KING OF THE JUNGLE. Paramount, 1933. Buster Crabbe, Frances Dee, Sidney Toler, Nydia Westman, Robert Barrat, Irving Pichel, Douglas(s) Dumbrille. Based on the novel The Lion’s Way, by Charles Thurley Stoneham. Directors: H. Bruce Humberstone & Max Marcin.
King of the Jungle was one of the earliest and best of the flood of sequels, ripoffs and imitations that followed the success of MGM’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and while it doesn’t have much going for it in the Originality Department, it’s a lively and inventive little film well worth a look.
The story (in which Philip Wylie had a hand) chronicles the adventures of a shrill little brat raised by Lions (sound familiar?) after his father — played in a short scene, back carefully to Camera, by Douglass Dumbrille, who turns up later in a different part altogether — is killed on Safari.
The lad grows to strapping manhood in the form of Buster Crabbe, who would later play every pop culture hero known to kids in the first half of this century, becomes leader of the tribe pride, gets captured by Circus Folk and eventually travels to San Francisco, where he (WARNING!) successfully resists the lures of the Big City, gets the Girl, sets his adoptive family free and returns with the lot of them to Africa. (END OF WARNING!)
Admittedly, it’s all pretty damsilly, but Crabbe is fun to watch, Francs Dee makes an intelligent heroine, and Sidney Toler turns up as a sympathetic Sawdust Impresario. There’s also a spectacular Circus Fire (re-used in Road to Zanzibar and godknows where else) an impressive Elephant Stampede through Downtown Frisco, and even a touch of Artistry here and there, as in the opening when the hero’s father gets his Safari Permit: the camera pans in on the document, then dissolves to a tracking shot, still moving, of the tattered document blown listlessly past dead bodies strewn about a ravaged camp site.
MGM spent more and went further with Tarzan, but they never surpassed the charm and energy of this shaggy-dog one-shot.
HOLLYWOOD MAN. Intercontinental Releasing Corporation, 1976. William Smith, Jennifer Billingsley, Ray Girardin, Jude Farese, Mary Woronov, Tom Simcox, Don Stroud. Director: Jack Starrett.
As a straightforward 1970s exploitation film, Hollywood Man leaves a lot to be desired. Apart from leading actor William Smith, whose omnipresent physicality permeates every scene he is in, most of the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Although there are some hilarious moments, there’s also a palpable absence of vitality in the movie. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted the audience to slog through their movie, rather than allow it to pull them in and envelope them in the narrative.
But as a meta-movie, a movie about movies, a film about filmmaking, Hollywood Man is a surprisingly ambitious project. Smith portrays Rafe Stoker, an actor-director determined to complete his biker film. Because he’s both short on cash and fully committed to seeing the project through, he turns to a rather unsavory source of financing: the Mafia. Rafe soon learns that when you make a deal in the dark, you’re not exactly sure you’re going to get.
Because in no time at all, a real group of outlaw biker types are on the way to the small Florida town where Rake’s shooting his film. They’ve been sent there by the Mafia to slow down production, so that he will have to part with some of his collateral. Soon enough, however, it’s revealed that the Mafia’s henchmen have their own nefarious agenda, one that includes raping and killing. Adding to the combustible mix is a local cop who seems to be playing all sides, never quite showing his cards. In the midst of all this chaos, Rafe is trying to motivate his cast and crew to finish the picture.
All told, Hollywood Man seems to be, as much as anything else, a filmmaker’s reflection on the process of making exploitation films. Sure, the obstacles in Rafe’s path are greater than those faced by your average filmmaker. But as a meta-movie about a fictional director’s gritty determination to complete his film at any cost, this highly uneven action movie is a rather bold testament to just how far some directors will go for the love of cinema.
THE EQUALIZER. Columbia Pictures, 2014. Denzel Washington (Robert McCall), Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis. Loosely based on the CBS television series (1985-89) created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim and starring Edward Woodward. Director: Antoine Fuqua.
Well, the name’s the same, and by time the movie’s ended, you can see the new Robert McCall going into same business as the original one did. In that regard, you might call this the prequel.
This the film version is a delight for the eyes of any action thriller fan, much flashier than the one I watched many years ago on TV, and naturally a lot more violent. Everybody loves to get revenge, no matter not small the slight, and everyone who does will love this movie.
It starts very slowly, depicting as it does the life of a dedicated foreman at a home improvement warehouse store, living a life of quiet, spending evenings in a diner eating and reading alone. But in so doing he makes the acquaintance and a small friendship with Elena, a young local hooker, played to perfection by an actress previously unknown to me, Chloë Grace Moretz. They are close enough that when she is beaten up by a gang of Russian pimps, he takes it upon himself to avenge her.
Here is where the action (finally) begins. A confrontation in their lair ends up with all five of the thugs dead within an interval of time that seems like less than a minute. There are secrets, the viewer quickly realizes, that the mild-mannered McCall had not revealed until now.
All well and good, but is it possible that he may have bitten off more than he can chew. It so happens that the five pimps were just the tip of a Russian mafia iceberg. One man against a huge East Coast operation, headquartered back in Moscow? Seems impossible, but true.
But to me, without a challenge — and there is none — there is also no movie. No matter how beautifully filmed and choreographed, it’s all movie fakery, with no more depth than the pages of a comic book. What I’d liked to have seen is some weakness in McCall, enough that he could have used Elena’s assistance, for example. She doesn’t show up from the time she’s in the hospital until the end of the movie, a character and performance on the part of Chloë Grace Moretz that’s utterly wasted.
ADVENTURE IN SAHARA. Columbia Pictures, 1938. Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray, Robert Fiske, Marc Lawrence, Dwight Frye. Screenplay by Maxwell Shane; story: Samuel Fuller. Director: D. Ross Lederman.
With a story written by Samuel Fuller, who went on to far bigger and better things, Adventure in Sahara is more of an historical curiosity than anything else. A surprisingly gritty programmer, the film features Paul Kelly as an American who joins the French Foreign Legion to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of the sadistic Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon).
Kelly isn’t exactly Gary Cooper, but he gets the job done. Gordon’s character, Savatt, borders on the cartoonish. I imagine he’s sort of what American filmgoers might have expected a cruel French officer to act like; nothing more, nothing less.
When the desert sun sets, however, Adventure in Sahara remains remarkably forgettable. There’s no particularly captivating dialogue and the characters are never fully fleshed out. But that’s not to say that it’s not watchable, if mindless escapism.
Personally, I’ve always enjoyed films involving France’s role in the world, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Granted, I’m part of a niche audience that could probably have meetings in a phone booth (not that they really exist anymore), but films like these serve more as time capsules than anything else. After all, how many people would choose to make — let alone rush to see — a movie about the French Foreign Legion today?
THE BLACK CASTLE. Universal, 1952. Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr. and Michael Pate. Written by Jerry Sackheim. Directed by Nathan Juran.
A ripping yarn from producer William (Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon…) Alland, this was marketed as a horror film, but it’s more like a swashbuckler with a few creepy elements.
Richard Greene, who will always be Robin Hood to me, stars as an English aristocrat going undercover as a guest of Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally) the tyrannical lord of a castle in the Black Forest, who had a somewhat checkered past in Africa (he still keeps an alligator pit to remind him of the good old days) and may have murdered two of Greene’s friends.
And that’s pretty much all the plot there is here: Greene sneaks around trying to get the goods on McNally, romances his countess (Rita Corday) crosses blades with his toady (Michael Pate) and generally plays the doughty swordsman to the hilt (see what I did there?) as he exposes McNally’s villainy…. and gets coffined alive in the process.
Boris Karloff has a supporting part here, but it’s an interesting one: the Castle Physician, whose loyalty (or disloyalty?) to the Count forms the linchpin of the story, as sundry poisonings, mysterious deaths and other nonsense peppers the plot. But it’s rather sad to see Lon Chaney Jr. lumbering around fat, drunk and grunting, particularly when I recall him playing so effectively off Karloff in House of Frankenstein (1944) a memory more poignant because most of the background music in Black Castle was lifted from the earlier film.
But the show here really belongs to Stephen McNally, one of the best bad guys of his day, and he carries it off wonderfully, alternately baleful and leering, laughing maniacally when the occasion demands, and generally carrying on in the best Lugosi tradition. It’s the sort of part that’s hard to take seriously unless you’re a little kid (or a kid at heart) but McNally plays it without a trace of condescension, aided enormously by director Nathan Juran (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Attack of the 50′ Woman…) who keeps things moving and puts the action scenes across with inventive camera angles and an infectious sense of fun.
THE BURMA CONSPIRACY. French, 2011. Released in France as Largo Winch II. Tomer Sisley, Sharon Stone, Uklrich Turkur, Napskpaha (Mame) Nakapraste, Olivier Bartelemy, Laurent Terzieff, Nicholas Vaude, Clemens Schick, Dimitry Nazarov, Nirut Siridranya. Screenplay by Julien Rappeneau, Jerome Salle, and Jean Van Hamme. Based on the bande dessinees Largo Winch by Jean Van Hamme and Phillipe Francq. Directed by Jerome Salle.
If you tire of endless superheroes, spies, and cop buddy movies in your blockbuster action movie fare, The Burma Conspiracy, aka Largo Winch II, may be just what you are looking for.
A sequel to Largo Winch, which introduced the character of the Bosnian-born son of Yugoslav billionaire Nerio Winch, who inherits his father’s vast wealth and the W Group with over four hundred thousand employees worldwide, this French action film picks up where the first film left off.
Based on the international hit Belgian bande dessinees by writer Jean Van Hamme and artist Phillipe Francq we pick up as Largo (Tomer Sisley) is planning to sell the W Group and use all his wealth in a planned charitable foundation named for his father, and no sooner has he signed the papers to enable the sale than his yacht is invaded by UN investigators accusing him of involvement in the slaughter of a Karen tribe Burmese village, Kaipu, by war criminal General Kyaw Min (Nirut Siridranya) so that his father could buy their nickel rich land.
Now Largo, with a small band of loyal friends, his lawyer Dwight Cochrane (Ulrich Tukur), his valet Gauthier (Nicholas Vaude), Alexandre Jung (Laurent Terzieff) an old friend of his father, and Simon (Olivier Barthelemy) a ne’er-do-well friend he once saved in the Burmese jungle, has to get to the bottom of the conspiracy against him while evading prosecution by Francken, a vengeful billionaire businessman Nazatchov (Dimitry Nazarov) who is trying to buy the W Group, and a murderous mercenary Lazarevic who wants to kill him. And in a game like this, can anyone be trusted?
As Largo’s favorite Bosnian proverb goes: “A man with no enemies is no man at all.”
Packed with action, intelligent characters who nevertheless don’t always act in their own best interest, and a surprising amount of heart for an action movie, the film is both picaresque and sharp. The hero is no superman, and needs rescuing as often as comes to the rescue. Tomer Sisley manages to be both strong and vulnerable as Largo, believable in the most outrageous action scenes.
The film is filled with spectacular action and stunts and extremely handsome locales from Geneva to Hong Kong, with action in the jungles of Burma and the streets of Bangkok, and set pieces including a jungle prison camp escape and a breathtaking skydiving battle and rescue. But unlike so many action films, this one takes time to develop characters, to allow for actual human beings to emerge, for humor and a touching romance, and actual suspense that for once waits until almost the last moment to reveal the villain behind Largo’s problems, whose motive is actually quite strong.
It’s nice for once to see a movie where the hero and not the entire civilized world is at stake, particularly one as stylish and smart as this. If this is the sequel, I’m even more anxious to see the first one. If you are looking for a fast moving action film with a big budget that neither insults your intelligence nor sprains your suspension of disbelief beyond repair, this may be the film for you.
THE PARK IS MINE. Made for TV: HBO, 1985. Tommy Lee Jones, Helen Shaver, Yaphet Kotto, Lawrence Dane, Peter Dvorsky, Gale Garnett. Based on the novel by Stephen Peters. Original music by Tangerine Dream. Director: Steven Hilliard Stern.
Perhaps of some note as being the first movie made for HBO, this is a movie also made for its time, but one that has had such a cult following over the years that it has recently had a recent release on DVD (December 13th). Not many made-for-TV movies make the grade, not with official releases, they don’t.
Most of what makes the movie worth watching today is the performance of Tommy Lee Jones, no surprise there. He plays a Vietnam War veteran who is still having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He cannot keep a job, he is separated from his wife, who won’t let him see his young boy, and most of all, he is totally burned up by the fact that no one cares for what sacrifices any of his fellow soldiers made during the war.
So what does he do? Thanks to another vet who has just committed suicide but before that secretly mined Central Park and fortified it with all kinds of heavy ammunition, he takes over the park, literally. A one man operation that keeps the police and, most particularly, the city administration, at bay. A three day period before Veterans’ Day that the park is his, that’s all he wants. No hostages, no ransom, just three days of respect.
Causes like this, especially with plenty of gunfire and bombs going off, make for movies that attract attention. Luckily no one is killed — only minor injuries — until the deputy mayor left in charge escalates matters too far, as well as over the top, when he sends in a couple of ex-mercenaries, one a former Viet Cong, with orders to kill.
This is an act that ends in disaster, and it changes what could have been a minor league protest into one of over the top comic book proportions. Helen Shaver, who is very easy on the eyes, provides more than capable support as a TV news photographer whose quest for a story lands her right in the middle of it.
There is an obvious moral to stories like this, and if done well, they can sweep the viewer along with them. This one isn’t likely to escape its cult-only status, however. The story, while it hints at more, just isn’t up to it.
Audio Bonus: Here’s the complete soundtrack recording, very effectively done by the group Tangerine Dream:
THE CYCLE SAVAGES. Trans American Films, 1969. Bruce Dern, Melody Patterson, Chris Robinson, Maray Ayres, Karen Ciral, Mike Mehas. Written and directed by Bill Brame.
Bruce Dern is at his unhinged, psychologically disturbed best in The Cycle Savages, a mediocre biker movie with a threadbare plot. Filmed on location in the Silver Lake and Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the movie is a rather downbeat affair. Dern’s portrayal of Keeg, the leader of a biker gang engaged in the white slavery racket, is so viscerally raw and cruel, that one forgets that one is even watching a fine actor at work.
But it takes more than a dastardly villain to make a movie work. It also takes a hero. In Cycle Savages, we really don’t get much. The only person in the neighborhood who seems willing to stand up to Keeg is Romko (Chris Robinson), a pensive, sensitive artist originally from the Eastern Bloc. Unfortunately, Robinson’s portrayal of Romko doesn’t exactly leave one feeling inspired. At least he has a pretty girl at his side. Lea (Melody Patterson) is playing both ends against the middle. She’s working for Keeg, but also falling in love with Romko. If this doesn’t seem to entice you, then I’d suggest that you’re not going to find much in the plot to keep you interested.
What makes this film somewhat worth a look – aside from Dern’s over the top madman portrayal – is the fact that it’s very much a slice of life from a specific place at a specific time. One imagines that the filmmakers had some sense of the sleazy biker counterculture that existed in late 1960s Los Angeles and how a biker gang could really ruin a neighborhood. There is actually a great deal of meanness on display here, including an implied gang rape scene that would be difficult to put on screen today.
But is there a message in the movie? Or is it just sheer exploitation? If it’s the latter, the movie could have benefited from some more memorable characters and better music. One can thoroughly appreciate Dern as an actor, but a movie needs more than a vindictive, misogynistic villain to make it worth the price of admission. Caveat emptor.
THE 39 STEPS. Rank Films, UK, 1959; 20th Century Fox, US, 1960. Kenneth More,Tania Elg, Barry Jones, Brenda de Banzie, Reginald Beckwith, James Hayter, Faith Brook, Dunacan Lamont, Jameson Clark, Sidney James. Screenplay by Frank Harvey, based on the novel by John Buchan. Directed by Ralph Thomas.
This color almost scene-for-scene remake of the 1936 Alfred Hitchcock classic has many things to recommend it, and had there been no film of the book by the master would stand as the best version of the story committed to film. Four films of the classic novel of escape and pursuit by John Buchan have been made including a slightly more faithful to the book version with Robert Powell and a version done for PBS. The Powell has things to recommend it, less so the PBS version. Not too long ago Jonathan Demme was thinking of doing yet another adaptation of the book.
Of course, Hitchcock himself remade it at least twice using the essential story from his own film, once as Saboteur with Robert Cummings and once more as North By Northwest with Cary Grant. For all the changes, both are variations on the same theme and plot. With the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” The 39 Steps may be the most borrowed plot in film and modern genre fiction. Even Bob Hope’s My Favorite Blonde owed much to it, including the presence of Madeline Carroll.
This version produced by Betty Box, opens with Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) footloose and at loose ends in London. In the park he encounters a Nanny (Faith Brook) and tries to return a rattle dropped on the ground only to be rebuffed. Still trying to return the rattle he saves her from nearly being run down by a car and ends up with the pram, which had no baby in it, and her purse with no identity but a gun and tickets to a music hall performance that night at the Palace (and that’s a fairly placed clue for the handful unfamiliar with the film versions).
The Nanny shows up, and promises to tell him the story behind the empty pram, but only after they watch Mr. Memory (James Hayter), a little man with a prodigious memory for facts. They go to Hannay’s flat, where she reveals she works for the government and is being hunted by a spy ring led by a man missing the top joint of his little finger. Something important about a military project is being smuggled out of England and it has to be stopped (the classic Hitchcockian definition of a McGuffin, that exists only to move the plot forward).
Hannay goes to make tea and while he is doing that, the two men (Duncan Lamont and Jameson Clark), who tried to run her down earlier and who have followed her to Hannay’s flat, kill her with a dagger Hannay brought back from his adventures (in the book he is an engineer from South Africa, in the Hitchcock he’s Canadian, and here he appears to have been connected with the Foreign Office though not as an agent).
He knows the police will never believe him and the two killers are waiting outside in case he tries to leave. His only hope is to follow the few clues Nanny gave him and go to Scotland and try to see the important man she named.
Aside from the color, what sets this apart from the Hitchcock classic is its on location filming. Some spectacular shots, narrow misses, and eccentric characters (shopworn medium Brenda de Banzie and her cuckold husband Reginald Beckwith), a few new bits including Hannay asked to speak at a girls school rather than a political meeting as in the book and first film (a scene ‘borrowed’ and set in a nudist meeting in the film of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, another Steps influenced thriller), all add to the mix that made the first film so charming and this one a worthwhile remake.
If nothing else, the location color shooting expands the films feel for Buchan country, something suggested by a few scenes in the original.
Along the way Hannay meets Miss Fisher (Tania Elg), who is traveling with a group of school girls, who doesn’t believe a word he says, but has seen and knows too much, ending up handcuffed to him as he tries to reach London and discover just where and what the 39 steps are (this version does restore the original meaning of the steps of the title even if we never see them).
The cast is first rate, but it is More’s film, and like Robert Donat before him, the success depends greatly on his charm and abilities as a light comedian as much as a dramatic actor. Elg does quite well, but lacks the cool Hitchcock blonde demeanor of Madeline Carroll. It isn’t her fault, even Deborah Kerr had trouble recreating icy Carroll’s beauty in The Prisoner of Zenda scene-for-scene remake. Barry Jones (Brigadoon, Seven Days to Noon) is especially sinister as Professor Logan who exudes charm and threat with the same soft tones.
Sidney James, Reginald Beckwith, and James Hayter all bring their usual skills to bits in the film, as does Brenda de Banzie as a phony medium half convinced of her own con and attracted to all the wrong men. Ralph Thomas was always a competent director and often more, and screenwriter Frank Harvey not only wrote or co-wrote some of the best films of the period but was a first class novelist as well (The Mercenary).
Hitchcock’s film is the classic, and there is no suggestion this is anything but a shadow of that, but it is a strong and quite entertaining shadow, and as the first version of the story I saw, it has some pride of place for me. It served as my introduction to the works of John Buchan and to Kenneth More, and both have served me well in terms of entertainment over the years.
The 39 Steps has been adapted to four films, radio, the stage (a major hit on Broadway and London’s West End), comic books, appeared as a serial in Argosy, and audiobooks. The book is a recognized minor classic (major in the mystery genre), and Alfred Hitchcock’s film a classic in itself.
This version may not reach that high bar, but it does have charm, excitement, wit, and attractive leads in an entertaining film, and that’s not such a low bar to achieve for any film, especially a remake.
THE HURRICANE EXPRESS. Mascot Pictures, 12 chapter serial, 1932. Tully Marshall, Conway Tearle, John Wayne, Shirley Gray, Edmund Breese, Lloyd Whitlock. Directors: J. P. McGowan & Armand Schaefer.
Speaking of Serials (here and here), I did spend four hours and twenty minutes watching The Hurricane Express, a Twelve chapter 1932 release of somewhat modest dimensions from the folks at Mascot, whom I mentioned some time ago in connection with The Last of the Mohicans.
Hurricane Express would probably be pretty much forgotten today, except that it starred an overgrown athlete of exceptional thespic incompetence (in those days) named John Wayne. Wayne had just come off the biggest commercial flop of his career, The Big Trail, and found himself sudenly a Star with nowhere to go; the closest contemporary comparison would probably be Klinton Spillsbury.
Anyway, for the next few years Wayne would shift uneasily between minor parts at Major Studios and Star Turns on Gower Gulch, until the years somehow turned him into a seasoned performer. Hurricane Express is one of the happier steps in his apprenticeship, a film that enabled him to show off his natural athleticism while avoiding the Big Dramatic Scenes that he was as yet woefully ill-equipped to handle.
The Plot, such as it is, deals with Young Duke’s efforts to catch The Wrecker, a Pulp-style Master of Disguise who goes around smashing toy trains (the miniature work/special effects in this are about on a par with The Claw Monsters) and is responsible for the death of Wayne’s Dear old Dad in an HO scale pile-up. Writer/Director Armand Schaefer puts some nice touches in, though, and even manages a Real Thrill from time to time, what with folks jumping on and off speeding trains, shooting down airplanes, stealing the Gold Shipment and gosh-all.
There’s also a nifty bit involving the Wrecker’s Secret Identity: He apparently has detailed life-masks of everyone in the cast, and goes around impersonating them for his own evil ends. What this means in practical terms of course, is that Wally The Brakeman, who’s been acting sort of suspicious for the last few chapters, will suddenly do something overtly criminal, then sneak out of sight, clinching everyone’s suspicions that he’s actually the Wrecker. Then the actor playing him will reach behind his own neck the camera pans to his feet, and a mask of Wally’s face drops to the floor -neatly confounding our suspicions and eliminating the necessity of paying another player.
So who is the Wrecker? Well, I had a good hunch by Chapter 2 and was pretty well sure of it by Chapter 4. He’s the one who acts normal; the one without an obsession over something-or-other; the fellow who tries to be helpful and counsels everyone to take the path of least resistance. A man, in fact very much like you or me. Or like me, anyway.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I always thought it should be a sign of Literary Sophistication not to be able to pick out the Mystery Villain in one of these things. I mean, when we get to the scene where they’ve tied up Dick Dauntless and are torturing Helen Heroine, and Freddy-who’s-been-hanging-around-all-movie-for-no-apparent-reason pipes up, “Oh for Gawd’s sakes, Helen, tell them where the Map is!” the Truly Discerning Viewer should think he’s supposed to identify with this guy: “Obviously, the writers put him in to add a touch of Evelyn-Waugh realism to the Characterizations, someone to take our minds off the cardboard protagonists and their pulp-paper problems. A Henry James Everyman to provide a touchstone of emotional verisimilitude. What? You mean he’s the Villain? How utterly crass!”