Friday, 28 March 2008


Widmark as Tommy Udo
in KISS OF DEATH (1947)

I saw Richard Widmark once. It was in Old Compton Street in London’s Soho. It was probably about 1963 and his visit to London was no doubt connected with the film THE LONG SHIPS (a miconcieved Viking adventure in which Widmark was miscast as a Viking warrior, although, to be honest, he seemed aware and didn’t take the film as seriously as his co-star Sidney Poitier who obviously thought he was playing Othello). Widmark was wearing a hat and puffing away on his pipe. I wish I’d taken the opportunity to speak to him but I’d heard that he fiercely guarded his privacy and was not very approachable.

I’ll leave the details of Widmark’s career to the historians but I’d like to remember a few of the films that I particularly enjoyed during his long career. Widmark had a spectacular start in movies playng the psychotic giggling killer Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s 1947 thriller KISS OF DEATH. So convincing was Widmark that he garnered an Oscar nomination for his first role. Two years later the actor was in London starring in Jules Dassin’s terrific film noir NIGHT AND THE CITY as a self-deceiving spiv who finds himself out of his depth when he tries to start a career as a fight promoter. It’s a wonderfully edgy performance and Widmark and Dassin never really play for audience sympathy and we watch with fascination as Widmark’s character digs himself deeper and deeper into the hole he has made for himself. Widmark made two films for maverick director Sam Fuller. HELL AND HIGHWATER is a good cold was submarine adventure but the other film, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET in which Widmark plays a pickpocket who gets sucked into the world of communist spies, is a stone cold classic that I’ve already written about elsewhere on this blog. As well as these noir-ish roles Widmark became a regular player in Westerns where his characters are often given an interesting shading. YELLOW SKY, GARDEN OF EVIL, BROKEN LANCE and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE were all good Westerns but my personal favourites lay elsewhere. In Edward Dmytryk’s underrated WARLOCK Widmark played a supporting role as a character whose loyalties are torn between two factions. In John Wayne’s THE ALAMO he was Jim Bowie alongside John Wayne’s Davy Crockett. There have been better screen Bowies and Crocketts but THE ALAMO remains a hugely enjoyable film with excellent performances by its stars. Another underrated film was John Ford’s TWO RODE TOGETHER where Widmark played a cavalry officer alongside James Stewart’s conman lawman. Both stars gave very enjoyable performances in a visually arresting movie. Another personal favourite is Widmark’s role as the tough cop MADIGAN in Donald Siegel’s 1968 police thriller. Although Madigan died at the end of the film the character was revived for a tv series a few years later with Widmark again playing the title character. A year after MADIGAN Siegel and Widmark were reunited when the director took over the reins from Robert Totten after Totten had differences with Widmark on the Western DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER. It was an above average film with the star outstanding as the ageing gunfighter who has outlived his usefulness to the community where he provides the law enforcement.

Those are just my personal favourites from Widmark’s career but there are many other good performances. Reportedly Widmark was not an easy man to work with although his long career and excellent performances in a wide range of films for top directors really doesn’t seem to support this. However, on screen, Widmark rarely let his fans down. A very private man who rarely, if ever, gave interviews, Widmark was a regular campaigner for the rights of others and a supporter of the civil rights movement and the cause of Native Americans. Richard Widmark was a great star, a fine actor and a good human being. R.I.P.

DIE SPINNEN/The Spiders (1919)

Fritz Lang’s THE SPIDERS is distant precursor to the INDIANA JONES series. The film also features elements that would obsess Lang throughout his entire career including super criminals, secret societies, séances etc. As with the Spielberg films, THE SPIDERS was originally designed as a series but only the first two parts were actually made. In the first part Der Goldene See, sportsman and adventurer Kay Hoog discovers a message in a bottle sent by an explorer who had discovered a lost tribe of Aztecs in South America. Hoog sets off to find the lost civilization and the vast treasure spoken off in the message. He is pursued by a secret society called The Spiders who want the treasure to fulfil their plans for world domination. Hoog returns to America with an Aztec princess who is murdered by The Spiders when he rebuffs the amorous advances of the society’s female leader. In part Das Brillantenschiff Hoog sets out to avenge his dead love and thwart The Spiders in their quest for a huge diamond known as The Budda’s Head. The adventure takes Hoog into a lost Chinese city beneath San Francisco and to a network of caves beneath the Falkland Islands. Crude by the standards of Lang’s later films THE SPIDERS (both parts are included on the DVD) is nonetheless an enjoyable adventure and a must for anybody interested in German cinema or Lang’s career in particular. It’s two-fisted action from an earlier age and it is great to see it on DVD even if a good restoration is needed, particularly on part two. Rating ***

Wednesday, 26 March 2008


This film is one of the series of Westerns that director Budd Boetticher made with star Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown, Although it doesn’t seem to have garnered quite as much attention as other titles such as RIDE LONESOME, THE TALL T and BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE it proves to be equally fascinating. The plot is standard B-movie stuff. A stranger rides into town looking for the man he blames for the death of his wife. Boetticher takes this simple premise and stands it on its head. Randolph Scott is excellent as usual as the bitter stranger out to revenge his dead wife. But what, at first, seems like steely determination is soon revealed as psychotic. The villain (played by the excellent John Carroll) actually seems quite likeable and beyond being told that he runs the town we never really see him doing the things Western bad guys do. When we first meet him he is preparing to marry a local big wig’s daughter. We find out later that Scott’s dead wife wasn’t as pure as Scott makes out and, significantly, we learn this from his best buddy (Noah Beery Jr) who eventually walks out on him because he won’t face the truth. Beery gets gunned down by the local sheriff who in turn is gunned down by Scott who then goes on to face Carroll himself in what at first seems like a traditional climatic gunfight but turns out to be far from it. At the climax Carroll drives of in a buggy with the girl who loves him (something usually reserved for the hero) and Scott rides out of town on his horse, still a bitter man who refuses to face the truth. It’s a fascinating movie which subverts the conventions of its genre. Rating ***


John Hurt and Paul Scofield in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

One of those spooky little examples of synchronicity happened to me last week. I have been reading C.J.Sansom’s breathtakingly good series of novels about the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake (possibly to be a tv series with Kenneth Branagh) and while awaiting the publication of the fourth book in the sequence I decided that I wanted to immerse myself a bit more in the detail of the period. I decided that I was going to read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Sir Thomas More. Way back when I worked at Columbia Pictures (see elsewhere on this blog) one of the big films that the company produced and released was Fred Zinnemann’s film of Robert Bolt’s play A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. The film was treated by Columbia as a “quality” product and all staff were expected to worship at Zinnemann’s shrine. I remember coming back to my desk after attending a compulsory staff screening of the film to be told by my boss that he had written a letter telling Zinnemann that watching the film had been one of the great emotional moments of his life. Well, I laughed out loud at this. Having sat through the movie I was a wee bit pissed off that I didn’t actually get to see Thomas More’s head role. I tried explaining to my boss that I found it a bit difficult to get worked up over the beheading of a man who had been quite happy to send people to be burned at the stake. But, of course, I was outnumbered. To be quite honest, I feel I was being a bit hard on the film. I was younger then and not only was Zinnemann not of my “approved” list at the time (his obvious reluctance to talk to me during a taxi journey I shared with him had disappointed me) I didn’t like being told what I should like or not like – ahh, the rebelliousness of youth. The film did have some terrific performances, nice photography and superb writing. Today I really think that I would like to see the film again as I’d probably enjoy it. Anyway, where was I ? oh, yes : synchronicity. Well within a hour of reading the first chapter of Peter Ackroyd’s book I heard of the death of actor Paul Scofield at the age of 86. Scofield was, of course, Sir Thomas More, both on stage and in Zinneman’s film. I can’t pretend that I know much about him or was even a particular fan – although I did meet a pretty drama student once who used to almost have an orgasm at the mention of his name. I never saw Peter Brook’s film of Scofield in KING LEAR but I did enjoy his performances in CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE, THE TRAIN and THE CRUCIBLE. Scofield received an Oscar for his performance as Sir Thomas More and although I’m not a big awards watcher it was probably deserved. There is no doubt that Paul Scofield was an actor of considerable talent and I mourn his passing. Like many other movie buffs I collect movies as well as just watching them. There is something very satisfying about actually possessing a favourite movie. Back in the days before video collecting films was an expensive business. I could never really see the point of those little 8mm reels and 16mm sound prints were far beyond my pocket. So one had to be content with the cinema and television. Then, of course, came VHS and everything changed. But even that was fairly expensive to start with and we had to be content with panned and scanned copies of widescreen films. Remember trying to explain to friends and relatives why it was a real breakthrough when widescreen VHS tapes began to appear ? Of course, collecting today is a completely different matter. There is just so much out there (yes, I know, there are some alarming and puzzling gaps) and even if you are on a budget and can’t afford it all at once most things are within reach if you really want them. When I look at my DVD shelves and think back to my collection of, say, ten years ago, it takes my breath away. The core of my collection has always been horror movies and I have almost the complete horror output of Universal Studios : all the FRANKENSTEIN series, likewise for the DRACULA series, THE WOLFMAN series, THE MUMMY series, INVISIBLE MAN, BLACK LAGOON, all the Val Lewton movies, all the major Hammer films virtually everything starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, all the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, all Fritz Lang’s films between 1919 and 1932 – plus all the fascinating documentaries and commentaries. I have copies of all my favourite Bergmans, Kurosawas, Melvilles, Fords, Hawks. The online rental services have made it possible to explore areas of film production that were previously difficult to access with ease – I’ve been particularly interested in French films 1930-60 and oriental exploitation movies. It’s a wonderland for film fans.

Thursday, 6 March 2008


Like most people who noticed him at all I first became aware of Jack Smight as a director with his excellent Paul Newman starrer HARPER, based on the novel by Ross MacDonald and the off-beat thriller NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. A couple more offbeat features followed before Smight began working his way pleasantly through episodes of Madigan, Banacek, McCloud and Columbo. I found his work consistent enough that I always tried to catch it when I could. One evening in 1973 I settled down to watch his tv movie THE SCREAMING WOMAN based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. Smight had worked with Bradbury’s writing before with mixed results (THE ILLUSTRATED MAN) but Bradbury himself was, reportedly, very happy with the new film and that was recommendation enough for me. About halfway through the movie I realised something was wrong and soon figured out that two of the reels had been shown in the wrong order. As no apology was forthcoming when the film finished I rang the tv channel and discovered that only one other person had phoned to point out the mistake. The tv people took my name and phone number and a few days later I found out who the other complaining viewer was because he rang me! It turned out it was Jack Smight himself who had tuned in from his hotel room in London to watch is movie and was horrified to discover how badly the tv people had treated. After my call the tv company had rung Smight back and given him my phone number and he decided to ring me and thank me personally and thank me for caring enough to to protest. After I got over the shock of having a Hollywood director ring me at home we talked for a few minutes and Smight told me that he actually liked working in television rather than for the big screen. He explained that he was in England to make a three hour tv movie called FRANKENSTEIN-THE TRUE STORY and was thrilled with the distinguished cast. That was about it, really, just a few minutes….well it’s more than I got out of Fred Zinnemann, but that, as they say, is another story.

FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE STORY was adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel by Christopher Sherwood and Don Bachardi. It was quite blatantly not what its title claimed it to be. It is no closer to the original novel than some other versions and a lot more distant than a few others (notable Calvin Beck’s version and the Kevin Connor version of a few years back) but it is, nevertheless, a highly enjoyable production. The first half of the film follows Victor Frankenstein’s meeting with Henry Clerval and how he continues Clerval’s work investigation into the creation of life itself. Frankenstein eventually succeeds and creates his “creature” – and it is at this point that the films make its first detour from the usual Frankenstein legend. Victor’s creation is a physically beautiful young man. Victor teaches him to speak, instructs him in social etiquette and enjoys an idyllic life (much to the chagrin of his fiancée) with his protégée. It doesn’t take much imagination to read this as an idealised gay relationship. But Isherwood is too good a writer to leave it there and slowly Victor’s work begins to decay and his beautiful creation begins to coarsen. Slowly Victor’s concern turns to disgust and he rejects life with his creation. Because of what has gone before the AIDS metaphor was particularly relevant back in the 70’s. At this point the scenario rejoins the original novel as the rejected “creature” encounters the blind old woodsman and then the movies makes another very interesting detour, this time to seemingly take its inspiration from James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The creature falls into the clutches of evil Dr. Polidori (named after Byron’s real life friend and physician Dr.John Polidori) who fulfils the role of BRIDE’s Dr. Praetorius in being determined to create a female of the species. Like Praetorius, Polidori uses Victor’s original creation to blackmail him into reluctantly existing. Of course, disaster follows and eventually the film rejoins Mary Shelley for an icebound finale as Victor and his creation are reunited in the Artic.

Universal certainly saw this as a prestige production and spared no expense when it came to production values and cast. Filmed in England at Elstree Studios and on location at various country houses and picturesque villages the film gathered together a prestigious cast led by James Mason as Dr.Polidori, Michael Sarrazin as the creation and Jane Seymour as his female counterpart. The supporting cast is peppered with such names as Ralph Richardson (the blind man), David McCallum(Clerval), Agnes Moorhead, Tom Baker, Michael Wilding and Margaret Leighton. Victor Frankenstein is played by Leonard Whiting in a rather one note performance which certainly can’t be said of James Mason’s turn as Polidori – a performance generously described by a friend as “fruity” – whose method of creation is remarkably close to that later used by Dr.Frankenfurter in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.

FRANKENSTEIN – THE TRUE story was released theatrically in Great Britain in a cut version and it wasn’t until a couple of years later that we were treated to the full television version, although as far as I know the prologue sequence with Mason out of character at Mary Shelley’s grave has never been seen theatrically or on television on this side of the Atlantic so it is particularly nice to see it included on the DVD. The film holds up quite well after all these years and is an entertaining addition to the seemingly endless list of Frankenstein adaptations. I particularly liked Isherwood’s take on the relationship between Victor and his creation. Smight directs rather unevenly but, perhaps, this is a reflection of the more than usual number of changes of tone in the script which veers from classis illustrated to campy Victorian gothic melodrama. Sadly, the production was something of a peak in Jack Smight’s career and he did nothing even half way as interesting again. Rating ***