Doubles and Fakers on UnXplained

 DATELINE:  Local Connection!

 Imposter, Not Tony Curtis.

Here is another fascinating subject, not usually covered in any depth by the spate of paranormal, mystery investigators. These are stories about near criminal impersonation.

The UnXplained came across with another winning episode.

If the show were worth its weight in truth, it had to deal with the most famous impostor and faker in my resident town:  yes, Ferdinand Demara stayed here a while in the 1950s, pretending to be a elementary school teacher with fake credentials. A neighbor was actually in his class that year—and she laughed he was no Tony Curtis (the movie star who played Demara in The Great Impostor).

This faker and poseurpretended to be a Canadian doctor and performed surgery during the Korean War. Yes, he operated on suffering wounded soldiers!  Caught, he was still deemed a hero for saving them. He went on to act out his fantasies as a Trappist monk, a lawyer, a college professor, and other stolen identities.

Demara’s life was always pretending, but did not much evil other than deception. He died a fat faker of 350 pounds, not pretending to be a health nut.

However, subsequent figures that Shatner’s show uncovered were increasingly sociopathic and homicidal. A French fake in the 1990s took over Hollywood as an investor and party-thrower, friend to stars. He was stealing their money and allegedly wanted to produce movies. He claimed to be Sophia Loren’s son.

Then, there was Clark Rockefeller, a German low-brow who went by several identities—and he was no Rockefeller. He was, it seems, a murderer with a yard with at least one victim—and another still missing.

These were the worst: the women were a brain damaged Polish peasant who convinced herself she was Czarina Anastasia. They made movies and plays about her fakery. And, given a short shrift was Billy Tipton, famous jazz pianist, who was found to be a woman upon his death.

This was another fascinating show, featuring rare clips, interesting insights, and the underplayed narration of William Shatner who knows something about playing roles.

Unforgettable Vikings

DATELINE: Frolic in the Fjord

Viking Liking Sons of a Black Ram!

What a cast! Liking a Viking!

Forget the new-fangled cable TV series. Go back to the 1958 movie with Kirk Douglas as the Viking raider. If you have never heard the Mario Nascimbene theme, you are in for a treat—as it will stay in your head forever as the theme of Viking warriors.

If you have never seen The Vikings, prepare yourself.

This movie featured an all-star cast in bravura, over-the-top performances. Kirk Douglas and his costar Tony Curtis would return in Spartacus two years later and essentially play the same roles: Brothers under the tunic.

Here, Ernest Borgnine is the rapacious and fierce Viking king and father to Kirk (and to Tony, though no one in the movie ever learns this bit of dizzying plot complication). We are even more amused to learn that Borgnine was actually younger than the man who played his son!

Fresh off his Oscar for Marty, Ernie Borgnine is preparing to play McHale for his TV series by jumping off longboats. He calls Tony Curtis the son of a black ram, without realizing he was self-incriminating.

Throw in juicy actors like Frank Thring as an evil English king usurper (one in a line of magnificent villains—from Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur and King Herod in King of Kings). There is stalwart James Donald as the traitor to England and friend to the Vikings, and Alexander Knox as the suffering priest, with Edric Connor as Tony Curtis’s best friend.

Everyone shines. Director Richard Fleisher manages Viking chaos deftly.

Kirk Douglas plays nearly the entire film with one eye yanked out by a falcon (he wears a white contact lens).  It makes him even more frightful and plays the contrast to good Tony Curtis (whose wife Janet Leigh is the young woman every Viking wants.

This is one of those delicious fun movies you cannot believe they cannot make anymore. When the principals tried to do Spartacus, it became more message and less fun.

Every scene is exquisite in its outrageous melodrama, including amputations, eye-gouges, and a jump into a wolf pack to be chewed up. You can’t beat this stuff with special effects or computer-generated fakery.

With pure Hollywood magic, you have a truly atmospheric tale of 1000 years ago—filmed in magnificent fjords and drafty castles. The dangerous sword-fight atop the castle ramparts at the end will give you vertigo.

We lost track of how many times we heard that Nascimbene tune in various motifs. You will never forget it.

Impostors, Great & Small

DATELINE: Smarmy Smarty-pants

smarty smarmy Tony Curtis at Play

Tony Curtis was sliding into a different phase of his career by the mid-1960s. One of the earliest of these odd, new films, was titled The Great Impostor. Here he played Ferdinand Demara, a man who pretended to be a doctor, a priest, a teacher, and did other jobs—superbly, according to witnesses.

He was, first and foremost, a fake and a fraud. Yet, the movie of 1961 plays him as a fun-loving prankster, not a man guilty of identity theft.

Never having seen this motion picture, we were compelled by a neighbor who revealed she was a student of the Great Impostor in high school in Winchendon, Mass. He went by the name of Mr. Thorne and was an excellent instructor before authorities took him away.

This all-star picture features Karl Malden, Gary Merrill, Edmund O’Brien, Arthur O’Connell, Frank Gorshin, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, and a plethora of familiar faces from TV of the 1950s and 1960s. It was also directed by notable Robert Mulligan. There was nothing shabby here—except the attitude.

Curtis always had a regrettable habit to turn smarmy with an overbite of sugar when he was let loose. Here, his character goes beyond having no idea that he is far worse than a childish mischief maker. Alas, the movie also has the same problem.

A man with a brilliant memory and intelligence, Demara demeans people in authority by his pretense, as if the vanity of small-time bureaucrats deserves come-uppance. Curtis savors the chance too readily.

Isn’t there too much contempt for patients he operates upon? For religious rites of devout people? For patriotism of American soldiers? Demara amuses himself with his own shenanigans—and we are along for the ride.

Tony Curtis is in his own world of acting here; the audience is immaterial when it comes to his brash and frivolous performance.

As a depiction of an era and its values, this movie hits home, but as my neighbor said of her meeting with the real Demara, he was no Tony Curtis.