Movies

2021 Viewing (Q1)

As a follow-up to this post, let’s look at the viewing from the first quarter of this esteemed, classic year we’re currently honoured to be enduring experiencing…

The Loner season 1 (DVD)
The Rebel (Johnny Yuma) season 1 (DVD)
Stoney Burke season 1 (DVD)
Alfred Hitchcock Hour seasons 1-2 (DVD)
Naked City season 1 (DVD)

A bit of commentary…

Stoney Burke (1962-53) is notable as being the other series headlined by the great Jack Lord (just after playing Felix Leiter in the first Bond movie, Dr No). Lord plays the titular rodeo star, and there are some interesting pre-echoes of his performance as Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O (especially his largely abstemious stance on alcohol)—but the show is often more-or-less stolen by the always-entertaining Warren Oates, playing Stoney’s sleazy-but-kinda-okay childhood friend, Ves Painter. Overall a strong series, but marred by an apparent string of backdoor pilots towards the end, and a couple of closing episodes which appear to be alternate/variant season endings (the finale itself, “The Journey”, is actually quite surreal). Very pleased to have finally seen it, anyhow.

Jack Lord and Warren Oates in Stoney Burke
Jack Lord and Warren Oates in STONEY BURKE.

Trivia #1: Producer Leslie Stevens would go straight from Stoney Burke to the classic SF show The Outer Limits, which was a part of the 2020 viewing schedule!

Trivia #2: In the possible backdoor pilot episode “Point of Entry”, you get William Smith playing a cop and sharing scenes with Lord some 16 years before he joined McGarrett’s final season Five-O team as James “Kimo” Carew.

Jack Lord and William Smith in Stoney Burke, "Point of Entry"
Jack Lord and William Smith in “Point of Entry”.

On a similar note, The Loner (1965-66) is notable as being the series legendary genius Rod Serling created directly following the cancellation of The Twilight Zone, filling the gap between that and his TV movies and work on the original Planet of the Apes film (1968). It stars Lloyd Bridges, who is excellent as William Colton, a former Union captain trying to find himself after the end of the Civil War. There is an interesting link between this show and the earlier The Rebel (more below). Interestingly—though not surprisingly, because at this time he was in damn near everything—the aforementioned Mr Lord appears in episode 2, “The Vespers”.

Jack Lord in "The Vespers", episode 2 of The Loner
Jack Lord in "The Vespers", episode 2 of THE LONER.

Onto The Rebel (1959-61). This stars Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a Confederate soldier… trying to find himself after the end of the Civil War. Although he’s a young man and on the other side of the fence, as opposed to Bridges’ grizzled veteran on The Loner, the similarities are striking in a number of ways. Not least, their conciliatory approach in the aftermath of the bitter struggle, not always shared by various characters they encounter. Yuma is an aspiring writer and keeps a constant journal of his travels and adventures, which is an interesting (perhaps intentional) parallel to Adams himself, who apparently was an avid journal-keeper. One of his (few) surviving manuscripts, dealing with his friendship with Elvis Presley, was published in 2012 as The Rebel and the King. This series is really good; it’s a pity Adams’s career didn’t pan out so well. His life ended tragically in 1968, aged only 36, from a prescription drug overdose which may or may not have been accidental.

Trivia 1: Country God Johnny Cash, who sings the show’s theme song, “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma”, also appears in the season 1 episode “The Death of Gray”, as Pratt, a somewhat dimwitted criminal.

Johnny Cash in The Rebel, "The Death of Gray"
Johnny Cash in “The Death of Gray”.

Trivia 2: The season 1 episode “Fair Game” sees Yuma encounter a group of people at a stage depot, including Patricia Medina as an alleged murderer being taken to justice by a bounty hunter. Said bounty hunter is poisoned—but by who? The basic plot for this inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight (2015).

The Hateful Five in The Rebel, "Fair Game"
The Hateful Five in “Fair Game”.

Meanwhile… currently working through Alfred Hitchcock Presents season 5, The Rebel season 2, Have Gun, Will Travel season 1, Orson Welles Great Mysteries series 1, Naked City season 2 and Department S series 1, amongst other stuff. Look for the Q2 update whenever.

Film-wise, not so much, but amongst them some great films noir such as The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947)—Burt Lancaster’s debut movies, incidentally, and a terrific way to start a memorable screen career—and The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), featuring the famous pairing of Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake.

There isn’t much “new” stuff amidst all this, but let’s be honest—new stuff is almost always completely rubbish.

More blogs forthcoming.

2020 Viewing

I may write in more detail about some of the stuff I watched last year—undecided. But meanwhile, here’s a list of all the vintage episodic TV digested during those long 2020 months of deadly viruses and government scum placing everyone under house arrest.

(And, of course, there is much vintage episodic TV being digested during the unfolding long 2021 months of deadly viruses and government scum placing everyone under house arrest… but more on that later.)

2020 complete viewings…

Hawaii Five-O seasons 1-12 (DVD)
The Twilight Zone seasons 1-5 (Blu-ray)
Night Gallery seasons 1-3 (DVD)
The Outer Limits seasons 1-2 (DVD)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents seasons 1-4 (DVD)
Peaky Blinders series 3 (Blu-ray) (token non-vintage item!)
The Abbott & Costello Show seasons 1-2 (download)
Adventures of Superman seasons 1-4 (DVD)

And much less completely…

Dragnet various 1950s episodes (DVD)
Doctor Who various Hartnell & McCoy episodes (DVD)
Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans season 1 various episodes (DVD)

Quite a few films were viewed too, but perhaps most notably, the original James Bond films from Dr No through to Live and Let Die, on Blu-ray. Sadly, the great one, Sean Connery, passed away halfway through this… he had a good innings, but he’ll be missed (and had been missed from the screens since 2003).

More ramblings & viewing lists soon! (Maybe.)

Movies: The Defiant Ones (1958)

In Brief: this is the write-up of The Defiant Ones prepared for my in-progress book on Lon Chaney Jr, as mentioned here. Feedback is very welcome!

Defiant Ones Poster

Produced by Stanley Kramer for Lomitas Productions, Inc. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay by Nedrick Young & Harold Jacob Smith. Music score by Ernest Gold. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Edited by Frederic Knudtson. Distributed by United Artists.

Technical: 1.66:1, black and white, Westrex mono. Running time: 96 minutes. Production: late February to early April 1958. Premiere: September 24 1958 (NY).

With Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier, Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw, Lon Chaney, King Donovan and Claude Akins.

Two convicts—one white (Tony Curtis), one black (Sidney Poitier)—in a Southern chain gang are being transported in a van when the vehicle crashes. They escape, and what follows is a story of the tensions between the two, being forced to flee cross-country together―mostly through swamplands―until they find a way of breaking the four-foot chain that binds them.

Producer-director Stanley Kramer originally offered the role of “Joker” Jackson, the white male lead in The Defiant Ones, to Marlon Brando. He was busy elsewhere. Several others reportedly turned it down, including Robert Mitchum, who declined because he didn’t believe a white man and a black man would be chained together in the segregated South. (He claimed to have been in a Southern chain gang himself, in his youth.) Tony Curtis had recently appeared in Alexander Mackendrick’s brilliant film noir, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), playing the amoral protagonist, Sidney Falco, quite beautifully—he was moving away from his ‘pretty boy’ image and was very keen to take on the role of Jackson. Kramer’s first choice for Noah Cullen, however, apparently always was Sidney Poitier, whose breakthrough role had been in MGM’s Blackboard Jungle (1955).

The story for The Defiant Ones, credited on screen to Nathan E Douglas and Harold Jacob Smith, caused a stir not only for its emotive themes, but also when it was revealed that Douglas was a pseudonym for writer Nedrick Young, who had been blacklisted in 1953 for taking the Fifth during HUAC proceedings. A much-needed, speedy change in Academy Awards policy allowed Young to receive an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, and in fact The Defiant Ones did take the Best Original Screenplay award at the April 6 1959 ceremony… but Kramer continued for some time to take flak for his supposedly un-American decision to use blacklisted talent. He used Young again for another contentious movie, Inherit the Wind (1960)—and yet more noise ensued.

“Joker” Jackson, which Curtis performs with a slightly wobbly but mostly plausible Southern accent, is not so much an unrelenting racist as a product, or victim, of his background & culture. To a slightly lesser degree, the same is true of Poitier as Cullen. Jackson does call Cullen the N word in the opening scene, but the picture deliberately avoids presenting a—so to speak—black & white portrait. Their flight from the law is one of enforced mutual dependence, from which grows a bond of trust and, by the final reel, genuine affection.

It’s inspiring and beautifully played in every moment―and many decades later, while it has unavoidably dated in certain respects, it still has something to say that isn’t at all hindered by clumsy political lecturing or cultural bias.

The supporting cast provides particularly fine backup on all counts. Theodore Bikel, heading the search for the escaped cons, pitches his portrayal of a sympathetic lawman very nicely. Everyone in the film performs to a high standard.

Amidst this, Lon appears about halfway through, as the two men stumble upon a small settlement and the prospect of food. The cons get caught entering the village in the dead of night, and after a struggle & chase find themselves in front of a lynch mob eager to see them swinging. Lon, as Big Sam, intercedes for them, persuades the crowd to let the law handle it, and gets to slug a gung-ho Claude Akins to reinforce his point. Lon plays his scenes perfectly, his grizzled appearance capturing a long life of experience and wisdom needed to make his character breathe―really breathe, without any kind of gimmicks or scenery-chewing.

The coda of Lon’s brief but pivotal role comes when he enters the shack where they’re imprisoned, awaiting the law, and lets them go. It’s here we discover that Sam himself is a former convict and chain gang member―but he releases them without mawkish sentiment or fanfare, simply whispering, as they disappear into the distance: “Run, chickens, run!”
The revelation is almost superfluous―it adds a personal dimension to the stance Big Sam takes, but the powerful impression Chaney had already made easily stands without it.

As brief as the role is, Chaney has never been better. The degree of control, assurance, and—dare we say it?—naturalness is a revelation, and in many ways is a tragic indication of what is lost to history and opportunity (and, we must allow, a battle with alcohol). There’s an entirely different career suggested, as a powerful presence in fully ‘serious’ and ‘modern’ films, holding his own with the very best, which was destined never to happen.

The Defiant Ones received nine Oscar nominations (the most a single film got that year), including Nedrick Young’s win for best screenplay. Two of them were in Best Actor category for both Curtis and Poitier, the latter being—astonishingly and very sadly—the first black male nomination in any category. Neither actor won, but a second award, for Best Cinematography, did go to Sam Leavitt.

Lon, unsurprisingly, was not amongst the nominees for Best Supporting Actor―but Theodore Bikel was. Elsewhere, it won a number of other awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (drama), and over in the UK a BAFTA for Poitier (Best Foreign Actor).

Chaney must have been delighted to be involved in another film of this quality. Sadly, it was a major high-point in what was otherwise a slow, inexorable decline. It was the third and final time Kramer hired him; as much as people wonder why Kramer made use of him (the answer, of course, being: “he thought he was good”), the bigger question might be why he never used him again―especially as Lon’s work in The Defiant Ones is amongst his very best. Sadly, it may partly be due to a growing industry awareness that his drinking was becoming ever-more problematic.

PRESS ROOM

Harrison’s Reports, August 9 1958

It is not a pleasant picture, for the action is grim and frequently violent, but it has been superbly directed and acted, and, without preachment, offers an eloquent message on tolerance and the brotherhood of man.

Bosley Crowther; New York Times, September 25 1958

A remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea―the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood―is achieved by producer Stanley Kramer in his new film…

Between the two principal performers there isn’t much room for a choice. Mr Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr Curtis is surprisingly good…

Lon Chaney gives a strong performance as an upright and fearless man who firmly deflates a lynch mob.