American Fast Foods.  At the moment, Robby’s in London, donning a cowboy hat and freaking out the patrons of the health-food restaurant The Potted Shed when he announces they’re starting a new franchise right next door: “Ranger Pete’s Texas Burgers!  A hundred percent pure meat!”  It’ll apparently do their own butchering on the premise. As Robby says: “You won’t hear that hammer go *smack* or nothin’!”   Robby cheerfully tells the hapless waiter (Nigel Havers of Empire of the Sun; Chariots of Fire).  Oh that Robby—what a sneakypuss!  The diners sure are running away faster than chariots of fire, for sure! 
Nowadays there are far less draconian ways to get healthy, but after all, this was 1978; think of this as a period piece if you like!  (Or watch The Biggest Loser, if you like that sort of thing.)  Robby’s ex-wife is Natasha O’Brien (Bisset), renowned for her fabulous desserts, not to mention she’s gorgeous. I wonder if she exercises like mad to keep her girlish figure?  Interestingly, I couldn’t help noticing Natasha is frequently described as “an American cook,” and yet she has an obvious British accent.  Did Natasha grow up among British emigres?  Was she naturalized in the U.S.?  Just curious!. But I digress…

Royal Food Fight at the Palace! 
Louis Kohner vs. Auguste Grandvilliers! 
Place your bets!
 It’s an exciting time for Natasha, as the renowned  food magazine Epicurious  has anointed Natasha to be one of the talented cooks whose work comprises “The World’s Most Fabulous Meal” for none other than Queen Elizabeth herself! 
 *Louis Kohner (Jean-Pierre Cassel) for his baked pigeon  in crust;
*Jean-Claude Moulineau (Phillippe Noiret of Coup de torchon) for his pressed duck.
*Fausto Zoppi (Stefano Satta Flores)
*And of course, our gal Nat makes the dessert, Le Bombe Richelieu!

Who says too many cooks spoil the broth?
Not Nat & Louis!
Mmm, this is one Bombe we wouldn't ban!
At snack time, Natasha and Louis have
their own version of "special sauce"!

Then there’s Auguste  Grandvilliers (Jean Rochefort of Tell No One), who’s furious that he was not on the list!  As Max explains, “This is for The World’s Most Fabulous Meal, not The Most Underrated Meal.”  Ouch! 

Oops! Guess happiness isn't a warm gun!

The excitement of playing the Palace takes a terrifying turn when Natasha wakes up from her sexy roll in the hay with Louis to discover he’s been baked to death!  Robby quickly comes to console her, but now the London police are giving Robby and Nat the Hairy Eyeball, and they soon realize other cooks on the Epicurious list are turning up dead, too!  It’s enough to spoil your appetite, if it weren’t for that delightful cast, witty dialogue, and lovely European locations!  Whodunit?  Watch it and enjoy this smart, sexy romp for yourself!

So many great lines, too! Here's one of my favorites:
Natasha, noticing she and Robby only have one bed (before they kiss and make up):
“How come the only bed in this entire hotel comes with you in it?"

Robby: “There’s a convention in town.”
Natasha: “The Optimists, no doubt!”
Yikes! Poor  Louis' been overdone, bigtime!
In Venice, two's company and three's a crowd!
Rub-a-dub-dub, Nat & Rob in a tub!

No one will be seated during the duck-press killing; it's too gruesome!

Mother of gastronomy, is this the end of Max?

"I knew that divorce was too good to last!"

 Vinnie Picks at the plate - They say that Hitchcock used to film murder scenes the way others shoot love scenes, and vice versa. Well, this film shot food like others shot naked women. This may well have been where we got the term "Food Porn." Kotcheff hangs lovingly over the most opulent banquets ever seen on the screen to date.

I've always had trouble enjoying George Segal -- his acting is a bit broad for me. He always seems to be opening his mouth just a tad too wide, waving his hands just a bit too much. He's doing a very good job on ABC's The Goldbergs as the Grandpa; he seems to have pulled it back just a hair. But his not-quite-manic delivery works well here, as he's supposed to be a loud brassy American who sticks out like a sore thumb in the hallowed banquet halls and restaurants of Europe. The audience, like the cast, should have no idea what Jacky Bisset saw in the boor.

The final sequence in Television Centre is delightful, as Segal blunders his way through studio after studio looking for the cooking show. It's a sequence that's been done plenty of times, from Blazing Saddles to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but that's because it's such fertile comedic soil.

Vinnie's Pick: Hot Millions (1969)

Peter Ustinov has graced the posts of this blog more than a few times, and rightly so.  He was an astounding character actor, equally at home in drama as comedy, though usually providing the lighter characters in the dramatic turns.  Hot Millions is one of his lesser known films, And That's Terrible.  Like The Wife's selection, it's available from Warner Archive, which is allowing fans of more obscure films to finally own them, as well as opening them up to a new audience.  He co-wrote the script with Ira Wallach, and it was nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay, one of his many award nominations, and two Oscar wins. 
We meet Marcus Pendleton (Ustinov) on his last day in prison, ending his turn for embezzlement of the National Conservative Party (Asked why he chose that target, he calmly replies "I'm a Liberal"). He finishes up the warden's tax return for him, ensuring him that they're bona fide, and is wished well, with the caveat that in this new electronic age, computers are making it harder for embezzlers to succeed. (In a subtle callback later in the film, he passes a newsstand displaying the headline that the warden was arrested for tax fraud).

Robert Morely serves as means to an end
in the film, giving Marcus Pendleton
his "In" to the world of business
Marcus realizes quickly that the warden has a point, and makes the logical move - to become a computer programmer, thus being the person in charge of writing all the security that makes it so hard for embezzlers.  So after a quick visit to a haberdashers for a City-worthy suit, he pops into a posh club for the upper class to troll for information.  Posing as a recruiter for an American company, TaCanCo, he's given the name of Cesar Smith (Robert Morely).  Smith is loath to take a new job, and Marcus is more than happy to convince him to follow his life's dream of traveling to South America to write a books about moths.  He's barely on the plane before Marcus assumes his identity and snaps up the job of lead computer program designer.  Executive Carlton J. Klemper (Karl Malden) acts from his gut, even though his V.P.  Willard Gnatpole (Bob Newhart) advises checking the naff Smith's credentials.  But when Smith shows Gnatpole up by suggesting a new method of coding practice that eliminates a bug he's been working on, he earns Klemper's nod and Gnatpole's ire.

Smith/Pendleton is shows the company's mainframe, and its security system is pointed out, a blue light that blocks all unauthorized access. He gets a secretary, who turns out to be Patty Terwilliger, who has a flat in the same boarding house as him, and who has suffered through a steady stream of jobs that she loses under calamitous circumstances.  She's confused as to why the man she knows as Marcus Pendleton is working here as Cesar Smith - he hastily explains he's working under his mother's name because of reasons.  They genially conspire to keep each other secret - she agrees not to talk about his name, and he agrees not to mention that she's not all that wonderful a secretary.

Smith immediately begins a campaign against that blue light, spending many a long night trying to hack his way around it.  He's ready to give up before he learns that the charwomen regularly disable it with a bang of their bucket against the back of the machine, as the inside of the computer is perfect for keeping tea warm.  Once that shackle has been freed, he begins his main plan, setting up phantom companies and authorizing payments to them. 

A perfect rendition of the old joke "So dumb she can't
change a typewriter ribbon without taking her dress off"
All the while, his friendship with Patty becomes more genial, as they begin to spend more time together.  The rest of the staff (especially Mr. Gnatpole) notices that she's not a very good secretary, and assume that she must be good in the sack.  Gnatpole begins a campaign of his own, to become close with Patty, one that she doesn't rebuff - she doesn't even grasp that he's trying.  There's a spectacular and dialogue-free scene when he offers to drive her home - as they drive, he keeps seeing signs like "Yield" and Make Way", and she sees signs reading "Stop" and "Do Not Enter"

Marcus' life goes very well, both professionally and personally - he's amassed a fortune in ill-gotten-gains, and has fallen in love with and married Patty.  When she reveals that she's "in the club" as she so delightfully puts it, he realizes it's time to cut and run.  Marcus and Patty emigrate to Rio and seem quite happy, and Klemper and Gnatpole are nearly breaking their arms pointing fingers at each other. It's about then that the REAL Cesar Smith, returned from South America, pops by TaCanCo when he learns that he's apparently been working there for some time.  He discovers Marcus' plan quickly, admiring it for its elegance.  They're ready to give up their money as lost, except they ge a telegram from "Smith", advising them as to where he is, and inviting them down to talk.  Cesar Romero has a delightful cameo as a Brazilian customs agent who almost kills Klemper with sarcasm when, discovering that he's brought instant coffee with him to Brazil (Coals to Newcastle, indeed), says to him, "To confiscate this is not enough; throw it away", making him not just toss it in the bin, but open it and shake the contents out. 

Not to divulge the ending, but nobody goes to jail, and nobody is sad, except for Mr. Gnatpole, mainly because nobody else is.

Bob Newhart is the unavowed modern
master of the Slow Burn.
Ustinov is a comedic master - you can't break concentration for a moment lest you miss one of his mumbled asides that will shatter you.  Malden plays a very model of a modern business-minded American, and Bob Newhart once again knocks it out of the park in the role of Small Angry Man that he does better than no other.  Maggie Smith has never turned in a bad performance, and this film is no exception.  Her Cockney accent gets full acceptance here, playing Patty as the classic flibbertigibbet.

Maggie Smith was great friends with Kenneth Williams, star of the "Carry On" films.  In this vintage clip she talks about him and their relationship.  In a clip tacked on to the end, Kenny shares a tale from years before in a department store.

Dorian checks over the books - We're big Peter Ustinov fans here at Team Bartilucci HQ, and Vinnie was the one who turned me on to Hot Millions, which in turn also turned me on to both Ustinov and Maggie Smith, thanks in part to our longtime pal John Wirenius. With Hot Millions' droll wit and the rest of the wonderful cast, we were hooked, thanks to "gateway drugs" like Topkapi, Grendel Grendel Grendel, and so much more!