Friday, April 20, 2018

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE STRANGLER" (1964)

Pity poor Leo Kroll. A lab technician who can charitably be considered a tub of lard, Leo is a lonely man. The only woman in his life is his angry, shrewish, nagging mother, who can never get enough of telling her son that not only is he ungrateful, but, well, a lonely tub of lard. Seeing that she's permanently bedridden and kept alive by a caring hospital staff, Leo's only course of action is to take revenge by using silk stockings to fatally strangle every nurse he can get his plump hands on. All things considered, do you blame him?

Those of you with long memories might believe that The Strangler was released in order to cash in on Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler, who committed 13 similar murders. And you would be right. In fact, everything, from the lurid poster right down to the title is right out of Exploitation 101, taught by better independent studios everywhere.



The smile only a mother could love -- and even then...
But what separates The Strangler from other mad-killer movies  -- aside from a fairly sophisticated (for its type) script -- is the titular performance by Victor Buono, the heaviest of all screen heavies. While you can trace the "crazy fat guy" character at least as far back as the 1940s with Laird Cregar in Hangover Square and The Lodger, Victor Buono's performance has astonishing, unexpected depth, as he reacts to his murders with orgasmic joy, quickly followed by confusion and a pathetic regret that signal an awareness that his actions are, to put it mildly, wrong.


The eye of the (psycho) beholder.
Equally essential to the success of Buono's performance is his sheer size. He was only 25 at the time of filming The Strangler, but convincingly plays what is probably a middle-aged man. While his smile is friendly, there's definitely something of a madman lurking not far from the surface. His tiny eyes peer out of a chubby face that resembles nothing so much as a psycho baby, his tiny moustache giving the only hint of masculinity. You almost -- maybe more than almost -- feel sorry for the guy. Even if he does have 10 murders under his size 64 belt.

Oh, you beautiful doll...
Ratcheting up the creep factor, Kroll also has a thing for undressing and destroying dolls that he wins  at the local arcade, where he's secretly in love with Tally, the young woman who runs the ring toss attraction. (That Kroll scores perfectly at the ring toss whenever Tally's around provides some sexual symbolism, but maybe that's just me speaking.)

Tally's professional friendliness would be more tempered if Kroll hadn't told her he was a successful businessman who breezes into town once in a while, rather than the lunatic who lives down the block. Too, she and her colleague, Thelma, might not have been so quick to give Kroll the nickname "Deadeye". 

M is for the murders he's committing...
Kroll's friendly/creepy demeanor continues even when questioned by police Sergeant Frank Benson. His simple yes/no replies are spoken in an innocent, sing-song manner, as if he didn't have a care in the world. Only when he's visiting his mother does he show just a hint of the fury bubbling underneath.

As Mrs. Kroll repeatedly reminds her son that even as a child he was always fat, friendless, and "funny" (meaning anything from crazy to gay), you must wonder how much pain Buono really felt during their scenes together. Ellen Corby, the future Grandma Walton, plays Mrs. Kroll as such a twisted, selfish harridan that not only can you tell why Kroll turned out the way he did, you're sorry he didn't kill her 20 years earlier. 

Per usual for movies made before our allegedly-enlightened times, The Strangler features the occasionally now-unintentionally humorous moments. People smoke everywhere -- laboratories, police stations, hospitals (when was the last time you saw a cigarette machine?). The psychiatrist called in on the case casually refers to the killer as a "schizo". And, of course, everybody is obsessed with referring to Kroll's weight. To them, being fat isn't just a description, it's a reason.

In lesser hands The Strangler would be just another cheapo shocker meant to capitalize on the latest scary headlines. But writer Bill Ballinger, who worked mostly on TV, and director Burt Topper (whose credits include Diary of a High School Bride) give their movie a serious base under its macabre setting.

But ultimately, credit must go to Victor Buono, whose despondent, chilling performance elevates the movie to even higher levels. At once subtle and horrifying, Buono's Leo Kroll is the guy you see at the post office, grocery store, or, in this case, hospital lab.

And yet, he is so much more: bitter, disconsolate, childishly in love, utterly psychopathic -- and totally convincing at all stages. Even as he meets his fatal end, you can't help sympathizing with him. Thanks to Buono, The Strangler is one of the few post-1960 movies I would be happy to watch a second and even third time. Would that more people watch it just once.

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

One of the few times when the trailer isn't as good as the movie:



Saturday, April 14, 2018

STRICTLY ON BACKGROUND, PT. 19: "GOTHAM"

Judging by the pieces I've written about background work, you'd think my every appearance was obvious to all who watched.

If only! I spent several hours playing one of many wealthy Penn State alumni/donors in the HBO movie Paterno, starring Al Pacino, only to see it reduced to roughly 5 seconds -- barely long enough to tell my wife, "I think this is my scene!" (But it still allows me to casually drop, "Yes, I was directed by Barry Levinson" in conversation when necessary.)

What the well-dressed Gothmamite
wears to concerts.
Then there's my latest "appearance" on Gotham. After playing a photographer the previous two times, I was now a Gothamite attending an outdoor concert hijacked by the Joker and his merry band of lunatics. Wardrobe provided me with a hat; everything else was mine.

They were shooting next to the Brooklyn base of the Manhattan Bridge. We were told to dress for winter, which is a good thing considering it was January 31. The high was 25, the wind chill made it feel like 19, and we were going to be outside all day. It wasn't until the third hour that I thought, Gee, maybe I should wrap the scarf around my neck instead of letting it just drape. You know, long enough to start coming down with the grippe.

Long shoots aren't unusual, but things weren't helped by the B train rattling across the bridge every seven minutes or so, drowning out the dialogue, and necessitating lots and lots of retakes. If only trains ran this frequently when I'm returning home from late-night shoots.

Initially, I was a spectator on the sidewalk, before joining the crowd in front of the stage. It was a real band, or at least real musicians, playing a live version of the Chambers  Brothers' "Time Has Come Today", and it sounded pretty cool (only a few seconds remained in the final cut). When the Joker suddenly appeared and beat the singer with the base of the microphone stand, we watched aghast.

Here's your chance to play my version of "Where's Waldo?":




Perhaps if I circle myself:


Pretty obvious, right? Like those optical illusions where once you see it, you can't unsee it. 

Here's the hilarious part. While they kept cutting back to this angle throughout the scene (which was spread across almost the entire episode), this was the clearest I looked. I consoled myself by remembering that there are no small background roles, only too many background actors in front of you. 

This is when it pays to be 6 feet tall.
I figured that was my swan song in this episode -- until a few minutes later, when Ben McKenzie (as James Gordon) walked through the crowd as he approached the stage.

That's me, middle of the shot in the rear. My wife was impressed that I was looking appropriately worried at the mayhem unfolding onstage.

But of course! I'm never too cold not to stay in character, even if I do have to circle myself to be seen.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

DEFACEBOOK

The principal and vice-principal of my
alma mater.

As with my farewell to LinkedIn a few weeks ago, I deleted my Facebook account not long afterwards. Not that it was a real Facebook page. I joined several years ago strictly to keep an eye on what my daughter was posting when she joined as a high school freshman. All my information was bogus, right down to my education (Oliver Hardy High School).

Nor did I post anything. Not only did I create a fictitious person, there was absolutely nothing on my page other than my phony name.

And yet almost immediately I started getting "friend" requests from people I not only didn't know, I didn't want to know, and continued to until I signed off.

Give Mark Zuckerberg credit: he tapped into people's need for imaginary friends. So desperate are they, that they're willing to give up every scrap of personal information in order to feel liked. But as he learned this week, that kind of know-how can land you in front of a group of angry Senators --  even those who, heretofore, were more than happy to take Facebook money to fund their campaigns. (If only they were so brave with NRA.)

The biggest question America has regarding Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before Congress is: What the hell is it about billionaires and their propensity for lousy haircuts and ill-fitting suits? 

Donald Trump, Bill Gates, and now Mr. Facebook -- these are, arguably, three of the most powerful people in the world, yet they all look like Mr. Green Jeans cut their hair with hedge clippers, and get their clothes at a Robert Hall off-the-rack sale. Make that off-the-floor. Even with modest hair and occupation, I have better suits than these guys. Of course, they used to belong to my brother, but all the ties are mine.


Which one would you take for a captain of industry,
and the other for an escapee from a mental ward?


Tonsorial expectations weren't the important things regarding his testimony, however. First and foremost, it was refreshing to see Republicans and Democrats in 100% agreement for a change -- they all hate the little twit who runs Facebook. For different reasons, of course. The GOP, because of Facebook's apparent anti-conservative bias. The Dems, because Cambridge Analytica hacked users' information on behalf of Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Which doesn't sound like anti-conservative bias to me, so maybe they're on the same page after all.


And what's not to hate? Zuck ducked and weaved with the skill of Muhammed Ali (albeit when Ali was on the downside of his career), and obfuscated with the best of them -- and by "them", I mean all those Congressmen when they're on the hot seat. 

When asked to answer questions with "Yes" or "No", he appeared not to have heard the directive. Instead, he began each answer, "Conceptually..." -- meaning, No. No no no no no. No. You knew this guy had all the scruples of a polecat when he was asked if Facebook should have safeguards for users under the age of 16. "Conceptually, that's an interesting idea, but..."

Protecting kids from hackers, sex criminals, and all sorts of random flotsam and jetsam? I'll have my team get back to you on that.

Mark Zuckerberg's favorite movie.
During his testimony, Zuck did offer one cogent piece of advice. Of course, you had to cut through the double-talk, spin, and bullshit to figure it out. But what he said, in so many words was, Hey, you don't like Facebook's terms of service, don't join. 

OK, fair enough. But the following day, Zuck admitted that he collects data on people who don't even use Facebook

Let me repeat: Mark Zuckerberg probably knows about you even if you aren't using his invention. President Recep Erdogan is probably thinking, Man, where do I get that kind of juice?


And if you think you own your Facebook page -- hah! Allow me to advise you, if you haven't already heard, that Mark Zuckerberg owns all "your" content, like a kindergarten teacher who insists on keeping your finger-paintings.

Well, that's not fair, you think. Y'know, I'm gonna delete my Facebook page just to make a statement.

Seriously, don't you want to
kick his pasty ass?
Good for you! Too bad your statement is moot. Yes, you will regain ownership of your content -- "unless," to quote its terms of service, "your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

In other words, that picture of your kid's fourth birthday party? Or the video of your cat falling down the stairs? Those ain't yours, bub. You can delete three ways from Sunday, but as long as  someone you shared them with is still on Facebook -- and that's your family and 50,000 "friends" -- Mark Zuckerberg can do whatever he wants with them. 

Run them in a commercial? Sure. Use them in a print ad in Fortune? Absolutely. Digitally insert them in a porno movie? Why not? They're his to do with as he pleases. You might have brought the bat and ball to the game, but he keeps them forever.

Zuckerberg's second-
favorite movie.
What explains Mark Zuckerberg's relentless need to know? It all goes back to my theory regarding Anthony Weiner's behavior. Ugly nerd in high school is probably picked on for four straight years. Can't get a girlfriend. Schemes to get even with the world one day. Weiner did it by entering politics and sexting teenage girls. Zuckerberg did it by becoming a worldwide digital spy. And people welcomed him.

Does it bother you that this guy knows more about your average Facebook user than their friends do? Has access to more people than Putin, the IRS, and Scotland Yard combined? Asked hospitals to share patient data that is supposed to be private?

Don't worry. His team will get back to you on that.

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 MINUTES WITH DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS" (1931)


Like many middle-aged men, Douglas Fairbanks went through a midlife crisis, thanks to

a floundering marriage (to Mary Pickford), the end of silents (his thin, cigarette-worn voice was unsuitable for sound), and, perhaps worst of all, watching his son, Doug Jr., usurp him at the box office.

In short, the King of Hollywood had been dethroned.

And, like many men in his condition, he reacted by rounding up a few friends and going on a little trip to get away from it all. But unlike your average guy spending a weekend in Vegas, Fairbanks invited director Victor Fleming, cameraman Henry Sharp, and production manager Charles Lewis on a six-month cruise to Asia. The idea was to shoot a movie to be released by United Artists, the studio Fairbanks built with Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. It's good to be the King, even if you have been dethroned.

Doug and his pals look forward to a half year
away from their wives.

What they eventually came up was a schizophrenic travelogue that can't decide if it wants to be serious, silly, or even authentic. It's even unclear what the real title is. All the original posters call it Around the World in 80 Minutes with Douglas Fairbanks, while the opening credits leave out "in 80 Minutes". Most contemporary sources drop "with Douglas Fairbanks". For brevity's sake, let's call it ATW.



Where's the KFC?

The best thing about ATW is that it captures "exotic" lands just before they became totally



 modernized. While Doug assures us that Hawaii has amenities like hotels and drugstores, the first glimpse is that of a lush American territory, decades away from statehood, filled with, as he describes them, "wonderfully simple people." They'd love hearing that today, I'm sure.


The King meets the Duke
While in Hawaii, Doug hangs with Olympic swimming champ Duke Kahanamoku, who appears mildly bemused at the sight of this almost-washed-up movie star with the endless leis around his neck. But just to prove he's still got what it takes, Doug goes surfing with him, which was probably the first time most American movie audiences even heard of the sport. By the way, Doug falls off his surfboard.




Celebrity Cruises encourages its passengers
to exercise like this.
Speaking of surfing, Doug never shies away from showing off his athleticism or physique, whether performing dangerous stunts aboard ship or clambering up a temple in Angkor. While amusing, it seems like a guy nearing 50 trying to remind people he still has what it takes to play Zorro or Robin Hood -- even if he sounds more like a would-be stand-up comic with poor timing. 






Trust me, there's nothing funnier than
poor families begging for pennies from
rich tourists.
Still, I must admit that half the fun of watching old travelogues like ATW is the patronizing narration reserved for "foreign lands", and Doug never disappoints. While he has good words for the people of the countries he visits -- for instance, calling the Chinese "the most vitally interesting people in the world", or looking upon in wonder at India's spirituality -- Doug can't resist making cracks about beggars, slums, and children who can't afford decent clothes. White man very hilarious!





Doug might have his hands behind him,
but Uncle Sam's are controlling Aguinaldo.
Not all the condescension is aimed at poor folks. While in the US-controlled Philippines, Doug meets General Emilio Aguinaldo, who he reminds us was our enemy during the Spanish-American War, but is now "one of our most useful citizens" -- i.e., our puppet in what he refers to as a land of "strange, primitive savages". Remind me again, why do so many people loathe us?




Fairbanks is literally all over the map.
Doug also takes the time share bad puns and silly jokes, like the one about a guy with three children who didn't want a fourth. It seems the fellow heard that "every fourth child born in the world is a Chinaman." Hi-yo!

Other jokes are strictly topical. As we see the ancient temples of Siam (now Thailand), he remarks, "These ruins are in a perfect state of preservation -- like the Republican Party." Throw in references to long-gone celebrities like Graham McNamee and Ukulele Ike, and ATW becomes a game of Trivial Pursuit nobody can win.


A racist rodent.
And from out of nowhere, Doug invites "the world's biggest movie star", Mickey Mouse, to get into the ugly American act, dancing to a Siamese melody while occasionally squinting his eyes to look Asian. Audiences today would recoil in horror. And yet -- he's so darned cute! I mean, after his all-too brief appearance is over, I dare you not to hit "rewind". (Don't let the Disney people know about it, because they'd probably try to destroy every copy of ATW.)


The handsomest ugly Americans ever.
When not alternately complimenting and ridiculing the people they meet, Fairbanks and Victor Fleming spend most of their time golfing. In fact, they're rather upset that the golf course in Peking is currently being used by the army as a battlefield during their civil war. Darn those wars!

In a scene sure not to amuse women today, Doug and Vic are caught peeking through a doorway where, inside, a young Japanese woman is getting dressed in what she assumed was the privacy of her own home. That this bit is clearly a studio-shot piece of fiction makes no difference. Like a later scene in India where Doug is shown fighting hand-to-paw with a tiger, this phoney-baloney is brushed off by Doug with, "History is a compound of fact and fancy. So why not film?" Good save, Doug, good save.

Why do you suppose this shot of Doug and
Vic didn't make the final cut?
In fact, several minutes of the India scene were obviously shot on a soundstage. After watching a kid climb a rope before disappearing (a special effect old-hat even in 1931), Doug and the boys decide it's time to go home. But because they have to make it back in four minutes (remember the title), they jump on a magic carpet -- a reference to his 1924 classic The Thief of Baghdad -- and make their way across Europe, the Atlantic Ocean, New York, and Chicago (where they dodge gangsters'  bullets), before landing in Hollywood. (In a rare moment of genuinely sardonic wit, Doug describes the studio's gas tank as "the publicity department".) 

After landing, Doug thanks the audience, and promises a sequel that was never to be. As with Doug's next movie, Mr. Robinson Crusoe, you can't help but feel a little sad about how his career sputtered to an end. Even his pal Victor Fleming appears to rub it in, turning off the lights as Doug is saying his goodbyes. There must be a nicer way to tell a pal it's time to get off the stage.

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "SOAK THE RICH" (1936)

Humphrey Craig finds himself under attack on three fronts. As a multi-millionaire in the Depression, he's known as "the most hated man in America." He's upset over a new super tax on the wealthy. And, worse, his daughter Belinda has fallen in with a group of Communists at the college he founded. What's a plutocrat to do?

Inspired by Pres. Roosevelt's Revenue Act of 1935, which taxed up to 75% of the wealthy's income, along with the insurgent American Communist Party, Soak the Rich tackles politics in a way few comedies of its time did, lampooning both the left and the right, finding little if anything positive to say about either.

Humphrey Craig, freely admitting to wallowing in "my orgy of self-pity," bemoans FDR being "blind to the wounds of the millionaire." Almost killed by a bomb mailed from The Society for the Abolition of Monstrosities, he sighs, "There's only one safe place for a capitalist -- Russia!"

I couldn't get rid of the parasitic watermarks plastered
over this lobby card by the craven capitalists at
Almay Stock Photos.
The campus Commie, Kenneth "Buzz" Jones, isn't much more intellectually aware, his speech to fellow Reds being little more than a fast-talking pep rally peppered with clich├ęs, as he protests the suspension of a leftwing economics professor. "They don't want any intellectuals in this university," he bellows. "All they want is capitalistic tango dancers, and capitalistic ukulele players!" Then really revving up the crowd, Buzz gives them a much-needed heads-up:

Do you know what the world's going to say to what we're going to do? The world's going to say, One: we're nuts. Two: That we're a bunch of long-haired radicals. So I say, the first thing we do is everybody gets their heads shaved. That'll dispose of the second charge.

A gun and a fireplace shovel are no match for an
angry Commie.
Humphrey Craig's daughter Belinda gets caught up in the movement, swearing to Buzz, "I want to be a radical, too!" as if joining a sorority. But Buzz, feeling their mutual attraction, wants no part of it, fearing that a relationship would doom his dream of building a utopian paradise. "What about the Russians," Belinda asks, "don't they kiss?" "Not while they're working," he replies sternly. 

You can see where Soak the Rich is going by the end of the second reel -- Red Meets Girl, Red Falls In Love -- but that's the way romantic comedies work. Still, while there's nothing inherently wrong with Soak the Rich, there's something slightly off. 

For while its dialogue is sophisticated and, at times, laugh-out loud funny, its pace is often sluggish. Occasionally, there are pauses aas if allowing for audience laughter. And while the male leads Walter Connelly (Humphrey Craig) and John Howard (Buzz Jones) are quite funny, Mary Taylor plays Belinda as if in a Xanax-induced haze which has also given her a faux-British accent. A model by trade, Taylor understandably has only four movies to her resume. 

Muglia appears to prefer Belinda in a
Bazooka Joe outfit.
A brief subplot with Belinda's kidnapping by a nihilist named Muglia -- the sole member of the aforementioned Society for the Abolition of Monstrosities -- goes nowhere, apparently being nothing more than an excuse for the script to provide more political jokes. And when spoken by frog-voiced Lionel Stander, they are kind of funny: "I can put Stalin in one pocket, Lenin and the other, and still have room for Karl Marx. Three peanut brains -- hah!" But as amusing as it is, the scene could have been eliminated to tighten the movie's 85-minute running time.

Maybe if Paramount released Soak the Rich on Blu-Ray,
I wouldn't have to resort to taking crummy-looking
pictures of grey market prints off the internet.
As part of their carte-blanche, four picture deal with Paramount, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur -- who appear in the opening credits -- were offered the rare opportunity to write, produce and direct without any studio interference -- which, oddly, might be part of Soak the Rich's problem. These guys were first and foremost writers who didn't think they needed help with direction. A more seasoned, objective eye could have made it an even better picture.

Still, Soak the Rich's imperfections have never warranted the negative reviews garnered upon its original release, or from, say, Leonard Maltin's original movies-on-TV book, which rated it "BOMB". Like the three other Hecht & MacArthur Paramount releases, Soak the Rich has never aired on TCM, and is available only through independent DVD sellers. Heck, most of them can even be watched for free on YouTube and Vimeo.

Hey, that just means The People don't have fork over their hard-earned pay to The Man. Up with the movie bootleggers, down with parasitic copyrights!

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