Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Singing Detective (TV)

The Singing Detective (1986)
Directed by
Jon Amiel
Written by Dennis Potter
Starring Michael Gambon, Patrick Malahide, Joanne Whitley
IMDB Entry

Dennis Potter was one of the most imaginative TV writers in the history of the medium, producing a series of brilliant TV scripts for one-shots and miniseries starting in the 1960s.  I could probably write an post on him alone, except that, like most Americans, I am unfamiliar with the best of his work. Only once did one of his scripts make it to the US in the format it was created, and it is astounding:  The Singing Detective.

It was a six-episode miniseries from the BBC that made its way onto public TV in the US, but only on late night because of the subject matter and language, a drama for which the adjective "powerful" was coined.

In it, we find Philip Marlowe, a writer of hack detective novels featuring "The Singing Detective."  He is in the hospital, suffering from a horrifying case of psoriasis, his skin peeling and rough,* dealing with the pain by making cynical wisecracks, hallucinating, and plotting stories starring himself as the hardboiled detective in his books. As the series progresses, we see why his life is such a wreck, psoriasis or not.

Potter included a clever conceit:  he used popular songs of the 1930s and 40s as a counterpoint and comment on Marlowe's condition.  Most memorable is the version of "Dry Bones," sung by his doctors in the hospital ward.** 

The series slowly reveals Marlowe's secrets and fears and is full of dramatic surprises as elements from Marlowe's books, his past, and his present in the hospital ward begin to merge and slip in and out as Marlowe comes to grips with himself.

You can't talk about this without praising Michael Gambon.  He is in nearly every scene and gives a funny, touching, emotionally raw, and overall superb performance, maybe one of the greatest ever on TV.  His Marlowe manages to keep you glued to the screen, even when your instinct is to look away. 

The film was a smash critical success, but only got modest ratings in the UK. 

Potter did only a few more miniseries after that, all considered excellent, but never making it to the US.***  A movie was made of The Singing Detective in 2002, but the less said about that, the better.****  Potter wasn't around to see it; he died in 1994.  Michael Gambon has gone on to be one of the UK's top actors, though he's best known as the second Dumbledore in Harry Potter.

While the series is still well-regarded by those who've seen it, that number is dwindling, and for most people, the name means nothing. That is a tremendous loss, for it was one of the greatest miniseries ever.

*Potter himself suffered from the disease. Evidently, no matter how gross it looks like in the miniseries, the real thing is much worse.

*Potter had used this effect a few years earlier in the miniseries Pennies from Heaven, which was made into a movie featuring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.  It was also used by Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You.

***At least, I never saw any sign of them.

****I've only seen the trailer, but it looks like a textbook example on How Not to Adapt a Film.  Robert Downey, Jr., is a great actor, but they kept his pretty boy looks so that his skin condition is far less shocking.  They also updated the songs -- reasonable, I guess, but nothing can top the choices in the original.  They even changed Marlowe's name to the far less evocative Dan Dark. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bert Williams (Comedy/Music)

Wikipedia Entry
Natural Born Gambler -- one of the few examples of his work.

W. C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw."  Booker T. Washington said "He has done more for our race than I have."  He was a headliner on Broadway at a time when the only Black faces on Broadway were in blackface.  Bert Williams was simply a comic genius.

Williams was born in the Bahamas, but moved to the US when 10.  After working at a variety of jobs, he started appearing in minstrel shows* on the West Coast.  In 1890s, he teamed with straight man George Walker and the team of Williams and Walker took off, becoming a major vaudeville act.  In the beginning, they played the standard "coon act" of the time, but they slowly moved away into more universal comedy.  Williams also wrote songs for the act, several of which became popular.

In 1902, their show, In Dahomey, became the first show on Broadway to have a Black leading actor, and was a smash hit.  When Walker had to leave the act due to ill health, Williams was given the chance to star in The Ziegfeld Follies, probably the most prestigious show on Broadway at the time.  He made his debut in 1910** and was an immediate hit. 

The songs he wrote for the show also were big successes and he was probably better known as a songwriter and recording artist than a performer.  His signature song was "Nobody," a comic lament that has some real sadness to it.

Williams's persona was that of a man who was faced with hard luck and disaster but managed to be funny about it.  Much like Charlie Chaplin, he was a put-upon guy who had to fight for his breaks.  

In 1916, Biograph asked him to make films. Two were produced:  Fish and Natural Born Gambler.  Williams was required to use blackface, of course, but tried to do more than just be a coon comedian.  He was able to direct and kept the stereotypes to a minimum.  But the films never took off, and Williams returned to Broadway and the Follies.

Williams remained a headliner until his death.***  But he was clearly a man born at the wrong time.  His songs are not a style that remains in favor, and he was too early to be considered part of the Great American Songbook era of the 1930s. His film performances are in silent films, which keeps them obscure with today's audiences.  And his race kept him from gaining wide acceptance at a time when racial discrimination was the norm. 

But it's important to remember that, even in those days, he had the talent to be noticed by the top audiences in the country, a sure sign of a remarkable ability.

*Yes, there were minstrel shows featuring all-Black casts. They wore blackface because that was what was expected of a minstrel show.  In the context of the time, blackface was akin to whiteface on a mime:  it identified the performer and did not, in and of itself, offend Black audiences.

**Along with Fanny Brice.

***After he collapsed on stage during a performance.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Directed by
Peter Yates
Written by Steve Tesich
Starring William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Plummer, James Woods
IMDB Entry
In memory of Peter Yates (1929-2011)
Peter Yates is best known to the moviegoing public as the director of Bullitt, famous for the best car chase ever put on film. And Yates's best film is the classic Breaking Away, one of the greatest sports films of all time.  I had considered talking about Breaking Away after hearing of his death the other day, but I remembered a lesser-known film of his that, while not up to that level, is still an interesting thriller with some great twists.
Toni Sokolow interviews an eyewitnessEyewitness focuses on Harold Deever (William Hurt), a janitor with a fixation on a local news reporter, Toni Sokolow (Sigourney Weaver).  He tapes her broadcasts each day and clearly obsesses about her.  When there's a murder in the building where Deever works, Sokolow is on the story.  To get a chance to talk to her, he pretends he knows something about the death.  Sokolow senses a big story and spends time with Deever to find out what he knows.  But the real killer also begins to believe that Deever knows something -- and has to take action.
Yates was working once again with Steve Tesich, his screenwriter for Breaking Away.*  He took a couple of unfinished scripts and, on Yates's suggestion, came up with Eyewitness.  It was quite a departure for him -- he preferred writing about character, not a strong plot-driven story.  But one of the things that makes the film work is that the characters are more than your thriller stereotypes.  They have quirks and depths which, while nothing like those portrayed in Breaking Away, still make the film rise above the pack.  I especially liked the setting of the final showdown, a location that makes the ending far more fascinating than as is usual in action thrillers.
The cast was first-rate.  There was an odd thread in most of their careers:  Hurt, Weaver, James Woods, and Pamela Reed, like Tesich, were all coming off a breakthrough film.  All continued with long careers, though Reed never got the recognition she deserved, and Woods took awhile to become prominent again.
Tesich only produced four more scripts** after this one, none of which made anything more than a critical splash.  He united with Yates for Eleni, which made a critical splash but did not achieve popular success.
Eyewitness somehow got lost in the shuffle over the years, despite the cast and writing. 
* Tesich's first film script.
** Including The World According to Garp, a film that really amazed me in its misogyny (especially since it was praised by women's groups), and American Flyer, which, like Breaking Away, was like bicycle racing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Directed by
Luis Bunuel
Written by Luis Bunuel, from a novel by Mercedes Pinto
Starring Arturo de Cordova, Delia Garces, Luis Beristain
IMDB Entry

ElAn older man is in church at Eastertime, watching the priest perform the washing of the feet.  His gaze moves from the foot being washed to the foot of a young woman seated opposite.  Then it moves upwards to the woman's face.  And he knows he is in love.

So begins one of Luis Bunuel's lesser known films, El.

Bunuel was one of the world's great directors.  Starting with Un Chien Andalou (a joint project with Salvador Dali), Bunuel showed a talent for the bizarre and startling.  He went on to direct over 30 films, all showing his surreal* imagination.  Films such as The Exterminating Angel, Viridana, Belle du Jour, The Discrete Charm of the Bourgoisie are classics of film. 

The man in the opening scene of El is Francisco (Arturo de Cordova); the woman is Gloria (Delia Garces).  He begins a pursuit of her that is more than a little obsessive, especially when she tells him she is engaged to Raul (Luis Beristain).  But that doesn't stop Francisco, who eventually wears her down so she breaks off the engagement and married Francisco.

Jump to some time later.  Raul returns to the city after spending the time managing a mine, and runs into Gloria.  She tells him about how horrible her marriage was.  Francisco is insanely jealous and just this side of paranoid,** accusing her of having affairs -- and because of Francisco's status, others take his side.  Francisco is also fixated on a legal case that drags on forever, and which he seemed to want to press despite numerous setbacks.

And when Francisco discovers Raul is back in town, he goes completely of the rails.

Arturo de Cordova does a terrific job as the paranoid Francisco.  It's clear that he is a man who gets an idea into his head and cannot let it go. But he is also able to hide is manias from others so that Glora feels trapped and even begins to wonder for her own sanity.***

El is also one of his best.  Of course, Bunuel himself is only known to serious film buffs these days, but anyone encountering him would probably not hear of El.  It gets overlooked -- probably due to the name.  Try doing a Google search for it, and you're out of luck.  Even if you include Bunuel's name, it probably won't show up.  "El" is just too common a word.  I also note that the Criterion Collection, the repository of great films by great directors, has not yet included this in its Bunuel collection.

Hopefully, that will be corrected. It would be hard to lose a great film by a great director.

*And I mean that in the precise manner:  as his collaboration with Dali attests, he was deeply involved in the surrealist movement.

**A quirk I remember well is Francisco shoving long knitting needles into keyholes because he thinks someone is spying on him.  See Un Chien Andalou.

***Spoiler. I've seen some people comment that the final scene indicates that Francisco's belief in Gloria's infidelity had some basis.  I disagree. Francisco believes Raul and Gloria were having an affair, but Raul was never in the same city until he spots Gloria.  And it's clear they haven't met since the marriage, since Gloria tells him everything about it as they drive to her house.  It just wasn't possible for them to have an affair in the time frame shown.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (TV)

Courageous Cat (1960-1962) Created by Bob Kane Wikipedia Entry

Courageous Cat was a costumed crime fighter, who, based in his Catcave, fought strange super villains while driving in his Catcar, or flying in his Catplane, assisted by Minute Mouse.

Sound familiar?

The similarities to Batman a pretty obvious, but no one at DC complained, because the cartoon was created by one of Batman's creators, Bob Kane.*

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse was a series of syndicated five-minute cartoons that were sold to individual TV stations across the county, who would then run them during their local kid's shows. Since they were short, they could fit in anywhere.

The stories were pretty much the same. A villain -- the Frog (an Edward G. Robinson pastiche), Professor Shaggy Dog, The Black Cat, and many others -- would start committing crimes, and the Chief (a dog) would call on Courageous Cat for help. Courageous Cat would drive around in his Catcar, and shoot his Catgun (which could do anything except shoot bullets) until the bad guy was stopped. Minute Mouse was there to add comments and drive the car while Courageous Cat stood up to fire the gun.

In the short time frame, there wasn't a lot of time for characterization or anything other than the simplest of plots. Usually, the villain starts his nefarious scheme and Courageous Cat shows up. The villain then sets traps for him, which the Catgun always allows Courageous to thwart. Then the villain is captured.

But one element of the show was truly great -- its theme song. Written by Johnny Holiday, it's reminiscent (i.e., a rip off) of Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn Theme, but is the jazziest cartoon theme song ever. Here it is (and take a look at the Catcave, while you're at it).

They cartoons were repackaged into full-length shows, but vanished from the airwaves by the mid-60s. And political correctness kept them from coming back. The Catgun was no longer considered appropriate for a kid's show, even if it never shot bullets. Plus the Frog -- the most important recurring villain -- always smoked a cigar. That made it even worse.

The cartoon shows up occasionally and a DVD set is out. It's pretty simple by today's standards, but its had gained a bit in silliness over the years, so it's still fun to watch.


* Kane gets all the credit, but Bill Finger was just as important. Finger changed the look of Kane's original concept to the Batman, adding the cape, cowl, and gloves and removing the red color from Kane's original concept. Finger also wrote the first few Batman stories, while Kane supplied the art (and quickly hired Jerry Robinson to do that for him).