Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '65 - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Friday, July 24, 2015

Underrated '65 - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 12 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out!
http://www.kcrw.com/music/programs/dn
check out his Film Discoveries of 2014 list too:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/02/favorite-film-discoveries-of-2014-eric.html

---------
1965 is an interesting year to be thinking about film, as I feel that the pop music explosion going on in the wake of the British invasion, Motown, etc. was sucking up much of the creative energies in the commercial arts (just look at all the films that featured on-screen appearance from live bands). For the movies, the studio system was long gone, and the old school Hollywood stars were entering their twilight; television was in its ascendancy, serving as the replacement for revival house cinemas, while contemporary B-movie sub-genres like Hammer films were past their prime; even the French New Wave’s first fiery burst had died down, while the gritty realism, sex & violence of the American New Wave hadn’t really kicked in yet. This is why you’ll probably find more commonalities amongst the various contributors’ “underrated” selections for this year – in a shallow pool, the best of the bunch are obvious & fairly easy to spot. But I’m honored to throw my two cents into the mix and share some of my favorites from that year.

Two on a Guillotine/Brainstorm (both dir. William Conrad)
I have no clue what led to character actor Conrad directing three feature films for Warner Bros. in 1965. He had helmed a slew of TV shows, from “Have Gun – Will Travel” to “77 Sunset Strip,” and as an actor he was a familiar face and especially a familiar voice, being an iron man of radio drama and the narrator on shows like “The Fugitive” and “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” But why three quickie B&W thrillers in ’65? Dunno, but they are very watchable little films, at least the two that I’ve seen. “Two on a Guillotine” is an “Old Dark House” variant with a couple of genuine shocks, as Connie Stevens is menaced by the legacy of her crazy stage magician father (played by Cesar Romero, on the cusp of his late career stardom as the Joker). Dean Jones gets a nice fairly-straight role too, just before becoming the face of Disney’s live action films. “Brainstorm” is more intense, working like a cross between “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Shock Corridor,” as computer scientist Jeffrey Hunter falls for his boss’ wife (Anne Francis, and who wouldn’t!) and embarks on a plan to kill him & get away with it by feigning insanity. Hunter’s tragic death a few years later hinders his acting legacy (he was the original captain of the Enterprise, you know), but this film is a great showcase for him, devolving from clean-cut company man to genuinely certifiable. I’ve never seen eyes sparkle so intense than Hunter & Francis’ here. Dana Andrews gives a nice noir touch as the domineering boss. Both films offer a nostalgic glimpse of mid-60s California, with the third feature, “My Blood Runs Cold,” putting a virtual close on Conrad’s directing career.

Ballad in Blue (dir. Paul Henreid)
I love unexpected pairings in the movies, but this is one of unlikeliest I’ve encountered. What is Paul Henreid (of “Now, Voyager” & “Casablanca” fame) doing directing Ray Charles (as himself) mentoring a young boy through his own struggles with blindness smack in the middle of London’s Swinging 60s? Seeming influenced by the flood of rock & roll movies popular at the time, this one is more “Room at the Top” than “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a heavy dose of kitchen-sink melodrama laid over Charles’ stylized music performance sequences. There are lots of weird moments (See Ray Charles shave! See Ray demonstrate his braille watch! See Ray drive a bumper car!), the acting is a little sketchy, and the plot is wildly implausible (everyone is so damned nice!) But there is something genuinely heartwarming and almost tear-jerking about the whole affair. Henreid cowrote the story and even cast his daughter in it, so he must have been invested, but still seems an odd combo!

The Railrodder/Buster Keaton Rides Again (dir. Gerald Potterton/John Spotton)
Buster Keaton’s final silent film, the 24-minute short “The Railrodder,” is often paired with the documentary, “Buster Keaton Rides Again,” which documents the making of the aforementioned film (and happens to be over twice as long!) Either way, one gets the pleasure of seeing one of the great cinematic comedians at the top of his game despite his age and infirmity (he would die of lung cancer, almost certainly exacerbated by his alcoholism, the following year). In the short Keaton crisscrosses Canada by means of a speeder rail car, demonstrating typical Stone Face gags the whole way. The doc makes clear how precise and intuitive a comic he was, relying on a seemingly-endless strength of physicality to make something so simple as sitting up dead straight in a fast-moving car really punctuate the joke. The doc also gives a glimpse into his private life, relying on his wife for support, shying away from the official spotlight of the adult world, but loving signing autographs for young fans. An elegant through-line to the Golden Age of Silent Films of nearly 50 years prior.

The Sleeping Car Murders (dir. Costa-Gavras)
Greek-French director Costa-Gavras made his feature debut with this nifty late-noir. A perfect blend of Maigret-like, hard-nosed police detective work (with Yves Montand in the role of the inspector in charge of a baffling murder aboard a train) and a “Hill Street Blues”/Ed McBain 87th Precinct-style procedural, as a whole slew of familiar French faces filling the roles of various policemen work together to solve the case. Loads of other legendary actors participate, including Simone Signoret (from “Les Diaboliques” & “Room at the Top,” as well as Montand’s wife at the time), Catherine Allegret (“Last Tango in Paris” & Montand’s step-daughter), Michel Piccoli (“Contempt,” “Topaz”) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “A Man and a Woman”). Mostly devoid of the political themes with which Costa-Gavras later made his name, this is pure entertainment, with some unexpected twists, bursts of violence, a ridiculously catchy theme song and a stunning car chase finale, making for a great blend of B-movie satisfaction for the Francophile.

The Bedford Incident (dir. James B. Harris)
The quintessential submarine hunting movie, this Cold War relic still holds its power and anti-war message, mostly through the conviction of its stellar cast. Richard Widmark stars (and co-produces) as crusty & self-proclaimed “mean bastard” Capt. Finlander, who revels in his mission. Sidney Poitier plays a reporter embedded on the ship, while Martin Balsam, Wally Cox and “Hawaii 5-O”’s James MacArthur are all on duty & suffer at the hands of the Captain’s monomania (Donald Sutherland also makes a brief appearance). Finally Eric Portman, one of my favorite British actors, plays a former German Commodore, who advises Widmark on his hunt. One can be just as claustrophobic on a Destroyer ship as one can aboard a sub (at least cinematically speaking), and director Harris keeps things fairly tightly confined, so that one can fully appreciate the weariness the crew must be experiencing, a weariness that proves to be dangerous by the film’s dramatic conclusion.

3 comments:

criterionblues.com said...

I have not seen any of these, but really want to see the Costa-Gavras. That Keaton looks great too.

Also have to give a shout out to KCRW and how brilliant they are. Ride was on Morning Becomes Eclectic a few months ago and their set was pure bliss. You are doing a service to the world, Eric.

Marty McKee said...

Hunter is great as a serial killer in the pilot for THE FBI. I don't think he played many villains.

Eric Lawrence said...

Thanks for the kind words, criterionblues.com!