Archive for Ralph Meeker

From the Id

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2018 by dcairns

It’s our old friend, the Monster from the Id! You can tell it’s him because (1) he’s invisible and (2) he’s behind a door. Just like always.

SHADOW IN THE SKY is directed by Fred M. Wilcox  (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and written by Ben Maddow right before he was blacklisted. It deals with a veteran with PTSD (Ralph Meeker) who comes to stay with his reluctant family, sister Nancy Davis/Reagan and brother-in-law and former comrade-in-arms James Whitmore, and their kids. It’s a sort of attempt to remake THE MEN with mental illness instead of paraplegia, but they mix things up enough, and everybody underplays heroically. This may be Nancy’s best film, in fact (though TALK ABOUT A STRANGER, shot by John Alton, is very good).

Ralph Meeker seems to be styled somewhat as Brando (and Maddow would go on to write THE WILD ONE). Some may find his tiny, tight buttocks enticing. Of course, he has that sneer. Best of all are his moments of automatism, where he’ll do some ordinary thing seemingly with nothing special on his mind, going through the motions of dancing or playing ping-pong, his thoughts simply elsewhere, perhaps directing the actions of a vast alien living intelligence system.

I found myself even able to sympathise with Nancy, who’s worried about her kids. There’s no reason to think Ralph is actually a danger to them. But certainly they might be distressed if he has one of his spells and flips out, hiding under a table and yelling, even though that’s the kind of thing kids themselves do all the time. Kids are funny that way — they either laugh at or are freaked out by adults behaving like them. Small-minded. On the other hand, Nancy’s fears are also irrational — the sense of madness as communicable taint, something to be shut away and not even spoken of, is ever-present.

Also — Jean Hagen as Ralph’s nurse girlfriend, an appealingly direct performance. These are all sort-of B-list players, but one wishes people of this quality could have enlivened FORBIDDEN PLANET (but I still love Anne Francis). I mean, come on, Ralph Meeker is good in anything.

Maddow’s sensitive script stops this being social-conscience pablum — the respectable suburbanites are driven by irrational fears as much as the traumatised vet — humour is allowed at unlikely moments — “Clayton’s afraid of people,” says Meeker of a friend, “Which is bad, because the world’s full of people.” And on his first morning in his new home, Meeker asks for an old hat. “There’s a bird in my room.” It sounds like something a crazy person in a dumb comedy would say, but there IS a bird in his room. He catches it in the hat, puts the hat on to contain the bird, climbs out the window, again seeming like a crazy person only we know otherwise… meets the kids for the first time. Raises his hat to them — and the bird flies out. Instantly the kids are very impressed with their new uncle.

OK, so it’s a very written idea, but effective and charming, I think.

 

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Stalk Press

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by dcairns

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Even though I grew up watching old movies and seventies US TV, I was too young to appreciate what slightly older Americans were getting. On prime-time, they could watch (mostly dreadful) TV shows in which the aging guest stars were decrepit versions of the same actors in the late night movies. Like depressives with diurnal variation, or like vampires, or like, well, actual astronomical stars, the stars came to life at night.

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Telemovies The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler and follow-up series Kolchak: The Night Stalker display this phenom beautifully, though we were watching for other reasons. We got the familiar faces as a bonus. Here’s Charles McGraw, his once-chiseled features, his lightning-bolt profile, all turned to melting waxwork folds and softness, as he reads his lines off a sheet of paper. Beside him is a crusty Kent Smith, playing a horrible politician, the kind of interesting part he never got when he was young and smooth as an apple. Here’s Elisha Cook Jnr, who spent the seventies battling the undead, it seems, whether it be Janos Skorzeny, Kurt Barlow or Blacula. Here’s Claude Akins, looking more and more like General Aldo from BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first role I saw him in, and here’s Ralph Meeker. Ralph has still got it, it just takes him longer to find it.

I had seen a little of this series and hadn’t been impressed, but then everybody had a great time with the original movie at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when Niall Fulton programmed it in his TV movie season, and I missed out. And the first two are written by Richard Matheson (story by Jeff Rice).

The Night Stalker is fairly dumb for a modern-day vampire story. It doesn’t gain much by transplanting an old-time horror character into the modern age. Maybe if he’d been played by one of the aging hams, that would have granted some pathos. But I will say that Barry Atwater, the guy they chose, has a great face. The main innovation is seventies-style cynicism about authority figures — it’s hard to believe this is pre-JAWS, since it anticipates the head-in-the-sand “don’t panic the tourists” official stance, and adds a big cover-up at the end for good measure. THAT I liked. It’s surprisingly bleak.

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What’s also impressive is the sheer pace, especially the opening. Matheson crams his set-up into brisk, violent scenes with Darren McGavin’s snappy narration propelling it along. John Llewellyn Moxy brings plenty of his namesake quality to the staging. There are occasional good lines.

Then comes the sequel, in which Jack the Ripper is stalking Seattle, and one realizes that it’s EXACTLY the same as the first movie. Strippers get murdered. McGavin shouts at and is shouted at by his boss. Crepuscular hams of the week: John Carradine (impressively restrained!), Scott Brady, Margaret Hamilton, Al Lewis, Wally Cox (wonderful – television cannot contain him). The only development is that we get to meet and talk to the monster, nicely played by Richard Anderson (“Steve Austin’s boss!” exclaims Fiona) in his lair of dry-ice and mummified family. The floor-hugging disco mist is exactly the reason these things struggle to scare: the accumulation of thoughtless visual clichés.

The other thing that becomes apparent is the misogyny, which lies low but creeps into everything, like dry ice. In the second film, there is no compelling reason why all the victims have to be female. Women are just assumed to be natural murderees. Why kill a guy when you can kill a woman, which would be more heterosexual and therefore normal? McGavin’s commentary is an anthology of shocking victim-blaming (woman out at night: “She wanted to get ahead. She should have settled for staying alive.”) and salaciousness (a corpse is “luscious”). This kind of thing carries on into the series, where Kolchak is more than once paired with fat chicks, who are there to be patronized and abused. Of course it was slightly forward-thinking at the time for an American TV show to even admit the existence of women not shaped like Carol Lynley (girlfriend, first film) or Jo-Ann Pflug (girlfriend, second film).

This stuff is all on YouTube, by the way. Have only dipped into the series itself, but it does benefit from the involvement of David Chase on script. The Sopranos creator has been around a long time! When a zombie terrorizes Chicago gangsters, it becomes apparent that the writer has researched the mob and is able to supply convincing detail about how they operate. It’s the first sign that Kolchak, purportedly a modern character in the modern world but really lifted from 20s newspaper movies (“If you see a guy who looks like he stepped out of a road company production of The Front Page…”) is actually operating in contemporary reality.

The series seems to alternate between the unwatchably hackneyed and the possessed-of-an-occasional edge, so we may dip into more. Jimmy Sangster wrote one! Phil Silvers is in it! Some of these might surface during The Late Show: the Late Movies Blogathon (early December — please contribute!)

 

Never Put Durning in the Corner

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2015 by dcairns

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A warning to all — never put Charles Durning at the point of an “A” composition. This may be a little academic now that Durning is no longer with us, but it’s still a valid point.

I shall elucidate. An “A” composition is a flat two-shot with a third party in the background. You can see how this forms an A lying on its back — the edges of the frame are the feet of the A, the distant figure is the point, and the eyeline between the two profile characters makes the horizontal strut of the A.

The third party can look from one principal player to another, and adds interest to the shot — you get extra depth, possibly A LOT of depth if the third character is far away, and you get someone who is full-face, which gives you more emotion than the two profiles. And by being attentive, this third character can subtly tell the audience that they should pay attention too. By looking from one profile to another, the third character can even signal to the audience which character to focus most attention on at a given time.

John Frankenheimer is a huge fan of the “A” — his live television days accustomed him to working with extreme deep focus, and he used every trick in the book to replicate the KANE-like effect in his movies, hence all those diopter shots that split the focus into two parts, or even three.

I WALK THE LINE (1970) is a pretty good southern drama with Gregory Peck straying from his usual straight-and-narrow, stalwart roles, as a sheriff who falls hard for moonshiner’s daughter Tuseday Weld. The smart, honest man is out of his depth once he falls to intrigue, and is easy prey for stupider characters, like Deputy Durning and moonshiner paterfamilias Ralph Meeker, since they’re used to living their lives in the shadows, manipulating and spying on others.

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This is a scene where Peck is under pressure from Federal man Lonny Chapman to do something about the moonshine trade. Durning suspects already that for some reason Peck is reluctant to do so. I’m not saying what he does here is wrong, precisely, but it certainly puts the entire attention on him, leaving Peck and Chapman as blurry silhouettes, featureless despite all Frankenheimer and DoP David M. Walsh’s deep focus.

Durning actually leans in, seemingly to get a better listen but blatantly just to be more clearly seen himself, and to attract our attention. And he makes a stupid, hilarious face, as if frozen in the act of eating a sandwich while grinning.

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The movie is quite good — Weld is enticing and natural as ever. Peck can do conflicted. He can’t quite do lust, and looks a bit uncomfortable as he tries hard not to seem fatherly. Estelle Parsons is touching as Peck’s wife, who does not inspire him with Tuesday Weld type passion. Never has. The marriage is very much like the bleak, lifeless one at the start of SECONDS, only Parsons quotes from Reader’s Digest to try to fill the yawning silences.

There is also a major example of the Frankenheimer Dog.

Frankenheimer, as I will argue in a forthcoming piece for Masters of Cinema (watch this space), has a particular affinity for emptiness, and he finds his ideal image in a deserted house, former home to pack’s deceased mother and sisters, which he tries to use as a love nest. The ruined residence affords Frankenheimer just all kinds of compositional pleasure.

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Music is by Johnny Cash, including the title song. All the music is in the form of songs, which, as is the way of such brilliant ideas, creates a tricky problem during one scene of trauma that just wouldn’t be helped by lyrics, no matter how gravelly. Frankenheimer dubs in a LOW DRONE — not, I think, a Johnny Cash composition. A sound like feedback from an incorrectly inserted audio jack. The sound of disconnection, of emptiness.