Jack the Tailor of Beverly Hills

 DATELINE: You Are What You Call Yourself!

 Clothes Make the Man!

Upon first coming across a one-hour documentary on a fashion store in Beverly Hills, we thought it was one of those vanity documentaries, produced by its subject. Jack Taylor was a 90-year old high fashion artist from old Hollywood days.

The film is a tad old, with Taylor gone in 2016 and his main supporter, Mike Douglas, a decade before that. Yet, we are always eager to catch up on our past misgivings.

Jack Taylor hardly needs publicity, and business is dying out as his A-list celebrity patrons pass away. He would soon follow and take an era with him. He was the man who tailored all those magnificent suits worn by Cary Grant from the 1930s till his death. Grant would order a dozen suits at time.

We wondered if there were any celebs who’d go on camera for a commercial appearance—and there were plenty of men: Mike Douglas, Hal Linden, swore by Jack Taylor. Monty Hall wore a different outfit every show on Let’s Make a Deal, all created by Taylor.

He made clothes for Elvis, Sinatra, Charles Bronson, and so many men. He was not easy either. He would tell them not to eat or put on weight. His suits were meant to show them off at their best shape. His most obstreperous client was Jackie Gleason who needed 3 sizes, because of his weight changes over weeks and months.

Taylor would tell them to eat only half the plate at the restaurant. He did not do alterations, or sew the suits. He has a 60-year tailor for that: he has worked for Taylor for sixty years. He’s in his 80s. But both lament there are no tailors any longer.

We are looking at the extinction of men’s fashion. There was no endangered species list: men’s suits and ties were dinosaurs when the political landscape changed its pants.

Clothes for men nowadays are off the rack at best, and China imports at worst. Jack Taylor knows his world of well-dressed men is fading away. He thinks the 1940s were the last gasp, but the war killed it at that point. And, the 1970s turned into a fashion death knell for men’s clothing with jeans and t-shirts as the extent of wardrobe.

We never expected to be fascinated at expensive clothes, being a recluse who never makes public appearances. However, celebrities still know a good suit is essential, but they are going to have a hard time finding anyone to replace jack Taylor.

Cold Pursuit: Liam Neeson as Charles Bronson

DATELINE: Another Cold Dish?

You almost feel as if they genre of revenge flicks is reincarnated with a higher-level actor: Yes, that is Liam Neeson playing Charles Bronson in the cold-blooded killing movie called Cold Pursuit.

Actually, it is a hot-blooded crime spree: Neeson is Citizen of the Year in snowy Colorado where he plows the roads for skiing enthusiasts. When his son is murdered by drug dealers, he goes into Bronson mode.

Supporting cast includes Laura Dern as a thankless wife who leaves him, and Tom Bateman in a young Joachin Phoenix mode as the head mobster.

While he is being honored, his son does not attend the ceremony—and his later burial is in frozen tundra during a blizzard, highly unlikely scenarios.

In any case, Neeson as Coxman starts to hunt down the drug ring from the lowest rung, up to the top. His inventive and sadistic means of death may be pure vigilante that Bronson would approve of doing if he were still around. Who said the revenge genre was dead?

Liam Neeson has been pursuing these action films now for a few years, having given up on serious roles apparently. There are numerous jokes by victims that he is an “old man” out of breath from his endeavors. All the victims of revenge are sent cascading in a wire mesh over waterfall, hundreds of feet to a lost grave.

The mob thinks their native American partners are double-crossers, leaving Neeson more freedom to dispatch them singly. Ultimately there is a big shoot-out between gangs, leaving Neeson with little to do. The subplot of the gangster’s young son is left in limbo, and the entire film is punctuated with RIP notices for every character who dies in the picture. We did not count.

We had not seen the parallel previously—as Death Wish was remade a few years ago with Bruce Willis as an inspired vigilante. It’s hard to determine if Neeson wants to re-make most of the notorious Bronson oeuvre.

 

 

 

Bronson’s Land

DATELINE: Death Wish Out West

By 1971, Charles Bronson began to make the revenge picture his personal genre.

It’s also the year he met Michael Winner who became his John Ford, shaping a series of films, hardly great but full of fury and impact.

The first was a Western done in Spain called Chato’s Land. You might think it’s a spaghetti Western, but it is something far more American: a metaphor for pointless commitment to deathly war and racist attitudes.

It’s not a classic by any means, but it borrows from American classics and thus becomes part of the derivation formula. It seems to take its cue from The Ox Bow Incidnt, made thirty years earlier: a dour Henry Fonda picture about a lynch mob that hangs anyone it can put its hands on. It was led by a fool in a Confederate uniform of past glory.

This time it’s Jack Palance donning the Confederate officer garb—and leading an all-star gang of terrible Western settlers who want to hang a “half-breed” who has killed the town sheriff.

The cast will bowl you over: there’ Ralph Waite as the worst of the worst before he became Daddy Walton.

There’s Simon Oakland and Richard Jordan as his brothers. You will also be treated to James Whitmore and Richard Basehart as older men who should know better.

Charles Bronson turns the tables. And when he goes into full loincloth mode, his body puts body builders to shame. He was pushing sixty, said some, when he did this film. He claimed to be fifty.

There is a death wish pick off, one by one, of rapists and mayhem’s henchmen. Michael Winner wallows in rape and cruelty—and it would become worse over the next decade. Yet, this film is sharply in focus, however cruel, and it started the revenge movie in the urban jungle, starting in the American West.

 

 

 

Two Promising Stars of 1973

DATELINE:  Lost Causes

1973 stars Barry and Jan-Michael.

With some surprise, we noted that actor Jan-Michael Vincent was dead at 74. He had been a golden boy, playing the Disney star of World’s Greatest Athlete, always the derring-do hero.  He was at his pinnacle in 1973 when his adult role with Charles Bronson made people take notice in The Mechanic, wherein he played a bizarre homoerotic hitman.

He died weeks earlier, but no one bothered to release the information about his cremation—and his deterioration to amputee and drunkard. It was not a pretty picture at the end.

Almost a bookend in 1973 was another promising star who burst onto the scene. His name was Barry Brown. If Jan-Michael was golden, then Barry smoldered in swarthier looks. One director who worked with him, Peter Bogdonavich, claimed Barry was the only American actor who actually looked like he had read a book.

Brown had aspirations to edit and to write. His seminal performance was in Daisy Miller, opposite Cybill Shepard. He played Winterbourne, the oblivious intellectual. A year earlier he costarred with Jeff Bridges in Bad Company. He was in that league.

You don’t remember him because he died in 1978 of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head at his home. Who knows what demons drove him?

They were likely similar to the demons that caused Jan-Michael to indulge in a slow self-destruction, inebriated and useless, throwing his career into the garbage pail.

The promising stars of 1973 were polar opposites and similar in so many ways. They never appeared in one scene together, and they could have controlled a generation of buddy films.

We think of them at their acme often. Their great movies are watchable today and brilliant, likely owing to plot, direction, and costars, as well as their own contributions.

We might watch Daisy Miller and The Mechanic on a double-bill to toast these lost boys of the movies. Alas, it was our loss.

 

Adios & Adieu, Bronson & Delon

DATELINE: Farewell, Friend!

adios & adieu

Where has this 1960s crime caper movie been hiding for fifty years?  Charles Bronson is teamed with Alain Delon as a couple of ex-Foreign Legionnaires who plan to break into a major corporate vault.

They are both young and virile.

The film may have had a limited American release, known in circles as Adios, Amigo as well as Adieu, l’Ami.  The American title turns out to be Farewell, Friend.  It’s all the same.

The movie was made when Bronson was on the cusp of international stardom and started matching up with European stars. It came around the time of The Dirty Dozen.

Alain Delon was bigger and received top billing, but he wanted American recognition. His English here is quite good. He was known for critically-acclaimed arty films, and his American incursion was less art and more matter-of-fact.

These two misfits are not exactly well-matched, nor do they like each other. So, you can be fairly certain their amiable hostility will support the old aphorism there is no honor among thieves.

We had no illusions that there would be a good script, but that at least it would give the two stars enough space to play it to the hilt. Indeed, it does.

Even more surprising, the sets are stylish and modern. Not only that, Bronson and Delon are dressed in the finest tailored suits. They do not look like refugees from Haight-Ashbury, as do many stars in 1968 movies.

Bronson has the rough-edged thug role, and Delon is the more debonair scam artist. Their reasons for breaking into a French corporate payroll vault also puts them at loggerheads. Yet, without the usual mayhem and car chases, this turns out to be a quite intriguing and different film, probably dissatisfying to fans.

We loved it.

Cold Sweat and Unexpected Chills!

 DATELINE: Partial Classic Movie!

 James Mason Mason holds gun on Bronson.

Usually you can tell when James Mason, grand star of the past, took on roles for the money. He once told mega-movie critic Pauline Kael that these sort of films were candidates for the “ashcan.”

While traversing latest streaming lists of old movies now available, we came across something called Cold Sweat from 1970. It appeared to be a routine Charles Bronson crime thriller. It dated from before Death Wish, which meant it presented Bronson in a less iconic and caricatured role.

As the credits rolled, as there was no trailer, the shock value increased. Though Amazon Prime listed the costar as Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife, the film’s leading lady was Liv Ullmann, fresh off her think-piece and highly acclaimed Ingmar Bergmann art house classics.

Good grief, she plays Jill Ireland in this film! Well, you might as well bring in Laurence Olivier to play Jimmy Olson, cub reporter. Of course, Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland shows up as villain Captain Ross’s girlfriend Moira to round out the lunacy.

Sure enough, the third name on the film belongs to James Mason. Yikes. And what is more, the film was based on a Richard Matheson novel: yes, the man who gave us The Incredible Shrinking Man and so many other classic stories. This was his adventure story, Ride the Nightmare. It is not vintage Matheson.

When Mason showed up in the story, first in a shadowy flashback as a younger man a dozen years earlier, he only makes a background cameo. He is the leader of a villainous gang of prison escapees.

He also plays an American and a Southerner. Yikes, and double yikes. You mean you won’t have Mason doing what he does so well: a modulated, upper-crusty bad guy sucking each line like it’s a morsel of his last meal.

That usually signaled that James Mason was doing a walk-through in what he considered a meritless movie. Here, he dons a blue sailor cap with the rim pulled down. He also pulls down every other word in what appears to be an Alabama twang via Oxford.

Nevertheless, it is an unknown Bronson film with James Mason, Liv Ullmann, Jill Ireland, and a story by Richard Matheson. You could do worse, though Mason and Ullmann were not happy on this movie set, nor with Bronson, until the paychecks arrived.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Death Wish 45 Years Later

DATELINE: Willis Versus Bronson

 death 3

Bruce Willis is every bit as good as Charles Bronson in the remake of the classic Brian Garfield story. But, the movie is less about vigilantes this time and more about revenge.

A new version of Death Wish, 2018, seems like yesterday’s headlines.

If you want to match up Willis versus Bronson, you may be making the wrong comparison. Both are brilliant in the role of Paul Kersey, though Bronson always seemed more dangerous than smarmy.

Taking the law into his own hands, Paul Kersey is back for a new generation, armed with smartphones, video surveillance, and automatic weapons on every city block.

The more things change, the worse it becomes in American society. Indeed, the media chorus in the movie keeps telling us that Chicago is a murderous city. The senseless cruelty seems on a par with fifty years ago.

Gun control is a joke in 1974 and is a punchline now.

The 1970s might seem like a placid time next to today’s weekly shoot’em ups. However, the movie stays with the split-screen approach to story-telling that was the rage in the 1970s. We have a definite throwback movie here.

This time Bruce Willis has a brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) as a foil, but the police exasperation is partly admiration for the Grim Reaper’s work. You know the police will never convict, nor apprehend Paul Kersey, though the 1970s movies better explained why they let him get away.

When Willis shoots the bad guys, you still have the urge to commend the vigilante killer and excuse gun control as a bad idea. This time Kersey is a top-notch big city surgeon, obviously dedicated to life-saving. Bronson’s Kersey was a big business architect.

He has his eyes opened even with his father-in-law (Len Cariou in a delightful cameo) and with the commissioner of police (Stephen McHattie, a long-ago familiar face).

The shoot out is a stand off.

Once Upon a Time: The West Reconsidered

DATELINE:  NOT Young Abe Lincoln!

not-young-abe-lincoln

When last we watched Sergio Leone’s grand epic, Richard Nixon was president.

It’s time for an updated opinion. Oh, yes, this Western is still longer than the Nixon Administration and more opera bouffe than operatic; however, we now admit this is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time in the West was Leone’s attempt to escape the spaghetti and meatballs and go directly to the steak and potatoes of American Westerns. He succeeded with a Dead Man’s Hand of storytelling.

From the magnificent faces of stars like Woody Strode and Jack Elam, to the star power of character actors Keenan Wynn and Lionel Stander, Leone avoided the dubbed spaghetti mess of the ripoff westerns made in Europe in his name.

His film gives stars Henry Fonda (as a sociopathic killer as bad guy) and Charles Bronson (as sociopathic killer as good guy) some startling moments on screen. What a joy to find these actors together in a movie that gives them free reins.

We now forgive Claudia Cardinale as she seems rather good as a New Orleans madam come West for the money. We also liked Jason Robards in the Eli Wallach role.

Leone could have made this with Clint and Lee, as a fourth in his Eastwood series, but the casting here is inspired—matching the staggering scenes of desert, grit, and horse opera. Editing and music mesh perfectly.

Those stunning blue eyes of Henry Fonda become weapons—and his transformation into his younger self in a climax flashback (30 years earlier) is a sight to behold.

Everything is exaggerated and hilarious, but not quite a disrespectful spoofing of his own spaghetti westerns. Homage is a delicate exercise, and master filmmaker Leone succeeds here.