Friday, March 24, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Murder She Said (1961)

Back in the ‘60s, the camp thing got very popular. The James Bond movies were very campy (and the myriad of knock-off Bond stuff, from the zillions of movies to the merely billions of TV shows, were generally even more so), the Europeans were churning out zany, over the top superhero films, crime melodramas, schlocky sci-fi and insane westerns, and of course we had Batman, the TV show.

Camp mixed in well with black (as in tone, not as in race) comedy, and the Brits especially were good at mixing murder and mirth. Thus you had a ton of successful comic whodunits, including a batch starring Terry Thomas. One author much represented in this trend was Agatha Christie. Unlike her countryman Edgar Wallace, whose baroque novels inspired a gazillion outrageous West German ‘krimis’, Christie’s books worked in this regard because they were conversely so blank.

Her novels were puzzle books, in which ingenious solutions to the crimes were the point. No one ever read her books because of their depth of characterization. This might explain why one of the world’s most popular authors, working in a genre that was extremely popular in movies up until maybe twenty years ago (the whodunit), found her work so seldom represented in film.

Aside from a few very obscure Poirot films made back in the ‘30s, Christie’s work was adapted only a few times, and these were books that didn’t feature her detectives. One book, Ten Little Niggers (changed, for obvious reasons, to Ten Little Indians in later editions), became the basis of the classic And Then There Were None. Ironically, the mystery element in this novel was very weak, and the film completely rewrote the solution, so successfully that the numerous film and TV remakes stuck with the movie’s storyline rather than going back to Christie’s.

Her other prominent film prior to the ‘60s was the extremely fun and tricky courtroom/murder mystery Witness for the Prosecution, as directed by Billy Wilder and starring Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (who would have made a great Poirot, actually). Ironically, this was adapted from a stageplay Christie wrote, and not one of her books.

Because she was so light on characterization, her two primary series detectives, Miss Marple and the Belgian Hercule Poirot, were pretty much left open to interpretation. In the ‘60s, this led to many adaptations that emphasized humor as much as homicide.

Poirot was easily the more exaggerated character of the two, and thus lent himself to this sort of thing. Performers who played the blustering Belgian during the ‘60s and ‘70s include such essentially comic actors as Tony Randall, Peter Ustinov and, in a rare humorous turn, Albert Finney. (Zero Mostel almost joined the list, but that project was scrapped.) Ustinov played Poirot in three movies and three further telefilms, and was the actor most associated with the part until David Souchet made the part his own during a long British television run.

While it took a while to find a suitable Poirot, however, the movies immediately found the exact right actress for Miss Marple in Margaret Rutherford, a stout, pugnacious, downright bulldogish old Englishwoman who sort of looks like how you’d expect Jon “Dr. Who” Pertwee’s mother to appear.

She first played the Jane Marple here, in 1961’s Murder She Said, which was so immediately popular that she assayed the role in three quickly made sequels, and then cameoed as Marple in the much loopier Tony Randall Poirot film The Alphabet Murders. Happily, the four Marple mysteries, which are all delightful, have just come out in a DVD box set.

Murder She Said acts as an introduction the character, and indeed was alternately titled Meet Miss Marple. This is clearly Miss Marple’s first case, and thus we meet her supporting cast for the first time too, such as her platonic admirer Mr. Stringer (played by Rutherford’s husband), and the oft-bemused Inspector Craddock, who admired the old gal nearly as much as he was driven to distraction by her.

Miss Marple is riding a train when she witnesses a murder on another train passing opposite. (The killer’s face, needless to say, is obscured.) She reports the incident, but the police can find no evidence of a crime. Convinced that she is right, Marple investigates herself and finds a spot where she believes the body may have been dumped. This focuses her attentions on a nearby manor house, and in her determination to find the killer, she takes a job there as a maid.

The house, needless to say, abound with suspects, and naturally a couple of more bodies make an appearance before the case is closed, with Marple nearly being one of them. The solution is OK, but not great, as only one of the three killings really can be tied specifically to the proffered murderer. (By which I mean, the others could have been assigned to any other cast member equally well.)

It’s Marple’s interaction with a bunch of equally eccentric characters that really sells the film, of course, and that remained the hallmark of the series. Although the films are tongue in cheek in terms of characterizations (and more so in the later movies), the mystery elements are played pretty straight, as they should be. Modern audiences will probably find this perhaps a bit twee and slow moving, but should one acquire the taste for them they are marvelously entertaining.

The DVD for Murder She Said includes the trailers for the four films as well as the ‘60s Ten Little Indians, the first remake of the vastly superior And Then There Were None. Anyone who likes a good mystery should definitely check the latter out. The Murder She Said trailer, meanwhile, drolly includes the theater audience as a character in the movie. After Marple witnesses the murder in the train, she turns to us and says, “Did you see that? They probably won’t believe us.” It’s pretty funny.

Another memorable element is the movie's jaunty harpsichord score, a whimsical piece that became the theme music for the entire series.

Ms. Rutherford was a few years away from winning a plethora of awards for her Grand Dame supporting role in the hilarious 1964 Richard Burton/Liz Taylor soaper The V.I.P.s, for which she one the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Rutherford couldn’t make the show, and ironically her award was accepted on her behalf by Peter Ustinov), as well as a Golden Globe, among other laurels. She became Dame Margaret Rutherford upon being awarded a DBE in 1967.

Awesome Godzilla DVD news...

Per DVDdrive-in.com:

"You may have already heard that they plan to release a 2-disc set of the original 1954 GOJIRA with the 1956 American version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS on September 5th with a SRP of $21.98. But on the same day, the company will also unleash a multi-disc set (6 or 7 discs, depending on the amount of gathered extras) which will include GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, GODZILLA’S REVENGE and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA. The set will include the American versions, as well as the original Japanese versions with English subtitles, and all titles will be remastered in anamorphic widescreen (except in the case of the original film and RAIDS AGAIN which will be full frame), and are promised to look pristine. There will be number of special features, including commentaries with Terry Morse Jr. (son of Terry Morse who wrote, directed and edited KING OF THE MONSTERS) and Patricia Saperstein (daughter of Henry Saperstein, head of UPA). The multi disc set has a SRP of $69.98. Classic Media assures us that the films will look spectacular and that these releases will satisfy even the most diehard Zilla fans!"

It should be noted that a couple of the films in the box set, Godzilla Raids Again and the essential Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster, have never been issued on DVD before. (At least not in America.) And the opportunity to get the others with both the American and Japanese versions is fabulous, not to mention the promised extras.

It will be interesting to see if the "American" versions are the dubbed versions seen in this country, or are instead the separate "International" dubbed versions offered on Sony's DVDs. I have nothing bad to say about Sony's stuff, but as a kid who grew up on the (real) American versions, it would be great to hear the familiar voices I heard as a child on these rather than the unfamiliar International casts.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

It Came from Netflix! McQ

By 1974, John Wayne, arguably the most iconic American film star ever, had appeared in well over 150 movies during a career spanning nearly fifty years. The vast majority of those were Westerns or military flicks, but he had also played airline pilots, sea captains, a guy who captured wild animals for zoos, a diplomat in Japan, the owner of a circus, a saloonkeeper, a fellow who fought oilrig fires, and even a Roman Centurion, and, rather more infamously, Genghis Khan.

In about 45 years and a hundred and seventy movies, though, he had never played a cop.

He had played many lawmen, of course, but that was in his Westerns. Wayne nearly always starred in period pieces, and it wasn’t until perhaps the mid-‘60s that any significant portion of his films was set in the modern day.

Wayne had been approached in 1971 to play the titular role in Dirty Harry. He declared the ending, where Harry threw away his badge after gunning down the murderous Scorpio, “un-American,” and turned down the part. Frank Sinatra was then attached to the movie, but he was well known for developing cold feet for a project, and he did so again. Eventually the role went to Spaghetti Western icon Clint Eastwood, a much younger actor (thus junking the idea of ‘Dirty’
Harry Callahan being an older cop who found himself in contention with the political realities of the ‘70s), who helped make the film an instant classic.

By this point in his career, Wayne was generally making mid-grade oaters that were the cinematic equivalent of junk food both for himself and his reduced but still loyal Mid-American audience. Older and noticeably, er, less fit, the Duke surrounded himself with a stock company of actors he liked working with, including his son Patrick, as well as old familiar directors like Burt Kennedy and Andrew V. McLaglen (the latter being best known to the bad film community for helming the infamous Joe Don Baker epic Mitchell.)

On a very rare occasion these latter films took an artistic flyer, as when truly shocked audiences actually saw the Duke gunned down in The Cowboys. For the most part, though, this period was marked by studiously unambitious fare that delivered only what the audience expected, no more and no less.

Perhaps hoping to connect with the younger audiences that at this juncture rarely went to see his films, Wayne finally got around to making one just one cop movie, but two, back to back. 1947 saw McQ, and the following year Brannigan, with John Wayne as a very John Wayne-ish Chicago cop unleashed on London.

Cop films were huge in the wake of Dirty Harry, especially films with violent rogue, breaking-all-the-rules sort of protagonists. This is part of the problem with McQ, as it’s nearly as run of the mill as his recent Westerns had been. This despite signs that the film was meant to be an upgrade to those. Most noticeably, the film was assigned to John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, etc.), a noticeable improvement over the journeyman helmers the Duke generally worked with at that time.

The film opens with two uniform cops being assassinated. (Being shot in the ‘70s, these scenes naturally feature large applications of the sort of overly bright neon red stage blood then popular in action movies.) A bit later a detective is shot down as well.

This latter was the long time partner of Detective Lon McQ (Wayne). He figures the killer was hired by powerful hood Manny Santiago (veteran heavy Al Lettieri). He ambushes Santiago and works him over, causing McQ’s cautious and dyspeptic superior Capt. Kosterman (Eddie Albert) to threaten him with suspension.

In response, McQ turns in his badge. He arranges a position with a private eye friend so as to have license to carry a gun, and continues him investigation on his own. In the end, McQ finds that a group of dirty cops are behind the whole thing, and unfortunately the whole thing devolves into a typical “throw a dart to determine who the bad guys are” kind of deal.

McQ’s not a bad film, but it’s not that great, either. It’s a bit flaccid at 111 minutes, and despite the occasional bit of plotting, it just kind of ambles around between fistfights, exchanges of gunfire and car chases (of which there are three, which only serve to establish that Wayne looks a lot less comfortable at the wheel of a speeding car than he does on a horse).

Sturges’ direction is about the same. It gets us where we’re going, but that’s about it. Better is a typically terrific funk score by Sturges’ regular composer Elmer Bernstein. If I had to pick the film’s best element, it would definitely be the music.

The film meanders a bit too much. If the characterization or the dialogue were sharper, then McQ’s seemingly never ending series of conversations (with various cops, hoods, his dead partner’s wife, a potential witness, his own ex-wife and young daughter, a pimp/street stoolie [and that guy he talks with one two separate occasions], etc.) might have held our interest more.

In an attempt to emulate (and of course, surpass) Dirty Harry’s massive trademark .44 Magnum revolver, we get a hilarious scene where McQ is in a gunshop. The owner, an old pal, calls him into the store’s elaborate shooting range, and demonstrates a then rare Ingram submachine gun.

Fitted with a giant silencer (and one of those magical, near endless clips of bullets one always sees in these), this exaggerated piece of armament was actually heavily featured in the poster and other advertisements, as can be seen on the DVD box art. In the end, McQ just scoops the gun and several clips of ammo into a bag and notes that he’s borrowing them, whereupon he carries off the illegal weapons with but a laughably token demurer from the shop owner.

Another problem is that despite his still imposing bulk, the Duke was 67 when he made this, and obviously was a bit long in the tooth for the action sequences. In attempt to cover this, the actresses playing his ex-wife and his (sorta) love interest are about fifteen years younger than him, he has a briefly seen daughter who looks to be in her mid-teens but is played like a Jr. high schooler, and there are even romantic glances between McQ and his partner’s widow, who is played by Star Trek’s Diana Muldaur, who at the time was 36 to Wayne’s 67.

Still, unlike most of today’s movies, at least most everyone in the cast is out of their ‘20s. Meanwhile, the Duke is surrounded by an able cast of character actors, including Arnold, Muldaur (then best known as the girlfriend of TV’s McCloud), Colleen Dewhurst, Clu Gulager, David Huddleston (the M. Emmett Walsh of the ‘60s and ‘70s), Roger E. Mosley (playing the pimp, but better known later as the black sidekick on Magnum P.I.), and even The Creature of the Black Lagoon’s Julie Adams.

In the end, this is little more than a harmless time waster. There’s both better and worse stuff out there, but for those looking to pass a couple of hours with the Duke, this should do the job.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Wow. Seriously, that's all I can say...

Synapse has announced the Rock 'N' Roll Nightmare: Special Edition for 6/27. The set will will feature anamorphic widescreen video, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (along with the original mono), commentary (with director John Fasano and star Jon-Mikl Thor), the Revelations of a Rock 'N' Roll Warrior, Rock 'N' Shock Memories and Creating a Child-Wolf featurettes, music videos for Energy and We Live to Rock, a new video introduction by Jon-Mikl Thor and liner notes by Ian Jane.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Back to the Futurama?

UPDATE: SADLY, BILLY WEST HAS NOW WITHDRAWN HIS CONTENTION THAT THE SHOW IS LIKELY TO RESUME PRODUCTION, SAYING IT WAS ALL A MISCOMMUNICATION. THIS LEAVES ONLY THE PROPOSED DTV DVDS AS A HOPE FOR FURTHER FUTURAMA MATERIAL.



From a message thread by the man himself at billywest.com (Billy West being the actor who played Frye, the show's main character):

"The other good news is that they're doing 26 new episodes of Futurama for TV and we're hammering out the deal now. The original plan was to have the DVD's first but that's no longer the case."

[At one point the show makers were talking about going some DTV Futurama movies. Presumably this new skein would be in place of that.]

I seldom get very attached to TV shows anymore, and the only two I've truly mourned over the last several years have been Futurama and Arrested Development. However, two factors seem to be helping to bring cult shows back to the airwaves (such as the previously resurrected Family Guy), one being lower ratings--in other words, it now takes less of an audience share to make a show comparatively viable--and more importantly, DVD sales. After all, a studio can be making money off DVD and whatever else in the future off this content for theoretically ever. Which is part of the reason, I had to admit, I was surprised they cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise.

No word yet on whether these new episodes, should they happen, will be for Fox (the show's original home) or the Cartoon Network, where the old episodes are now playing to good ratings. Maybe both. However, this is great news, and if Arrested Development is picked back up too, it's indicitive of a very good trend for programs with a small but committed audience.