Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Holy "Miss Bala"!

The story linked to and excerpted below speaks for itself. It's of interest how often this sort of thing is happening, as the report details, but it is not exactly surprising. Criminals have always sought trophy girlfriends as one more evidence of their dominance, and the young women themselves use their "erotic capital" (to use sociologist Catherine Hakim's phrase) in order to gain status. This process has never been without risks, and it abounds in them today. Hakim has written a whole book about how she is actually in favor of young people using their erotic capital to get ahead, but although this is inevitable (one certainly sees it in the gay community, too), I'm not sure it's always wise. It's not just that taking this approach can bring one into conflict with the law, although there is that. It also frequently brings one into contact with, on the one hand, gangsters and sex traders, on the other, megalomaniac CEOs, professional athletes, media types, etc. (See Max Ophuls's 1949 film Caught for a great dramatization of this.) You're right, I'm not making much of a distinction between those two groups. In either case, if you use your erotic capital successfully, you become a possession - and as the article points out, possessions are disposable.


Mexican beauty queen killed in shootout

Published: November 26, 2012

By MARTIN DURAN — Associated Press

CULIACAN, MEXICO — A 20-year-old state beauty queen died in a gun battle between soldiers and the alleged gang of drug traffickers she was traveling with in a scene befitting the hit movie "Miss Bala," or "Miss Bullet," about Mexico's not uncommon ties between narcos and beautiful pageant contestants.

The body of Maria Susana Flores Gamez was found Saturday lying near an assault rifle on a rural road in a mountainous area of the drug-plagued state of Sinaloa, the chief state prosecutor said Monday. It was unclear if she had used the weapon.

"She was with the gang of criminals, but we cannot say whether she participated in the shootout," state prosecutor Marco Antonio Higuera said. "That's what we're going to have to investigate."

The slender, 5-foot-7-inch brunette was voted the 2012 Woman of Sinaloa in a beauty pageant in February... 

It was at least the third instance in which a beauty queen or pageant contestants have been linked to Mexico's violent drug gangs, a theme so common it was the subject of a critically acclaimed 2011 movie.

In "Miss Bala," Mexico's official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of this year's Academy Awards, a young woman competing for Miss Baja California becomes an unwilling participant in a drug-running ring, finally getting arrested for deeds she was forced into performing.

In real life, former Miss Sinaloa Laura Zuniga was stripped of her 2008 crown in the Hispanoamerican Queen pageant after she was detained on suspicion of drug and weapons violations. She was later released without charges.

Zuniga was detained in western Mexico in late 2010 along with seven men, some of them suspected drug traffickers. Authorities found a large stash of weapons, ammunition and $53,300 with them inside a vehicle.

In 2011, a Colombian former model and pageant contestant was detained along with Jose Jorge Balderas, an accused drug trafficker and suspect in the 2010 bar shooting of Salvador Cabanas, a former star for Paraguay's national football team and Mexico's Club America. She was also later released...

Javier Valdez, the author of a 2009 book about narco ties to beauty pageants entitled "Miss Narco," said "this is a recurrent story."

"There is a relationship, sometimes pleasant and sometimes tragic, between organized crime and the beauty queens, the pageants, the beauty industry itself," Valdez said.

"It is a question of privilege, power, money, but also a question of need," said Valdez. "For a lot of these young women, it is easy to get involved with organized crime, in a country that doesn't offer many opportunities for young people."

Sometimes drug traffickers seek out beauty queens, but sometimes the models themselves look for narco boyfriends, Valdez said.

"I once wrote about a girl I knew of who was desperate to get a narco boyfriend," he said. "She practically took out a classified ad saying 'Looking for a Narco'."

The stories seldom end well. In the best of cases, a beautiful woman with a tear-stained face is marched before the press in handcuffs. In the worst of cases, they simply disappear.

"They are disposable objects, the lowest link in the chain of criminal organizations, the young men recruited as gunmen and the pretty young women who are tossed away in two or three years, or are turned into police or killed."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Jack Lord and Film Noir

Reading through the credits of director Gunnar Hellstrom (see the Larry Hagman post), I spotted an American theatrical feature from 1968, The Name of The Game Is Kill, which I had recently seen mentioned in another context, as only the second movie (after The Trip in 1967) to noticeably feature a Moog synthesizer on the soundtrack. It turns out that the movie is a desert noir shocker featuring an immediately pre-Hawaii Five-O Jack Lord as a Hungarian drifter in the American Southwest (!) who becomes involved with a strange clan of women who run a remote gas station. It was shot by the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (himself Hungarian; one wonders what he thought of the script).

It was one of Lord's last two theatrical features before he got caught up in Hawaii Five-O's long run. The other is The Counterfeit Killer, another thriller also directed by an expatriate who came to specialize in American episodic television, the Pole Joseph Lejtes. (Both Lejtes and Hellstrom directed episodes of Bonanza.) It was one of the first writing credits of the young Steven Bochco, and apparently has a good jazzy score by Quincy Jones. (Jones's first composing credit on a film was, wouldn't you know, a Swedish movie, Arne Sucksdorff's Pojken i tradet in 1961.)

Lord has some pretty darned obscure noir(-ish) films in his portfolio: Lewis Seiler's The True Story of Lynn Stuart (1958),

Richard Thorpe's Tip on a Dead Jockey (1957),

Jack Glenn's Cry Murder (1950),

and Edward J. Montagne's Project X (1949), described in the IMDB as follows:

The New York-filmed production opens with a discourse on Communist infiltration into American colleges, and moves on to a series of dialogue exchanges in a night club, an apartment, a barber shop and some offices. A young physicist is being blackmailed, by a friend, into stealing a secret atomic energy plan.

Montagne went on to direct the marginally better-known films The Tattooed Stranger (Lord is in that one, too, but uncredited)  and The Man with My Face.

POSTSCRIPT: Don Malcolm at The Blackboard regaled me with further "scuttlebutt over a beer" details about Gunnar Hellstrom's life in Hollywood, which he remembered from his own boyhood there.  Don described the young Hellstrom as a heartthrob type, and I looked up a picture of him as a youth - he was striking-looking.

His very first screen credit was a bit in a Swedish noir called While the City Sleeps (1950) from an Ingmar Bergman treatment. He later directed and starrred in a noir of his own, Nattbarn (Night Children) (1956), with Harriet Andersson.

As he aged into his 30s and 40s, Hellstrom's build became beefier and with his Nord-Euro look he was perfect for small parts as German army officers, that sort of thing. He played one in The Time Tunnel episode "The Ghost of Nero" - Hellstrom is on the right in the picture below.

Of particular interest to me, he acted for Robert Altman at least twice, in a first-season Combat! episode "I Swear By Apollo," and in an hour-long pilot called "Walk in the Sky" that aired on CBS in the summer of 1968. According to Patrick McGilligan's Altman biography, 

People always congregated at Altman's new offices in Westwood, in those days called either Red Carpet Productions or simply Westwood Productions. The Swedish director Gunnar Hellstrom might be there, and Ida Lupino and Howard Duff, who had encouraged Altman back in the 1950s, or actors like Robert Ridgeley or Michael Murphy who seemed to feed off Altman's energy. 

The offices led out to a little courtyard, with two rooms downstairs, one upstairs for screenings. At various times the office had a pool table and a barbershop chair and pinball machines, strange items for a production office in those days, though nowadays de rigeur. There were always people coming and going, cheese and crackers out on the table, with screenings of Altman's television episodes, his Calvin [industrial] films, and his other independent films at night. All very relaxed and informal, all very "family."

I love the way that McGilligan makes you feel the atmosphere of it. (He really ought to update his account, which as it stands, concludes in the early Nineties, to include Altman's miraculous "third act.") Altman was a partier, which would have been conducive to Hellstrom's own high spirits.

Hellstrom also acted under Richard C. Sarafian, who like Reza Badiyi was a sometimes-uneasy Altman protege, in the short-lived war series Jericho, and under Jack Webb in a two-part piece called "Code Name: Christopher" for G.E. True ("based on stories from True magazine") in 1962.  

Gig Young

Gig Young, murder-suicide, 1978. The victim was his fifth wife; Elizabeth Montgomery had been his third. She divorced him for his alcoholism, which also played havoc with his career; he got fired a lot.

Pauline Kael once described Young as "the most naked of actors - an actor with nowhere to hide" (I'm quoting from memory). It was that quality of Young's that helped make the exquisite "Walking Distance" one of the greatest of all Twilight Zone episodes,

and that won him his Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.

Young was, apparently, really disappointed in his post-Oscar career, but it is hard to understand what he could have expected. He was 56 when he won the award in 1970. He had always been a supporting actor on the big screen – and an honored one; his Oscar nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was his third in the Supporting Actor category, after Come Fill the Cup (1951) and Teacher’s Pet (1958). His leads came in theater (There’s a Girl in My Soup was a Broadway hit in 1967-68) and on television; in fact, the year after his Oscar, he was Emmy-nominated as a lead actor in the television movie The Neon Ceiling, with Lee Grant. A lot of actors would have killed for his career, but he was not satisfied.

Like many alcoholics, Young had a nasty streak, that manifested itself long before his life’s shocking finale. One story will suffice. At his time of his divorce from Montgomery, his soon-to-be-fourth wife, Elaine Williams, was pregnant with what would be Young’s only child, Jennifer. Three years later, in the middle of Young’s and Williams’s predictable divorce, he denied paternity of his daughter in order to avoid having to pay child support. He eventually lost that case, but made sure to stick it to his child by leaving her a measly $10 in his will. Shades of Joan Crawford.

Some Young credits that might be worth investigating:

A television movie, Companions in Nightmare (1968), co-starring Anne Baxter and directed by Norman Lloyd. No IMDB comments.  

A Kraft Suspense Theatre episode from 1963, "The End of the World, Baby," directed by the talented Irvin Kershner and co-starring Nina Foch and Peter Lorre. No IMDB comments.

A TV remake of The Spiral Staircase starring Young, then-wife Liz Montgomery, and Lillian Gish, the opening production in NBC's Theatre '62 series (1961-1962). No IMDB comments.   

This Theatre '62 series also included live dramatizations of Intermezzo (Ingrid Thulin, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Teresa Wright - wow!), Notorious (Joseph Cotten, George Grizzard, Barbara Rush, Cathleen Nesbitt), The Farmer's Daughter (Lee Remick, Peter Lawford, Charles Bickford, Murray Hamilton), Spellbound (Hugh O'Brian, Maureen O'Hara, Oscar Homolka), The Paradine Case (Richard Basehart, Viveca Lindfors, Boris Karloff), and Rebecca (James Mason, Joan Hackett, Nina Foch, Lloyd Bochner). The Paley Center for Media has a black-and-white copy of the last one (the original broadcast was in color).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

RIP Larry Hagman

[Cross-posted from The Blackboard.]

Hagman was in the middle of filming the second season of the Dallas revival, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with that script-wise.

I quite liked Hagman as the President's diffident translator in Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe.

Naturally, there are a few offbeat credits in Hagman's portfolio (because if anything is an iron law, it is this: Actors take work).

Edgar G. Ulmer's last film, the World War II drama The Cavern (1964), about a motley group trapped in a cave after a bomb raid; starring John Saxon

The swinging campus comedy, Up in the Cellar (1970), in which Hagman plays a college president targeted for revenge by a disgruntled student; also starring Wes Stern and Joan Collins (Dallas meets Dynasty!)

The cross-cultural comedy Antonio (1973), in which Hagman plays an American millionaire whose Mercedes-Benz winds up in the hands of a poor Chilean (Trini Lopez); it does not bring Lopez luck

With Bibi Andersson in the Swedish sex comedy I Am Blushing (1981), directed by Vilgot Sjoman of I Am Curious (Yellow) fame and controversy. The IMDB offers no reviews of this, but the cast list shows Hagman playing himself - hmm. So far I am frustrated in finding out anything much about this film - but I did locate the poster, and Hagman is on it. The movie is not even listed in the extensive filmography at Hagman's own website - a skeleton in the closet, perhaps? Significantly, Hagman's wife of 57 years (good going), Maj Axelsson, is Swedish, and the couple owns a house in her hometown of Sundsvall on the Gulf of Bothnia.

Hagman appeared on Broadway six times between 1951 and 1963. His most notable performance there was the last, in support of Bert Lahr in S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, which I have mentioned before. If I had ever met Hagman, that would have been the first subject I asked him about!

Hagman played a leading role in an unusual 1959 musical, The Nervous Set, about the Beat Generation, which did well in St. Louis but tanked after a few weeks on Broadway. There is a cast album. Also in the cast was the legendary comedian and improv specialist Del Close, who was a friend of mine when I lived in Chicago.

The Nervous Set was directed by Theodore J. Flicker, Hagman's later director on Up in the Cellar (above). Flicker's most famous film credit was as writer-director on the black comedy The President's Analyst (1967), with James Coburn and Godfrey Cambridge. He also wrote and directed a much less well known film in 1964, The Troublemaker:

A naive chicken farmer from New Jersey moves to Greenwich Village to open a coffee house. The obstacles he must overcome include the mob (who, in one of the movie's funniest scenes, surreptitiously follow him in a garbage truck) and corrupt officials--among them, an Irish fire chief, played by Godfrey Cambridge, black comic actor.

The chicken farmer is played by Tom Aldredge, who made his Broadway debut in The Nervous Set, of which this is almost a spin-off. Other interesting names in the cast: Buck Henry, Al Freeman Jr., Joan Darling, and James Frawley, who later directed two early Seventies cult films, The Christian Licorice Store with Beau Bridges and Kid Blue with Dennis Hopper, before settling into a prolific career as a television director.

Flicker co-created the television sitcom Barney Miller in the Seventies, but appears to have dropped out of the industry by 1981, when he was only 51. Not sure why, but he has continued to write and make art since then. A documentary about Flicker, Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts, played at the Santa Fe Film Festival in 2007.

Hagman appeared in three substantial straight plays on Broadway, none wildly successful:

Comes a Day (28 performances, 1958), with Judith Anderson, Brandon de Wilde, Arthur O'Connell, the apparently quite busy Michael J. Pollard, and George C. Scott; written by Speed Lamkin, directed by Robert Mulligan. Speed Lamkin (1928-2011), pictured below, was a precocious Louisianan who was unkindly called "the poor man's Truman Capote" by the acerbic composer Ned Rorem. He gained attention for his two early Fifties novels Tiger in the Garden and The Easter Egg Hunt. He took the failure of Comes a Day hard - the reviews were most unkind - and retreated to his hometown of Monroe, where he ruled the petite social realm in "Old South" style. He gave up publishing his writing and instead devoted himself to his art collecting; the New Orleans Museum of Art put on an exhibition of his holdings in 2008. (Film noir connection: In 1950 Lamkin was hired to write an American version of Roberto Gavaldon's 1946 Mexican noir La otra, which had been a hit for Dolores Del Rio. One of many twin-based melodramas, it was being developed as a property for Joan Crawford even though Warner Brothers had previously passed on it because of the resemblance to the Bette Davis vehicle A Stolen Life, which also came out in 1946, and which was itself a remake of a 1939 British film based on a 1935 Czech novel. Crawford never made the film, but Davis herself took up the material in 1964's Dead Ringer - Rian James (1899-1953) gets the story credit on both this film and La otra. Got all that?)

The Ireland-based God and Kate Murphy (12 performances, 1959), with Fay Compton, John McGiver, and Lois Nettleton; directed by Burgess Meredith

The Florida-based The Warm Peninsula (86 performances, 1959-1960), with June Havoc, Julie Harris, and Farley Granger

I always learn a lot from these little research projects. It seems to me that almost no one is working on the question of how connections made in the world of theater had an impact on the world of film, television, and radio, and how all those worlds along with those of literature, the comics, stand-up comedy, music, dance, and the visual arts came together in places like New York, London, and Paris (probably less so in Los Angeles, which was more mono-focused on screen entertainment). Pop cultural histories of film and television are turned inward when they need to be turned outward towards other media and intellectual currents.

POSTSCRIPT: One of my correspondents at The Blackboard, AT, kindly pointed me in the direction of additional information about the Larry Hagman mystery credit Jag Rodnar (aka I Am Blushing) at the New York Times website:

Director Vilgot Sjoman of I Am Curious - Yellow fame, has created this film of a director named Gunnar Sjoeman (Gunnar Hellstrom) making a movie in the Philippines that is based on Joseph Conrad's book "Victory." After arriving on location, the director finds that his leading man has shafted him and so he finds another (Larry Hagman playing himself), then his mistress (Bibi Andersson) gets involved with a movement to free a political prisoner, and the Philippine co-producer would like to transform the movie into a more commercial product. Amidst these developments, the director is still able to shoot some pretty bloody scenes of local color, and make broad jabs at the regional brand of foreign white dominance over underprivileged nationals. ~ Eleanor Mannikka, Rovi

This is certainly more information about this movie than I have seen anywhere else. It sounds as if Vilgot Sjoman might have intended some satire of Francis Ford Coppola's infamous production of Apocalypse Now (also based on Conrad, of course) in the Philippines just a few years earlier.

Jag Rodnar could be an interesting (and certainly unheralded) addition to the surprisingly extensive genre of movies about the making of movies. (Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore is perhaps my favorite.) Now to locate the film itself...that might take some doing.

Another interesting connection: Gunnar Hellstrom, who played Vilgot Sjoman's director alter ego "Gunnar Sjoman" in Jag Rodnar, directed six episodes of Dallas and acted in four (as the character "Rolf Brundin"). He had been active in American television as director and occasional actor since the early Sixties (directing 33 episodes of Gunsmoke, for example). I knew that name rang a bell!

I do believe that the Swedish connections here must have had something to do with Hagman's wife, Maj Axelsson.

My new mantra: Read the credits...read the credits. Listen to what the credits tell you.