Monday, 25 November 2013

Cat on a cold tin roof... Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

“Lurid, tawdry, and sleazy ….”

Well, that sounds promising! The New York Times was clear in its appraisal of this 1962 adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel but it doesn’t managed sustained instances of any of these descriptors.

It does have a stunning title sequence as a black cat prowls along accompanied by Elmer Bernstein and David Mack’s famous song (no relation to Lou’s Wild Side…) and, foretastes the film as it gets into a brief fight with a white cat... before carrying on its way with serene feline indifference…

On the road...
Things start off pretty energetically as to young loners meet and fall in to alliance on the road. One is a quietly determined man of the Yellow Rose, Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey)… who has few words but appears of string character and conviction… and they say what’s in a name?

Laurence Harvey
The other is a young girl with life on her mind and troubled in her veins… Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda) and I say again: what’s in a name?

The two sleep rough in road-side concrete pipes and hitch lifts on their way to New Orleans, Dove’s looking for his religion, a lost love, whilst Kitty’s looking for a good time and what-ever she can get. This includes Dove who repulses her advances – there’s only room in his heart for one girl.

Jane Fonda
Their alliance is sundered as Kitty’s petty criminality is exposed at a café run by a Mexican lady, Teresina (Anne Baxter) who helps the couple only to have the young girl steal her pearls. Dove returns them in disgust and wants nothing more to do with Kitty…

Teresina offers him work and he tells her off his quest to find his love, a sculptor named Hallie Gerard (Capucine) years after his loyalty to a dying father had split them apart as she headed for artistic fulfillment in arty Louisiana…

Dove works hard whilst Teresina helps him look for Hallie through ads in the local paper: she has a heart of gold and an eye for this new man but she respects his own desires. Nothing is forthcoming but, just as things seem helpless; someone provides a tip off…

Hallie is living with a strange bunch who just happen to run a cat house called the Doll House (see what they did there?), initially it appears as if she’s continuing with her sculpting career but she’s only doing a favour for the dominatrix who runs the House, Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck who is the best actor on show by a street).

As the masculine abbreviation of her name suggests, Jo wears the trousers and dominates the men, from her crippled husband, mysteriously relegated to using a low-set cart instead of a wheelchair, to the muscle who maintain order in this curious, heartless culture.

And, unsurprising to modern audience but possibly shocking at the time, Jo seems to have an emotional attachment to Hallie, one that Dove will find very hard to break.

In truth, the film loses momentum at this point. Harvey does well with his accent but he wears it like a concrete coat and doesn’t emote very well as if he’s stuck on the “surly” setting. But the main problem is Capucine who’s beauty masks her acting ability. She also looks out of place in a bordello and one really can’t quite understand how she came to get stuck.

Barbara Stanwyck
Her reunion with Dove gets more convincing as they head off on their own and Dove confronts a preacher who takes issue with this fallen woman… he doesn’t know yet. He finds them a place and Hallie begins to dream of escape (although why they don’t just nip down to the train station and get a single somewhere far away is beyond me…)

But the more obvious Hallie’s temptation to leave the more the iron fist of Jo starts to descend to block off her options.

Dove encounters Kitty at the Doll House; she has been rescued from imprisonment for vagrancy and owes Jo a lot. The elder woman sees a way to use her to blackmail Dove into leaving her girl alone. By accompanying Kitty across the state line, Dove has potentially committed a felony as she was underage…

Doll House shakedown...
But Dove won’t cave into these threats and has only one thing on his mind. Hallie dithers and Jo ramps up the physical threat… can Kitty actually do some good for once in her life?

Everything comes together in a violent and confused ending which is very neatly tail-ended by the closing credits which feature our black cat strolling over a revealing piece of crumpled newspaper…

The final confrontation...
Directed efficiently by Edward Dmytryk, Walk on the Wild Side has plenty of the former but not so much of the latter. The town is more strange than wild and the character’s motivations and actions are sometimes a bit forced to fit the situation rather than explain it.

The story is set in the early thirties and yet it has more of the feel of a fifties noire, especially with Mr Bernstein’s excellently expressive score.

Overall Jane Fonda does well and, it has to be said, looks great, whilst Capucine looked good but acts awkwardly and inconsistently making the best of her casting but even so… Laurence Harvey does well with that accent and is believably intense – a very talented actor here not so well served by the script.

Capucine and Barbara Stanwyck
But Stanwyck takes the honours, pure class and experience.

Dusty verdict: Worth it for the opening sequences from the cat to wild Kitty! It falls off after that but the ending is never predictable. It’s available on DVD but I think I’ll stick with the VHS…

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Crying skunk… A Cry in the Wilderness (1974)

This one goes back to seventies Saturday evenings when there wasn’t much to watch between Sports Report on Radio 2 and Match of the Day on BBC1… not that we were easily pleased, just more willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

I have fond young-teen memories of being fascinated by A Cry in the Wilderness, its unusual premise, variety of jeopardies and the prettiness of Joanna Pettet.

Decades down the line – I don’t think I’ve seen this since it was broadcast – it doesn’t fare quite so well: a medium budget made for TV movie with some odd casting and unfathomable characters, very much like something The Simpsons would spoof - in fact, how much is Homer really based on George?

George Kennedy, the model for Homer Simpson?

Based on Gilbert Wright’s novel, Madman’s Chain, the story had already been made into an half hour adventure and was here expanded/padded out to feature length.

Sam Hadley (George Kennedy) had returned to the backwoods of his childhood bringing his city wife Delda (Joanna Pettet) and their young son Gus (Lee H. Montgomery). Things seem to be going well in this simpler way of life but they seem a bit short on the basics… motor vehicles, gasoline, phones and so on as well as, crucially, normal and friendly neighbours!

Sam and Gus merrily pull up trees as they busy themselves making the farm ready for cultivation. Sam and Delda go over their decision to make a break for the country life and this sophisticated city girl seems happy enough to have left friends and fashion behind.

All seems well until Sam is bitten by a skunk and becomes convinced that the critter is the same rabid animal they saw a few days earlier. Aware of the mental as well as physical symptoms rabies can bring Sam chains himself to a post in their barn: he is convinced he will turn into a raging, delusional psychopath in much the same way as his uncle had after a similar incident (yeah, I know…).

Sam persuades a shocked Delda to set off to get help… in a car without that much petrol and with no map (no maps!? Are they mad?!) just vague directions… meanwhile Gus is to look after his dad but to ignore everything he says or does apart from the initial instruction part…

As rabid-Dad and confused son bond, Delda finds driving difficult, almost going off the road, unsure of her directions and with evidentially poor clutch control. She encounters a variety of wild and frankly dysfunctional locals who either ignore her, mislead or otherwise try to exploit her… you can see why Sam was so keen to get back to living with simple, honest country folk…

Meanwhile, Sam becomes obsessed with their creek… he knows that irrational fear of water is one of the first signs of rabid madness and yet he can’t help noticing that the water level has gone down when it should have gone up following recent rain… He’s convinced that there’s a blockage upstream and that a flood will come once the rain comes again.

But Gus has been too obedient and taken his father’s word; he won’t listen and set him free…

Meanwhile on Delda’s travels we learn of the storms and localised flooding elsewhere: seems the threat is real alright. Yet she has more than enough problems of her own… the car runs out of gas and she has to trade her wedding ring for a clapped out old truck from a local misanthrope. A few miles down the road, his barmy sons arrive to re-possess the vehicle… Delda runs them off the road and runs… Southern in-hospitality.

But there’s more to come as the husband of a couple who had initially refused to help (Roy Poole), catches up with her with only one thing on his mind… as he comes on strong, Delda clambers out of the car into the rain telling him she’s had enough and he can do what he wants. Something snaps and the would-be rapist suddenly turns into a Good Samaritan, risking life and car in driving her through dangerous roads/rivers, past dangerously-dangling electric cables to the nearest town…

But, what of Sam and Gus: will father be able to persuade son that there is actually a genuine reason to fear the water or will they both be swept away in the now inevitable deluge?

 When the levee breaks

Spoilers… It’s the next morning and the eerie calm after the storm of the night before. Delda flies overhead in a rescue helicopter, trying to locate the remains of her house (no maps!). It seems hopeless as the ‘copter reaches its range but suddenly she sees Gus and seconds later, Sam emerges looking surprisingly un-rabid… Family saved, love confirmed and renewed determination to live the country life in spite of the wildlife, extreme weather and even extremer neighbours…

Joanna Pettet
Dusty verdict: A Cry in the Wilderness is still an entertaining adventure even allowing for holes in the plot and a narrative patently desperate to generate jeopardy and story-stretch. Joanna Pettet does well and is as good-looking as I always thought. She is not well cast though and makes an unlikely partner for big George Kennedy – he’s a little too old (49), solid and rugged, whilst she’s a little too young (32), slim and pretty. Kennedy is good though, he always was a good man for a crisis and gives his all to make this believable… it’s just not quite enough.

But see it for yourself, the DVD is available for small change here.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Soho sweet and sour… Expresso Bongo (1959)

A dip into the late fifties by way of comparison with Beat Girl… this film features a teenage Cliff Richard but still manages to carry enough Frith Street grit and Denmark Street guile to evoke the spirit of Soho. Setting all else aside, the film's use of genuine locations literally grounds its potential cheese in the shops, clubs and coffee bars that give Soho its timeless air: facia may come and go but the grind goes on forever... timeless good times.

Lisa Peake and Laurence Harvey
Based on the successful stage play of the same name and initially intended to feature one Tommy Steel taking side-swipes at the industry that birthed and abused him, it eventually featured the hotter, younger Harry Webb from Cheshunt, near Enfield. Just as Harry got a name change to Cliff so does his would be drummer, Bert Rudge, get re-branded as Bongo Herbert in this film: anyone doubting Expresso Bongo’s intent should check the surname…

Cliff Richard
There’s a wonderful cameo from Susan Hampshire playing a golly-gosh deb besotted with Bongo: “go on, say something in Cockney, apples and pears or something…” she pleads, sounding almost like Armstrong and Miller’s cut-glass chavy pilots…  This is the British laughing at themselves and joking about how easily they’re fooled, yet there’s also a harsher edge that ultimately leaves the successful on the slide and those on their uppers on the up.

Johnny extends credit to Kakky
Laurence Harvey uses his considerable skills to create a thoroughly dislike-able agent and serial abusers of goodwill: Johnny Jackson. We see him working his way down a Soho Street palming his best wishes to all whilst delaying his debts and wisecracking his way to nowhere… networking is only a payday away form not-working. He has a soft-spot for old man Kakky (Martin Miller) a former director... is he a vision of Johnny's future?

Sylvia on stage
His long-suffering girlfriend Maise, the sublime Sylvia Syms,  can sing and dance a bit (not enough for Johnny) and we see her do a rather risqué number at a “gentlemen’s club” surrounded by barely dressed chorus girls and the famed frozen semi-naked tableaux that allowed the strip clubs to avoid censure… It was a particularly British form of censure: allowing a view of naked flesh that was only permitted if it was motionless as if that somehow made it less real, less… overt. Only a public-school educated judiciary could work out the logic in that one.

It's "educational" so long as they don't move...
Never-the-less, this scene is still fairly frank for the time with scant coverings for the artistes and Miss Syms in the most revealing of costumes… Maybe the film’s musical status enabled them to treat this all in a jokier context than say the uncut version of Beat Girl?

Anyway, soon enough the action moves to a suspiciously-spacious coffee bar basement where cheap-skate Johnny is taking Maise for some fish and chips. Their evening is cut short though when Johnny hears Bert sing as he "plays" his bongos backed by Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan aka The Shadows (I’ve tried hard but can’t quite get the sound to sync with Cliff’s movements… by “hard”, I mean once…). In spite of Bert’s protestations that he wants to be a drummer (can’t he see The Shadows have already got a decent percussionist?) Johnny insists he can be a pop singer and that's the last we hear of Cliff's bongos...

Bruce, Hank, Jet and Tony... actor Barry Lowe on bongos
Cliff is ridiculously young but what catches the ear is how much reverb young Hank is using on his guitar, they sound a bit more rock n roll than they’re given credit for!

The newly christened Bongo meets Johnny at his parent’s flat and, in spite of motherly indifference and fatherly drunken stupor, a deal is struck and Bongo signs a contract splitting everything 50:50…

Hermione Baddeley, Lawrence Harvey and Cliff
Johnny kicks into gear and begins to hype his new property; jumping a ride on anything he can to increase his profile. He hi-jacks a BBC documentary being made by the actual Gilbert Harding, on Soho youth, to show off Bongo’s singing and then works his way onto the broadcaster's show to shout down the analysis of a pompous psychiatrist (Patrick Cargill) and a wet priest (Reginald Beckwith).

Denmark Street, London's actual "Tin Pan Alley"
Johnny suckers in the boss of Warwick Records, Mr Mayer (Meier Tzelniker), getting Maise to make a call there, pretending to be from HMV and Bongo’s debut single is soon shooting up the charts.

But Johnny’s biggest twist comes in forcing Bongo on the stage alongside Dixie (Yolande Donlan – director  Val Guest’s wife) for her triumphant UK comeback gig at the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road. He’s a smash and it’s not only Johnny that sees a way of hitching a ride on his rising star.

Cliff, speedos and Yolande Donlan
Dixie’s soon being more than motherly with Bongo luring him to her penthouse apartment atop the Dorchester Hotel – cue the shots of Cliff in speedos that were such an influence on a young and impressionable David Hockney.

But Dixie cares about the kid and especially his rotten contract and it’s dog eat jackal over the closing sequences as everyone fights over the spoils. In the end, you’ve pretty much given up hope for anyone in this sordid world but defeat brings out the best in some and a chance emerges for the film’s most likable and long suffering character…

The battle for Bongo
This uneven film interests and irritates in equal measure but has some good characters and dialogue – “I recognise the face but not the flattery” says Dixie to the ingratiating Johnny.  Harvey is good as the over-bearing huckster and has more than a passing resemblance to Jude Law; he went on to major film stardom and had an edge.

Sublime Sylvia
Sylvia Syms also excels in one of her patiently trusting roles: she’s said it herself but she didn’t always have good or lucky marriages in her films of this period. 

Mr Harvey on screen
Cliff is still learning the ropes but passes muster playing someone not unlike himself. More anodyne fare was to follow and here his role is earthed rather more than in Summer Holiday. Odd that his character appears to be pretty much a virgin, there’s no real love interest other than the motherly-predatory Dixie and religion is introduced as a way of selling a better image (a move I would guess he was later very embarrassed by).

"Go on, say something Cockney..."
There are also glimpse and you’ll miss them cameos from Burt Kwok and the aforementioned Susan Hampshire who would play alongside Cliff in Wonderful Life.

But this doesn’t feel like a “Cliff film” but a twisted ode to the dysfunctional pop business filmed in the streets at its very heart. In the end my star of this film would be London and in particular the surrounds of Soho as old as William Blake and alive still with the spirit of mischief.

Martin Miller, Sylvia Syms and Laurence Harvey
Dusty verdict: Worth watching just to street spot but Harvey and Sims make a good couple and you also have the young Shadows rocking in a way that convinced even Neil Young that they were cool! Beat Girl has the edge though if only for John Barry’s incendiary soundtrack, but the Soho scenes work better than the showbiz second half.

You can buy the DVD on Amazon but it's a bit of a collector's item thanks to the enduring appeal of Mr Harry Webb.
That is Wolf Mankowitz carrying the placard down Hanway Street...
Old man Kakky admires the artistes
Gilbert Harding plays himself