Friday, December 26, 2008


“Blackboard Jungle” director Richard Brooks produced one of the most exciting, exceptionally made western actioneers of the 1960s with his epic shoot’em up “The Professionals.” Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster headed a top-notch cast in this Columbia Pictures’ release that co-starred Jack Palance, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Ryan, and Ralph Bellamy. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science nominated “The Professionals” for three Oscars. Although he had already received an Oscar for Best Directing for his 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry,” Brooks received bids for Best Directing again and Best Screenwriting, adapted from another medium, principally Frank O’Rourke’s novel, “A Mule for the Marquesa,” while ace lenser Conrad Hall got the nod for Best Cinematography. Hall went on to shoot “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as well as “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.” The Academy nominated Hall ten times for Best Cinematography and he won three times, on “Butch Cassidy,” “The Road to Perdition” and “American Beauty.

Set in the early twentieth century, this atmospheric oater ranks as one of the best soldier-of-fortune sagas ever filmed. Primarily, Hollywood filmmakers preferred to confine their westerns to the late nineteenth century, largely between the end of the American Civil War and the official closing of the frontier in 1890. As early as 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a biographical opus about the infamous exploits of rebel leader Pancho Villa, Jack Conway’s “Viva, Villa” with Wallace Beery. Indeed, many B-westerns, some starring John Wayne and Bob Steele respectively, shifted their settings back and forth from the old frontier to contemporary frontier, but Hollywood rarely made a western set between 1900 and 1920 until the 1950s. Some of the most prestigious examples include Eli Kazan’s “Viva, Zapata!” with Marlon Brando, George Sherman’s “The Treasure of Pancho Villa” with Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland, Richard Fleischer’s “Bandido” with Robert Mitchum, and Robert Rossen’s “They Came to Cordura” with Gary Cooper.

“The Professionals” occurs on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. By the time that “The Professionals” came out, European filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone had discovered the narrative advantages of these twentieth century outings. Chiefly, the level of violence escalated because combatants could deploy water-cooled machine guns to mow down the opposition as well as larger artillery pieces, automatic firearms, and hand grenades. Sam Peckinpah made what is probably the greatest post-frontier western in 1969 with “The Wild Bunch” starring William Holden and Robert Ryan. In director Ralph Nelson’s “The Wrath of God” (1972), Robert Mitchum played an Irishman on the run in Mexico who totes around a Thompson submachine gun in a suitcase.

Oil baron and railroad tycoon J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy of “His Girl Friday”) summons three individuals: Henry ‘Rico’ Fardan (Oscar winner Lee Marvin of “Cat Ballou”), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan of “The Tall Men”) and Jacob Sharp (Woody Strode of “Spartacus”) and offers them $10-thousand dollars a piece to rescue his beautiful trophy wife Maria (drop-dead gorgeous Claudia Cardinale of “The Pink Panther”) from a despicable Mexican bandit chieftain Jesus Raza (Jack Palance of “Shane”) who has kidnapped her and taken her back to Mexico to a remote stronghold fortress a 100 miles into a desert hellhole. Each of these soldiers-of-fortune possesses a specific talent. Fardan is a weapons expert and tactician who fought in the Philippine campaign and rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba. Currently, Fardan earns $40 dollars a week demonstrating automatic weapons for the military. African-American Jacob Sharp is the most dependable scout and tracker in the territory who is a specialist with rifle, rope and longbow. Hans Ehrengard is an ex-cavalryman, cattle boss, bull-whacker, and pack master. He supervises the loading of the equipment. Ehrengard has a great compassion for horse flesh and this characteristic jeopardizes the mission at one point. When Grant assembles the horses and brags about them, Ehrengard explains that they will need more than speed to complete this mission. “You’ll have to make them do,” Grant states. “I can make them go, Mr. Grant, but I can’t make do.” When Grant describes their adversary as “the bloodiest cutthroat in Mexico,” Fardan reacts with faint surprise because he has “the highest respect” for Raza. As it turns out, Raza and Fardan are old friends who fought together with Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution.

Grant shows Fardan the ransom letter, and Grant’s Hispanic liaison, Ortega (Joe De Santis of “The Last Hunt”), informs Fardan that Raza has mobilized about 150 gunmen. Fardan advises Grant to pay the ransom, but Grant doesn’t think that he will get his wife back even after he pays up. Grant tries to sell Fardan and company on his audacious scheme to rescue his wife. “It’d take a battalion at least a month, but a few daring men, specialists, led by you, could do it in one bold, swift stroke.” Fardan shakes his head. “What we need is an equalizer,” Fardan points out. “Name him,” Grant demands, and Fardan shows Grant a message that he received from one of his closest pals, Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”), who is currently stewing in jail with nothing but his Stetson and his long johns. Lancaster’s introduction early on (he’s caught in bed with another man’s wife) is amusing. Dolworth is a wizard with explosives “with a delicate touch to blow out a candle without putting a dent in the candleholder.” “Eight hundred dollars will bail him,” Fardan stipulates. “But can he be trusted,” Grant demands. “I trust him,” Fardan assures the tycoon. Grant bails out Dolworth and Dolworth appreciates Fardan’s intervention. “What’s the proposition,” he inquires as Fardan hands him a bottle of whiskey. “You won’t lose your pants, your life maybe, but what’s that worth.” Dolworth gulps some whiskey, “Hardly anything at all.” Dolworth is surprised when Fardan tells him about Raza kidnapping Grant’s wife and even more so by the ransom demand. “What makes a wife worth a hundred thousand dollars?” Dolworth muses. “Some women can turn men into boys,” Fardan observes, “and boys into men.” Dolworth grins, “That’s a woman worth saving.”

Suspicious things begin to happen no sooner than our heroes leave Grant’s headquarters. They are told to ride by night and camp out by day. They encounter a group of bandits and have to shoot it out with them. Fardan explains to his companions that he has situated in the mountains above the pass where they will meet the bandits that if the bandit leader removes his sombrero and covers his gun with it to open fire. Indeed, the lead bandit takes off his hat and passes it across his six-gun as he bids our heroes to “go with God.” Fardan and Dolworth cut loose while Jacob and Ehrengard fire away from their concealed positions in the rocks above the pass. Afterward, our heroes bury the dead bandits and Dolworth wants to shoot the horses that the desperados rode. Ehrengard objects. Fardan explains that the horses will head back to the camp, but Ehrengard opines that they will head north to the river. Fardan lets them go and they finish burying the bandits. Dolworth rides ahead to scout and runs into more bandits who know about him and his colleagues because the horses came back with empty saddles. Fardan and company rescue Dolworth just before the bandits carve him up. Not long after, they find the fortress that Raza and his small army have occupied. Raza’s men are mounting the machine guns that they took from the Mexican army train. Our heroes rendezvous with a Mexican goat herder Padilla who provides the milk that the lady, Senorita Grant, drinks at the stronghold. He is eager to help the Americans rescue Maria because he raised her on the milk of his goats when she was a child. Fardan lays out his plan. Dolworth will plant explosive charges that will simulate a French 75mm howitzer barrage and Jacob will unleash arrows with sticks of dynamite attached to them. When the bandits rush to defend the walls, Fardan and company will slip in “and rescue little red Riding Hood.” Diversion is their only plan because they cannot shoot their way in and out.

When our heroes do make their move on Raza’s stronghold, they get the surprise of their lives. Nevertheless, between Dolworth’s dynamite that blows the water tower to smithereens and Jacob’s dynamite laden arrows, our heroes manage to slip in and escape and hit the trail back to the border. They take the train that Raza’s men had hijacked, but the hard-bitten bandit and his henchmen are constantly at their heels every bit of the way back to the border. Richard Brooks doesn’t waste a moment in this splendidly staged, tightly-edited, sharply-scripted western that bristles with memorable as well as quotable dialogue, feisty performances and some provocative commentary on contemporary subjects like the emerging war in Vietnam. During one scene, while our heroes watch Raza and his men capture a government train, Dolworth and Ehrengard discuss the Mexican revolution and Fardan’s participation in it. “What were Americans doing in a Mexican revolution?” Ehrengard inquires. “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning of time,” Dolworth philosophizes, “the good guys against the bad guys. Question is who’re the good guys?” Celebrated “Doctor Zhivago” composer Maurice Jarre furnishes a lively, flavorful orchestral score that enhances the action and captures the time period. “Time” magazine in its review called “The Professionals” . . . “a thinking man’s western.” The ending is simply terrific.


Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack co-directed “King Kong” in 1933 and forged the first gargantuan beast on the rampage classic of the sound era. The success of their super-sized simian spectacle sired countless sequels, remakes, and imitations, notably “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953), “Godzilla, King of the Monsters”
(1954), and “Gorgo” (1961). Reportedly, Cooper’s inspiration for the movie was the vision of a 50-foot ape straddling the highest edifice in the civilized world, the Empire State Building, clashing with a squadron of warplanes. Truly, “King Kong” couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. America had been wallowing in the doldrums of the Great Depression since the bottom fell out of the Stock Market in 1929. Now, as Frank Delano Roosevelt entered the White House with his promise of New Deal legislation designed to boost the country out of its misery, “King Kong” qualified as a New Deal in filmmaking. Nobody had made a movie about mammoth monsters since Harry Hoyt’s “The Lost World” (1925), based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about an expedition into an imaginary land of dinosaurs. Special effects technician Willis O’Brien created the stop-motion behemoths for “The Lost World,” and Cooper and Schoedsack hired O’Brien to make their eponymous protagonists. During the 1930s and the 1940s, Hollywood filmmakers produced a number of movies about murderous apes. For example, Robert Florey helmed the Edgar Allan Poe epic “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) about a mad scientist who wants to find a white woman as a bride for his ape. “King Kong” amassed the highest opening weekend grosses when it debuted. Reportedly, the receipts from “King Kong” rescued RKO Studios from bankruptcy. The movie coined even more money during its revival in the 1950s.

The James (“The Most Dangerous Game”) Creelman and Ruth (“The Last Days of Pompeii“) Rose screenplay adheres to the basic three-act structure. The first third occurs in the modern metropolis of New York; the second third takes place at sea and later on Skull Island where our protagonists meet Kong. The final third transpires in New York City. “King Kong” opens at night in New York Harbor as a theatrical agent, Charles Weston (Sam Hardy), discusses the ship and Carl Denham with a dock worker. The dock worker identifies the ship as the Venture and labels its voyage ‘crazy.’ He points out that Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong of “G-Men”) is a “crazy fella.” “He ain’t scared of nothing,” he says. The dock worker adds Denham has three times the number of crewmen required for a voyage. “I don’t see where they’re gonna have room enough to sleep.” Jack Driscoll appears on deck and demands to know Weston’s business. Weston identifies himself as Denham’s theatrical agent who was hired to find Denham a woman. Jack invites Weston to board.

Meanwhile, aboard the Venture, Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher of “Topaze”) warns Denham they must soon weigh anchor. “Insurance company found out we’re carrying explosives the Marshal will be aboard tomorrow or the next day.” Denham fears if word leaks about the cargo, they’ll be tied up for months. “With enough ammunition to blow up the harbor,” Englehorn complains, “What do you think the marshal will say to these new gas bombs of yours? According to you, one of them is enough to knock out an elephant.” Denham wants to reach his destination before the monsoon season. The topical rains would delay Denham’s efforts to shoot his movie.

Driscoll and Weston join Denham and Englehorn. Weston is the only theatrical agent left who is willing to find Denham a girl for his new movie. He compliments Denham for being honest. Indeed, Denham has a reputation for completing pictures. Weston points out, however, that Denham also “has a reputation for recklessness that cannot be glossed over.” He laments Denham’s secretive nature. Englehorn agrees. Neither Driscoll nor he knows their destination. Weston boasts about his conscientiousness. “I cannot send a pretty girl such as you ask on a job like this without telling her what to expect.” Weston assures Denham no woman wants to take an unknown trip to somewhere unknown. She would be the only woman on a ship with a crew of the toughest mugs alive. Denham defends his record and reminds Weston that Englehorn and Driscoll have been with him on two trips.

Denham brags that this picture represents a first for him. He must have a starlet “because the public, bless them, must have a pretty face to look at.” He complains, “Isn’t there any romance and adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?” The critics have told Denham that a love interest will generate twice as many receipts. “Alright, the public wants a girl, and I’m going to give them what they want,” Denham declares, even if Weston cannot procure one. “I’m going to go out and get a girl,” Denham resolves, “even if I have to marry her!” He vows, “Listen, I’m going to make the greatest picture in the world. Something nobody has ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think of a lot of new adjectives when I come back.” Denham leaves the ship to search for a suitable woman for his film. He cannot find anybody alluring enough at a woman’s soup kitchen, but he discovers a starving girl, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray of “The Most Dangerous Game”), who used to work as an extra in movies. A Times Square fruit vendor accuses Ann of stealing an apple. Denham pays for the apple, dissuades the vendor from taking legal action, and buys Ann a meal at all-night diner. Denham learns that Ann has no immediate family, though she admits she may have an uncle somewhere. He allays Ann’s anxieties when he assures her that everything “is strictly business.” She feels better when he adds, “Just trust me and keep your chin up.” Denham emerges as a mirror image of King Kong. He qualifies as the king of show business, and he appropriates Ann Darrow as an object of desire for his movie. Later, Kong will appropriate her as his bride. In between, Jack Driscoll appropriates her as his future wife.

As the Venture leaves New York, Ann approaches rough-hewn Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot of “Dodge City”), on deck where he clobbers her accidentally. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start. “I guess you don’t think much of women on ship?” Ann says. “Women on ships,” Jack shrugs, “No, they’re a nuisance.” Later, he observes that the Venture is “no place for a girl.” When she tells him that Denham was to make a test to determine which side of her face to photograph, Jack says, “Both sides look alright to me.” Jack philosophizes about the opposite sex, “Women can’t help being a bother. Made that way I guess.”

Denham joins Jack and Ann on deck. Interestingly, Ann takes an interest in a little monkey called Iggy. She kneels to pet the spider monkey in what constitutes an ironic reversal on what happens to her when she encounters King Kong on Skull Island. Denham observes, “Beauty and the beast. Meanwhile, Jack falls hard for Ann, but discounts his infatuation in front of Denham. “You think I’m going to fall for any dame?” Denham knows better. “Some big hard-boiled egg gets a look, he cracks up and goes sappy. You’re a pretty tough guy but if beauty gets you, I’m going right into a theme song here.” Denham outlines his picture. “The beast was a tough guy, too. He could beat the world, but when he saw beauty, she got him. He went soft. He forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.”

Captain Englehorn and Jack worry about Denham’s lack of candor about their destination. When they reach a point “way west of Sumatra” and “way out of any waters the skipper knows,” Denham shows them his map. “I know the East Indies like I do my hand,” Englehorn boasts, “but I’ve never been here.” When he tries to locate the island on his charts, Denham assures him that it exists on no map. Denham obtained his information from the skipper of a Norwegian bark. “A canoe full of natives was blown to sea,” he explains. “Only one was alive when the bark picked them up. He died before they reached port, not before the skipper pieced together a description of the island and got a fairly good idea of where it lies.” Denham tells them that he got the map about two years ago in Singapore.

Denham describes Skull Island to Englehorn and Driscoll. The island consists of a long sandy peninsula but most of the shoreline is sheer precipice on all sides, hundreds of feet high and across the base of the peninsula, cutting it off from the main island. The natives have built a wall across the island peninsula. He adds, “Built so long ago that the people who lived there slipped back, forgotten their civilization that built it. That wall is as strong today as it was centuries ago. The natives keep the wall in repair.” “Did you ever hear of Kong?” Apparently, King Kong still holds Skull Island in a grip of deadly fear. Denham states, “I tell you that there is something on that island that no white has ever seen. Now you know why I brought along those cases of gas bombs.

The Venture penetrates a thick, eerie fog bank surrounding the island. Denham orders Driscoll to break out the camera equipment, rifles, ammunition, and the costume box. He warns a sailor about the gas bombs, “There’s enough trichloride to put a herd of hippos to sleep.” Denham and company enter a village in the middle of a ceremony. Natives are parading around in gorilla suits. Drums are being beaten and a native girl is being draped with garlands. The girl is slated to become the bride of Kong. Denham tries to get film of the ceremony, but the natives spot him. Englehorn serves as their interpreter. The natives argue that their ceremony has been spoiled because of the appearance of these intruders. The chieftain and his followers spot Ann with her blond hair and demand that the whites make a gift of her to them for Kong. Denham and company retreat to the ship and try to look cool as they leave the village.

Safely back aboard the Venture, Denham and company settle down. Jack and Ann stand on deck. “Why, Jack,” Ann notes, “you hate women.” Jack retorts, “Yeah, but you aren’t women.” Clearly, Jack has become infatuated with Ann. He leaves her on deck. Later, he discovers her missing when the cook Charlie finds a native’s bracelet on deck. The Skull Island natives stole aboard the Venture and abducted Ann so they can provide her as their gift to King Kong. Englehorn arms the crew. The natives lash Ann to an altar on the far side of the great wall Forty-seven minutes into the story we see King Kong emerge from the jungle foliage. He claims Ann as his prize and storms back into the jungle with Denham, Driscoll and company in hot pursuit. Our heroes run into a Stegosaurus and Denham has a chance to prove the potency of his gas bombs. “If I can only bring back one of these alive,” he dreams. Afterward, Denham, Driscoll and company find one of Kong’s footprints and marvel at its size. They come upon a foggy lake and Denham has his men fashion a raft for them to cross over. No sooner have they begun to cross the lake than a Brontosaurus emerges from the water and capsizes them. The dinosaur chomps down on a sailor and storms the land and snatches another sailor from a tree. Denham and company lose their firearms.

Later, Kong attacks the sailors, too. Kong seizes a tree and shakes them off it. Driscoll falls into an overhang and Kong struggles without success to reach for him. While Kong harasses Driscoll, a Tyrannosaurus Rex threatens Ann. Hearing her scream, Kong battles with it and kills it. Kong lugs Ann into a mammoth cavern and wrestles with a giant snake and eventually kills it. Kong climbs a rocky incline and comes out on a mountain top where a Pteranodon grasps Ann in its claws and tries to fly away with her. Kong attacks the prehistoric bird and kills it. While he is subduing the bird, Jack Driscoll helps Ann down a vine from the shelf of the mountain. Kong reels the lovers back toward him, but they dive into the river.

Meanwhile, back at the great wall, Denham and company await Jack and Ann.
Denham is reluctant to leave Skull Island without Kong. “We came here to get a moving picture and we found something worth more than all the movies in the world.” No sooner do Jack and Ann appear than King Kong charges into sight. They shut and barricade the huge gates with the help of the Skull Islanders. Their combined strength cannot withstand the onslaught of a crazed King Kong. Eventually, Kong breaks down the doors, chomps on three natives, knocks over a platform with warriors hurling spears at him, and crushes two natives under his foot. Denham resorts to a gas bomb to knock out Kong. Boasts Denham, “He’s always been king of his world, but we’ll teach him fear.” He adds, “Kong could have stayed safe where he was but he couldn’t stay away from beauty.”

At this point, “King Kong” leaps forward to New York City as ushers lead patrons who paid $20 a ticket to get in and see the giant ape. Jack and Ann are backstage with Denham and the press and Kong secured to a huge platform with chrome steel chains. Denham unveils Kong to the packed house. “He was a king and a god in the world he knew but now he comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity.” The photographers snap photos of the giant gorilla and the flashbulbs set off King Kong. Kong breaks free of his restraints and the audience stampedes out of the theater. Jack and Ann flee. Kong goes berserk, climbs buildings outside, and the police roll out in force. The huge ape pulls a woman out of her apartment in a skyscraper and casts her aside after he realizes that she is Ann. Later, he smashes up an elevated train. Eventually, the mad ape finds Ann, knocks Jack unconscious, and seizes Ann. The police don’t know what to do as Kong scales the Empire State Building beyond their grasp. Jack recovers and suggests that they call out planes armed with machine guns. Four bi-planes equipped with multiple machine guns soar off to the Empire State Building. Kong sets Ann aside and slaps the air at the planes as the gunners pour hails of gunfire into his humongous hulk of a body to no apparent effect. Kong swats one plane and sends it crashing to the ground. The remaining three aircraft carry out more strafing runs. Weakened by the loss of blood, King Kong loses his grip on the tower and plummets to the earth. Interestingly, Cooper and Schoeshack fly the plane that kills Kong. Carl Denham makes his way through the crowd and gazes at the corpse of the gorilla. He provides a memorable eulogy for Kong’s demise: “It was beauty killed the beast.”

A multitude of themes appear in “King Kong.” Principally, the most written about theme is ‘beauty and the beast.’ Despite his size, King Kong is the proverbial putty in Ann Darrow’s hand, even though she occupies the space in his grip. The themes of civilization versus savagery as well as technology versus nature are obvious. Kong rules Skull Island with his formidable strength. He whips every predator on the island that gets in his way. However, he cannot withstand Denham’s gas bombs which incapacitate him. Gas had been used with success by the Kaiser against the Allies in World War I ,and King is no match for chemical warfare. Later, the authorities mobilize air power to bring down Kong. “King Kong” amounts to a pastiche of genres. First, it is a jungle adventure epic in the tradition of “Trader Horn” and the “Tarzan” yarns. Second, “King Kong” is a horror film with the inevitable woman-in-jeopardy. The theme of miscegenation rears its ugly head in “King Kong” and it is interesting that the Production Code Administration did not ban the film, though it did censor the film, particularly when Kong removed portions of Ann Darrow’s apparel, for its 1938 re-issue. Remember, the first bride of Kong is African-American until the native spot blond Ann Darrow and realize that Kong will treasure her more for her whiteness. Cultural imperialism is part of the plot. An American explorer, Carl Denham, arrives on Skull Island and captures Kong, the eighth wonder of the world and takes the ape prisoner so that he can exploit him for $10-thousand dollar a night in New York City.

According to Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, in their book “The Making of ‘King Kong,’” Murray Spivack created a first with “King Kong.” Namely, he harmonized music with sound effects. He achieved this by altering the pitch of the sound effects so that they conformed to the music.