Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "DR. KILDARE'S STRANGE CASE" (1940)

If you find yourself in need of medical attention the next time you're in New York, you can't do any better than Blair General Hospital. That is, if you like soap opera shenanigans, gossipy switchboard operators, violent ambulance drivers, smokers outside the operating rooms, and ethically-dubious procedures.


Dr. Kildare's Strange Case, starring B-movie leading man Lew Ayres, was the fourth entry in M-G-M's popular series about the dreamy diagnostician learning his craft at the side of the crotchety cripple, Dr. Gillespie (the crotchety cripple Lionel Barrymore). By now, enthralled audiences were getting to know these people better than their own families. Kildare's growing love for nurse Mary LaMonte; Gillespie's life-threatening melanoma; Kildare's parents dispensing wisdom the way pharmacists do Valium; and all the other supporting characters who seem to be paid to stand around and yak all day instead of doing their jobs. If all hospitals were this much fun, I'd go to med school right now.


Joe Wayman looks forward to physically
abusing Sally after work.
But not all is well at the House of Blair. Molly Byrd, the Superintendent of Nurses, is giving Gillespie a hard time. ("If I don't drink one glass of milk a day," he grouses to Kildare, "she hides my cigarettes.") Ambulance driver Joe Wayman is known to smash the skulls of alleged miscreants with an industrial-sized monkeywrench. And Dr. Gregory Lane, a supposedly brilliant brain surgeon, has been on something of a cold streak lately, his nickname around the hospital being "The undertaker's best friend." (Wouldn't you like to work in a warm, supporting atmosphere like that?) Lane himself bitterly comments after his latest botched surgery, "The operation was a success, but the patient died!" Good to keep a sense of humor at times like this. 

Lane redeems himself by saving the life of an unidentified hit-and-run victim. Unfortunately, the surgery appears to have left the guy a babbling idiot, yelling "Friday!" incessantly. Kildare decides to save Lane's career by proving that the patient was a babbling idiot before the surgery as well.


You'd be pissed-off like Nurse LaMonte
if you were stuck between a chain-smoking,
wheelchair-bound grouch and the dreamboat
who won't give you a tumble.
It wouldn't be a Kildare movie without enough subplots to fill a cemetery, and this Strange Case is no exception. Gillespie diagnoses a woman's rash as a reaction from the lacquer on her mah-jonng tiles. Joe the ambulance driver gets Sally the switchboard operator drunk at the local hash-house.

And this being only the fourth movie in the series, Kildare, still an intern, hasn't made a major move on Mary LaMonte yet, thanks to his meager $20-a-month salary. (And you wonder why your medical bills are so expensive!) Yet, he turns down a chance to work at the prestigious Messinger Institute at $6,000 per annum, just so he can continue stick around with Gillespie, and to watch Dr. Lane date the horny Nurse LaMonte. Audiences in 1940 were supposed to approve Kildare's decision, but looking at things from a 21st-century perspective, all we can think now is, What a 24-karat sap!

But whence the strange case we've been promised? Well, remember the hit-and-run patient? Kildare has a theory that the guy is suffering from schizophrenia -- or, as he pronounces it, "SKEEZ-o-frenn-ya," like the punchline of a joke about a crazy Irishman. Going behind Gillespie's back, Kildare consults with his own father, a small-town doctor, about the possibility of curing the patient via insulin shock therapy. Kildare père has seen the effects of the procedure first-hand: "One of the most terrifying things I've ever seen in my life!" Insulin shock therapy, he explains in an off-handed way typical for the Kildare pictures, "causes patients to go backwards through evolution -- ape, bird, lizard, and so forth." What. The. Fuck.


Even for a Kildare movie, this is some weird medical shit. So of course Kildare fils is eager to jump into it. Moving the patient to a private room without permission, Kildare convinces Mary LaMonte to help him perform a procedure better suited to Island of Lost Souls. Mary, being the only sane person at the hospital, demands an explanation. "Buried deep in the brain," Kildare says gravely, "is the brain of our human ancestors." Also the brain of anyone who thinks this is a good idea. 
"Man, I love torturing people for my own
professional edification!"

What follows the insulin overdose is the strangest sequence in the entire Kildare series. Filmed partly in silhouette, the patient indeed goes back in time to his Alley Oop origins and beyond, twisting, shuddering and squirming in agony, his eyes popping out as if being pushed from the inside, like something out of a Universal horror movie. 

There's no accompanying music, just Kildare doing a quiet play-by-play for the terrified LaMonte. "The hands are beginning their first primitive movements... The body is trying desperately to obey the impossible demands of the brain..." That sounds like me every morning. Audiences probably thought this bizarre scheme was S.O.P. in hospitals at the time -- they trusted doctors to pull off stunts that would get their licenses revoked today.

But guess what. It works! The patient, who now identifies himself as Henry Adams, went haywire when his wife left him five years earlier. But she had a change of heart and was going to return on Friday -- only Adams was too far gone to understand. Kildare brings the wife to his bedside, where the couple reconciles. And Adams' post-surgery regimen? About a gallon of glucose administered intravenously, followed by jelly sandwiches and milk. Had he remained a neanderthal, he would have been served a bronto-burger and a bill for services rendered.

Kildare performs an emergency
appendectomy on Gillespie while
Nurse LaMonte applies

 anesthesia

To recap: This is a hospital where the chief diagnostician is a heavy smoker; the ambulance driver is a sociopath; the chief brain surgeon keeps his job despite killing patients; and an intern seriously ignores protocol and performs a procedure out of Dr. Mengele's notebook.  

And people loved it! So much so that five more Kildare movies with Lew Ayres followed, before Lionel Barrymore's Gillespie continued on his own for another five. In 1949, they re-teamed for a radio series, The Story of Dr. Kildare. I shudder to think of the misguided men and women who were inspired to enter medical school by these quacks.

                                                       ******************** 
Two Dr. Gillespie movies are discussed here and here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: OKLAHOMA EDITION

Brad Lanes, the White House assistant Press Secretary, met with reporters in order to explain why the recent beheading of a woman in Oklahoma wasn't being classified as an act of terrorism, even though the suspect, Alton Alexander Nolen, aka Jah’Keem Yisrael, covered his Facebook page with pro-terrorist, anti-American photos and text.

"As you know, this terrible incident happened at a food distribution center," Lanes explained. "Therefore, we consider this an event of violence in the workplace. However, considering the shocking details, we would move this up a notch and make it an official 'extreme violence in the workplace event with yucky aftereffects.'"

Asked what the difference was between this beheading and those performed by the members of the Islamic State, Lanes replied, "This recent crime happened in Oklahoma during an otherwise normal working day. Plus, there was no video made of the incident, and, therefore, didn't terrorize people in the legal sense of the word."

"Those ISIL guys," he continued, "are a different matter. First of all, the executioner always speaks directly to President Obama in those videos, so that right there is a terrorist tip-off. Mr. Nolen said nothing about him during the beheading. And look how that ISIL guy dresses dress -- all in black, head to toe, in the middle of the desert. That's some scary stuff. Mr. Nolen, as far as I know, was in standard jeans and workshirt. Nothing terrorizing about that. And the executioner's muffled voice under the mask gives me the chills just thinking about it. I'm not sure Mr. Nolen said anything at the time of his actions."

"So, let's reiterate," Lanes said, counting on his fingers. "No video, no desert, no mention of the president, no scary clothes or voice. Ergo, no terrorism." Asked if the suspect's religious fanaticism played any role, Lanes shook his head. "Islamophobia has no place in 21st-century American society, and I would ask you to apologize for that question."

                                     **************************************


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: SYRIA EDITION

President Barack Obama made a public statement following the second wave of attacks against Islamic State forces in Syria.

Speaking from New York, where the President is delivering a speech to the United Nations General Assembly later today, Mr. Obama said, "I would like to thank the brave men and women of the United States armed forces for their part in helping destroy ISIL strongholds. But tribute must be made to Congress as well. In refusing to even debate the idea of attacking a country that we aren't at war with, just so they don't have to take a stand until after the midterm elections, our elected officials have once again shown what they're made of. Oh, and I'd also like to give a shout-out to the aid given by our Arab allies." 

Mr. Obama then chuckled, and added, "I'm sorry. That phrase -- 'Arab allies' -- always  makes me laugh."

Moments later, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gave a joint statement via speakerphone from an undisclosed location. "I think I can speak for my friend John when I say that, when push comes to shove, we in Congress are happy to behave as cravenly as possible," Mr. Reid said. "As you know, many of us are running scared right now, and are doing whatever we can to cover our asses in order to get re-elected. And that means not taking a principled stand on something as important as dropping bombs and missiles on a country that we couldn't even spell if you spotted us the vowels."

Mr. Boehner then spoke up. "My friend Harry said it all. And I'd like to reassure the country that we Republicans, who could have gone on the record one way or another before the attack on Syria, will be happy to do so immediately after Election Day. We will condemn the President as 'misguided' and committing 'a blatant power-grab' if the mission goes kablooey. And we will very grudgingly give him credit if it seems to be going well, while still demanding to be kept in the loop we willingly stepped out of. The business of the American people continues!"

                                             ****************************

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

OF CREAMS AND WILLS

As if the recent mole removal activity wasn't enough proof that I'm on the express train to Geriatricville, a couple more incidents have further punched my ticket.

Uh, let me see... maybe you're OLD?!
Over the weekend, the missus and I biked to Costco for the few supplies that don't come in packages the size of revolving doors. Aside from the usual imperatives -- a box of 18 Kind Bars and a five-pound sack of walnuts -- we had a coupon for three StriVectin products.  

StriVectin, for those not in the know, manufactures anti-aging creams. Not that this stuff actually stops  aging -- it only pretends to. You can bet that a manly man like George Clooney buys StriVectin -- or, more likely, something a lot more expensive, like fresh placenta -- by the carload. While my wife studied the product before finally making the plunge, I played it non-committal. No husband wants to appear too enthusiastic when his wife considers buying this kind of stuff.


In truth, I wanted it myself. But I didn't let my wife on to that. No sir. Instead, I let her make the first move that evening when she suggested I use the Tightening Eye Serum and Tightening Neck Cream. For something that's supposed to make you look young, StriVectin's products certainly sound life-threatening.

Me, first thing in the
morning.
I was most interested in the neck cream, having watched my neck gradually succumbing to gravity for two decades. To see if it was really working, my wife ordered me to smear it on only the left side, just to compare it to the right in a few weeks time. 

Interesting idea. But if it does work, and I start using it on both sides, my neck would always look lopsided. Unless, of course, I stop using it on the left side for a while in order to give the right side time to catch up. It's exhausting trying to maintain a semblance of youth.

The other sign that my time is nearly up is the increase of junk mail from schools, museums and other allegedly non-profit institutions suggesting I write them into my will.

You see a cemetery. The Met sees a
cash register.
What the hell?  Since when was reserving a space in somebody's will considered good manners? And what good is the Metropolitan Museum of Art going to do me when I'm not around anymore? Besides, the Met's already swindling gullible tourists by "asking" them to pay the "suggested" entrance fee of 20 bucks. And, yes, your average family will slap down four or five jacksons for the privilege, only to realize after an hour that they should have visited the Hershey Candy store in Times Square. 

My own alma mater has gotten in on the fun, too, in addition to hitting me up for an annual contribution. During my working years, I thought I was being generous by giving them $50, until they asked me to "slightly increase" it to $3,500. Someone must have redefined "slightly" since I was a lad.

Last year, I informed them I no longer had a steady income, and requested they stop calling. The friendly person on the other end agreed, and a week later sent me a letter asking for my dough instead. 

They must have lost my request since then, because they called last Sunday evening, forcing me to put them on my phone's "blocked" list heretofore reserved for scams involving computer repair, credit cards, and phony veteran charities. They'll keep sending me the requests for annual contributions anyway, along with those for a death gift, further cluttering my recycling bin. Now, if they develop a better anti-aging cream than StriVectin, we'll talk.

                                                          ********************

Monday, September 22, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: WHITE HOUSE SECURITY EDITION

The Secret Service came under fire over the weekend for two unrelated incidents involving unauthorized men who got past the White House security perimeter. One of them, an Iraq war veteran, actually made it into the White House  through the front door before being stopped by agency personnel.

When asked why the White House front door was unlocked, Secret Service spokesman Brad Lanes said, "President Obama's popularity is at an all-time low. So we thought, hey, wouldn't it be nice if we made it easier for the people who still like him to swing by and, y'know, give him a thumbs-up and a 'we're sticking with you' kind of thing? Locking the door seemed to send a bad message, like we were trying to keep them out." Asked what security measures they were implementing going forward, Lanes replied, "We're having someone from Home Depot install a doorbell. If that doesn't work, we're going to get one of those doormats that say 'GO AWAY.' We hate to take those measures, but the President's safety is imperative, except when it's not."


The Secret Service's former open-door policy at the White House wasn't the only reflection on the President's negative polling numbers. The Washington Post is reporting that Democrats are inching away from the increasingly-unpopular Obama, not even mentioning the President's name during Congressional speeches.

One Democrat believed to be in trouble, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, denies the Post story, telling reporters, "Speaking personally, I fully support whatshisname. I'd go so far as to say there isn't an inch of air between whoozis and me. I told that to President So-and-So himself just the other day. In fact, you can quote me when I say that I back whaddayacallit 100 percent."

                                                             *****************

Friday, September 19, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: CODE PINK EDITION

During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the growing threat of ISIL, Secretary of State John Kerry was repeatedly heckled by the anti-war activist group Code Pink. 

While acknowledging his own peace protests during the Vietnam War era, Mr. Kerry made a point of explaining the atrocities that the terrorists were now engaged in. When asked what the difference was between ISIL and the Vietnamese, Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered close to a million civilians from 1954 to 1975, Mr. Kerry replied, "When I was protesting, Richard Nixon was president."

                                                           ****************

Thursday, September 18, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: COVER GIRL NFL SPONSORSHIP

Cover Girl Cosmetics is facing criticism for its continued sponsorship of the NFL, despite the league's many domestic violence scandals.

Cover Girl spokesperson Debbie Perfidulo told reporters, "Right now, we're reaching out to the more moderate factions of the NFL in order to supply them with enough lipstick, rouge and foundation to fight against the outside forces that are trying to overthrow them." Moderate factions, she added, included players who don't leave bruises, and those who prefer psychological over physical abuse of family members. "It's our way of telling battered women, 'You are not alone.'"

When asked what cosmetics would do in curbing the NFL's domestic violence problem, Ms. Perfidulo admitted, "Not much, really. But on the other hand, high-quality Cover Girl products go a long way in making women forget how they've been abused by their boyfriends and husbands. Our advice to men is 'Make up with make-up!'"

Responding to another question about how this was going to help children who have been assaulted, Ms. Perfidulo said, "That's a very good question. We're hoping that companies like Toys R Us join us in facing this problem in the same way. Abusive men have been bribing their kids and wives with gifts forever. The business community has an obligation to make these gestures that much more easy. And to those who claim we're just covering up the problem," she concluded, "that's what Cover Girl is for!"

                                             ***************************


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SKINNED ALIVE

These moles are cuter than mine.
One of the more obvious signs of aging is the gradual occurrence of moles and skin tags -- those little clumps that look like pieces of earwax that appear one day and never go away. 


That's the problem with having grown up in a beach town. It was a time when every kid would return home cherry-red after being outside all day. The mothers would say, "A little sunburn won't kill you!" Ha! Good one, mom!

The only thing more disgusting than these splotches is how you look in the immediate aftermath of getting them removed, when you have to go out in public with your face bandaged like you just got shaved by a blind man with one hand and three fingers.

It was my turn yesterday. Not that I really noticed those little clumps. I mean, I don't have to look at myself. My wife, on the other hand, has no choice. And now that our daughter's away at college, she has one less person to focus on. 

It looks something like this.
But there was one other facial matter that my wife really had enough of, and it had nothing to do with ultraviolet rays. For many years I've had a line -- make that a groove -- no, canal, approximately one-inch long running vertically between my eyebrows. I'm not saying it's deep, but I could use it for a piggy bank. Again, I never thought much of it, but my wife certainly has: "Unless you're smiling, you always look like you're mad at me!" She always sounds mad when she says that.

The only cure for that epidermic aqueduct, she believed, was a shot of Botox. Yes, Botox. You know, short for Botulism Toxic. Right between the eyes. So strongly did my wife feel about this, she was willing to pay for it. This is like covering the jail's electric bill when your husband gets the chair.

Darn! And I could have looked as good as him.
Yesterday, I visited the dermatologist. She sliced off two of the moles -- really, I could have done it myself -- and burned off a third -- which I could have done as well. But I was told that Botox would do nothing for me except prevent me from frowning; the line would remain, albeit not quite as deep. And I would have to return every three or four months for another injection at four C-notes a pop. 

However, there was something else that would plump up the skin and eliminate the line completely. But she wouldn't inject it in that spot due to the possible side effect of blindness. 

I could hear my wife's usual response: Now wait a minute, let's think about this. I knew I was taking a terrible chance, but decided right then and there that continuing to look mad was a price I was happy to pay, if it meant keeping what eyesight I have left.

Unlike the old guys I see on the subway who go through similar procedures, my bandages -- on the neck, face and collarbone -- were small. Even better, my wife was OK with me not risking blindness to make her happy (for now). The little scabs, almost unnoticeable, will heal soon, leaving me looking at least six months younger. 

Now all I need is a couple of pieces of invisible tape to pull back the skin above my eyebrows, and my wife will be able to look at me without confusing me for a running back for the NFL.

                                                         *********************

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

PUBLIC BROADCASTING SPUD

A black TV screen.

ANNOUNCER (VOICE-OVER): Coming soon to PBS, a new series from acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns -- a portrait of a simple man who would go on to become a world icon...

GEORGE WILL: Without a doubt, he is proof, if any is needed, of the flexibility of the American way of life.

BILL AYERS: He's the ultimate symbol of out-of-control capitalism: do as your masters tell you, then get thrown in the trash at the first sign of decay.

STANLEY CROUCH: His skin color, see, means a lot to us as kids -- here's a guy with brown skin who owns a car, a house in the suburbs, and is completely accepted in the white man's world.

Fade up on...

ANNOUNCER (VOICE-OVER): M. Potato Head: the ultimate blank slate. 

CUT TO:



ANNOUNCER (VOICE-OVER): From his humble beginnings in 1952...

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Kids in the '50s who are teased as "dumb as a sack of potatoes" now have a real potato,who's smart, successful, funny and, most important, proud. Mr. Potato Head isn't shy, you know.

DAVID MCCULLOUGH: A reporter asks him, "Mr. Potato Head, are you the new Mickey Mouse?" And he replies, "Hell, no! I'm the new Mr. Potato Head!" (grandfatherly chuckle)

ANNOUNCER (VOICE OVER): ...to an unlikely anchor of stability in the '60s...

(Fast cuts of counter-culture figures)

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (VOICE-OVER): Everywhere, kids are growing their hair and taking drugs, and anti-war protests are on TV every night. And parents are saying to their kids, "You should be like Mr. Potato Head, he has a job and a home and a family."

ANNOUNCER (VOICE-OVER): ... to the unknown drama at home...

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Can you imagine how distressing it is for his wife, who's just as clever as him, to be dismissed as merely "second potato"?

Cut to:


MERYL STREEP (VOICE-OVER): While I am proud of my husband, I am sometimes tired of seeing the world only from my kitchen window, while his view is from a sporty blue convertible.

Cut to:




EDWARD HERRMAN (VOICE-OVER): October 24, 1961. My dearest Mrs. Potato Head. While I am out here on this seemingly-endless publicity junket, always remember that you are the reason I got to where I am, and that I only have eyes -- several of them, in fact, along with noses, ears and mouths -- for you. Your loving husband, Mr. Potato Head.


DAVID BRINKLEY: Think about it. He goes from organic, to plastic, to digital Disney icon. That's the American dream.

ANNOUNCER: (VOICE-OVER):  Mr. Potato Head: More Than Skin Deep. Another interminable Ken Burns documentary series where the same people you've seen a dozen other times before speak in the present tense about the past, and read someone else's personal correspondence. Coming soon to PBS.

                                                   ****************

Monday, September 15, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: WAR AGAINST ISIS EDITION

Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, "We are at war with ISIS," after claiming just the opposite only days earlier.

When cornered by reporters at an airport later to explain his reversal of opinion, Kerry said, "The way President Obama has defined it, 'war' means boots on the ground. Our soldiers, on the other hand, are currently wearing vulcanized, thigh-high rubber shoes."

Asked if he was splitting hairs, Kerry replied, "Look, 'war' is one of those words that has lots of meanings. You can have a 'war of words.' The Super Bowl can be considered a war. And speaking as a husband, you guys know what it's like to be 'at war' with your wives, am I right?" he chuckled. 

When none of the reporters replied in the affirmative, Kerry cleared his throat nervously and stated, "We were horrified by the videos of the beheadings of innocent American and British civilians." Asked why American officials have no problem with Saudi Arabia beheading at least 19 people in the past two and a half weeks, Kerry said that he would like to address that issue, but was late for an official tour of oil fields.

                                                        **********************

Thursday, September 11, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: OSCAR PISTORIUS EDITION

Judge Thokozile Masipa found South African athlete Oscar Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder Thursday in the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, but said the defendant had been "negligent," raising the prospect of a manslaughter conviction.

In her ruling, Judge Masipa said of the disgraced Olympian, "Obviously, it never occurred to Mr. Pistorius that it was vital to keep on his toes at all times. When it came to stating the truth, he found it impossible to step up to the plate. At times, it seemed, he couldn't even put one foot in front of the other."

The judge continued, "His lawyers, too did him no favors during their examination, time and again cutting him off at the knees. And every pathetic attempt to play footsie with the prosecution failed. In short, Mr. Pistorius didn't have a leg to stand on."

                                                ***************************

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: PRESIDENTIAL SPEECH EDITION

Recently admitting on Meet the Press that "political theatre" wasn't something that comes naturally to him, President Barack Obama promised to do a better job at appearing engaged when he talks to the nation this evening regarding the Islamic State.

"The president was right, he's not a natural," an inside source said. "But he's been boning up on political theatre for the last week, and he's come up with a doozy of a speech. First of all, Harvey Fierstein has written a marvelous script for him. A beautiful mixture of drama and genuine emotion, just like his Tony-award winning Kinky Boots. Really heartfelt stuff."

But that wasn't all, the source said. "We asked [Tony Award-winning composer] Stephen Schwartz to come up with some numbers, and he really pulled out all the stops. 'No Imminent Threat' is the president's curtain-raiser, a hopeful yet cautionary song laying out the current situation. We've got a male chorus for 'Boots on the Ground,' an exciting number right up there with 'March of the Witch Hunters' from his classic musical Wicked. But the president wanted the public to understand the more obscure references that he needs to talk about as well. So in no time, Steve whipped up 'While My Qatar Gently Weeps.' If a speech was eligible for a Tony, this would win easily, no question."

"The American public is going to see a side of President Obama they've never seen before," the source concluded. "Kevin Spacey has taken time out from his busy schedule shooting E-Trade commercials in order to coach the president on 'emotion' and 'caring.' You know, the president has always been criticized for being detached. Well tonight, I think people are going to be genuinely surprised just how undetached he's going to seem. Watch out, Ronald Reagan, there's a new actor in the White House!"

                                                             ***************

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE SNIPER" (1952)

Long before he was the producer of "message" movies both treacly (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Child is Waiting) and self-consciously serious (Ship of Fools, The Defiant Ones), producer Stanley Kramer made a film noir "message" movie, The Sniper. And instead of tackling issues like race, religion or Nazis, The Sniper took on psycho killers. Don't tell me that doesn't sound better. 


"No, I'm not Shepard Smith!"
Terrifically directed by Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper follows a week or so in the life of ex-con Eddie Miller (played with the perfect combination of angst and pathos by Arthur Franz) a guy who's had it with women. I mean really had it, like shooting all brunettes who cross his path. Since this is taking revenge a step too far, the public and the press start pressuring Police Lt. Frank Kafka (what a name) to catch this guy before he starts turning his rifle on blondes. Now that would be a loss.

But this being a Stanley Kramer production, we learn early on that Eddie Miller's problem is a lack of proper psychiatric treatment. Eddie, you see, wants to be locked up. He calls his old prison shrink for help, but the doc's analyzing a nine-iron at the golf course. He even deliberately burns his hand on a stove as a failed signal to the e.r. doctor that there's something wrong with him. What's a rejected guy to do but keep killing women?

Dr. Kent tries to figure out if chopsticks
are phallic symbols.
While the pitchfork crowd readies the hot seat for the still-unknown sniper, police shrink Dr. James Kent has other ideas. What this boy needs, he says, is help. In fact, he insists, that's what all these psychos need before they go shooting women from rooftops. Dr. Kent being played by Richard Kiley, the original star of Man of La Mancha, you expect him to sing "The Impossible Dream" to get the public on his side. 


A fastball thrown by the
screwball.
Lt. Kafka initially doesn't buy into Dr. Kent's theories, but is soon won over when he receives reports of a fellow at a carnival who's a little too eager to throw fastballs at a woman in a dunking cage -- one of The Sniper's many creepy moments. Seems Eddie Miller, who's already a suspect, was known to be fast with the balls in his day. If only he joined the majors -- then he'd be shooting up steroids instead of dames.

"Bet you don't recognize me
without the 'stache, eh, kid?"

Perhaps Stanley Kramer knew that the idea of an almost-sympathetic killer was going to be a tough sell. Why else would the world-weary, seen-it-all Lt. Kafka (I laugh every time I write that name) be portrayed the usually-debonair, audience-friendly Adolphe Menjou? Minus his dashing mustache for the first time since puberty, Menjou can't completely disguise his urbane demeanor -- he speaks too articulately for a cynical cop -- yet is great fun to watch because he's playing against type. You almost expect him to break out a bottle of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, vintage 1889, when he finally captures Miller.

...while the cops say, "We're busy
working, bub."
Kramer, not surprisingly, lays on the "society is to blame" spiel a little thick now and then in The Sniper, starting off with a pre-credit prologue. Dr. Kent gets two soliloquys on the matter, while Lt. Kafka makes with the Freud routine eventually. Yet two women who really tick off Miller -- his harridan of a supervisor at work, and a stranger slapping her young child -- are so hideous that you're sorry that he didn't shoot them instead. Next time, Eddie, choose your targets with better care. 


Edward Dmytryk and cinematographer Burnett Guffey make great use of the San Francisco locations, especially the shadowy nighttime sequences. One of their Hitchcock-worthy visual motifs is Eddie Miller taking aim while normal life continues behind him, whether at a carnival sharpshooting gallery or on an attempted murder from atop a roof. In a particularly startling moment, an elderly woman removing towels from an indoor drying line near a window reveals a police sniper on the next-door roof, but doesn't notice him herself. The madness, Dmytryk seems to be saying, is so prevalent that people don't even see it anymore.

It's always important to keep on the lookout for familiar faces in old movies, and The Sniper is no exception. The legendary Charles Lane (left) appears briefly as a barfly annoying a doomed lounge singer (noir queen Marie Windsor, co-star of Two Dollar Bettor, in a small but important role.) The e.r. intern is Sidney Miller, whom I immediately recognized as Warner Brothers' stock Jewish kid from 20 years earlier. You can see him when he was a teenager in the previously-discussed bootleg-toothpaste drama, The Big Shakedown. (His character names from those Warners' days include Sanford Nussbaum, Issadore Marks, Maurice Levy... and George Washington. That's comedy, folks.) 
 
It's a pity that The Sniper is pretty much ignored these days, especially compared to Kramer and Dmytryk's other 1952 production, the appallingly-overrated High Noon. To my narrow-vision eyes, Kramer in particular never made a better, tighter movie. (His rare venture into comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, crawls 3 hours and 40 minutes.)  If I have to be fed a message, let it be quick and tasty like The Sniper.

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To read about Two Dollar Bettor, go here.
To read about The Big Shakedown, go here.

 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: RAY RICE EDITION

Ray Rice has been fired from the Baltimore Ravens, and put on indefinite suspension from the NFL, following the release of video footage that showed the former running back knocking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious in a hotel elevator last July. This comes after NFL Commissioner Ray Goddell's controversial original decision to suspend Rice for only two games.

When asked why the original suspension was relatively light, Goddell told reporters, "If you remember, the first video only showed Rice dragging Janay out of the elevator like a sack of onions. We at the NFL felt it would be wrong to conjecture what happened to cause her condition. You know, she might have been laughing really hard and knocked her head on the wall. I've heard other athletes say the same thing. The wives and girlfriends laughing and laughing -- those guys can say some funny things -- and the next thing you know, they're lying unconscious on the floor. Or Janay might have had a case of undiagnosed epilepsy, and had a really, really violent seizure. Or you know how some women say their boyfriends make them want to bang their head against the wall? She might have taken it literally. There were any number of possibilities."

When asked if he was blaming Ms. Palmer, Goddell replied, "Not at all. I mean, we thought there was a chance that Ray himself might have caused this mistake. Like maybe Janay was disoriented and had intended to walk out of the elevator in the wrong direction, and, in spinning her around to face the door, accidentally smashed her head against the wall. Or he was stretching following a workout, and didn't see where his fist was going. So, yes, we definitely considered the 'mistake' angle." 

Goddell continued, "But in the end, we just didn't have the smoking gun, the final piece of evidence that told us that this was a deliberate act of violence, until the release of that piece of the video. Had I seen it earlier, I would have gone for a three-game suspension, no question." 

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Friday, September 5, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: AL-ZAWAHIRI EDITION

As ISIS continues its rampage across Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri brushed off reports al-Qaeda was starting to lose its luster.


"Nothing could be further from the truth," al-Zawahiri told reporters from his three bedroom cave in Afghanistan. "You want to know how much I care about those upstarts? This much," he laughed, holding apart his forefinger and thumb. "Look, the new guy always catches everybody's attention at first. That's a given. But eventually they remember that it's good to have a steady, reliable hand on the wheel of the suicide-bomb truck."

Sipping from a glass of goat's milk ("Be sure to write 'fresh, not fermented,'" he chuckled), the terrorist CEO continued, "Just the other day, I heard some wiseguy say that ISIS was Facebook while al Qaeda was MySpace. Are you kidding?  People seem to forget a little thing called 9/11. Those Islamic State upstarts are just a bunch of Mohammed-Come-Latelys. Fact is, there wouldn't be an Islamic State without al Qaeda. They don't know a Ramadan from a Ramada Inn."

Pausing to take a call from a mole deep inside the Pakistani government, al-Zawahiri returned to the subject at hand. "All those videos they release -- sure, they've got good production values and fancy-shmancy editing. But people get tired of that stuff eventually. At the end of the day, they want some substance, not headaches from all that fast MTV-style editing. And talk about old-fashioned -- since when has MTV been relevant?"

"They can't even decide what to call themselves," he sneered. "One day they're ISIL, the next day ISIS, then they're IS. What're they going to be next week? I? Aye-yi-yi?" 

"Face it," al-Zawahiri concluded, "al Qaeda is a brand people trust. 'Spreading Terrorism Since 1988.' You can't beat experience, that's for sure."

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "DUEL IN THE SUN" (1946)

Oh my God. Has there ever been a more oversexed, overheated, overproduced, overacted movie than Duel in the Sun? With phantasmagorical three-strip Technicolor and shouting-to-the- rafters dialogue making it look every inch the fever dream of amphetamine-addicted producer David O. Selznick, Duel in the Sun was intended to top his previous epic Gone with the Wind

Instead, the huge, grossly-expensive (almost $100-million when adjusted for inflation), two year-long production is still considered one of the most harebrained movies from Hollywood's "golden age." Director King Vidor handles Selznick's risible script with the same anvil-like touch that he would bring to The Fountainhead three years later. Vidor, by the way, was one of six directors who helmed Duel in the Sun during its lengthy inception -- or is it ejection? -- including Selznick, who, in a rare moment of lucidity, fired himself. As for the acting, there's so much ham on display that it's probably banned in Jewish and Muslim neighborhoods.

The tale of a young, half-breed trollop who causes havoc between two brothers and their racist father, Duel in the Sun intends to be spicy but winds up being tasteless. It would have fared better as a low-budget RKO black & white programmer as originally intended, but once Selznick got his Oscar-winning paws on the project, all bets were off. 

Warning: staring at this sun on a high-def
TV for 10 straight minutes can cause
permanent eye damage.
The movie announces its intentions to epicdom (a word I just made up) with a 10-minute instrumental prelude by Dimitri Tiomkin, which never manages to string together more than three interesting notes at a time. 

The difference between "prelude"
and "overture" is 7 minutes.
Just as it comes to a thudding end, and you're settling in for, you know, a movie, the voice of character actor Reed Hadley announces, "Ladies and gentleman, the overture to Duel in the Sun!" -- followed by three more unmemorable minutes of the Selznick Studio orchestra sawing away while Hadley describes the movie you're about to see. Show, don't tell! 

Then that's followed by the credits, and that's followed by a magniloquent prologue spoken by Orson Welles (presumably to make it sound classy) before the movie finally kicks in. I guess Selznick had to do something to make it seem as long as Gone with the Wind. (Without the music folderol, Duel in the Sun runs only a little over two hours.)

Now we know where Elvis Presley got his sneer.
If Duel in the Sun was Selznick's attempt to turn his then-mistress, Jennifer Jones, into another Vivian Leigh, he should have spent more time on his shrink's couch and less time popping bennies. Wearing dark "Injun" make-up, Jones instead resembles a drunken Emirates Airline stewardess. And rather than being sexy, as was Selznick's intentions, she often appears to be having a seizure. But as she admits, "I'm trash like my maw!" A moment later, upon reflection, she writhes on her bed shouting, "Trash, trash, trash, trash, trash!" Yeah, like the script, script, script, script, script!

"After we do the nasty, I'm going out to kill
a mockingbird."
Anyone familiar with the stolid Gregory Peck of To Kill a Mockingbird will be shocked by the horny, violent sociopath presented here. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock's multidimensional bad guys, Peck's Lewt McCanles is a rotter through-and-through, licking his chops like a hungry wolf eyeing a defenseless lamb -- in this case, Jennifer Jones' Pearl Chavez. As for Pearl, it winds up being one of those I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you relationships that always work out real well in the end. (Note: that was delivered with a heavy dose of irony.) If nothing else, Peck has the time of his life playing a heel for a change, far looser in Duel in the Sun than anything else he ever made, even if he is more cartoon than human. 


Joseph Cotten is amused by Jennifer Jones'
attempt at catching flies with her mouth.

Jessie McCanles, Lewt's younger brother, hasn't got a chance with Pearl. While having pledged her love to Jessie, she's far more attracted to bad boy Lewt. Just to show you how low Pearl is, she  allows Jessie to enter her room just as Lewt is in there lighting up a post-coital smoke. (What's Apache for "bitch"?) Cotten is saddled with pity-me dialogue, but so underplays his part that he comes off better than most of his co-stars. (The only other actor in Duel in the Sun who avoids histrionics is Herbert Marshall as Pearl's father, and that's because he's killed off after ten minutes.)


The good preacher takes a personal interest in
Pearl's salvation.
Yet despite Jones' and Peck's grandstanding, it's up to the old-timers to really pull out the stops. Walter Huston's brief appearance as a shady preacher proves that the actor knew kitsch when he saw it, and, as with his role as Doc Holliday in The Outlaw, plays it with outsized tongue in cheek. King Vidor probably didn't get the joke.


"I look like Hillary who?"
Nor did Vidor do poor Lillian Gish any favors as Lewt and Jessie's mother Laura Belle McCanles. Perhaps not having seen any Gish performance since The Birth of a Nation, Vidor appeared to have instructed her to telegraph her emotions by opening her eyes like manholes, dropping her jaw to the floor, and placing her hands on her cheeks whenever possible. Her final scene -- crawling from her bed to console her grumpy husband before dropping dead at his feet -- is perhaps the cruelest, most unfortunately-hilarious thing a legend like Gish ever had to suffer. Other than the rest of her scenes in Duel with the Sun.


Lillian Gish wipes away the
spittle from Barrymore's
line-readings.
But nobody -- no body -- overdoes it like Lionel Barrymore as Sen. Jackson McCanles, the family patriarch. Once a wonderfully subtle actor, Barrymore had by now settled comfortably into the wheelchair-bound lovable crank character that defined the latter part of his career. Under Vidor's direction, however, Barrymore crosses the divide between crank and bull undergoing a wide-awake vasectomy. Bellowing, bawling and roaring his dialogue like a one-man zoo, he officially becomes a self-parody in Duel in the Sun the way his brother John did in Playmates. But at least the latter was supposed to be a comedy.

At least you can see the (over)budget on the screen.
An impressive sequence featuring hundreds of cowboys charging down a steep hill and across the plains is still exciting (and today would be recreated with CGI). The psilocybin-like Technicolor is wildly vivid, with fiery red sunsets and gorgeous blue skies popping out of the screen, while Tiomkin's score never, and I mean never, stops. As Bosley Crowther wrote in his New York Times review, "Oh, brother—if only the dramatics were up to the technical style!"

D.W. Griffith visits Huston and Barrymore
on the set of Duel in the Sun, and decides he got
out of pictures at the right time.
Thanks to the lurid promise of SEX SEX SEX, Duel in the Sun actually turned a financial, if not artistic, profit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of the year. It would go down in history as being the first movie little Martin Scorsese ever saw -- such are legends made.


Love means never having to say you're
sorry after shooting each other to death.
Today, Duel in the Sun divides viewers. Scorsese, still a fan, believes it was ahead of its time. Everybody else thinks it's the work of a madman. But the best part -- the absolute icing on the cake -- follows the climax. Pearl and Lewt shoot each other a dozen or so times before dying lustily in each other's arms in the hot desert sun. Pull back, fade out... to five minutes of Exit music. 

Two hours and 20 minutes of non-stop music -- and I still can't remember a frigging note.



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The original trailer for Duel in the Sun.



To read about John Barrymore's swansong, Playmates, go here.
To read about King Vidor's The Fountainhead, go here.