“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

There have been countless number of plays, movie and television productions based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” novels and short stories. Some of these productions have touched upon or portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict. Only two have actually explored this topic. And one of them was the 1976 film, “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”

Film director and novelist Nicholas Meyer had written his first novel – a Sherlock Holmes tale – called “The Seven-Percent Solution” – and it was published in 1974. A year or two later, Meyer adapted the novel as a movie. Directed by Herbert Ross, the film starred Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. John Watson and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud. “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” began when Army veteran Dr. John Watson becomes convinced that his close friend and colleague, private detective Sherlock Holmes, has developed a drug-induced obsession with proving that a professor named James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind. After Moriarty complains to Watson that he is being harassed by Holmes, the good doctor enlists the aid of Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, to trick Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where he can be treated by a clinical neurologist named Dr. Sigmund Freud. While being treated by Freud for his cocaine addiction, Holmes becomes involved with a kidnapping case involving an actress, who happens to be another patient of Dr. Freud’s.

It is quite obvious that “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” is a mystery . . . like any other Sherlock Holmes tale. Only, Holmes is not the person who solves the film’s major mystery. It is Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Wait a minute . . . “ many of you might say. Holmes is the main character in this tale. And the film’s narrative includes the famous detective being forced to solve a kidnapping. But the kidnapping of Lola Devereaux seemed to be the movie’s B-plot. The real mystery seemed to be the reasons behind Holmes’ addiction . . . and his harassment of Professor Moriarty. And that mystery remained unsolved – by Dr. Freud – until the film’s final ten to fifteen minutes. Sherlock Holmes might be the film’s main character, but the main investigator in this tale is none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud. This is one of the reasons why I still find “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” so fascinating. For once, Sherlock Holmes is not the main investigator in one of his tales . . . he is the mystery. No wonder this film is so rare among the many works of fiction – on screen or off – about the famous detective. Not only did I find it rare, but also very interesting.

Since the real mystery behind “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was about Sherlock Holmes’ personal demons and his drug use, I also have to give kudos to Nicholas Meyer in the manner in which he structured the narrative. He must have realized that he could not simply present a story about Holmes’ demons and his drug addiction and keep movie audiences interested. Especially since Holmes is the main character. Meyer had to include an adventure for the fictional detective, Dr. Watson and Dr. Freud. And I believe that Meyer was very smart to first center the story around Holmes’ addiction and his harassment of James Moriarty. Yet, at the same time, Meyer injected small clues that foreshadowed the trio’s adventures surrounding Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. By the time Freud managed to “dry out” Holmes’ drug addiction, the story finally shifted full time to the kidnapping. I also thought Meyer was very clever to portray her as another one of Freud’s patients, in order to include the neurologist into the adventure. And yet, the rescue of Miss Devereaux was not the end of the story, for the real mystery had yet to be solved – namely what traumatic event led Holmes to his drug use and his harassment of Moriarty. Like I said . . . very clever. Meyer’s story was basically a character study of Sherlock Holmes, yet he included an exciting adventure into the narrative in order to maintain the audience’s interest.

Another aspect of “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” that I truly enjoyed was its production values. It is a very beautiful looking film. I believe the three people responsible for the movie’s visual style were cinematographer Oswald Morris, costume designer Alan Barrett and two veterans of the James Bond franchise – art director Peter Lamont and the legendary production designer Ken Adams. One of the aspects that I enjoyed about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was Morris’ beautiful and colorful photography of England and Austria, especially Vienna. I have only one complaint about Morris’ photography was the hazy sheen that seemed to indicate that the film is a period drama. I found that unnecessary. I was very impressed with Barrett’s costumes – for both the men and women characters. I thought he did an excellent job in creating exquisite costumes for a story set in the early 1890s. As much as I admire most of Morris’ photography for its sheer visual beauty, I also admire it for enhancing both Ken Adams’ production designs and Peter Lamont’s art designs. And I have to say . . . both did a great job in re-creating both late Victorian England and Vienna during the middle period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The performances featured in “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” were pretty solid, with perhaps a few outstanding ones. Would I regard Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes outstanding? I am not sure. I have to admit that I was impressed by his performance in many scenes – especially those that featured Holmes’ investigation of Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. However, there were a good number of moments when I found Williamson’s performance a bit theatrical – especially in those scenes when Holmes’ obsession of Moriarty seemed to be overwhelming or when the character was in the throes of cocaine withdrawal. Many filmgoers and critics have claimed that Robert Duvall was miscast as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ closest friend and chronicler. Perhaps. I suspect that this belief is solely based upon the British accent that Duvall had utilized for the role. It was not impressive. In fact, I found it lumbering and somewhat wince-inducing. However . . . a bad accent does not exactly mean a bad performance. Despite his inability to get a handle on a decent British accent, I cannot deny that Duvall gave a classy and first-rate performance as the loyal and intelligent Watson.

Vanessa Redgrave gave an exquisite performance as Lola Devereaux, the sensuous, yet intelligent actress, who becomes the target of kidnappers. Jeremy Kemp was marvelous as the arrogant and bigoted Baron Karl von Leinsdorf, who also could be rather dashing . . . at least to women like Miss Deveareaux. Joel Grey gave an interesting performance as a mysterious figure named Lowenstein, who played a prominent role in Miss Devereaux’s kidnapping. The movie also benefited from solid performances from Samantha Eggar, Charles Gray, Anna Quayle, Georgia Brown, Régine and John Hill. Jill Townsend, who was married to Williamson at the time, made a very effective cameo as the Holmes brothers’ mother in a flashback.

But for me, the two best performances came from Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Laurence Olivier as Professor James Moriarty. Arkin was superb as the brilliant neurologist, whose cool demeanor is constantly tested by Holmes’ abrasive personality, Baron von Leinsdorf’s bigotry and the adventure that he, Holmes and Watson are drawn into. I believe the other great performance came from Laurence Olivier, who gave a fascinating performance as the target of Holmes’ ire, Professor James Moriarty. What I found fascinating about Olivier’s performance is that he managed to not only convey Moriarty’s obsequious behavior, but also a hint that the character was hiding a pretty awful secret.

I realized that I only had a few quibbles about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”. I did not care for the hazy sheen that layered an otherwise excellent photography by Oswald Morris. There were times when lead actor Nicol Williamson seemed a bit hammy and if I must be honest, Robert Duvall’s English accent was rather ponderous and fake. But overall, both actors and the rest of the cast provided some pretty good performances, especially Alan Arkin and Laurence Olivier. But I was especially impressed by the narrative for “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”, a unique Sherlock Holmes tale in which the main mystery was focused on the detective’s own psyche.

Least Favorite Movie Period Dramas

Below is a list of ten of my least favorite movie period dramas:

 

LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE PERIOD DRAMAS

1. “Legends of the Fall” (1992) – Edward Zwick directed this dull and overrated adaptaion of Jim Harrison’s 1979 novella about the lives of a Montana ranching family during the early 20th century. Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins starred.

2. “Barbary Coast” (1935) – Howard Hawks directed this turgid tale about an Eastern woman who arrives in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and comes between a corrupt gambler/saloon keeper and a miner. Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea starred.

3. “Mayerling” (1968) – Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve starred in this lavish, yet dull account of the tragic romance between Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress, Baroness Maria Vetsera. Terence Young directed.

4. “Idlewild” (2006) – André 3000 and Big Boi starred in this confusing and badly written musical set during Depression Era Georgia. Bryan Barber directed.

5. “Becky Sharp” (1935) – Miriam Hopkins earned a surprising Best Actress nomination (surprising to me) in this unsatisfying adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s 1847-48 novel, “Vanity Fair”. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie is known as being the first full-length production in Technicolor.

6. “Gods and Generals” (2003) – Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall starred in this adaptation of Jeff Shaara’s 1996 Civil War novel and prequel to the much superior 1993 movie, “Gettysburg”. Ronald Maxwell directed.

7. “The Hindenburg” (1975) – Robert Wise directed this rather dull account of the Hindenburg air disaster. The movie starred George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft.

8. “Anna Karenna” (2012) – Joe Wright directed this stagey adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 novel. Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson starred.

9. “Glorious 39” (2009) – Stephen Poliakoff directed this slow and pretentious thriller about a young woman who discovers that her family are pro-appreasers who wish for Britain to seek peace with Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Romola Garai starred.

10. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) – Tim Burton directed this dull and overrated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There”. Mia Wasikowska and Johnny Depp starred.

Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

 

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

 

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

 

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

 

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

 

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

 

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

 

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

 

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

 

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

Chicken Fried Steak

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Below is an article about the American dish known as Chicken Fried Steak:

CHICKEN FRIED STEAK

For years, I had avoided consuming a dish known as Chicken Fried Steak. For reason that now elude me, I tend to regard it as some dish that was nothing more than a great deal of fat and little meat, breaded and fried. During a trip to a local family restaurant, I decided to give it a chance and to my surprise, I became an immediate fan.

Chicken Fried Steak is basically associated with American South cuisine. Some believe that the dish’s name originated with the fact that the meat (actually steak) is fried in oil that had already been used for fried chicken. Others claim that the name originated from the fact that the steak is prepared with the same method for cooking fried chicken. Chicken Fried Steak resembles several European dishes like Austria’s Wiener Schnitzel, Italy’s Milanesa and Scotland’sCollops.

It is possible that Chicken Fried Steak owed its origins to the Wiener Schnitzel. German and Austrian immigrants from Europe first settled in Texas during the 1830s. Many Texans claim that some of these immigrants eventually moved to Lamesa, the seat of Dawson County on the Texas South Plains in the mid-to-late 1850s. The citizens of Lamesa claim their town as the birthplace of Chicken Fried Steak. But it is not the only claim. The citizens of Bandera, Texas (located in the region known as the Texas Hill Country) claim that one of their citizens, John “White Gravy” Neutzling, had invented the dish.

Below is the recipe for “Chicken Fried Steak” from the Cooking Channel website (courtesy Tom Perini/Perini Ranch Steakhouse):

Chicken Fried Steak

Ingredients

Steak:
3 pounds (about 6 ounces each) rib eye steaks, 1/2-inch thick
3/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
2 to 3 cups flour
2 teaspoons seasoning salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil

Gravy:
3 heaping tablespoons flour
2 cups cold milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

For the steak: Trim any remaining fat off the steaks and, using a mallet or rolling pin, pound out the steaks to 1/4-inch thick.

Beat together the milk and egg in a shallow dish and set aside. Place the flour in a shallow dish, season well with the seasoning salt and pepper and set aside.

Cover the bottom of a large skillet, preferably cast iron, with enough oil to reach about 1/2-inch up the pan. Heat over medium-high heat.

Coat the steaks in the egg mixture, then the flour and then add to the pan. Cook until the juices begin to surface and the bottom is nice and brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the steaks and cook another 2 to 3 minutes more. Be careful to not overcook. Continue this process until all the steaks are cooked, placing the finished steaks on a paper towel-lined baking sheet.

After frying the steaks, prepare to make the gravy: Let the drippings in the pan sit until the excess browned bits of seasoning settle to the bottom of the skillet. Pour off most of the oil, leaving about 4 tablespoons behind with the brown bits. Add the flour, stirring until well mixed. Place the skillet back over medium-high heat and slowly add the milk while stirring constantly. Cook until the gravy comes to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with chicken fried steak.

Sacher Torte

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Below is an article I had written about the Austrian dessert known as Sacher Torte:

SACHER TORTE

During my viewing of travel series episode that focused on the city of Vienna, Austria; I first learned about the dessert known as Sacher Torte. Although the dessert looked delicious, I found myself wondering about the differences between a cake and a torte. We all know that a cake is a sweetened bread-like dish that serves as a dessert. A torte is a multi-layered cake filled with creams, fruit jams and jellies, mousses, buttercreams and very little flour. I have yet to learn about the origin of the torte. But I recently learned about the origin of one of the most well-known tortes – namely the Sacher Torte.

In 1832, the famous Austrian statesman, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, charged his personal chef to create a special dessert for important guests. However, the chef fell ill and the task was given to his sixteen year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, then in his second year of training in Metternich’s kitchen. Sacher created a torte made from chocolate meringue that was filled with apricot jam, covered by a dark chocolate icing and served with unsweetened whipped cream.

The guests and Prince Metternich enjoyed Sacher’s dessert very much, but no further attention was paid to it. Sacher completed his training as a chef, worked in Pressburg and Budapest, before returning to Vienna. There, he opened a specialty delicatessen and wine shop. Sacher’s eldest son, Eduard, carried on his father’s culinary legacy by completing his own training in Vienna with the Royal and Imperial Pastry Chef at the Demel bakery and chocolatier. There, he perfected his father’s torte recipe and developed the dessert into its current form. The cake was first served at the Demel and later at the Hotel Sacher, established by Eduard in 1876. Since then, the dessert remains one of Vienna’s most famous culinary specialties.

Below is the recipe for “Sacher Torte” from the epicurious.com website:

Sacher Torte

Ingredients

4 1/2 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
9 tablespoons (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour (spoon gently into cup and level top)
1 cup Apricot Glaze
Small Batch Chocolate Glaze
Sweetened Whipped Cream, for serving

Preparation

1. To make the torte: Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 400°F. Lightly butter a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment or wax paper. Dust the sides of the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

2. In the top part of a double boiler over very hot, but not simmering, water, or in a microwave at medium power, melt the chocolate. Remove from the heat or the oven, and let stand, stirring often, until cool.

3. Beat the butter in the bowl of a heavy-duty standing mixer fitted with the paddle blade on medium-high speed until smooth, about 1 minute. On low speed, beat in the confectioners’ sugar. Return the speed to medium-high and beat until light in color and texture, about 2 minutes. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the chocolate and vanilla.

4. Beat the egg whites and granulated sugar in a large bowl with a handheld electric mixer on high speed just until they form soft, shiny peaks. Do not overbeat. Stir about one fourth of the beaten whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining whites, leaving a few visible wisps of whites. Sift half of the flour over the chocolate mixture, and fold in with a large balloon whisk or rubber spatula. Repeat with the remaining flour.

5. Spread evenly in the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. (The cake will dome in the center.) Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove the sides of the pan, and invert the cake onto the rack. Remove the paper and re-invert on another rack to turn right side up. Cool completely.

6. To assemble: Using a long serrated knife, trim the top of the cake to make it level. Cut the cake horizontally into two equal layers. Place one cake layer on an 8-inch cardboard round. Brush the top of the cake layer with the apricot glaze. Place the second cake layer on top and brush again. Brush the top and sides of the cake with the remaining glaze. Transfer the cake to a wire rack placed over a jelly-roll pan lined with waxed paper. Let cool until the glaze is set.

7. Make the chocolate glaze (it must be freshly made and warm). Pour all of the warm chocolate glaze on top of the cake. Using a metal offset spatula, gently smooth the glaze over the cake, allowing it to run down the sides, being sure that the glaze completely coats the cake (patch any bare spots with the spatula and the icing that has dripped). Cool until the glaze is barely set, then transfer the cake to a serving plate. Refrigerate until the glaze is completely set, at least 1 hour. Remove the cake from the refrigerator about 1 hour before serving.

8. To serve, slice with a sharp knife dipped into hot water. Serve with a large dollop of whipped cream on the side.

MAKE AHEAD:
The cake can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored in an airtight cake container at room temperature.

Extra! Tips from Epicurious:

Quality ingredients will really make a difference in this cake. Valhrona chocolate is perfect because of its dark, almost bitter flavor. For the most authenticity, look for the Austrian brand D’Arbo apricot preserves and Austrian Stroh rum for the glaze. For the best results, be generous with the apricot glaze — don’t miss a spot, and let plenty sink into the cake before you pour on the chocolate.

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TIME MACHINE: Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1875-1914)

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TIME MACHINE: ASSASSINATION OF ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND OF AUSTRIA (1875-1914)

June 28 marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary (present day Bosnia-Herzegovina). Also killed was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Franz Ferdinand was not only an Archduke of Austria-Hungary, but also a Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia; and from 1889 until his death, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The assassination had been planned by a group of assassins (five Serbs and one Bosnian) coordinated by a Bosnian-Serb named Danilo Ilić. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary’s south-Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia. The assassins’ motives were consistent with a movement that will later became known as Young Bosnia. Also involved in the plot were Dragutin Dimitrijević, Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence; his assistant Major Vojislav Tankosić, and a spy named Rade Malobabić.

During a meeting held in January 1914, the group discussed possible Austro-Hungarian targets for assassination that include Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The participants eventually decided to send Mehmed Mehmedbašić to Sarajevo, to kill the Governor of Bosnia, Oskar Potiorek. However, Mehmedbašić ditched his weapons, while traveling from France to Bosnia-Herzegovina via the train, when the police was searching for a thief. Upon his arrival in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mehmedbašićhe tried to search for new weapons. When his searched delayed the attempt on Potiorek, Ilić summoned Mehmedbašić and on March 26, 1914; informed the latter that the mission to kill Potiorek had been cancelled. The group decided to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, instead. Ilić recruited two Serbian youths, Vaso Čubrilović and Cvjetko Popović on April 19, 1914; to kill Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Unbeknownst to them, three Serbian youths living in Belgrade – Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabež and Nedeljko Čabrinović – expressed an eagerness to carry out an assassination. They approached a fellow Bosnian Serb and former guerrilla fighter to transport arms to Sarajevo and participate in the assassination.

Franz Ferdinand, the Duchess of Hohenberg and their party traveled by train from Ilidža Spa to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Governor Oskar Potiorek met the party at Sarajevo station. Six automobiles were waiting. Three local police officers got into the first car with the chief officer of special security. Franz Ferdinand, the Duchess, Governor Potiorek, and Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach rode in the third car. The motorcade passed the first assassin, Mehmedbašić, who had failed to act. Vaso Čubrilović armed with a pistol and a bomb, also failed to act. Further along the route Nedeljko Čabrinović, who possessed a bomb, tossed the latter at Franz Ferdinand’s car at 10:10 am. However, the bomb bounced off the folded back convertible cover and into the street. The timed detonator caused it to explode under the next car, wounding 16 to 20 people. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka River, but his suicide attempt failed. The police dragged Čabrinović out of the river and he was severely beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody. Franz Ferdinand’s procession sped away towards the Town Hall.

Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess returned to the motorcade at 10:45 am. and entered the third card. In order to avoid the city center, General Oskar Potiorek decided that the royal car should travel straight along the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital. The driver, Leopold Lojka, turned right into Franz Josef Street. After learning about the failed assassination attempt, Princip decided to make another attempt on the Archduke’s life on the latter’s return trip. He moved to a position in front of a delicatessen off Appel Quay. The Archduke’s motorcade made the mistake of following the original route. Governor Potiorek, who shared the Imperial couple’s vehicle, ordered the driver to reverse and take the Quay to the hospital. Lojka stopped the car close to where Princip was standing. The latter stepped forward and fired two shots from a Belgian-made 9×17mm Fabrique Nationale model 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The first bullet wounded the Archduke in the jugular vein. The second bullet hit the Duchess in her abdomen. Princip was immediately arrested. At his sentencing, Princip stated that his intention had been to kill Governor Potiorek, rather than the Duchess. Both victims remained seated upright, but died on the way to the Governor’s residence for medical treatment. As reported by Count Harrach, Franz Ferdinand’s last words were “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!”, followed by six or seven utterances of “It is nothing.” These mutterings were followed by a long death rattle. Sophie was dead upon arrival at the Governor’s residence. Franz Ferdinand died 10 minutes later.

Alfred, 2nd Prince of Montenuovo, Franz Joseph’s Chamberlain, hated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie with a passion and with the emperor’s connivance, decided to turn the funeral into a massive and vicious snub. He disinvited foreign royalty, the dead couple’s three children were excluded from the few public ceremonies and only the immediate Imperial family attended. Even the Austro-Hungarian officer corps was forbidden to salute the funeral train. However, this was nothing in compare to the political aftermath of the assassinations.

Not only was Princip captured, but also his fellow conspirators. They were all tried and convicted by early 1915. Ironically, Princip, who had actually pulled the trigger, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died from malnutrition and disease in 1918. Only three of the conspirators were executed on February 3, 1915 – Danilo Ilić and Veljko Čubrilović. Anti-Serb rioting broke out in Sarajevo and various other places within the Austria-Hungary Empire, hours after the assassination. Country-wide anti-Serb pogroms and demonstrations were also organized throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Oskar Potiorek, the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The assassinations produced widespread shock across Europe. There was a great deal of initial sympathy toward Austria. Within two days, Austria-Hungary and its ally, Germany, advised Serbia that it should open an investigation on the assassination, but the Serbian government responded that the incident did not concern them. After conducting its own criminal investigation, Austro-Hungary issued what became known as the July Ultimatum, which listed demands made to Serbia regarding the assassinations within 48 hours. After receiving support from Russia, Serbia agreed to at least two out of ten demands. The government mobilized its troops and transported them by tramp steamers across the Danube River to the Austro-Hungarian at Temes-Kubin. Austro-Hungarian soldiers fired into the air to warn them off. On July 28, 1914; Austria-Hungary and its ally, Germany, declared war on Serbia. Under the Secret Treaty of 1892, Russia and France were obliged to mobilize their armies if any of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austo-Hungary and Italy) mobilized. Russia’s mobilization completed full Austro-Hungarian and German mobilizations. Soon all the Great Powers, except Italy, had chosen sides. World War I had begun.

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

Out of all the books featured in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, only one featured more than one tale. This turned out to be “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”, first published in 1999. Instead of one novel, the book contained three novellas featuring an aging Harry Flashman between the ages of 56 and 72. 

As I had stated earlier, “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” featured three novellas – “The Road to Charing Cross”“The Subtleties of Baccarat”, and “Flashman and the Tiger”. The first story deals with Flashman involved in a plot to thwart the assassination of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef. The second involves the infamous Tranby Croft Scandal, which involved the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and someone close to Flashman. And the third story featured Flashman’s encounters with the villainous Tiger Jack Moran during the Anglo-Zulu War, and later in London of the 1890s. Let us begin . . . shall we?

“The Road to Charing Cross”

The longest novella in the book, “The Road to Charing Cross” begins in 1878, when Flashman is invited by the famous journalist, Henri Blowitz, to help get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin. During his trip to Germany, Flashman will a beautiful member of the French Secret Service named Caprice. Five years later in 1883, Flashy is invited by Blowitz to journey on the inaugural trip of the Orient Express. Flashman accepts the invitation as an excuse to avoid being sent to the Sudan. During the train journey, he is introduced to Princess Kralta of Germany, who has expressed interest in him of the romantic nature. As it turns out, Kralta’s interest in Flashman is nothing more than a ruse devised by his old nemesis from , Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in order to get the British Army officer to help prevent Emperor Franz Josef from being assassinated and prevent a major European war. One of Flashman’s colleagues in this plot turns out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Rudi von Starnberg, another former nemesis from the 1970 novel. In the end, it turns out that von Starnberg has other plans of his own.

For me, “The Road to Charing Cross” turned out to be the best of three novellas. Regardless of its length, I thought it was a well-written adventure set during the political upheavals of Central Europe. Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating the first rail journey of the Orient Express. He must have did his homework in researching this piece of history. And the sequence featuring Flashman’s efforts to save the Austrian emperor and his own hide were truly outstanding. His characterizations of Princess Kralta, Henri Blowitz, and Emperor Franz Josef were first-rate. Fraser’s pièce de résistanceturned out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Flashman’s old nemesis, Rudi von Starnberg. Dear old Willy turned out to be a chip off the old block . . . and a lot more. He possessed Rudi’s wit, joie de vivre and ruthlessness.

Did “The Road to Charing Cross” have any flaws? Well . . . it had one. And that flaw had a lot to do with the character of Willem von Starnberg. Although Willem was well written by Fraser, the latter described him as being half-German (Prussian) and half-Hungarian. Which meant that according to this story, Rudi von Starnberg was Austrian. Apparently, George MacDonald Fraser seemed incapable of determining Rudi’s nationality. Fraser described him as an Austrian in“Royal Flash”, as a Hungarian in the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel, and as a German in this story. Whatever. Despite this major flaw, “The Road to Charing Cross” is still an excellent story.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat”

This novella finds Sir Harry Flashman and his wife, Elspeth, Lady Flashman; visiting Tranby Croft, the estate of one Sir Arthur Wilson in early September 1890. Sir Arthur is hosting a house party in honor of his royal visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. During the house party, both Flashman and Elspeth witness a baccarat game, which was considered illegal in Britain. The legalities were brushed aside, due to the Prince of Wales’ love of the game. During the days between September 8 and 9, several guests claimed that one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, cheating. Guests informed the Prince of Wales, who confronted Gordon-Cumming. To the very end, the latter claimed that he was innocent and even sued the Prince of Wales and a few others for defamation of character. Alas, the label of cheat stuck and Gordon-Cummings became a social pariah. But “The Subtleties of Baccarat” did not end with Gordon-Cumming’s downfall. Instead, it ended with a surprising revelation that left Flashman in total shock.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat” was an interesting little tale. But I cannot say that I would ever love it. At least most of the story. The problem is that I am not a card player. And I found it difficult to follow the card games, while the scandal unfolded. It was not until Flashman learned the truth about the scandal from the surprising figure of Elspeth that the story truly became interesting to me. If I must be honest, Elspeth’s revelations on what really happened during the baccarat games not only shocked me, but made me become an even bigger fan of Lady Flashman. The novella had a surprising, yet satisfying finale to an otherwise bearable story.

“Flashman and the Tiger”

The book derived its title from its third novella set in both 1879 and 1894. “Flashman and the Tiger” is mainly about Flashman’s encounters with a character named Tiger Jack Moran, who had been originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his SHERLOCK HOLMES stories. Flashman first meets Moran during the Zulu War, when both experience the retreat from the Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorke’s Drift. The pair does not meet again until fifteen years later, when Flashman discovers that Moran is blackmailing his granddaughter, Selina, in order to sleep with her. Moran turns out to be a cabin boy (who had propositioned Flashy) on Captain John Charity Spring’s ship, the Balliol College, who had been traded to King Gezo as a white slave in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Moran spent years seeking revenge against the surviving crewmen. He found his opportunity to seek revenge against Flashman, when he learned that the latter’s engaged granddaughter was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. The story ended with Moran’s arrest and Flashman’s brief, yet humorous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This novella was a problem for me. One, I found the addition of Flashman’s experiences during the Zulu War unnecessary. Fraser could have used the Zulu War as a major novel, instead of adding this useless scene that really had little to do with the main narrative. What made the use of this topic even more unnecessary was that Flashman’s first encounter with Moran occurred in 1848, aboard Captain Charity Spring’s ship. It was this encounter that a much bigger impact on the story. I have the deep suspicion that Fraser used this story as an excuse to indulge in a little Imperial flag waving. After all, “Flashman and the Tiger” did not focus on the Battle of Isandlwana, in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats at the hands of the Zulu. Instead, it focused on the following battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which the British managed to repel several attacks by the enemy.

My second problem with this novella was the fact that Fraser used Tiger Jack Moran, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as supporting characters. I found that rather cheap. I found it bad enough that Fraser used Sir Anthony Hope’s novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as a premise for his 1970 novel, “ROYAL FLASH” and a historical character as Flashman’s love child in “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. But using literary characters created by another author as supporting characters in one’s own story? Hmmm . . . cheap.

Finally, Fraser must have done a piss poor job in researching the love life of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The latter’s mistresses were usually sexually experienced women who were either married society women, actresses or prostitutes. I do not recall the Prince of Wales ever taking the virginity of a 19 year-old debutante . . . especially one who was engaged. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Flashman’s unmarried granddaughter was one of Bertie the Bounder’s mistresses. The only redeeming trait of this story was Fraser’s description of the Isandlwana retreat and the Defense of Rorke’s Drift. Apparently, he saved all of his top-notch research for this particular sequence.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” was not a bad piece of literature from George MacDonald Fraser’s pen. It possessed a first-rate novella, “The Road to Charing Cross”, and a mildly entertaining story with a juicy, surprise ending in “The Subtleties of Baccarat”. The book’s only misstep . . . at least for me . . . proved to be the last story, “Flashman and Tiger”.

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

“THE GREAT RACE” (1965) Review

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Hollywood film industry had released many films that were later dubbed as”blockbusters”. These films were made to compete with the growing popularity of television during the post-World War II era. Most of the blockbusters released during the 1950s turned out to be period dramas and musicals. The period dramas and musicals continued way into the 1960s. However, they were joined by all-star comedies with long running times. One of these comedies turned out to be 1965’s “THE GREAT RACE”

Directed by Blake Edwards, “THE GREAT RACE” told the story of a long distance road race from New York City to Paris in 1908, between two daredevil rivals. One of these rivals happened to be Leslie Gallant III (aka “The Great Leslie”), a handsome, brave and dashing daredevil who represented the epitome of the well-bred American gentleman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Leslie also possessed a slightly condescending manner that matched his superficial perfection to a “T”. The Great Leslie’s daredevil rival was a swarthy, mustache-twirling villain named Professor Fate. But whereas Leslie’s successful stunts gave him respectability from American public, businessmen and the media, Fate has been nearly regulated to the status of a buffoon, due to his constant failures. The latter resulted in Fate’s eternal grudge against his more handsome and successful rival. When the white-suited hero proposed a long road race from New York City to Paris in order to promote a new car (the Leslie Special) designed by him and built by the Weber Motor Company, Fate decided to thwart Leslie’s plans of victory by building his own super car for the race (the Hannibal Eight). Meanwhile, a female photojournalist and suffragette named Maggie Dubois managed to convince the editor of the The New York Sentinelto hire her to cover the race.

I might as well be blunt. I tend to have mixed views about Hollywood blockbusters. I either love them, in spite of themselves. Or I dislike them. While viewing some of these blockbusters from the 1950s and 60s, they struck as bloated as some of today’s blockbusters. And “THE GREAT RACE” certainly seemed like the blockbuster of the bloated variety. With a running time of two hours and forty minutes, it seemed to long for a mere comedy. Really. The movie also shared a similar flaw with another 1965 blockbuster, “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”. In other words, it is a long comedic movie about a race in which only a small percentage of the film featured the actual event. First of all, Edwards and his co-writer, Arthur A. Ross, spent at least 40 to 45 minutes of the film setting up his characters and the preparation for the race. Forty-five minutes. And although the next two hours centered on the actual race, moviegoers only saw the participants race during the first leg of the race that featured the results of a series of sabotage committed by Fate’s assistant, Maximilian, against Leslie and Fate’s other competitors. Most of the movie centered around the main characters’ adventures in the small Western town of Boracho, in the wintry chills of Alaska, Imperial Russia and a fictionalized European country called Carpania and its capital of Potsdorf (during which the movie became a spoof of Anthony Hope’s classic, “The Prisoner of Zenda”). Moviegoers were able to see the race one last time, when the Leslie Special and the Hannibal Eight raced along the outskirts and within the city of Paris – the final destination. For a movie called “THE GREAT RACE”, very little racing was actually seen.

Another problem that “THE GREAT RACE” shared with “THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES”was the abundance of slapstick humor in the story. It came dangerously close to being too MUCH for my tastes. I did not mind the Boracho saloon fight (an obvious spoof of fight scenes in Hollywood Westerns). Nor did I mind Maximilian’s sabotage of Fate’s other competitors at the beginning of the race. But Fate’s attempts to sabotage Leslie’s daredevil stunts in the movie’s first fifteen or twenty minutes and the pie fight inside the Potsdorf royal kitchen irritated me to no end. I believe that both scenes may have unnecessarily dragged the film.

Yet, bloated or not, I cannot deny that “THE GREAT RACE” is a very, very entertaining film. Edwards and Ross did a top notch job in creating a story set during the pre-World War I era in the United States and Europe. During this period, Western society was in its last gasp of clinging to the nineteenth century – a world filled with constricting fashion for women, elegant manners, European royalty with some political power, and binding society’s rules. And yet . . . Edwards and Ross’s story made it clear this world was also disappearing, due to the presence of motorized vehicles on the roads, the suffragette movement, the popularity of daredevils like Leslie and Fate, the threat of political loss for European royalty and the diminished presence of Native Americans in the West. What made “THE GREAT RACE” so amazing was that Edwards revealed these social changes in a cinematic style straight from silent era films like “THE PERILS OF PAULINE”, with slapstick comedy added for good measure.

Speaking of the movie’s comedy, I realize that I had complained a good deal about some of it. However, Edwards and Ross’ script did provide plenty of comedic moments that I absolutely enjoyed. One such moment featured the Great Leslie’s meeting with the board members of the Weber Motor Company. The meeting itself merely served as the springboard for the race. But a surprise visitor gave the scene a comedic touch that I found particularly funny. Other funny moments included:

*Maggie Dubois’ reaction to singer Lily O’Lay’s flirtation with Leslie

*The entire Boracho sequence

*Miss Dubois’ brief, yet successful attempt to replace Hezekial Sturdy as Leslie’s co-driver

*Fate’s explanation of the attraction between Leslie and Miss Dubois

*The entire Alaska sequence

*Fate, Miss Dubois and Max’s arrival in a Russian town

*General Kuhster’s attempt to instruct Fate on how to impersonate Crown Prince Hapnick’s laugh

*Leslie and Miss Dubois’ quarrel during the last leg of the race

*Fate’s rant against Leslie’s perfection after the two competitors reached the Eiffel Tower and the finish line

“THE GREAT RACE” also included an entertaining score written by Henry Mancini. The composer also co-wrote two songs with Johnny Mercer – a charming tune called “The Singing Tree” (that also served as the movie’s main tune) and a rousing song called “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”. Donfeld aka Don Feld designed some colorful costumes, reminiscent of the fashions of the 20th century’s first decade. However, I must admit that I found some of Natalie Wood’s costumes a bit over-the-top – namely two of the Western outfits she wore in the Boracho sequence. The movie also featured a swordfight between Leslie and a Carpanian aristocrat named Baron Von Stuppe (Ross Martin) during the Potsdorf sequence. And I consider that particular swordfight to be one of the best in Hollywood history. I am aware that Curtis had some theatrical sword fighting experience in some of the swashbucklers from the 1950s. But Ross Martin’s skills with a sword took me by surprise. Perhaps he had learned it, while training for the theater.

As far as I am concerned, the best asset of “THE GREAT RACE” was its cast. Edwards managed to collect a top-notch cast filled with extremely talented performers. Aside from the stars, the movie was filled with some great talent. Arthur O’Connell and Vivian Vance were hilarious as Maggie Dubois’ long-suffering editor and his pushy suffragette wife, Henry and Hester Goodbody. Marvin Kaplan portrayed Frisbee’ Mr. Goodbody’s slightly befuddled assistant. The Boracho sequence featured a hilarious performance by Larry Storch as the town’s ruthless local outlaw, Texas Jack. And Dorothy Provine gave one of the movie’s best performances as Boracho’s local saloon chanteuse, Lily O’Lay. Not only did she give a rousing rendition of “He Shouldn’t A Hadn’t A Oughtn’t A Swang on Me”, she also injected her character with plenty of wacky humor and charm. The Carpania sequence provided George Macready to give a solid performance as Prince Hapnick’s solid, but traitorous aide, General Kuhster. And Ross Martin was deliciously suave and villainous as Baron Rolfe von Stuppe, General Kuhster’s ally in the coup d’état against the Crown Prince.

Peter Falk garnered a great deal of notice as Maximilian, Professor Fate’s loyal, yet slippery henchman. And he deserved all of the good notice he had received, thanks to his subtle and sly performance. More importantly, Falk managed to create a first-rate comedic team with the likes of Jack Lemmon. Keenan Wynn’s role as Hezekiah Sturdy, Leslie’s assistant. Wynn basically gave a solid performance as Leslie’s right-hand man. But Edwards gave him two scenes in which he absolutely shone without saying a word. One featured a moment in which his character tried to work up the courage to ask a beautiful Carpanian aristocrat to dance at the royal ball. Another featured his silent, yet long-suffering reactions to Leslie and Miss Dubois’ final battle-of-the-sexes quarrel during the race’s last leg into Paris.

Tony Curtis had worked with his two co-stars in previous movies. He had co-starred with Natalie Wood in 1964’s “SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL” And he worked with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In “THE GREAT RACE”, he re-created screen chemistry with both of them for the second time. In this movie, Curtis portrayed the handsome, clean-cut and well accomplished daredevil, Leslie Gallant III aka the Great Leslie. Superficially, his character seemed rather dull and bland in compare to Lemmon and Wood’s more theatrical roles. Superficially. But after watching Curtis portray the embodiment of early 20th century male perfection, one could finally understand why Professor Fate disliked him so much. Curtis’ Leslie struck me as INSUFFERABLY perfect. Anyone who spends even a day in his company could easily develop an inferiority complex. And Curtis did such a superb job in portraying Leslie’s rather annoying perfection with an excellent mixture of slight pomposity and tongue-in-cheek. Some of the best moments featured a long speech by Leslie, followed by a cinematic twinkle in his eyes or on his teeth that led other characters to do a double take. Curtis’s Great Leslie gave a perfect example of why straight arrow types are secretly despised.

The one character that managed to create cracks in Leslie’s perfectionism turned out to be the suffragette/journalist, Maggie Dubois – portrayed with great enthusiasm and perfection by Natalie Wood. The curious thing about Miss Dubois was that she was portrayed with a mixture of both Leslie and Fate’s personalities. Like Leslie, Miss Dubois was an accomplished and highly intelligent woman who also happened to be a multi-linguist and excellent fencer. On the other hand, she shared Fate’s cunning and talent for lies and manipulation. She also possessed a moral ambiguity that led her into conning Hezekiah to relax his guard, so that she could handcuff him onto an eastbound train. Unlike other women, Miss Dubois never allowed herself to swoon at Leslie’s feet . . . even if she wanted to. Instead, I found it a pleasure to watcher her tear down Leslie’s self-esteem, until he found himself declaring his love for her.

One cannot discuss “THE GREAT RACE” without mentioning Jack Lemmon’s superb performance. His Professor Fate has to be one of the best roles in the actor’s career. More importantly, I believe that Fate is one of the most entertaining villains in Hollywood history. This was a character that seemed to revel in his villainy with a bombastic manner, a five o’clock shadow on his chin and deep impatience and contempt toward anyone who was not . . . well, him. Yet, he was shrewd enough to surmise that Maggie Dubois’ dedication toward women’s sufferage would prove to be the Great Leslie’s Achilles’ heel. And his rant against his handsome rival near the film’s conclusion was a delicious study in Fate’s own insecurities about Leslie. If portraying the moustache-twirling villain was not enough, Lemmon also portrayed the affable, yet drunken Crown Prince Hapnick of Carpania with a slight effeminate twist during the film’s parody of “The Prisoner of Zenda”. Hapnick’s regal, yet slightly drunken entrance turned out to be one of the film’s highlights for me. I always thought it was a shame that Fate and Hapnick never really got the chance to interact with each other. Considering Lemmon’s comedic talent, such a scene would have been a hoot.

As I had stated earlier, “THE GREAT RACE” has plenty of obvious flaws. It is an overblown film about a long distance road race, in which little of the actual race was shown. And there were times when the slapstick comedy threatened to become just a bit too much. Especially during the famous pie fight sequence. But Blake Edwards, with co-writer Arthur Ross, created a fun and colorful film that re-created the world of old-fashioned road races and daredevil stunts during the turn of the last century. It also featured colorful costumes and settings, great humor, one of the best screen swordfights ever and a superb cast led by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. I highly recommend it.

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

Neil Burger wrote and directed this loose adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s story called “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. This story about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

The movie’s plot focused upon the romance that had first formed between the magician Eisenheim (Norton) and his childhood friend, the socially superior Sophie, Duchess von Teschen (Biel) – a romance that ends up threatening the political plans of Crown Prince Leopold of Austria-Hungary (Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl’s position with the Vienna police and his role as the Crown Prince’s henchman. ”THE ILLUSIONIST” began in the middle of the story – with Chief Inspector Uhl revealing Eisenheim ‘s background and childhood friendship with Sophie. The movie continued with the events that led to the Crown Prince’s interest in the magician – Eisenheim’s arrival in Vienna, his reunion with Sophie during a performance and a special performance by the magician for the Crown Prince and his entourage, in which Eisenheim embarrasses the prince for a brief moment. Sophie appears at Eisenheim’s quarters to warn him about his actions at the royal palace. The two end up declaring their feelings for one another by making love. After Sophie reveals Crown Prince’s Leopold’s reasons for proposing marriage – he needs her Hungarian family connections to build a power base strong enough to usurp his father from the Imperial throne – both come to the conclusion that Leopold would never let her go. Even if they decide to make a run for it, the prince would hunt them down and kill them. Realizing this, Eisenheim decides to unfold plans that would allow Sophie to escape from Leopold’s clutches and guarantee the couple’s future safety and happiness.

I have never read Millhauser’s story about Eisenheim. But I must admit that I became enamored of Burger’s cinematic adaptation since the first time I saw it. The story possessed many elements that made it entertaining and unique for me. One, it had plenty of romance, due to the romance between Eisenheim and Sophie; along with the love triangle between the two and Crown Prince Leopold. It had intrigue from the plot centered around the Crown Prince’s efforts to rid Eisenheim as a rival for not only Sophie’s affections, but those of the Austrian people. It had mystery thanks to Eisenheim’s mind-blowing magic, Chief Inspector Uhl’s attempts to expose it, and the tragic events that dominate the film’s latter half. And Crown Prince Leopold’s plans to dethrone his father, along with his competition with Eisenheim for the Viennese public’s affections gave the movie a political tone. It simply had everything and Burger managed to combine it all with a superb script.

The cast in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” contributed to the movie’s superior quality, as well. Edward Norton was superb as the magician Eisenheim. Despite being the movie’s main character, he did a great job in conveying the character’s many personality facets – including his love for Sophie (which makes this role one of Norton’s most romantic), and his contempt toward both Crown Prince Leopold and Chief Inspector Ulh Even more importantly, Norton managed to convey some of these emotional aspects of Eisenheim’s personality, while retaining the man’s enigmatic nature. Jessica Biel literally glowed as Sophie, Duchess von Teschen. Frankly, I believe the character might be one of her best roles. Biel had portrayed Sophie more than just an elegant and charming woman from the Austro-Hungarian ruling class. She revealed Sophie’s inner sadness from her earlier disrupted relationship with Eisenheim and fear of facing a lifetime with the odious Crown Prince. Speaking of which . . . kudos to Rufus Sewell for portraying one of the most complex screen villains in recent years. Sewell’s Leopold was not simply a one-note villain who sneered at everyone he deemed inferior to himself. The actor portrayed the prince as an ambitious and emotional man who desired respect and even love from the public and those close to him. Yet, despite this desire, he seemed incapable of returning such feelings to others, especially Sophie, due to his arrogance and vindictive nature. But if you had asked me which performance in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” really impressed me, I would have to say Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl. Giamatti either had the bad or good luck – it depends upon one’s point of view – to portray the most complex character in the movie. This is a man torn between his curiosity over Einheim’s talent as a magician, his ambition to be more than just a policeman, and his sense of justice and outrage toward the tragic event revealed in the second half. Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Ulh is a man literally torn apart over toward whom he should direct his loyalty. And the actor did a superb job in portraying every nuance in the character. In my opinion, he managed to dominate the film without being its main star.

I really do not have much to say about the film’s production values. Granted, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil; along with costume designer Ngila Dickson, and art directors Stefan Kovacik and Vlasta Svoboda, did an admirable job of re-creating turn-of-the-century Vienna on the screen. And yet . . . aside from Dickson’s elegant costumes, I found the movie’s Viennese setting to be slightly colorless. And empty. The setting lacked the color of that particular period shown in other movies like 1969’s ”THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD” and 1976’s ”THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION”.

Despite my complaint against the film’s colorless production designs, I have to give kudos to Neil Burger for writing a rich adaptation of Millhauser’s story. He also did an excellent job of conveying his vision of the story through his direction of the crew and a cast of talented actors that included Norton, Biel, Sewell and Giamatti. ”THE ILLUSIONST” is a beautiful and mysterious love story filled with magic and political intrigue. After five years, I still find it enjoyable to watch.