Death Notice: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

2014 MaltlinAnother week, another obituary… only this time we’re here to bury a book (and, time permitting, praise it). Plume, the boutique imprint of Penguin Random House has announced that Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide will be the last of the series, the end of the line for the movie-lover’s favorite doorstop. It’s a bittersweet moment, one that has many of us, I’m sure, remembering the first time we clapped eyes on one of Maltin’s ever-thickening guides. I was 12, on the cusp of turning 13, and I had convinced my mother to sign me up to be a member of a book club that brokered in volumes on movie-making and entertainment. I barely remember what three books I ordered as part of the introductory offer (one was a Vincent Price biography) but part of the deal was that you got a free copy of the Maltin guide. I had no idea who Leonard Maltin was but a free book was nothing to sneeze at. Though there were no pictures, the The 1975 Edition TV Movies Guide edited by Leonard Maltin (we weren’t so much about the catchy titles back in the day) became my constant companion and the closest thing I would have to a bedmate for the next eight years. (Yeah, I was a late bloomer.) Though the book fell well short of its promise to relay “everything you want to know and more about 10,000 movies now being shown on TV” (fault: publisher, not editor), there was more than enough in there on which a pre-teen cinephile could glut himself. Over the next several years, I used my allowance to keep current with Maltin, as the TV Movies Guide became Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies Video Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide and finally Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide

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Saying Good Night to Brian G. Hutton (1935-2014): Night Watch (1973)

taylorhutton1Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.

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A Trio of Titanics

Early today TCM is showing Titanic from 1953 starring Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, and today’s star of the day Thelma Ritter as Maude Young, a fictionalized version of Molly Brown.  The tragic events of the night of April 14, 1912 have inspired many a filmmaker to add their own touch to the story.  It’s appeared in theatrical cameos (Calvalcade, Time Bandits), television movies (S.O.S. Titanic), television miniseries (the 2012 Titanic), German propaganda (the 1943 Nazi produced Titanic), computer games (Titanic: Adventure Out of Time), fictionalized spy thrillers (the none too thrilling Raise the Titanic) and, of course, full-blown Hollywood period productions.   It’s that last category I’ll deal with for this post.

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Brainquake: The Lost Novel by Samuel Fuller

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“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.

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Generation Clash: ‘The Happening’

happosterAccording to the film history books, 1967 was a seminal year for the Film School Generation because of three movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate. The films’ departure from the conventions of Hollywood’s classic narrative style in story and technique combined with their counter-culture perspective was considered revolutionary. Because of their critical and box-office success, this trio of high-profile films announced to the world that there was a new sheriff in town.

However, other films released that year were just as modern and provocative, including Point Blank, Fearless Vampires Killers, Two for the Road, and In Cold Blood. Even fluff such as Thoroughly Modern Millie seemed modern in its self-reflexive comedy and spoofing of the musical genre. It is also important to remember that in 1967 the studios were still releasing conventional Hollywood movies with big-name stars and happy endings, such as War Wagon, Camelot, Barefoot in the Park, and Doctor Dolittle—hopelessly out of date in any year!

While it is helpful for film history books to draw a clean line between traditional Hollywood and the Film School “brats”, in truth, the era was much messier. The conventions of the old and the innovations of the new were not so clearly delineated, nor did they seamlessly merge. Instead, they often clashed or awkwardly overlapped. One of the clumsiest attempts to address the aesthetics and themes of the 1960s is The Happening, which aired last Friday on TCM as part of Summer Under the Stars: Faye Dunaway. Released in March 1967, The Happening represents Dunaway’s second film, though she may have shot it before Hurry Sundown, which was in theaters a month earlier. I recommend The Happening, not because it is a good film but because it is a fascinating—if inane—marker of its era.

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In through the Out Door

Today is John Hodiak’s day here on TCM and one of the movies showing later tonight is The Arnelo Affair, which I just happened to write up for TCM recently. One of the first things I mention in the article is the framing of the film’s timeline. It takes a familiar convention in noir, the flashback, and pushes it just a bit further. Rather than hold out on any plot reveals until the end, it tells us upfront that Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak) killed his girlfriend and planted Anne Parkson’s (Frances Gifford) compact at the scene to blame her. We know who killed who and who’s being set up right from the start. The suspense comes from wondering how straight-laced Anne ever got involved with this shady gangster in the first place. It works even as the movie itself is a bit lackluster but the question is how necessary is it? Do flashbacks provide a deeper understanding of the characters or are they just techniques to get the story moving?

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August 16, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.

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KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
COMMENTS: 66
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My first suicide

Peter Duel

Do you ever finally reach a point of knowing?
Or do you just wake up one day and say “I’m going”?
- Cowboy Junkies, “Good Friday”

If you begin reading about Hollywood and its stars at a tender age then at some point very early on you learn about suicide. I’m pretty sure my first suicide was Pete Duel, an agreeable young actor who had enjoyed important roles in such unimportant movies as THE HELL WITH HEROES (1968) with Rod Taylor and GENERATION (1969) with David Janssen but experienced greater success on the small screen. The Rochester, New York native (born Peter Ellstrom Deuel in 1940) had parlayed a recurring role as Sally Field’s brother-in-law on GIDGET (1965-1966) into a lead on the equally short-lived Screen Gems/ABC sitcom LOVE ON A ROOFTOP (1966-1967) before Universal offered him a long-term contract. His big break was being cast as Old West outlaw Hannibal Hayes on the weekly BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) cash-in ALIAS SMITH AND JONES (1971-1973). My sister Cheri was a big fan of Duel, who got a lot of play in the teen magazines of the day, and she was horrified and dispirited when the news came in over the transom that on New Year’s Eve 1971 he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That’s a tough way to lose a crush. I can’t recall what my specific reaction was, at the age of ten, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “People do that?” [...MORE]

Memories of Lauren Bacall 1924-2014

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Film fans have endured a rough summer. We’ve lost many talented people who have brought us immeasurable joy. Today I’d like to celebrate the late great Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall who mesmerized audiences with her incredible beauty, quick wit, smoky voice and sultry style. She was a beloved stage and screen actress but she was also much more including an award-winning writer, a socially conscious political activist, an avid fashion enthusiast who designed her own maternity clothes and a survivor who out-lived two husbands (Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards) and managed to raise three children on her own. What follows is a stunning gallery of portraits as well as a collection of personal observations about Bacall from friends, acquaintances and family members who knew her and loved her.

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Before They Knew What to do with Them

Have you ever watched a television show from start to finish, in real time (as opposed to “binge time”), over the course of several seasons, and when you finally go back and see the first season again, everything feels wrong? As you were watching it, everything seemed fine and appeared to be transitioning from one season to the next without incident. Only when you look back do you realize how much the characters changed as, over the years, the writers, producers, and directors realized the actors’ strengths and weaknesses and adjusted the characters accordingly. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, each misstep, each poorly targeted joke or action, seems magnified because of what the character became. The same thing happens in the movies, with actors’ careers. At the beginning, they do something that makes them a star but when we look back years later, it feels all wrong for them.

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