Surprise Package (1960)

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“You don’t know the difference between right and wrong anymore.”

“Sure I do. Wrong is when you get caught.”

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So answers Yul Brynner to girlfriend Mitzi Gaynor’s statement in this comedy set in the Greek Isles where Brynner’s gangster has been exiled. To top that off he’s been ousted as the head of the syndicate back in the U.S.A.

Producer/director Stanley Donen gives us this romantic comedy that kind of grows on you as it moves along despite that fact that it’s far from anyone’s best work here.

Brynner dressed in black as was his custom immediately tries to muscle in on the local police and find out who lives in the only palace on the island. That way he can evict them and take over the premises for himself. It’s none other than Noel Coward. Turns out he is of noble blood and is himself in exile with a crown of jewels to match. It’s the jewels that set the plot in motion and the planning of the heist to acquire them.

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It’s all played lightly and Donen allows Mitzi and Noel to give us an intimate song and dance number of the movies title while Yul looks on. There are a few double crosses in here with some nefarious characters involved who are themselves after the jewels and plenty of assassination attempts on Yul’s life from the syndicate back home. Not to worry as it’s all played for fun.

Surprise Package

Overall the film struggles to find it’s footing with some rapid fire delivery and sloppy looking camera work at the initial outset. Once the film moves to the Greek Isles what it really needed was a budget that allowed for color photography as the black and white doesn’t capture the beauty of the ancient worlds or Mitzi Gaynor for that matter. Too bad.

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Nothing is terribly exciting as far as the heist goes and despite all the films flaws I came away realizing it slowly crept up on me and it’s likable enough. Having said that I freely admit that if it wasn’t for the coolest man in black this side of Johnny Cash, I probably wouldn’t have given it a look. Yul Brynner is one of those actors with the magnetism to pull you in. It’s a pity that he wasn’t used more efficiently through out his career with a larger body of titles to his name.

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After watching the film and doing a quick bit of research on Mitzi Gaynor I found it surprising that this was her second last film before retiring from the screen. I thought she came off perfect here as the gangster’s moll who isn’t just the stereotypical character one sometimes expects. Her final film was in 1963 opposite Kirk Douglas in For Love or Money.

I found this title via the Made On Demand orders from Columbia.

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Grand Central Murder (1942)

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Just because Van Heflin was an Oscar winner doesn’t mean that MGM used him exclusively in A budget pictures. In the words of Sam Levene, Heflin is a “Park Avenue Private Dick” this time out caught up in the murder of a beautiful broadway star played by Patricia Dane.

This film leans heavily on the formula of the day with one twist. Most mystery films seemed to have a detective like Chan or Holmes go about solving the case and spend the final ten minutes gathering the remaining suspects into a room and unveil the killer. This time out the script has the suspects corralled by the twenty minute mark and spends the next fifty minutes grilling them which allows for each to give their story via the flashback. There are plenty of characters with a murderous motive to match.

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The best thing about this murder mystery might be the amount of faces you’ll recognize but have no idea of what the actors real life name is other than leading man Van Heflin. Sam Levene portrays the police detective at odds with HeflinĀ  over who is actually in charge of questioning the various suspects of which Heflin himself is one.

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Cecilia Parker is in here moonlighting from the Andy Hardy pictures. Horace McNally is the obvious red herring of the piece. Horace would wisely change his name to Stephen and go on to a fairly successful career in various genres including the western. Millard Mitchell is used for the standard comedy relief character of the murder mystery genre. Mitchell is one of those faces easily recalled from his lengthy career.

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George Sanders brother Tom Conway is in here as a nightclub owner who wasn’t to happy with our murder victim Dane as well. Conway was about to become better known in cinemas as The Falcon.

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Samuel S. Hinds and Frank Ferguson are the final two faces I wanted to point out. I can’t begin to count how many times I see them pop up. Especially Ferguson who would become a semi-regular on what I refer to as my all time favorite television show The Andy Griffith Show.

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This diverting mystery was directed by S. Sylvan Simon who also gave us the Red Skelton trio of Whistling mysteries that are very enjoyable if you get the chance.

Worth a look on a rainy day when your flipping the channels and come across it on TCM.

Street Smart (1988)

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With this film Morgan Freeman launched himself into the Oscar night celebrations and one could argue he has never left since.

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Morgan stars here as the subject of an expose written on pimps by newsman Christopher Reeve. It’s all purely accidental as Reeve pitched the idea to his editor who thought it would make for a good article. The problem is he couldn’t find anyone to co-operate so he fabricated the entire story.

It isn’t long before the police read it and assume the whole thing is based on Morgan Freeman’s rather psychotic character who has ladies working the streets on his behalf. The police want all of Reeve’s notes and transcripts of any interviews he has conducted with Freeman.

Reeves problems are compounded when he is summoned into Morgan’s world by one of his girls, Kathy Baker. Freeman too assumes that he is the basis for the article. At least loosely. This whole scenario doesn’t sit well with Reeve’s wife Mimi Rogers

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There’s an uneasy alliance here and it isn’t long before Morgan spins a web of deceit around Reeve. He needs Reeve to make up the notes and hand them in as an alibi for a murder charge leveled against him. Reeve would rather not and finds himself in contempt of court for not turning over documents that never existed in the first place.

The film becomes somewhat of a cat and mouse affair between our two leads who are lent fine support from Baker as a long in the tooth lady of the night who wants out. This leads to a rather terrifying confrontation with Morgan who expects her to continue working the streets to keep money coming in.

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It’s Freeman and Baker who rise to the occasion lifting this Cannon film from Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus a cut above many of their other titles throughout the eighties. Where Reeve is concerned, I have generally found him to be stiff in films and best suited to the Clark Kent/Superman roles that made him famous.

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As with many Cannon films, there are plenty of exploitation scenes included here with Jerry Schatzberg directing. Not to surprising considering the subject matter. Supposedly Reeve agreed to Superman IV provided he could appear in this title.

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This was the first of Freeman’s five Oscar nominations of which he took one home for his role in Million Dollar Baby. For those accustomed to the gentle side of Morgan, beware as he isn’t exactly lending his voice to a penguin documentary this time out.

Marriage on the Rocks (1965)

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On occasion I have been known to say that even Frank Sinatra wanted to be Dean Martin for a day. Who wouldn’t. The man was one of the supreme kings of cool. This non-rat pack film allowed Frank to do just that. On screen at least.

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Frank is about to celebrate 19 years of marriage with Deborah Kerr and things are somewhat stale as far as Deborah’s concerned. Frank is blind to the situation and married to his job as the president of an ad agency. He’s heard to utter “She’s happy and contented as a cow” when talking of his dear wife.

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His right hand man is of course Martin. While Frank is domesticated, Dino is far from it portraying a playboy with the ultimate bachelor pad to go with it. Just take a look at Dino’s secretary played by one of cinema’s unheralded blonde bombshell’s Joi Lansing. Hot stuff!

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When Frank finally agrees to a Mexican vacation with Deborah, it quickly turns into a Mexican divorce. Before either leaves the country they realize it’s all been a hasty mistake and it’s time to right the wrong.

One thing leads to another and Frank can’t make the nuptials and sends Dean to explain. Between the loud Mexican music and a spanish speaking minister Dean finds himself married. To Deborah! No worries as divorce lawyer Cesar Romero can put the whole thing legally right.

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That is if he can get Deborah’s signature on the latest set of divorce papers. If it all sounds a bit like an old Flintstone episode you may be right because just like Wilma, Deborah isn’t signing and expects Frank to fight for her.

This is sure to cramp Dean’s style. Now he’s the old married man living with Kerr and family while Frank takes up residence in Dean’s pad. Women and all.

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Can Dean right the ship and put the divorced couple back together and once again take up with his rather busty secretary? Tune in to this screwball comedy that’s about 25 years too late to find out. Having said that if you enjoy the leading actors it’s diverting enough. It’s Dean who comes off best doing just what we expect of him. Drink in hand playing up to the ladies with one goal in mind.

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Filling out the cast along with a quick talking Cesar Romero is Tony Bill, Kathleen Freeman, DeForest Kelley and stepping in on the musical front is Trini Lopez. It’s too bad we don’t get to hear our two legendary singers belt out a drunken tune or sing something soft and romantic to the ladies.

Also playing Frank’s daughter on screen is real life daughter Nancy Sinatra for the trivia fans.

Old fashioned fun at heart.

 

 

Hammer (1972)

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Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars here as who else…..B.J. Hammer.

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Using the tried and true backdrop of boxing, Fred stars as a fighter on his way to the title while turning a blind eye to the shady promoters who own him till he’s in way over his head.

Producer Al Adamson mixes boxing and the heroin trade into one script perfectly timed for the blaxploitation market with one of it’s most well known faces. One look at Williamson and you realize he could easily step into the ring and come off looking good. Adamson will forever be known for his low budget horror and biker flicks like the 1971 fiasco Dracula vs. Frankenstein.

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Despite warnings from his pal Bernie Hamilton on the police force, Fred carries on under his current employers who keep William Smith close by for any needed muscle to keep the troops in line. Smith is a casting directors dream come true this time out. He`s not only menacing, he beats up both men and women as well as making countless racial slurs against practically anyone within camera range. He`s beyond convincing this time out.

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Fred makes his way through the ranks zeroing in on a title shot. It’s at this point that the mob puts the pressure on his promoters to ensure Fred takes a fall. Just to make sure he does what he’s told, Smith arranges for lovely Vonetta McGee to disappear until after the fight. This doesn’t sit well with Hammer as shes his gal.

There are few surprises during this films 94 minute running time but don’t let that deter you from taking a trip back in time to the days of blaxploitation cinema. When one could hear Jive Sucker! screamed from movie screens. Or how about my personal favorite throwback line this time out. When Hammer tells Vonetta of first moving to the big city he had to “smack the fag, hump the whore and dodge the needle.” No fooling!

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One has to look at these films as a time capsule when viewing them. It’s a different era when guys like Fred and Richard Roundtree were populating movie houses across the continent bringing in people of all races and Pam Grier was just about the sexiest woman in film. The language in the films is far from politically correct by today’s standards so if you’re easily offended, pass the whole genre by. To coin a phrase, you either “dig them” or you don’t. I guess I do.

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As for movie tough guy William Smith, he flirted with the genre a few times appearing as the heavy in Black Samson and once again opposite Fred in Boss Ni–er.

A nice bit of trivia here is that costarring as the police inspector is Bernie Hamilton, He would go on to play Captain Dobey in the seventies hit series Starsky and Hutch. By the time the big screen version came around in 2004, Fred Williamson stepped into the role.

John Wayne : The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman

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When it comes to John Wayne, I’ll pretty much read or watch anything. It’s been a number of years since I recall a fully fleshed out biography turn up on the man the world affectionately knows as Duke.

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Writer Scott Eyman is well suited to putting forth this Wayne bio. He had previously given us the John Ford book titled Print the Legend. Anyone who has any respect for the history of films should be able to make the Ford-Wayne connection without me going into it.

Even though I’ve heard the Duke’s story repeatedly over the years in different formats, I never tire of another presentation of his life. To put it into a film perspective, it’s like watching a remake. Each version of a film tries to bring something new to a story and this book is no different. It gives us an insight into the product known as John Wayne and how it’s creator Marion Morrison learned to nurture and preserve it for the world at large.

If you love the people/actors Duke surrounded himself with over the years then a book like this is easy to read. You’ll know all the faces that appear in the pages. Pals like Ward Bond, Paul Fix and Harry Carey Jr. Fellow stars of the screen that he crossed paths with like Dietrich, Mitchum and of course Maureen O’Hara.

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His association with John Ford plays a central part throughout as one should expect as well as how he handled other directors from Walsh right through to Don Siegel on his last film, The Shootist. The book also focuses on his guilt over the war years and his participation in both politics and the communist hunts that invaded Hollywood.

As a fan I guess I overlook the flaws in Wayne’s character and smile at how those that loved and worked with him reminisce about their own time spent with the man. There’s some fun stories here about his carousing as well as his love of chess and cheating to ensure he beats Chris Mitchum on the set of Big Jake.

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If anything the book conveys what we fans want to know most of all. That off screen the Duke was very much like he was on screen. Likable and someone that we’d wished to have known personally who did his best to stand strong and tall.

I’ll have to dig around and see if I can find my cue cards for my speech presentation I had to give in front of my grade 6 elementary school class. The topic? You guessed it. John Wayne. I am not kidding when I say I’ve been a fan for years Pilgrim.

Lee Van Cleef : A Top Gun

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It’s no secret that I have always admired the not so good looking tough guys of cinema. Once the late sixties came around, guys like Lee Van Cleef became household names. There faces were well known from turning up on weekly westerns like Gunsmoke but it wasn’t until Leone put Van Cleef to work that he moved towards the cult icon status.

Much to my delight, Van Cleef turned up in a series of ads when I was discovering his films on late night television while growing up. He teamed with a slew of other well known tough guys and character actors for a set of enjoyable commercials that played up all their images. Take a couple minutes and have a look.

With John Phillip Law and John Quade

With George Kennedy

How about a little Jack Palance?

The always watchable Bo Hopkins along with Robert Tessier.

How about a face off between Lee Van and Henry Silva!

The Third Secret (1964)

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Leaning towards Hitchcock with a dash of Hammer and an arty feel doesn’t help this well cast thriller that in the end plays far to melodramatically.

Stephen Boyd leads the cast of this black and white effort from director Charles Crichton. He’s playing an American news anchor stationed in England. His analyst has committed suicide although it appears rather suspicious. The dead man’s daughter played by Pamela Franklin approaches Boyd to find the truth and bring her fathers’ killer to justice.

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Boyd himself can’t believe the man killed himself and takes the bait. He comes to the conclusion that the killer has to be a patient like himself. Franklin passes on a list of the people he had been treating as of late.

This takes Boyd on a journey allowing the producers to sprinkle in some top line talent. First up on the list is Richard Attenborough. He’s rather grotesquely made up under a fair bit of make up. It’s not a stretch to seeing him turn up as the killer at the fade out.

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Next up is Diane Cilento. She’s a troubled soul who easily finds herself falling into Boyd’s arms. That takes care of the romantic slant for the production.

Our third name on the list and coming off best in the acting department is Jack Hawkins. If there’s a scene in the film that makes it worth catching, this is it. Hawkins is a magistrate who fences with Boyd and is left in a state of disrepair after their confrontation. Given the right material, Jack Hawkins is pure pleasure to watch on screen.

Things kind of go full circle but may not end up where you think. It’s all done reasonably well but is far from special. I hate to pick on Boyd but too much of his performance seems forced and over the top at times while the next minute he appears to be sleep walking. Frankilin is a bit young here and I think could have done with a surer hand guiding her as well.

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Keep your eyes on Attenborough’s art gallery assistant. Yes it’s really Judi Dench. Another actor who was a regular face in many a British production turning up here is Nigel Davenport.

For fans of the leading actors, I can’t fault you for checking this out. For others I would suggest sticking with something like Spellbound or even one of Hammer’s psychological thrillers like Paranoiac. There way more fun.

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Francis In the Haunted House (1956)

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Here’s a B programmer that spelled the end for the talking mule franchise.

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It’s not all that haunting and any talent involved is pretty much wasted. Mickey Rooney steps into Donald O’Connor’s shoes here as the caretaker of Francis. A mule who sounds a whole lot like Chill Wills. The problem this time out is it isn’t Wills at all but a poor attempt at sounding like the well known character actor.

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Rooney is targeted here as a fall guy in a series of murders taking place at the local castle that was moved stone by stone from Europe. There isn’t a ghost in sight so I am not so sure where the haunted title comes from. Mickey has his eyes set on beautiful Virginia Welles who has inherited the spooky place.

Hot on his tail is Lieutenant David Janssen. Janssen is making his third appearance in the franchise. Each time out he has been cast in a different role. The series was actually used as a training ground for young actors like Janssen, Piper Laurie and another up and comer named Clint Eastwood among others.

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It won’t take you long to see who is really after Welles’ fortune. After all, Paul Cavanagh is her legal guardian. You don’t think that he………nah. I won’t spoil it.

As is the case with most Francis films, there are always a couple of familiar faces. This time we get Richard Deacon as a shady caretaker at the castle who isn’t above wielding a knife in Mickey’s direction. The biggest disappointment might be seeing Timothy Carey turn up in what amounts to a lumbering idiot role. What a waste. Here’s an actor that can be so menacing and when he speaks he just adds to the tension.

Mickey of course knows way too much about the evil doings thanks to Francis filling him in on all the clues. The police of course assume Mickey knows way too much which makes him suspect number one! Under the hot lamp he goes for some intense interrogation.

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With a little help from our four legged star, Mickey will fumble his way to the finish line of this Universal International production from director Charles Lamont. Lamont was under steady employment for the studio during the fifties. He directed scores of Abbott and Costello titles as well as doing some of the Ma and Pa Kettle films. It’s funny the studio never paired Bud and Lou with the talking mule. Seems like a no brainer.

Overall this has to be considered a let down for all concerned. I have heard it said that Donald O’Connor swore off the series when the mule was getting more fan mail than him. True or not, it’s make for a nice Hollywood legend DonaldOConnor-FrancisTheMule

I feel sorry for Mickey here but it’s no secret that he bummed his way through many a film during his up and down career. This may not be the lowest point but it must have hurt his pride taking up O’Connor’s cast offs.

Best line of the movie…..”I don’t want your head mounted in the castle trophy room.” What makes it funny is that it’s the mule telling this to Mickey as opposed to what you may have expected. After all, “What’s so strange about a talking Jackass?”

Innocent Bystanders (1972)

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Here’s a peek into the rather grim world of espionage and how one is discarded when no longer useful. It’s all been done before but I couldn’t help myself when I realized our head spy with a license to kill is Stanley Baker.

Baker is one of Donald Pleasence’s pawns. A very low key Pleasence is practically playing a game of chess with Dana Andrews. Each is hoping to locate an escaped scientist from the iron curtain. Not only are they trying to stay one step ahead of each other in the game but also trying to prevent the KGB from recapturing him first.

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Baker is playing an agent in Donald’s employ. He’s a little older than his counterparts played by ravishing Sue Lloyd and competitor Darren Nesbitt. Nesbitt would like nothing more than to put Baker out of commission. Permanently! Joining Baker in his pursuit is Geraldine Chaplin as a young woman caught up in the game who it seems has a thing for aging spies.

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Baker plays it rough and tough here with no hint of a James Bondish influence in his portrayal of an agent who knows his time is closing in fast. Not so much with the soundtrack which sneaks in a very Bondian tune once in a while.

After a run in with Andrews he’s driven to finish the job and at the same time get out from under Pleasence and the “agency”. Do spies ever really retire in the movies to a life of ease and a hefty pension? I’m not so sure. Especially with the skills one acquires of which Baker puts on display throughout the film.

It’s an interesting cast joining Baker here. Pleasence was by this time a very familiar face and would become identified with the Halloween franchise before the end of the decade as Dr. Loomis. Believe it or not his name in this film is one and the same minus the Doctor title.

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Dana Andrews was by this point in time well past his prime years but does nicely here having moved into character parts. He’s sufficiently nasty and conniving when the script calls for it.

The film was directed by Peter Collinson who is probably best remembered for 1969’s The Italian Job. He did another espionage based film I go back to every now and then called The Sellout with a couple of favorite actors, Richard Widmark and Oliver Reed.

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As for Stanley Baker? Truthfully he looks older than his years. He was 42 years of age here and easily looks past 50. That aside he plays the world weary spy who isn’t so sure of himself anymore just fine.

Far from flashy but not to bad due to the actors involved.

 

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