Saturday, June 30, 2018


The main selling point for Don Siegel's thriller was that  it was shot, in Cinemascope, on location at the Grand Canyon. This was probably not as impressive as it could have been had a Cinerama camera not already been flown through the canyon several years earlier. Still, many people probably hadn't seen any Cinerama by 1959, so there was no doubt some thrill and novelty to seeing planes fly through and stuntmen cavorting on a cable car above the abyss. These thrills aside, Edge of Eternity is a pretty basic mystery story. It opens with a failed attempt at vehicular homicide at the canyon's edge, the intended victim eliminating his attacker only to be done in a few scenes later. It's up to Deputy Les Martin (Cornell Wilde) to figure out whodunit despite the distraction of speed-demon heiress Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw). After leading him on a merry, picturesque chase early on, Janice provides Les an entry into her wealthy gold-mining family, including her crabby dad and her drunken brother. People get on Les's case for failing to crack the murder case quickly, but Janice's eye for fashion finally provides a crucial clue tying the victim, if not his initial attacker, to the mining interests around the canyon, ranging from gold to guano.

Siegel's writers try to keep things mysterious by having a later killing carried out POV camera = killer style, but it only looks awkward and evasive. Toward the end, the killer is revealed without anyone on the screen having deduced his identity from clues, though I suppose some in the audience may have guessed the culprit by process of elimination. His discovery sets up the big thrill climax on the guano car, but the thrill of actuality is undermined every time Siegel cuts from the long shot of the stuntmen to the studio close-ups of Wilde et al in front of rear projections. The location stuff is nice to look at, though, thanks to Burnett Guffey's cinematography, and seeing the juggernaut cars of the era in action is always fun. Even with the special attraction of the Canyon this is little more than a B picture, and as such its diverting enough without lasting long enough to waste your time.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

DVR Diary: UP TO HIS EARS (Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine, 1965)

Whoever wrote the introduction for the recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast of Philippe de Broca's film was determined to categorize this and the director's previous team-up with Jean Paul Belmondo, That Man From Rio, as James Bond knockoffs or at least James Bond-inspired. But you can just as easily assign Up To His Ears to the international Jules Verne cycle dating back to 1954's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It's adapted from an 1879 Verne story, "The Misadventures of a Chinaman in China," wherein the great Frenchman apparently invented the idea of a man contracting for his own death, only to change his mind. De Broca and writer Daniel Boulanger updated the story to their present day and made the title character a Hong Kong-based French businessman (Belmondo) who, believing his fortune lost, wants to end it all. He's convinced by his Chinese friend Mr. Goh (Valery Inkijinoff) to take out a policy to ensure that his fiancee (and her parasite parents) will be taken care of. Very quickly reconsidering, he and faithful servant Leon (Jean Rochefort) must trek through Asia to find Mr. Goh in order to cancel the hit. Along the way, he acquires two incompetent bodyguards and a more likely life partner in Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress), an aspiring writer earning her way as an exotic dancer. In one of the film's many surreal touches, she's introduced doing a striptease in reverse, and later in the picture I suppose the idea of having her wash ashore on a beach after a shipwreck could have been inspired by her iconic entrance in Dr. No. While Goh only meant to teach our hero to appreciate life, his prospective in-laws decide that they'd like to cash in that policy after all, and eventually an obese American gangster, "the Al Capone of the South Seas" (Joe Said) decides to kill him on general principles.

Up to His Ears is episodic and ultimately overlong, the sort of film that looks to be wrapping up at least half an hour before it actually ends. In that respect it might be inspired more by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than by any other picture, but let's remember that the French themselves invented sight-gag slapstick cinematic comedy and need no inspiration from elsewhere. Some of the gags here are truly inspired, none more so to me than the bit that finds our hero and his servant on a shaky rope bridge in the Himalayas. Inevitably they go over the side (or was it through) and descend dangling from a near-infinite rope of clothes disgorging from a suitcase. The thoughtful servant always makes a point of pinning his master's clothes together for trips like these, you see -- and one may assume that the clothes are all double stitched. Other moments are striking for their juxtaposition of silent-comedy style action in exotic Asian settings, as when our heroes struggle to escape a Nepalese village via a rope ladder dangling from a hot-air balloon, or when Belmondo in a stage-magician's costume gets into a fighting chase on the scaffolding of a tall building, as if Harold Lloyd were playing Fantomas. I don't think it's as good as That Man From Rio or my favorite from the Belmondo-de Broca team, the tragicomic swashbuckler Cartouche, but it's still terrifically entertaining just to look at. Belmondo is a kind of French Cary Grant, capable of being both the epitome of cool and, as here, playing an utter clown, while de Broca is more like a French Blake Edwards. I couldn't help thinking that the Mirisch Company should have hired them to do that Inspector Clouseau movie back when Edwards and Peter Sellers weren't interested. I can't guarantee that such a thing would have been good, but I would have liked to see them try. In any event, there are still more of their actual team-ups for me to see, those the three I have seen are just about enough to earn Belmondo and de Broca a place among the great comic actor-director teams.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Too Much TV: LOST IN SPACE (2018 - ?)

As a kid, I hated Lost in Space. I pretty much hated all those silly shows from the mid-Sixties that dominated syndicated TV when I was growing up. I even went through that comics fan's phase when you hate Batman until you appreciate how funny it is on its own terms. But Irwin Allen's sci-fi show only ever seemed stupid, part of a profound dumbing down of American TV that came when the major networks went all-color. It's one of those shows reputed to be less dumb and kiddified in its one black-and-white season, but I've never had the courage to try verifying that for myself. Suffice it to say that if any title could stand a radical reboot on the Battlestar Galactica model, it was Lost in Space. But would the presumed target audience recognize the new thing as Lost in Space without the sniveling comedy relief and the snarky robot and the goofy aliens they and the rest of the crew met every week? Or was I wrong about who the target audience was? Was the familiar name only meant to get people's attention while the show itself catered to more modern story expectations and sensibilities.

The new creative team had credentials possibly worthy of Irwin Allen, having written the better-than-expected Dracula Untold but also the recent Power Rangers reboot movie and such big flops as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt. Their end product, however, is more modest and straightforward than that filmography might anticipate. The new show's main line of revision is a familiar one: female empowerment. In the new story of humans fleeing their dying planet, the mother, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is the real leader with the major scientific and technical credentials, while her estranged husband John  (Toby "Captain Flint" Stephens) is basically a grunt, though an elite one as a Navy SEAL. As for the kids, the teenage girls Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are the real brains. Good old Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) is no slouch, but Mom had to fake some test results after an attack of nerves left the boy with a score unfit for space colonization. To top things off, the old show's villain-turned-clown,Dr.Smith, literally has his identity stolen by the show's new, somewhat darker antagonist. June Harris (Parker Posey) got into space by poisoning her sister and stealing her identity. During the panic created by a mysterious robot attack (You can't really do a gender flip here), she steals the ID badge of one "Z. Smith" (Billy Mumy!) to  get access to a landing craft. We haven't learned yet after the first season whether June has any vocation other than survival, but she applies herself to her calling with a subtle ruthlessness, insinuating herself into the Robinsons' temporary household while constantly watching for ways to turn them against each other, and also coveting the alien robot, which has somehow bonded with Will, as her ultimate defense against other people. Because "Smith" is female, she's likely to remind viewers of the archetypal female "from hell" of Lifetime movies, but there's a purity to June's sociopathy, unleavened so far by any sexuality, that makes her almost inhuman, yet fascinating to observe. She's almost perfectly amoral, utterly incapable of imagining that she may not deserve to survive, and for that she may actually seem more sympathetic to today's narcissists than her male model was fifty years ago.

As with any reboot of an old TV series, there's both more and less story here than in the original. The first season is one ten-part story and future seasons will no doubt be likewise, and while modern shows lose out on variety of stories they usually gain in emotional depth. Inevitably modern shows focus more on the relationships among regular characters than on the interventions of guest stars, and with the new Lost in Space you get the now-expected family tensions as well as the addition of a larger supporting cast (along with Ignacio Serricchio as a new, roguish Don West) promising a wider range of relationships. Of course, we may never see those supporting players again after the season-ending cliffhanger that sees the Robinsons, West and "Smith" sucked through a wormhole, but even if being lost in space means getting cut off from the rest of humanity, it wouldn't surprise me if the rest of the Resolute crew reappear at some point, since the imperative for relationships makes the current situation too potentially incestuous for anyone's good. For all that, on some level, or for some viewers, this is still a show about a boy and his robot, and by keeping that relationship near the forefront the new show manages to be recognizably Lost in Space while retaining its options to expand the story in any number of promising directions. If the new creators play their cards right, their show could come closer to pleasing everybody than the original ever did.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

THE TROJAN HORSE (La guerra di Troia, 1961)

In the absence of a definitive beginning-to-end narrative of the Trojan War, writers ever since have told the story to suit themselves. Giorgio Ferroni's Trojan Horse is an attempt to fill the gap between Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, stressing Aeneas's heroic role during the last stage of the war, after the death of Hector. With Steve Reeves as Aeneas you have to wonder how the Greeks could prevail, since the ancestor of Romans is shown to be stronger than Ajax and a better fighter than Achilles. To be fair, this film's Achilles (Arturo Dominici) is a lot older than you might expect and invincible only by repute. Still, it's an original idea of this film, as far as I know, that Aeneas had Achilles at the point of mortal defeat before glory-hog Paris hit the Myrmidon leader with his famous poisoned arrow.

Fans of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy will be horrified to learn that Paris (Warner Bentivegna) is the villain of this piece. On top of the war being his fault, he feels that his royal status entitles him to military leadership when Aeneas, who also loves Paris's sister Creusa, is clearly more qualified. He blows a chance to defeat the Greeks decisively when Aeneas arrives with fresh allies after a diplomatic mission because he resents the hero taking the initiative without his say-so, and his blind vanity brings the title construct, the instrument of Troy's destruction, within the city's gates. Paris is also the picture's most interesting character because it treats him in almost noirish fashion as a hapless sap of a victim of that apex femme fatale, Helen of Troy (Hedy Vessel). Almost a living Barbie, Helen sees the handwriting on the wall for Paris and his city and can't be bothered hiding her contempt.

The best scene in the film has nothing to do with Aenas: after the Greeks inside the horse have opened the gates, Paris panics and asks Helen what he should do. She makes a few disinterested suggestions but surmises that he'll simply wait there to be killed. Sure enough, the angry ex, Menelaus of Sparta (Nando Tamberlani) appears with vengeance on his mind. He slaps a tiara off Helen's head, then orders Paris to pick it up and wear it. He then orders Paris onto a bed, but before you can worry about what he has in mind he stabs the pathetic Trojan. He then orders Helen to deliver the deathblow and kill whatever memory she has of Paris as a romantic hero, but this proves unnecessary, first because Paris dies quick and second because Helen had given up on him long ago. Epic stuff in its own way.

The more I see peplum films in their proper widescreen format, the more respect I have for their production values. All you need to do is watch Mill of the Stone Women to appreciae what Giorgio Ferroni was capable of visually, and while Trojan Horse is nowhere near the level of that minor masterpiece of production design the film does boast some impressive Trojan sets and reasonable sized armies in action. Unfortunately, it has the common failing of may films of its genre: uninspired combat. The duels pitting Aeneas against Achilles and Ajax aren't awful by any means, but the full-scale battle scenes are lifeless, mere assemblages of men waving swords or javelins at each other until told to stop. Of course, people probably didn't go to these movies to see hordes of soldiers fighting. They went to see the musclemen do their thing, and as far as that goes all I need to say is that Reeves is presented convincingly as an epic hero. Fans of the Aeneid may be disappointed by the absence of the hero's father Anchises, but Reeves presumably got to trod more Virgilian territory in the sequel to this picture, The Avenger, which if all goes well you should read more about this summer.