Saturday, February 16, 2019

Refurb'd Reviews :: Who Killed Jenny? The Doberman Did It in James Goldstone's They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)


When the sleepy seaside town of Eden's Landing is jolted out of it's perpetual bucolic slumber by the shocking death of one of its more eccentric residents (-- and judging by the locals we meet, that's saying quite a bit), it's up to the small town's police chief to unravel what few clues there are, sift through all the town's seamy secrets, and find the killer.


They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) begins with the body of Jenny Campbell (Pulford), local artist and nudie photographer, rolling in the surf, seemingly under attack by her pet Doberman that's savaging the bodies' extremities. Thinking the volatile breed went nuts and killed her, the body is recovered and the animal is scheduled to be put down. However, the autopsy not only reveals that Campbell's cause of death was not the mauling, she actually drowned in fresh-water that was made to look like salt-water, but the victim was also six-weeks pregnant.


Realizing he now has a homicide on his hands, Chief Abel Marsh (Garner) and his dippy deputies check out the victim's bungalow: that's a little too clean in some spots, namely the bathtub, and obviously ransacked in others; but the only clue he finds is a photo of a retreating, unidentifiable naked couple running along the beach. Marsh also arranges to meet with the victim's jilted ex-husband (Lawford), an obvious suspect, who reveals their divorce was caused by his wife's infidelity, not his, but swears the split was amicable and that the "other person" was, in fact, another woman. Confused by the news of his late ex-wife's condition, Campbell has no idea who it is in the photo, nor whom the baby's father could be, but agrees to meet with the equally confused Marsh later at his ex-wife’s bungalow to see if anything else seems suspicious or missing.


Meanwhile, Marsh delivers a reprieve to Murphy, the Campbell's exonerated dog, at the local vet clinic, where we meet the genial Dr. Watkins (Holbrook) and falls for his new leggy assistant, Kate Bingham (Ross), who reeducates him on the Doberman breed's dubious reputation for viciousness. Later, with his new dog in tow, things start to heat up when Marsh returns to the beach and finds the victim's bungalow engulfed in flames -- with Campbell already dead inside! Marsh catches a glimpse of the retreating killer before he roars off, but finds his own tires slashed, negating any chance of pursuit.


Adding up the clues, which, honestly, add up to the point on the graph that's exactly between shit and squat, a frustrated Marsh makes a quantum leap in logic and concludes the original victim was involved in a ménage à trois gone bad with Watkins (-- hey, it's Hal Holbrook, he's gotta be a turncoat baddie, right?,) and most probably Kate Bingham. He confronts her, accusing Kate of being the nude woman in the picture; it doesn't go well, she denies it, and things get ugly from there.


Moving on, Marsh confronts and arrests Watkins. He cops to the murder, sort of, but manages to engineer an escape and nearly kills Marsh in the process with a near lethal dose of dog tranquilizers. However, things are not quite as they seem. And will Marsh be able to recover in time to see the truth and bring the real killer to justice? The short answer? Yeah, he does. The long answer? Well, that's gonna take a little more explaining. WARNING: There be massive spoilers ahead.


Like most major studios, after a string of high-profile flops, MGM was in dire financial straits by the time the 1970s rolled around. And after a hostile takeover by Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian, former CBS exec James Aubrey was appointed to take over the studio and turn things around. To accomplish this, Aubrey ruthlessly slashed budgets, canceled productions, ran off a ton of talent, and sold off the majority of the studio's assets, including cameras, props and costumes (-- like Dorothy's ruby slippers), funneling all that cash back to the boss to help finance the new MGM Casino in Las Vegas, ushering in the era of Mega-Resorts along the famed Sin City Strip.


Also on the block was MGM's famed back-lot, and They Only Kill Their Masters was the last feature film to use these familiar landmarks before the developer's wrecking ball and bulldozers moved in. And while the film isn't a complete waste of time, and that's being pretty generous, it is a testament to the studio's corner-cutting at the time and an indictment on the quality of the behind-the-camera talent pool of that era, making it a cheap and sad last gasp for a storied franchise like MGM.


Honestly, the whole thing comes off like a tired and tepid TV Movie of the Week that's laughably whitewashed over with a few naughty words and some kinky scenarios to try and punch things up. Lane Slate's script is pretty bad, asking us to accept a lot, and hopes we won't mind when the plot dots are finally connected to reveal a concluding picture that makes little sense and comes completely out of left field. Things aren't helped out much with James Goldstone's direction, either. His pace is ... very slow. And ... deliberate. And ... horribly plodding, when it isn't tripping over the padding; the padding being a lot of cameos by some old MGM celebrities as the kooky townsfolk.


Garner, as always, is worth the time and does his best to keep things moving forward. But he always seems to be angry about something. I don't think anybody does the world weary cynic better than Garner --see The Americanization of Emily (1964) or The Rockford Files (1974-1980) as proof, but here he is way beyond cynical and needling well into bitter and downright surly. But I guess if I had to say some of that clunky dialogue I might be a little cranky and churlish, too.


Meanwhile, the ever beautiful Katherine Ross -- The Graduate (1967), The Stepford Wives (1975), is pretty much wasted in a thankless, sleep-walking / eye-candy roll as Marsh's squeeze, and later punching bag. And sadder still, with no help from the script, there is absolutely no spark or chemistry between the leads at all whatsoever. I mean: Holy crap, was that "romantic dinner" scene painful to sit through.


Which leaves us with the ultimate victim in this film (-- no, not the viewer), and one final cinematic kick to the crotch by the cheating script. Turns out Holbrook -- unlike in Magnum Force (1973) and The Star Chamber (1983) was innocent for once and was covering for the real killer: his kooky, bi-sexual wife -- whose brief, dry-belch of screen-time before the conclusion totally justifies my calling shenanigans on the whole damned movie, who was played by a barely recognizable June Allyson.


It's true. I thought it was Betsy Palmer until I checked the credits. That's right: the doting wife of Jimmy Stewart in many a classic movie -- the Depends lady fer chrissake -- is our psychotic, sex-addicted lesbian killer. Wow. Just, wow.


They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: William Belasco / AP: Barry Mendelson / D: James Goldstone / W: Lane Slate / C: Michel Hugo / E: Edward A. Biery / M: Perry Botkin Jr. / S: James Garner, Katharine Ross, Hal Holbrook, Harry Guardino, Tom Ewell, Peter Lawford, June Allyson

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

In Memoriam :: Julia Adams :: Taming the Lonely Monster in All of Us.


When Julie Adams passed away a few weeks ago I struggled mightily as I tried to put into words what her iconic role and screen presence meant in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and what it meant not only to me but to the whole congregation of my beloved B-Movie brethren out there. And then I realized what I wanted to say, and tried to write, had already been said, and written, and said and written much better than I ever could, by Drive-In movie guru, Joe Bob Briggs, in an essay he wrote on the film for his book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History (2003).


“Because Creature from the Black Lagoon was only 79-minutes long,” said Briggs, “the perfect length for TV syndication, it was a staple of late-night horror shows and afternoon ‘creature features’ well into the 1980s, and it was just all-American enough to escape the attention of the concerned moms who probably couldn’t figure out why their sons were so obsessed with it.


“What was the main attraction? Was it the Gill Man, the king of all rubber-suit monsters, who survives from the Devonian Age in an Amazon lagoon and preys on a ship full of scientific invaders? Or was it Julia Adams, the only female in the movie, whose curvy, leggy body and perky breasts are poured into a white, French-cut, crotch-enhancing swimsuit as she plunges into the lagoon, Esther Williams-style, and performs her seductive underwater dance


“It was both, of course. The one sequence that sticks in the mind long after the details of the film are forgotten shows the gill-faced creature swimming below the back-stroking fantasy woman, studying her, following her, yet never approaching as she performs her underwater spins and turns. The monster may or may not be falling in love -- the movie is short on exposition in this department -- but the fourteen year old boys in the audience definitely are.





"It doesn’t take a master psychologist to see how a prepubescent boy, struggling with feelings of being ugly, unloved, and half-formed, would not only identify with the creature (who has acne like protuberances on his face) but imagine a girl just like Julia Adams, who would finally come to rescue him from the lonely black lagoon called his room.





“This masterfully directed underwater sequence would later be copied by Steven Spielberg, almost shot for shot, in the opening sequence of JAWS (1975) -- but in that case the creature obviously has lunch, not love, on his mind. The beautiful thing about the original is that we somehow sense, in spite of the ominous music, that the girl is safe and in fact belongs here instead of in the arms of the man she thinks she loves."



I freely admit Julia Adams was one of my first cine-crushes. And this infatuation began with just photos in books and monster mags, as I didn’t get to even see the movie until VHS tapes became a thing in the 1980s when I was, you guessed it, 14, where this notion really cemented itself. When I had my brainstorm as I struggled to memorialize her passing, I re-read the essay (-- the whole book actually, which is wonderful, as is the author’s follow up book, Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History), and then reached out to Briggs on Twitter and he responded most kindly:


Born in Waterloo, Iowa, as Betty May Adams, her family moved around a great deal when she was young. Her father was a cotton broker, and Betty May spent most of her school years in Blytheville, Arkansas.


And after a brief career as a secretary, at the age of 19, Adams was crowned “Miss Little Rock” and rode that sash and tiara to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.


She made her big screen debut with a bit-part in the barn-burning musical, Red, Hot and Blue (1949). And then, after starring in a string of poverty row westerns for Robert L. Lippert (-- six different films shot in five weeks), Adams got signed by Universal-International, who changed her name to Julia Adams (-- though she always preferred Julie), and she bounced around mostly between B-pictures and a few A-westerns, co-starring alongside Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River (1952) and Rock Hudson in The Lawless Breed (1953). 


In the 1960s, after a brief retirement to raise her family, Adams starred opposite Elvis Presley in Tickle Me (1965), but spent most of the decade, and the rest of her career, really, taking roles on the small screen; most notably the infamous episode of Perry Mason, The Case of the Deadly Verdict, where her character was found guilty, marking the only time one of Mason’s clients was convicted in the show’s original nine year run. And speaking of mysteries, Adams would also have a recurring guest role on the TV series, Murder, She Wrote.


But as Adams herself put it, “No matter what you do, you can act your heart out, but people will always say, ‘Oh, Julie Adams -- Creature from the Black Lagoon.’" Adams really didn’t want the part of Kay Lawrence, the object of desire for a triumvirate of co-stars -- Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and the two guys in the Gill-Man suit, Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman. In her eyes, it was just another run ‘n’ gun B-picture. She even tried to turn it down, but the studio wouldn’t let her. 


At least she would get to lose the western duds this time, and finally show off those legs Universal’s publicity department had been hyping up for years, claiming they were "the most perfectly symmetrical in the world" and had them insured for $125,000 by Lloyds of London. But I have no idea what her head was insured for, which got dinged pretty badly while filming, with the actress forced to do her own stunts due to the limited budget.


Aside from the minor head trauma, Adams noted the making of the film was an extremely pleasant process, and the cast and the crew, under the steady direction of Jack Arnold both above and below the surface, got along quite well. I don’t think she ever regretted making the film, tired of talking about it, maybe, but came to fully embrace it in her later years. And when asked why the film had so much impact and staying power, Adams thought compassion -- not pent up passion from the Devonian Age, is what drove the film. And how she always felt sympathetic toward the monster, saying, “I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that longing to be loved and thinking they really can't ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us."


Which brings us back to the essay Brigg’s wrote about that iconic scene, which echo Adams’ sentiments, and what it underscored. Now hold on. I know, I know that you know, and I know, that you know that 90% of this scene where Kay goes for a swim wasn’t even Julie Adams in that swimsuit, observed from below by the Gill-Man, but her swimming double, Ginger Stanley, gracing the waters of Wakulla Springs in Florida while Julia never left the backlot in Hollywood, and those were Stanley's, less than symmetrical legs the Creature sheepishly paws at before he pulls a 360 and heads for his grotto.


Briggs was well aware of this, too, and even comments on this confusion. And he expands on this notion further when discussing the film’s climax: “What’s odd about the last scene is that there’s no moment in which we see what the monster’s intentions are. He doesn’t brush her hair away from her face or do anything except steal her, carry her, and dump her on a rock. In other words, we don’t know anymore about him than we did when he killed the guy in the camp in his first big scene. Then again, maybe a fourteen-year-old boy who suddenly had Julia Adams in his arms wouldn’t have known what to do either."


Here is where Briggs and I part ways as I don’t think there was anything sexual to this relationship with the creature (-- for that, we’d have to wait for 2017 and Guillermo del Toro’s consensual The Shape of Water). On the surface, sure. Her character is both beautiful and desirable and the end goal of a dick-fight between Carlson and Denning. But below the water I don’t think her iconic role is about being an ideal to be objectified, or possessed, or violated, but an idea. An idea that there is hope for us all to someday find love, compassion, sympathy, and understanding. And in that role, Julie Adams was a beacon that illuminated some very dark and lonely places and brought hundreds if not thousands into the light.


Julie (Julia) Adams
(1926-2019)
 xxxx
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