Saturday, February 14, 2009

Memories of Missing Movies

There was a time when I was naive enough to think that every movie would make it onto DVD eventually, so frequently were so many once obscure titles appearing, but a growing group of movie bloggers, inspired by Jeremy Richey's outstanding Moon In The Gutter, have exposed the bitter reality. They've posted lists of the movies they still want to see on Region 1 DVD, but can't. Foremost among these efforts, apart from Jeremy's own exposes, is the festival of 100 tantalizing posters for non-disc films over at the Temple of Schlock. My contribution can only be modest in comparison, and I'll try to justify it by taking a slightly different approach. I'm going to write about a few movies that I saw long ago, as far back as my childhood, that imprinted profound memories in my mind. I can't vouch for the quality of any of these films, but they were all memorable in some way, and my mentioning them may stir memories in other readers. I'm going to go about this in chronological order.

SIGN OF THE PAGAN (1954). Jack Palance as Attila the Hun, directed by Douglas Sirk. I think I first saw this on WOR from New York City, around the time that my family first got cable TV. That was a golden age for incipient movie fans, since we got WOR, WPIX and WNEW when they were all independent stations with copious movie schedules. Here's a role Palance was born to play. The hero is actually Jeff Chandler, an actor I've never cared for who seemed singularly inauthentic in period work. His presence didn't even register with me when I first saw this movie. I was preoccupied with Palance's seeming spiritual struggle with a prophecy that a cross or a shadow of a cross would mean his doom. This guaranteed a troubled relationship with Christianity and a reticence when it came to sacking Italy that disgusted Attila's peers. "He fears his holy Leo!" is a line I well remember, Leo being the Pope who had persuaded Attila to spare Rome. I also remember the payoff that fulfilled the prophecy, and Attila's final request to "Bury me deep." Whatever budget this Universal costumer had, Palance was a spectacle unto himself.

Here's a clip from a Greek fan. I can't vouch for the subtitles.

TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) Back when American Movie Classics was a worthy and sometimes superior rival to Turner Classic Movies, the station had the rights to all the Tarzan movies. That gave me my first opportunity to see Gordon Scott as Tarzan, including this penultimate effort, which revolutionized the series. Director John Guillerman and screenwriter Les Crutchfield finally abandoned the "primitive" archetype that MGM had imposed on the character with Johnny Weismuller, permitting Scott to become a fully articulate Tarzan while at the same time giving him a more rugged story to perform in and pitting him against an incredible roster of villains including Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery. Scott rose to the occasion as "the man who lives in the jungle." He struck me as more of a Natty Bumppo type than a noble savage, though this film is arguably quite savage compared to previous kid-oriented efforts. I was knowledgeable enough about movies by the time I saw this to realize, once I saw the climactic fight between Scott and Quayle, that this was probably the nearest we'd ever get to an Anthony Mann Tarzan movie. Scott reprised this interpretation in Tarzan the Magnificent before trying his luck as a peplum star -- a career dead end, as it turned out. If the topic were top movies of my imagination, one would be the third Scott Tarzan for Sy Weintraub, a full-scale transposition of The Last of the Mohicans into post-colonial Africa. Think about it, then take a look at the trailer.

HOUSE OF CARDS (1968). I remember seeing this one fairly frequently on one of the local channels in Albany. John Guillerman returns to direct a thriller set in Paris and starring George Peppard and Orson Welles. About the story I actually remember very little. What I do recall is a very memorable score, which I learn was the work of Francis Lai, and a climactic scene on a bridge in which Welles tries to goad a brainwashed child into shooting Peppard, only to end up going over the side himself. Perhaps because it involved a killer kid, or a kid intended to be a killer, that scene made a strong impression separate from its actual cinematic merits, which we cannot verify today. While the reviews on IMDB, based on longer memories than mine, are mixed, the cast and crew list and the bare description of the story make me think that this particular landmark of the wild world of cinema might be reopened profitably. No trailer for this one, I'm afraid.

CRAZY JOE (1974). This is another item I remember seeing on WOR, usually during their 4:00 p.m. weekday movie slot. Carlo Lizzani's film about mafia renegade Joe Gallo has a natural exploitation angle. Peter Boyle made his name in a film called Joe, so why not Crazy Joe? I don't remember very much about it apart from liking it and watching it every time it was on. It was good and violent and had a unique angle of a mafia guy teaming up with black gangsters led by none other than Fred Williamson. I think I remember a kind of disco version of the song "Mona Lisa" playing over the end credits. It had a current-events quality about it, being based on a recent gang war, that gave it a quality distinct from the Godfather films, which I didn't see until the "novel for television" later in the decade. The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film partly corroborates my favorable memories. Dating the film to 1973, the reviewer credits Crazy Joe with "an almost operatic intensity" and calls it "an enterprisingly off-beat film." As my appreciation of Italian crime cinema has grown over time, I'd really like to give this film another look. This trailer brings a lot of the memories back. I remember the assassination scene quite vividly now.

I hope I've managed to stake my own territory of absence with this post. I may return to the general subject with a different emphasis on films that I've never seen, but would like a chance to see. Until then, Jeremy has a running list of contributors to the topic at Moon In The Gutter, where he's adding to his own list on a regular basis. I highly recommend a visit.

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