Older than Dirty Gringo

DATELINE: Mexico & Villa

 Peck & Fonda

Years ago we passed up Old Gringobecause of Jane Fonda. It seems a generation past, and it was. She had the temerity to be the only one to make a movie about Ambrose Bierce, the extraordinary American literary figure.

We thought there would be others to make such a film, but in 30 years, no one has.

So, we turned to it now, on streaming view, to see old Gregory Peck playing Old Gringo. He is always marvelous, and here was another role in which he could shine: as the cynical, burned out, angry writer who ran off to Mexico because the fake media had used him his entire life.

This story is fiction and speculation. Bierce meets a naïve governess who has gone there to Mexico without knowing Villa’s revolution is in progress. She is used like a pawn by a rogue general under Villa played by the hot tamale of the time, Jimmy Smits.

The film is one of those tortilla Westerns with plenty of shoot-outs and western action. It seemed incongruous for both Peck and Fonda as they played out a freakish firing squad scene and tourista Americans.. Fonda is now 80+ and Peck is long gone.

When the gratuitous action calms down, they play a May-December love scene that is actually brilliant and touching. She is a spinster never expecting love, and he is an old reprobate whose career prevented him from smelling the roses.

If one scene can make a film, two legends brought it to life. The old politics is now long lost in today’s society, and so are these great actors.

Better to have waited to view this strangely literary movie amidst the chaff of movie crap.

Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1912, and this is only one theory of his demise. Yet, in movie annals, it may be the last word.

Half-way through the film, the American woman falls in love with the foreign revolution—and we had some sense of Fonda still fighting the Vietnam War. When the end comes, she has betrayed the identity of a great man for self-interest, perhaps a moment of ultimate guilt.

 

 

 

 

Cursed Movie: The Omen

DATELINE: Horror Curses! 

 Happy Family?

Shudder network has presented a limited series on movies that have a cursed production history. This is more than intriguing to someone who writes books about Hollywood productions. The classic horror movie called The Omen with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick was filmed in England in the late 1970s.

You may recall the plot:  an incarnation of Satan is born to the happy couple, and as the kid grows beyond toddlerhood, he becomes a hood of the first order.

They talk to a producer and director Richard Donner who tells a few hair-raising and distressing anecdotes, but they also consult some “male” witches who do not call themselves warlocks. One actually performs a curse on a film production or producer in a show of nastiness.

Witches do not believe in coincidence—and see all the events as cause and/or effect. The film hired an occultist/Satanist as technical advisor—and he told them that the Devil would not be happy with their script and production.

Gregory Peck cancelled a flight to England—and that plane actually crashed, killing all aboard. When he nervously scheduled another flight, that jet was hit by lightning. The same happened one of the the major producers when he traveled to the film site.

Another producer and his wife were going out to have dinner at a posh London restaurant when they heard an explosion: the IRA set off a bomb in their dining destination. They were minutes away from being killed.

Another production worker and his girlfriend were driving when they were in a car accident—and an upset Donner related how she was decapitated like one of the characters in the movie. She was killed on the road to “Ommen” under the sign that said it was merely 66.6 kilometers away.

The animal trainer was killed by a tiger at the zoo where he worked during the film’s post-production.

As parents in the film of a satanic child, both Remick and Peck were naturally fidgety. However, the director admitted that the incidents never delayed or stopped the film: in fact, he saw the actions as protective of his movie and workers.

Satan loved the movie enough to give it his blessing.

 

 

 

Boys from Brazil: Where the Nuts Are

DATELINE: Hitler Clones 

 Peck as Mengele!

Back in the day, Ira Levin was one hot writer. He was knocking out Broadway and movie hits with aplomb, and writing novels too. He was entertainment and controversy, wit and delight. Apart from Death Trap, he gave us Boys from Brazil.

One of his least favorite set-pieces was the novel and movie about Josef Mengele. How short-sighted they were back in those days. The main criticism centered on Atticus Finch, the hero of all things American, being done up as a pasty and hideous looking Mengele. Yes, sir, that’s Gregory Peck in the lead role, horrifying.

He is magnificent, but back then he was stung by severe criticism. His performance may be one side of over-the-top , but when you ae playing one of the evilest fiends in history, it’s hard to pull back.

The cast is utterly astounding

Playing the old Jewish Nazi hunter whose efforts have gone past relevance is Laurence Olivier. Even Peck’s Mengele has no respect for the old-timer who warns young and hunky Steve Guttenberg to get out of Paraguay before there is one less nice Jewish boy. In an early role, Guttenberg is a sacrifice to plot, replaced by his clone John Rubinstein.

James Mason, who always accounted for Nazis of varying stripes, plays a Prussian aristocratic Nazi. Every nuance of his performance, especially with Peck, is a subtext of delight. And, you have to stand back in sheer horror at a gala soiree of Nazis in Paraguay in the 1980s.

Throw in a passel of well-known character actors—from Anne Meara and Uta Hagen to John Dehner and Denholm Elliot—and you have a hoot of acting. What other movie features two 70ish stars in a dirty, knock-down fight to death at the climax?

Yes, Ira Levin knew how to entertain and write a film that was 40 years ahead of its time.

What brought the fiercest criticism was the crypto-science of the age: genetic research! The public could not accept Mengele’s theories that he could clone humans—and create a new Master Race leader. How silly they were back then! It would only take 30 years to make the story less crypto.

The boys back in Brazil were hardly your run of the mill Nazi party members: Mengele was after the big fish. He had enough DNA from Hitler to make a bunch of them from now until kingdom come!

Today, that is cutting edge. It’s quite a movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Million Pound Note, or Man with a Million

DATELINE:  My Fair Laddie?

wilfred & greg

Col. Pickering Meets Atticus Finch.

If you are looking for John Beresford Tipton to be handing out checks for a million smackeroos, this forgotten movie is way beyond your expectation. It’s actually a Mark Twain story written in 1893, one of his last ‘Americans abroad’ tales.

Here the American need not do much to blow away the fawning British aristocracy, in love with American money.

This gem came after Roman Holiday, but before Moby Dick, when Gregory Peck stayed in England to do justice to this low-budget marvel.

Two aristocratic British brothers make a bet that they can pull a Pygmalion and Importance of Being Earnest tale using a vagabond American sailor as their Liza Doolittle.

Enter Peck to do business with, whoa, is that Wilfred Hyde-White doing an audition for Colonel Pickering? You better believe the bettor. It’s like killing two mockingbirds with one million pounds.

We only wish the other brother had been Rex Harrison. Then, we would have had a film premonition of “my fair laddie.”  As it is, we have the formula that George Bernard Shaw would soon adapt to his famous play. He never found the time and the Twain to meet personally. So, he took a notion.

Yet, this makes My Fair Lady a delicious ripoff, especially since Audrey Hepburn had just made a classic movie with Peck before he shot this one.

Twain outdid Oscar Wilde here, as the poor American schmuck must not spend his million-pound note for one month to win the bet. Thank heavens for the fake media that goes on a toot to help Peck.

Because American audiences in the early 1950s wouldn’t know a pound note from a B-flat, this movie had a different American title: Man with a Million, but a million pounds was likely about five million dollars in 1893.

This film is charming, and in Technicolor, and stars Gregory Peck. What more could you ask?