July 15, 2014


The year after he directed the Emmy-winning football weepie Brian’s Song, Buzz Kulik made the now-forgotten coming of age drama To Find a ManBrian’s Song packed big emotions into the small-screen, while To Find a Man is a big-screen feature after the small things: privileging atmosphere over grand gestures. It’s a teen sex movie interested in the kids’ milieu and personalities rather than their libidos, which it treats as a given. The plot is straightforward: it’s Christmas break on the Upper East Side of NYC, and nerdy ginger kid Andy (Darren O’Connor) is tasked to find a discreet abortion doctor for his beautiful and increasingly demanding childhood friend Rosalind (Pamela Sue Martin). New York State legalized abortion in 1970, when the film was in pre-production, necessitating full-scale changes in Arthur Schulman’s screenplay, which proceeded as if the procedure was still illegal (Schulman had covered similar ground in his Oscar-nominated script for Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)). With naturalistic, awkward performances from O’Connor and Martin, it was selected for a competition slot at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, but it didn’t make an impression stateside, and was eventually retitled by Columbia Pictures as The Boy Next Door and Sex and the Teenager to lure the trenchcoat crowd (to no avail). It has been almost impossible to see until it recently appeared as a digital download at iTunes and Amazon, though in a cropped 1.33:1 version, probably made from a television broadcast master some decades ago. But it’s either viewing it this way or not at all, and it is a valuable time capsule of NYC in the early 1970s, as well as being an affecting portrait of how freeing the loss of youthful illusions can be.


To Find a Man might never have been made if not for the suggestion of former New York Times film critic/stick in the mud Bosley Crowther, who had left the Grey Lady for a position as story consultant and editor at Columbia. In 1969 Crowther oversaw the purchase of the rights to S.J. Wilson’s novel To Find a Man. Arnold Schulman was announced as director, and production was supposed to begin in December of 1969. That plan was dissolved when New York State legalized abortion, necessitating major rewrites. The protagonists’ ages were lowered to justify their inability to easily secure the now legal procedure – now justified by Rosalind’s fear of her parents finding out.  Shooting finally began on February 1st, 1971, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, Arnold Schulman was still the director. Kulik was not brought on until early March. It remains unclear if any of the footage shot by Schulman made it into the final film, or why he was removed from the job in the first place. It was to be the veteran writer’s directorial debut after twenty-one years as a writer for TV and film. Perhaps he started to fall too far behind schedule and Kulik, familiar with the even tighter schedules of TV and fresh off the popular and critical success of Brian’s Song, was a logical replacement.


While we don’t know what caused his departure, Schulman has a big influence on the finished film, as he retained the sole writing credit, and shepherded the project through its many iterations. To Find a Man contains many similarities to Love With the Proper Stranger. They share a non-judgmental view of sex and its aftermath, preferring to dig into location and character. To Find a Man depicts Andy’s insulated Upper East Side, one with neighborly pharmacists (Tom Bosley) and avuncular neighbors (Lloyd Bridges), though one also strangely emptied out. All the adults have disappeared or are wilfully ignorant of their activities. Andy’s parents have left on a trip and are absent the entire feature, while the man who impregnated Rosalind is the latest boy-toy of the mother of Rosalind’s best friend. Though there is a psychic toll to all this absenteeism, physical violence occurs only when Andy crosses the line out of the UES and into the wider world of NYC, including chaotic public hospitals and pawn shops.  Love With the Proper Stranger is concerned with working class upbringings on the Lower East Side, of families only a generation or two removed from Italy. Their families are suffocating in their constant presence, leading to Natalie Wood flailing into sex to escape her childhood home.Perhaps this is why neither feature is available on DVD or Blu-ray, despite the latter’s star power of Steve McQueen and Wood. It’s easier to market sex than the lives that happen to engage in that activity.


To Find a Man may not have stars, but it does have indelible performances. Whether or not Kulik was involved in their casting, he elicits engagingly gawky performances from Darren O’Connor and Pamela Sue Martin. It is the only film O’Connor ever acted in, and the reedy, squeaky-voiced redhead is deeply affecting (his sister, Glynnis O’Connor, has had a long career on TV (Law & Order) and movies (Johnny Dangerously)). The role is a nerdy archetype, but O’Connor doesn’t play it as insecure or shy despite his body type. Instead he’s a process-oriented obsessive, intent on getting the most discreet, cost-effective abortion he can find. With his parents AWOL, Andy can take care of himself, and he’s one nerd who never succumbs to self-pity or misogyny. Sure, he’s in love with Rosalind and jealous of her lover, but he also is able to process and compartmentalize it with swift efficiency. The sadness to him is that he has lost all remnants of being a child. This becomes painfully clear when Rosalind’s dad (Lloyd Bridges) has a drunken heart-to-heart with him and blurts that his daughter’s “got most of her brains in her tits.” Andy is continually pulled into the adult world of self-loathing and misogyny, just out of circumstance.

Rosalind is another complicated teen. She is conceited, increasingly aware of her sexual power over men, but also intensely loyal to her friends and very sweet when she lets down her guard. Pamela Sue Martin can shift between shrieking vanity and calm concern as if they were on the same wavelength (she would hone that shrieking later in 1972 on The Poseidon Adventure). There are no big twists or breakthroughs, and Andy doesn’t get the girl. At the end of To Find a Man, everyone is basically back where they started. It’s a film where nothing happened and everything happened at once. In aiding Rosalind in getting an abortion, Andy has shed his last vestiges of innocence, extinguished his puppy love and walked away from his lonely childhood forever. And he seems happy about it.


March 11, 2014


After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.


Eagle-Lion was founded in 1946 by British movie impresario J. Arthur Rank and railroad tycoon Robert Young to expand distribution of their respective production concerns. Rank wanted more stateside exposure for his veritable monopoly of British features, and Young was seeking worldwide distribution for his Poverty Row outfit PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Eagle-Lion would distribute Rank’s pictures in the U.S., while Rank would facilitate getting Young’s movies into Europe and points east. The stateside operation was managed by Arthur Krim (later of United Artists), who fostered a secondary B-movie unit as an additional income stream to the Rank-Young films. His first slate of releases flopped, which Krim attributed to their investment in big name actors. His explanation, as quoted in Tino Balio’s United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry:

We made mistakes the first year by taking on players who added nothing to the box office. As a result, we made films that were costlier than they had to be because we wanted names. Later, we learned these names meant little or nothing when the film reached theatres.

Another unstated difficulty was getting their movies into theaters in the first place. The antitrust Paramount Decision was still a year away, so the big studios still owned their theaters, making it nigh-impossible to get independent productions on a critical mass of screens. In response, Krim continued to cut costs and experiment. Balio writes that, “beginning with the 1947-48 season, Eagle-Lion shifted from a studio system form of production to a hybrid type of independent production.” Head of production Bryan Foy resigned to become an independent producer for the company. They would no longer fully finance features, but instead split the costs (and the profits) with the producers. As part of the shake-up, the PRC line was folded into that of Eagle-Lion, to shed any Poverty Row associations. Krim then recruited independent producers, and in addition to Foy, lured the highly respected Edward Small (The Man in the Iron Maskand Walter Wanger (Scarlet Street).


These producers needed to work miracles. Without stars or much of a budget (they varied between $350 – $650,000), they had to crank out features that would scan as “A” titles and net high rental fees from the big theater chains. Krim:  “The nerves and ingenuity of our production departments are being taxed to the extreme.” It was a doomed enterprise from the start, but they did manage some resourceful successes. One of the biggest was Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which looked like a million bucks thanks to John Alton’s dizzying chiaroscuro lighting that swirls around two undercover Treasury Department investigators. It made $1.6 million on a $424,000 budget, though Eagle-Lion was only entitled to 25% of the profits.


Seeking to mimic that film’s success, Trapped was put into production in 1949 by Bryan Foy, with a similar docu-drama setup. The scenario was written by Earl Felton, who also collaborated with Fleischer on Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). It opens with newsreel footage of the Treasury Department and sheaves of freshly printed bills getting sliced up at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. Though used as a cheap way to eat up screen time and give off the odor of official authority, these images also set up Fleischer’s unobtrusive style. The stylistic experiments of Mann and Alton render T-Men’s documentary trappings absurd, while for Fleischer it’s more representative of his approach. Both counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) and the army of investigators on his tail are machine-like in their relentless pursuit of their goals. Tris wants to get to Mexico with his girl Laurie (Barbara Payton), and will stoop to any dirty tricks to make his play. The early scenes consist of a series of reversals before the plot proper begins, setting up the story as a performative game; who wins is the one who acts their role most convincingly. Within a few scenes Tris is an inmate, a snitch, an escapee, and an undercover agent, and then goes on the lam for good. Bridges plays Tris as a jittery hotfoot who has learned how to control his clattering energies. He would calm them even more for his slick sociopath in 1950′s Try and Get Me.


The strait-laced investigator Foreman (Robert Karnes) is easily deceived by Tris’ illusion of collusion. He orchestrates a fake escape, expecting Tris to help him infiltrate his old mob in exchange for a reduced sentence. Instead he gets coldcocked and Tris returns to slinging fake bills. Tris can only be felled by a fellow performer -and he is deceived by the superior turn of John Downey (John Hoyt), an agent going undercover as a small-time con man. Downey fronts the real money for Tris to set up a big counterfeit cash score, in order to follow the dirty bills to their source. Fleischer frequently gets his DP Guy Roe to set the camera low on the studio floor, getting the audience down to scum level. There is an elaborate bit of business during a sting operation, when it’s not only Downey performing a role, but the entire investigative team. Foreman is an unconvincing grocer painting his storefront, puttering interminably over his sign, while the rest of the team mows lawns and unloads trucks. The operation fails as the sale of counterfeit goods never goes through.

For the criminals it was a dry run, a rehearsal, while the cops thought it was opening night. It is only Downey’s convincing portrayal of criminal reality that can net Tris and his counterfeiting network. And just as Downey replaced Foreman on the side of the law, once Tris gets collared the plot shifts to follow the escape route of Jack Sylvester, the printer of the fake tender. The individuals are unimportant in Fleischer’s noir worlds, they are just more blood to flow through the networks of crime and punishment.

The most elaborate moves Fleischer allows himself take place in the climax, set in a trolley car garage, in which Sylvester traverses all of the angles at his disposal. He starts at eye-level, sneaking through the empty carapaces of the cars themselves, then finds himself crawling like a beetle underneath the rail floor, before finally emerging on top of a train. There he can cop a hero’s pose an an extreme low angle, until his grand performance ends in ashes back on the ground.


February 15, 2011

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The For the Love of Film (Noir) Blog-A-Thon began yesterday, and it’s my turn to jump in. The monster-sized Lloyd Bridges stomping on a panicked populace gives my subject away: The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, 1950).  This whole event is raising money for the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts to restore it. Cy Endfield’s 1950 scorcher about a botched kidnapping job and the mob frenzy that follows is available to watch now on Netflix Instant, so everyone can see how important it is to get pristine 35mm prints of this back into circulation.

Jo Pagano adapted his own 1947 novel, The Condemned, into the screenplay, which is a fictionalized version of the  murder of Brooke Hart in 1933. The same incident was also the basis for Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936). Hart was the son of a successful department store owner in San Jose, California.  Thomas Harold

Thurmond and John M. Holmes drove Hart to the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, hit him over the head with a concrete block, and tossed him into the San Francisco Bay. They then called Hart’s parents, demanding $40,000 for his release. After they were caught, the local papers spread the news that Thurmond and Holmes would plead insanity, enraging the populace. The Lindbergh Baby fiasco occurred the previous year, part of a wave of ransom kidnappings that hit Depression-scarred America, and people were in a vengeful mood. On November 27th, an angry mob stormed the jail, pulled out Thurmond and Holmes, and hung them until they were dead.

The Sound of Fury centers the story on one of the kidnappers, here named Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy). In Cy Endfield’s hard-bitten world, everyone is in it for the money. Howard is an out-of-work father, who moved his family to California with the hopes of hitting it big. Instead he drinks by himself at a bowling alley bar in the afternoon, where he spies Jerry Slocum (a styling Lloyd Bridges) knocking down pins. Jerry, smelling desperation, hooks Howard with the promise of a job offer. In a scene of startling homoeroticism, Jerry brings Howard to his apartment and shows off his rippling pectorals, urges him to feel his silken shirts, and then drops the offer to be his wheelman on some gas station robberies.

Howard reluctantly agrees, with the shadow of poverty inching over his unshaven visage. He starts coming home flush with cash, promising his wife a TV of their own and a full bag of potato chips for his son, who is startled at such abundance. It soon becomes clear that Jerry is equally desperate, running on cologne fumes and his own braggadocio. He’s filled with class resentment, a clotheshorse who can’t afford the best.   He comes up with the kidnapping scheme, partly out of greed, but also malice. When their victim says he gets his suits tailored in NYC, the look of apoplectic rage on Bridges’ face is overwhelming. Later, when he snaps and smashes a guy’s face in with a cinder block, it’s no surprise.

These two petty thieves are contrasted with Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), an upwardly mobile newspaper columnist whose outdoor BBQ would feed Howard’s family for weeks. It’s his columns that stoke the city’s rage regarding Jerry’s crime, including their possible insanity defense. Endfield’s repeated emphasis on economic issues makes Gil’s world almost grotesque. He only agrees to cover the case because his editor promises him a bonus, and the editor is chasing the story because blood moves papers. Everyone is corrupted, but because of his upbringing Gil doesn’t have to choose between crime and starvation.

Once Howard and Jerry are imprisoned, the film’s POV shifts to Gil, who undergoes a moral conversion upon seeing the violent rage his columns have provoked in the public. This section is problematic, simply a series of moralizing speeches about the humanity of everyone, even killers. The rich atmospheres of the first two-thirds give way to Gil’s tasteful living room. Endfiled was clearly not as invested in Gil’s milquetoast character, or the middle-class milieu he inhabits. The richly drawn, neurotic characters of Jerry and Howard are let go for cardboard cut-outs of moral propriety.

But thankfully this is just an interim, for the kicker is the nerve-jangling lynching scene, shot with little dialogue and unflinching brutality. In roiling chiaroscuro, the mob tears through the ineffecutal puffs of tear gas and battles their way into the jail cells. Lloyd Bridges wrenches his face into a beaming psychotic grin, an act of stunning bravado in the face of certain death, as the lynch mob ranges closer. Frank Lovejoy, as Howard, had played it quiet and morose throughout, as if he were already beaten in the opening frame. When they drag him away, past the mute, beaten faces of Gil and the police officers, there is no one left to help, and no cash to set him free.


August 20, 2010

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On July 2nd, 1980, AIRPLANE! was released in the United States. For its 30th anniversary, the Film Society at Lincoln Center held a screening and a Q&A last night with directors and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter known as ZAZ). Ever since I stumbled out of THE NAKED GUN (1988) as a giddy seven-year-old, the ZAZ initials have been emblazoned in my consciousness, their screenplays replacing large chunks of my grey matter. I am not an impartial observer. But it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that ZAZ’s peak equaled those of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks in the density of quality jokes-per-minute. Their approach was unique in that these comedies didn’t use comedians. Their laughs came from the cognitive dissonance of watching handsome leading men spout intricate absurdities. All of the performers play the straight man, while the writing is the star.

As Zucker put it, it was “as if we were taking real movies and re-dubbing them.”  (From my main source,  Robert J. Emery’s The Directors: Take One, Vol. 1) It is a constricted style, with little room for characterization or pathos. We are always laughing at these characters, rather than with the complicit guffaws of a Duck Soup. If the jokes fail, there is nothing left. But the ZAZ team was so relentlessly creative within these limitations that the strain never showed until Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994), which I still treasure anyway.

Jerry and David Zucker grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where their mother, David said, would “talk back to the TV and criticize what was going on. That’s kind of where the satire comes from.  She was an actress from the time she was five.” When they went to college, they started making jokey Super-8 movies, including one “about Jerry running around campus trying to find a place to leak.” (I urge Paramount to spend large amounts of money restoring this). After graduation, they hooked up with childhood friend Jim Abrahams, and in 1971 started up the Kentucky Fried Theater in the back of a Madison, Wisconsin bookstore.  Their blend of live improvisation with film and video skits landed in Los Angeles a year later, and became a cult hit.

Airplane! was the first screenplay ZAZ wrote, but they couldn’t sell it, so they adapted their stage show to the screen, and the Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), directed by John Landis, became a considerable success. Airplane! was next, the result of a fortuitous night of television:

We used to leave the video tape recorder on overnight just to catch the late movies and to get the commericals so we could re-dub later and spoof them in some way. One night we recorded a movie called Zero Hour. It’s a 1957 movie starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. It was one of those “airliner in trouble” movies.

With the series of Airport films topping the box office, ZAZ took Zero Hour as their template for a parody, making a remarkably faithful adaptation. At the Q&A ZAZ said they even mimicked the camera setups, needing all the shortcuts they could get as first-time directors.

Originally the structure was going to be the same as Kentucky Fried Movie, with spoof commercials breaking up the main feature, an airline disaster film. But the feature was getting such a positive reaction, they cut everything else out. Intent on making a film with the same feel as Zero Hour and other late night flicks they were watching, they hired Joseph Biroc as their DP (Robert Aldrich’s long time lensman, he would shoot …All the Marbles the following year), and Elmer Bernstein to do the score. When they told Bernstein that they wanted a B movie score, he deadpanned, “so you think I’m the right one for it?” After he guffawed throughout the test screening, David remembered, they knew they had the right man.

Next came the casting. David Zucker:

We were watching these Airport movies and thinking, “Charlton Heston is just too funny.” The trick was to cast serious actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who up to that time had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of the time were.

Paramount originally pushed Barry Manilow for the Ted Striker role, but then reluctantly agreed to ZAZ’s plan for the leads. As a compromise, Paramount insisted on casting name comedians (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams) in supporting roles.  During the Q&A at Lincoln Center, Jerry Zucker talked about how they kept this from happening. Their producer, Howard Koch, supported their decision to go with dramatic actors, so he would intentionally bomb the pitch, telling the comics that the script was “shit”. Jimmie Walker was the only star to sneak through their defenses: he cleans the plane’s windows before bouncing off the fuselage.

The actor most closely associated with ZAZ is Leslie Nielsen, but his part was originally offered to Vince Edwards, who turned them down, irrevocably changing the course of Nielsen’s career and my childhood (Jerry Zucker said they also pursued Charlton Heston and Jack Webb for different roles, to no avail). At that time, Nielsen was taking anodyne TV roles, and the studio told Zucker that he’s “the guy you hire the night before.” But Nielsen was eager to sign, telling his agent, “I don’t care if you have to pay them. I want to do this movie.”

Graves was the most reluctant, unsure of why he was being cast in a comedy. Here was Zucker’s pitch:

We told him it was going to be a new kind of comedy that didn’t rely on comedians but relied on the jokes and the seriousness of the characters and the absurdity of the situations. And the straighter he could play it the better it would be.

While this group of old professionals may have been wary, they got the job done, as usual. Of all of the straight men, Lloyd Bridges’ work still stands out. His air traffic controller, McCroskey, spoke with the speed and bravado of Lee Tracy from a 30s newspaper film like Blessed Event. It’s a performance of controlled mania that ZAZ gifts with some of their greatest riffs, including the “I guess I picked the wrong week to stop drinking” routine that Bridges snaps off with a growling panache. He’s also superb in the ZAZ spinoff Hot Shots as the absent-minded President, whose endearing idiocy now looks like a model of Will Ferrell’s buffoonish take on George W. Bush.

One of the greatest unsung performances in the spoof pantheon is Stephen Stucker’s Johnny, Bridges’  flamboyant assistant who is always ready with a sarcastic retort. In deference to his wit, ZAZ let Stucker, a Kentucky Fried Theater alum, write all of his own lines  – which still generate some of the biggest laughs in the movie. A whirligig of transgressive jollity, he could turn a weather map into a pterodactyl and impishly unplug the runway lights before an emergency landing. He’s a force of nature, the only actor ZAZ allows to be a comedian, mocking the proceedings from the inside. A legendary character, he was a classically trained pianist who showed up to his Kentucky Fried Theater interview in two-toned leather hot pants. Tragically, he was one of the first actors to announce he was suffering from HIV. He died in 1986 at the age of 38.

The other sublime work here is by Leslie Nielsen, as Dr. Rumack. He is perhaps the straightest man in film history. He paralyzes his facial muscles as much as his immovable silver hair – there is not even a hint of a smile or a glint of emotion. His eyes are glazed and serious, and rarely looks at anyone in the face. He prefers to tip his head up to gaze dramatically off camera. It is a turn of extraordinary woodenness, a solid oak of uninflected speech and metronomic movement. It is the Platonic ideal of ZAZ performances. Nielsen’s commitment to looking oblivious is unshakable, and that kind of perfection is beautiful, and forever funny. He would be nominated for an Emmy for a similarly flawless routine in Police Squad! (1982), ZAZ’s short lived cop show spoof that was canceled by ABC after six episodes. They were able to revive the concept for The Naked Gun six years later, which taught me how to boil a roast: “Very hot. And awfully wet.”

At the end of his late 90s interview with Robert Emery, David Zucker says, “I guess the test is if the movie still works twenty years later. We’ll see in a couple of years if it’s still funny.” Now it’s been over 30 years, and it’s still cracking me up.

Postscript: Top Secret (1984) is incredible too.