Off the TV Screen – A Brief Diversion + Posters

While taking pictures of movies on a TV screen might seem like something one would do to pass the time while sequestered at home during a pandemic, these were taken sometime in 1978 for reasons that escape me now, though I suspect I just got a kick of doing so. Here are some that survived the ensuing years.

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At the time, I had a B&W 17″ table-model TV I’d brought with me from Minneapolis when I moved to New York in January 1977. This was before cable and flat screens, and definitely before I could buy a color set. So I have to see wide-screen films, such as Spartacus, in all their pan & scan glory, which meant seeing maybe a third of the original screen image. Of course, this was common at the time for scope films shown on television.

I was able to date these shots by the Film Comment issue on the shelf below the TV. This was the January/February 1978 issue, which I still have, along with every Film Comment issue I’ve acquired, though most of them reside in one of our closets. To its left is a copy of Leonard Maltin’s  TV Movies, the first of his many movies-on-TV books. This one was published in 1969, but I was obviously still using it in ’78.

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The following shots were taken sometime in the early to mid-1980s. By that time I’d acquired a 17″ Sony Trinitron, which was a definite step up for me — color! Dark Shadows was a weekday TV show originally shown on ABC from 1966 to 1971. I didn’t see it then, but channel 13, the local PBS station, had begun running two episodes a day, and I started watching. The series was a hoot, with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, time travel and more in the New England fishing community of Collinsport. If you’ve ever seen it, you know. Ten months into its initial run, producer Dan Curtis came up with idea of bringing the supernatural into the mix in a effort to raise the show’s low ratings. And so vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced. Dark Shadows took off and never looked back.

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Before my wife-to-be moved in with me in 2004, my apartment was basically a movie poster gallery and library. It turned out Nancy thought we should have some actual furniture for grown ups, such as a sofa and maybe some lamps, and stuff other than film posters on all the walls. Here’s what the living room was like before. This shot was taken in the ’90s before I’d had the old rug taken up and the wood floor refinished.

Here’s what it looks like now.

Definitely an improvement, a much more comfortable space, looks like people live here. And we’re both big readers, so there are a lot of books. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss some of what had been on display before, especially the King Kong poster, but that’s okay.  Here are some of those.

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This beautiful Metropolis poster was nearly six feet tall. I actually parted with it long before Nancy moved in. The shot on the right was taken after I’d put it on the landing in our building for someone to claim.

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I think that wraps up this little tour. See you later. In the meantime, stay safe. Better days are coming. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, photography, TV | 2 Comments

Connery and “The Hill”

When I learned that Sean Connery had died on October 31 at age 90, it felt for a moment as if things had slipped out of gear. Later I read that Connery’s wife of 45 years, Micheline Roquebrune, had said that he’d had dementia in those last months and “was not able to express himself… It was no life for him. At least he died in his sleep and it was just so peaceful.” I can only imagine what it must be like to lose one’s self before actually dying, but it has to be a hard way to go. I don’t like to think of him like that. I prefer to see him as someone vital and virile, a strong physical presence with authority. Of course, this impression is based on years of seeing him in films; those were the characters he tended to portray. He projected intelligence and strength, but strength with feeling.

Sean Connery will be forever known as the first, and for many the best, James Bond, but I think his most interesting work can be seen in films other than those of that iconic series. Right from the start he was determined not to be trapped by the Bond character. Four of the five “official” Bond films he appeared in were made from 1962 to 1967. In the midst of that period, Connery also acted in Woman of Straw (1964), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965), and A Fine Madness (1967).

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It was in the post-Bond years that Connery gave some of his best performances. One of my favorites is John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-starring with Michael Caine. Huston had tried to get this film made for many years. He planned to do it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the fifties. Subsequent proposed pairings included Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. While it’s interesting to imagine the film with those casts, I think it was worth the wait. Connery and Caine are wonderful together. This was reportedly Connery’s favorite movie role.

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Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976) is a favorite of mine, a film with great sentiment and emotion. Imagining Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Merry Men twenty years later is a great idea, cleverly worked out. Audrey Hepburn makes a lovely Marian, and Robert Shaw is excellent as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who clearly has a fondness, or at least respect, for Robin. One of my favorite lines is when he says of Robin before their final encounter, “He’s a little bit in love with death.”

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Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), though entertaining, is not a great film, but Connery’s performance certainly is. For his role as Chicago cop Joe Malone, he received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This brief scene with Connery and Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness gives a good sense of who Malone is.

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The Untouchables: Andy Garcia, Connery, Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith

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Connery should also be given credit for taking on John Boorman’s profoundly weird Zardoz in 1974. Once you’ve seen the WTF image below, you can never unsee it.

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But now to The Hill. Connery made five films directed by Sidney Lumet: The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Family Business (1989). I’ve not yet seen The Offence, in which Connery plays a burnt-out police detective who beats a suspected pedophile to death while interrogating him.  This certainly sounds like Lumet territory, and based on the performance Lumet got out of Connery in The Hill, I look forward to seeing it. Family Business, which I watched recently, is a rare Lumet misfire in which Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick play grandfather, father, and son involved in a hapless criminal enterprise. For me, nothing worked, it was all totally off, top to bottom.

Of these five films, the clear winner is The Hill. It was critically well received but did very little business in theaters. I’m betting not that many people have seen The Hill, or have even heard of it, but those who have know what a blistering piece of work it is.

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In Sydney Lumet’s excellent book Making Movies (1995), he writes, “The Hill is the story of a British Army prison in North Africa during World War II. Only the camp is for British soldiers, sent there for discipline problems or criminal behavior. It’s a brutal place, filled with sadistic punishments that are meant to break the spirit of anyone unlucky enough to be there.”

There is no music under the main title sequence. This opening shot runs 2 minutes 27 seconds without a cut. The camera pulls slowly back and cranes up and out to give an overview of the prison grounds. Here it is.

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Sydney Lumet is quoted as saying, “There really isn’t a lot of story. It’s all character — a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.”

Sean Connery signed on because it was such a change of pace from James Bond. He said at the time, “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put up money for The Hill.” He later saw it as a personal triumph that lead to more challenging roles.

Before filming began, Lumet told Connery, “I’m going to make brutal demands of you, physically and emotionally.” Anyone familiar with Lumet’s work knows that he gets intense performances from actors in highly charged situations. The circumstances of the shoot also made “brutal demands.” The Hill was filmed at an old Spanish fort in Almeria, Spain, starting in September, 1964. Temperatures climbed to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and above on a daily basis. In Making Movies, Lumet writes “…the exteriors were shot in the desert. The light was blinding, the heat so horrendous that during the day we dehydrated completely. After a few days I asked Sean Connery if he was peeing at all. ‘Only in the morning,’ he said.”

The excellent cast includes Connery as a prisoner busted for refusing to carry out a suicidal order and punching out the superior officer who gave it, and  Harry Andrews as the Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of the camp, and Ian Hendry as the truly sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams, whose actions bring everything to a boiling point and beyond. Others in the cast include Ian Bannen as the humane Staff Sergeant Harris, Michael Redgrave as the medical officer, with Ossie Davis and Roy Kinnear as fellow prisoners.

Harry Andrews is a powerful actor, but Sean Connery is more than a match for him, as can be seen vividly in this ferocious scene where they go head to head. If you didn’t know you were in a Sidney Lumet movie before, you do now.

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In Making Movies, Lumet writes of his collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris on the visual style of The Hill. “Wanting a very contrasty negative, we used Ilford (film) stock, which was rarely used because photographers found it too contrasty. We decided to shoot the entire picture on three wide lenses: the first third on a 24 mm, the second on a 21 mm, the last on an 18 mm. I mean everything, close-ups included. Of course, the faces became distorted. A nose looked twice as big, the forehead sloped backward. At the end, even on a close-up with the camera no more than a foot from the actors’ faces, you could see the whole jail or enormous vistas of the desert behind them. That’s why I used those lenses. I never wanted to lose the critical element in plot and emotion: these men were never going to be free of the jail or of themselves. That was the theme of the picture. I wanted their surroundings powerfully present at all times.”

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It’s my firm belief that in The Hill Sean Connery gives one of his very best performances. When you know that this film was released in the same year as Thunderball, it’s interesting to think that if Connery could have played Bond like this, he would have been a really dangerous character.

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The Hill is available for rental on Amazon Prime.

The screenplay for The Hill by Ray Rigby won at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.

Sean Connery’s obituary in the New York Times can be accessed here.

My earlier post on the first three Bond films with Sean Connery can be accessed here.

That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Royal Navy service, 1946-1949

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Shooting “Barry Lyndon” – John Alcott & Stanley Kubrick

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to an interview with cinematographer John Alcott on how Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was shot. This appeared in the March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer. The interview covers technical matters in some detail. These include lenses, film stocks, filters, shooting by candle light, and the like. A lot of this was above my pay grade, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. Plus it has some really great photographs.

The full interview can be accessed here. It is followed by an article on the special lenses used for Barry Lyndon by Ed DiGiulio, president of Cinema Products Corporation. After this piece there’s a reproduction of a letter of instructions from Kubrick for projectionists in theaters that would be showing Barry Lyndon. Kubrick was a real control freak; the level of detail and micro-management is impressive. I like to imagine the reaction of a projectionist receiving this letter. It’s a hoot.

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John Alcott (1930 – 1986) was a British cinematographer who was Director of Photography on five films for Stanley Kubrick, starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On that film, which was Alcott’s first DP credit, he replaced Geoffrey Unsworth, who had to leave the production after six months due to another commitment. Alcott had been Unsworth’s camera assistant before getting promoted. Following that, Alcott shot A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980).

John Alton and Stanley Kubrick

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At The Beat website, Jourdan Aldredge wrote about Alcott’s work with Kubrick in a piece called “A Look Behind the Lens of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinematographer John Alcott.” Despite the rather unwieldy title, this is an excellent overview. It also includes the following four videos:

“How Kubrick Made 2001: The Dawn of Man”

“Cinematography in A Clockwork Orange

Barry Lyndon: The Use of the Zoom Shot”

“The Cinematography of The Shining”

Aldredge’s piece can be accessed here.

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Shooting a number of scenes in Barry Lyndon exclusively by candle light gets considerable attention in the American Cinematographer interview. Here is an example of one of those scenes.

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Here are two videos that focus (so to speak) on Barry Lyndon. The first discusses the cinematography. It runs slightly under 14 minutes. The second is an overview of the film itself and runs just under 10 minutes.

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John Alcott received the Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography for Barry Lyndon, one of four Oscars won by the film. Kubrick would make two more features after The Shining in 1980. Alcott would likely have continued to work with Kubrick on those final films but for the fact that he died of a heart attack in 1986. He was only 55.

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Two years ago I posted a four-part series on Stanley Kubrick. If you missed those and are interested, they can be accessed below.

Stanley K Is in the House

More Kubrick!

Still More Kubrick

Kubrick Postscript: Killer’s Kiss – 1955

Okay, that’s it for this one. See you next time. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Alcott & Kubrick shooting “Barry Lyndon”

Posted in Art, Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Music, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Halloween – Odds & Ends

Here is a rather loosely organized collection of Halloween-appropriate images. None of them are half as scary as the 2020 presidential election, believe me.

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“Unusual times demand unusual pictures.” This ad copy could have been written today.

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Joan Crawford’s final feature film (1970). The ape suit was reportedly left over from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It’s good to recycle.

Joan is probably thinking of better days in the scene below.

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Artwork by Charles Burns

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“The Public Hating” appeared in the January 1955 issue of Bluebook magazine. It was Steve Allen’s first published short story, and it’s really something. That’s right, Steve Allen, the comedian and first host of the “Tonight” show. This profoundly unsettling story can be read here, at a site called SFFaudio. When the page comes up, scroll down to “Here’s a link to a PDF of the story” and click on that to read the story. It’s definitely worth the time.

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That’s all for now. Be safe. Don’t forget to vote, if you haven’t already. This one’s important. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Ted Hicks

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“Seconds” – Starting Over

Note: This contains some spoilers, so proceed accordingly.

The first time I saw John Frankenheimer’s Seconds I didn’t like it. This was in October  1966 while I was undergoing basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. Sundays were a the only day off from training. Hordes of new recruits with buzzcuts, including myself, crowded the movie theater on base to see whatever was being shown. I was excited to learn that Seconds was on the schedule. I loved the Frankenheimer films I’d seen, which included The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), and especially The Train (1964). I would have gone to see whatever was playing that day, because any break from the rigidity of the daily training routine was a relief, but it was bonus that it was a film from one of my favorite directors.

I had high hopes for Seconds, about which I knew little. It was a John Frankenheimer film, and that was good enough for me. As it turned out, I was confused and disappointed by Seconds that day. I don’t know what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. In retrospect, the film may have been too alienating and depressing for someone attempting to adjust to the structures and strictures of military life.

I wasn’t alone in my initial reaction. Though it has since developed an ardant cult following, Seconds was booed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. It did poorly at the box-office and wasn’t released on home video market until May 1997. Frankenheimer has said, “It’s the only film I know that has gone from failure to classic — without ever being a success.” In an essay on the film in Danny Peary’s book Cult Movies 3 (1988), Henry Blinder writes, “Seconds is quite possibly the most depressing movie ever made — it is a film of unrelieved despair.” Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter of Seconds, has said that “…it is almost too painful to watch.”

I can’t remember how many years went by before I saw Seconds again, but I was probably out of the Air Force and back in college by the time I did. The way I saw the film changed somehow. Things that had bothered me no longer did. The statements above by Blinder and Carlino are true enough, but don’t detract from the strength of the film. I’ve seen Seconds many times since then, and have come to regard it as a great film, one of Frankenheimer’s best.

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The protagonist of Seconds is Arthur Hamilton (played by John Randolph), a middle-aged banking executive who lives with his wife in Scarsdale, New York, and commutes by train to his job in New York City. He feels that his life is empty and meaningless; he and his wife simply co-exist without intimacy; there’s little contact with the married daughter who lives in Denver. When a phone call from a friend Arthur thought dead offers the opportunity of a new life, a new beginning, he’s more than ready. It’s the lure of a second chance. Seconds is the story of how Arthur Hamilton is reborn as Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson) and how that works out for him. The short answer is: not well, which is hardly a surprise given the look and feel of the film from the very first frame. Seconds is a paranoid thriller, a nasty satire with echos of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alice in Wonderland, a Kafkaesque nightmare, science fiction, and finally, a horror film.

The opening credits by Saul Bass and the first few minutes in Grand Central Terminal set the tone, aided immensely by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score with its ominous organ chords.

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The cinematography was by James Wong Howe, who used wide angle lenses (18mm and 9.7mm) almost throughout, which resulted in surreal and disorienting visuals. Frankenheimer said that Wong Howe’s contribution to the film was enormous. He received an Oscar nomination for his work. Frankenheimer was 35 and Wong Howe 60 when they collaborated on Seconds. Frankenheimer had also worked with composer Jerry Goldsmith extensively during his early years directing live television, so they were in sync.

John Frankenheimer & James Wong Howe

The rights to David Ely’s 1963 novel were purchased by actor Kirk Douglas and producer Edward Lewis’ production company. Frankenheimer had directed their previous film, the excellent Seven Days in May, and was hired to direct Seconds. The original intent was to have one actor play both parts, Arthur Hamilton and Tony Wilson. Frankenheimer and Lewis thought Laurence Olivier was the only actor who could pull this off. Olivier reportedly agreed to do it, but the studio, Paramount, didn’t feel he was a bankable movie star. Rock Hudson was then approached. He said he could only do the post-transformation part, which resulted in John Randolph being hired to play Arthur Hamilton. Frankenheimer said that making the transition from John Randolph to Rock Hudson was his hardest task. While I don’t think it’s entirely believable that Randolph could be transformed into Hudson through plastic surgery and physical therapy, I’m willing to go along because the performances of both are so good. A footnote to this is that Frankenheimer said Seconds was shot largely in sequence, which was a great help to Randolph and Hudson’s performances. Plus they had the benefit of two weeks’ rehearsals prior to shooting.

Telegram from Frankenheimer to Hudson after one their early meetings.

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Right from start the opening credits tell us this will be a dark ride with little or no room for humor. Well, almost no room. Arthur has been given an address on a slip of paper and has to follow an absurdly circuitous route to get to his destination. Later, Mr. Ruby (played by Jeff Corey), a high-pressure salesman of sorts for the nameless company, explains to a nearly uncomprehending Arthur that his death will need to be faked using a cadaver. He can never go back. He has to walk away from everything and everyone he knows. Ruby says, “The question of death selection may be the most important decision of your life.” This seems like a joke to me. A problem I had the first tme I saw Seconds was that Jeff Corey’s character seemed too obvious, overdone. As he explains things to Hamilton, Ruby pauses several times to exclaim how great the fried chicken is that he’s eating, a meal that was intended for Arthur, who doesn’t want it. This has always seemed exaggerated to me, but I think it fits. Arthur has gone through the looking glass. Logic no longer applies.

Will Geer plays the avuncular head of the company, who sweet talks Arthur into taking the final step, in effect signing a deal with the devil. He quietly convinces Arthur that he has nothing of any value left in his life. He says, “Isn’t it easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back?”

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It’s hard to see how Arthur’s new life as Tony Wilson could ever have worked. Based on something he says while under hypnosis, the company decides that Tony should be an artist, a painter. They provide credentials, diplomas, and paintings he’s supposed to have done. They decide he’s to live in Malibu, California, in a house on the beach. He’s given a new life that he has no real control over. So it’s no real surprise when it all goes haywire. His life becomes more of a nightmare than it ever was.

Tony leaves Malibu and goes back East. He stops at his old home to visit his wife, who thinks he’s a friend of her dead husband. Tony asks her about her husband and gets hit with this: “You see, Arthur had been dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.”

Tony returns to the company with the idea of being “reborn” yet again, but this time doing it “right.” He doesn’t realize that’s not in the cards. He failed as a newborn and is now in a queue to become a cadaver when he matches the requirements of a death to be faked for a new “client.”

It’s hard to overstate how good Rock Hudson is in this film. Known up to this point mainly for light romantic comedies with the likes of Doris Day, it would have been difficult to imagine him in a part like this in a film like this. He later said this was the best work he ever did. The scene at the end, when he’s strapped on a gurney and realizes what’s happening, seems to go beyond acting. It’s truly harrowing and, as the screenwriter said, “…almost too painful to watch.”

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The final scene of Seconds (8:23). Rock Hudson goes all in, nothing left in the tank.

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John Randolph

Frankenheimer & Hudson

Frankenheimer on set.

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Supplemental

Rock Hudson talks about filming a scene in Scarsdale. Includes footage of John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe at work. (4:18)

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Article on James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Seconds.

“The Surreal Images of Seconds” – American Cinematographer January 31, 2018

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Selection of scenes highlighting Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Seconds.

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I’ll close with posters for Frankenheimer’s superb “paranoia trilogy.” Be safe. — Ted Hicks

P.S. Seconds is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Dieselpunk – Retro Futures

As often happens, when I was recently looking online for one thing, I came across something else entirely that took over my attention. These are images depicting such things as flying locomotives and aircraft carriers, which are highly detailed, simultaneously retro and futuristic. Because they were just so cool to look at, I began randomly saving them on my computer, not overly concerned with where they came from or what they might represent. But a little context doesn’t hurt, so I looked further.

The images come out of something called dieselpunka term I was totally unfamiliar with. Per Wikipedia, this is “…a genre similar to steampunk that combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and post-modern sensibilities…the term has since been applied to a variety of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and engineering…The name ‘dieselpunk’ is a derivative of the 1980s science fiction genre cyberpunk, and represents the time period from World War I until the 1950s, when diesel-based locomotion was the main technological focus of Western culture. The ‘-punk’ suffix attached to the name is representative of the counterculture nature of the genre…The term also refers to the name given to a similar cyberpunk derivative, ‘steampunk,’ which focuses on science fiction based on industrial steam power and which is often set within the Victorian era.”

I’ve read a lot of science fiction and am a big fan of William Gibson’s novels Neuromancer (1984) and Count Zero (1986), and his short-story collection Burning Chrome (1986). Neuromancer was the ground breaker; these works — with influences from punk subculture and hacker culture — were instrumental in establishing  cyberpunk as a genre. Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-authored The Difference Engine (1990), an early novel in the steampunk genre, which I’ve yet to read.

Still with me? I think now I should show some of the images that so attracted me. I’ve also found three videos that expand the horizons, so to speak. I’ll start with one of those.

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Much of this depicts war weaponry and military gear. It nags at me that here’s a kind of fascist vibe to some of this.

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Some of the more playful inventions depict airborne ships (as in boats).

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This video is an excellent display of the dieselpunk aesthetic, though the way women are presented suggests adolescent fantasies at work.

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The dieselpunk illustration above shows the influence of actual railway ads of the 1930s below.

 

 

 

 

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Typical dieselpunk cityscapes. These are also evocative of the film Blade Runner (1982).

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Even though it predates the term dieselbpunk, the alternative comic book Mister X (Vortex Comics, 1983-1990) is certainly part of that world. I used to have a bunch of these, but they are now gone, alas.

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An example of the influence of dieselpunk in our culture — though definitely not in the mainstream — can be seen in “Dieselpunk Brew,” produced by World Brews, a craft beer company in California. I think this is an interesting tangent. If I was still drinking, I’m sure I’d have to take a run at it.

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Dieselpunk vehicles.

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Rosie the Riveter pressed into dieselpunk service.

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Films that include aspects of dieselpunk and sometimes cyberpunk include the following:

20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, director – 1954)

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, director – 1982)

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, director – 1985)

Dark City (Alex Proyos, director – 1998)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, director – 2015)

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, director – 1927)

Mortal Engines (Christian Rivers, director – 2018)

Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, director – 1987)

The Rocketeer (Joe Johnston, director – 1991)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, director – 2004)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, director – 2013)

(All are available for streaming on Amazon Prime, with the exception of Metropolis, which is available on MUBI. Snowpiercer is also available on Netflix.)

Metropolis

20,000 Leagues under the Sea

Blade Runner

Mad Max: Fury Road

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This final video displays a range of dieselpunk art. It credits the artists and is accompanied by a very cool version of “Minnie the Moocher.”

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As I said at the beginning, dieselpunk is a term and a subject I was previously unaware of. So when I Googled it, I was startled to see the pages and pages of links that came up. There’s a whole world of this stuff that’s under the mainstream radar. Check it out, if you’re interested to find out more.

That’s all for now. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Flying Fortresses in My Life – Supplemental

For a deeper dive, here are materials additional to part one.

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This is an excellent documentary on the B-17 with includes reminiscences by WWII veterans. It runs just under an hour.

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Target for Today is a feature-length documentary produced as a training film in 1944. It was directed by Hollywood filmmaker William Keighley. It details in rather numbing, painstaking detail how a bombing mission is planned and carried out, step by step from start to finish. The line readings by most of the on-screen participants are so stilted you just know they have to be the real people. But whatever else you can say, it’s certainly instructive.

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This clip demonstrates the digital restoration of 16mm footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the documentary The Memphis Belle.

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This short clip shows movie stunt pilot Paul Mantz belly-landing a B-17F for the film Twelve O’Clock High (1949).  As per the description on YouTube by Don Holloway, “Plenty of pilots had solo-landed shot-up Flying Fortresses during the war, but nobody was sure you could take off that way; the throttle levers required two pilots. Offered the then unheard-of payment $4,500 (about $46,000 today), Mantz welded a steel bar across the throttle cluster and got the Fortress airborne. According to the story, while approaching downwind for the cameras, lost rudder authority and wiped out some film crew tents. The footage was so good it can be seen again, from a slightly different camera angle, in 1962’s The War Lover, with Steve McQueen.” Besides being recycled for The War Lover, this footage was also used in at least one episode of the TV series 12 O’Clock High, an adaptation of the 1949 feature film.

Note: The original clip in this post has since been removed from YouTube. Here is a replacement that shows the same footage.

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12 O’Clock High aired on ABC for three seasons from 1964-1967. Episodes can be seen on YouTube. Here’s one of them. It runs about 46 minutes .

This series also generated comic books and even a board game.

 

 

 

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I read a lot of war comics when I was growing up. One of the best illustrators of these was Russ Heath. His incredibly detailed style was immediately identifiable. Here are a few examples.

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B-17s were also popular as model kits. Here are two examples.

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I’d like to close with two personal accounts sent to me after part one appeared last Friday. They both illustrate the randomness and absurdity of the violence that could happen at any time. It’s black humor at its most acidic, worthy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Or would be, if they weren’t so tragic.

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Someone I’ve know for quite a few years contacted me on Facebook. David told me his father was in training to be the ball-turret gunner on a B-17. The gunner was crammed into a clear ball-shaped capsule on the bottom of the fuselage that could rotate 360 degrees and fire twin .50 caliber machine guns. While still completing training, the plane in front of his exploded and an airman bailed out. Somehow the parachute got caught up in the ball turret of his dad’s plane. Nothing could be done and they landed dragging this poor guy along the runway. His father was completely freaked out and he finished the war as a radio instructor. David remembers the strife on his dad’s face when he recounted the experience.

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Susan Waggoner, a friend of mine since college in Iowa City and later here in New York, sent me the following, which she gave me permission to include:

“My dad’s younger brother also flew out of England – was at an air base near Exeter, and they did bombing raids over Germany. Dale was the bombardier. One night they took a direct hit on their way home. Pilot was trying to get them close enough to England to crash land there, so he told the guys to empty the guns and throw them over the side. Must have been chaos. One of the guns did not get completely emptied, went off and shot my uncle just under his left eye. He died instantly. Dale  was the baby of the family and died a few days short of his 19th birthday.”

Dale Waggoner

“For most of my life, we only knew that he had been killed in action, and after reading Catch-22 I worried that he had died like Snowden, all alone in that cold bomb bay. So when the internet opened the world up, I checked and found the site for his bomber group. I was lucky in that several of those men were still alive. They were great! They all wrote to me, told me they remembered Dale as a hard working Iowa kid who liked pranks, and a shared a bit about their time there…

“…The other eye opener I got from Dale’s crew was that I’d always assumed he would have been the youngest member of the crew. He wasn’t. One of the guys was 15! He’d lied to get in, married his girlfriend before being deployed, and now she was at home expecting twins. People grew up fast back then.”

Dale (standing left) and his bomber crew

“Have you ever looked at the casualty rates for those bomber squads? The number of KIA’s was jaw dropping. Dale is buried over there, in a British cemetery honoring Americans killed during the war.

“I have often thought, as I’ve grown older, how big a role that war played in all our lives. It was all around us – all of us grew up making tents from army blankets or using Navy towels. I still have my dad’s footlocker. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo seemed like it was on the late night movies all the time. My dad was a nervous flyer because he’d been on an aircraft carrier plane that crashed into the water on takeoff – almost died because he got pinned underwater under a heavy metal bar but had one those adrenaline bursts and got it off himself so he could swim to the surface.. He never told me any of this. Those men didn’t talk much.” — Susan Waggoner

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That does it for now. I’d like to re-dedicate this post to my dad, Milton Hicks, and also to David’s dad and Dale Waggoner of Alta, Iowa. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

Flying Fortresses in My Life

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been in love with B-17s. The fact that my dad was a navigator in one during World War II is probably what initially sparked my interest. I know it’s what influenced me to join the Air Force in 1966. The B-17 has become an iconic image of almost mythological power that triggers a nostalgia for something I’ve experienced only vicariously. The B-17 represents WWII more than any other aircraft of that time. It’s a beautiful design, incredibly photogenic, and undeniably romantic (to those of a certain age). And yes, the B-17 was a war machine, with all that implies.

My father’s connection to this story makes it a very personal one for me. Typical of most combat veterans, he didn’t talk much about what he’d experienced or what it felt like. He’d talk about the technical aspects of it, but not much else. I regret not asking him more about this, what he did between missions, how he passed the time, if he visited the town, went to pubs, made friends of the locals, and so forth. And I wish I’d asked more about the missions themselves. One story I know, and I don’t remember if he told me or if my mom passed it on, is that once when they’d returned to base after a mission, he noticed a hole in the flooring close to his navigator’s station. A chunk of flak had blown up through the plane and out the top. He hadn’t been aware of it at all when it happened. They were always that close to a bad end. By the time my dad was flying combat missions in 1944, our fighter planes had longer range and could accompany bombers most of the way to the target. This meant Germany no longer put up fighters to attack the bombers. But there was still plenty of anti-aircraft fire. The Germans didn’t even bother shooting at the bombers themselves; they’d simply fire shells in box patterns over the target area. There was flak everywhere and no way to avoid it. You just had to fly through it and hope for the best.

A story my mom told me is that on one mission a B-17 in front of my dad’s took a direct hit that blew it out of the sky, no survivors. One of his best friends was on that plane. My dad suffered depression through the 1950s. I’m sure that was connected to stuff like this. I don’t know how people who’ve been through combat come back to their lives. Certainly not the same.

Another story is that my dad was on one of his worst missions the day I was born. This probably is just a story, though I’d like to believe it’s true. Here’s the telegram my grandmother sent to my dad in England, two days after I was born on July 31, 1944.

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I didn’t know many details of my dad’s military career until after he died in 1975 and I acquired his service records. I didn’t really go into them in any detail for a long time, but I’ve taken a much closer look in preparation for this post. He enlisted in the army in January 1941 at age 23 and trained as an MP, a military policeman. He was a cop! I never knew this. He went through OCS from August to October of 1942. He came out a 2nd Lieutenant, and for the next nine months served as a company commander at Camp Clark, an Italian POW camp in Nevada, Missouri. I knew about the Japanese internment camps during the war, but wasn’t aware there were hundreds of camps in this country for German and Italian prisoners of war. By the end of the war there were 425,000 POWs (mostly German) at camps here. I had no idea of the scale of this. I don’t remember my dad ever talking about this phase of his military service. In July 1943 he transferred to the Army Air Corps to train as a pilot. He was eliminated from flight school, then began training as a navigator.

My dad was navigator on B-17s for eighteen months; six months of this time was in the European Theater (“Theater” is an interesting way to designate a region of warfare). He was stationed in England from July to December 1944 with the 325th Bomb Squadron of the 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy). The base was RAF Podington, six miles southeast of Wellingborough, in Bedfordshire, north of London. He flew thirty combat missions in a B-17G, the final version of that aircraft. Eleven of these missions were flown as lead navigator, meaning he was directly responsible for the direction to and from the target for a formation of as many as 400 aircraft. Like a human GPS. He also assisted the bombardier in locating the aiming point of the target. Each mission lasted about ten hours from takeoff to the return landing. B-17s had ten-man crews, four officers (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier) and six enlisted men. The name of my dad’s plane was “El Lobo” (The Wolf). Below is a photo of my dad, Milton Hicks (center,) with four of his crewmates.

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He was discharged in November 1945 and returned to resume farming on the Iowa farm he and his father before him had grown up on. I grew up on it, too, though I didn’t stay  and become a farmer. He was always interested in aviation and passed that on to me. Every summer there was an air show at the airport in Sioux City. Most years we attended that. We liked to watch a CBS documentary series called Air Power, which was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force and showed the rise of aviation as a military weapon. Narrated by Walter Cronkite and filled with archival footage, it originally aired on Sunday evenings from November 1956 to May 1957, with reruns during the summer and fall of 1958.

At some point my dad bought a balsa-wood model kit of a B-17. He began working on it with his usual precise care, but for some reason never completed it. The unfinished model remained on a shelf in his workshop in our basement for years.

My dad had many photos he’d taken while in England, many at the base. I vividly remember one of a B-17G with the nose completely blown out. These aircraft were notoriously tough. They could take a lot of punishment and still fly. I wish I had these pictures, but after he died, they somehow disappeared.

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My interest in B-17s reached a culmination of sorts in 2003 when I took a short ride in one. I’d heard of the Collings Foundation, an organization located in Massachusetts that had a large number of restored aircraft, many of WWII vintage. I knew that one of these was a B-17G, and that they took it and other planes on their annual Wings of Freedom Tour. These would stop at airports around the country where the public could see the planes and also take a ride in them. When I learned they would be at an airport in Farmingdale, New York, it didn’t take long for me to sign up for a ride. I think it was in October. I took a train to Farmingdale and a cab to the airport.

The 30-minute flight cost $400, but I’ve never regretted it for a minute. It was worth every penny. I wanted to get an idea of what it was like for my dad. The vibration and noise was extreme, but it wasn’t like we were flying at 30,000 feet in heated suits and on oxygen. We weren’t in the air for the ten hours most missions lasted. Most importantly, people on the ground weren’t shooting at us and we weren’t flying through clouds of flak. Other than those minor differences, I think it brought me an inch or two closer to what it might have been like for him at the time. I don’t know how any of those guys did it.

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Here are some photos I took that day. *****

It was a thrill when I first saw the B-17 sitting on the tarmac.

The bombardier’s position was in the nose. My dad’s station would have been somewhat back of that, where the two windows are above the nose art and “Nine O Nine” name on the fuselage.

The bombardier’s position.

Ready for my closeup.

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A disturbing footnote to my B-17 ride is that this same aircraft crashed during a similar flight last October in Connecticut. Seven people, including the pilot, co-pilot, and five passengers were killed after the aircraft crashed short of the runway during an emergency landing following engine trouble. The 74-year-old aircraft was a total loss. The Collings Foundation began preparing a replacement B-17 for passenger flights, but in March 2020, the FAA revoked their permission to resume such flights.

This B-17 flew safely for 13 years after my flight, but it feels weird knowing what happened.

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I think the staying power of the B-17 can be witnessed by its presence in popular culture. This is probably more relevant for people of my generation and earlier than it is for subsequent ones, but B-17s have been prominent in feature films, documentaries, TV shows, books, even comics, board games, and more.

Below are some of the films.

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Flying Fortress (Walter Forde, director – 1942). The RAF had acquired a number of B-17Cs from the U.S. in early 1941, which I hadn’t known. The premise of Flying Fortress, per Wikipedia, is this: “During the Blitz, an arrogant American pilot becomes increasingly committed to the Allied cause after ferrying B-17 bombers from Canada to England. After joining the Royale Canadian Airforce and being assigned to an RAF squadron, he finally takes part in a Flying Fortress bombing raid on Berlin.” I’ve not seen this film, and in fact had not heard of it. I have the feeling it may lean a little heavy on melodrama, but since it’s one of the first to feature B-17s, it’s of interest.

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Air Force (Howard Hawks, director – 1943). Tells the story of an unarmed B-17 and its crew flying to Hickam Field in Hawaii on December 6, 1941. They arrive just in time for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s pretty good. — available on Amazon Prime.

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The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, director – 1944). Documents the 25th mission of the title plane. Wyler shot this in 1943, operating one of the cameras himself. — available on YouTube.

Note: A feature film directed by Michael Caton-Jones titled Memphis Belle was released in 1990. It purports to be a dramatization of the Memphis Belle’s final combat mission depicted in the Wyler documentary, but has virtually nothing to do with anything that actually happened. Filled with every cliché and stereotype you can imagine, this is a phony film, quite bad. Because of the subject matter, I’d been looking forward to it, but was very disappointed. It has a nice sense of period, but that’s about all. I didn’t like it in 1990 and I still didn’t like it when I saw again a few days ago. It’s available on Amazon Prime in case you want to see for yourself.

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The Cold Blue (Erik Nelson, director – 2018). Excellent documentary utilizing footage (digitally restored) shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the making of The Memphis Belle. Intercut with this footage are present-day interviews with surviving pilots and crew members who flew on B-17s during the war. — available for streaming on HBO.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, director – 1946). A truly great film about the difficulties experienced by several returning veterans following the end of the war. Frederick March’s first sight of his wife (Myrna Loy) at the end of a long hallway when he enters his home after years away is incredibly powerful. In a devastating scene near the end at a scrapyard for decommissioned aircraft, former airman Dana Andrews hoists himself into the nose of a B-17 and just sits there with his memories. This is a classic film, one of the best. — available on Amazon Prime.

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Twelve O’Clock High (Henry King, director – 1949). With Gregory Peck as the commander of an 8th Air Force base in England during the war. A very good film. — available on Amazon Prime.

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The War Lover (Philip Leacock, director – 1962). Based on the novel by John Hersey, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner as pilot and co-pilot flying B-17s out of a base in England. McQueen’s character is in love with death. He played a similar character the same year in another World War II picture, the very tough Hell Is For Heroes, directed by Don Siegel.

One thing I especially like about The War Lover, regardless of whether it’s a good film or not, is the use of several restored B-17s. All of the scenes with the aircraft feel very authentic. This was well before CGI. — available on Amazon Prime.

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There’s more, but this is enough for now. Part two, with supplemental material, will appear shortly. In the meantime, I’d like to dedicate this post to my dad, Theodore Milton Hicks (1917-1975), gone too soon at age 57. I wish he was still around to tell me what he thought about this post, and all the stuff I got wrong. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

“The Vast of Night” – Something in the Sky

I hadn’t heard of The Vast of Night before reading the New York Times review last May. It sounded very interesting, so I watched it on Amazon Prime two days later. The film is a knockout, a superior piece of work on every level. I watched The Vast of Night again a week later. I intended to write about it then, but experienced a failure to launch, so to speak. Now, two months later, I’m making good on my original intention, albeit a bit rushed. As a refresher, I watched it for a third time yesterday. It’s just as good as it was the first time.

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The film’s opening takes us into an empty living room where we see a retro television set with flickering, indistinct images on the screen. We hear a voice that is uncannily evocative of Rod Serling’s introduction to Twilight Zone. The sound and cadences are perfect. We hear the following:

“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows – all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.

Black and white becomes color as the TV screen expands and takes us into the story. The conceit is that what we’re about to see is a TV show. But I don’t know if I take The Vast of Night as an episode on television. Maybe this is a portal into the “real” story. By the way, I love the line “…caught between logic and myth.” This very much applies to The Vast of Night.

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Per Wikipedia, the premise is that  “…a young switchboard operator and a radio disc jockey discover a mysterious audio frequency that could be extraterrestrial in origin.” The Vast of Night is set in Cayuga, New Mexico, population 492. The year is 1958. Sputnik, launched into orbit in 1957, is mentioned in the dialogue. Desert settings were popular in science fiction films of the 1950s, such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Them! (1954), and Tarantula (1955). New Mexico is also where Roswell and Area 51 are located. So the landscape is appropriate for weird stuff to go down. Cayuga is a fictional town, but feels very real.

The first 20 minutes or so is a lot of chitchat that serves to introduce the two main characters and get to know them. Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz) is a disc jockey on a local radio show. He’s probably 19 or 20 and tends to speak in wise cracks. Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick) is a 16-year-old switchboard operator for the phone company. We first meet them in the gymnasium at the Cayuga High School where the first basketball game of the season is about to start. Seemingly the entire town is there.

Fay is smart, a bit twitchy, and often breathless. Her first rapid-fire words to Everett as they leave the gym are these: “Can I bring you my tape recorder so you can show me how it works?” They’re obviously good friends, but Everett makes fun of Fay a lot. He responds with “I don’t know what you just said, Fay. You sound like a mouse being eaten by a possum.”

The camera follows them in a long, low tracking shot that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s low tracking shots following Danny Torrence down the halls on his small bike in The Shining (1980). The camera work by Miguel I. Littin-Menz is superb throughout.

Fay is going to her night shift on the switchboard and Everett to the radio station to DJ his “Highway Hits” show. During their walk Fay, excited about scientific predictions she’s read about, is anxious to tell Everett. She chatters on about “vacuum tube transportation…the trains travel between 2000 & 5000 mph in these tubes all across the country. That’s how it’s all gonna be. It’s called vacuum tube transportation. All these tubes, they crisscross all of the world, so we’re gonna sit in cars that run through the tubes like little hotdogs through a garden hose. It’s gonna be everywhere by the year 2000.”

She also talks about self-driving cars with what sounds like a kind of GPS guidance system and tiny TV telephones. Fay says she read about this in Modern Mechanix magazine. This resonated with me because I used to read predictions like this in magazines such as Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics that my dad would get during the 50s.

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At the switchboard, Fay hears a strange, distorted kind of static on one of her lines. She calls Everett at the radio station to see if he knows anything about it. He tells her to send the signal and he’ll put it on the air, asking listeners if they’ve heard anything like it before. At this point, about 30 minutes in, the story begins in earnest.

After Fay sends the signal, she leaves the board and opens door of the switchboard office to stand in the doorway and light a cigarette. The camera goes past her out the door and begins to glide down the empty street and across open lots, very low. Goes to school gym and enters, the basketball game is in progress. Leaves through a window (I think there’s a cut at this point) and continues tracking through town to the radio station where Everett stands outside smoking a cigarette. The shot ends as a call comes in.

This is a bravura sequence, shot to look like a single take. This kind of thing can call attention to itself; it’s not invisible. But there’s something about it that captures a sense of strangeness and expectation that I think defines the film. This was the moment when I knew I was in good hands, that I was seeing something special. Here, see for yourself.

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Everett takes a call from a man named Billy, who says he has heard the sound before. Years before, when he was in the military, he was on a detail with other soldiers who were flown to an undisclosed spot where they buried something large and mysterious in the ground. During this time he heard the sound. In the ensuing years he learns that the sound was being recorded at different times and places, sometimes at altitudes higher than any plane could fly. Billy speaks in a soothing, even voice, but there’s an ominous quality to what he says. As he talks, the image changes to that of the Paradox Theater TV screen, then fades to black entirely as he tells his story. His basically uninterrupted monologue lasts approximately 12 minutes. The sound of his voice is mesmerizing.

Fay, who has also listened to Billy’s account, asks Everett if he believes Mr. Billy’s story. He replies, “I don’t know, but if there’s something in the sky, I want to know.”

They then receive a call from a woman named Mabel Blanche, who lives in Cayuga. She says she can tell them what’s behind the sound, but they have to come to her home to hear it. At 60 minutes in, we go to see Mabel Blanche at 1616 Sycamore. She says things like, “They’ve come here before…the people in the sky.” And then speaks of her son Hollis, who one night walked outside and vanished. Hers is a monologue that, like Billy’s, is hypnotic. And, like Billy’s, it also lasts around 12 minutes.

Fay and Everett encounter a man and woman who have driven in from the desert. The man and woman are alarmed and upset. “There’s something in the sky. Have you seen it? Hiding in the clouds.”

A crowd leaves the gymnasium, game over, unaware of what’s happened. But what has happened? The Vast of Night never quite spells it out, but it comes pretty close.

This is an extraordinary film. With a very low budget of $700,00, the filmmakers have achieved something quite special. I think Steven Spielberg and J. J. Abrams would be impressed. I know I was.

The Vast of Night was directed by Andrew Patterson. It was written by Patterson (under the name James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger. The excellent sound design was by Johnny Marshall and David Rosenblad, with an original score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer. Not to forget the performances of Sierra McCormick as Fay and Jake Horowitz as Everett. They are wonderful.

It would be nice to see this film in a theater, but for the time being you can watch it on Amazon Prime.

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Supplemental Material

This will probably be most useful once you’ve seen the film.

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How the long-take prowl around town was achieved.

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Anatomy of a Scene: Building Tension with a Strange Sound.

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Interviews with Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz.

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That about wraps it up. See you later. Be safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

Actors on Acting – Lockdown Edition

I follow Chris Evans on Twitter. A few days ago he referenced a conversation he’d recently had with Paul Rudd for the Variety series “Actors on Actors.” Due to Covid-19, this was filmed remotely with each of them in separate locations. When I looked it up on YouTube, I found a number of such conversations between other actors, which I’m including here.

To varying degrees, there’s a lot of talk in these about how great and wonderful the other person is, but that’s not all. Each actor has a recent project or projects to discuss, and frequently real talk breaks through as they get into the nuts and bolts of their work. The conversations are very much of the moment, especially when discussing the realities of Covid life in lockdown and how that affects their lives.

All of these talks are very interesting, but I especially like the Patrick Stewart/Henry Cavill and Sandra Oh/Kerry Washington discussions.

Below I’ve cited the shows they discuss in each segment and where those can be seen.

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Chris EvansDefending Jacob (Apple TV)

Paul RuddLiving with Yourself (Netflix)

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Jennifer Aniston The Morning Show (Apple TV)

Lisa Kudrow Feel Good (Netflix), Space Force (Netflix)

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Patrick StewartStar Trek: Picard (CBS All Access/Amazon Prime)

Henry Cavill The Witcher (Netflix)

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Reese Witherspoon Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu), The Morning Show (Apple TV)

Regina King Watchmen (HBO)

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Sandra Oh Killing Eve (Hulu seasons 1 & 2 now; season 3 available December 2020)

Kerry WashingtonLittle Fires Everywhere (Hulu)

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Wait, one more. I thought I was finished with this, but was checking YouTube to see if I’d missed anything and found this conversation between Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. This was put up just one day ago. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but want to include it.

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Anne Hathaway Modern Love (Amazon Prime)

Hugh Jackman Bad Education (HBO/Amazon Prime)

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That’s all for now. Stay tuned for the next post. Meanwhile, with apologies to Hill Street Blues, be careful out there. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Comics, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment