Wednesday, June 21, 2017

cinema obscura: Petri's precient "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" (1970)

It's high time for a major revival of Elio Petri's compelling 1970 policier, "Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion" ("Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto"), a film whose adline read, "When you're a big man in the big city, can you get away with murder?" In fact, it's long overdue.

Or perhaps a remake. There was a time, a few years ago, when Al Pacino was reportedly interested in doing an American version of Petri's precient film, taking on the role so memorably played by Gian Maria Volontè.

The great Volontè essays an indelible character - an arrogant homicide detective known only as Il Dottore (The Doctor) who, for a lark, murders his mistress, played by the splendid Florinda Bolkan. This chief of detectives is a bully whose only motive is to prove that he can do it and get away with it, even though he deliberately (and wittily) plants an array of clues that incriminates him, and only him, for the cold-hearted, senseless crime.

Il Dottore was something of a singular character back in 1970 but since then, bullies of his magnitude have become more prevalent in the new millenium, disturbingly ubiquitous, and society not only tolerates them but, for some bizarre reason, seems to celebrate and reward them - and in huge ways.

An apt mantra for 2017 would be "Getting Away With It."

That's the new status symbol among the rich and famous and, like Volontè's indelible Il Dottore, the rich and famous flaunt their disregard for the law and even common decency. They deliberately plant clues, a la Petri's film, that exist only to be blithely ignored by the rest of us.

Making us complicit in their obscene behavior.

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~top: Gian Maria Volontè as Il Dottore
~middle: Florinda Bolkan
~bottom: Volontè and Bolkan

~photography: Euro International Films and Columbia Pictures 1970 ©

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

that face

Back in the 1960s, about a decade before "Saturday Night Live," NBC had another skit-comedy series that was also political - namely, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." This is the show that has the dubious distinction of trivializing the presidency, courtesy of an appearance by Richard Nixon, no less, who was all too happy to exclaim, "Sock it to me! Sock it to me!"

And "Saturday Night Live" has gleefully followed in its footsteps.

"Laugh-In" had a terrific cast of newcomers on the edge of stardom - Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, Eileen Brennan, Jo Anne Worley, Arte Johnson, Ruth Buzzi,Judy Carne,  Dave Madden, Chelsea Brown and Alan Sues, in addition to hosts Dick Martin and Dan Rowan - the New Martin & Lewis.

I bring up "Laugh-In" at this late juncture because it's been rattling in the mind ever since the new look-alike First Family took over the White House.  Specifically, I've been having memories of one of the show's recurring skits called The Farkle Family - about a clan whose kids all have the same damn face.

Frank and Fannie Farkle were the parents and their eight kids were ... Sparkle Farkle and her black twin Charcoal, another set of twins named Simon & Gar Farkle, Mark Farkle, Fritz Farkle, Flicker Farkle, and Fred Farkle. They all had red hair and the same freckled face, even Charcoal.

But unlike The First Kids, the Farkle kids didn't have their father's face.  No, they were dead-ringers for Ferd Berfel, the man who lived next door.

It's time NBC brought The Farkle Family out of the mothballs, perhaps making it a part of "Saturday Night Live." It's too relevant to ignore.
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~top: The First Family
~center: The Farkle Family

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

six degrees of roger smith

Among other things, Hollywood is a workplace crowded with curious connections, past and present, and Roger Smith - who sadly passed this week, at age 84 - experienced a few of his own throughout his career.

First, however, a little about Smith, an affable actor with collegiate good looks who was also a trained singer and dancer. But who would know that, considering how ill-used he was by the studios where he was a contract player?  Hollywood is also often at a loss about nurturing and showcasing certain talents, which is odd considering that "talent" is what drives it.

And exacerbating matters for Smith was a debilitating neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, which prematurely ended his acting career.

He was in his mid-30s when his life changed.

Smith was always prepared for an acting career and made the decision to actively pursue it at the advice of James Cagney, whom he happened to meet while in Hawaii in 1955.  Smith was on a 30-month Naval tour of duty with the reserves there and Cagney was on location, filming "Mister Roberts." ("Mister Roberts" - Keep that title in mind. It's the first of a few connections to be covered here. There will be a Blue Book quiz following.)

Two years later, Smith went to Hollywood and appeared in several TV series before being signed by Columbia Pictures - where he appeared in such titles as "Operation Mad Ball" and "No Time to Be Young" and where he met his first wife, the Australian actress Victoria Shaw.

Unlike Smith, Shaw was groomed for stardom at Columbia.  In 1956, she was given the second female lead in George Sidney's "The Eddy Duchin Story," starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, playing Duchin's second wife, Chiquita. (George Sidney - keep that name in mind. A connection.)

The film is divided into two acts, with Novak dominating the first half (as Duchin's ill-fated first wife, the society queen Marjorie Oelrichs ) and Shaw the second half.  (Kim Novak - keep that name in mind, too.) Shaw impressed the critics and was named "Most Promising Actress of 1956" by the editors of Modern Screen.

Smith, meanwhile, ended his lackluster association with Columbia and was eventually put under contract by Warner Bros., which promptly cast him in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip."  There was a double-edge to this. "77 Sunset Strip" was hugely popular and ran for years, making Smith something of a celebrity, but then there was Jack Warner.

In his mind, Warner had only two sets of stars on his lot - movie stars and television stars. They never mixed and there was rarely a crossover. The movie stars at Warners made feature films exclusively; its TV stars made movies only occasionally and usually in small roles in quality films or lead roles in minor films. Smith's one major film role for Warners was 1958's "Auntie Mame," in which he played Mame's nephew Patrick as an adult.

Shaw, meanwhile, languished at Columbia, where she was oddly relegated to B-movies which were half-heartedly released. (Some were pretty good: Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono.")  Finally, the studio announced that Shaw would be the title star of "The Notorious Landlady," a comedy slated for a big summer release in 1962, but by the time that film reached the screen in '62, the lead was ... Kim Novak, Shaw's "Eddy Duchin" co-star.

Roger and Victoria, who had three children together, divorced in 1965. Shaw, who would go on to marry and divorce actor Elliott Alexander, died in her native Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1988 of emphysema.

The year of his divorce from Shaw, Smith was cast by Warners in another TV series ... "Mister Roberts."  He played the title role created on stage and film by Henry Fonda.  Yeah, that was the movie James Cagney was making years earlier in Hawaii where he encouraged Smith to try acting.

Smith met and married his second wife, Ann-Margret, in 1967 and they were together exactly 50 years, until his death on June 4. When Smith developed myasthenia gravis and his career ended, he devoted his attention to his talented wife whose career he managed throughout their marriage, giving her the courage to expand her goals and challenge herself, guiding her into such films as "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy," both of which brought her Oscar nominations - as well as "Joseph Andrews," directed by Tony Richardson, "The Outside Man" with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Attenborough's "Magic" opposite Anthony Hopkins and the TV version of "Dames at Sea."

Ann-Margret, of course, had two huge back-to-back hits at the start of her career - "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Viva Las Vegas." Both movies were directed by - ta-da! - George Sidney.

That's right - George Sidney, the director who showcased the first Mrs. Roger Smith in "The Eddy Duchin Story." Perfectly circuitous, right?

Note in Passing: One final connection... Roger Smith actually got to appear opposite James Cagney in two films, both for Universal-International: "Man of a Thousand Faces," the Lon Chaney biopic, and "Never Steal Anything Small," a musical with Shirley Jones.

Naturally, Smith was not called upon to either sing or dance in that.

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~top: Roger Smith with Joanna Barnes in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1958 ©

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~middle: Smith and Victoria Shaw at the Coconut Grove in the 1950s

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~bottom: Smith and Ann-Margret in the 1970s

Friday, June 02, 2017

"it looks like a good day for a hangin', gil, and gettin' us some god-fearing prairie justice!"

Not surprisingly, William A. Wellman's brilliant 1943 film, "The Ox-Bow Incident," came to mind as seemingly everyone in the media - and anyone who has access to a computer - gleefully piled on the comedienne Kathy Griffin for her adolescent prank involving the severed head of Donald J. Trump. The media just stopped short of suggesting tar and feathers.

"The Ox-Bow Incident," based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is a tight, 75-minute attack on America's deeply-seated intolerance and its lynch-mob mentality, both of which are clearly alive and well in 2017.

Americans thrive on hero reduction and especially love to place blame.

In the past couple days, ugly words have been enthusiastically tossed about in response to Griffin's act:

 "Disgusting!"  "Stupid!" "Immature!"

But aren't these the same, exact words, used by the same, exact people, against Griffin's alleged victim for the past 100-plus days?
The worst offender has been CNN, whose suits seemingly tripped over their feet to announce that CNN was firing Griffin.  Huh?  Since when is Kathy Griffin an employee of CNN?  She appears on CNN only once a year - co-hosting a New Year's Eve bash with CNN's Anderson Cooper.  So she was fired seven months before her next single appearance on CNN?

How convenient for CNN, which has been the primary target of the current administration's war on the media.  I mean, CNN and the new, invented expression, "fake news," are now irrevocably linked, thanks to Donald J.

"Hey, guys, a good way to break this link is to throw Kathy Griffin under the bus. Let's fire her and impress the administration." To exacerbate matters, Griffin's good friend, Anderson Cooper, made a statement distancing himself from her.  You know, guilt by association.  Not good.  Media people know that it's smart to lick the hand that feeds them.

Much of the chaos of the past two days is emblematic of Donald J.'s reign, which is designed to incite people and then attack them for being incited.

Kathy Griffin is a stand-up comic, noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge. But when she does or says something that's poorly-thought-out, it has no real consequences. Her target, on the other hand, is also noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge - and the consequences of his actions, also poorly-thought-out, have the power to reverberate for decades.

OK, Griffin joked about a severed head (which, I think, will be a popular Halloween prop this year) and Donald J. joked about "grabbing pussy."  So which is worse?

The last time I checked, Kathy Griffin isn't our Commander in Chief.

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~top: Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, Paul Burns as Winder and Henry Fonda as Gil Carter in "The Ox-Bow Incident"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1943 ©

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~middle: Donald J. Trump

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~bottom: Kathy Griffin