Monday, June 28, 2010


Academy Award Winning actor Marlon Brando directed one movie during his prestigious 50-year career in Hollywood. Brando's Pennebaker Productions decided that a western might be a worthwhile investment since westerns had been profitable during the 1950s. The company shelled out $40,000 for the rights to author Charles Neider’s seminal western novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones” and several scenarists came and went before “One-Eyed Jacks” (***1/2 out of ****) was completed. Among the scenarists were a young Sam Peckinpah, but novelist Calder Willingham replaced Peckinpah. This amoral western melodrama dealt with the themes of friendship, greed, deception, betrayal, and revenge. The troubled production history of this splendid horse opera casts a shadow over its artistry. First, Brando created several legends about his use of six or more takes for a scene. Second, the story goes that the star waited for the most dramatic waves to break on the shore. Brando toiled for six months on “One-Eyed Jacks.” Initially, “Paths of Glory” helmer Stanley Kubrick started out as the director. Artistic differences arose between Brando and Kubrick that prompted Kubrick’s dismissal. Reportedly, Kubrick preferred Spencer Tracy over Karl Malden as the villainous Dad Longworth. Brando objected on the basis, however, that Pennebaker Productions had already paid Malden the sum of $300-thousand. Afterward, when nobody stepped forward to helm the film, Brando decided he would try. Paramount executives should have had their heads examined for letting a temperamental actor like Brando call the shots on a film.

Three American outlaws, Rio (Marlon Brando of “Julius Caesar”), Dad Longworth (Karl Malden of “Baby Doll”), and Doc (perennial character actor Hank Worden of “Red River”) hold up a Mexican bank. Dad and Doc ride off to shack up with prostitutes in a bordello, while Rio heads off to romance a refined lady at her hacienda. Mexican Rurale captain (Rodolfo Acosta of “Hondo”) leads a posse to the bordello and they kill Doc when they raid the place. Dad slips out by the window with his gun, but he forgets his boots. Dad rides off to alert Rio. Together they light out into desert with the Rurales on their trail. Rio loses his horse and has to double up on Dad’s mount. They take refuge on a hill and exchange gunfire with the Rurales. Our heroes decide that one of them must round up fresh horses so they can escape from the Rurales. Rio draws two bullets and grips them in his fist. Interestingly, our protagonist lets Dad win and Dad sets out for fresh horses while Rio holds up the Rurales. Dad rides into a tiny ranch and buys a horse. He is shifting the gold coins around in his fist when he decides to leave Rio to the Rurales. Eventually, the Rurales surround Rio and he surrenders. He spends the next five years in a stinking Sonora Prison, while Dad lives high off the hog in Monterey, California, where he has gotten himself elected sheriff. Moreover, Dad has married Maria (Katy Jurado of “High Noon”) and adopted Maria’s daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer of “Macario”) as his own. He owns a house about 10 miles out of town.

Rio and Chico Modesto (Larry Duran of “Viva Zapata!”) break out of the Sonora Prison. They are in a cantina when Bob Amory (Ben Johnson of “Rio Grande”) approaches Rio about robbing a bank in Monterey. Rio learns Dad Longworth is the town lawman. Rio visits Dad before Amory and his sidekick, Harvey Johnson (Sam Gilman of “The Young Lions”), show up in Monterey. Initially, Dad believes Rio has come to kill him for double-crossing him back in Sonora. Rio doesn’t want to shoot Dad. Rio explains he gave the Rurales the slip and eluded them. Dad introduces Rio to his family and Louisa takes an immediate interest in him. Later, Rio guns down a drunken man in a Monterey bar, Howard Tetley (Timothy Carey of “The Killing”), who was abusing a helpless woman. Dad has had enough of Rio. Primarily, Dad is angry because Louisa spent the night on the beach with Rio. Dad’s sleazy Deputy Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens of “Rocky Mountain”) has had his eye on Louisa and hates Rio. Dad arrests Rio for killing Tetley. Disarming Rio, Dad lashes his wrists to a horse’s hitching rack. Wielding a bullwhip on Rio, Dad sends him to his knees. Dad reverses a shotgun and smashes the butt of the weapon against Rio’s right hand to destroy his hand.

Rio and company flee Monterey, but our protagonist is even more determined to kill Dad. Rio recuperates on the beach and gets back the use of his gun hand. Bob and company ride into town to rob the bank. The robbery is a bust, but a little girl dies during the shoot-out. Rio is riding back to town when Dad’s deputies arrest him. Although Rio had no part in the robbery, Dad locks him up and prepares the gallows for his inevitable hanging. Louisa tries to smuggle a derringer into Rio by hiding it in a bowl of soup, but Lon discovers the firearm. He escorts Louisa from the jail and Rio smashes up his bunk for a piece of wood attached to a strap thathe can use to sling out at the table in front of his cell. Lon has forgotten about the derringer and left it on the table. Brando generates some great suspense as Rio repeatedly tries to get the derringer. At the same time that Rio is trying to get the derringer, Dad is taking a liesurely ride along the beach back into town. Rio bluffs Lon with the derringer when he returns. What Lon doesn't know is that the derringer contains no bullets. Rio escapes from jail and shoots it out in the town plaza with Dad. They confront each other with a water fountain between them and Rio slips around behind Dad and shoots him in the back. After he rides out of town, Rio and Louisa rein up and discuss their future together. Rio must clear out of the territory, but he plans to return in the spring when Louisa gives birth to his child.

The striking locales set “One-Eyed Jacks” apart from most westerns. When Brando left the production, he had filmed about five hours of footage and assembled his own cut. Paramount whittled the unwieldy opus down to two hours and forty-one minutes. Interestingly, the title refers to the two sides of a jack rabbit's face. Rio brags that he knows who the real Dad is and he isn't the man who duped the town of Monterey. Financial woes aside, “One-Eyed Jacks” qualifies a good, often compelling western about two bad men who clash at the outset over stolen gold. One lands in a filthy Sonora prison, while the other one ends up in California with a badge on his chest. The cast is stupendous, particularly Malden who plays a thoroughly treacherous dastard. Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Timothy Carey, and Pina Pellicer all contribute memorable performances, but it is “The Magnificent Seven” lenser Charles Lang who makes the scenic Monterey coast with his crashing surf and the rugged Mexican locations look absolutely dazzling. Unfortunately, the studio shots involving back projection detract from Lang’s visual real-world composition. Indeed, Brando himself received a nomination for Best Director. Sadly, “One-Eyed Jacks” never recouped its negative cost, the amount that it took to produce this exotic western.


This atmospheric World War II era horror chiller constitutes a rare treat. The filmmakers have skillfully intertwined serious, real-life serious events with supernatural fictional proceedings. Meaning, few monster movies appropriated the contemporary crisis of World War II and exploited it as a part of its storyline. Remember, during World War II, American and British films served as propaganda for the masses and touted democracy over fascism. Usually, these horror films skirted political ideologies, with only the most marginal references to the war. Men and women in uniform appear in several scenes, and the bombs fall three times so we see the savagery of Hitler's civilian bombing campaign. Mind you, “The Return of the Vampire” (*** out of ****) doesn’t weave World War II entirely into the fabric of its yarn, but the titular fangster does arise as a consequence of a German Luftwaffe bombing raid. Moreover, the evil that National Socialism posed to England is comparable to the evil that Armand Tesla poses to England. Like the autocratic Nazis that manipulated millions into submission, the vampire here exerts total control over its powerless prey. During a London air raid, bombs shatter the tranquility of a cemetery where the vampire has been consigned to oblivion with a stake in his chest. Director Lew Landers and “Mummy’s Hand” scenarist Griffin Jay have taken Kurt Neumann’s original story idea and done a splendid job of integrating the war with the vampire’s reign of terror. The cinematography of lensers L. William O'Connell and John Stumar creates a creepy feeling with its reliance on a fog machine and some graceful camera movement. Today’s audiences will probably find nothing scary about this old-fashioned ghoul fest with its use of expressionist shadows to tell a story. “The Return of the Vampire” is quite unusual as it foreshadowed the combo chiller that would bring together two supernatural creatures in one film. A vampire and the werewolf together conspire hand-in-hand for the first sixty minutes of this 70-minute, black and white film before they turn on each other in the end. “Twilight” fans may initially find this film disconcerting because the vampire wields power over the werewolf, but they will savor the ending.

Bela Lugosi doesn’t appear during the opening 23 minutes. Nevertheless, when Lugosi does show up, nobody can steal a scene from him. The first scene where a werewolf, Andreas Obry (one-time actor only Matt Willis), enters a gloomy Priory cemetery and awakens the vampire at dusk is mildly spooky. Andreas serves as the equivalent of Renfield from "Dracula,” because Lugosi’s vampire possesses his soul. Admittedly, Willis appears rather ridiculous in his hirsute make-up, but this scruffy canine look may have been frightening to early twentieth century audiences. Anyway, Landers and his lensers pay tribute to German Expressionist filmmakers when they present the vampire as a shadow against a wall as he emerges from his coffin. The only flesh and blood shot is a close-up of the bloodsucker’s hand as it raises the coffin lid. Similarly, they stage the action of a man driving a stake into the vampire’s heart in silhouette against a wall. Initially, use of silhouettes was a Hollywood method of depicting violence without nauseating the audience. The vampire, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi of “Dracula”), differs considerably from Count Dracula. A depraved Romanian scientist who lived 200 years ago in 1744, Tesla published an authoritative text about vampires. He fell victim to his obsession with the undead and turned into one after his death. No, the filmmakers never explain what specifically turned Tesla into a vampire. Tesla is preying on young women in the year 1918 when the action unfolds and the werewolf acts as his servant. Meantime, Dr. Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery of “The House of Rothschild”) and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort of “Mary of Scotland”) track Tesla down to his tomb and hammer a spike through his heart. Ironically, everything that Dr. Saunders knows about vampires he has learned from Tesla’s writing. Landers and his scenarists use Dr. Saunders as a mouthpiece throughout these early scenes so that non-horror movie audiences would not be left in the dark about the procedure for killing a vampire.

The second act of “The Return of the Vampire” occurs in 1940 before America had entered World War II with the British. Dr. Saunders has died in a plane crash and left behind a manuscript of his fantastic exploits, principally the destruction of Armand Tesla. Scotland Yard’s Chief Commissioner, Sir Frederick Fleet (Miles Mander of “South of Suez”), has read the manuscript and has no alternative but to exhume Tesla’s body to substantiate what appears to be murder. Of course, Sir Frederick flatly refuses to believe in the existence of vampires. Later, a bomb devastates the graveyard where Saunders and Lady Jane buried Tesla's body in an unmarked grave between the Fairchild grave and the Smithley grave. Two laborers stumble upon Tesla’s unearthed coffin and mistakenly believe that the bomb hurled a spike into the corpse. The conversation that they have between themselves about this grisly incident serves as amusing comic relief. Dutifully, one of the laborers, Orace (Billy Bevan) removes the spike and they regret this action. Ultimately, Tesla arises again and Andreas reverts to his werewolf days. Since Tesla’s demise, Andreas has been a tireless laboratory assistant to a now older Lady Ainsley. Lady Ainsley’s son John (Roland Varno of “Zanzibar”) has grown up. A former Royal Air Force pilot, he has now become a concert pianist, while the late Dr. Saunders’ daughter Nicki (Nina Foch of “Illegal”) serves in the women’s corps. The two plan to marry. Tesla enters Nicki’s bedroom and bites her. Later, Nicki bites John. Nothing that Lady Jane tells Sir Frederick about Tesla convinces him that Tesla is a supernatural being. Meanwhile, when his detectives question Andreas, Andreas turns into a werewolf and escapes from them. The detectives show Sir Frederick the wolf hairs that they collected in their brief struggle with Andreas, but Sir Frederick remains dubious.

Meanwhile, Lady Jane has been asked to help a scientist fleeing from the Nazis. Dr. Hugo Bruckner has escaped from Axis-occupied France with the help of the Resistance. He comes to London to meet our heroine. Tesla has Andreas dispose of Bruckner, and Tesla assumes the scientist’s identity. Eventually, Sir Frederick discovers this deception. Tesla visits Lady Jane. Since she knows his true identity, he decides it is time for him to exact his revenge against her and turn Nikki into a vampire. She exposes a cross and Tesla flees. Later, Lady Jane has another of her futile arguments with Sir Frederick about the reality of vampires. Before Tesla can carry out his morbid plan, Andreas kills him. The ending of “The Return of the Vampire” is both clever and amusing. Despite everything that has transpired, Sir Frederick remains adamant in his disbelief about vampires. The Scotland Yard commissioner queries his two plainclothes detectives. “You two fellows don’t believe in vampires, do you?” They are just as convinced that vampires exist as Lady Jane is. Sir Frederick then breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. “Do you people?”

All vampire movies establish their own set of criteria governing the behavior of the bloodsuckers. “The Return of the Vampire” is the kind where the vampire can enter a residence without the permission of the owner. Nevertheless, the filmmakers take advantage of a strong wind to get around the 'thou shalt not enter a room rule' without a proper invitation. This occurs when Tesla sweeps into Nicki's room with a smoke screen. This may have been the first time that a character shines a mirror on a vampire and the mirror reflects the vampire's apparel but not the vampire. Typically, in these scenes, the vampire's image along with his apparel is not reflected in the mirror. Lady Jane contends that Armand Tesla's body should still be in his coffin if the spike is still in his body. When Sir Frederick sets out to examine the corpse, she hopes that the Scotland Yard Commissioner will find the body intact. According to Lady Jane, if Tesla were a vampire, then his body should not decompose. This characteristic doesn't hold true in the Hammer "Dracula" movies. What is amusing here as it is with the vampire mirror shots is the fact that the Armand Tesla's wardrobe would have deteriorated somewhat over the intervening years, but there is no sign of wear.


“Walk The Line” director James Mangold and television scenarist Patrick O’Neill must have watched a bunch of European espionage thrillers from the 1960s before they made the new Tom Cruise & Cameron Diaz movie “Knight and Day.” This predictable but entertaining international actioneer brings Cruise and Diaz together as two people on the lam from Federal agents and a trigger-happy Spanish arms dealer. The first time that Cruise and Diaz worked together, they made the murky “Vanilla Sky” (2001) with Kurt Russell. Indeed, “Knight and Day” (**1/2 out of ****) qualifies as a big improvement over “Vanilla Sky.” Furthermore, “Knight and Day” surpasses the similar themed “Killers” with Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl. Nevertheless, this breathlessly paced, Alfred Hitchcock style, thriller lacks the flair of Cruise’s “Mission Impossible 2” that Hong Kong action maestro John Woo turned into a slow-motion bullet ballet with our hero surviving some pretty incredible predicaments. “Knight and Day” boasts its share of hair-raising, cliff-hanger scenes. Most of them, however, have been performed before without blue screens and Mangold cannot substitute momentum for imagination. This is one of those improbable shoot’em up sagas where the virile hero is mighty handy with any fully automatic weapon in sight. He knows a thing or two about riding on the hood of a careening car while firing at multiple villains pursing him. In fact, some of the scenes here look as if they were lifted from “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Wanted,” “Moonraker,” and “Charade,” not to mention all those Euro-thrillers. Audiences looking for something different may enjoy this above-average but contrived travelogue with fantastic photography and a credible cast.

Tom Cruise plays Roy Miller. This Roy Miller has nothing in common with the Roy Miller that Matt Damon portrayed in the superior Iraq thriller “Green Zone.” Cruise’s Roy works for the CIA. He has stolen a small, D-sized battery that is "the first perpetual energy source since the sun." He explains to June (Cameron Diaz of “The Box”) that the Zephyr “isn’t your average Duracell." In fact, this is one battery that never has to be recharged. The darned thing runs forever. In the Hitchcock thrillers, the object that motivates the plot is referred to as a MacGuffin. Basically, a MacGuffin is something that the good guys and the bad guys are prepared to kill each other for to acquire. FBI agent Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard of “Orphan”) heads up the team of gun-toting agents nipping at Roy’s heels. At the Wichita, Kansas, airport, Roy spots pretty June and slips the Zephyr into her luggage packed with spare car parts so that it will make it through airport security. Initially, when she tries to board the plane, the airline attendant informs June that she will have to take a later flight. Savvy Fitzgerald spotted the switch in the terminal and allows June to get a seat on the flight. Roy was hoping that this wouldn’t happen. Naturally, June is surprised when she finds more than three-fourths of the seats aboard empty. Roy and she strike up a conversation. She reveals that she restores old cars. The jetliner hits turbulence and Roy catches her falling luggage before it smashes into her. All of this happens so quickly that June spills her drink into her lap. She heads off to the restroom to clean up. While she is in the restroom, she wonders about this mysterious guy. Meanwhile, Roy has his hands full with several tough customers who try to kill him, including the pilots. He dispatches them all as if he had been trained by James Bond and Jason Bourne. When June emerges from the toilet, everybody—including the pilots—lay dead, and Roy crash lands the jetliner in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere at night. Predictably, as they are trudging away from the crash, the fuselage bursts into flames and several terrific explosions ensue.

Roy explains to June that some suspicious people are going to visit her. They are going to tell her a lot of bad things about him. For example, they are going to call him a rogue agent with little regard for life and no qualms about killing. They are also going to tell her that they are going to take her to a safe and secure place. Roy warns June not to climb into a vehicle with these liars. Moreover, whenever they mention the words ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ they are planning on killing her. Afterward, he knocks her out with a drugged drink so he can get her out of the line of fire. Keeping June out of the line of fire is somewhat more difficult than Roy envisaged. He has to abduct her at gun point in broad daylight from a Boston diner to clear her name. During this abduction, Roy has to shoot her ex-boyfriend, Boston firefighter Rodney (Marc Blucas of “Animals”), in the thigh to dissuade him from following them. If June appears to be Roy’s hostage, then the authorities—principally the CIA's director of counterespionage, Ms. George (Viola Davis of “Law Abiding Citizen”)—won’t think that she is a conspirator. Meanwhile, Spanish arms dealer Antonio Quintero (Jordi MollĂ  of “The Alamo”) dispatches hordes of gunmen dressed like an army of SWAT riot patrolmen to descend on our heroes.

Clocking in at 110 minutes, “Knight and Day” lunges from one outlandish predicament to another like a hyperactive James Bond thriller. The audience will find itself in the same shoes that June—the ultimate innocent bystander without a clue—wears because both the good guys and the bad guys parcel out information piecemeal to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with the slam-bang stunts, reckless high speed car and motorcycle stunts, and the exploding SUVs that somersault through the air. Cruise musters his boyish “Risky Business” charisma and Diaz flaunts her terrific body. They are both sympathetic characters, and director James Mangold has the good sense to slap on layers of comedy to undercut some of the high body count shoot-outs. Nevertheless, “Knight and Day” seems too incoherent and second rate to top even Cruise’s worst “Mission Impossible” thriller—“Mission Impossible 3”—and the surprises aren’t very surprising in the long run.