Brando doc on Showtime this Saturday!

Listen to Me Marlon-posterI had emergency gallbladder surgery a little over three weeks ago, which kind of slowed me down a bit. At least I’m able to blame this latest lapse on something other than procrastination. I’m just now getting back to working on a post for this blog, my first since October 2. I’ve started writing short takes on the films I saw last week, but we’re leaving tomorrow on a five-day trip to Minneapolis, and that won’t get finished until we return. Though earlier today I opened the new issue of The New Yorker to see an announcement that Listen to Me Marlon, a great documentary about Marlon Brando, will be aired on Showtime this Saturday, November 14, at 9:00 pm. I wanted to get the word out, so I’m knocking this out quickly. You’ve got to see this amazing film, if you haven’t already. It takes us inside Brando’s life and thought in a completely unique way. It’s a must-see.

Last July I wrote about the film in a post titled Listening to Marlon — Beyond the Screen, which can be accessed here. – Ted Hicks

Brando & catBrando-Streetcar




Brando & son



Brando-Last Tango


Brando & daughter

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“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – As Good as It Gets

Last week the New York Film Festival held a 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which I hadn’t seen it since its initial release. I remember liking it, but it didn’t get to me the way Blood Simple (1984) or Fargo (1996) had. But when I saw it listed on this year’s NYFF schedule, I was interested, especially since the Coen brothers and unspecified cast members were slated to be at the screening.

Films on the main slate of the NYFF are held at Alice Tully Hall, where seating is reserved. My seat was centrally located in the second row, which is a bit closer than I usually prefer. At this distance, it initially feels like the movie screen might fall on top of you, but the eye and mind tend to adjust pretty quickly. And as it turned out, I was glad to be this close to the stage. Before O Brother began, Kent Jones, director of the NYFF, introduced the Coens, who in turn brought out the film’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and actors John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and finally George Clooney himself. This was quite a rush, and had me hot-wired for the film itself.

I was amazed by how much I enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou? this time around. I thought it was great, especially when compared to most of what’s in theaters these days. Of course, knowing that the filmmakers were in attendance might have made me more disposed to like it, but I don’t think so. The Coens have a wonderfully off-kilter way of looking at things, and this film is no exception. Loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and relates the surreal adventures of three convicts who escaped from a chain gang. The three are Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), a hapless and somewhat dimwitted trio chained together at the ankles. The ostensible reason for their escape is to recover a cache of money Ulysses claims he took when he knocked off an armored car.

O Brother Where Art Thou-trioO Brother Where Art Thou-Trio2The following clip will give you an idea of their collective skill set.

The entire cast is excellent, and most have been in other Coen films. John Turturro had already been in three: Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Big Lebowski (1998). Tim Blake Nelson had been in films and television since 1992, but this was his first starring role, as well as his first Coen film, and he killed it. O Brother was also George Clooney’s first film with the Coens, followed by Intolerable Cruelty (2003); Burn After Reading (2008); and the upcoming Hail, Caesar! (2016).

John Goodman previously was in Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski. Here he plays”Big Dan” Teague, a one-eyed Bible salesman who mugs Ulysses and later turns up under a hood at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Holly Hunter, who was also in Raising Arizona, plays Ulysses’ ex-wife Penny. Returning to her and his children is the real reason for Ulysses’ escape. Charles Durning especially shines as Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the incumbent governor of Mississippi, who’s running for another term. His dance on stage near the end of the film is a joy.

Charles Durning

Charles Durning

In addition to references and parallels to The Odyssey — many of which I probably didn’t get — O Brother Where Art Thou? brings in two storylines that add a lot to the texture of the film. Chris Thomas King, a real-life blues musician, plays Tommy Johnson, first seen wearing a natty suit and carrying a guitar. After our heroes pick him up at a country crossroads and give him a ride, Tommy proceeds to tell them he sold his soul to the devil in order to be a great guitar player. This immediately evokes the real-life Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul at such a crossroads. Tommy becomes a fourth member of the travelers. At another point, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar encounter George “Baby Face” Nelson just after he’s robbed a bank. Nelson is played with unrestrained exuberance by Michael Badalucco. In brief notes I made when I first saw O Brother in 2000, I’d written “There’s a great moment when a cow gets hit by a speeding police car.” You can see this after George gives the boys a lift in the following clip. I’d forgotten about this until I saw it again last week. It really has a punch.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? was filmed by Roger Deakins, a British cinematographer. If you don’t know his name, you certainly know his work. With the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Deakins has shot every Coen brothers film since Barton Fink in 1991 — eleven total including the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, to be released next year. In addition to Coen films, he’s been director of photography for many other films, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Skyfall (2012), and most recently, Sicario, currently in theaters. I was surprised to see how many there were.

For those who are interested, here’s an interview with Roger Deakins from Filmmaker magazine this past July.


O Brother, Where Art Thou? is filled with great period music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. He worked on the music selection with the Coens even before the script was completed, and the soundtrack was recorded before the start of filming. A subsequent album of the music won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. Musicians who contributed to the soundtrack, including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, and many others, went on a tour called Down from the Mountain, performing music from the film. A documentary of that title was made by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob.

Here is a clip of Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” near the end of the film. The brief dialogue has been dubbed into French, but this should not distract.


After the film ended, I was preparing to leave when I saw chairs being set up on stage in front of the screen. I hadn’t realized there would be a Q&A, but there was no way I was going to miss this. It was great. I was especially impressed with what a class act George Clooney is in person. He comes across as funny, quick, self-deprecating, smart, and genuinely a nice guy. I know he’s an actor, and he has a public persona, but it feels pretty authentic to me. It was a memorable night and I’m glad I was there. – Ted Hicks

In the photo below, left to right: Roger Deakins, George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Kent Jones (moderator)

O BrotherClooney,Turturro,Nelson

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is available for streaming or purchase from Amazon, and for rental from Netflix. I hope you’ll rediscover it, as I did.

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Coming Soon, or Already Here: Notes on Six Films

Creeping Garden-posterThe Creeping Garden – Directed by Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp. This documentary from the U.K. is about the wonders of slime mold. Who knew? The trailer, which grabbed me from the first time I saw it, promises something weird and alien, unknown but to a dedicated few; in other words, yet more proof that the world has more dimensions than I can even begin to imagine. This could be from a 1950s science fiction film. A few days ago, I watched Tarantula (1955), about a giant spider on the loose in the Arizona desert, and Them! (1954), about giant ants also on the loose. I have a feeling that actual slime mold will be just as bizarre. The Creeping Garden opens in New York at Film Forum on Wednesday, September 30 for a one-week run.

Taxi-poster2Taxi Directed by Jafar Panahi, the celebrated Iranian director whose films win awards but are usually banned in his native country. His films have put him in conflict with the Iran government for years, and in 2010 he was arrested and sentenced to a six-year prison term and a 20-year ban on making films. He was subsequently released under house arrest; he can travel freely in Iran, but can’t leave the country. None of this has kept Panahi from making films. In 2011, using a digital camcorder and an iPhone, shooting over a ten-day period inside his apartment, he made the extraordinary This Is Not a Film. Per a title at the end of the film, it was then smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival (The flash-drive-in-a-birthday-cake statement was widely believed to be true, but per an article by Rachel Donadio in the September 27 New York Times, Panahi’s friends now say this was a joke and that the film was sent to Cannes by other means. If so, too bad, because it makes a great story). Panahi followed up This Is Not a Film with the equally amazing Closed Curtain (2013). Like the previous two, Taxi is a dislocating combination of documentary and fiction. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, was staged and what wasn’t; but it doesn’t really matter. In any event, Taxi received the top prize, the Golden Bear, at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The film takes place entirely inside a taxi, which Panahi drives around Tehran, having conversations with people he picks up. This setup recalls two films by another great Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami: Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002), both of which take place inside taxis. Taxi opens in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center on Friday, October 2.

In Jackson Heights is the 40th feature documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a  filmmaker whose importance cannot be overstated. This At Berkeley-posterNational Gallery-French posteris Wiseman’s third film in three years from, preceded by the four-hour At Berkeley in 2013, the three-hour National Gallery in 2014, and now In Jackson Heights, which clocks in at three hours, ten minutes. Substantial running times are necessary to Wiseman’s films, where we’re immersed in institutions and communities. He’s interested in seeing how things work, without voice-over commentary, interviews, on-screen titles, or judgement. Wiseman just puts us there and let’s us see for ourselves. In Jackson Heights is set in a Queens, New York, neighborhood of incredible diversity where 167 languages are spoken. Here is a description from Film Forum’s calendar and website:

Frederick Wiseman-photo“In the course of his brilliant, nearly half-century career, Frederick Wiseman has tackled both great social institutions (a prison for the criminally insane, high school, military, police, juvenile court, the welfare system) and cultural ones (La Comédie Franҫaise, the Paris Opéra Ballet, American Ballet Theater, London’s National Gallery). Here he profiles a community, Jackson Heights, one of New York’s most diverse neighborhoods, with immigrants from Peru, Colombia, Mexico, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (167 languages are spoken) — as well as elderly residents of Jewish, Irish and Italian extraction. Under the elevated train, a hodge-podge of stores sell whole baby goats, saris, and Bollywood DVDs; they offer HIV testing, Tibetan food, and classes for would-be cabbies. Jackson Heights is home to an activist LGBT community, to recent survivors of terrifying border crossings, students of the Quran, and small shop-owners who mobilize against the Williamsburg-ization of the nabe. Wiseman embraces a community that revels in still being affordable, 20 minutes from ‘the city,’ and resolutely unhip.”

In Jackson Heights will be shown at the New York Film Festival on October 4, and begins a two-week run at Film Forum on November 4.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead – Directed byDouglas Tirola. This documentary about the surreal rise and fall of National Lampoon is fascinating. Like me, if you’re old enough to have read the magazine as it was being published, this film will resonate. The main title sequence, punched up by David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” on the sound track, is a dense montage of covers and inside pages. It’s a killer. The rest of the film never quite matches the energy of this opening, but it’s incredibly entertaining and informative, with lots of interviews and great visuals. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead opened on September 25 at the IFC Center in New York.

The Forbidden Room, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, is completely insane — and I think that’s a conservative estimate. The film drove me crazy while I was watching it, and I remember thinking I’d never want to see it again. But it’s stayed with me. The Forbidden Room is some kind of demented epic. And that’s a good thing. It’s like a dozen narratives in a salad spinner that never stops. Stories spin off of stories and back again, then off again, on and on. We’re never any one place for long. At times it looks like an old silent film with degraded images and suddenly melting frames; or it feels like a 1930s serial, or a Krazy Kat cartoon, or every Monty Python episode mashed together with experimental cinema of the 1960s. Everything is heightened, everything is filtered, nothing is real. Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, and Mathieu Amalric are among the many actors who turn up in these multiple realities. The Forbidden Room is a unique experience. It’s also very funny.

The Forbidden Room

The Forbidden Room

The first Guy Maddin film I saw was Careful in 1992. I knew right away it was something very different, though compared to The Forbidden Room, it’s a model of narrative cohesion. Careful takes place in the 1880s in an Alpine village that’s under constant threat of sudden avalanches. So delicate is the balance that everyone has to whisper and not make any noise, which is very funny given the extreme melodrama of the story line. Maddin has an unusual sensibility, and his films have a home-made quality that’s probably not easy to achieve. The Forbidden is being shown at the New York Film Festival and begins a two-week run at Film Forum on October 7.

Mississippi Grind is the fourth feature written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. I haven’t seen their third film, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010), but the first two, Half Nelson (2006) and Sugar (2008), are great. In Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling plays a history teacher and girls basketball coach at a Brooklyn high school in who also has a drug problem. This is the first time I’d seen Gosling, and he really got my attention.  In Sugar, a young Dominican baseball player gets signed by a pro baseball team in the States and sent to a farm team in Iowa. In these films, and now in Mississippi Grind; nothing is forced, the narratives proceed at a relaxed, unhurried pace, filled with incidents more than plot points. Everything feels very natural.

Mississippi Grind-posterIn Mississippi Grind (great title), Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) meet at a poker game in Dubuque, Iowa. Gerry practically has “loser” stamped on his forehead, but Curtis seems like he might be more together. They obviously enjoy each other’s company, and ultimately hook up for a road trip to New Orleans, where a high-stakes poker game awaits. Ben Mendelsohn was amazing in the Netflix series Bloodline, and he’s terrific here, as is Ryan Reynolds. Plus the soundtrack is filled with excellent blues music. Mississippi Grind is currently showing in theaters, and will also be available for streaming from iTunes on October 13. It will be released on home video on December 1. Don’t miss this one. – Ted Hicks


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“Black Mass” & “Sicario” – Heavy Metal

Black Mass-posterSicario-poster6Last Friday I saw Black Mass and Sicario at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex here in New York. I don’t necessarily recommend seeing two films back-to-back, especially on four hours’ sleep, but they’d just opened that day and I was really anxious to see them. As it turned out, I stayed wide awake through both, despite the lack of sleep. These films come on strong, with a level of tension throughout and a threat of violence at any moment that definitely got my attention. I feel like I should get combat pay for seeing them both together. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Black Mass,  Johnny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of the Winter Hill Gang in South Boston in the mid-1970s. Besides being a dead-eyed killer, Bulger was also an FBI informant in exchange for being allowed to conduct his criminal activities unimpeded. This character is unlike any other I’ve seen Depp portray before. It’s the kind of change-up that gets attention, and is being called a return to form for Depp, whose recent films haven’t done so well. Though he didn’t noticably gain weight or rely on prosthetics — other than a skull cap (or actual shaved head) that renders him practically bald on top — the change in his appearance is extreme, but I suspect this has as much to do with performance as it does with makeup. Depp’s Whitey Bulger is a tightly wrapped, sociopathic reptile, and there’s nothing remotely charming about him. Everything he says or does is threatening in one way or another.

Black Mass-Johnny Depp3Whitey Bulger is the kind of flashy role that can result in award nominations, but Joel Edgerton’s performance as John Connelly, the FBI agent who makes a deal with Bulger and becomes complicit in his crimes, is just as strong (Edgerton also wrote, directed, and stars in The Gift, a deeply unsettling thriller released earlier this year). Connelly was raised in South Boston and was boyhood friends with Bulger and his younger brother, William, a Boston senator, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a role I wish had been developed more.

Black Mass is on a larger scale than director Scott Cooper’s previous films, which include the terrific Crazy Heart (2009), with Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-winning performance, and the less successful Out of the Furnace (2013). Here he has a large cast of excellent actors, including Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemmons (from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad), Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochran, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, and Sienna Miller. This is a film in which even the smallest parts feel totally authentic. Black Mass plays at times like a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981). The gangster life of Bulger and his cohorts echoes Goodfellas, while scenes of FBI agents screaming at each other or falling apart as their misdeeds become known feels like Prince of the City. That’s not a criticism. These are good films to share DNA with; and besides, Black Mass is its own thing.


Sicario-poster5At the end of the day, Sicario is the film I’d want to see again. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies – 2010 and Prisoners – 2013), with stellar cinematography by Roger Deakins, it feels less familiar than Black Mass, even though plenty of films and TV shows have dealt with drug traffic across the U.S./Mexico border — most notably Steven Soderbergh’s epic Traffic (2000). The three leads here are very strong. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a somewhat idealistic FBI agent; Josh Brolin is Matt Graver, who recruits Kate for his team, though his official affiliation (CIA?) and mission are hazy at best; Benicio Del Toro is Alejandro, and who knows what the hell he is, except maybe the dark heart of the story. Ostensibly, they’re after the head of a particularly vicious drug cartel, but Kate is given virtually no information at the outset, and we go right in with her. Most of the film is seen from Kate’s point of view, though there are some significant exceptions.

One of the strengths of Sicario is its music, which is by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The degree to which it affects the mood and tone, and creates an ominous feeling that things can go violently sideways at any moment, can’t be overestimated. The music is often jagged, like a storm about to break. Here’s a clip of soundtrack samples from the film that give a good sense of this.

There’s always the threat of violence in both Black Mass and Sicario. When it comes, there’s nothing exciting or thrilling about it (okay, maybe a little); it’s mostly quick and ugly. The following scene on a bridge between Mexico and the United States shows how the film cranks up the tension and dread. The clip takes us to the edge, just before things blow up.

Sicario is not a feel-good movie. It paints as hopeless a picture of the “war on drugs” as you’re likely to see. Despite that, there’s a humanity beneath the surface, even in the midst of the most heartless actions. – Ted Hicks

Note: All of the films referenced, with the exceptions of Black Mass and Sicario, are available for streaming on Amazon and rental from Netflix. Joel Edgerton’s The Gift — which you really should see if you haven’t — will be released on home video this October 27.

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Listening to Marlon – Beyond the Screen

Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s astonishing new film about Marlon Brando, is unlike any documentary I’ve ever seen. During his lifetime, Brando recorded his thoughts about life and work and the world he lived in on hundreds of audio cassettes. Approximately 300 hours of material were made available to British filmmaker Stevan Riley to use in the production of this film. In an overwhelming display of inspired organization, Listen to Me Marlon weaves an intricate tapestry of thought and feeling expressed through Brando’s words, backed up by films clips, archival footage, home movies, and stills that reflect and reinforce what we hear. The result is a kind of impressionistic, time-traveling, oral autobiography, and it will knock you out. Here’s the trailer:

I’ve attended three screenings so far, and each time I responded on a deeper level . It just gets better and better. I’ve been trying to figure this out, how it works for me, because I think it’s unusual. Listen to Me Marlon opened me up in a very emotional way, and tapped into my love of movies and my love for Brando, especially the ferocity of the younger Brando and the amazing power of his best films. Something so naked and beautiful comes out in this film it could break your heart.

The words we hear throughout the film are almost exclusively Brando’s, except for occasional clips of television newscasts and Marlon being interviewed by Dick Cavett and others. In a soothing, nearly hypnotic voice, we hear his thoughts on many topics, including his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, Native American rights, and, of course, acting. He’s incredibly articulate, often poetic, but also clear and direct. I was especially struck when he spoke of the struggle to preserve sanity and the sense of reality that is taken away by success. He speaks of his childhood in Nebraska with an abusive father and alcoholic mother, who he refers to as “the town drunk,” and how he “used to love the smell of liquor on her breath.” Brando loved his mother, but it’s profoundly sad when he begins a thought with “When what you are as a child is unwanted…” Bernardo Bertolucci pushed Brando to use these memories to help fuel his raw performance in Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Brando and his mother, 1932

Brando and his mother, 1932

Brando-smiling in checked shirtBrando-arms crossedMuch of Listen to Me Marlon is about his films and the art and craft of acting. He talks about how important it was for him to study under Stella Adler, a proponent of the Stanislavski “Method.” He says that when there are close-ups in film, your face becomes the stage. Brando’s first feature film was The Men (1950), in which he plays a soldier who becomes paraplegic due to a combat wound. We see footage of Brando with actual disabled soldiers, learning about their behavior and how they live. Even at this early stage of his film career, he went in deep. As he says, “You have to know your subject. You have to know your character.” He also says, “Everything you do, make it as real as you can,” and “Never let the audience know how it’s gonna come out.” I found the following sequence from Listen to Me Marlon to be incredibly moving and powerful.

At the beginning of the film, Brando tells us that he had his head digitized in the 1980s with scans containing every conceivable facial expression. He speculates that this will be the future of filmmaking, with no actual actors necessary. Stevan Riley was able to track down the digital files and use them to create an animated version of the 3D head, which was then synced to Brando’s voice as he delivers Shakespearean soliloquies and other musings. This holographic head becomes a truly ghostly presence drifting through the film, surreal and unsettling.

Brando ghost headAfter seeing Listen to Me Marlon for the third time, I needed more Brando, so I went home to watch On the Waterfront (1954) on an excellent Blu-ray disc from The Criterion Collection. I highly recommend this edition, since it looks and sounds superb, and has Criterion’s usual wide array of supplemental features. Here is a clip from that film, with Brando at full speed:

Listen to Me Marlon is being released by Showtime Documentary Films on July 29 at Film Forum here in New York, and on July 31 at the Landmark in Los Angeles, followed by a nationwide release through the summer and fall. It will air at a later date on Showtime’s cable channel, so there will be plenty of opportunities to see it. This is a unique piece of work, put together with uncommon skill and taste by the filmmakers. It’s a privileged look into the heart and mind of one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and a fine addition to his legacy.


Brando-Last Tango B&W2Film Forum will also be screening a series of ten Brando films from August 7 to August 11, including Viva Zapata! (1952), The Wild One (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Last Tango in Paris (1972). Here’s the full schedule.

Listen to Me Marlon was shown at the Film Society of New York’s annual New Directors/New Films series earlier this year. There was a Q&A with director Stevan Riley following the screening on March 27 at the Walter Reade Theater. I was at that screening and asked the first question, which concerned the digital head. Because there were no microphones in the audience, you don’t hear the questions, but moderator Marion Masone repeats them, and there’s not much dead air. Stevan Riley’s responses are very informative and really add a lot. Here is the Q&A.


Finally, when I was searching online for photographs I might use for this post, I was struck by this one of Brando before and after makeup was applied for his role in The Godfather (1972). It’s a jolt to realize he was only 48 when he played the aging Don Corleone. Of course, his performance was much more than makeup. Brando was uniquely gifted, both as an actor and as a man. Listen to Me Marlon makes that abundantly clear. — Ted Hicks

Brando-Godfather makeupMarlon Brando as Vito Corleone

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Supersonic Spy Planes & The House of a Thousand Curios

In October of 1966, I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force for four years to avoid being drafted into the Army for two. It may seem that I had a problem with math, but the Army could send you anywhere, such as Vietnam, a likely destination at that time. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to go there, if it came to that. Earlier that year, I’d received a notice to report for a physical in Des Moines, which I passed. I was still at the University of Iowa at the time, but was told by the army that since I hadn’t graduated after four years in a liberal arts program, I was no longer exempt from the draft, because people “normally” got a degree in that amount of time.

My dad, Milton Hicks (center), 1944

My dad, Milton Hicks (center), 1944

My dad had been in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator on a B-17 bomber, stationed in England. I remember watching a documentary television series called Air Power with him in 1956 and ’57. This connection made me lean more toward the Air Force than the other branches. Besides, by this time I’d spent several years in the film department at Iowa, and hoped to continue filmmaking in the military. Someone I’d known at Iowa had already enlisted and was shooting films for the Air Force at a base in Florida, so I knew it could be done. Then I found out from the recruiter in Iowa City that they had a delayed-enlistment program, which meant I could sign up, but not have to report for three months. This was perfect for someone like me; I could make this decision but not have to actually do anything about it until later.

I had six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. We were allowed to go into the city twice. The only things I remember were visiting the Alamo (of course), a trip to the zoo, and seeing Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. One day several weeks into basic, we were herded into a building to pick our “career field.” Available choices were written on a blackboard at the front of the room. As much as I searched, I didn’t see anything related to filmmaking. I finally went up to one of the NCOs in charge and asked him about this. He said there wasn’t anything open in film production that day. The closest was something called “Precision Photo Processing,” but he said I probably wouldn’t get that anyway. Well, in the end I did get it. After basic was over, I was sent to Lowry AFB in Denver for six months training in this field, which turned out to involve the processing and printing of aerial reconnaissance film. So I’d be working in a film laboratory situation. At least it had something to do with film, though not what I’d hoped for.

Professionals-poster4Blow Up-French poster The thing I liked best about being in Denver was that it was the first time I was in a big city environment with many more movie theaters than I’d had access to in Iowa. We could leave the base only on weekends, but I made the most of it. I vividly remember seeing The Professionals (with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster in top form), an incredibly entertaining and repeatable Western directed by Richard Brooks. Seeing John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix in Cinerama was pretty mind-blowing. I was also attending late-night underground cinema programs that showed films like Mike Kuchar’s epic Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965). But the big one was Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, released that December. I’d been anxiously awaiting this one. It did not disappoint, and I saw it several times during its run.

When training was complete, I received orders to go to Beale Air Force Base in Northern California, near a town called Marysville. After a short leave back in Iowa, I decided to travel by train on the California Zephyr, which went from Chicago to San Francisco. The Zephyr was operated jointly by several railway lines (this was before Amtrak). The main feature of this train was the dome cars, which provided amazing scenic views. I loved trains, though I hadn’t been on that many. I couldn’t afford a sleeper on this trip, so I had to go coach for the two or three days it took to get to Marysville, which was about eight miles from the base. The route went through Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. For someone who hadn’t traveled much, this was an amazing experience. Going through the Rockies out of Denver really peeled my eyes back. The vast expanses of desert in Utah and Nevada gave me a sense of the country I hadn’t had before. I didn’t sleep much, but it was worth it.

California Zephyr adAt one point, I got into a conversation with an older woman on the train. This was on the last leg of my trip, not far from Marysville. I was traveling in uniform, and she asked where I was going. When I told her, she shook her head and said that people in that town didn’t like servicemen. As you might imagine, this didn’t exactly make me feel better about what I had to look forward to. I didn’t talk to her much after that (and, as it turned out, she was wrong). At another point, I found a newspaper someone had left behind and read a review of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, which was just being released. The review made the album sound great – a musical milestone. I couldn’t wait to hear it, though it would be a while before I finally did. But just reading about it provided a vivid connection to my other life, which I was missing more and more.


Marysville CA postcardMarysville, California is located just east of Yuba City, directly across the Feather River. Yuba City gained a certain notoriety a few years later as the residence of Juan Corona, a Mexican serial killer who murdered 25 migrant farm workers in 1971 and buried them in shallow graves along the river. This was my first time in California. Beale would be my first base after basic and the additional training in Denver. It was a dry, dusty Sunday afternoon in June of 1967 when I got off the train. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but I didn’t have to report at the base until Monday, so I checked into a small hotel near the train station, which in retrospect makes me think of the hotel in El Paso where the final shootout takes place in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972). In the meantime, I was also thinking of what the woman on the train had said, which made me anxious that I might get beaten up by local toughs wielding pool cues. Needless to say, this did not happen.

Beale AFB main gate sign2The next day I signed in at Beale, which is about eight miles east of Marysville. After getting situated in a room in one of the barracks, I had a couple of days of in-processing. The only thing I remember about that was walking into the base education office and hearing the Doors’ “Light My Fire” playing on a radio, the long instrumental break from the album cut. I thought, well, this is interesting. It was 1967, remember. The counter-culture was getting to its feet, and there I was, in uniform.

SAGE buildingMy job was in a facility called the SAGE building, which was an acronym for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, whatever that meant. This was a virtually windowless concrete cube several stories high. I worked in a lab mixing photographic chemicals in huge tanks, and learning how to operate continuous processing machines that developed large rolls of classified reconnaissance film ranging from 35mm to 9 inches wide. Periodically, after higher ups had done whatever they did with the processed film, some of us would get assigned to “burn detail.” This required taking the rolls of film to a room in the bowels of the building and feeding them into large shredding machines. The tiny pieces that resulted were then put into bags that were sealed and taken to a landfill to be buried. Like I said, this stuff was classified.

Gathering of Eagles-posterI didn’t know it at the time, but a 1963 movie with Rock Hudson, A Gathering of Eagles, had been shot at Beale. It received poor reviews and didn’t do well at the box-office. The success the following year of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove suggested that audiences were ready for more critical — and hipper — material than the flag-waving in A Gathering of Eagles. 

SR-71A-photoI soon learned that, in addition to B-52 bombers and F-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers, Beale was also home to the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” which was the source of the recon film we were processing. This supersonic aircraft, designed for long-range reconnaissance, flew more than three times the speed of sound at an altitude of 80,000 feet. It was part of the 9th Strategic Recon Wing at Beale. The SR-71 was also called the “Batmobile,” for obvious reasons when you saw it. We weren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone off base, as if it wasn’t actually there. So I walked into a barbershop in Marysville one day and saw a framed color photo of the SR-71 on the wall. Everybody knew about it; it was the main attraction. You could certainly hear it miles away. I’ve never heard anything louder taking off. And I have to say, at the time it felt pretty cool to be even tangentially associated with an aircraft that seemed more like science fiction.

Chiseler's Inn, The House of a Thousand Curios MarysvilleBonnie & Clyde-posterThe barbershop I mentioned was directly connected to a bar called The Chiseler’s Inn (photo above), which had the tagline, “The House of a Thousand Curios.” It was filled with items like Winchester rifles, animal heads mounted on the walls, and jars containing two-headed goats and other freakish oddities. Per a reference I found, “This greasy spoon had everything from jackalopes to mannequins in the restrooms. You could visit many times and still find something new.” It was a great place to pass the time while waiting for a chair to open up in the barbershop next door. As I recall, the Chiseler’s Inn was down the street from the State Theater, where I saw Bonnie and Clyde that August. After the extended ambush at the end, I staggered out into the daylight, devastated and exhilarated.

I didn’t have a car, so to get into town I had to take a shuttle bus that ran between Beale and Marysville. From there I could catch a Greyhound to Sacramento, which was 40 miles south, or an express bus to San Francisco, three hours away. I usually went to San Francisco about twice a month (after we got paid), mainly to see movies and wander around the Haight-Ashbury district, which was in full psychedelic bloom at the time.  Sacramento seemed like it could be any city in the Midwest, while San Francisco was, well, San Francisco.

Bullitt-posterIt was a terrific city for movies. Seeing John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) at the Northpoint Theater stands out, as does D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967), which was the first time I heard someone say “fuck” in a movie. A strange thing happened when I saw Bullitt (1968) the following year. I’d already seen it in Sacramento, but the film had been shot entirely in San Francisco, and I felt like seeing it again the next time I was there. There’s a scene near the end between Steve McQueen as the title character and Robert Vaughn as an ambitious senator. In the print I saw in Sacramento, when Vaughn says, “Frank, we must all compromise,” there’s a cut to McQueen looking disgusted. In San Francisco, after Vaughn’s line, McQueen says, “Bullshit!” They’d cut this in Sacramento. It was startling, because you don’t expect a movie to change from one viewing to another (unless it’s a director’s cut on a DVD, which didn’t exist then).

Lonely Are the Brave-poster2In November ’68, I went to an event at the San Francisco International Film Festival where Kirk Douglas was receiving an award. I think Lonely Are the Brave (1962) had been shown earlier in the evening. Then Douglas entered, strode down the center aisle and vaulted onto the stage. It was a real moment. I hadn’t been around this kind of thing before.

During one of my trips to San Francisco in either 1967 or ’68, I was approached on a street corner by a young man in a pea coat trying to recruit me into Scientology. I hadn’t heard of Scientology, but what this guy was selling and the way he was doing it gave me a really bad vibe. I walked away as quickly as I could, creeped out and disturbed. That was my brush with Scientology.

I was stationed at Beale AFB through the end of 1968, which was a bad year for this country, a weird time. The Vietnam war was escalating; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated; the Democratic convention in Chicago that August was insane; Nixon was elected president in November; and later we found out about the My Lai massacre. Everybody was going crazy. I was politically indifferent when I joined the Air Force, but was becoming increasingly radicalized the longer I was in. Proximity to San Francisco and all its hippie glory probably didn’t hurt. In mid-January of 1970, I was sent to Thailand for a year, leaving the SR-71 and the Chiseler’s Inn behind. But that’s another story. — Ted Hicks

SR-71 Blackbird taking off

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Famous Monsters and Me – Pt. 4: Christopher Lee

When I heard that Christopher Lee had died on June 7, my first thoughts were of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), the two British films that made him a star and forever associated Lee with horror films and the character of Dracula in particular. To say these films had a huge impact on me would be a gross understatement. As I stated in the first installment of Famous Monsters and Me (5/17/12),  I became obsessed with horror and science fiction at a very early age. The years 1957 and 1958 were of key importance due to the release of these two films; the appearance on television in October ’57 of Shock Theater, a syndicated package of 52 horror and mystery films from the ’30s and ’40s; and the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland in early ’58, which tied it all together.

Curse of Frankenstein-poster2Horror of Dracula poster3


Horror and science fiction films seldom had regular runs in the movie theaters where I lived in Iowa. I usually learned of their existence from movie ads in the Des Moines Register. I would clip these ads from the paper, day after day. They would diminish in size as the films got closer to the end of their runs, but I’d cut them out anyway. I kept the ads in a scrapbook (long gone, alas). Not everything played in Des Moines theaters, but The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula did. It was frustrating that it could take weeks or months before such films made it to second- and third-run theaters in smaller Iowa towns — if at all. There they might get a short run at one of these theaters or the local drive-in. Often it was just a single midnight showing, usually on a Friday night.

Vista Theater-Storm LakeI don’t remember the exact circumstances of seeing The Curse of Frankenstein, but I saw Horror of Dracula as a midnight movie at the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, Iowa, sometime in 1959. (The theater is still there! They added two smaller screens some years back in an adjacent space, but the lobby and original auditorium are just as I remembered them.) The logistics of pulling this off were formidable. Until I was old enough for a driver’s license, which was a year or two away at the time, I had to persuade someone with a license and a car — who also liked these movies — to take me. This involved much sucking up and selling how great this one was sure to be. Once I’d done this, I still had to get my dad’s permission to stay out that late, which was always a challenge since he usually needed me to help with farm work the next day. From my dad’s point of view, my anxious need to be scared to death by vampires in living color did not take precedence over cleaning out the hog house on Saturday morning. In this particular case, all the effort was worth it, because Horror of Dracula took the top of my head off with how great it was. It was terrifying and thrilling, and I loved it.

I’d already seen The Curse of Frankenstein, which had a huge impact on the genre, and on me as well. It inspired me to attempt to create my own monster, or at least a life-size figure of one. I got an old pair of my dad’s coveralls, which I began stuffing with straw in the attic of our garage. I stopped work on this project before I got around to fashioning a head for the body. I think I lost enthusiasm when I realized my dad was not about to let me hang this thing from the yard light that extended from the roof of the garage. However, it did have a life of sorts a couple of years later when it was tossed into a bonfire at a school pep rally the night before the big homecoming game.

Curse was Hammer Films’ first horror film in color. Prior to this most horror and science fiction films had been shot in black and white. Color gave a rich texture to the period Gothic setting and created quite a sensation at the time, including outrage in some quarters at the amount of blood and gore on screen. This seems tame when seen today, but in 1957 and ’58 it was definitely something new.

The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula really put Hammer Films on the map, along with the stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In Curse, Cushing plays Victor Frankenstein, a role he was to vividly inhabit a total of six times. As the Creature, Lee has no dialogue, but he makes a strong impression, as can be seen in the following scene of his entrance in the film:

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appeared in a total of 22 films together, though in the first two — Hamlet (1948) and Moulin Rouge (1952) — they had supporting roles in separate scenes. The Curse of Frankenstein was their first film as co-stars; from then on they were the main attractions.

Blood on coffin nameplate2Horror of Dracula was released in the U.K. as Dracula. It was retitled for release in America apparently to avoid confusion with the the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Peter Cushing is billed above the title, while Lee gets a “with Christopher Lee” credit below Michael Gough and Melissa Stribling on the second credits screen. I’ve seen this film many times over the years, most recently a couple of weeks ago on DVD. The heavy chords of James Bernard’s opening music over the slow, inexorable tracking shot down stone steps into a sub-level crypt always give me a thrill and a chill and a sense of dread anticipation as the camera moves in to a closeup of the Dracula nameplate on a heavy stone crypt, climaxed by blood splattering on the letters. I found the film to be even more effective this time than I’d remembered.

Terence Fisher (1904-1980) directed these two films, as well as most of the best Hammer horror films, including The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960, a Dracula film without Dracula), The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, with Oliver Reed as the title character), and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Fisher’s contribution to the Hammer horror films can’t be over-estimated.

Christopher Lee-Dracula2Christopher LeeLee appeared as Dracula in a total of nine films, all but two of them for Hammer. After the first one it was eight years before he agreed to play the role again, in Dracula: Prince of Darkness. He has no dialogue and is almost a peripheral character in the film. I like it because it has a lot of atmosphere and some terrific scenes, but Lee is not the seductive, ferocious, alien, truly iconic figure that he was in Horror of Dracula. Lee is right to disparage the subsequent Hammer Dracula films. In interviews he makes it sound like he was practically forced to be in these films, but who knows?

As an actor, it seems that Christopher Lee never lacked for work. Per IMDb Lee has 206 feature film credits from 1948 to 2015, and many television credits from 1955 to 2008, as well as lending his distinctive voice to Vengeance of Fu Manchu-postervideo games from 1994 to 2015. Though he’ll always be best known as Dracula, he also appeared as the villainous Fu Manchu in five films from 1965 to ’69. This was when Western actors could still get away with playing Asian roles, as Peter Lorre had done with the detective Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff had in Fu Manchu films from the ’30s. Lee portrayed Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), a film I’ve not seen but would like to. He was in Hannie Caulder, a western with Racquel Welch in 1971,  and a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He was Rochefort in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1974), The Four Musketeers (1974), and The Return of the Musketeers (1989), and more recently in several Tim Burton films, including Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Dark Shadows (2012).

I was surprised to learn that he’d had a singing career as well, recording opera and other musical pieces between 1986 and 1998. This was followed, bizarrely enough, with a series of heavy metal albums from 2005 to 2013. He referred to these as “symphonic metal.” This is covered in a piece from The Daily Beast that appeared last month.

Christopher Lee worked right up to the end of his life at age 93. We should all be so lucky. He’s probably best known to younger audiences for his roles as Count Dooku in two of the films in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005), and as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. I loved seeing him in other films, but they always reminded me of the first time I’d seen him in The Curse of Frankenstein and especially in Horror of Dracula. I was sad when I heard that he’d died, but it’s not like he’s really gone. We have the films. — Ted Hicks

Christopher Lee-collage


Here is Christopher Lee talking about his career.

Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live on March 25, 1978. He appeared in sketch called “Mr. Death” with Jane Curtin and Loraine Newman. I was unable to find a clip, but here’s a link to the transcript of that sketch. It’s pretty good.

Christopher Lee - SNL 1978***********************************************************************

Christopher Lee-youngChristopher Lee-older2

Christopher Lee-bye2Note: All of the films referenced in this post are available on home video for rental or streaming.

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