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by Sam Juliano

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was a renowned French composer perhaps best known for his version of Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach, though his two big operas, Mignon and Romeo et Juliette have continued to hold the stage. The latter in fact has been a staple at the Metropolitan Opera over the past several decades.    His mother was a pianist and his father was an artist. Gounod studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and later married Zimmermann’s daughter after he finally abandoned desires to enroll in the seminary. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Fernand, and enjoyed sustained popularity during his lifetime.  For television fans Gounod’s fame is for the iconic theme music of a venerated show that ran for seven years during the height of the baby boomer era.  Indeed Gounod’s quirky composition, Marche funebre d’une marionette (The Funeral March of a Marionette) was a godsend of sorts for film and television giant Alfred Hitchcock who employed this simultaneously cheerful and spooky piece for what is arguably the most famous opening of any show in the history of the small screen.  Hitchcock is said to have chosen this theme after recalling its employment in Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, though its use in Harold Lloyd’s first talkie Welcome Dancer must have been equally ubiquitous.  As Gounod’s music launches the screen showcases the enlarged letters of the show’s title, which segues into the iconic caricature of the director -which he drew himself- appearing in silhouette, which is followed by Hitchcock himself walking to the center of the screen to eclipse the image in side profile.  Then we are delightfully regaled with the inimitable master of ceremonies’ trademark “Good Evening” before he launches on his distinctly British sounding deadpan tirade of the coming mise en scene or the pervading theme of the half-hour episode about to commence.  Sometimes his appearance is pensive or pedestrian, just as often he is adored in clothing that corresponds to the teleplay at hand.  In one show about hypnotism Hitchcock is shown laying on a cot answering a moderator while under the influence; in others we see him dressed in rain gear at a fishing wharf or with a noose around his neck before an execution.  Whatever the mood that is established in the episode there is always the opening levity and the final post-script when Hitch returns again to tell the audience the fate of the murderer or one of the characters as a way as he later explained to interviewers “to hold the moral ground.”

John Crosby, in his November 16, 1955 review of the series in the New York Herald Tribune opined that “the best thing about Alfred Hitchcock Presents is Alfred Hitchcock presenting”.  While such an assessment might seem like a takedown of the actual episodes themselves, it mostly accentuated the significance of the masters-of-ceremonies role in the show.  While Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff in Thriller and John Newland in One Step Beyond were essential to their respective presentations, both to established tone and impart some narrative and/or thematic information, Hitchcock’s moderator gig by its very intent as well as delivery was markedly mordant, with even the show’s sponsors often satirically chided. Hence, irregardless of who wrote or directed the actual episodes (Hitchcock directed 17 of them) the imprint of the creator extended from the introduction and epilogues to the tone of most of the teleplays.  No anthology series before or since has operated with such vital incongruity.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents began its formidable run in 1955.  It ran for seven years in the half hour format, was finally cancelled after the impressive run (unprecedented for an anthology show) and then immediately returned wearing different clothes as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which aired for three years, concluding in 1965 after 93 episodes, running at 50 minutes each, double the length of the earlier series.  Though some treatments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents opt to include the three one-hour years as part of the original show, and others describe it as a continuation, for the purposes of this countdown they were considered separately. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour landed a spot on the second part of the countdown and will be considered in another essay.  The seven years of the half hour show yielded 268 episodes, of which one -the seventh season “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was never aired because it was perceived as too violent, though it was widely seen years later and is presently part of all the show’s video incarnations.  The tone of the episodes ranges from crime and murder (the most prevalent themes) to thriller, horror and deadpan comedy.  There are a few very moving human stories in the mix as well and one of these will be featured as my own #1 favorite in the entire series run.  The narrative element that seems to unite most of the episodes is that many people are reprehensible human beings.  The slightest provocation can often lead to someone plotting another’s demise, and in numerous instances a wife, husband or close friend are bumped off for monetary gain.  The series is largely a succession of morality tales in “what goes around comes around” mode.  Sinners will almost always get their proper comeuppance, and often in much more elaborate terms than their own victims received.  The ironic twist endings far better manifested themselves in the half-hour shows, where they are more direct and not obscured by a wider ranging plot, though the hour longs shows had other assets to elevate them (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

 

Dearest Allan:

It has been almost ten months since you departed this earthly realm.  Lucille and I won’t ever forget the last time we spoke, which was by phone two days before you left us on August 29, 2016.  You struggled to speak, but you moved us to the core of our beings with your achingly emotional regard for our eleven year relationship.  Though we saw each other on three occasions, adding up to sixty-seven days in each other’s company over that all-too-brief period, our friendship was fueled by daily correspondence and more marathon phone calls than I have had with any person during my lifetime.  I can’t remember any other person I fought with more regularly nor can I even fathom the vitriolic nature of some e mails we shared in a chain with fellow friends from Brooklyn and Chicago.  Those contentious rows almost always ended with phone conversations initiated by you, with peace branches being accepted on both ends.  I fondly recall the first time we ever spoke on the phone back in 2005, when I recklessly dialed your Kendal number and spoke with you nearly four hours, erroneously thinking I had unlimited time.  I took an eight-hundred and forty dollar hit that day, one that had you and your mum deeply mortified over the colossal gaffe.  As you recall you felt so bad over it that you sent me one-hundred and fifty dollars worth of DVDs to ease the pain, but that now laughable baptism under fire led to more Sunday afternoon conversations than I can remotely recall.  Hence, when you told Lucille that she, I and our family “made my life worth living” you immediately and for all time erased all the acrimony and malice, validating in those tearfully impassioned words “what I say about someone is one thing, what I feel about him is another.”  Just two months before you shattered us with your untimely adieu, you consoled me on the phone after the tragic passing of my brother Joe’s oldest son at age thirty-six.  I shared my eulogy of him with you and you did all you could, even monitoring my own state of grief with Lucille.  Though you yourself began to have seizures at that time -a short while after the dreaded cancer had returned- you did all you could from 3,000 miles away to ease my pain.  You had all that you could handle and them some, yet you had something there left for me.  Whatever time I have left, I won’t ever forget your deepest concern for a friend at a time when your own life was hanging in the balance.  Of course, I won’t likewise ever lose sight of the fact that when I was given the news of Brian’s sudden death (drug related) I was driving on a highway about an hour west of my home.  I jerked the steering wheel and pulled to the side of the road overcome by grief.  The very first thing I did before even allowing such catastrophic news to settle in was to reach you on FB message to appraise you of this horrific event.

Such was the nature of daily communication that as you will fondly recall was in the neighborhood of at least a dozen back and forth e mails, new release announcements, links to other sites and reviews and general banter that often concerned personal matters, finances and family related issues.  Our shared site contains many priceless exchanges, and there isn’t  anything I wouldn’t do to have you back as the yang to my ying.  Heck I just heard over the last few days that you told one of our mutual friends that there was a time you’d have to “rethink our friendship” as a result of my being generally unimpressed by the television show The Wire.  That quip made me think of when you thought I deserved life imprisonment for championing  Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon and Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.  Those were precious exchanges, and I tear up just reliving them.

But I know you were taken from us for a specific reason.  You had done your job here, and are now bringing the cinema to people who left their earthly origins much too soon, much as you did.  After all your job was to write a film encyclopedia for use by newbies and those expanding their horizons.  Now you have others to teach, to spread the word, to delineate what is exceptional and what is disposable.  As always your persuasiveness is irresistible, a kind of pitch like the one Ed Wynn gave to Mr. Death in The Twilight Zone’s season one gem “One For the Angels.”  When Wynn departed he brought along his box of goodies so he could make pitches to those in heaven, much as your transported file copies of your book are probably all the rage in the movie paradise not too far beyond the pearly gates.  The old phrase “I wish I were a fly on the wall” applies to me as I try to surmise what your lectures are entailing.  Though I quite understand and respect that this is a one way correspondence – you are allowed to read it but cannot respond before the point of departure for others, I have still come to speculate how’d you’d respond to new releases based on your prior assessment of works bearing thematic or stylistic similarities.  I have you down for 3.5 for La La Land, 4.5 for Moonlight, 3.5 for Fences, 4.5 for Indignation, 3.0 for Jackie and the top 5.0 for Manchester for the Sea.  If like you I am fortunate enough to get up there at some point, I would like to compare notes on these and many other releases both old and new.  I am sure you are celebrating over the Arrow blu ray release of the long-unavailable Rainer Warner Fassbinder television release, Eight Hours Don’t Make A Day.  I know that you and Jamie Uhler had many discussions about it, but were doubtful it would ever experience the light of day for cinephiles.  But late in July it will become a reality, following in the paths of your beloved Yoshida, Rivette and Fassbinder sets. (more…)

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them2

by Sam Juliano

Throughout history, compassionate minds have pondered the dark and disturbing question: what is society to do with those members who are a threat to society, those malcontents and misfits whose behavior undermines and destroys the foundations of civilization? Different ages have found different answers. Misfits have been burned, branded and banished. Today, on this planet Earth, the criminal is incarcerated in humane institutions…..or he is executed. Other planets use other methods. This is the story of how the perfectionist rulers of the planet Zanti attempted to solve the problem of the Zanti misfits.        The Outer Limits, “The Zanti Misfits”

The 1963-4 science fiction television series The Outer Limits ran for a scant season and a half, producing forty-nine episodes until ABC cancelled it after was pitted against the Jackie Gleason Show.  The show’s moody textured look, eerieness and indebtedness to German Expressionism set it apart from its era’s other major anthology work, The Twilight Zone, which for all its narrative brilliance was shot conventionally.   Of course The Outer Limits was a one-hour program as opposed to the other which ran a half hour for all of its five seasons save for the fourth.  While such science fiction luminaries like Gene Roddenbery have admitted that the influences The Outer Limits exerted on Star Trek is incalcuable it can’t be argued that retrospectively The Outer Limits owes some of its own ideas to 1950’s sci-fi cinema.  Indeed the most celebrated episode in the run of the show is “The Zanti Misfits” which features ant-like, rat-sized aliens who exhibit human faces.  Representatives of this alien world by interplanetary communication ask that Earth provide a penal colony for its criminals.  Set in a California desert the show winds down with the complete obliteration of the creatures and expected reprisals, but Earth officials are quickly thanked for doing something that their own non-violent race cannot.  In the closing narration an alien spokesperson refers to Earthings as “practiced executioners.”

This theme of the total annihilation of a hostile force, also set in an arid southwestern terrain, and showcasing menacing ant-like invaders is the subject of Them!, a 1954 landmark film that is uniformly regarded as the first of the run of the “Big Bug” features that spooled out over the decade.  While “The Zanti Misfits” is patterned after Them!, the 1954 work was an encore of sorts to the The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms, in that both share a single cautionary theme against the use of nuclear weapons.  We’ve seen a more didactic use of the theme employed in films like 1959’s On the Beach, which focused on the after effects of a nuclear war, but the science fiction umbrella allows for a far less preachy approaach and one predicated on entertainment in good vs. evil mode.  Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner, aiming to capitalize on the spectacular finantial success of Beast –made for $200,00, and grossing 5 million- doubled the budget, lengthened the running time and even gave serious consideration to color, 3-D and widescreen, though these embellishments never materialized due to their incapatability with the F/X process. Warner attempted to make Them! like Beast in scene-by-scene manner , employing the documentary style rather than embracing the monster effects of a horror film, and he even encored Cecil Kellaway’s ironic scientist from the earlier film with the affable thespian Edmund Gwenn, who is as patient here as he was when he portrayed jolly old St. Nick, but in the end with markedly less compassion. (more…)

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it! 1

by Sam Juliano

Another word for Mars is death.            

Edward Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space remains a prime example of a modestly budgeted 50’s science fiction film that was gloriously resurrected on television after a theatrical run fueled by the drive-ins.  In the New York City market it remained a staple on WPIX’s Chiller Theater, where it was rightly perceived as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, and aimed squarely at the baby bommer generation.  The original title, The Vampire from Beyond Space is a better appraisal of the movie’s central conflict, which is variation of sorts on another 1958 genre classic The Blob, but the film is now mainly celebrated as the inspiration for Alien,  a mighty acknowledgement, especially for a standard programmer in an era inundated with this brand.  Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (inexplicably missing from this countdown) even with the decisive lean towards horror, is another film with striking similarities to It!)  The future as depicted in the film is scarely fifteen years away -1973- which is only four years after man first stepped foot on the moon.  But the Jerome Bixby (Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life”; Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror”) penned script relied on what appeared to be rapidly advancing technology, bolstered in part by the success of Sputnik the previous year, and the Cold War space competition that could very well see the U.S. negotiated not one but two missions back-to-back amidst the tensions associated with trying to exceed the other.

The rubber-clad terror that has invariably reduced the Martian physiology to that of the title protagonist showcased in Creature from the Black Lagoon is a reptilian monster with a singular aim of killing all who come in its path.  There is nothing remotely sophisticated in both the plot and the character motivations exhibited in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, neither does the story arc veer into unexpected directions.  Yet, there can be no question that once the suspense begins to build, it has the macabre allure of something like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, where the question isn’t “if” but “how” and “when.” (more…)

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spock

by Sam Juliano

One of the most beloved characters ever created for a television series is one that is now become as a cultural icon, if not a worldwide phenomenon.  The Vulcan Spock was brought on to serve as science officer on the starship Enterprise for the pilot of a new futuristic series in 1966 by the show’s architect and Executive Producer, Gene Roddenberry, who insisted above network objection that his alien character be maintained beyond the debut appearance.  Spock was the only character on the show, titled Star Trek that was specifically written for an actor.  That fairly young but well-traveled thespian, Leonard Nimoy brought physical confirmation to what Roddenberry had envisioned, and with some crucial tinkering like the employment of pointed ears, Spock’s popularity even eclipsed that of the show’s central protagonist, Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner.  The fascination with Spock was and continues to be his logical demeanor and lack of emotions.  Playing yang to Shatner’s ying Nimoy helped to forge one of television’s most indelible pairings, one that defined casting chemistry, and continued to captivate viewers from all walks of life in virtually all age groupings in the decades that followed the show’s three year run from 1966 to 1999. (more…)

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Midsummer-masthead

midsmmer

by Sam Juliano

The unconscionably horrific events that unfolded in idyllic Newtown, Connecticut on the morning of December 14, 2012 left a world in cathartic disbelief.  Three and a half years later a mere reference rekindles the darkest memories that can be envisioned.  Inevitably some brave -some might frame them in a much more unflattering light- documentary filmmakers sought to painfully recall the specifics and wider implications of a crime so unthinkable that many choose not to deal with it in conversation, much less in any comprehensive medium that will bring numbing grief left in a holding pattern a renewed potency.  The human stories surrounding the families who lost children at Sandy Hook Elementary School on that fateful day dominated the internet for many months, and the killer whose name is often unspoken was leading search engine inquiries, and typically unrestrained local tabloids.  Indeed to this date in time there remain unsettled lawsuits on behalf of the victims’ families -20 first graders and six adults including the school’s principal were gunned down after the killer shot his way through glass panels at the building’s entry point, from which point he randomly stalked and shot at classes scurrying for cover.  The deranged 20 year-old who lived on the other side of town on Yogananda Drive, had killed his mother in her sleep with one of the cadre of weapons kept in the house and later turned the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle on himself as the first responders entered the school.  There were heroes, teachers who sacrificed their own lives for their students, and a few others -students fleeing after the killer’s weapon apparently jammed and one first grader who played dead- who were on the right side of luck, and there are forever shattered families who can never move beyond the utter senselessness of the tragedy.   The horror particularly -and understandably- brought the calls for gun control to deafening levels, with the New York Daily News leading a continuing crusade against anyone sympathetic to weapons providers or legislators sympathetic to their cause.  Just a few weeks ago Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was strongly criticized for his failure to hold gun store owners responsible, in what seemed to be a very dubious position for the Vermont Senator to make at this time. (more…)

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magnus-film-1050x600

by Sam Juliano

For a very long time chess was a niche interest in the west, a competitive sub genre in the sports world, distinguished of course by its unparalleled level of intellectual acumen.  The first world champion was the Austrian-turned-American William Steinitz, who even now has openings named after him.  It is generally speculated that the game originated in India, though most of the champions of the last sixty or so years have hailed from Russia.  The west, and the United States in particular though, did not embrace the game with the kind of euphoria afforded other sports until 1972 when the famously eccentric Brooklynite Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in a then Cold war confrontation that is now regarded as the “match of the century,” and the series of games that is most often studied by aspiring masters and aficionados of the game worldwide.  Each game was studied during live television broadcasts in the states by a man who later became known as the “Julian Child” of chess – Shelby Lyman.  Because of Fischer, chess became all the rage in the US, with clubs taking root in high schools and colleges, and chess volumes flying off the shelves of bookstores, many collection of prior tournament games and studies of openings.  As a a lifetime chess player, I fondly remember my term as Vice President of my University club back in the mid 70’s, and have maintained my interest.  Yet I can only marvel at the level of brilliance reached by this master intellect and the complexities that can only boggle the mind.  Some degree of interest waned after Fischer refused to defend his title federation rules, and went into seclusion, later taking up residence in Reykjavik, Iceland, the site of his match with Spassky. (more…)

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