Saturday, 7 January 2006

Topkapi

Last night I watched Topkapi. For those of you who have never heard of the film, it is a caper film from 1964. Actually, many consider it the caper film. It was directed by Jules Dassin, who had directed the film that is considered by many to have started the entire caper movie genre, Rififi in 1954. From those two films I would think it is safe to say that Dassin does have a gift for this sort of movie.

Topkapi centres on a group of jewel thieves (led by Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell) who plot to steal an emerald bejewelled dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Peter Ustinov plays the petty con man who has the misfortune to become entangled with them. Although techinically playing a lead role, Ustinov received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1964 for his part as Arthur Simpson. And it is in its cast that Topkapi's strength lies. Ustinov's performance certainly deserved an Oscar, but then Mercouri and Schell, as Elizabeth Lipp and Walter Harper respectively, are also very impressive. For that matter, Robert Morley, as eccentric inventor Cedric Smith, also gives a solid performance.

Even the best cast is nothing without a good script. Monja Danischewsky's screenplay, based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day, has a good pace and a light hearted touch of humour that actually makes its criminals endearing. It also has some great lines. Of course, the strength of any caper film lies in the scheme it portarys. In the case of Topkapi, it is stealing the emerald bestudded Sultan's dagger in the museum of that name. With a alarm system that will go off even so much as a tennis ball hits the floor, this means a delightfully complex setup in order to get to the dagger.

Here I should also mention the film's visuals. Istanbul has some truly fascinating buildings and, of course, the Topkapi Palace Museum is truly remarkable. Dassin has a good eye and he does make very good use of colour. I should also bring up Topkapi's unusual score. Manos Hadjidakis gave the movie a pseudo-Turkish sound that truly befits the film and is pleasant to the ear (at least mine) as well.

Topkapi is a delightful film that has its share of suspense and its share of comedy. While I am not sure it is the greatest caper movie of all time (I suppose it all depends on if one considers Kubrick's The Killing a caper movie), it is certianly one of the best. It is defintely worth any film lover seeing.

Friday, 6 January 2006

Barry Cowsill is Dead

Barry Cowsill, member of the family band known as The Cowsills, has been missing since approximately the time that Hurricane Katrina took place. His body has been found recently, on December 27, on the Charles Street Wharf in New Orleans. He was 51 years old. There is still no detemination as to what caused his death.

For those of you who are pondering who The Cowsills were, they were a band composed of five brothers (Bill, Bob, Barry, John, and Paul), their sister (Susan), and their mother (Barbara), that was quite popular in the late Sixties. The group came about after their father gave Bill and Bob guitars. They soon started emulating the Everly Brothers. Bill and Bob later recruited Barry and John to play bass and drums respectively. Eventually they released a single on the Joda label, which went nowhere. After an appearance on The Today Show, however, The Cowsills were signed to Mercury. Three more singles were released on that label, all of which flopped. Mercury dropped The Cowsills. Fortunately, Arte Kornfeld, a producer at Mercury, had faith in the group. He arranged a recording session at which they performed a song written by himself and Steve Duboff--"The Rain, the Park, and Other Things." On the song, mother Barbara was persuaded to add some vocals. On the strength of that single, The Cowsills earned a contract with MGM. MGM released "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things" in 1967. Eventually it would go to number two on the Billboard charts and it would sell over two million copies. Siblings Paul and Susan joined the group in the wake of that song's success. The Cowsills would also see further hit singles--"We Can Fly," "Indian Lake," and a cover version of the theme from the musical Hair. At one point Columbia Pictures considered a series based on the group's life. Later, that same company would produce The Partridge Family, largely believed to have been inspired by The Cowsills' lives. Sadly, by the early Seventies, The Cowsill's career was in decline. The single "On My Side," from the album of the same name, only reached #108 on the Billboard charts in 1971.

Barry Cowsill was born on September 14, 1954. Following the success of The Cowsills, he often found himself battling with substance abuse. He still performed music and in recent years issued the album As Is in 1998 and a two disc CD ("Fishin' Worm Blues" and "Drunkards Nappy") in 2001. He is survived by his brothers Bob, Bill, Richard, Paul, and John, his sister Susan, three children, and two grandchildren.

I must say that I am saddened to learn of Barry Cowsill's passing. As a child I enjoyed many of The Cowsills' songs. In fact, "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things" is still among my favourite songs. I always enjoyed "Indian Lake" and I actually prefer their version of "Hair" to the original. I must then say that I am saddened to learn of Barry Cowsill's passing.

Thursday, 5 January 2006

Only the Lonely

This morning finds me in a rather poor mood--sinusitis and back to work after a nice Yuletide break. I then think it is time for more music--in this case, more Roy Orbison. Today's song is "Only the Lonely." I seem to recall it was his first really big hit. It went to #2 on the Billboard charts in 1960. I have to apologise for it not being a happier tune, but then Orbison didn't seem to do many of those. LOL. Anyhow, here it is:

"Only the Lonely" by Roy Orbison

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Some Good News For Gene Kelly Fans

Summer Stock, generally considered the best pairing of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, is finally being released on DVD. On April 25 Warner Home Video is releasing a "Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory," which not only includes Summer Stock, but It's Always Fair Weather (that's the one with Gene on roller skates), Three Little Words, Ziegfield Follies, and Till the Clouds Roll By. The extras include some featurettes, outtakes, and vintage cartoons. I am sure that this will make many Gene Kelly fans very happy.

Monday, 2 January 2006

TV on DVD

The complete first season of Hill Street Blues is due for release on DVD on January 31. On March 14 of this year, the first season of I Dream of Jeannie is also being released on DVD. Arguably, both shows are classics, so that their release on DVD should not be surprising. Indeed, even short lived, cult shows are finding a new lease on life due to DVD. The short lived series Profit, an absolutely brilliant show that ran all too briefly on Fox, was released last August. Nowhere Man, which ran only one season on UPN, was just released last week.

It would seem that any show one wants to see can be found on DVD. Indeed, it is standard practice now to release each new season of a current show to DVD once that season is over. Even shows that debuted before the advent of DVD, such as Just Shoot Me, are being released on DVD. It does not matter if a show was not a critical favourite (Just Shoot Me is the perfect example of this). It doesn't even matter if a show gets low ratings--critical favourite Arrested Development, has never been a ratings winner, yet the series first two seasons are available on DVD. Even recent and current shows that have neither critical acclaim nor good ratings can expect to be released on DVD.

Of course, the sad truth is that many shows that deserve to be released on DVD have not yet been so released. While I've no doubt Arrested Development deserves a DVD release, I have to question why Just Shoot Me was released on DVD. For that matter, I have to ponder why some older shows such as Doogie Houser (which was the target of many jokes when it was on the air) and All American Girl (which lasted all of one season back in 1994), given what is not available on DVD at this moment. The Wild Wild West is a cult classic that performed well in the ratings and had a successful syndication run, yet it is not available on DVD. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ignited an outright craze in its first season and has been a cult show ever since, but it has yet to see a DVD release. Last year it was announced that the classic 1963 anime Astroboy was to be released on DVD, but I haven't seen any more news on it. A short list of classic series not yet on DVD includes The Addams Family, Mission: Impossible, Newhart, and St. Elsewhere.

It would seem that while there is a lot that is available on DVD, there is still a lot that isn't. And it seems to me that there isn't a lot of consistency in what is released and what is not released. Consider this, the Western Branded was a comtemporary of both The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West. It barely lasted a season and a half. I would dare say it is remembered only by TV historians and fans of TV Westerns. It is on DVD, while neither The Man From U.N.C.L.E. nor The Wild Wild West are.

Of course, I realise that there are sometimes extenuating circumstances which prevent a given show's release to DVD. An example of this is WKRP in Cincinatti. From what I understand, the series made such extensive use of rock music in its soundtrack that it would be difficult to release on DVD--the rights to every song would have to be secured first (personally, I think it would be worth the trouble). In other cases there may be a question of who owns the rights to any given TV series. A DVD release of the classic 1966 series Batman starring Adam West has been held up because of the time it has taken for Fox (who produced the series) and Warner Brothers (who own DC Comics and hence the character of Batman) to sort out the legal issues involved. It probably will be released on DVD eventually, but it might take a while before it is.

Still, I know of no legalities that prevent either The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Wild Wild West from being released. The same is true of many other classic shows. That leaves the question of why they have yet to be released, even though many lesser shows are already out on DVD. I don't have an answer for that. It seems to me that it isn't a case of demand, as there is obviously a demand for many of these shows. I suppose it is just one of those mysteries of the entertainment industry.

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Other Times

For some odd reason this New Year brings to my mind the poem Miniver Cheevy by Edward Arlington Robinson. For those of you who don't remember the poem, it tells the tale of Miniver Cheevy, a man who longed to live in the days of old, as a knight in the Middle Ages or a warrior in ancient Greece. Instead, he was simply a drunk in the present day. I am sure that all of us at one time or another have thought about living in a different time. Indeed, there are times that I sometimes think I was born too late. I am not at all always certain that I was meant to be a 21st century man.

Indeed, while I am not a drunk, I do have one thing in common with Miniver Cheevy. I have sometimes thought that life might be better in the Middle Ages. I must admit that the idea of wielding a sword and wearing chainmail does have its appeal. I can't deny that I sometimes wish I was a warrior of old. And I sometimes wonder that my values aren't more in line with medieval thought than it is 21st century thinking. But, truth to be told, I don't think I would enjoy the Middle Ages very much. In fact, I might not even be alive. Without modern medicines, something as mild as the flu could be lethal. And then there is the fact that later in the Middle Ages, after the conversion to Christianity, personal hygeine was not high on most people's lists. As much as I might fantasise about it, I don't think I would much care for living in a world where the lifespan was considerably shorter than it is today. I suppose if I could live in a pseudo-medieval, fantasy world, like Middle Earth, that might be fine....

Of course, I must also admit that the Thirties and early Forties always appealed to me. I have always loved the movies and the music of that era. Let's face it, the Universal horror movies, King Kong, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, and many other period films number among my favourites. And Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin number among my favourite composers. I also love the cars and fashions from that era. This was also the era when many legendary pop culture figures were born: Flash Gordon, The Shadow, Doc Savage, Superman, Batman, The Lone Ranger, and so on. That having been said, the era from 1930 to 1945 would have its downside as well. For much of that time there was a Depression going on. It is quite possible that if I had lived in that time, I might not have a job or even a home. After December 1941, there was World War II. Like many men, I could well have been draughted. And like many men, I could have died in battle. That doesn't hold much appeal to me. I guess I don't have to point out that medicine was less advanced then than it is now. While the flu wasn't as deadly as it might have been in the 5th century, there were many other diseases that could take one's life--polio and tuberculosis were two of them. I don't think I want to leave in an age without innoculations against some of the deadlier diseases...

I was alive in the Sixties. Unfortunately, I was also a very young child at the time, so I could not exactly appreciate much of the pop culture of the time. At any rate, the decade has always resonated with me. Those who have read this blog for some time know of my love for the British Invasion bands--The Beatles are my favourite group of all time. And I think that the Sixties were the height of American television. The Monkees, The Wild Wild West, Star Trek, Batman, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and many other classic shows aired in that era. British television had a heyday, too. It was the era of Steptoe and Son, The Avengers, Danger Man, and The Prisoner. And I love Sixties fashions--button down shirts, turtlenecks, and, as might be expected of a heterosexual male, miniskirts... Of course, I suppose the Sixties were not the most peaceful of eras. There was the Vietnam War, racial unrest, protests... And I must admit that I have never found the concept of Free Love very appealing--I'm too much of a romantic for that.

While I must admit that there are times that I think I would be better suited to another time than this one, I must also say that all eras have had their upsides and their downsides. As much as might find living in the Naughts to be something of a drag at times, it is possible that I might have felt the same about the Thirties if I had lived then or the Sixties if I had been an adult then. I suppose that it is natural for people to think that times past must have been better than the time in which they currently live. After all, if this was not the case, there would not be such a thing as nostalgia.