Sunday, June 16, 2013

Around the World with Cameron Mitchell (part I)

Cameron Mitchell was an actor who made a lot of strange movies in a variety of genres in various countries all over the world. Let's visit a few, shall we?

United States

Highlights: Happy Cam, sexy Anne and technicolor splendor at the carnival.

Far more fun than it has any right to be, Gorilla at Large from 1954, is our first stop on the Cameron Mitchell world tour. Mitchell plays aspiring law student, Joey Matthews, who takes a job as a carny barker so he can go back to school and marry his gal. When an opportunity arises to make more money doubling the live ape at the carnival's biggest attraction, Joey is more than game. However, the mysterious death of another carny throws a monkey wrench into his plans and brings Joey under suspicion of an investigating detective.
Actually a murder mystery dressed in animal-attack clothing, the film is an enjoyably, fast-paced, not-too-serious whodunnit with Mitchell's character and the carnival's ape as the prime suspects. The cast is surprisingly stellar with Raymond Burr as the carnival owner, Lee J Cobb as the hard-nosed detective and Lee Marvin as the comic relief, dimwit, uniformed cop. Anne Bancroft, who vamps the daylights out of her part as a trapeze artist, co-stars, and looks incredible despite not always being photographed at the most flattering of angles. Unfortunately, she's also very much out of her element in handling the more physical demands of the role, like swinging from a trapeze or being manhandled by a giant ape, but her youthful beauty and sex appeal is undeniable and help overcome the more clumsy aspects of her performance. Mitchell is as wide-eyed, upbeat and optimistic as I've ever seen him and looks to be having some real fun with his part despite the movie's intrinsic goofiness. I really enjoyed him playing something besides the tough, troubled, morose or curmudgeon-y guy and his character's can-do enthusiasm in Gorilla at Large was part of its charm. A carnival is the perfect setting to show off vibrant colors and the technicolor process really brings them out here and adds some production value to what is otherwise a very low budget, no-frills B-picture. Overall, the movie is a surprising good time with a pleasant visual appeal and an A-list cast headed by a spunky Cameron Mitchell performance.



Lowlights: Sleepy Cam, Spanish melodrama, forgettable flora.

Our next stop features some Spanish vegetation horror from 1967 directed by Mel Welles (best known for Lady Frankenstein) called, La isla de la muerte (Island of the Doomed). In this film, Mitchell plays Baron van Weser, a botanist who invites a group of disparate people to his island estate apparently to admire his flowers and partake in his vegan dinners. Of course, the guests eventually start getting taken out Triffid-style by the baron's exsanguinating plant-life which suck the blood out of people like tropical punch juice packs. The problem is how long the movie takes before anyone in the group becomes plant refreshment. There is a blood-drained corpse found early on, but it's nearly an hour before the vegetation starts turning the other guests into human sippy cups. There are a few atmospheric moments to tide the viewer over in the mean time, such as when the pretty heroine, played by Elisa Montés, runs through a fog enshrouded cemetery, but these effective scenes are the rare exception. A substantial portion of the film is taken up by melodramatic dialogue bits that really don't do anything to advance the horror, flesh out the characters or even focus on the plants' malevolence. At times, the background music works to provide mood but frustratingly seems to cut out just when it becomes effective. Mitchell himself appears to be sleepwalking though this one playing a cookie-cutter villain without any memorable qualities. I did enjoy the fact that Elisa Montés and George Martin got some fairly substantial screen time for a change, unfortunately, it had to be in a very mediocre movie. Even the big plant attack moments in the last minutes of the film are a disappointment as they are too cheesy to be frightening yet too inept to be funny. Ultimately, though the McGuffin is different, the rest of the movie is a quite predictable horror piece with not much to distinguish it and even Mitchell's lead villain can't generate much interest.



Highlights: Hero Cam, nightgown-ed Lissa, Bava lemonade from lemons

Onward to Italy, where Mitchell stars in his third fjord and sandal movie (the second directed by Mario Bava) called I coltelli del vendicatore (Knives of the Avenger). From 1966, it's an old-fashioned adventure film steeped more in the peplum genre with an Odyssues-like story than any Norse mythology, although Odin's name is dropped once and everyone has blond hair except the villain. The beautiful Elissa Pichelli, in her only film role, stars as Karin, the wife of exiled King Arald. Karin has taken refuge in the country with her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) in an attempt to avoid the clutches of the traitorous regent Hagen (Fausto Tozzi). One day, a wandering vagrant named Helmut, played by Mitchell, comes to the aid of Karin and Moki and is semi-adopted by them. But Helmut harbors a dark secret that threatens his relationship with the two.
Bava took over the directing of  this film from someone else and basically had to shoot it in a quick and dirty fashion. Where the movie really suffers is in the poor fight choreography wherein editing tricks are often substituted for quality stunt work. Mitchell, to his credit, does get physical in a lot of the scenes, but it appears few of the other actors were prepared to put their bodies on the line, and as a result, there are many awkward fights, choppy cutting and unmatched stuntmen. The story is decent, if predictable, and contains a nice twist concerning Helmut's secret. I did like Mitchell in this as he gets to play a character with both light and dark facets. Elissa Pichelli is unbelievably gorgeous especially in a scene where Bava highlights her curves with a windblown nightgown silhouette shot. Why this was her only film is a mystery as she should have gotten more work just based on her stunning appearance alone. Speaking of Bava, he did manage to pull a few other nice shots off including a cool, atmospheric one in a cavern near the end. With a little more time, a little more Elissa and much better fight choreography the film could have been a recommendable mythology picture. As is, it's just mildly entertaining, and Bava/Mitchell's second best Viking saga collaboration. 



Highlights: Dirty oily Cam, grimy krimi crooks, squeaky clean cinematography.

Apologies for the repetition, as I just recently posted about this film, but Einer Frisst den anderen (released in America as Dog Eat Dog) from 1964 is such an odd piece of atonal weirdness starring Mitchell and shot in the former Yugoslavia, I felt it was too relevant to omit from this trip. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it for Mitchell's unwashed lead performance, the krimi-rich supporting cast, crisp cinematography and all its strange directing choices. For the full review click here



Highlights: Righteous Cam, veiled Monk, Band of gold

I'm not being ironic or glib when I say this is Albert Band's masterpiece. Yes, the man who brought you Dracula's Dog and Ghoulies II (not to mention Charles Band), made a film in Sweden about small town Americana that is a stone-cold classic. As a kid, this film fascinated me for obvious horror reasons, but as an adult I was blown away by its unflinching look at small town intolerance and xenophobia that was far ahead of its time. Based on the excellent Stephen Crane novella from 1898, Band adapted the screenplay along with co-writer Louis Garfinkle with whom he also collaborated on the underrated, now ubiquitous, public domain gem, I Bury the Living
Made in 1959, but set in 1898, Face of Fire is about a likable handyman named Monk Johnson (James Whitmore) who works for the local doctor (Cameron Mitchell) and his family in the small New England town of Whilomville. Despite his modest station and appearance, Monk is a bit of a peacock who wears fancy clothes, gets his haircut once a week and dates the prettiest girl in town. He's much liked by the townsfolk and has an especially close relationship with the doctor's young son. When a fire breaks out one night at the doctor's residence, Monk saves his son but suffers horrible chemical facial burns in the process. Initially, the town feels pity, but it's not long before fear takes over and trouble ensues. 
There are a couple of changes to the novella that really work well in the film. In Crane's story, Johnson is an African-American man. However, having Whitmore, a white actor, play the role paradoxically works even better as it redefines the subtextual elephant-in-the-living-room of racial intolerance and opens it up to include all xenophobic attitudes. The initial absence of any overt outsider such as a racial or ethnic minority actually makes the intolerance more egregious as it can't be blamed on simple bigotry. On the contrary, Monk Johnson's character in the film is very much an integral, accepted member of the community in the beginning of the story, a fact that takes away the "it's-the-fault-of-a-few-ignorant-people" argument that often excuses racism by the uninvolved or apathetic majority. What's most interesting thematically is the townspeople want Monk out of their lives following his accident because he becomes different and therefore frightening. Their intolerance is an undeniable fact as it did not previously exist. The second smart move by Band was to switch the story perspective from primarily Monk's point of view prior to the accident, to the rest of the townspeople's after the accident. For the first act of the film, Monk is followed around as he interacts with the various town characters. Post-accident, Monk virtually disappears from the film (as he does from the community) and is consigned to almost hazmat-like status - something to be avoided, pushed further away or handled by others. I don't think Whitmore had more than three lines of dialogue in the latter half of the film which brilliantly demonstrated how marginalized his character had become. In modern American cinema, the focus would undoubtedly have stayed solely on Whitmore's character and his feelings as he attempted to overcome the gossip, prejudice, fear, etc. Mel Gibson's smarmy, emotionally manipulative, 1993 film, The Man Without a Face, is a perfect example of how to turn this type of story into a steaming bathtub full of nauseating treacle by centering on the outsider character and making him into a heroic outcast. Band had the intelligence to avoid this pitfall and stay thematically locked on the intolerance target by focusing almost exclusively on the town's reaction to the character.
But, I'm suppose to be talking about Cameron Mitchell whose role as Dr Trescott, in my opinion,  is one of his finest, most conflicted performances in one of his most serious, dramatic films. His character is caught between the town's fear and his loyalty to the man that saved his son's life. His righteous indignation at the townsfolk, followed by his fear of their collected attitude feels very authentic, and outside of a little too much script-required melodrama toward the end, Mitchell executes quite well. Also of note is great character actor Royal Dano, who plays the henpecked and disrespected husband of the town gossip. In one scene, Dano's character absolutely unloads on his shrew wife in a quietly intense monologue dripping with bitter sarcasm. It's one of the high points of the film and made me a life-long fan of Dano. James Whitmore is basically the same likable guy he's played in every movie, but what's great is he doesn't try to breath life into the character after he's burned, but plays mostly a veil-covered cipher which makes him all the more unnerving. In one of the most disturbing and well-shot scenes in the film, Whitmore sits motionless with his veil flapping in the wind while a group of local children dare each other to get in ever closer proximity to him. Whitmore's character manages to engender just as much apprehension in the viewing audience as he does in the townspeople. The only flaw in the film is an ending that's a little too pat, otherwise, it's an underrated and under-seen gem. Without a doubt, this is Albert Band's finest hour and maybe Cameron Mitchell's too.


End of part I

 In part II, we'll continue on with Cameron to South Africa, the Philippines and Mexico before returning to the good ole US of A. Au revoir!

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