Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Seven Keys” a Tight Little British Mystery Movie

Released in 1961, “Seven Keys” is a fast-paced English crime film about a surly prisoner named Russell, played by Alan Dobie, who is informed by the warden that he has inherited a strange gift from a fellow inmate who died behind bars.

The inheritance is a ring of keys. Russell learns the old prisoner was sent to jail for embezzling £20,000. The money was never recovered and the warden, the guards, the police, and Russell suspect one of the keys will open the secret hiding place of all that loot.

Once Russell is out of the can, he goes through the keys, one-by-one, discovering what each opens. While working his way through the ring, he attracts the attention of baddies who would also like to get their hands on the cash.

This quirky little movie, with a running time of just 57 minutes, was most likely the second feature on a double bill, but it is miles ahead of the usual B-picture. The twisty story, the acting, and the visual style are well above average.

“Seven Keys” was directed by Pat Jackson, who went from making documentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, to feature films in the 1950s, to television in the 1960s and 1970s. He directed several episodes of two shows starring Patrick McGoohan – “Danger Man” (called “Secret Agent” in the U.S.) and “The Prisoner.” Both of those shows have some of the flavor found in “Seven Keys.”

The quirky, jaunty quality of “Seven Keys” with its snappy pace and eccentric supporting characters, may be the influence of producer Julian Wintle. In the 1960s, he produced all the Emma Peel episodes of “The Avengers.”

The writers on the film were Henry Blyth and Jack Davies. Davies had a long career in movies, including the scripts for the tricky Michael Caine picture, “Gambit,” and the comedy, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”

This good little film is out on DVD, part of a series of box sets called "The Edgar Wallace Mysteries." But the discs are not available in a format for the U.S. and Canada.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“Road House” with Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott

The 1989 movie “Road House” is a rip-roaring action comedy that took me 28 years to see.

Dalton, played by Patrick Swayze, the coolest, toughest bar bouncer in the country is hired to come to a small town and clean up the roughest dive in the burg. Liking the challenge, as well as the big bucks that go along with the job, Dalton sets out to kick ass. And he does, although it takes him half the movie to whup all the dirtbags, and to teach the bouncers and bartenders how to do the same, with style.

Dalton takes his lumps along the way, and when he can’t administer first aid to himself, he is forced to go the hospital, where he meets a beautiful young doctor, played by Kelly Lynch, and – well, you are way ahead of me.

The biggest problem in the town is a rich gangster named Wesley, who is running a protection racket and collecting from all the honest businessmen. Wesley is played with zeal by the great Ben Gazzara, who all but steals the show from Swayze.

Just when Wesley and his goons step up their strong-arm methods, Dalton’s old mentor, Wade, played by Sam Elliott, rides into town to help. Elliott is another actor who nearly steals the show from Swayze. But Swayze persists, taking on the gang, including a one-on-one martial arts showdown with Wesley’s top henchman, and finally Wesley himself.

This film was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who made a handful of action and crime films over the years, along with an interesting movie about pro golfer Bobby Jones. “Road House” was produced by Joel Silver who made tons of action films since the late 1970s.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

“A United Kingdom” is a Movie to See

If “A United Kingdom” is still playing at a theater near you, go see it.

It is the true story of Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, the heir to the hereditary kingdom of Bechuanaland (now Botswana, but in the late 1940s, still a British protectorate), who, while a law student in London in 1947, meets an English girl, played by Rosamund Pike, and marries her over the objections of his uncle, the acting king of his country, and the British government.

When I saw the coming attractions, I thought it was going to be good, but it was far better than I expected.

So check your local listings (OK, a Google search), find out if it is playing, and go see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon"

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and as they usually do every March 17, the cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, is showing Irish-themed films all day.

Tonight at 8 p.m., TCM is scheduled to show John Ford’s “The Rising of the Moon.” (But, please check your cable guides. The times can vary and schedules can be different outside the U.S.) .

“The Rising of the Moon,” from 1957, is an unusual little black and white film with no big-name stars, except Tyrone Power who introduces segments of the picture.


The movie is in three parts, each a separate and unconnected tale, based on short stories and plays by Frank O’Connor, Michael J. McHugh, and Lady Augusta Gregory, and adapted by long-time Ford collaborator, screenwriter Frank S. Nugent.

The first two stories are told with a gentle sense of nostalgia. The last is harder and tougher. All three parts were made with care and artistry on location in Ireland.

Don’t miss this one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Don’t Bother Seeing “I See a Dark Stranger”

St. Patrick’s Day is approaching and, ironically, I happened to watch a film the other night with a distinctly anti-Irish tone. But then, most of the English characters in this movie did not come across too well, either.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is a 1946 war film set in Ireland and England in the weeks prior to the 1944 D-Day invasion. I was expecting a noir thriller, but was disappointed.

Bridie Quilty, played by Deborah Kerr, a young, obstinate and none-too-bright young Irish woman who spent her life listening to stories of fights for Irish freedom from the British, decides to serve her country against its ancient foe by becoming a Nazi spy in England.

While working diligently and unthinkingly for a nest of spies gathering information about the coming invasion, she attracts the amorous attention of a British officer, played by Trevor Howard. Why the Howard character would think Bridie anything but an ill-tempered idiot is beyond explaining. Bridie makes Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher of “The Quiet Man” look like an easy-going hippie girl.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is part adventure film, which the producers supposed would be in the mold of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” and part slapstick comedy with most of the slaps coming in the last 15 minutes of the picture. But this movie is a 100 percent mess, although a technically well-crafted mess.

The film was co-written and produced by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, with Launder directing. The two wrote the script for Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” so this one should have been a lot better. But they did not have Hitch to guide them.

My advice is to skip “I See A Dark Stranger,” especially if you have any Celtic blood in your veins. You might want to skip it, too, if you are British because the movie is none too kind to your people either.

Now, so as not to leave you without a movie recommendation for March 17, do try to see John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon," Friday on Turner Classic Movies (in the U.S.). And, please check back here on St. Patrick's Day for a post on Ford's film.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

FFB: Six Days of the Condor by James Grady

The violent spy thriller, Six Days of the Condor, is a fun, fast read from 1974.

Written by a first-time author, then in his mid-20s, James Grady quickly sets up a deadly predicament for his main character, Ron Malcolm, a man in his mid-20s, working for the CIA.

Malcolm is part of a research division in which half a dozen men and women read novels all day and turn in detailed reports on them, noting any passages that may reveal a deeper knowledge of the world’s spy agencies than any ordinary person could know.

This division is off on its own, housed in a Washington, D.C. townhouse. Into this quaint building on a residential street come three men with machine guns who massacre everyone working there – except Malcolm, who left through a back door to run some errands for his boss and pick up lunches for the staff. Malcolm returns to find his colleagues dead. He calls headquarters and arranges to be picked up and taken to safety. But the pick-up is a trap which he narrowly escapes and which sets him running for his life, not trusting anyone.

Why the employees are killed is not too hard to figure out. The people behind it are well disguised. Malcolm's struggle to figure it all out takes a backseat to his avoiding the hitmen and staying alive.

In a strange twist, Malcolm kidnaps a young woman and hides in her apartment. He explains his crazy situation, she forgives him and jumps his bones. Well, 1974 was not that far removed from the free-loving 60s.

With a little suspension of disbelief, Grady’s novel is a swift, action-packed yarn with several well-done, tension-filled moments that keep the pages turning.

A couple of minor criticisms of the book are its use of two old devices. One is concealing the identity of the bad guys by using only vague physical descriptions in scenes featuring them. The other is leading the reader up to a revealing moment, and then cutting it short with a chapter break. The following chapter jumping ahead in time to the characters carrying out the plan which was not revealed to readers. These devices are still in use.

Overall, Grady did a fine job of setting up and sustaining suspense, and his lean prose style made for an enjoyable read.

In 1975, Six Days of the Condor came out as a film, with many changes from the book, including its title, called “Three Days of the Condor,” starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Western theme songs by Frankie Laine

One thing leads to another.

Last week, I posted about the Elmore Leonard short story, “Three-Ten to Yuma," which started me thinking about the two films based on it, one from 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and the other from 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. As much as I liked the Leonard story, I cannot say I cared much for either picture. But, I do like the theme song from the original movie performed by Frankie Laine.

Laine was born Frank LoVecchio in 1913 in Chicago. During the 1930s, he sang with bands in nightclubs. In 1946, he recorded “That’s My Desire” for Mercury records. The song became a hit, and made Laine a national star along with fellow Italian-American recording artists, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

In 1949, Laine recorded “Mule Train,” which seems to be the song that opened up a new track in Laine's career – singing theme songs for Westerns.

Some of the movies he contributed to are the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas “Gunfight at the OK Corral” from 1957, the Kirk Douglas “Man Without a Star” from 1955, and “3:10 to Yuma.” Along with the movies came TV theme songs. Perhaps the most famous was “Rawhide,” for the show starring a young Clint Eastwood. “Rawhide,” like “Mule Train,” is punctuated with whip cracks.

Then, in the 1970s, the story goes, funny man Mel Brooks was preparing a Western comedy and put out a call for someone to sing the theme song who sounded like Frankie Laine. How about Frankie Laine? the singer himself asked Brooks. And that, they say, is how he came to record “Blazing Saddles.”

Laine passed away in 2007.

Here are some links to Frankie Laine’s songs:

That’s My Desire

Mule Train

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Man Without a Star

3:10 to Yuma (the movie version)

3:10 to Yuma (another version)

Rawhide

Blazing Saddles 

And here is Laine with Perry Como in 1951 on The Frank Sinatra Show

Thursday, March 2, 2017

FFB: Three-ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

Recently, my friend, Prashant, who blogs at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema, posted a piece about the 2007 movie, “3:10 to Yuma.” The film is a remake of a 1957 movie with the same title. Both are based on a story by Elmore Leonard.

While I have read many of Leonard’s contemporary crime novels, I have read few of his Westerns. I went in search of a copy of this one and found it is not a novel. Elmore Leonard’s “Three-ten to Yuma,” is a fairly short, short story – about 17 pages, in the hard cover collection of Leonard’s Western stories called, The Tonto Woman.

The two movies beefed up the back-story and tacked on motivations that are not present in the short story. In Leonard’s version, first published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953, Paul Scallen is a deputy sheriff in Arizona tasked with getting outlaw Jim Kidd from Tucson to the Yuma Territorial Prison, near the border of California. To transport him the roughly 250 miles, Scallen will escort Kidd on a train leaving at 3:10 in the afternoon.

He and the prisoner arrive in Tucson just before dawn and wait in a hotel room until it is time to walk down to the railroad station. While waiting, word gets out that Kidd is in the hotel, and members of his gang arrive in town and wait for him and the lawman to come out into the open.

Elmore Leonard’s tough, lean tale holds up as model of good storytelling, quickly setting up the situation, providing just enough background, building tension and bringing the tale to its violent conclusion.

Although the date is not stated, the story takes place between 1876 and 1909. Those were the years the Yuma prison was in operation. It was closed when a new prison was built and is today a museum.

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mystery movie "Town on Trial" with John Mills

The 1957 British film, “Town on Trial,” starts with a visually-stunning series of quick shots, setting up the story in about 60 seconds, and ends with a sweaty-palm, acrophobia-inducing climax. It fills in the middle with a good mystery, told in a smooth, cinematic style by director John Guillermin.

A town is shocked by the murder of a gorgeous young woman, but the people close ranks against police investigators, revealing little for fear their reputations and that of their town will be marred.

A detective superintendent, played by a strong John Mills, is sent in to crack the case. He tramples all niceties and gets right to the point with the residents and especially with his prime suspects, peeling away the protective armor people placed around their less-than-upright lives.

This fast-moving, black and white movie has the feel of the great films made in post-war England, and, under Guillermin ’s guidance, feels modern with its intense performances and constantly moving camera.

For more about this film, please see (here) the review my friend Sergio posted a few years ago on his blog, Tipping My Fedora.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FFB: Where the Boys Are, Glendon Swarthout's novel of Spring Break, Sun and Sex

Right about now, thousands of college students are thinking about or heading out for spring break. So, it is a good time to look back at spring breaks past.

Other than a couple of newspaper articles in the late 1950s and a feature in Time magazine, the first major chronicle of kids hitting the beaches was Glendon Swarthout’s 1960 novel, Where the Boys Are.

In the book, two coeds, Merritt and Tuggle, travel from their cold, Midwestern college to Florida where they meet and bed a series of men – sometimes the same men – and party like crazy.

As fast as the girls and guys meet and hook up, they move on with only the memories of some so-so sex, except for one night of passion when Merritt and a musician get into some experimental sex and rock each other’s worlds. While the musician is the only one to show any signs of commitment – he wants to take her with him to San Francisco – Merritt is noncommittal, and soon has something more important and complicated to think about. Which of these guys, she wonders, is the father of the child she is now carrying?

Where the Boys Are is a comic novel, but not a laugh-out-loud comedy. The humor is dark and subtle and meant more to shock the parents of beach-bound students than to titillate those not old enough or financially able to take the trip. To those who go, it is something of a warning, but not a preachy one.

Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992), according to some brief, on-line biographies, taught at Michigan State University in the mid-1950s. After hearing spring break stories, he went to Ft. Lauderdale in 1958 to check it out for himself. The book was the result.

Swarthout was an interesting writer. Among his novels were several westerns including The Shootist, which was later made into a film starring John Wayne.

College kids getting away for spring break goes back a lot further than the 1950s. Students who could afford it were doing it in the early 1900s.

Ft. Lauderdale became a destination in the 1930s when the city built an Olympic-size pool and promoted the facility to college swim teams. The teams went, an annual swim meet was created, more and more students heard about the gathering and over the next couple of decades hundreds of kids flocked to the beach.

By the late 1950s, about 20,000 students went there for spring break. After Swarthout’s book and MGM’s movie of it came out, the numbers more than doubled. It got so big the mid-1980s saw several hundred thousand descend on the city. Ft. Lauderdale decided it did not need the headaches of being overrun every spring. The city began promoting itself as a great destination for families. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a wild party like the idea of a vacation with parents. For a while, the students moved up the highway to Daytona, and later to the Florida panhandle.

(For more posts about books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)