Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Escape

Since reporting the death of Nigel Kneale here a few days ago, I've learned of the passings of Tina Aumont (PRIDE AND VENGEANCE, TORSO), her FELLINI'S CASANOVA co-star Daniel Emilfork (whom you may remember as the gaunt-faced Devil in Jean Brismée's THE DEVIL'S NIGHTMARE), Tom Bell (who poignantly reprised his role as Bill Otley in PRIME SUSPECT: THE FINAL ACT, coming to PBS stations on November 12), and American independent film actress/director Adrienne Shelly (THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, REVOLUTION #9). I read this tragic news and others do too; they send me e-mails asking "Are you going to blog about them?" -- which is my own fault, because I often do blog about people when they leave us -- but this is one of those times when "these things come in threes" feels more like three dozens, and makes me want to go back to bed and wake up on a different day.

Tina Aumont died of unreported causes last Saturday, October 28. The daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont, she was one of the sultriest starlets of the 1960s and too young to die; only 60, though prematurely aged by many years of heroin addiction. A sign of her deterioration is that one of her last screen roles was as "The Ghoul" in Jean Rollin's THE TWO VAMPIRE ORPHANS. Daniel Emilfork was 82 and died on October 17 of natural causes. Tom Bell died at 73 after a period of ill health, and went out on a noble performance. (The PRIME SUSPECT film, broadcast in the UK only days after his October 4 death, is dedicated to his memory.) Adrienne Shelly is the shocker of the bunch. She was 40, had a loving husband, a three year old child, and her third directorial feature (WAITRESS) is awaiting release -- every reason you can imagine to live for, which makes her abrupt exit from the world stage all the more unimaginable and unacceptable.

Most of you, like me, didn't know these people personally, but we're saddened, disturbed, or rocked by the news of their deaths all the same. What all these passings have in common, of course, is a talent great enough to have spanned countrysides, even oceans, to touch our lives. Let's be grateful for that, and for them, and not allow the pain and weight of all this death to obscure the fact that we have been blessed to know these artists as part of their appreciative audience.

And let's make an effort to acknowledge reasons for joy where they can be found. Tom Savini, who would be worth noting if he had only acted in KNIGHTRIDERS, is 60 today. Would you believe that Jean Rollin and Pupi Avati were both born on exactly the same day, 68 years ago? Film composer John Barry is celebrating his 73rd. The wondrous Monica Vitti turns 75 today. Robert Quarry, Count Yorga himself, lives on at 81. And Karel Zeman, one of the great fantasy filmmakers/animators of the 20th century, would have been 96 today. A few of us might even be lucky enough to toast these happy occasions eye-to-eye with the celebrities in question, and if you're one of those few, I envy you.

Speaking of celebrities, last night's choice of viewing (wholly arbitrary) was THE BIG CIRCUS (1959), which a friend had sent to me awhile ago on DVD-R -- and, boy, does it have a lot of celebrities. One of those frustrating videos that letterbox only the credits for the actors but not their performances, it's very deserving of a properly letterboxed DVD release, as it's in scope and fills the screen with lots of color, action, and as I said, celebrities. Vincent Price is the ringmaster, Peter Lorre is the lead clown, Red Buttons is the expense auditor, Gilbert Roland (who is particularly great) and David Nelson are the aerialists, Rhonda Fleming and Kathryn Grant are the obligatory love interests, and Victor Mature is the flamboyant owner of the Whirling Circus, "The Biggest Show on Earth." Ah, but who is the spy sent by a competing circus to sabotage their success?

Even in its cropped formatting, THE BIG CIRCUS struck me as being as entertaining as a movie can be without so much as a whiff of sophistication. I'm a sucker for Irwin Allen stuff anyway, and as far as Allen stuff goes, it's more respectable than most -- a movie you can laugh with, rather than at. (The theme song's opening line -- "There's nothing so gay as to be spending the day at the BIIIIIIIIIIG Circus!" -- excepted.) It has its silly moments, like the way the combatitive Mature and Fleming are first knocked into each others' arms by the sudden lurch of a train, but it was scripted by former Hitchcock scenarist Charles Bennett (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), so it also has some clever ones -- and a probably accidental film buff moment when Mature solves a transportation problem by remembering Hannibal's 40-elephant trek across the Alps (the subject of his next lead role, in Edgar G. Ulmer's HANNIBAL, 1960). Allen must have loved the big scene where Gilbert Roland dares to cross Niagara Falls on a highwire because the scene was essentially restaged, nearer the end of his career, in the appropriately-titled WHEN TIME RAN OUT (1980) -- and I did, too.

THE BIG CIRCUS was an Allied Artists release, so my best guess is that it's now owned by Warners. They should look into releasing it. People need escapist entertainment, perhaps now more than ever. Most every movie being green-lighted today is escapist in principle, in that it's mindless, but I don't know that graphically violent entertainment, or any film rooted in extreme or punishing realism, can be escapist by definition.

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