Saturday, 10 April 2021

Reflections on ... Silhouette (1990)

Recently watched: made-for-TV “woman in peril” thriller Silhouette (1990). Tagline: “She Saw Too Much for Her Own Good.” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

Everyone’s favourite fearsome diva Faye Dunaway plays Samantha Kimball, a high-flying, elegant and shoulder-padded architect who becomes stranded in an isolated rural Texan hick town – and while there, observes a murder from her hotel room window! But no one believes her! (If Silhouette were made in the fifties, Samantha would totally be played by Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck). 

As far as schlock like this goes, Silhouette is made with a degree of flair and almost qualifies as “hicksploitation” (the sub-genre of exploitation / horror films where an urban sophisticate gets terrorized by hillbillies). Anyway, the camp high point is when La Dunaway visits the town’s redneck dive bar (partly to use the payphone – this was the era before mobile phones). She haughtily asks the bartender, “Can you make the perfect Rob Roy?” I love the look of incomprehension and contempt she gets back in response. 

But for Dunaway connoisseurs, Silhouette is enjoyable for how “meta” it is: intentionally or not, it keeps referring to other (better) Dunaway films. Like when she orders the Rob Roy, it reminds me of Dunaway in Chinatown (1974) ordering a Tom Collins with the terse instructions “with lime, not lemon, please.” When Dunaway tries to piece together the murder, it cuts between violent flashbacks and extreme close-ups of her anguished face, just like in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). When we’re first introduced to Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde (1967), we see her framed by her bedroom window and we constantly see Dunaway looking out her hotel room window here. And some of Dunaway’s distraught line deliveries here inevitably evoke Mommie Dearest (1981). 

In short: if you enjoy watching Faye Dunaway suffering extreme distress like only she can, Silhouette is the film for you!

Watch Silhouette on YouTube below.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Reflections on ... The Price of Fear (1956)

Recently watched: The Price of Fear (1956). Tagline: “Hour by hour the net of terror tightens!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).  

The direction is merely efficient. The acting is mostly stilted. The two stars are arguably past their prime. So why is this undistinguished film noir - an examination of cowardice, fatalism and the consequences of bad decisions - so diverting? Opening at a greyhound racing track at night, The Price of Fear concisely establishes a jittery, grubby ambiance. On the soundtrack, a narrator’s voice mansplains - I mean, sets the scene: “This dog track has nothing to do with the story. But without it there wouldn’t be any story. Because a racketeer’s desire to get control of it set forces in motion that caused a man and a woman who’d never met and were not likely ever to meet to converge on each other like an express train – and with the same result.” 

The man is David Barrett (Lex Barker). “Half owner of the track. Honest. Altogether a decent guy.” His business partner Lou Belden, though, is less scrupulous – and is in cahoots with local gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), who’s keen to muscle in on their action.  Unwisely, Barrett publicly threatens Belden (“So help me, if I ever lay eyes on you again, I’ll kill you!”) in a restaurant crowded with witnesses. (Conveniently, all conversation hushes just before he says this). When Belden gets murdered that same night, the innocent Barrett inevitably finds himself under suspicion and goes on the run. But things are about to get even worse! 

The woman is Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon). “A lovely businesswoman. Desirable. Successful. Above reproach.” We see her glamorously departing a ritzy cocktail lounge in formal attire complete with one of those fox stoles with the heads still attached. “She has devoted her life to her work and the greatest success of her career is within her reach. And tonight, she is celebrating.” Celebrating? Jessica is frankly inebriated when she climbs into her convertible, and within no time she’s involved in a hit and run incident! Panicking, she speeds away from the scene before checking whether her victim – an elderly man walking his dog – is dead or alive.   

Guilt-stricken, Jessica begins to anonymously report the accident by payphone. But while she’s in the phone booth, Barrrett jumps out of a taxicab and “borrows” her convertible to evade Edare’s henchmen on his tail. Seizing this stroke of luck, Jessica instead reports her car as stolen. So now in addition to being wanted for murder, Barrett looks like he killed the pedestrian, too. And Jessica’s story suddenly overlaps with the world of low-life organized crime. Now being blackmailed by opportunistic sleazebag Edare, the desperate Jessica initially tries to frame Barrett for the hit and run – but they end up falling in love! This can’t end well … 

I have a perverse affection for the performances of the two leads, both then experiencing professional downturns. A cleft-chinned Adonis, popular fifties male starlet Lex Barker - veteran of five Tarzan films and former Mr Lana Turner - is a stolid, brawny presence as Barrett. Sure, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford had considerably greater “acting chops” than Merle Oberon and either could have convincingly played the part of Jessica in their sleep.  And yet I’d argue Oberon - frosty and ill at ease throughout - is perfect as an elegant woman out of her depth and striving to maintain a patrician ladylike demeanor. (Plus - not possessing the hard veneer of a Crawford or Stanwyck - she brings greater fragility). Oberon herself seems tangibly uncomfortable onscreen appearing in this tawdry b-movie, which fits the character’s predicament: Jessica - with her posh accent and prim little white gloves - is tangibly uncomfortable in the milieu of violence, crime and gangsters. Oberon also adds to the film’s camp appeal. Jessica is a high-flying and affluent businesswoman. How do we know this? She snaps things like, “I know that merger is not going to happen! But the time to sell is just before it doesn’t happen!” on the telephone. Her office door is emblazoned “Jessica Warren: Investment Counselor”. And what an office! Absurdly swanky and chic, with sprays of flowers, exposed brick and a kidney-shaped desk. Is Jessica duplicitous? A victim? Either way, watching her suffer indignities is a blast.

In retrospect, The Price of Fear foreshadows multiple endings. The Hollywood careers of its two stars subsequently fell off a cliff. Decamping to Europe, the surprisingly durable Barker would triumphantly reinvent himself in Italian sword-and-sandal epics and Euro-spy films (and even appeared in Fellini’s 1960 arthouse masterpiece La Dolce Vita).  Aged 45, Oberon retired from the screen after The Price of Fear for seven years to luxuriate as the jet-setting socialite trophy wife of an Italian millionaire before unexpectedly returning in the berserk 1963 melodrama Of Love and Desire. And by the mid-fifties, the entire film noir genre was grinding to a halt. Perhaps it was The Price of Fear that killed it for good?

Watch The Price of Fear below.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Reflections on ... Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas (1973)

This unexpectedly downbeat hour-long cinema verité-style Swedish film (made in 1973 but shelved until 1975) documents pop duo Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s residency at The Riviera Hotel. It instantly entranced me with its opening travelogue footage of early seventies Las Vegas in all its garish splendor. Filmed from a car window, we pass Vegas Vic the iconic neon cowboy followed by tantalizing peeks at the old-school mid-century casinos (mostly now long demolished): The Golden Nugget. The Sands. Caesars Palace. The Mint. Judging by one billboard, Sinatra’s friend and former leading man Elvis Presley is also in town, starring at the Las Vegas Hilton. But the tone is surprisingly wistful and suffused with melancholy from the start. One of the first things you hear is Sinatra’s voice complaining, “I wanna go home. I wanna go home to LA.” 

Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas is ultimately a contemplation on the cruel whims of show business, capturing Sinatra and Hazlewood on a downturn. With their heady hit-making days of the mid-sixties (heralded by the tough, sassy “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” in 1965) behind them, they are now considered passé and obligated to hustle as a nostalgia act. (Sinatra has recalled perceptively and without bitterness in the past about how in the late sixties, youth culture tastes shifted towards a preference for “serious” rock bands, making go-go booted girl singers in general and Sinatra’s brand of kitschy pop instantly obsolete. Alongside the disparate likes of Bobbie Gentry, Serge Gainsbourg and Yma Sumac, Hazlewood and Sinatra were among the acts rehabilitated in the nineties “loungecore” movement when their back catalogue was reissued on CD. They’ve been a hip reference point ever since). 

Their names may be displayed in lights and they’re headlining at the glittering high-end Riviera, but the film doesn’t make a Las Vegas residency appear glamorous. Nor is it particularly lucrative. Choreographer Hugh Lambert (Sinatra’s handsome and supportive husband, who is producing and directing her Riviera revue) confides that - initially at least - mounting the whole enterprise is so expensive it’s a money-losing venture for them. (The implication is that performing in Vegas will put Sinatra back on the map). Even Sinatra’s two bodyguards admit they are being paid peanuts for this gig. 

The focus shuttles between performance footage and backstage scenes of the musicians and entourage relaxing pre-and post-show in Sinatra’s ritzy green-and-white dressing room. They kvetch over cigarettes and beer about the indifferent audiences who talk over the songs, hostile reviews and The Riviera’s jaded and uninspired house band.  Sinatra’s between song patter onstage is surprisingly negative. She delivers a diatribe about how when she first began recording in the early sixties, people sniped that her surname bestowed her with an unfair advantage and guaranteed success. But all of her pre-“Boots” singles flopped, she snaps, so clearly it was the songs that mattered, not her family connections. Then she recalls how collaborating with songwriter and producer Lee Hazlewood changed her fortunes, resulting in a string of hits - except then he “abandoned” her to relocate to Sweden. Following that introduction, Hazlewood joins her for some duets. For connoisseurs of Lee and Nancy’s sublime “country exotica” oeuvre, these performances, including “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, “Did You Ever?” “Summer Wine”, “Jackson” and “Arkansas Coal” (so hushed and dramatic it’s almost performance art) offer the documentary’s highlights.   

“Psychedelic cowboy” Hazlewood gets a solo spot during the set (presumably while Sinatra changes costumes). Clad in double denim leisure wear, Hazlewood somehow looks even more seedy sans his trademark retro porn star ‘tache. His strange charisma is nicely captured as he croons a finger snappin’ rendition of the jazz standard “She’s Funny That Way.” At the end he ad libs “She’s kinda squirrelly that way. She’s kinda goofy that way. She’s kinda Nancy that way …” Sinatra herself is diminutive and doll-like. Backstage, she seems exhausted. Onstage, she’s luminous. At one point, we watch Sinatra seated before her dressing room mirror dreamily teasing and then meticulously smoothing her mane of golden hair. Nancy Sinatra was never more beautiful.

/ This candid shot of Sinatra chilling with "gal pals" Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn was clearly taken in the same Riviera dressing room /

Watch Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas here.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Reflections on ... Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

/ Alain Delon and Annie Girardot in Rocco and His Brothers (1960) /

Recently watched: Italian art cinema virtuoso Luchino Visconti’s ambitious epic (177-minute!) tragedy Rocco and His Brothers (1960). In his review, critic Roger Ebert summarizes Rocco and His Brothers as “operatic” and “homoerotic” – both descriptions are apt! What greater recommendation is there? 

Led by widowed matriarch Rosaria, the Parondi family relocates from grinding poverty in the rural south to urban industrialized north (in this case, Milano) in search of better prospects. Instead, all they find is relentless catastrophe. And the options for the brothers seem limited to boxing or crime. 

Like his contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, Visconti had a superior “queer eye” when it came to casting handsome male actors. All five Parondi brothers are stone cold stunners – particularly beauteous young Alain Delon as Rocco. (We get ample opportunity to ogle the brothers wearing the de rigueur Italian neo-realism white “wife beater” vests, sparring in the boxing ring and showering). In terms of homoeroticism: also note the corrupt boxing promoter and how he is coded as vaguely sexually predatory (especially the scene where he walks into the gym’s changing room and stares frankly at Simone and Rocco as they shower. Although I can’t say I blame him). 

/ The memorable shower sequence in Rocco and His Brothers /

But arguably, the film is dominated by Annie Girardot as local prostitute Nadia, the Parondis’ new neighbour. Encountering the glamorous, sensual and insouciant Nadia throws a hand grenade into the family’s life, with both deeply flawed Simone (Renato Salvatori – magnificent in this complex and demanding anti-hero role) and Rocco falling hopelessly in love with her. Inevitably, heartbreak and death ensue. (As someone laments towards the end, “Christ will regret the suffering visited upon us!”). 

 / Annie Girardot and Renato Salvatori as the doomed couple in Rocco and His Brothers /

Perhaps understandably, Rosaria is prone to glancing skyward despairingly and calling Nadia a “putana.” (This archetypal black-clad Italian peasant mamma is actually played by volatile Greek actress Katina Paxinou. And Delon and Girardot are, of course, French actors playing Italian characters – and dubbed by Italian voices. Watch also for gorgeous young starlet Claudia Cardinale in a supporting role). I’m embarrassed to admit I wasn’t very au fait with Annie Girardot (1931 - 2011) beforehand but judging by her heart-wrenching performance here she was every bit the equal of other iconic European art cinema actresses like Jeanne Moreau, Anna Magnani and Monica Vitti. Time hasn’t blunted the impact of Rocco and His Brothers.

Sunday, 7 March 2021

The Lobotomy Room Test Kitchen ... Ann-Margret's Cookies


Ann-Margret is many things. A consummate entertainer. A “triple threat” (actress, singer and dancer). A sex kitten par excellence. An enthusiast of sequins. One thing she most definitely ain’t: a reliable recipe source. I attempted to make the redheaded vixen’s seemingly straightforward cookie recipe – and let’s just say it turned into a total hot mess!

My learnings: I bought North American style measuring cups rather than Googling the equivalent of every ingredient in grams. From my research: if you see the term “shortening” in an American recipe, replace with butter.  Granulated sugar and caster sugar are the same thing. “Chocolate morsels” and chocolate chips are also the same thing, and a 12-ounce package of chocolate chips (American) is pretty much the same as a 100-gram package (UK). Morrisons (my local grocery store of choice) didn’t have chopped pecans in stock, so I replaced them with a packet of chopped mixed nuts. 

I followed Ann-Margret’s instructions to the letter and carefully dolloped-out small “rounded teaspoon fulls” of the cookie batter onto a foil-lined baking tray. So far, so good. They are meant to create 100 (!) 2-inch cookies. I manged about 28 teaspoon-sized dollops onto the baking tray, so resolved to bake them in batches. But once in the oven, my cookies instantly swelled and “spread-out”, ultimately forming one giant mass and after 15-minutes (considerably longer than A-M instructs), they were still squidgy and under-cooked! (But smelled amazing). So, I left them in for a further 15-minutes until they were firmer and more of a golden-brown shade. Once it cooled I wound-up cutting this wodge of solid cookie into irregular “squares.” I mean, they taste like intensely sweet and delicious chocolate chip cookies (of course they’re delicious: their primary ingredients are butter and sugar) but they don’t look remotely like what I was expecting.  Same thing happened with the second batch. When I was scraping-out the last of the batter from the mixing bowl, the “cookie dots” became smaller – and those final cookies didn’t spread-out and flatten but remained individual circles. So that was the solution – take that “rounded teaspoon” of batter and reduce by half! 

In conclusion: little kids can make chocolate chip cookies. I’m a middle-aged experienced cook and I botched these. File under: never again!

Further reading

My recollections of seeing Ann-Margret perform at The Stardust casino in Las Vegas in 2005.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Reflections on ... Inconceivable (2017)


Recently watched: Inconceivable (2017). Tagline: “The perfect family. Perfect friends. A perfect surrogate”. I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube and Amazon Prime for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).

This amusingly preposterous low-budget pregnancy-themed melodrama stars Nicolas Cage, Gina Showgirls Gershon and veteran scary diva par excellence Faye Dunaway. I know what you’re thinking - what a cast! Except it could have been even better! One of the lead roles (manipulative villainess Katie) was originally conceived for messy Hollywood bad girl Lindsay Lohan! (The studio demurred and Nicky Whelan, a nondescript Australian soap opera actress, played the part instead). With Lohan starring, Inconceivable would probably be embraced today as a minor modern cult favourite like Lohan’s I Know Who Killed Me (2007) rather than wholly forgotten. 

Anyway, Inconceivable cleaves very faithfully to the well-trodden conventions of eighties and nineties psycho-biddy psychological thrillers like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Single White Female (or in fact, The Temp which starred Dunaway herself!), but with the generic made-for-TV appearance of a Hallmark or Lifetime production. Cage and Gershon are Brian and Angela, an affluent middle-aged married couple who seemingly have it all – but struggle with infertility problems and crave another baby. They are susceptible, then, when seemingly innocent mysterious young single mother (and potential surrogate) Katie insinuates herself into their household. The only person suspicious of Katie’s intentions is Dunaway as Brian’s patrician mother. 

Points of interest: Nicolas Cage's ink-y jet black dye job gives him that that aging male Goth look suggestive of late-period Nick Cave or Marilyn Manson. And his indifferent performance couldn’t be more “phoned-in.” Gershon does most of the heavy lifting in terms of acting and at least tries to muster some identifiable human emotions. Obviously, the mere presence of the imperious La Dunaway adds instant camp appeal to any film she appears in. She apparently broke her leg just before production, so the director compensates by only filming Dunaway sitting down. You never see her standing or walking at any point. Somehow this immobility contributes to Dunaway’s stateliness. In the spirit of chivalry, I won't comment on Dunaway’s plastic surgery choices, but the huge equine veneers on her teeth do make her slur and lisp her lines. 

Fun facts: Inconceivable was filmed at the breakneck speed of just fifteen days and was scripted by Zoe King – the daughter of trash auteur Zalmon King, responsible for 1980s softcore faux-erotica like Wild Orchid (1989) starring Mickey Rourke. Inconceivable represented filmmaker Jonathan Baker’s directorial debut – and perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s never been entrusted with making a follow-up since. A nice example of Baker’s judgement: in an act of vanity, he made the executive decision to cast himself in a supporting role. Baker’s grandiose IMDb profile begins “Jonathan Baker has always been enthralled by smart storytelling and larger-than-life figures, taking inspiration from greats like Ernest Hemingway to guide his own sensibilities as a writer, producer, director and adventurer.” One of his personal quotes claims “I can wave my hand and make the impossible happen.” As the damning Hollywood Reporter review concludes: “the aptly titled Inconceivable is something that both Nicolas Cage and Faye Dunaway will want to leave off their filmographies, and at this point that’s saying something.” Inconceivable is FREE to view on Amazon Prime – as it should be!

Monday, 22 February 2021

Reflections on ... Of Love and Desire (1963)


Recently watched: Of Love and Desire (1963). Tagline: “If you are an adult in every sense of the word, you will probably understand about Katherine and Paul – and why there were so many men in her life!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).  

When smolderingly handsome American civil engineer Steve Corey (Steve Cochran) lands his private plane in Mexico City to work for the mine owned by wealthy industrialist Paul Beckman (Curd Jurgens) and his half-sister Katherine (Merle Oberon), Bill Maxton - the man Corey is replacing - is quick to tip him off about Katherine. "All you have to do is touch her! She goes off like fireworks!” he leers. “There were plenty of guys before me - and there'll be plenty after me." After encountering her at a chichi cocktail party (complete with a mariachi band and female guests all wearing bouffant Jacqueline Kennedy-style helmet hair), Corey is indeed sucked into Katherine’s voracious sexual web. Maybe it’s the dramatic way she descends the staircase, or how she inscrutably murmurs, “I may look like champagne – but deep down I’m scotch and soda.” Their first date, though, is cataclysmic. When it comes for the goodnight kiss, Katherine lunges at Corey’s mouth, pawing him while hungrily gasping, “Please! Please!” then takes offence at his startled response. “Did I give in too fast for you?” she demands. “Didn’t I play the game right? I didn’t set the stage right, did I? I should have turned off the lights! Put on soft music! I should have pretended longer, but just how much longer? One hour? Two?! Just what do you need to make you feel like I’m a conquest?!” 

Despite Katherine’s whiplash mood swings, transparent neediness and “scarlet” past, gallant Corey is no slut shamer and finds himself genuinely falling in love with this troubled temptress. “I like you,” he assures. “I think you deserve to be treated like a woman.” (Is Katherine glamorously neurotic? Neurotically glamorous? You be the judge!). The sun rises and church bells toll as they make love for the first time. But what’s the deal with Katherine and Paul’s oddball relationship? At the party, Paul had leaned-in and sniffed Katherine’s perfume, inquiring, “Black orchid?” in a most unbrotherly gesture. And why is he taking such an unhealthy interest in Corey and Katherine’s burgeoning romance? 

Today Merle Oberon is best remembered for portraying Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) and for her secretive origins (during her lifetime the Bombay-born Anglo-Asian Oberon concealed her biracial identity, allegedly passing-off her sari-clad mother as her maid). In the thirties and forties Merle Oberon had been hailed as one of golden age Hollywood’s great beauties. By the early sixties, movie offers had sputtered to a halt (she hadn’t made a film since 1956) and she was residing in Mexico as a jet-setting socialite with her Italian millionaire husband.  Perhaps surprisingly, Oberon decided to resume her film career aged 53 and the result was this bizarre comeback vehicle / vanity project.  Of Love and Desire is a candy-hued, lushly appointed melodrama in a similar vein to the deluxe soap operas that producer Ross Hunter was then concocting for aging screen divas like Lana Turner and Susan Hayward. Sammy Davis Jr croons the bossa nova-tinged opening theme tune over the opening credits of lush tropical flowers. The travelogue-style footage of mid-century Mexico is gorgeous. All the key players are well into in their late forties or fifties. Oberon’s close-ups twinkle with flattering Vaseline and gauze, she sports a fabulous wardrobe (including – memorably – a bikini) and she may well be wearing her own jewelry collection. Many of the interior scenes were reportedly filmed in in Oberon’s own sumptuous Mexican hacienda. 

But what’s most unique about Of Love and Desire is its prurient focus on incestuous attraction and the agony of nymphomania. This was the era when popular culture was titillated by “oversexed women”, treating the topic as both a genuine psychological condition and an alarming social issue. In her romantic lead heyday Oberon’s roles were mainly decorative and ladylike. While her tremulous performance here isn’t “good” by most standards, there’s something undeniably gutsy about how Oberon commits to the messy, sexually insatiable Katherine. It helps that she’s partnered with rugged film noir tough guy Steve Cochran. Who couldn’t be “oversexed” near Cochran’s pheromones? A 46-year-old DILF here, Cochran is a soupçon beefier and fuller-faced than he was in the forties and fifties, but his allure is most definitely undimmed (and we get to see him in revealing swimming trunks). 

Anyway, for enthusiasts of camp Of Love and Desire teems with moments to treasure. Prepare for overwrought dialogue like, “Oh, darling! I wish I were as young as you make me feel!” Corey had commented of Katherine’s long opulent upswept beehive coiffure (clearly a wiglet): “I can’t run my fingers through it …” In response, Katherine spontaneously instructs a barber to lop it off into a perkily youthful shorter ‘do (a makeover sequence shamelessly swiped from the Audrey Hepburn film Roman Holiday). “Now you can run your fingers through my hair any time you want!” she simpers. Watch for a bathtub sequence in which Oberon daringly reveals a surprising amount of tanned naked flesh. Best of all, in a climactic moment, Katherine is overcome by self-loathing and has a psychological freak-out while in public. Running through the street and then a hotel lobby, she is horrified that everywhere she looks there are MEN ogling and approaching her (and they’re saying things like “Hey, lady!” “Is something wrong?” and “Que pasa?”). Hilariously, it culminates with Katherine becoming trapped in a revolving door. In closing: extramarital sex and female desire lead to nothing but heartache, but don’t judge nymphomaniacs – they have their reasons.

Watch Of Love and Desire here.

Further reading:

Stunningly ageist and misogynistic contemporary review of Of Love and Desire in the New York Times.

Amusing analysis (with some great pics) in the reliably great Poiseidon's Underworld blog.