Friday, September 14, 2018

Slow Boat from China

This is my entry in the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood

It's a given that Lauren Bacall had some real sex appeal, especially in her early years with her onscreen presence with Humphrey Bogart.  Blood Alley teams her up with John Wayne, and that chemistry seems to dissipate immensely.  One wonders how much better it would have been with Robert Mitchum (the original star of the picture), or for that matter, Bogart, who was approached to do the film after Mitchum got canned from the flick, but wanted too much money to do it. 

Blood Alley (1955):

The movie begins with Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne), a seaman in the Merchant Marines, in prison in Communist China.  He has been under interogation by the Communists during this time, but he has kept his sanity because he has a guardian angel of sorts, named "Baby", whom he talks to and confides in when the going gets rough. (Must be a new definition of "sanity", if you ask me...)

The circumstances change when he is helped to escape.  He doesn't initially know why his secret benefactors have conspired to get him out until he arrives at the town of Chiku Shan.  There he mets a Mr. Tso (Paul Fix, entirely unrecognizable in make up, at least to me, but if you close your eyes, you will hear the voice of the Marshall from The Rifleman, the part he was most famous for playing).  Tso tells him the reason.  He is wanted to pilot a ferryboat the town has commandeered and take the entire city of Chiku Shan out of Communist China territory to freedom in Hong Kong.

Also on hand in Chiku Shan is Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall), the daughter of a medical missionary.  Cathy is waiting for the return of her father, who has gone to do some surgery on one of the Communist leaders.  Unbeknownst to Cathy, or anyone else at the beginning, Cathy's father's surgery failed, and he was killed by the Communists in revenge.

So Wilder has to get the village to safety, but he has no real chance.  The ferryboat is a wreck, the trip is full of dangers, hampered by the fact that Wilder has to go only by his memory of the area since he has no viable map, and the escape vehicle can't really outdistance any ships the Communists could use to chase them.  They must rely on a little subterfuge to even get out of Chiku Shan so that the enemy doesn't realize what is going on right away.

The trip is hampered by the fact that the village has to take the resident family of Communist loyalists, the Fengs, with them.  Ostensibly because the Fengs would be blamed, persecuted and probably executed for allowing the village to escape.  But the Fengs prove to be a hazard to the trip in a couple of ways, including the poisoning of the food supply onboard.

The one thing that kept coming to my mind in this movie is how the film seems to teeter on the edge of being either late 19th century/early 20th century and "modern" (or modern in terms of the time of the movie).  It seems to me that it avoids some seemingly obvious options on the part of the Communists.  Why, if they were so intent on preventing the defection, didn't they just put a couple of airplanes in the air to bomb the derelict ferryboat?

Given Wayne's virulent anti-communist stance in politics, the film does come off a bit jingoistic.  And the Chinese characters are, admittedly typical of the era, a bit of a parody.  I cringed every time Joy Kim, who plays Cathy's maidservant, Susu, spoke. But not all are such annoyances.  Wilder's main man on the boat, Big Han (Mike Mazurski) is pretty good, as well as Henry Nakamura, who plays a cigar loving engineer, Tack.

The movie is not one of Wayne's best, nor is it one of Bacall's best, but it is entertaining on most levels.  After all he Wayne movies I've seen, this one only ranks in the middle of the list, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to watch a non-Western Wayne film.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Dueling Canoes

June 11, 1979 is a date I will always remember.  It was on that date that I heard that my favorite actor of all-time, John Wayne, had passed away.  He still is my favorite actor, even after all these years.  Now September 6, 2018 will be another date I will remember.  On that day my second favorite actor left the stage for the final curtain.

Burt Reynolds made his mark on in the cinematic arena, and like him or not, he had an influence on those that came after him.  Admittedly his presence was not in the same arena as the Duke, and many of his movies appealed to those of less sophistication than, say, fans of Marlon Brando or Spencer Tracy.  To this I say, so what?  (or even smugly, "Guilty as charged".)  Reynolds name on the marquee was just as big a draw as any of them, maybe even more so.

Reynolds broke the mold in so many ways.  Did you know he was the first man to appear nude in a national magazine?  In 1972, shortly after delivering his breakout role performance in Deliverance, Reynolds agreed to pose for Cosmopolitan, a woman's magazine, and if Deliverance hadn't delivered the goods on his rising star status, the photo certainly would have.  (Sorry, ladies, even though it's fairly discreet by today's standards,  I'm not going to post the picture...)

Well, not the WHOLE thing, anyway...

For most of the 70's and 80's, Burt and his iconic 'stache dominated the macho male movie lines.  With such roles as "The Bandit" (Smokey and the Bandit {I, II and III}), Paul Crewe (The Longest Yard), J. J. McClure (The Cannonball Run {I and II}), and Stroker Ace, Reynolds thrilled both men and women alike.  He remained on the scene even through some admitted turkeys (how he acquiesced to being in A Cop and a Half is beyond me...).  He even proved he could sing, after a fashion, in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Deliverance proved to be his breakout role.  He had been on the scene for several years before that, and had a handful of movies under his belt, as well as a slew of appearances on television (he played the town blacksmith Quint Asper for several seasons on TV's Gunsmoke, among other shows), but this is the one that put him on the map.

(A side note about Deliverance, the novel by James Dickey on which this movie was based.  When I was a kid my grandparents belonged to one of the early book clubs and they had this book on their shelf.  Sometime after my grandfather died, my grandmother decided to donate all their old books to the Senior Citizen's Center, but she asked me and my sister to go through them and take any we wanted before she did.  This was the only one I wanted.  It was a great book when I read it as a kid, and it still is.  It remains one of the only two things that I still have that my grandmother gave me from their old house.  The other, BTW is a plaque with The Serenity Prayer on it.)

Deliverance (1972):

Four Atlanta businessmen decide to take a weekend jaunt down the Cahulawasee River (not a real river, the real Chattooga river did the honors as a stand-in.)  The trip is done at the behest of Lewis (Burt Reynolds) who insists it is their last chance to see the unmolested wilderness, as a dam that is currently under construction will end up flooding the valley and make the trip unavailable in the near future.


Going on this trip with him are Ed (Jon Voight), Drew (Ronny Cox) and Bobby (Ned Beatty).  (Of the four only Jon Voight had any significant impact on Hollywood prior to this movie.  This was the first movie role for either Beatty or Cox)




Lewis is a free spirit who lives for the moment.  (Which is a perfect prequel to many of Reynold's roles after this point.)  Drew, on the other hand, is the most level-headed of the group.  Ed has come along for the ride, although he is pretty much there only because he wants Lewis to think of him as a real man and not a guy who just wants to toe the line in his marriage and his life.  Bobby is the wimp of the clan.  He keeps trying to talk the others out of this survivor trip and just go play golf.

The guys end up in the backwoods and get a couple of brothers to drive their cars down river where they will be ready for them when this trip ends.  If you have ever heard the song "Dueling Banjos", you will get a kick out of Drew and the local hillbilly boy performing the song.  The song itself remains a recurring theme throughout the movie.

The first night goes without a hitch, but on the second day Ed and Bobby end up a ways ahead of Drew and Lewis who are in the other canoe.  While waiting for them, a couple of hillbillies come along and take them hostage.  (It is suggested, but never revealed, that they may have a still nearby.)  The scene turns rather graphic, and at this point you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph.  While one hillbilly holds a gun on Ed, the other performs a rape on Bobby, commanding him to "squeal like a pig"

Lewis shows up and shoots one of the boys with his bow and arrow and the other takes off.  Although Drew is all for taking the body back to the authorities, Lewis convinces the others that this would be a bad idea.  They could be arrested on manslaughter charges and have to face trial.  So Lewis and the others, to the vociferous objections of Drew, bury the body and continue downriver.

When they come to some rapids in the middle of a canyon Drew falls overboard.  Lewis yells that somebody shot him.  Drew's body disappears and the others end up on the shore.  Sure that there is a shooter up on the cliffs, Ed does a harrowing scale of the cliffs to go after the shooter.  Although Lewis would probably be the best choice for this endeavor, he broke his leg during the run through the rapids, and in the midst off all this, one of the canoes is destroyed.

If you've seen this movie you don't need me to tell you the rest.  If you haven't seen it might I suggest a night of watching something that is extremely gripping?  Much of this movie is already a part of the lore of cinema history.  So much so that there is a t-shirt out there that plays on the movie and is good for a nervous smile from those of us in the know.

Well folks, time to head to the home front.  Be sure to keep your oars in the water at all times.


Friday, September 7, 2018

You Don't Know "Jack"

This is my entry in the Jack the Ripper Blogathon hosted by Redjack

One of my favorite TV shows back in the 70's was "In Search Of...", a series that delved into strange phenomena such as aliens visiting the Earth in ancient times, as well as Big foot and the Loch Ness monster.  It also studied mysteries of history like the origins of Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle and other elements cryptohistory.  The series was initially hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

The show never really presented a concrete theory behind anything.  Instead it presented varied theories and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.    As the over the title voice over stated:

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture.  The producers' purpose is to suggest some possible explanations but not necessarily the only ones to the mysteries we will examine."

 Anything that had an element of mystery was fair game, thus in the 3rd season of the series, the show delved into the mystery of the identity of Jack the Ripper, a figure whose identity still remains a mystery even today. 

In Search Of...Jack the Ripper  (Episode 5; Season 3: Original Airdate: Oct. 12, 1978)

With the help of "Ripperologists" such as Wendy Sturgess, Donald Rumbelow and Stephen Knight, this episode delves into the mystery surrounding the murders of 5 women in Whitechapel area of East End London, ones that are agreed upon as having all been committed by the mysterious murderer known only as "Jack the Ripper"

Anybody with only a smattering of knowledge about Jack the Ripper knows at  least that Jack killed 5 women during his reign of terror (some sources claim a few other murders committed around the same time were also done by Jack, but the series episode only acknowledges the "canonical five" that are accepted by the majority of the public),  and then basically vanished from the theater of the world.  Although the press at the time claimed he was a threat to all of London, it appears he centered his activities only within a Mile and a half square of one area of London.

Beginning with a woman named Mary Ann Nichols,  Jack haunted the streets of London's East End.  The victims that followed, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes (both killed on the same night), and Mary Kelly were all brutally cut up with even parts of the bodies cut off.

Two major theories resulted from the clues.  One was that Jack was a doctor.  This is disputed by one of the interviewees because he feels that, based on the evidence that is in the records, that if Jack was a doctor, he must have been a very incompetent one, due to his technique.  (Author's note: I'm not sure that necessarily discredits the doctor theory.  Jack wasn't working in a hospital operating room, and didn't have the necessary tools on hand, unless, like the movie Time After Time, in which Jack was a doctor and roamed the streets with his doctor bag.)

The other theory is that he would have to have been a member of the elite in order to get away with wandering around with blood on his clothes.  Thus, one of the modern day theories about suspects is that it may have been the Duke of Clarence.  Prince Albert Victor was supposedly slowly going insane due from the effects of syphilis.  This is further enhanced by the fact that the royal family doctor was seen in the east end on nights when the murders were committed. (Although how the doctor himself didn't end up a suspect is a mystery to me.)

The theory that the Duke may have been Jack is further enhanced by the fact that, a hundred years later, Dr. Thomas Stowell published a paper that claimed he had evidence from the royal doctor's papers that implicated the Duke as Jack.  But Dr. Stowell later recanted, and (can you say conspiracy?) died shortly thereafter.

Conspiracy also crops up in that favorite bugaboo of conspiracy theorists, the Freemasons.  Apparently Jack left a message chalked on the wall near one of his victims.  The chief of the police force, a Freemason himself, personally went down to the murder site and erased the message.  Conspiracy theorists immediately lock on to that detail and deduce that Jack was probably a Freemason.

One other detail that comes up is the idea that a mysterious man, who had been seen in the vicinity wearing a deerstalker cap and cape, may have been the murderer.  Because the Duke was a moneyed man and loved hunting, this is used to further fortify the theory that Jack was the Duke. (Of course, it also could implicate Sherlock Holmes...)

I loved the In Search Of... series when I was a kid.  These shows, although not necessarily convincing in retrospect, fired my imagination as a teenager.  The fact that some of the shows covered phenomena that are now discredited, such as The Loch Ness Monster, notwithstanding.

Hope you enjoyed this little foray into history.  Drive home safely, folks.


Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Need a Ride?

This is my entry in the Joseph Cotten Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Remember when horror movies actually made some sort of sense?  Well, it was probably well before this one came out.  This movie contains just about every cliche ever done in a horror movie, including the dimwitted heroine who continues to stick by her plans when all hell seems to be trying to knock down her door.  The haunted house has been done numerous times over, and sometimes they have been done with pretty good effect. Check out the Sam Raimi Evil Dead series for pretty good horror.  But this one baffles the senses on more than one occasion.

The Hearse (1980):

The heroine of the story is a teacher, Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere), who is taking a summer vacation to spend in the house of her dead aunt.  The woman has been dead and gone for years, and the house has remained vacant during that time.  Although someone has taken great effort to keep the house in good order, likely the attorney, Walter Pritchard (Joseph Cotten), even though he doesn't seem to be the kind of person that would go to such effort.  Especially since, as he claims, Jane's aunt had promised him the house after she died, but the family held on to it.

Things start off on an ominous note as right off the bat, a mysterious hearse forces Jane off the road and then drives off.  Once in town, everyone and his mother is rude and obnoxious to her.  The dry goods store owner refuses to deliver to her house and insists that she pay in cash for the purchases.  A local kid (played by the director's daughter) says that she, Jane, is a ghost.  Nobody seems to like her, except the dry goods store owner's son, who seems to have an infatuation with her.  (Guess he doesn't get around much in school...)

The local pastor (Donald Hotton) pays her a visit to extend the greetings of the religious community, but even he is a little weird.   Jane starts to dig a little deeper into the mystery surrounding her aunt and finds out that the hearse that was taking her to the cemetery crashed.  But both her aunt's body and the hearse driver disappeared.  Only to show up now and then to scare the bejesus out of Jane.  And yet she doesn't think it serious enough to say "screw it" and go back to her own place.

Not only that but it turns out, while delving into her aunt's past, she discovers that he aunt was mixed up in some serious occult practices (Can you say "Satan"???)  Which may explain the recurring appearances of the hearse, as well as some of the standard cliches of horror movies like music boxes that play by themselves, doors that slam shut when no one is near them, and of course the obligatory appearances of Jane's aunt's ghost in mirrors and windows.

Is this movie a great horror movie.  Not hardly.  Is it entertaining enough for at least one view.  I would vote yes, especially if you are connoisseur of trashy horror movies.  Even if you just want to catch a decent performance by Joseph Cotten in the twilight of his years, it can be OK.  But be forewarned, some of it is pretty much telegraphed from the beginning, and some of it may annoy you if you have seen it all before and know exactly what the director is going to toss at you next  But it does have one very good sequence (although, to be fair, not exactly original) in which Jane finds herself trapped in the ominous hearse.

Pair this one with another cheesy classic horror movie, The Car, and you will probably think twice before crossing a deserted parking lot in the dead of night.  Then again, you may laugh yourself silly while doing it.

Drive home safely, folks (No pun intended... That's my usual sign off.  Don't get jittery.)