Movies Till Dawn: A Month of Mayhem, Week 2 – Vintage Rogues’ Gallery

Midnight – “An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe” – Television/Horror

Edgar+Allan+Poe++005(1970, Scream Factory) Distributed to television by American International Pictures, this 53-minute special features Vincent Price in performances of four short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Though the videotaped production lacks the lurid shocks and ripe Gothic atmosphere of the Poe films Price made with Roger Corman, “Evening” provides the actor with a richer showcase for his gifts than usually afforded by many of his horror features. The elegantly sinister side of his screen persona is well represented by “The Cask of Amontillado” and a more obscure story, “The Sphinx,” but Price is equally fine playing the simple-minded and hopelessly mad narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the desperate victim of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” whose grip on reality loosens with each minute of torture. Direction by Kenneth Johnson (who went on to create “V” and “The Six Million Dollar Man”) avoids both the technical limitations of videotape and the stagebound feel of a one-man show, and there’s an eerie score by easy listening pioneer Les Baxter, but the product_images_modal_VPC3.Cover.72dpi__7B83178fb5-84ca-44dd-8cdc-307b4f558adf_7Devening belongs to Price, who offers potent reminder of his charisma and talent. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray, which is included in its four-disc “Vincent Price Collection III” set, is an improvement over the 16mm source material on the MGM Midnite Movies disc from 2003, and includes a lively interview with Johnson, who discusses his long friendship with Price and their collaboration on “Evening.” There’s also an informative commentary track by Steve Haberman which reviews, among other subjects, Poe’s inspiration for the four stories included here.

1:30 a.m. – “Hitler’s Madman” – Thriller/Drama

61rZh8sGhML._SL1000_(1944, Warner Archives Collection) John Carradine’s performance as Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, a key architect in the Final Solution, anchors this better-than-average B-melodrama that also marked the launch of Douglas Sirk’s directorial career in America after fleeing the rise of Nazi Germany in 1937. Like Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die” (1943), “Madmen” is a dramatized take on Operation Anthropoid, a joint effort between British Special Operatives and the Czech Resistance to assassinate Heydrich, the brutal governor of Nazi-occupied Czech territory, which resulted in horrific reprisals against the town of Lidice, among others. “Madmen” went into production shortly after the real events in May 1942, with a host of Sirk’s fellow expatriate German filmmakers behind the camera, including Seymour Nebenzal, who had produced “M” for Lang, and an uncredited Edgar G. Ulmer; their presence may account for a level of urgency and tension that wasn’t often present in low-budget features from its studio, PRC. The main cast is hit and miss – leads Alan Curtis and Patricia Morison are wooden, and support varies from solid (Ralph Morgan) to unsure (comics Edgar Kennedy and Jimmy Conlin, both struggling with atypical casting), but Carradine brings palpable menace to the project; his imperious, self-satisfied Heydrich embodies the Nazis’ unwavering sense of superiority, a notion underscored by an uncomfortable scene in which he leers at a group of Czech women destined for concentration camps like a rancher surveying his herd. “Madman” also has the distinction of being one of the few independent films to be distributed by MGM; studio chief Louis B. Mayer liked the picture and had Sirk reshoot material on his lot before issuing the film to theaters the following year. Warner Archives’ fullscreen DVD includes the original theatrical trailer.

3 a.m. – “Once a Thief” – Crime Drama

61gN7bj38KL._SL1000_(1965, Warner Archives Collection) Ex-convict Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon) stands at the brink of normalcy – he has the loving wife (Ann-Margret), a cute daughter and enough legitimately earned money for the ultimate middle class status symbol, a small boat to cruise around the San Francisco Bay. All that goes up in smoke when a cop (Van Heflin) with a chip on his shoulder pins him for a robbery and murder. Away go the boat, the job and maybe Ann-Margret, too, unless Eddie helps his brother (Jack Palance) pull off a million-dollar robbery. This stylized nod to film noir, and in particular, the French variety (like Henry Verneuil’s “Any Number Can Win,” with Delon), gets bogged down by a pulpy-purple script by career criminal turned writer Zekial Marko (who wrote the source material for “Any Number Can Win,” and also turns up briefly in a holding cell with Delon), but director Ralph Nelson and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks kees the pace and the images in deep shadow, and orchestrate an impressive heist set piece. The all-pro cast, too, retains interest when the dialogue pushes it away: Delon and Ann-Margret have the right amount of bruised innocence and glamour, and both sides of the law are represented by thorny character actors like Heflin and Jeff Corey (the police) and Palance, John Davis Chandler and Tony Musante, in his film debut, as the crooks. As with John Carradine in “Hitler’s Madman,” Palance does a lot with his relatively brief screen time; Walter is another of the actor’s brutes in slick suits, using his hissing voice and verbiage to push for what he wants, until it’s time to drop the pleasantries and bring on the heavy pressure. The jazzy score is by Lalo Schifrin, who’s featured in a short film included on the WAC disc about his compositional duties on “Thief.” The drummer pounding out an incredible solo under the opening credits is Russell Lee.

4:30 a.m. “Run of the Arrow” – Western

71zac0QyIzL._SL1000_(1957, Warner Archives Collection) Typically audacious feature from iconoclastic writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller (“The Naked Kiss”), who again uses a traditional genre – here, the Western – to offer unfiltered commentary on the American experience. Rod Steiger is a Irish Confederate soldier unwilling to swear allegiance to the Union at the close of the Civil War (depicted as a slaughterhouse instead of the noble battlefield), and heads West, where he decides to renounce his American citizenship and join a Sioux tribe. Steiger’s new identity is soon tested by tensions between the Sioux and the cavalry, which explodes into war and atrocities on both sides. Though not every part of “Arrow” works, Fuller manages to present an exciting action film and make some potent comments about the capacity for both cruelty and understanding in all men, regardless of ethnicity or politics; though he spares no quarter for the racism and genocide inherent to our past (this is probably one of the bloodiest Westerns of the pre-Peckinpah era), Fuller also clearly believes that the core of the American spirit is the ability to forgive – both ourselves and our fellow man – and rebuild along new lines outside of old hatred and prejudice. He shrewdly employs a cast of brawny character actors to populate his Old West – in addition to Steiger, there’s Ralph Meeker, Brian Keith and Charles Bronson as the Sioux chief – with men whose outer strength hides tremendous emotion. Fuller’s forward thinking also extends to his portrayal of Native Americans; though the majority are played by white performers like the great character actor Jay C. Flippen, they are granted a more nuanced and humane portrayal than in most Hollywood Westerns of the period. An exemplary effort in a remarkable film career fraught with challenges from studios and tastemakers (and this film was no exception due to Howard Hughes’ mishandling of its distributor, RKO), Samuel Fuller’s “Run of the Arrow” is required viewing for Western fans (who may note similarities between this film and “Dances with Wolves”) and independent film students alike.

6 a.m. – “Bobby Ware is Missing” – Thriller

71KNJ3qHP6L._SL1000_(1955, Warner Archives Collection) Obscure police drama with formidable screen heel Neville Brand playing against type as a detective searching for two lost boys. The pair – Bobby Ware (Kim Charney) and his pal, Mickey (Thorpe Whiteman) – are not so much missing as trapped due to a ill-considered trip to a quarry set for demolition, where they wind up on a ledge facing imminent death. Brand (tricked out, as many critics have noticed, in a leather jacket-and-fedora combo that resembles Indiana Jones’ outfit of choice) and the police comb the Los Angeles foothills while also contending with an unforeseen wrinkle: a ransom note delivered to the boys’ parents, which asks for $10,000 for their safe return. Matters are wrapped up swiftly and with little fuss; at 67 minutes – barely longer than “An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe” – “Bobby Ware” has no time for story or character frills, and delivers an amount of thrills commensurate with the police programs of the period. If you’re a diehard fan of “Highway Patrol” or “Dragnet,” “Bobby Ware” plays like an extended riff on one of their off-the-soundstage episodes. For others, the t draw will be the rare opportunity to see the gravel-voiced Brand play outside his usual roles; a highly decorated soldier during World War II, he made a living playing intelligent but dangerous thugs like Al Capone on “The Untouchables,” but he also excelled at no-nonsense authority figures like Flynn – a character who may have also been played by former cowboy star Bill Elliott in five low-budget crime movies, two of which were penned by “Bobby Ware” writer Daniel B. Ullman (all five Elliott films are also available from WAC). Those that delight in spotting character actors will be pleased to find the prolific William Schallert, Paul Picerni (who would go on to pursue Brand on “The Untouchables”), kid actor Michael Winkleman and Richard Crane, whose brush with fame as “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” had run its course a year before this film was released, among the supporting players.

Bonus Vincent Price: “Cry of the Banshee” – Horror

Cry_of_the_Banshee_Poster(1970, Scream Factory) Price is back in the witchhunting business in this supernatural thriller from producer/director Gordon Hessler (“Scream and Scream Again, “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”). Unlike the unfortunate souls in “Witchfinder General” (1968), the witches in “Banshee” are the real thing – a coven of Druidic Satanists whose rituals spark the ire of Price’s severe Elizabethan judge. With the help of his brutish sons, Price mounts a terror campaign that results in the death of several witches, prompting the coven’s leader (German silent film star Elisabeth Bergner) to call up the avenging titular demon. Hessler gets plenty of production value from “Witchfinder” cinematographer John Coquillion and solid support from his cast, which includes Swedish star Essy Persson, Oscar winner Hugh Griffith and Patrick Mower (“The Devil Rides Out”), but doesn’t have much by way of story or scares (the rubbery-faced banshee is a particular letdown). But having Price as his star (in their third of three collaborations) brings a certain degree of class and chills, and the actor helps to sell a sense of impending doom in a way that Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking’s script cannot. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray, which is also part of its “Vincent Price Collection III” set (which will be covered further in the weeks to come), includes both the PG-rated theatrical cut and a new high-def master of the decidedly more mature and violent “director’s cut”; the latter also features a title sequence designed by Terry Gilliam (!) and a completely different score by Wilfred Josephs. There’s also an interview with Hessler (recorded prior to his death in 2014) in which he discusses the making of the film and work with Alfred Hitchcock; there’s also commentary by Steve Haberman and a sizable amount of promotional material, including a trailer, radio spot and poster art.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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