Spotlighting Jason Robards Beginning September 2nd.

For 5 consecutive days I’m going to going to look at some films featuring an actor I never really liked much while growing up. Perhaps it’s because many of the roles he was featured in were downright “sons of bi—-s.” His Charles Wheeler in Philadelphia instantly comes to mind. Still there is something in his performing that draws you in.

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As I’ve gotten older and realize that it’s an actor beneath the roles I find myself looking for films with the crusty performer. There is a little bit of Cable Hogue in many of his characters. Hogue was one of his more memorable rogues in Sam Peckinpah’s lesser known 1970 flick. Much like I’ve come to consider myself a big fan of Robert Ryan over the years though not liking him at a young age, Robards kind of fits into this pattern as well.

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I think my earliest memory of Robards stems from two films on television viewings. His loud obnoxious Henry Drummond in A Big Hand for The Little Lady and his masterful Cheyenne in Leone’s Once Upon a Time In The West. It’s the Leone film that after repeated viewings (of which we should all be subjected too) I realize just how good he is in that film. Growing up I was focused less on him than I was on Bronson and Fonda, two of my earliest film heroes. Now of course I love the interplay between him and Bronson and his flirtations with Claudia Cardinale. Beneath the gruff exterior of his outlaw character there breathes the heart of a romantic soul.

I may wind up going with six films as I narrow the viewing field. Three titles will be new to me while I’m torn between three others I want to revisit. Hopefully I’ll spark some interest in both Robards and some of his movies to check out. If you have any you’d like to draw my attention to, drop me a message.

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Movie Challenge…. Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944)

After getting through this Monogram feature assigned to me by Kristina of Speakeasy I was almost expecting William Shatner to pop up at the fade out and ask the camera, “Is that weird or what?”

The Mad Movie Challenge is for those who are unaccustomed to the monthly feature when Kristina and I assign the other a film we haven’t gotten to just yet.

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For this Monogram title we have the heavenly accent and pouty face of Simone Simon as a young woman traveling by train to the big city to take up work in an airplane factory while the men are off fighting the war. It’s at about the three minute mark that I know I’m in for a piece of bizarre cinema. From the pages of a book rises a miniature gremlin who is going to reek havoc on the superstitious Simon for the next seven weeks.

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Much like the classic The More The Merrier we find our leading lady experiencing a housing shortage and desperately looking for a room. With fate intervening she happens upon a young man just heading to boot camp who agrees to let her have his apartment. The problem is that he’s been very generous at handing out extra keys to other men in the service.

“Johnny doesn’t live here anymore.”

Simone is heard to utter this phrase repeatedly as one sailor on the town after another come drifting into the apartment at all hours of the day. This leads the nosey “old maid” next door to keeping one eye glued to the crack in her door to observe the coming and going at all hours of the day. The obvious implication being prostitution. She’ll be heard to say to “It’s outrageous! It’s scandalous!” After the film ended I thought looking back that perhaps she was talking about the film itself after a preview screening.

Now despite this being a film challenge I must admit that sooner or later I would have gotten around to seeing it for one reason and one alone. It’s a pre-stardom appearance by an actor I frequently cover and refer to as “The Mitch.” Robert Mitchum turns up as a Chief Petty Officer who purchases a key from a sailor so he’ll have a place to romance his wife for 48 hours while on leave.

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This leads to complications when two of the other key holders believe that Simone is their girl and see Mitchum going up to the apartment with champagne bottles in hand. Time for Mitch to throw some punches and KO the crew before they are all hauled off to court where the prostitution charges are very evident yet with the “code” on screenplays being enforced the script dances around the obvious.

The ending of the movie is just as bizarre as the other goings on that play much like a bunch of vignettes strung together to make a 77 minute movie from director Joe May.

When I say bizarre I am mainly referring to the actor in a weird white getup playing a pixie(ish) gremlin. He constantly turns up in some corner of the screen bringing bad luck to Simone. The reason being she spilt a salt shaker at the start of the film. The actor under the white mask is one, Jerry Maren.

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To explain the accent of lovely Simone it’s pointed out that she is from Quebec, Canada. Why not, Jean Claude Van Damme did the same thing in John Woo’s Hard Target. Simone was actually born in France and thanks to producer Val Lewton has found everlasting fame as the lead in 1942’s Cat People.

Fans of Our Gang comedies will have no doubt in recognizing the voice of Billy Laughlin. AKA Froggy from the popular series of shorts. Even he has a key in order to use the bathtub of Simone’s new apartment.

I find myself connecting the dots quite often when watching films and two other “A” productions spring to mind after removing this disc from the player. The Apartment from Billy Wilder where Jack Lemmon had a room with more than one key and a 1958 flick actually titled The Key. In this one Sophia Loren has the room and William Holden winds up involved with the cinematic beauty.

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No classic here and one I probably won’t revisit but thanks to a nudge from Kristina I can add a checkmark to the list of early Mitchum titles I hadn’t gotten around to yet.

As for Kristina, I assigned her a satirical western with three of my favorite actors. One of which is another I draw attention to out here frequently, Mr. Warren Oates. So with a gremlin’s touch just click here to be magically transported to Kristina’s Speakeasy and see what she has in store for you lovers of film.

The Great Silence (1968)

From director Sergio Corbucci comes a “spaghetti” western I have long heard of and finally got the chance to see for myself. Generally when I have come across a comment or article about this title it is spoken about with great reverence by the few who have seen it.

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From the outset the one thing that helps to differentiate this film from not only Italian westerns but most of those from Hollywood as well is the fact that the entire film is snowbound.

For the English dubbed print we have a lone rider approaching in the distance through a snow covered valley. Men are waiting ahead hidden behind mounds of snow but like many of Leone’s gunmen they all wind up dead at the hands of top billed Jean-Louis Trintignant. Once he has shot down his would be attackers a group of mountain dwellers emerge and begin to strip the dead of their boots and whatever else may be of value.

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It seems that the mountain folk are not welcome in Snow Hill, the town below. The reasons are both political which will play out between the bounty hunters and an unscrupulous banker as well as their stealing supplies in order to survive the harshest of winters. Sheriff Frank Wolff will discover this first hand when he is held up strictly for his horse. Not for riding either. They want the horse for meat to feed the starving.

Preying upon the mountain folk is bounty hunter Klaus Kinski. Klaus turns in a first rate performance here as both a sadistic killer as well as an extremely smart and calculating villain. He’ll come into contact with our hero Trintignant on several occasions as they drift towards the inevitable showdown.

While Klaus is collecting bodies in the snow covered mountain tops, the imagery of this unique western is quite striking or haunting if you prefer. While hitching a ride by stagecoach he hauls frozen bodies to the rooftop while making his way to town to claim his bounty from sheriff Wolff.

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“Where ever he goes the silence of death follows.”

Spoken by Vonetta McGee in reference to Trintignant’s avenging angel of death.

Like the character Harmonica in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Trintignant is a character with a past that will unfold as the film moves along. While Eastwood rarely speaks in his trio of Italian westerns Trintignant is actually a mute avenger with a secret beneath the high collar he wears and the heavy growth of stubble covering his face.

When Kinski slyly kills Vonetta’s husband she appeals to our mute hero to lure Kinski into a gunfight and end his sadistic reign of violence. Just who are actually the outlaws in this film is a contentious topic.

As the film heads towards the customary showdown between our two leading men it’s a violent ride that only escalates at the fade out.

This is a bleak tale and unforgiving in it’s delivery. While I found some of the camera shots a bit “off” the overall impact of the snowbound settings are quite haunting with the mist settling in and the lone rider shots from a distance creating a feeling of isolation. At times the mountain folk are almost ghostlike in their sudden appearances from the snow covered caps.

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Despite the fact that the dubbed version I saw had Klaus Kinski being dubbed (which I am always complaining about) his performance here is far better than many of the other numerous flicks he populated during the era. For more on Klaus and his impact on camera click here.

Frank Wolff plays the sheriff in somewhat of a buffoon style which I wasn’t fond of though it should be pointed out that may be a case of the dubbing and a loss in translation. For those unaccustomed with the heavily mustached actor, he played the ill fated Frank McBain in Once Upon a Time In the West.

Once again it’s Ennio Morricone delivering the goods with a solid score that perfectly fits into the era of the spaghetti western.

Director Corbucci had already done the influential Django with Franco Nero as well as some other popular made in Italy westerns including Minnesota Clay before moving on to this off beat outing. He would also turn in others oaters including The Mercenary and Companeros. Both of which featured Nero and an over the top Jack Palance.

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It’s safe to say that Leone gets the praise on a worldwide plain yet this like the other titles mentioned by Corbucci are worth looking into for an alternative style to Sergio’s Italian western efforts.

The Helen Morgan Story (1957)

Director Michael Curtiz continued his long association with Warner Brothers with this biopic of the famous singer from the roaring twenties enacted here by Ann Blyth.

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Early on Ann finds herself working a carnival feature with a shifty underworld go getter played by a young Paul Newman. Their attraction for each other is an obvious one yet it’s going to be a long and stormy romance throughout the two hour running time. Newman is all for Newman and where ever possible uses both his friends like Alan King and Blyth herself to get ahead on the streets during the era of illegal alcohol. This includes attempting to smuggle good grade A Canadian whiskey in from north of the border.

Blyth will continue her love/hate relationship with Newman while at the same time see her singing career take off thanks in part to the rich and influential Richard Carlson. Carlson carries a torch as well for the singing star. Just when it seems she has Newman out of her system he re-enters her life at pivotal points in the film adding to her grief and eventual descent into alcoholism.

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Constantly playing the odds and making strides in the underworld, Newman runs afoul of fellow bootlegger and head gangster Gene Evans. Gunfights ensue which will ultimately spell the end for Newman’s hold on the illegal trade.

By today’s standards, Newman is the star player here but the film firmly belongs to Ann. Though her singing performances in the nightclubs are apparently dubbed by Gogi Grant, the songs and arrangements are stirring. Of note is a beautiful version of The Man I Love.

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The singing star will become the toast of Broadway when she is hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to take the lead in the original stage version of Show Boat. As her star rises so do her personal demons over both Newman and the already married Carlson leading to her looking for solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Her own career will tumble when the alcohol begins to plague her stage performances.

I couldn’t help but immediately compare this film to Doris Day’s Love Me or Leave Me due to the subject matter of a female singing star hooked up with a shady gangland figure. Here it’s Newman but in the Doris film it was James Cagney. Yes, the Doris film is far better overall though Ann drew me in as the film got going.

The earlier part of the film comes off a bit stale and that’s in part because Newman and Ann are easily caught “acting.” The plot also jumps into the stormy romance a little too quick. Once I hit the half hour mark I was more accepting of the characters and the trials each are going through on the way to “the top.”

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Like many of Paul’s earlier roles, he isn’t as polished as he would be once he landed the lead in The Hustler. This is actually the final movie role that Ann Blyth would appear in. Surprising considering she was only 29 at the time of the films release. She would work in television over the next few decades.

This title like many others of the era has it’s roots in the early days of television. Playhouse 90 previously presented a version of the Helen Morgan story starring Polly Bergen. It was also not uncommon to see the roles recast. Much like Rod Steiger played Marty on TV and finding Ernest Borgnine landing the role for the theatrical version.

Turning up briefly is Edward Platt and for Three Stooges buffs you’ll notice Joe Besser popping up for a second or two as a speakeasy bartender.

No classic here and not up to the standards of Love Me or Leave Me but worth a look for an early Newman role and a good effort from beautiful Ann Blyth in the role of the tortured singing star with the heartbreaking delivery in song.

John Wayne and The Duke Dozen : A Personal List of Favorites

A certain someone over at Speakeasy has nudged me on more than one occasion to come up with a list of favorites on any given subject so why not on a list of favorites from one of the most recognized faces on the planet.

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Like many others I have been watching John Wayne in films since I was old enough to focus on a television screen. I’m still watching Duke all these years later and the home video market has allowed me to amass 122 titles starring the iconic cowboy. My Duke collecting also includes some of his original film posters like Hatari, McQ and The Sons of Katie Elder. Then there are the film books and magazines that continually turn up on book store shelves.

I won’t apologize for my selections here but will point out many of them are based on early memories and they can often be the ones that stick with you the most. I didn’t put these into any order other than the year they were released. I’ll also point out that some of the famed flicks he has made I haven’t seen nearly as often as others so they have quite innocently been pushed off the list though I’ll add some honorable mentions.

Back to Bataan – 1945. Duke is off to war in the Philippines with Anthony Quinn to battle the Japanese at the close of WW2. This one played often on TV when I was becoming aware of just who John Wayne was so it has stayed with me.

Wake of the Red Witch – 1948. A sea faring adventure that fueled my imagination as a young boy where Duke seeks sunken treasure, the hand of beautiful Gail Russell and battles a giant octopus.

The Quiet Man – 1952. This is one I can never tire of and like many of the films on this list, if I come across a TV showing I am hooked. John and Maureen O’Hara are magic at the movies. A romantic tale from the legendary John Ford.

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The Searchers – 1956. This Ford classic grew on me as the years went by and for me contains the meanest role Duke ever played while at the same time it’s one of his tenderest at the fade out. His scene with Harry Carey concerning the whereabouts of Lucy just might be his finest moment on screen.

With her husband, "Revolutionary Road" director Sam Mendes, right, Kate Winslet poses with awards for best actress drama for “Revolutionary Road” and supporting actress for “The Reader” backstage at the 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Rio Bravo – 1959. It could be argued that this is the role that Duke more or less repeated from here forward in many of his subsequent westerns. That shouldn’t deter anyone from watching John, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan from taking on the town baddies. Oh, and then there is Angie Dickinson who just might have been the sexiest woman alive when this film went into release. Another Howard Hawks classic.

The Alamo – 1960. This is another title that filled a young boys dreams of action and heroes when I would tune in for the big scale finale whenever this epic length title turned up on TV. Though it may be a little cliched at times it’s great adventure with Duke holding the line with Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey. It’s also the labor of love that was the first title directed by Duke. Plenty of off screen stories to read up on adds to my appreciation of the film.

McClintock – 1963. Rollicking good fun teaming Duke with his favorite leading lady once again. Maureen O’Hara is feisty and fiery in this battle of the sexes western comedy. Directed by Victor’s son Andrew V. McLaglen. Great line as Duke faces off against Leo Gordon….. “Somebody oughta belt you in the mouth but I wont, I wont to hell I wont.”

The Sons of Katie Elder – 1965. Big all-star western from Henry Hathaway. It’s action packed and reteams Duke with Dean Martin. Along with Earl Holliman and Michael Anderson Jr. the four sons face off against James Gregory, Dennis Hopper and George Kennedy over stolen lands. Best scene is Duke decking Kennedy with an axe handle. This scene alone makes this fun flick worth watching.

True Grit – 1968. Rooster Cogburn gave Duke a chance to play a colorful character and Kim Darby proved an unlikely actress to match Duke insult for insult even striking fear into him through out. It’s a film I have seen countless times and will revisit I am sure many more times as the years go by. It just adds a little extra to the John Wayne legend. The cast seals the deal as well, Duvall, Strother Martin, Jeff Corey and even a good effort from Glen Campbell.

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Big Jake – 1971. When John Wayne faces off against Richard Boone I want a front row seat. A little more violent then most Duke films, it still makes for a rousing adventure as Duke hunts down the men who have kidnapped his grandson. It’s a bit of a family affair with sons Patrick and Ethan on board. The stock company show up here as well with the likes of Harry Carey, Bruce Cabot and for the final time on screen together Maureen O’Hara.

The Cowboys – 1972. This title is a must on my list and was the first one I thought of when thinking of a dozen titles. The reason is simple, I was a young boy when I saw this and what little boy wouldn’t have wanted to be on this cattle drive. I’m happy to say my own two sons have enjoyed repeated viewings of this western that includes Bruce Dern at his nastiest.

The Shootist – 1976. For my money the greatest swan song in the history of motion pictures. If you buy into the John Wayne legend or mystique it’s hard not to love his role as JB Books. Adding a spectacular cast makes it all that more memorable. Great job by Ron Howard who idolizes the dying gunfighter and Lauren Bacall’s scenes with Duke can easily cause the tears to flow. The film mirrors Duke’s own real life battle with the “Red Witch” as he referred to his cancer but also recalls the real life story of Bacall watching Bogie fade away to the disease. I have always felt this Don Siegel effort has been somewhat underrated.

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O.K. I left out some classics but I wanted to focus on the titles that I enjoyed the most or those that perhaps hit my emotional side a bit more than many of his famous efforts.

If I could squeeze a few more titles into a dozen selections I would have made sure to include…

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Fighting Seabees

North to Alaska

Red River

In Harm’s Way.

If I have created a little controversy, good! Gets us talking about films and one of my favorite film stars that has stood the test of time. While I love countless stars from the past, Duke is one that has remained in the public’s consciousness.

So, what do you think? Bring it on.

The Music Video Actor

While I don’t really pay much attention to the music video anymore there was a time I frequently tuned in to the country music staion to see what was new. Many of the actors I followed dabbled in one way or another with country music. Or vice versa. Look no further than singers Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson for moving from music to the movies. See Songwriter as a solid example.

While the music of Michael Jackson was far removed from my musical circles, Vincent Price was and remains one of my favorite movie stars or “friend” as I quite often refer to him as. The fact that he turned up in the video Thriller was a huge event in the circle of classic horror film fans.

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Here are a few titles to enjoy.

Billy Bob Thornton needs no introduction so here he is in a role that seems tailor made for his unique on screen presence in this rollicking good rockabilly styled tune from country artist Travis Tritt. I can’t hear this tune without reaching for my guitar and jamming right along with Travis.

Frequent western actor and all around country boy Harry Dean Stanton has dabbled in music for years singing and playing guitar in many of his on screen roles. Here he is bringing his acting style to a country song of loneliness and lost love by three of music’s iconic females.

Here’s one for those who like me live in a universe that is shared with the one and only Christopher Walken. As a country fan I have no idea what this music is all about but then I only watch it for Walken’s presence so who cares.

Lastly I have included a video like western movie featuring Willie Nelson singing and starring as the central figure in “Tougher than Leather.”

No Trace (1950)

Happening across a collection of British Noirs from VCI allowed me the opportunity to give this low budget feature clocking in at a swift 75 minutes a look. It turned out to be time well spent as director John Gilling delivers a first rate tale of murder and deceit.

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Our story begins by introducing us to a successful British mystery writer played by Hugh Sinclair. He’s the toast of literary circles who has a lovely secretary in the form of Dinah Sheridan. At a diner party he fences in a jovial way with local Yard inspector John Laurie and his assistant Barry Morse aka Inspector Gerard of televisions The Fugitive.

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Once the dinner guests move on, Sinclair finds himself cornered by an old underworld associate from the United States who has some rather incriminating evidence from a past life long thought forgotten. It’s time for a little game of blackmail.

Sinclair pays up but when our unsavory character from his past pushes for more money Sinclair chooses to concoct the perfect murder utilizing one of his mystery thrillers “No Trace” as a template. It’s all rather ingenious how he goes about silencing his tormentor and making off with nary a witness in sight who can pin him to the crime.

The stakes are raised when his friend from the Yard, Laurie invites him along on the case to see who is the quicker at solving it. Real life police methods or that of a fictional detective story writer. Once Sinclair realizes the two women who actually seen him on the night of the murder don’t make the connection, his arrogance rises up a notch and his secretary Sheridan notices a change in her employer.

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It’s when Sheridan herself begins offering suggestions as to how the case may be cracked that worry sets in on our killer. Worse yet is when he can’t seem to get Barry Morse out from under his feet. It seems that Morse is quite taken with Sheridan. With Morse constantly hanging about, the guilty conscience begins preying upon Sinclair. His answers and wild explanations to Sheridan are becoming a little too much like the fiction that he writes.

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I must confess when I first put this film in the player I had to wonder if I was watching a grace C programmer from Monogram as the opening credits and score from John Lanchbery sure seemed as if they were borrowed from a Lugosi thriller of the mid forties. I was quickly put at ease as the plot developed quickly and kept me interested.

The film is book ended quite nicely and the final clip is well worth the wait as Sinclair …… no I can’t spoil it. Lets just say I thought it a marvelous way to approach the fade out of this surprising low budget gem that also credits the screenplay to our director Gilling.

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I think it’s fair to associate director John Gilling with the horror genre thanks to his efforts with Hammer films including the underrated Plague of the Zombies. He also helmed the top notch independent thriller from 1960, The Flesh and the Fiends with Peter Cushing. Of note then is that Fiends was produced by Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker. Both of whom are credited to this Noir thriller.

It would seem that Gilling, Berman and Baker made for a nice trio.