Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Death of Me Yet (1971)

          Exploring a zippy premise from offbeat narrative angles, telefilm The Death of Me Yet is more a compendium of promising ideas than a fully realized dramatic statement, but an engaging leading performance and solid supporting turns help make the piece as palatable as it is befuddling. The movie is about a KGB sleeper agent living a seemingly normal life in California until circumstances cause him to question his allegiance to Mother Russia. While much the plot comprises the twisty thriller machinations one might expect, The Death of Me Yet dubiously centers a love story involving the sleeper agent and his unsuspecting American wife. The picture churns through narrative elements at an alarming pace, thus depriving major plot components of sufficient oxygen—so while The Death of Me Yet doesn’t quite work as either a thriller or a love story, it’s moderately watchable as an awkward mixture of these genres, especially because leading man Doug McClure does a respectable job of selling both styles.
          The movie opens with an attention-grabbing scene at a KGB facsimile of an average American town, which effectively dramatizes the notion of prepping sleepers. Then the protagonist, who goes by various names including Paul Towers (McClure), gets an assignment from his handler, Barnes (Richard Basehart), so it’s off to America. Cut to several years later, once Towers has established himself as a newspaper publisher married to an American woman (Rosemary Forsyth). Through convoluted circumstances, Towers takes a job working at a defense contractor, which lands him in the crosshairs of an FBI agent (Darren McGavin). Then, once it becomes clear the Soviets consider Towers a security risk, hes forced to consider switching sides.
          Based on a novel by Whit Masterson (the pen name for two writers who cranked out decades of pulpy books), The Death of Me Yet has enough story for a sprawling miniseries, so tracking every plot twist is more trouble than it’s worth. Yet many scenes within this briskly paced telefilm are potent, and McClure is casually compelling throughout. While hardly an adventurous or nuanced performer, he’s so comfortable onscreen that he gives even the most ridiculous story developments a veneer of credibility. It’s also effective that McGavin, as the FBI guy, conveys a far more menacing presence than Basehart, who plays his Russian counterpart—hardly the conventional approach.

The Death of Me Yet: FUNKY

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Death Takes a Holiday (1971)

          If the title of this telefilm seems familiar, it’s because the play upon which this picture was based also provided source material for the Frederic March melodrama Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and the Brad Pitt romance Meet Joe Black (1998). In all iterations of the story, Death briefly assumes human form in order to investigate why humans cling so dearly to life, only to fall in love with a woman while spending time among the living. While not as impressive as the other Hollywood adaptations, the 1971 version on Death Takes a Holiday is palatable because the underlying storyline is so intriguing and because supporting performances elevate the experience. Also worth mentioning is the florid but sensitive script by veteran TV script Rita Lakin—even though her style tends toward soapy breathlessness intermingled with ornate speechifying, she connects with a handful of poignant moments. Sometimes neutralizing her work is graceless direction by Robert Butler, a three-time Emmy winner who did better work elsewhere; one assumes Butler was constrained by a meager budget and schedule.
          In the waters off a private island, Peggy Chapman (Yvette Mimieux) seemingly drowns, only to wake on shore alongside mysterious David Smith (Monte Markham), whom she assumes saved her life. Peggy invites David to her family’s nearby compound, where the large clan has gathered for a celebration. Some of the Chapmans welcome David warmly, but Peggy’s aging father, retired judge Earl (Melvyn Douglas), senses danger. As David and Peggy become more enamored of each other, Earl learns about something bizarre happening on the mainland—since the time of David’s arrival, no one on Earth has died. This causes Earl to realize that he’s seen David before during near-death experiences. Thus begins a strangely compelling cycle of philosophical discussions on the place mortality occupies in the universe, leading eventually to Earl’s attempts at changing his family’s destiny. Without Douglas and Myrna Loy (who plays his character’s wife), Death Takes a Holiday would be nearly disposable because Markham and Mimieux are, respectively, mannered and shallow. (Rendering equally perfunctory work is costar Bert Convy, whose character competes with David for Peggy’s affections.) Nonetheless, Douglas and Loy lend so much gravitas that their scenes cast a regal glow across the entire movie.

Death Takes a Holiday: FUNKY

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Togetherness (1970)

A dreary attempt at romantic farce that employs such hackneyed conceits as cartoonishly exaggerated class differences, wholly unconvincing fake personas, and a crass wager between would-be seducers, Togetherness teams C-listers George Hamilton and Peter Lawford with European beauties Giorgia Moll and Olga Schoberov√°. Yawn. Even the film’s Mediterranean locations fail to impress because the movie’s photography is so flat and unimaginative. In fact, nearly everything in Togetherness lands with a thud, so the picture represented a shaky transition to features for writer-director Arthur Marks, who previously helmed episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. (He followed this rotten movie with more low-budget flicks, including a handful of energetic blaxploitation movies, before returning to episodic television.) The interminable first half of Togetherness concerns horny jet-setter Jack DuPont (Hamilton) trying to bed voluptuous Yugoslavian athlete Nina (Schoberov√°) after they meet in Greece. Because Nina is a stalwart communist, Jack pretends to be a poor journalist instead of a rich playboy, but the courtship storyline makes Nina seem like a hopeless idiot because Jack’s ruse is so transparent. Eventually, Togetherness gets around to its real storyline when Jack and Nina take a boat trip with Jack’s friend, Solomon (Lawford), a European prince whose beautiful companion, Josee (Moll), pretends to tolerate Solomon’s infidelity. Solomon and Josee bet each other they can woo Nina and Jack, respectively. Hilarity does not ensue. To get a sense of how desperately Togetherness reaches for laughs, the most prominent supporting character is “Hipolitas Mollnar,” a boisterous Eastern European painter played by John Banner, best known as Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes. Even by the pathetic standards of this movie, Banner’s relentless mugging is excruciating. Sluggish, tacky, and unfunny, Togetherness is so inert that Marks would have been better served executing the piece as a sex comedy. Lively and sleazy would have been preferable to dull and smarmy.

Togetherness: LAME

Monday, May 2, 2022

Hangup (1974)

          Painfully generic blaxploitation melodrama Hangup provides a minor footnote within film history because it was the last picture helmed by Golden Age stalwart Henry Hathaway, once a reliable director of action movies and Westerns. Exactly none of his former ability is on display here—Hangup has all the momentum and style of a bad TV episode. To be fair, the version screened for this blog is an abbreviated cut that was re-released as Super DudeStill, nothing suggests a few extra moments of character development could possibly elevate Hangup into anything meritorious, especially because the leading performances by William Elliott and Marki Bey are lifeless. He plays a college student training to be a cop (who somehow snags an undercover gig on a narcotics squad) and she plays his high-school dream girl, now lost in a spiral of drug addiction and sex work. The threadbare plot involves Ken (Elliott) pumping Julie (Bey) for information he can use to nail a big-time supplier named Richards (Michael Lerner). Predictably, close proximity causes Ken and Julie to fall in love. Tragedy ensues.

          Shot in grungy pockets of Los Angeles on a minuscule budget, Hangup plods along at a dreary pace exacerbated by Bey’s and Elliott’s wooden acting. In their defense, it would take a special class of thespian to animate lines such as this one: “I’m hooked on her the same way she was hooked on smack!” Yet at least for its first hour, Hangup is moderately watchable because the hackneyed contrivance of a narc falling for a junkie has inherent drama. Alas, that strength leads to Hangup’s biggest weakness. When there are still more than 20 minutes left to go, the movie wraps up the love story, a glitch made worse because the main villain has also been sidelined. These narrative choices slow the pace nearly to the point of inertia. And then there’s the sleaze factor—or, rather, the lack thereof. Notwithstanding a few topless scenes, Hangup feels restrained in comparison to, say, Jack Hill’s gonzo blaxploitation joints. So while an easily offended viewer might find Hangup more palatable than other films from the same genre, serious Blaxploitation fans will be left jonesing for a fix of something rougher.

Hangup: FUNKY