Once Upon a Time in Russia

“Hordes storm fortress!” “Tartars Abduct Viking beauty!” “Orgy celebrates conquest!” These were some of the tag lines used to promote the period epic The Tartars (1961), one of many European imports that reached American shores during a brief “sword and sandal” craze in the late fifties/early sixties. Hercules, the 1959 peplum sensation starring Steve Reeves, started it all. Producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and distributed it in the U.S. in 1959, transforming it into a box office hit. After that, every major studio was scrambling to duplicate that success and MGM was no exception, importing such muscle-bound contenders as The Giant of Marathon (1960), Morgan the Pirate (1961) and The Son of Spartacus (aka The Slave, 1963) – all of them starring Steve Reeves. The Tartars, however, had a different pedigree and a more distinctive one. Not only was it helmed by Richard Thorpe, one of MGM’s most dependable directors of costume epics (Ivanhoe (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Knights of the Round Table, 1953), but it sported two high profile marquee names – Victor Mature and Orson Welles.  

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The Monkees’ Film Debut

It sounds like someone’s LSD flashback. Frank Zappa, boxer Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, female impersonator T.C. Jones, San Francisco’s legendary topless dancer Carol Doda and other cult celebrities appear in a movie co-scripted by Jack Nicholson and directed by Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces, 1970) that showcases the TV-created pop band The Monkees in the leading roles, who in one scene play dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair. Entitled Head (1968), this Cuisinart-puree of pop culture infused with anti-establishment posturing and served up in the then-current style of a trippy experimental film could only have happened in the late sixties when Hollywood studios were in a try-anything phase to capture the rapidly receding youth market.

The Monkees get to play dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair in Head (1968), directed by Bob Rafelson.

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Jacques Tourneur’s Pulp Fiction Pipe Dream

RKO may have been seen as low on the totem pole in the Hollywood hierarchy compared to MGM, Warner Bros. and other larger studios but their importance in film history is assured by a remarkable roster of talent that at one time included such directors as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. One of RKO’s most famous contractees was Jacques Tourneur who secured his reputation in the forties with Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943) and Out of the Past (1947).

Tourneur’s work in the early to mid-fifties might not have matched his glory years at RKO but he still managed to turn out occasional gems like the underrated Joel McCrea western, Stars in My Crown (1950), a late period noir (Nightfall, 1956) and a cult horror classic, Curse of the Demon (1958). Even the less distinguished films from his final years are worth a look and Timbuktu (1958) is a genuine curiosity, flaws and all.  Continue reading