|Islands In The Stream: Week Six
|by Peter Sobczynski
More streaming suggestions for you and yours. Come back every day for a new pick.
A sixth week of streaming suggestions--who would have thunk it? Anyway, I hope and pray you will find them helpful and/or entertaining and keep coming back every day until all this lunacy finally ends. If you don't, feel free to send me some invective at firstname.lastname@example.org to explain how terrible I am at this or, even better, you could perhaps suggest a title of your own that I could tackle at some point.
Over the course of their respective careers, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck worked together a total of four times. Their first collaboration, a little thing called "Double Indemnity" (1944) is easily the most famous and celebrated of the bunch but the oddest of them has to be "The Moonlighter" (1953), an admittedly by-the-numbers Western that is no classic by any stretch of the imagination but which still inspires some interest due to a couple of neat moments and the undeniable chemistry and star presence displayed by the two leads. MacMurray plays Wes Anderson (yes, Wes Anderson) and as the film opens, he has just been arrested for rustling cattle at night--"moonlighting," as it were--and powerful local cattle rancher Alex Prince (Morris Ankrum) leads a lynch mob to seize Wes and hang him before he can stand trial but due to a mixup involving cells, they grab an innocent hobo instead. In the confusion, Wes manages to escape but watches in horror as the mob kills the man that they have mistaken for him. He begins killing off the leaders of the mob but while going after Prince, Wes is wounded and winds up going to his mother's home for the first time in five years, which also reunites him with his younger and more straight-laced brother Tom (William Ching) and Rela (Stanwyck), the woman he used to be in love with but who has now taken up with the more stable Tom instead. When Tom is fired from his job at the local bank, Wes's old cohort Cole (Ward Bond), convinces him to rob the place and Tom insists on joining in. Things inevitably go sideways in a haze of violence and betrayal and things become even more murky when Rela insists on being deputized in order to take part in the posse charged with bringing Wes back dead or alive. This may sound like a pretty standard oater for the time, one that might normally be filled with B-level players rather than stars on the level of MacMurray and Stanwyck, but there is a little more to it than meets the eye. Although the narrative is pretty familiar, the screenplay by Niven Busch, who had a hand in such cult Westerns as "Duel in the Sun" (1946) and "The Furies" (1950), does come up with a couple of standout scenes. In one, Wes arranges for an elaborate funeral for the man who died in his place and proceeds to deliver his own eulogy before robbing all the townspeople who have shown up in order to pay for it. The climactic sequence in which Wes and Real are forced to cross a waterfall is also impressive, especially since one can clearly see that Stanwyck is doing pretty much all of her own stunts. Speaking of Stanwyck, this marks the first of what would become a string of Westerns that would find her in the lead and doing as much riding, roping and shooting as any of the men in the cast--she would follow this with the likes of "Cattle Queen of Montana" (1964), Sam Fuller's cult classic "Forty Guns" (1957) and the long-running television series "The Big Valley." The film is also curious because it was produced in 3-D, even though it doesn't really take advantage of the process other than the in-your-face opening credits and the aforementioned waterfall scene. The best thing, of course, is the presence of MacMurray and Stanwyck--as Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe did with "River of No Return" (1954), they take the most boilerplate Western screenplay imaginable and transform it into 78 minutes of solid, if somewhat generic, entertainment. Yes, you would probably be better off watching "Double Indemnity" again but when you are done, this one is also worth a look. (Turner Classic Movies, Amazon Prime)
When "High Risk" debuted in theaters in the early part of the summer of 1981, it had the bad luck to face both a distributor who was going out of business at practically the same time it was coming out and competition from the likes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Superman II" and "Clash of the Titans," which goes a long way to explaining why many of you have probably never heard of it before. That said, even if it had a better playing field and no distribution problems to speak of, I suspect that it still probably would have failed to find an audience--between the admittedly B-list cast and the fairly generic-sounding premise, most viewers at the time probably would have just let it slip by, only to stumble upon it on cable a year or so later and wonder how they could have overlooked something so entertaining. Stone (James Brolin), Tony (Chick Vennera, Rockney (Cleavon Little) and Dan (Bruce Davison) are four friends, all of whom are struggling to keep their heads above water during the current economic downturn, who gather for what their loved ones believe is going to be a weekend fishing trip. In fact, documentary filmmaker Stone has discovered the combination to the safe belonging to top Colombian drug lord Serrano (James Coburn) and has talked the others into a crackpot plan to fly down there, parachute into the jungle and rob the safe. Only when Stone takes them to a weapons dealer (Ernest Borgnine) for supplies and target practice does it become clear that the others didn't quite think he was being serious and have virtually no relevant training amongst them. Still, they make it down and actually infiltrate Serrano's compound. Things inevitably go sideways with Stone and Dan escaping with most of the money while Tony and Rockney being thrown in a jail cell. Tony and Rockney manage to escape, along with fellow prisoner Olivia (Lindsay Wagner), while Stone and Dan are captured by a band of rebels led by General Mariano (Anthony Quinn) who want the cash for themselves. I recognize that this description sounds like a typical helping of by-the-numbers macho bullshit but what elevates it into something more than just that is the sly sense of humor that writer-director Stewart Raffil (whose career would go on to encompass such supreme oddities as "The Ice Pirates" (1984), "Mac and Me" (1988) and the immortal "Tammy and the T-Rex" (1994) brings to the material. It has conventional action beats throughout that are handled reasonably well (the best being a scene on a treacherous rope bridge that sort of anticipates the one seen a couple of years later in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984) but while all that is going on, it is also working as an inspired weirdo comedy in the vein of the classic "Beat the Devil" (1954). There are any number of very funny moments on display--the moment when the other guys realize that Stone was serious about his crackpot plan, the revelation of the combination to Serrano's safe, the introduction of Olivia to the proceedings--and they wind up complementing the action instead of distracting from it. Keeping in line with the goofy spirit of the material, the four lead actors are funny and endearing as the world’s least-likely mercenaries (which is important because if they were not so likable, they would likely come across as little more than assholes) and Coburn and Quinn are both clearly having a lot of fun chewing the scenery in their roles. "High Risk" is silly and preposterous as can be and I suppose those who don't share its particular wavelength may tire of it and point out the various lapses in logic throughout. Those who do share it, however, will likely have a blast watching it from the beginning to its very inspired final moment. (Amazon Prime)
With today marking the fortieth anniversary of the passing of Alfred Hitchcock, it only seems to make sense to select a title from his considerable filmography as a streaming pick. Sure, I could take the easy route and pick one of the obvious classics like "Notorious" (1946), "Rear Window" (1954), "North by Northwest" (1959). "Psycho" (1960) or "The Birds" (1963) but that would be easy. Instead, I would like to point you in the direction of what is generally regarded as one of his least successful efforts, both artistically and financially, and dismissed by fans and historians as little more than a gargantuan lapse in judgement. That would be "Topaz," a 1969 spy thriller that may indeed be lesser Hitchcock but which proves that even a mid-level effort by him is infinitely more interesting than the best from most other filmmakers that you or I could mention. Based on the 1967 Leon Uris novel--one of those bricks that people used to buy to read on long airplane flights--and set in 1962 just before the Cuban missile crisis, the story opens as a high-ranking Russian operative and his family defect to the West while in Copenhagen. During his debriefing, the operative tells CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe) about a plan to put Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Needing proof, Nordstrom contacts French intelligence agent Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to help him get some hard evidence to back the accusations. Devereaux goes to New York in order to get a hold of some incriminating papers in the Harlem hotel room of Rico Parra (John Vernon), a Cuban leader who is clearly not supposed to suggest Fidel Castro in any way, shape or form and then jets off to Cuba to visit his mistress, Juanita (Karin Dor), who is also sleeping with Parra and using her proximity to get information to the underground rebel network that she leads. This all leads to a wide array of betrayals, double-crosses, murders and the discovery of a secret Soviet spy ring within the French intelligence service and if you have any genuine interest in the machinations of the plot then you are clearly a stronger person than I. And yet, while I could not possibly offer you a proper summarization of the plot at gunpoint, I still find it to be a fascinating work in many ways. Based on his past deftness with the spy thriller genre, Hitchcock could have easily used the storyline merely as a launchpad for an array of thrilling set pieces. Instead, perhaps in direct response to the James Bond thrillers that were at their cultural peak at that time, he elected to present the material in a more methodical manner that presumably came closer to approximating what life as a secret agent at that time would have been like. Some may find the results plodding (it is the longest of Hitchcock's films) but I confess that I find that watching him employ a more realistic and procedural-like approach to be oddly compelling. That is not to say that the film is totally devoid of the old Hitchcock magic--the opening defection scene and the extended Harlem sequence are both as gripping as anyone could possibly hope and the scene in which Parra confronts Juanita after discovering her betrayal builds to one of the most stunningly bravura visual moments of his entire career. I realize that "Topaz" will never be considered a good Hitchcock film and it is extremely unlikely that it will ever receive the kind of reappraisal that the once-maligned "Marnie" (1964) has earned in recent years. That said, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt--see what I did there--that even on a production that was troubled from start to finish (the studio talked him into making it, the script never quite came together and he was forced put together two additional endings when his preferred conclusion was rejected in previews), he could still make even the direst of projects into a watchable and engrossing film. (Amazon Prime. iTunes. Vudu)
So as I was sitting around trying to decide what streaming film I would be highlighting here today--you weren't under the impression that these were planned out in an orderly manner well in advance a la "Dennis the Menace," were you?--an old college friend dropped me a line asking for a suggestion for a vintage musical to watch. Figuring that I could skip over the obvious classics and that this was probably not the time to offer up anything completely weird and off-base either, I tried to think of one that would thread that particular needle when I realized that I just rewatched one on cable a couple of weeks ago that would probably fit the bill nicely. This would be "The French Line," a 1954 vehicle that was originally presented in 3-D with the notorious tag line "See Jane Russell in 3-D--She'll Knock BOTH Your Eyes Out!" The year before, producer Howard Hughes, who had Russell under contract for more than a decade prior and had been trying to market her as a sex bomb in films like the infamous "The Outlaw" (1946), had loaned her out to Fox to appear in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," where she co-starred with Marilyn Monroe and deployed the considerable musical comedy chops that she rarely got to show in her Hughes productions. When it became a huge hit, Hughes decided to do a blatant knockoff that would once again find Russell getting involved in romantic mixups and escapade while on a ship bound for Paris and have her do a number of songs to boot. She plays "Mame" Carson, an incredibly wealthy oil heiress who looks like Jane Russell. Alas, romantic happiness--the only real happiness, of course--is still out of reach for her: her latest fiancee has just broken up with her because her wealth and power means that she will wear the pants in the household while other guys are only interested in her for her vast holdings. She decides to take a sailing vacation to Paris and when she boards the ship, she discovers that old friend Annie, a top fashion designer, is heading over with a full complement of models to put on a show. Mame hits upon a brilliant idea--she will trade identities with one of Annie's models for the duration of the cruise to see if someone will fall in love with her, not because she is an oil heiress who looks like Jane Russell but because she is a fashion model who looks like Jane Russell. Fearing that Mame will succumb to some nefarious type and not knowing of the switch, her guardian, Waco (Arthur Hunnicutt) hires down-on-his-luck French entertainer Pierre (Gilbert Roland) to keep an eye on Mame and makes sure that nothing happens to her. Naturally, Pierre finds himself protecting the ersatz Mame while unwittingly falling for the real one, leading to the usual array of hijinks and bouts of mistaken identity until the (Spoiler Alert) not-entirely-unhappy ending. As innocuous as this may all sound in the retelling, this was considered to be hot stuff back in the day because of Hughes's determination to accentuate her sex appeal above every other consideration in scenes ranging from Mame taking a bubble bath to the final production number in which she bumps and grinds in a bathing suit that was considered wildly daring for a film at the time. So daring, in fact, that the film wound up being denied the then-important Production Code seal of approval and was eventually condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, moves that inevitably ensured that the film would be a big hit when it finally came out. Seen today, the scandalous quotient is practically nonexistent--one is more likely to be scandalized by the casual sexism on display throughout--but what the film now lacks in that particular department, it makes up for in terms of cheerful silliness. No, the film is nowhere close to being another "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" but taken simply on its own merits, it does have its charms. The songs, especially the climactic "Looking for Trouble" number, are pretty good, the comedy beats are agreeably silly and as for the costumes, they certainly live up to the promise of that tag line. Best of all, Russell is a delight to watch throughout as she demonstrate both her flair for comedy and a willingness to goof on her own image as a screen sex goddess that she was never entirely comfortable with in the first place. Trust me, you will not learn anything while watching "The French Line," outside of what used to pass for hot stuff back in the day, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. I just hope my friend liked it because I don't want her mad at me. Fun fact--one of the other fleetingly-seen fashion models is played by none other than Kim Novak in her screen debut. (Turner Classic Movies, Amazon Prime)
In 1970, writer-director Blake Edwards used the considerable box-office clout he had accumulated after a decade of successful films to make an expensive wartime musical that was designed to show off the saucier side of wife Julie Andrews, then best known for starring in "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music." The film, "Darling Lili," went wildly over budget, put Edwards in a constant running battle with the top brass at Paramount and was a huge flop when it came out that wiped away all of that goodwill in a flash. Over the next few years, he made a couple more films that also ran into studio interference and tanked when they finally came out. Things soon turned around for him as he ran a string of hit movies--three additions to the money-spinning "Pink Panther" franchise and the smash sex comedy "10"--that left him once again in a position where he could basically make anything he wanted. Perversely, he used all of that regained clout to artistically revisit those past bad experiences with the studios with "S.O.B." (1981), one of the bitterest and funniest Tinseltown satires ever made and one which still hits hard decades later. Wildly successful film producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) has just made the first flop of his career--a saccharine G-rated musical entitled "Night Wind" starring his wife, the squeaky-clean Sally Miles (Andrews)--and has gone into a near-catatonic state punctuated by the occasional failed suicide attempt. Trying to lift his spirits, his best friends--"Night Wind" director Culley (William Holden in his last role), press agent Coogan (Robert Webber) and the drug and bon mot-dispensing Dr. Finegarten (Robert Preston)--decide to throw a party at his house that soon degenerates into a massive orgy. After yet another failed suicide attempt, Felix snaps out of it with a brainstorm. Thinking that the film flopped because it lacked any sex appeal, he has the idea to buy back the film from the studio and revise it into a softcore pornographic musical epic centered around a scene in which the professionally virtuous Sally will bare her breasts on the screen for the first time. Like many of Edwards's films, "S.O.B." is a farce but this has to be one of the most bilious ones ever put before the cameras--it makes the likes of "The Day of the Locust" and "Sunset Boulevard" seem like "Singin in the Rain" by comparison. In fact, the only thing that keeps the it from being nothing more than two hours of unwatchable bitterness is that it is also arguably the funniest thing that Edwards ever made in his long career. His screenplay is nasty but it is also very smart and knowing and filled with an amazing array of comedic situations that develop with uncommon skill before culminating in big laughs. As for the cast, which also includes Robert Vaughn as a studio head not at all reminiscent of Robert Evans, Shelly Winters as an abrasive agent actually named Eva Brown (the film is not subtle, by the way), Loretta Swit as a hateful gossip columnist and Larry Hagman as an ambitious studio flunky, it seems as if they all had their own personal scores to settle with the industry as well and they tear into their parts with obvious glee. (The standout is Preston, who I think actually manages to score a laugh with every single line that he delivers in his scene-stealing turn.) As for that scene, it isn't particularly scandalous as presented--the scene is played more for laughs than for any genuine erotic heat--but even now, the sight of Julie Andrews making history still manage to come across as a genuinely transgressive moment. Considering the fact that it hit theaters a few months after the "Heaven's Gate" and David Begelman scandals brought the business side of Hollywood out into the open, "S.O.B" might have succeeded at the box office despite its bleak tone but it fell victim to a bewildering twist of fate--for reasons too complicated to go into here, it wound up being distributed by Paramount Pictures, the same studio that Edwards battled with over "Darling Lili" a decade earlier, and they wound up dumping it in the middle of a crowded summer season where it quickly disappeared from view. And yet, there was a happy ending of sorts after all--Edwards rebounded the very next year with the Oscar-nominated hit "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B." would go on to become a cult classic and one of his most lasting works. (iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu)
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originally posted: 04/27/20 11:52:45
last updated: 05/01/20 10:35:09