Vanishing Act

People who disappear without a trace always make the most compelling cold case mysteries, mainly because they baffle even the most intrepid investigators. The famous urban legend of “The Vanishing Lady” also known as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” may very well have been based on a real person but the true facts are lost to time. No matter. The strange tale, which first emerged in the early 1900s, has been appropriated by various writers and filmmakers in some form over the years such as the 1913 novel The End of Her Honeymoon by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (author of The Lodger), Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 novel The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser and the 1932 film The Midnight Warning. My favorite variation on this theme is the Victorian era mystery, So Long at the Fair (1950), produced by the British film studio, Gainsborough Pictures. The title comes from the English folk tune “Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?,” which contains the line, “Johnny’s so long at the fair.”

Continue reading

Predator on the Prowl

Hammer Studios, home to vampires, werewolves, mummies, Quatermass Xperiments, pirates….and child molesters? In 1960, the British film production company (originally founded in 1934), ventured into decidedly new territory from their usual formulaic mix of horror films, suspense thrillers and costume adventures. Never Take Candy from a Stranger (known as Never Take Sweets from a Stranger in the the U.K.) was Hammer’s attempt at a serious adult drama that addressed a controversial topic most major studios wouldn’t touch at that time.      

Continue reading

He Blowed Up Real Good!

Remember Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (John Candy) as the hayseed hosts of “Farm Report” on the legendary SCTV comedy series? These farmer-turned-film-reviewers loved movies where people and things blew up and eventually their hog report turned into a talk show where they blew up famous celebrities every week like Meryl Streep, The Village People, Brooke Shields, singer Neil Sedaka or Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie. Well, these guys would love Rod Steiger in Hennessy (1975) because he blows up real good!     

Continue reading

The Man With the Codfish Eyes

British actor Donald Pleasence has played his fair share of nutters and villains through the years from infamous grave robber William Hare in The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) to Blofeld, James Bond’s nemesis, in You Only Live Twice (1967) to the dangerous religious fanatic in Will Penny (1968) to the insane scientist of The Mutations aka The Freakmaker (1974). At the same time, he has also specialized in playing cold, analytical authority figures who, while on the side of good, is often more unsettling than comforting as in his iconic role as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978) and four of its sequels. His portrayal of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, the most notorious murderer of the Edwardian Age, in Dr. Crippen (1963), however, doesn’t really fit into either category and displays yet another side of the Pleasence persona – a quiet, unassertive enigma, a blank slate for us to fill in the details. The eyes, which reveal nothing, seem to look right through you. 

Donald Pleasence as arch villain Blofeld in the James Bond adventure YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967).
Continue reading

A Suitable Case for Treatment

David Warner in Morgan!

Is mental illness a laughing matter? When it comes to cinematic treatments, it all depends on the filmmaker’s approach and this was an issue that divided critics and audiences over Morgan! (1966, released in the U.K. as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment). Whether embraced as a wild, eccentric anti-establishment farce or derided as a schizophrenic mess that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, Morgan!, remains a polarizing film even today; there is no middle ground here. Most people either love it or hate it.

Continue reading

The Cunning Inspector Cockrill

Classic movie lovers in the U.S. probably know Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the perennial holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, the 1951 version. He is also memorable for his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) but, more importantly, British comedy fans adore Sim specifically for his eccentric comedic characters in such popular films as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), Laughter in Paradise (1951) and Innocents in Paris (1953). Less familiar to American audiences but guaranteed to turn you into an Alastair Sim fanatic if you’re not one already is Green for Danger, a 1946 suspense thriller starring Sim as the sly-as-a-fox Inspector Cockrill.

Continue reading

Party Out of Bounds

Tired of reading about new DVD/Blu-ray releases that are being released in other parts of the world but are not viewable here because they are produced in a different broadcast format? (The U.S. standard is NTSC; PAL is common in Europe and the U.K. and SECAM is prevalent in China and the USSR). If so, why not consider the purchase of an all-region Blu-Ray player. They are relatively inexpensive and will allow you to finally purchase and view films you’ve always wanted to see or dreamed about revisiting. To give you some idea of what you’re missing, especially if you are an anglophile, I point to BFI Flipside, a classy underdog in the world of DVD/Blu-Ray distribution, who launched this label in 2009 with the following explanation on all of their box art: “The Flipside: rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions.”

Earlier releases have included Bill Forsyth’s debut feature That Sinking Feeling (1979), a comedy about a quartet of working class lads with a dubious black market scheme, Gerry O’Mara’s The Pleasure Girls (1965) a Swinging London soap opera starring Francesca Annis, Suzanna Leigh, Ian McShane and Klaus Kinski, and Don Levy’s Herostratus (1967), an avant-garde curio with a surprising cameo by a young, undressed Helen Mirren, who has never been one to complain about nude scenes. One of my favorite releases from BFI Flipside is The Party’s Over (1965), a stylish and edgy study of some bohemian Londoners during the mod sixties with a scene-stealing performance by Oliver Reed and enough disturbing elements to make the censors froth at the mouth. In fact, their negative reactions, prevented the film, which was filmed in 1962, from receiving a theatrical release until 1965. During the interim, the film was subjected to numerous rounds of cuts and revisions before finally being slapped with a ‘X’ certificate – a rating that spelled box-office poison for exhibitors.      

Continue reading

Sean Connery as a Gypsy Grifter

What’s your favorite Sean Connery role before he became famous as James Bond. This question might stump the average movie-goer but film buffs would probably choose one of his menacing villain roles in either Hell Drivers (1957) or Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) or possibly his dashing romantic hero opposite Janet Munro in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), where he actually gets to sing. The latter is easily my favorite with the Irish mythology of leprechauns, pookas and banshees giving it the edge but there is something quite appealing about Connery trying his hand at comedy in the lesser-known British B-movie Operation Snafu (1961), which was released in the U.K. as On the Fiddle (It was also known as Operation War Head).  

Continue reading

Roald Dahl’s Gift to Patricia Neal

What do you get when you mix together a serial killer thriller, a May-December romance between an older woman and younger man and a masochistic mother-adopted daughter relationship melodrama with echoes of Now, Voyager (1942)? The result, The Night Digger (1971, aka The Road Builder), from a screenplay by Roald Dahl, is much more homogeneous than you’d expect and is an unjustifiably overlooked curiosity in the filmography of Patricia Neal.   Continue reading

The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game

Released in the U.K. as The System and the U.S. as The Girl-Getters in 1964, this unheralded little gem of a film is not only a vivid snapshot of the swinging sixties but a surprisingly frank and intelligent treatment of sexual gamesmanship and barely disguised class warfare promoted as a typical youth exploitation picture in the style of a “Beach Party” movie by distributor American International Pictures.   Continue reading