Category: Oldies

 

Barney Fife in a haunted-house movie – who wouldn’t hand over their last (and only) bullet to see that?

OK, maybe you wouldn’t. But I have a great deal of affection for The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, the 1966 Don Knotts vehicle that might have been the first motion picture I saw all by myself, unfettered by parents or older siblings, in an honest-to-goodness movie house.

I recently re-watched Mr. Chicken, and I am happy to report that I still find it enjoyable. Silly and featherweight, sure, but fun. Is it remotely scary? Not unless you’re about the same age I was when I first saw it 50 years ago. But it’s suitably creepy in that old-dark-house mode that Hollywood does so well.

 

 A Barney and Otis reunion

 

The plot:

Luther Heggs (Knotts) is a lowly typesetter at the Rachel (Kansas) Courier Express. Luther dreams of becoming a big-time journalist and of winning the prettiest girl in town, Alma (Joan Staley). Unfortunately for Luther, he is Luther: timid, bumbling, tongue-tied and inept. But opportunity knocks when Luther is tasked with spending the night in the Simmons Mansion, or “murder house,” to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a murder-suicide that might or might not be unsolved.

 

The “murder house”

 

What I Like:

1.  Nostalgia, if you were a 1960s kid. The jazzy opening theme reminds me of early James Bond soundtracks. The spooky mansion is straight out of The Munsters (reportedly, some of the same Universal Studios sets were used in both Munsters and Mr. Chicken). The locale is a small town in the Midwest; I was raised in a small town in the Midwest.

 

Reta Shaw demonstrates small-town flirtation with Dick Sargent

 

2.  The Don Knotts in this film is the Don Knotts we knew from The Andy Griffith Show. I was never a fan of Knotts’s other famous TV character, Mr. Furley from Three’s Company. Mr. Furley was too lascivious. I preferred naive Barney Fife. Regardless, very few actors did fear and false bravado as well as Knotts.

 

Don Knotts does his thing

 

3.  The plot is your basic haunted-house story, nothing you haven’t already seen with Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, or Bob Hope. But the screenplay is peppered with delightfully quirky throwaway scenes: The elevator that won’t stay put. The picnic speech. The oddball townie who, out of nowhere and seemingly everywhere, keeps hollering “Attaboy Luther!”

 

 The intrepid reporter

 

4.  That organ music.

 

The infamous organ

 

5.  Joan Staley. Who is Joan Staley? This is Joan Staley (NSFW).

 

Alma matters to Luther

 

6.  And finally, for anyone who appreciates vintage 1960s cinema and sitcoms, this movie features the finest collection of comic actors from that era – although if you blink you might miss some of them. Take a look at the rogues gallery of familiar faces who appear in Mr. Chicken in the sidebar at the end of this review.  Grade: B+

 

 Our hero

 

Director: Alan Rafkin  Cast: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent, Skip Homeier, Reta Shaw, Lurene Tuttle, Philip Ober, Harry Hickox, Charles Lane  Release: 1966

 

 

Watch the Trailer (click here)

 

Remember These Faces?

 

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                             Hal Smith                               Reta Shaw                           Dick Sargent

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                             Burt Mustin                           Lurene Tuttle                       Eddie Quillan

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                            Charles Lane                         Harry Hines                         Ellen Corby

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                            Herbie Faye                            Jesslyn Fax                        James Millhollin

 

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Note:  The Grouch recently caught an airing of the hospital thriller Coma on TCM, and he was overcome with nostalgia. This was the film that led to Grouch’s first-ever movie review, which was published in the April 14, 1978 edition of the St. Cloud State University Chronicle.  We thought it would be fun to reprint that old review, verbatim, so here you go:

 

Typical thriller ‘Coma’ comes to life in second half

 

 

Somewhere around the middle of this picture, Coma snaps out of it and really begins to move.

Up until that point, the only things saving the film from a slow death are the dynamite musical score by Jerry Goldsmith (remember The Omen), and an equally impressive performance by Genevieve Bujold as the heroine. Bujold is given a role that we’ve all seen before in countless thrillers: a woman discovers an evil secret, yet no one, not even her boyfriend, believes her when she tries to tell them about it. They even send her to a psychiatrist.

Bujold manages to make her character unique and she succeeds in gaining audience acceptance.

Susan Wheeler (Bujold) is a surgical resident who shares living quarters with her boyfriend, also a doctor, played by Michael Douglas. They both practice medicine at Boston Memorial Hospital, one of the best in the country.

Things are pretty much business as usual in the hospital until Susan’s best friend lapses into a coma during what should have been a minor operation. Suspicious, Susan begins to investigate and discovers records of 12 supposedly routine operations that resulted in comas. But why? Telling would ruin the suspense of Coma, even though it doesn’t get all that suspenseful until the last half of the film.

Meanwhile, director-writer Michael Crichton tries to hold his audience’s attention by various other methods. He tries to revolt the audience with several “hamburger” shots of brain slices, slabs of liver, etc. He tries to titillate them with shots of Bujold scrubbing herself behind a translucent shower door. The picture becomes fun in its second half.

 

 

Someone thinks that Susan has learned a little bit too much. Her investigation has led her to the Jefferson Institute, where nurse Elizabeth Ashley says “we merely provide care as inexpensively as possible” for thousands of coma patients. Government subsidized, the institute is a chilling edifice that, strangely enough, is staffed by no more than five persons, including nurse Ashley. It is here that Susan finally solves her mystery.

Aside from Bujold’s excellent performance, the rest of the cast seems less than inspired. Douglas does all right as the boyfriend – we’re never quite sure if we can trust him or not – but Richard Widmark as the chief of surgery is a little too obvious right from the start. Elizabeth Ashley comes off like she is doing an impression of Gale Sondergaard in an old Sherlock Holmes movie.

One word of caution: if you already have a fear of hospitals and/or doctors, you probably don’t want to catch this flick.

 

 

Director: Michael Crichton Cast: Genevieve Bujold, Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn, Richard Widmark, Lois Chiles, Hari Rhodes, Gary Barton, Frank Downing, Richard Doyle  Release: 1978   Grade: B+

 

 

Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

 

Oddly, this screen capture of Bujold showering did not appear with the original review.

 

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Crusoe1

 

You see a movie when you’re a kid, and you think it’s the greatest.  Many years later, one night after you’ve paid bills, mowed the lawn, and put the kids to bed, you notice that your beloved old movie is playing on the late show.  Your first emotion is nostalgic; you remember adoring this film, no matter how silly it might have been.  Your second reaction is more practical:  Most of the movies you loved as a child and then re-watched as an adult turned out to be, well, pretty bad.

So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I recently watched Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which I fully expected to put the kibosh on my fond memories of the first time I saw it, lo those years ago.  It would probably suck – even the title of the film is goofy.  But I watched anyway.  And … what a pleasant surprise!

 

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The plot:  Two astronauts and a test monkey are orbiting Mars when a near-collision with an asteroid forces an emergency evacuation to the surface of the planet.  Just one astronaut successfully lands and, a la Daniel Defoe’s island castaway, he must use his training and wits to survive the harsh Martian environment.  Also per Defoe’s story, eventually there is a “Friday.”  Not so like Robinson Crusoe, we also meet evil space aliens.

The pros1)  When I see special effects in something recent like The Avengers, I usually have this thought:  “Wow, that looks really cool  and fake.”  When I see special effects in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, I have a similar response, yet there is something more impressive about a 1960s art department designing and photographing spectacular visuals, as opposed to a cadre of computer geeks moving a mouse to achieve similar effects.  Director Byron Haskin, a special-effects wiz who ten years earlier filmed the classic The War of the Worlds, combines studio FX with real Death Valley footage to make sci-fi magic.  2)  TV veteran Paul Mantee, as the hero, will never be mistaken for Daniel Day-Lewis, but he’s adequate and what his astronaut thinks, does, and says (he has that monkey to talk to) is always credible.  Mantee’s activities on Mars in the early stages of the film are just plausible enough, science-wise, to hook us so that we dont run for the exit when things later get wacky (the arrival of those space aliens). 

 

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The cons:  1)  This was filmed several years before Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey revolutionized special effects, and so the Martian vistas do look artificial.  They also look imaginative and incredibly cool.  2)  Some of the science presented is dubious at best, but hey, this was 1964.  Giant fireballs cruising the surface of the red planet?  Why not?  3)  I suppose you could argue that the (white) hero’s relationship with (dark-skinned) Friday is borderline racist – I wouldn’t.

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The verdict:  I still like this movie.  It’s fun.  Sometimes even little kids have good taste.          Grade:  B+

 

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DirectorByron Haskin   Cast:  Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West  Release:  1964

 

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Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Mantee, Lundin, and “Mona” the monkey on set.
 

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Trans1

 

A good thriller is hard to come by.  For proof of that, scroll through your Netflix menu and behold the scores of movies labeled “thriller.”  New ones appear seemingly overnight, and most of them are, well, straight-to-Netflix dreck.  That’s why it’s disheartening when a good one comes along, like Transsiberian, and gets buried in the pile.

It’s a shame because if you like Hitchcock, or if you’re a fan of the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, here is North by Northwest meets Crime and Punishment.  OK … maybe not quite in that league, but close enough.

 

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Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play an American couple aboard a train traveling from China to Moscow.  They meet another young couple (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega), with whom they share cramped sleeping quarters.  But someone has a secret, and it’s not long before a Russian cop (Ben Kingsley) takes more than a casual interest in this quartet of travelers.

Director Brad Anderson, who inexplicably works mostly in TV these days (Rubicon, The Killing), devotes the first half of his film to character development, atmosphere and, a la Hitchcock, planting ominous seeds of what’s to come.  It’s no accident, for example, that Harrelson and Mortimer keep hearing of or seeing disturbing episodes involving the Russian police.

 

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The second half of the film, like the best of Dostoyevsky, is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between Kingsley’s cop and Mortimers wife-with-a-secret.  Transsiberian’s five main characters – every one of them – are fleshed out and interesting.  How many thrillers can say that?

Meanwhile, if you like train movies, this one is a treat.  Filmed in Lithuania, Beijing, and Russia, the passing scenery is often a series of picture postcards from hell:  cold, barren landscapes; toothless, miserable villagers; and, just to break up all that dreariness, an occasional breath-taking sight, such as the sparkling ruins of a church buried in snow (along with a body or two).

But mostly this is a thriller, and a good one at that.      Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  Brad Anderson   Cast:  Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann, Etienne Chicot   Release:  2008

 

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   Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Shift1

 

Thirty years ago, Warner Bros. released a low-budget comedy called Night Shift and, if you’d asked me at the time, I would have predicted big things for the movie’s youthful director and stars.  Ron Howard, better known as “Richie Cunningham” back then, displayed a light directorial touch with his second theatrical film.  Howard cast his Happy Days co-star, Henry Winkler, against type as Night Shift’s milquetoast hero.  Rounding out the cast were Shelley Long, who seemed ready to assume Goldie Hawn’s crown as cinema’s queen of quirk – and a new kid named Michael Keaton.

My prediction would have been spot-on for Howard, now one of Hollywood’s power directors.  But Keaton’s star has faded, Winkler is now making commercials for reverse mortgages, and Long appears in obscure TV movies.  Fickle place, Hollywood.

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But Night Shift was first and foremost a coming out party for Keaton, who shines as Billy “Blaze,” a gangly, energetic hustler with a cockamamie, irresistibly infectious act.

Howard and his actors took what could have been unsavory material (prostitution) and whipped up a warmhearted romp.  The story, in which Winkler, Keaton, and Long team up to run an escort service out of a city morgue, captures early ‘80s New York City in all its sleaze (a Plato’s Retreat-inspired sequence) and glory (a series of hilarious running gags featuring eccentric Gothamites).  It also boasts catchy ‘80s music courtesy of Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Rod Stewart.

I still think this is Howard’s best movie – but Keaton steals the show.  Is this a great country, or what?      Grade:  A-

 

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Director:  Ron Howard   Cast:  Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Shelley Long, Gina Hecht, Pat Corley, Nita Talbot, Bobby Di Cicco, K.C. Winkler, Monique Gabrielle  Release: 1982

 

                                                Shift7   Shift8                                

 

      Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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DeadEnd1

 

I suppose a psychologist can explain the link between humor and horror, and why so many of us seek a mix of the two in our movies.  Why, for example, did we want Abbott and Costello to meet Frankenstein?  I can’t answer that, but I do know that my favorite parts of the Evil Dead films come when bug-eyed Bruce Campbell ventures into slapstick, Looney Tunes territory.

So what a treat it is to discover Dead End, a bottom-of-the-Walmart-bin gem from 2003.  With all of the cheesy, low-budget horror out there, how does a good one like this escape notice?


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If you haven’t seen it, and I’m guessing not many people have, the story is this:  The Harringtons, composed of all-American mom, dad, son Richard, and daughter Marion, along with Marion’s boyfriend Brad, are on a Christmas Eve road trip to grandmother’s house — or so they think.  In reality, or perhaps unreality, they are on a road trip to hell.  Things begin to go sour when dad stops to offer a lift to a “lady in white,” an ethereal blonde with a baby who is inexplicably wandering the woods.

The woman is not what she seems, the baby is not what it seems, the road is not what it seems, and before long each Harrington is not what he or she seems.

 

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The plot does veer into horror-film cliché, but Dead End’s wit and comic performances — especially by Ray Wise and Lin Shaye as the bickering, hapless parents — are priceless.  It’s inspired lunacy, what you might get if the Bundys from Married … With Children showed up in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.            Grade:  A-

 

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Directors:  Jean-Baptiste Andrea, Fabrice Canepa   Cast:  Ray Wise, Lin Shaye, Mick Cain, Alexandra Holden, Billy Asher, Amber Smith, Karen S. Gregan, Sharon Madden   Release:  2003

 

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                                               Watch the Trailer  (click here)

 

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Whites1

 

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia made me feel like a horsefly at the county dump.  Everywhere I looked, there was garbage and piles of unpleasantness, but damned if it didn’t attract me.

Director Julien Nitzberg used film from a 1991 documentary and new footage to shine a spotlight on the Whites, a multi-generational clan of mountain dancers, moonshiners, cons, and killers, not to mention the terror of Boone County, West Virginia.  The Whites — from barefoot young’uns to toothless elders — allowed Nitzberg to film them in bad times and in … well, I’m not sure that there are any good times for this bunch, although I’m certain they would argue the point.

One of the challenges of watching this movie is that each White is a natural-born storyteller, blessed with the con man’s gift of gab, usually through nicotine-stained teeth and whiskey-choked larynxes.  But how much of what they say is actually true?  It’s tempting, for example, to listen as Jesco White professes his admiration for Charles Manson and to assume that, like any good reality-TV star, Jesco simply knows how to hook his listener.

 

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But then Nitzberg turns his camera on Boone County law enforcement, and the sheriff rattles off a litany of crimes committed by Whites over the years.  We learn who was shot, who was killed, and who was imprisoned.  We watch Kirk White snort drugs just hours after she gives birth to yet another White.  A judge means business when he sentences Brandon Poe to 50 years in prison for shooting Mamie White’s boyfriend in the face.  And “Wimpy” isn’t kidding when he reveals what’s tattooed on his penis.

There’s a good deal of exploitation in a documentary like this, both by the filmmakers and by the self-serving subjects.  We are often invited to laugh at their outlaw exploits.  Yet when I wasn’t gawking at a drunken “girls’ night out” or marveling at Jesco’s clog-dancing routine, I felt … depressed.

We see little soul-searching by the hell-raising Whites, nor any sleepless nights when the government checks don’t arrive in the mail.  The coal-mining life of these hill people, despite all their whooping and dancing and drinking, is not very pretty.  Sort of like what you see at the county dump.            Grade:  B+



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Director:  Julien Nitzberg  Featuring:  Jesco White, Mamie White   Release:  2009

 

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                                              Watch the Trailer (click here)

 

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Casino1

 

James Bond got his license to thrill in 1962 because the first film based on Ian Fleming’s novels, Dr. No, had its tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Bond, as personified by Sean Connery, kissed and he killed, but always with a wink at the audience.  And we were delighted to be in on the joke.  Later, in the Roger Moore years, the 007 franchise went too far and began to confuse wit for self-parody.  In Octopussy, Moore/Bond even donned a clown suit.  Were we supposed to laugh with him, or at him?

So now we have Daniel Craig in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.  The tone of Casino Royale, Craig’s first outing in Bond’s tuxedo, is much too somber for a film loaded with outlandish set pieces.  Both the movie and Craig have little sense of camp — but a modicum of camp has always distinguished the best Bond films.

 

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The Good Stuff:   As we’ve come to expect from this series, the producers do not skimp on the budget.  The scenery, much of it shot in Prague and the Bahamas, is eye-catching and glamorous.  There is some amazing stunt work in the opening action sequence, and an extended poker-playing scene is suspenseful, good fun.

The Other Stuff:  The “Bond girls,” although fetching, do nothing to make us forget 007 hall-of-famers like Honey Ryder or Pussy Galore.  The main villain (Mads Mikkelsen) is unexceptional; it’s hard to respect a bad guy who at one point gets the snot kicked out of him, and whose signature prop — an asthma inhaler — is a pale imitation of great gizmos past, such as Oddjob’s hat.

Casino Royale’s producers have said that they were seeking a more realistic tone for Craig’s debut.  But when so much about Bond’s world is inherently ridiculous, too much realism can spoil the fun.  What this movie needed was a hollowed-out volcano.  Or perhaps Oddjob’s hat.        Grade:  B

 

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Director:  Martin Campbell  Cast:  Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian, Ivana Milicevic  Release:  2006

 

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                                     Watch Trailers and Clips (click here)

 

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Hound1

 

         Watson:  “That’s a fine way to treat me, I must say!”

         Holmes:  “Sit down, Watson, do sit down.  Perhaps a little supper will help you

                            to get over your huff.”

         Watson (roaring):  “Huff?  I’m in no huff!”

 

— Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in The Hound of the Baskervilles, their first pairing as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

 

Sherlock Holmes is everywhere in 2012:  a BBC series, a CBS series and, with Robert Downey, Jr. as the celebrated sleuth, once again on the silver screen.  And wherever Holmes goes, so goes Watson (although in the CBS version, Watson goes there in high heels).

Arthur Conan Doyle purists tend to get huffy about Nigel Bruce’s rendition of Watson, which is often as a blithering, dithering oaf, but after re-watching 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I have to disagree with them.  True, Bruce’s interpretation of the good doctor is not faithful to Doyle’s creation, but there’s good reason that his teaming with Rathbone was movie magic.  Holmes, brilliant and intense though he is, is also a pompous know-it-all; with comic foil Watson at his side, Holmes’s genius is a lot easier to take.  And in Hollywood, no one did genial companions better than Bruce.

 

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This Hound also strays from Doyle in some of its plot elements, and there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a stretch to describe it (or any 73-year-old thriller) as “scary,” but the 20th Century Fox production is still a treat.  The sets, constructed in a gigantic Fox sound studio, are beyond cool.  Surreal, murky, rocky and in black-and-white, the outdoor scenes do look artificial — but in a gothic fantasyland manner, teeming with ominous shadows and phantom-like mists.

The story, for any eight-year-olds reading this, finds Holmes and Watson investigating the curse of Baskerville Hall, in which Baskerville descendants are said to fall prey to a devilish hound roaming the moors of Devon.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is atypical Doyle because Holmes himself is absent for nearly a third of the story, leaving Watson to document and puzzle over spooky goings-on at the hall.  But I love to watch Bruce’s Watson, so I have no problem with that.      Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  Sidney Lanfield  Cast:  Richard Greene, Basil Rathbone, Wendy Barrie, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine, Barlowe Borland, Beryl Mercer, Morton Lowry  Release:  1939

 

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                                             Watch the Full Movie  (click here)

 

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Arab1

 

Arabesque is one of those entertaining blasts from the past that gets little respect.  Riding the ’60s wave of James Bond-inspired romps, it seems to fit the definition of “second best”:  It was director Stanley Donen’s second spy thriller, after Charade, and how could Donen be expected to top that?  Its male star, Gregory Peck, was a bit long in the tooth to be darting through dark alleys and wooing sexy femme fatales (in 1966, Peck was 50; by contrast, James Bond portrayer Sean Connery was just 35).  And its female lead, Sophia Loren, was … OK, I take it back, because there was nothing “second best” about Loren.

 

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Here’s what I like about Arabesque:

1)  The teaming of Peck and Loren.  Peck was probably miscast as a flip Oxford professor — his drug-addled bicycle ride on a busy London highway is more bizarre than thrilling — and Loren seems more interested in her Dior wardrobe than in the movie itself, but they both exude star power, and their sense of fun is contagious.

 

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2)  The score by Henry Mancini.  Was there a better film composer working in the 1960s?  Think of the Pink Panther films, or any Blake Edwards drama, and it’s impossible not to also think of Mancini’s catchy theme music.

3)  Arabesque’s plot is complicated:  Professor Peck gets ensnarled with warring Arabs who are desperately trying to decode some hieroglyphics.  But the plot is just there to service more important elements, like the Peck-Loren pairing, ’60s-cool London locations, and a string of madcap chase scenes.

 

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And finally, if 55-year-old Cary Grant could scamper over Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, why shouldn’t 50-year-old Gregory Peck ride a bicycle?      Grade:  B+

 

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Director:  Stanley Donen  Cast:  Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel, Kieron Moore, Carl Duering, John Merivale, Duncan Lamont  Release:  1966

 

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                                                    Watch the Trailer (click here)

 

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