Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Dressed to Kill'

Some notes from another meeting of the local cinephile society….

I should tell you right off that we’re not talking about the 1980 movie directed by Brian DePalma or the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film that share this title.

“Dressed to Kill” (Fox, 1941) stars Lloyd Nolan as detective Michael Shayne, whose cases were described in a series of novels and short stories that were published under the byline of Brett Halliday, which was the pseudonym of a guy named Davis Dresser. Dresser wrote many of Shayne’s exploits but eventually handed the detective over to ghostwriters.

As a mystery writer of some repute (if Roget will accept “some” as a synonym for “minuscule”), I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read a Shayne story. I suspect that unlike the works of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, they’re out of print and available only in used-book stores, along with copies of a magazine bearing Shayne’s name that was published for many years.

The Fox film is one of a B series that also included the studio’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies. Director Eugene Forde was a veteran of the Chan films.

If “Dressed to Kill” is any yardstick, I’m sorry to say that the Shayne series is the least of the Fox mystery movie series. It’s like a car that starts out almost out of gas and eventually runs only on fumes, and in this case the fumes are provided by Lloyd Nolan, who seems to be trying his best to make this work as he looks in vain for the nearest filling station.

He’s not helped by various roadblocks put in place by the writers.

Early on, for example, Shayne finds two bodies in a hotel room – a double homicide. Is he horrified? Does his discovery whet his appetite for justice?

Nope – he’s delighted, because he can call one of the newspapers and give the editors a scoop in exchange for some cash. Not the most sympathetic lead character I’ve ever seen, though the screenwriters are kind enough to stop short of having him kick a baby down a flight of stairs.

But Nolan makes it work (barely) by playing such scenes for all their comic worth, even if “all,” in this case, turns out to be – what was that word again? – minuscule.

The plot also involves a murder device that is supposed to be ingenious but comes across as needlessly complicated, to the point where I was expecting the cops to issue an APB for Rube Goldberg.

Speaking of cops, one bright spot is Nolan’s nemesis, a police inspector played by William Demarest who is once again playing, well, William Demarest. And to me, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. (I have little patience with people who criticize some old-time character actors for playing the same characters each time. You want a William Demarest type? Who could do it better than old Bill himself? And in “Dressed to Kill” we are reminded once again that nobody did pratfalls quite like old Bill, bless him.)

The cast also features Mantan Moreland, who later played Chan’s chauffeur, in a stereotypical scene that aims to take comic advantage of his big, scared eyes but which these days induces cringes that could give the Richter scale a workout.

But there’s also Henry Daniell, villain extraordinaire, who is engagingly cast against type as a sort of doofus. (Something tells me that if you Google “Henry Daniell” and “doofus,” this might be the only hit you’ll get.)

Shayne, who is about to be married as the movie begins, manages to solve the case but lose his impatient fiancĂ©e, played by Mary Beth Hughes, one of the queens of Fox’s B movie lot.

By this time I had lost more than a little patience myself, but the movie wasn’t all that long, and the popcorn was good.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"Christmas - 1954"

In awe
At Him
On straw --

Fleshed Law,
Fleshed Love,
Deity without flaw.

Look down
Above to see:
Kneel to

-- The Rev. Robert H. Flood, C.S.B. (1919-1974)
(my uncle)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

First Gene, Now Connie and Arnold

This is turning out to be a bad month for the celebrities of my youth.

About two weeks ago, Gene Barry died. And within the last few days I’ve learned that two other performers have gone on to that big rerun in the sky….

Although she did a “Perry Mason” episode that I remember, I mostly associate Connie Hines with “Mr. Ed,” where she very attractively played straight to Alan Young (still alive), who, in turn, played straight to a horse. Kind of a menagerie-a-trois, I guess you’d say.

(Quick: What was Mr. Ed’s real name? Bamboo Harvester. I’ll bet that was your first guess, right? Sorry to say, though, that Ed – or Bamboo – crossed the final finish line some years ago.)….

My first memory of Arnold Stang is from his days as a pitchman for Chunky chocolate bars. “Chunky! What a chunk o’ chocolate!” he was wont to say.

Stang had been in show business long before television, in radio and movies. In movie cartoons he played Herman the mouse and Popeye’s friend Shorty. In the 1960s he was also the voice of Top Cat – something that impressed me at the time (I was easily impressed way back when) because Top Cat’s silky-smooth voice was so different from the goofy voice Stang usually used. It took me some time to figure out that Top Cat was an homage to Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko, the word “homage” being derived from a Middle French term, “le ripoff.”

Then again, the first time I saw the original famed 39 episodes of “The Honeymooners,” the plots seemed tired until I realized I’d seen them before on “The Flintstones.”

(It sometimes takes me a long time to figure out stuff like this. Lately I’ve been hearing that professional wrestling is fixed. Have to look into that one of these days.)

Gene, Connie and Arnold. I’m sorry to see them go, partly because they were fine performers and seemed like nice people, and partly because when people like them leave, parts of my youth go with them as the fabled past recedes – along with my hairline. (Oh, where are the follicles of yesteryear?)

Clarification: Mark Evanier, whose blog, "News From Me," is indispensable (see blogroll) says that although Shorty was featured in three Popeye cartoons, Arnold Stang's voice was featured in only one of them, "Moving Aweigh." In the other cartoons, Shorty was played by Jack Mercer, who also did Popeye's voice most of the time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

3,000 and counting

This blog reached another milestone today -- 3,000 hits.

So I'd like to take this occasion to thank all my visitors.

Notice I said "visitors" but not "fans." For it seems that most of the people who come upon this blog don't get here because their respective breaths are bated as they await the latest drippings from my alleged mind.

They get here because they're searching for something, and their search brings them indirectly (perhaps "detoured" would be a better word) to this establishment.

I notice a lot of you -- and that's putting it mildly -- have landed here because you've been doing a search for "sinbad movies." Heaven only knows what kind of hold Sinbad has on you people. And I thought the characters from "Star Trek," in all its permutations, had a herculean fan base.

Lately I've been getting a lot of visits from Googlebot. I've been trying to ascertain exactly what a Googlebot is, but although I have a rough idea, I can't quite figure it out. My local computer guru has tried to explain it to me, but to no avail, although he does say that to be stalked by a Googlebot is a good thing. (Hmm. I wonder if a Googlebot can mate with a doodle bug. If you happen to know the answer to that, please refrain from telling it to me.)

I do know that I have a loyal reader in Boise, Idaho, who was kind enough to write to me. Someone from Rockville, Md., comes here, too. And I occasionally see visitors from Rochester, N.Y., and Wampsville, N.Y. ("Good old Wampsville -- gateway to Oneida," as Bob Hope would say if he were here, which I'm glad he isn't, because I'm sure I couldn't afford his price.)

Anyway, thanks to all of you regulars, whether you identify yourselves or not. It's always nice to know there's someone out there, even when I'm not completely sure there's anyone in here.


At the (old) movies: 'The Captain's Paradise'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

“The Captain’s Paradise” (London Film, 1953) is about a guy who is, well, a louse.

But because this is one of those cute British films from the fifties (such as “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Ladykillers”), and because the louse in question is played by Alec Guinness, and because the film comes right out and tells you that it’s a “fairy tale,” the louse, ferryboat captain Henry St. James, comes across as the kind of bad boy you want to wave your finger at instead of socking him one.

Why is Henry a louse? Simply because he has a wife and a mistress. The wife, played by Celia Johnson, is a homebody who keeps the St. James home well-kept while Henry is keeping a mistress, Nita, a dancer played by Yvonne De Carlo, in Tangiers.

The two women seem to exemplify what Henry wants in a woman – domesticity, with a walk on the wild side (or at least a side that’s as tamely wild as things usually get in this kind of movie).

With this kind of plot setup, what usually happens is that the wife finds out about the mistress or vice versa (I had a teacher who pronounced this “vissy versa,” the original Latin pronunciation, I would guess). And in this film, you keep waiting for this to happen, so that the “fun” can begin, Henry can get his comeuppance, and the prop department can earn some overtime by supplying enough pots and pans and other utensils for the women to throw at him.

But this never happens.

Instead something else happens, something a lot more subtle and enjoyable, and I won’t spoil it here.

It’s not a long movie (the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that this kind of plot can’t be stretched as far as two hours’ worth of screen time), and although I don’t like it as much as “The Ladykillers” (I’m of course referring to the Guinness film, not the Tom Hanks remake, which I, with no regrets whatsoever, have never seen), it is a little gem.

Aside from Guinness’ performances – another of his Little Men With a Lot More to Them Than Meets the Eye – Celia Johnson once again proves that it’s almost physically impossible for her to give a bad performance, and Yvonne De Carlo might well surprise those who know her only as Lily Munster.

Charles Goldner has some very good moments as Henry’s chief officer, who finds out about the boss’ double life. And in a small role, you can find Sebastian Cabot of “Family Affair” as a vendor, apparently on his day off from taking care of those three kids and making some extra money. (Geez, you’d think with that fancy-schmancy Manhattan apartment, Uncle Bill could afford to pay the guy more….)

Friday, December 18, 2009

E. White, T. Eliot spin in their graves

The New York Times' Web site is reporting the death of the author of thee 1976 book "Friendly Fire." I never read the book, but I remember it. It's about the death of a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, and it was made into a TV movie featuring Carol Burnett and Ned Beatty as the soldier's parents.

The book's author was C.D.B. Bryan. That was the guy's byline.

I don't know what The Times' hard-copy newspaper says, but its Web site has this headline:

C. Bryan, 73, 'Friendly Fire' Writer, Dies

I know what you've been thinking...

It's only a week before Christmas and you've watched the Grinch, watched Charlie Brown, watched Rudolph.

You know there's something's missing.

You're thinking, when is Murphy once again going to post the link to that charming Christmas mystery story he wrote a few years ago so I can enjoy it yet again?

Well, who am I to ignore my public's wishes? Scrooge? Or Mr. Magoo, even? (And why do I suddenly seem to be channeling Snagglepuss?)

All right, already. The link to "The Afternoon Before Christmas," a 1,500-word epic featuring crime-solving copy editor Chuckie Charles, is right here.

And I hope you enjoy it again. Or even for the first time.

And feel free to drop me a line about it, if you're so inclined.

Ho ho ho.

Friday, December 11, 2009

He wore a cane and derby hat

While I was channel surfing around 1 or 2 in the morning a few years ago, I discovered that one of the cable stations was about to begin a marathon of episodes from the “Bat Masterson” TV show, starring Gene Barry, who died this week.

I hadn’t seen “Bat Masterson” in many years. Since then, and in recent years, I’d seen reruns of other shows I’d grown up with. Some held up; some didn’t.

I figured I’d watch a “Bat Masterson,” then head to bed.

I wound of watching three of them. Or was it four?

They seemed to hold up quite well for two major reasons: the quality of the writing (I think someone named Andy White basically created the series) and, of course, Gene Barry, who played the man who “wore a cane and derby hat.” (And it only now occurs to me, a professional editor, that "derby hat" seems redundant. Oh well.)

So I watched a lot more of the episodes when the cable station began showing them regularly.

I wasn’t that big of a western fan when I was a kid. I was too young to stay up for Paladin, though I was permitted to watch “The Rifleman.”

But I used to watch “Bat Masterson” because it was different – or rather, the hero was different. A lot different. The series purported to be based on a biography of Masterson, which I’ve never read, and in seeing them again, I got the impression that the episodes were based on things that happened to the real Masterson or things that might have happened to him. (And who knows what the guy was really like? I’ve seen a picture of the real Bat, apparently taken in later years, and the real guy looks like a guy who’s trying to be as dapper as the guy who would play him decades later.)

Heck, I even had a “Bat Masterson” board game. Kind of like Clue, as I recall. (Where is the bad guy hiding? The saloon? The livery stable?)

A few years later, Barry resurfaced in “Burke’s Law,” playing a rich guy who solves crimes as the head of a homicide squad because he likes doing it and he’s good at it.

Barry’s character, Amos Burke, had an eye for the ladies – actually, two eyes for the ladies, and you shuddered to think what he could do with more. The show at times at least bordered on sexist, I suppose; for the most part, it was, to me, engagingly silly. And it had some fine writers, too, among them Richard Levinson and William Link, who created “Columbo,” and Harlan Ellison.

“Burke’s Law” was produced by Aaron Spelling for Four Star and used a formula Spelling would later use on “The Love Boat”: lots of guest stars, some of them on their way up, some of them not so famous anymore but worth seeing. (I fondly remember one episode that included a pre-“Bewitched” Elizabeth Montgomery and, as an older lady, Ann Harding, a very interesting actress whose heyday was in the 1930s.)

After a few years, someone got the idea of making Amos Burke a secret agent, and Capt. Burke’s fortunes couldn’t have fallen more precipitously if he’d been shoved down an elevator shaft. I never could watch an “Amos Burke, Secret Agent” episode all the way through.

Barry’s next role was Glenn Howard, newspaper publisher, in “The Name of the Game.” He was one of three stars, the others being Anthony Franciosa and Robert Stack. Each episode was 90 minutes. Maybe I was too young, or maybe the show was padded, or what, but I usually couldn’t get through any of these episodes, either.

A little later, Barry played the murderer in “Prescription: Murder,” the pilot film for “Columbo.”

In the 1990s, Spelling and Barry resurrected “Burke’s Law.” I tried to get through a couple of episodes and got through one, I think. For one thing, Amos Burke now had a son (got to appeal to the younger generation, y’know). And each episode featured Dom DeLuise. I’m sorry Mr. DeLuise isn’t around anymore, and I did find him amusing, but to me, a little of him always went a long way, or at least halfway around the block.

So what are we to make of Gene Barry? He’d been a movie star before “Bat Masterson,” but, as far as I can tell, not a major one. And he was a good musician – a pianist – and he could sing and dance, as evidenced by the acclaim he won on the stage in “La Cage Aux Folles.”

When all is said and done, Gene Barry radiated class. (Is it a coincidence that his real last name was Klass?) But the movies of the fifties already had someone who radiated – indeed oozed – class, namely Cary Grant.

And when you consider that a lot of early television lacked this kind of class (though it did have its charms and, once in a while, a kind of quality that has seldom, if ever, been equaled), and when you consider that Fred Astaire rarely appeared on TV and Cary Grant never did, someone was needed to provide some polish. Gene Barry was in the right place at the right time, and – cane and derby hat or not – he delivered the goods.