ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only Orson Welles could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons(1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panic. Fearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically … Continue reading ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

OMEGA MAN (1971): DELIGHTFULLY TACKY APOCALYPTIC CHEESE

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I recently saw two films for the first time since childhood. If there is ever proof that we are not born with taste, that taste is a reflection of our willingness to move past what we know or are exposed to, then the proof is in this proverbial pudding. Two of the coolest movies to an adolescent in the early 1970s were Elvis On Tour (1972) and the Omega Man (1971). However, the sight of a pasty Rock and Roll King, dressed as a lounge lizard Batman, bejeweled in a string of rhinestone Christmas lights, with a shoe-polished football helmet for hair and sideburns reaching down to his collarbone, singing Sinatra’s “My Way,” is the stuff of nightmares.

Omega Man (1971) Charlton Heston

Even more horrific is Omega Man`s Charlton Heston as a doomsday martyr with a Savior complex, dying for our sins. Boris Sagal’s apocalyptic oater is a delightfully dated and tacky fantasy. Who better to fill that role than all-American, granite-jawed Heston? The dialogue is jaw dropping. Omega Man was one of several ideologically right-leaning science fiction films that Heston gravitated to. (His choice of roles revealed a shrewd awareness on the actor’s part towards development of a public persona). It was a natural to follow epic Biblical melodramas with parts casting him as a messianic loner. The essence of American power and strength, highlighted by his carved-in-marble Roman profile, Heston was built for adolescent males to emulate and females to swoon over. Continue reading “OMEGA MAN (1971): DELIGHTFULLY TACKY APOCALYPTIC CHEESE”

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

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It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

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Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

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Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

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Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

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“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

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Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic Randolph Scott could never have competed.

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“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

“Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent, we are a peaceful people. We don’t kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”

Insert nihilistic finale.

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WILL PENNY (1968)

Heston actor's journalsWill PENNY (1968) LOBBY CARD

From 1956 on, actor Charlton Heston kept an actor’s journal, which he published in two volumes, in 1976 and 1996. These are some of the most fascinating and valuable behind-the-scene writings published on the subject of studio filmmaking. In addition to these writings, Heston was also an exceptional and underrated visual artist. Often, when actors turn to painting, the result is less than memorable, and can even be downright painful. One thinks of Henry Fonda’s vapid watercolors or the recent, execrable “world leader” portraits by George Bush as painful examples. Heston’s visual art was an extension of his journals. His pen and ink drawings of makeup artists, stuntmen, cameramen, and technicians celebrated the unsung blue-collar workers. I was fortunate enough to attend a small showing of Heston’s extensive work and it remains of the most compellingly unique exhibits I have attended to date.

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The story of the making of Will Penny (1968) is a standout entry in Heston’s “The Actor’s Life: Journals.” Heston was handed an incomplete script. Under normal conditions, the actor would have refused to read an unfinished screenplay, but Heston was so taken with the fragment that he immediately expressed interest in taking on the role of the aging, illiterate cowboy Will Penny. Heston was then informed that the writer, Tom Gries, was insistent on directing. When Heston inquired on Gries’ directing experience, he found it consisted of “a couple of television programs.” Heston put up a mild protest, but quickly changed his mind upon learning that Gries’ demand was unconditional. While it is fortunate that Heston compromised in what turned out to be one of his best and most underrated roles, his skepticism about Gries’ lack of experience had some validity.

Will Penny one sheet

The central performances and an intelligent, sensitive script are the strengths of Will Penny; however, Gries’ television-like visual direction and an embarrassingly melodramatic performance from Donald Pleasance are noticeable flaws. As excellent as Heston’s work is here, Joan Hackett is even better. She imbues her part with an unglamorous freshness (Heston amusingly related that several actresses turned down the role upon reading the description of Catherine as plain). Heston later counted Hackett as the best of his leading ladies, and for good reason.

Joan Hackett Will Penny

Will Penny is not a Wyatt Earp type. He does not bravely face down the enemy to clean up a corrupt town. Rather, he is a fifty-year-old cowhand who works with cattle. It’s all he knows. He doesn’t even know how to write his name. When he gets into a fight with a younger co-worker, Penny uses a frying pan “because I use my hands to work.” When a trail job ends, Penny finds himself traveling with a young Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe in hopes of finding work. Majors is a bit of a nonentity here, but Zerbe gives a very good performance as a recently transplanted, thickly accented European immigrant who awkwardly shoots himself and then milks every ounce of sympathy he can. Continue reading “WILL PENNY (1968)”

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.

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Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people. DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints. Continue reading “THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)”