Another Dr. Moreau from H.G. Wells

DATELINE:  Genetic Engineering’s Early Days

 moreau Lancaster Experiments on York!

Of the many Island of Dr. Moreau movies, with its many caricatures of the deranged scientist, we count Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando. Each played a zaftig and outrageous mad scientist to the rafters.

In 1977, the most subdued of the versions came out from American International, of all studios, and starred Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau. The titan of movies was then 65, but still virile and active. His performance is pure Burt.

Playing the young shipwrecked officer came another star at the top of his game: Michael York, wafer-thin and at his most attractive in the decade where his name was above the title.

He and Lancaster really have several face-offs of grand debate over science. It falls to Lancaster to give his performance the veneer of respectability. He is not a caricature but comes across as the voice of reason. It makes his mad scientist even more frightful.

In an age before DNA, the H.G. Wells tale deals with genetic mutation at the cellular level by means of serum. Here, Moreau wants to change animals into men.

It becomes horrific when he decides to change a man into an animal in the name of science—and York is the victim.

The cast is small, but effective. Among the standouts are Richard Basehart, unrecognizable in makeup, and Nigel Davenport as the assistant to Moreau. Around for looks is Barbara Carrera, standard exotic beauty of the decade.

As for the manimals, they seem to be wearing the leftover costumes from some Planet of the Apes sequel.

The movie belongs to the master, Lancaster. Savor it.

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Zulu Dawn: Daybreaker of History

 DATELINE: Big Stars, Little Pictures

Epic Stars

Grandstand Stars in Peanut Gallery!

How can you pass up one of the last epic movies of Peter O’Toole?

Zulu Dawn was made back in 1979 to commemorate the British disaster of arrogance in the Old Empire in 1879 when spear-carrying Zulu natives beat the pants off of the robust British army in their pretty uniforms,

Not satisfied with riding 600 men to their deaths in Balaclava, and not to be outdone by the Americans with the Alamo and Custer’s Last Stand, the British class society puts its considerable stupidity on the line.

Great disaster events always seem to inspire epic movies.

We have to laugh again at Peter O’Toole’s sense of the uncanny, in asking “can he do it again?”  O’Toole was Irish, which certainly was a drawback that endeared him to Welsh best pal Richard Burton, but what they really had in common was playing British heroes with feats of clay.

In this epic that runs only two hours,  O’Toole’s job is to display all the tenacious idiocy of the British aristocracy. He is wooden in this role, but the film itself is like a totem pole on race relations.

The other aspect of the movie to make us scratch our heads was the top-billing given to an American star in a British epic of folly. It turns the screw on all those English stars playing Americans.

Yep, that’s Burt Lancaster, never too shy to stretch his accents. We love nearly every attempt of Lancaster in movies from Hemingway’s The Killers to Vera Cruz to Sweet Smell of Success. This time, the epic star of From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry wants to go up against Lawrence of Arabia and the The Lion in Winter’s better cousin Becket.

The movie also throws in Simon Ward, who tried his hand at epics like Winston and came up too short.

Well, forget it. This movie is workmanlike, like someone followed the recipe book and never added a pinch of salt.

Lancaster here plays the role of an Irish officer, which surely had to amuse O’Toole. Their epical petticoats were showing all too deliberately. He sounds like an extra from the Fighting 69th.

If you like to see the arrogant British colonial spirit receive its come-uppance, with a cast of great English second bananas (Denholm Elliott and John Mills and Bob Hoskins), you will enjoy this. As for us, we kept waiting for Michael Caine to show up. No, he doesn’t.

Vera Cruz: Classic Western Fun

DATELINE: Clash of the Titans

 Coop & Burt

When you cast Burt Lancaster as the villainous rogue cowboy against stalwart Gary Cooper, you have a humdinger. So, it was in 1954 when these two titans clashed in a Technicolor epic called Vera Cruz.

Cooper was fresh off his High Noon Oscar, and Lancaster liked to do an adventure movie between his high-brow efforts (like From Here to Eternity).

It was a rousing Western in which double crosses and triple crosses were the norm. With friendly enemy banter between the two principals, you have a quest to steal a couple of million gold dollars in Mexico in 1869. It is sheer delight every step of the way.

Burt’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam, which may be one of the foremost gangs of the 1950s. On top of that you had Cesar Romero as the aide-de-camp of the Emperor (George Macready, no less), who is also a rogue like a laughing cavalier.

The film starts with a series of set-up challenges between the stars, and their bonding and chemistry is delightful. Burt flashes all the teeth repeatedly as his tricks, cheats, and banters with Cooper.

The director is no slouch: Robert Aldrich of Baby Jane and Dirty Dozen, managing to orchestrate this rousing shoot’em up and horse chase movie.

Produced by Lancaster, the villain is so charming in his black hat and black leather vest that we may find ourselves rooting for the two actors to do a sequel. Nowadays, it would be standard. How could you waste such talent without a follow-up?

If there was a problem on the set, it was a production decision on whether to kill Burt Lancaster in the movie.

Alas, back then, franchise sequels were not really done.

 

 

 

 

Long Forgotten Executive Action

DATELINE:  Believe It or Don’t

 action

One of the most unusual of the early theoretical movies on the Kennedy Assassination was called Executive Action from 1973, a mere ten years after the event.

Already big questions had sparked big movie stars like Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Will Geer, as well as John Anderson (often chosen to play Abe Lincoln in movies and TV) as billionaire conspirators who want the President dead.

They select a patsy who is some kind of covert double agent. His name is Oswald.

Though the film claims to be somewhat fictional, it quotes Lydon Johnson at the movie start as saying he believed that John Kennedy was killed by an unknown group. This movie, made with the participation of early assassination doubter Mark Lane, is fairly courageous and breath-taking, even after five decades.

We must also express surprise at the stars who chose to play the men who want President Kennedy dead.

The film is no cheap, low-budget affair. It is well produced and directed by David Miller who made some interesting movies in the 1950s and was written by Dalton Trumbo, the famous blacklisted writer.

This returned Grandpa Walton to the bad guy roles that made him famous early in his roles, and Will Geer is notably sinister. This was also Robert Ryan’s final film.

The angles, once thought to be outrageous, have become more acceptable in recent research. The film may not be a genuine biopic or docudrama in the sense of trying to achieve 100% truth, but this may be closer than anyone thought back in the 1970s.

More than a curio, this film is downright compelling to watch.

Antidote to High Noon: Lawman

DATELINE: Movie Western Classic Uncovered

How did we miss this one way back when in 1971 or on DVD since? For shame on us.

This classic just never received the accolades it deserved. Lawman was a Western on the tail end of double bills when spaghetti oaters had run their course.

Some highly selective actors chose to appear in this film because they preferred quality to money. So, here you can find Burt Lancaster at his most laconic; Robert Ryan, aging and suffering a loss of full manhood; Lee J. Cobb, showing that a town boss can be civilized.

It’s High Noon going the wrong way in dark light. Lancaster will take in a group of men for trial who may be slapped on the wrist and fined for their violent antics, but if their masculine pride and propensity for violence brings them to the brink of death, so be it. This one is directed by Michael Winner who later gave us Death Wish.

The townsfolk are peppered with so many familiar faces of old movies: Robert Emhardt, Lou Frizzell, John Hillerman, and John McGiver. Even if you don’t know the names, you will laugh with recognition as each one does his turn. A more motley crew of sniveling cowards you could not assemble as residents of Sabbath.

Cobb’s men listen to his fatherly lectures on how times have changed, and he will simply pay off the right people. Younger men have more sense of honor, and they are prepared to go violently into the good night.

Robert Duvall, Ralph Waite, John Beck, Albert Salmi, J.D. Cannon, and Richard Jordan in his film debut, are the cowpokes who work for Cobb who was fresh off the series The Virginian where he claimed to be sick of westerns.

Like so many great movies set in the world of horses, this is a character drama where the hero may not be heroic and drinks coffee in a saloon.

We would be remiss not to recommend Lawman from the dying days of the Western. It may be one of the last great Westerns of Old Hollywood.