MODs of the Week: Big Stars on the Small Screen, B-Adventure and More
Warner Archives' recent slate of releases features major Hollywood stars working in the made-for-television field with two very different projects from the 1970s. Tony Curtis and Kim Novak made their TV-movie debuts in Peter Medak's The Third Girl from the Left (1973), about a fading Las Vegas chorus dancer (Novak) whose career and romance with a second-string comic (Curtis) have reached a terminal point, which spurs her to take up with a younger man (Michael Brandon). Written by Andre Previn's former spouse and lyricist Dory Previn, the drama, produced by Playboy's motion picture division (which explains the presence of Barbi Benton) occasionally takes on a sudsy tone, but is rescued by its cast of old pros, which includes support by George Furth, Michael Conrad and Larry Bishop. Curtis also gets to sing an original tune written by Previn.
Meanwhile, Sony Choice Collection reaches deep into the vault for a battery of costume adventures from the '50s and early '60s, as well as a rare screen outing by one of TV's legendary comic talents. Actor turned prolific B-director Fred F. Sears (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Werewolf) helms four of the titles, all made as part of the astonishing 29 pictures he directed for the studio between 1950 and 1958. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) is a gritty Technicolor effort with a (relatively) big name cast - John Hodiak, David Brian and then-newcomer John Derek - as former outlaws contending with Apaches and government agents as they hunt for hidden loot, while 1955's Apache Ambush has Bill Williams (TV's Kit Carson) running a gauntlet between Mexican bandits, Indian warriors and embittered Confederates led by Richard Jaeckel as he attempts to deliver a head of cattle to settlers. Target Hong Kong (1953) moves the action to the 20th century, where gambler Richard Denning is recruited by Stateside agents to ferret out Communists, while Ghost of the China Sea (1958), one of the last films Sears directed before his death at the age of 44 in 1959, reunites him with Brian as the captain of an American cruiser pursued by Japanese forces during World War II. Eagle-eyed character actor fans will note the presence of Roger Corman regular Jonathan Haze, best known from Little Shop of Horrors (written by Charles B. Griffith, who also penned China Sea) and Kam Fong, the once and future Chin Ho Kelly from the original Hawaii 5-0. All are efficient and entirely watchable programmers, best enjoyed on Saturday afternoons while avoiding more pressing matters.
Sony's output also includes Five Golden Hours (1961), a glum, Italian-made comedy made notable by the presence of Ernie Kovacs in one of his rare big-screen efforts. The film can't hold a candle to his innovative TV efforts, but it's amusing to see him interact with an impressive (if slumming) international cast that includes George Sanders, Cyd Charisse, Dennis Price and Finlay Currie. There's also The Brigand (1952), a glossy costume drama by Phil Karlson (made prior to his stellar low-budget noirs like Kansas City Confidential), starring Anthony Dexter as a roguish swashbuckler enlisted to impersonate a Spanish king (also Dexter) to counter dastardly prince Anthony Quinn's plans to overthrow the ruler. The best of the non-Sears titles is probably The Bamboo Prison (1954), a Stalag 17 carbon with Robert Francis and Brian Keith as Allied soldiers in a North Korean POW camp on the trail of a spy within their ranks. The overheated anti-Red dialogue doesn't detract from the tense proceedings, which also feature E.G. Marshall, Jack Kelly and Jerome Courtland.