Street Date 8/22/23;
Shout! Studios;
$34.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Ashley, Lois Chiles, Hari Rhodes, Joanna Kerns, Tom Selleck, Ed Harris, Phillip Baker Hall, Benny Rubin.

Looking back on Coma, one memory remains undimmed. Chicago newspaperman cum TV personality, Irv Kupcinet was that toddlin’ town’s King of Malapropos. (He made Norm Crosby sound like James Earl Jones.) Not surprisingly, the always alliterative punctilious punctuator had no problem passing Geneviève Bujold’s prenomen through his pursed portal, but damn if he didn’t add the extra “m” to inadvertently (and uproariously) change the name of her latest release to, “Michael Crichton’s Comma.”

With a nod to Francisco Di Leo’s Slaughter Hotel (1971), Crichton and Company welcomed us to Boston Memorial Hospital, “Where the patients check in, but they never check out.” Of the 240 patients who died in the previous two years, 10 were young and admitted for minor surgical procedures. Dr. Wheeler’s best friend Nancy (Lois Chiles) sparks a butt before breaking the news that she’s pregnant. Without her husband’s knowledge, Nancy schedules a routine D&C that leaves her in an irreversible coma. The abortion is filmed straightforwardly and without sensationalism. No questions asked, no judgment passed. But even by 1978’s standards, the authors leaned a bit too hard on the feminist button. Wheeler rebuffs Bellows’ attempt to comfort her with, “You think because I’m a woman, I’m going to be upset.” Well, yes. Gender doesn’t define emotion and the doctor’s professional cool in light of her BFF’s sudden plunge into a state of permanent unconsciousness could have used some massaging.

Writer, director and Harvard Medical School graduate Michael Crichton (Westworld, Physical Evidence) was doing post-doctoral work in San Diego when he met Navy Medical Corps officer/thriller novelist, Robin Cook. To the eye, they seemed a likely pair to translate to screen America’s fear of hospitals. Together they conspired on placing a fresh paradigmatic spin on familiarity breeding contempt. The dialogue is over-rehearsed, with a pronounced clinical ring that strains so hard for factualness that it crumbles under the weight of its own expeditious leanings towards over-authenticity. The script calls for two medical students to observe the lead anesthesiologist so that complex procedures can be broken down and explained to both characters and audience alike. It’s convenient plotting like this that for decades determined the Invaluableness of TV medical dramas.

The novel’s feminist leanings were also tamped down for the screen. (The studio had to be talked out of casting Paul Newman in the lead.) How are we informed that Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold), surgery resident at the fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital, is an honest-to-goodness member of the women’s movement? She refuses to fetch a beer for boyfriend and fellow physician Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). Instead of the little woman who endures her husband’s nightly litany of work-related gripes, roles reverse and Bellows is the little man surviving a relationship that finds him on the receiving end of a succession of barked orders. Bellows is up for the chief resident position, but everything hinges on how well he can keep his gal under control. Surrounded by a coven of sawbones, will Crichton crib from Polanski and have Douglas play John Cassavetes to Bujold’s Rosemary? It’s sad how quickly the strong woman dissolves into a damsel in distress. The second Bellows proves that it was all in her head, a Hallmark greeting card montage signals a return romance.

Richard Widmark kicked off his 30th year in the business playing Dr. George Harris, chief of surgery. Consumed by a wingback chair, Wheeler’s breakdown in Harris’ office is a beautifully staged highpoint. Alas, he acts a wee bit too comforting to be believed, and while the part is small and packs little surprise, he gets the curtain shot. Rip Torn and Elizabeth Ashley pop up as the head harvesters. Ed Harris and Phillip Baker Hall can be spotted in early bits, but it’s a nascent appearance by Tom Selleck that provides the film with its one big unintentional laugh. After Selleck checks out, check out his rag doll replica on the embalming table that changes position from shot to shot. Crichton could have learned a thing or two about dummies and continuity from The Three Stooges. And the mind boggles at the gag potential inherent in the boys running a human brain through a manual deli slicer.

The minimalist-style building that doubled the intimidatory Jefferson Institute, a government sponsored facility for comatose patients, was at the time home to the Xerox Corporation. The film’s money shot — the bodies of 30 or so naked cadavers suspended by piano wire — was filmed at the MGM Studios in Culver City. Victor Kemper (Mikey and Nicky, Slap Shot) took screen credit with Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein, My Favorite Year) receiving honorable mention for meeting the lighting requirements needed to illuminate the film’s grand set piece. The question remains, why did visitors have to wear sunglasses when observing where the patients are slung?

As was customary of the day, a TV safe version was filmed so as not to hamstring small screen sales. The film received a ‘PG’ rating for brief nudity. Bujold is seen showering through fogged-up glass doors while the corpses at the Jefferson Institute — cleaned, hung, and ready to be harvested for their organs — dangle au natural. The suspended stiffs totalled 15 actors and an equal number of dummies. Remnants of the sanitized hanging room can be found in the film’s trailer and TV spots, all of which are housed in the supplementary features along with a newly-recorded commentary track with critic and author Lee Gambin and novelist Aaron Dries.




Available via;
Twilight Time;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone.

Warlock has surprised me in recent years by showing up in multiple chat room discussions I’ve stumbled across that deal in particular or in passing with underrated Westerns. The surprise comes from my having actually seen the picture during its initial theatrical run in spring of 1959 at a downtown movie palace (called The Palace) and not having been particularly bowled over. (For one thing, Rio Bravo had opened just a few weeks previously.)

Looking at its new Twilight Time Blu-ray, I still think that a lot of the directorial fire went out of Edward Dmytryk’s belly after he came back from the Blacklist, but Warlock isn’t another of his later pictures that never quite deliver on their potential, such as The Caine Mutiny, Raintree County (which was an admittedly troubled production), The Young Lions and even The Mountain, which had Spencer Tracy and VistaVision photography of the French Alps. Instead, this heavily psychological reworking of the Wyatt Earp saga is about as good as anything Dmytryk did after Broken Lance, courtesy of a talky but grown-up script by Robert Alan Arthur, adapted from an Oakley Hall novel. Thanks to Julie Kirgo’s liner Twilight Time notes, I learned that Hall’s source novel was a Pulitzer finalist and that Thomas Pynchon himself was a big fan of Hall’s work.

To get a little cute here on the Pynchon front, let’s just say that Warlock (the town) has its share of inherent vice. It originates with a local thug who’s shacked up just beyond town limits and played to general surprise by that literal boy-next-door Tom Drake; he’s good enough here to have had a better post-MGM career than he had. Displaying a slightly cooler demeanor than the band of hothead hoods under his wing, Drake is still a part of their regular ride-ins to wreak mayhem and dispatch local lawmen to their graves. The more moneyed citizens have finally had it and agree to pay a professional town tamer $400 a month, which embarrassingly outpaces the salary of the official sheriff. The deal is that this uncommonly polished usurper will basically set up himself up as a dictator, his approach to keeping these and other lawbreaking creeps on the straight and narrow on penalty of instant death. Expect town egos to be ruffled here and there — and to be sure, this gunman has a history of past employers eventually turning against him.

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Henry Fonda has this role, and it’s an interesting characterization. In his frequent urbane moments, Fonda recalls his own performance and visage as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s all-timer My Darling Clementine. But other times, his manner of dress at times anticipates his dark garb in Sergio Leone’s Once Up a Time in the West, which wouldn’t be filmed for nearly another decade after some full-gonzo casting made possible Fonda’s bravura turn as one of the bedrock villains in Western-movie history. It’s as if Dmytryk and the costumers acted upon the dichotomy of the character’s personality without knowing it.

And now for the central wrinkle: Fonda has a traveling companion (his Doc Holliday, so to speak) who’s cozy enough in their uncommon buddy arrangement — say, what’s going on here? — to reduce the film’s two lead actresses (Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels) to not much more than marquee bait. Rarely are they credible romantic forces, even granting that Michaels is involved with a third party in what is essentially a serious bromance. As Fonda’s tag-along buddy with, I’m guessing here, a great cologne collection — Anthony Quinn is a snappy-looking silver-hair who’s faster with a gun than Fonda but with a huge inferiority complex from being afflicted by a clubfoot. Because Quinn is as restrained here as I’ve ever seen him, he’s also as good as I’ve ever seen him, and both he and Fonda tend to relegate top-billed Richard Widmark to “dependable” status when it comes to dominating scenes.

Widmark’s character, however, fits in with the movie’s sub-theme of redemption: He’s an increasingly reluctant and disillusioned member of Drake’s gang who maintains threadbare allegiance so that he can watch the back of a  younger brother (a minor but mouthy Drake subordinate) from getting killed. I did not remember that Frank Gorshin has this kid brother role, which would indicate that the mannerisms for Gorshin’s hysterical Widmark impression of later years — one of the comic’s many — came halfway from the source. (And yes, they two did look a little alike.) Eventually, Widmark has a complete change of heart and becomes officially designated town lawman, which puts him into not always unfriendly conflict with Fonda.

For a movie shot by the great and underrated Joe MacDonald (a Dmytryk regular who also photographed Clementine), Warlock has a lot of those static compositions we see in too many Fox widescreen pictures from the era, and it was around this time that my 12-year-old self started to notice that the color values of, say, even minor Paramount releases blew concurrently released Fox titles out of the water. The presentation here can’t do much to alleviate these built-in limitation, but again, this is a picture that makes it on the strength of some not infrequently pointed writing, two key performances and a posed moral dilemma that remains intriguing.

There is also, for Western fans, a remarkable roster of bedrock supporting players, with familiar faces like L.Q. Jones, Richard Arlen, Ann Doran and Gary Lockwood entering and leaving before they can barely make an impression. Also around are a bearded Wallace Ford as a judge and borderline crackpot; Don Beddoe, who to my recollection must have played enough pioneer town docs to rate a career citation from the Dropsy Foundation; High Noon heavy Ian MacDonald (he was Frank Miller, in fact) as a guy named … MacDonald; Walter Coy, who was John Wayne’s massacred older brother in The Searchers; plus DeForest Kelley in a fairly important role as a gang member with a conscience.

And yes, you probably asked for it, so you’re going to get it: There’s also good old ubiquitous Whit Bissell, the actor who told Melvyn Douglas to shoot the sick cattle in Hud; tried to make sense of Kevin McCarthy’s pod rantings in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and  “invented” Michael Landon’s hairier self in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Back in its heyday, I read once that if the porn industry were ever to be outlawed, the entire Southern California economy would go with it. This must have been what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s when Bissell’s incessant employment presumably facilitated studio cash flows. There’s no way you could have this kind of movie without Bissell showing up somewhere — though in this case, Beddoe had already cornered the market (again) regarding Warlock’s doctor role, relegating Bissell into playing yet another “town father” — one of his specialties.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Between the Lines’ and ‘Warlock’



Japanese Region A Import;
King Records;
$48 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, James Whitmore.

As a rare Universal Pictures standout from a roughly five-year era when the studio was primarily palming off glorified TV movies as theatrical features, Madigan is precisely the kind of cult classic (a stupidly overhyped term, but this is the real deal) that may or may not ever get a domestic Blu-ray release. As we wait perhaps futilely, here’s a fairly handsome but not-cheap Japanese alternative I just discovered (without extras, but this is a satisfying presentation) for a Techniscope cop-drama once revered by so many Don Siegel cultists. Among these, for a little personal nostalgia, were the band of about eight NYU graduate Cinemas Studies colleagues that I once joined on a dream 42nd Street grindhouse trek to see Madigan double-billed with Rio Bravo as a vendor occasionally came down the aisle hawing Eskimo pies (ambience, ambience but also nirvana, nirvana).

By this time, I had seen the picture in Ohio upon its first-run release two or so years previously — not expecting much, though I was already a huge Siegel fan by virtue of having already experienced The Big Steal, Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the now very tough-to-see Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes and The Killers — though with (just naming preferred ones here) The Duel at Silver River, Flaming Star, then imminent Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz yet to go. Given that many or of these genre specialties were made just above or even below the radar over three decades, I always feel like having a cosmetic surgeon supply me with 50 new eyebrows so that I can raise them every time some young turk with two movies under his belt is touted as the latest Second Coming.

In any event, Madigan — which traces the botch of a routine Brooklyn police pickup into a tragic and unexpectedly moving finale — does have an unmistakable ’60s TV-movie feel — down to its sometimes risibly over-orchestrated Don Costa score that has you half-waiting for the next Right Guard commercial. On one level, the music arguably puts a ceiling on how much one can go to the mat praising the rest — and yet the pace is blistering (Andrew Sarris’s original review gave a huge huzzah to the editing), and there’s a lot of sharp dialogue in a script co-credited to Andrew Polonsky, who was finally returned from nearly two decades of political Blacklisting. As Sarris noted as well, there’s also Russell Meaty widescreen photography that expertly matches New York locations with studio shots, which leads to a side-issue question. Leaving aside the Hitchcocks and To Kill a Mockingbird, was there any Universal release of ambition in this era — not that there were many — that Metty didn’t shoot? I mean, we’re talking nine Douglas Sirks, Touch of Evil, Spartacus, The War Lord and Thoroughly Modern Millie just off the top of my head (though I did have to look up the number of Sirks, which spanned Magnificent Obsession to Imitation of Life).

Ultimately, the overriding boost here comes courtesy of the cast, led by Richard Widmark (as street detective Dan Madigan) and prickly police commissioner Henry Fonda — who, in De Niro-Pacino Heat fashion, don’t share any scenes until a payoff late in the narrative. Set during a Fri-Sat-Sun that coincides with a major policeman’s ball, Widmark/Madigan’s exhausting angst and certainly personal humiliation get launched when he and partner Harry Guardino attempt to arrest a lowlife (Steve Ihnat) in a fleabag apartment outside their jurisdiction. The first awful thing is that they let him get away with Widmark’s police gun after being distracted by this creep’s naked bedmate. The second is that Ihnat, turns out, is no presumed routine punk but a psychopath wanted for murder and almost as malevolent as the hood Widmark played (in a much lower key) in his Kiss of Death debut. Ihnat, by the way, is the actor-turned-director who died a few years later at 37 of a heart attack — probably best known for this movie and as the guy whose internal organs get turned into lasagna by Marlon Brando’s fists during the climactic scene of Arthur Penn’s The Chase.

Cold cookie Fonda (aping what his kids say he was like in real life) hasn’t any use of for department mavericks, nor for anything that doesn’t go by the book — aside from an adulterous affair he’s conducting that complicates his moderately pious pronouncements a bit. An usual feature here is the amount of time devoted to the politicking and PR finessing that’s inevitably part of any commissioner’s job, and the story classically cuts back and forth between Fonda calming civic waters and Widmark/Guardino interacting with a slew of comically shady characters while looking for leads.

The casting here is what reviewers used to call “reliable” — with supporting roles of cops, constituents, snitches and the like going to James Whitmore, Susan Clark, Michael Dunn, Forbidden Planet’s Warren Stevens, Don Stroud (someone I later saw, to my amazement, on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”); Sheree North (used memorably again by Siegel in Charley Varrick), Raymond St. Jacques, Invaders From Mars’s Bert Freed, Harry Bellaver, Frank Marth, Lloyd Gough (another onetime Blacklistee), Dragnet regular Virginia Gregg and Ramar of the Jungle’s Ray Montgomery — who, as a kid, always looked right to me in a pith helmet. What a treasure trove.

What makes the movie something special for a genre picture is its rather raw-for-the-day portrayal of Widmark’s domestic life with a physically attractive but tightly wired spouse (Inger Stevens) who has clearly had it with her husband’s chosen career and hates being stuck without many friends in the neighborhood where they live. With Stevens’ knockout blondeness, you can almost imagine her as a precursor to January Jones’s testy spouse Betty from “Mad Men” — except that Stevens is blue-collar-ish in what is clearly a them-versus-us movie, is more sympathetic (though her complaining may even be more incessant) and loves her husband without any non-job qualifications, which isn’t initially evident until the movie takes some very interesting byways in its final quarter. They’re also very grown-up byways treated with unusual honesty for the day.

Her overriding love is convincing because you always get the sense that Madigan is at heart a really good guy by the way other people (the commissioner excepted) regard him and by the way he treats his street contacts, which includes acts of charity (though he isn’t above accepting a free meal at a restaurant or a complimentary Christmas turkey). We’d probably get a stronger sense of his virtues were the character not under such heavy professional/domestic pressure and functioning with almost no sleep — but to me, this is still Widmark’s most likable performance and my favorite of his career. Which is heartening because at this point, the actor’s box office standing had, like Fonda’s to a lesser case, started to fade a bit — though never due to anything we saw on the screen given decent material. Nobody much beyond cop-pic junkies and the cultist hard core actually saw this picture at the time, but at least one network brainstormer at NBC must have been watching. The movie later led to a “Madigan” TV series with its star returning — very short-lived, though its ratings weren’t all that bad. I wish the episodes would make their way to DVD, at least.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’

Don’t Bother to Knock


Available via;
Twilight Time;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Richard Widmark, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Bancroft, Elisa Cook Jr. 

Filmed on three or four simple sets and clocking in at just 76 minutes, Don’t Bother to Knock is an unusual movie for Marilyn Monroe to have made just as she was on the brink of the Twentieth Century-Fox superstardom that was obviously on Darryl Zanuck’s mind (along with, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear, one of two other things). Though professionally speaking, Julie Kirgo notes in another of her well-researched Twilight Time essays, that he did make Monroe test for the part, a lesson that one wonders if he forgot when it came to Bella Darvi.

Knock was one five movies that marked Monroe’s 1952 output — along with two Fox comedies, a cameo in the opening segment of the studio’s all-star anthology O. Henry’s Full House and a loan-out to RKO for Clash by Night. Though the last was a drama, she didn’t have to carry large chunks of it, but in Knock, she has to bring off a case of frightening bonker-dom brought on by her lover’s death — an emotional condition that ends up threatening a child’s life.

It’s a somnambulant performance somewhere between effective and one she gets away with — though some will tell you that I’m underrating it, and possibly so. Call Monroe’s approach a second cousin, say, to Kim Novak’s deadpanned dialogue deliveries in Vertigo, though the passage of time has pretty well rendered Novak’s turn a complete success, no matter how she and Alfred Hitchcock got there. Monroe, of course, just got better as she aged, which more people should have told her at the time.

The surprise for me here (or at least something I’d forgotten) is how sympathetic lead Richard Widmark’s characterization is — as an edgy guy not exactly imaginable as, say, some neighbor’s backyard-barbecue invitee but one who ends up being sincerely moved by Monroe’s plight. This unlikely duo gets thrown together because her elevator-operator uncle (Elisha Cook Jr., getting a little extra something out of his role) has ill-advisedly elected to set her up as a one-shot babysitter in the hotel that employs him, not long after she’s been released (too soon) from an institution. After squabbling with his hotel chanteuse squeeze (Anne Bancroft in her feature debut, a component that’s not without interest itself) over his lack of commitment, Widmark sees Monroe through an adjacent hotel window and thinks her might get lucky with her as a one-night companion.

Well, she does have a bottle of booze plus some glasses in the room — but also a younger girl (Donna Corcoron, real-life sister of Kevin “Moochie” Corcoron and Noreen Corcoron of Bachelor Father), who is probably going to be traumatized by what happens or at least have some good material later in life if she ever decides to become a short-story author. The kid’s parents (Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus in a tux) are no further away than downstairs for dad to get some kind of award involving his newspaper career, but the evening didn’t exhaust Tuttle’s in-room perfume supply, which means there’s some for Monroe to apply (so much of it that Widmark immediately notices). Alcohol, perfume … say, what else can Monroe make hers? Well, there’s always Tuttle’s negligee to put on for much of the movie’s running time — and with its owner just a few floors away, and you just know that no good is come of this. No one ever talks about this, but I think one of the most compelling angles of this story is poor Uncle Elisa learning that no good deed goes unpunished. You have to believe that this longtime employee with the corny jokes (he says his job has “its ups and downs”) is going to get canned after what eventually happens and that his resumé won’t have a very satisfactory answer to the question: “Reason for leaving last job.”

Fox was obviously trying to figure out what to do with Bancroft: She’s a singer here, then did a commercially DOA Sol Hurok biopic (Tonight We Sing), and then there was Gorilla at Large, whose lunacy was possibly a good warm-up for enjoying a happy real-life marriage with Mel Brooks. Despite her presence and that of a lot of welcomely familiar faces, this is Widmark, Monroe and Cook all the way.

Yet let it be said that the faces include the ever ubiquitous Willis Bouchey, who must have fought it out with rank Ferguson and Ray Teal for the “hardest-working white man in show business”; December Bride’s Verna Felton as an ancient biddie — and one who shares a frame with Monroe for contrasting views of womanhood; Joan Blondell’s real-life sister Gloria, who played “Honeybee” on TV’s The Life of Riley; and even the actor who played the police pathologist on the first go-round of “Dragnet” and eyeballed the gradations on the bullets dug out of the human versions of Joe Friday’s workday.

So as Kirgo notes, the result is “unexceptional if always entertaining.” Future Peckinpah right hand Lucian Ballard shot it (no Verna Felton in those collaborations), and the director was Roy Baker (aka Roy Ward Baker), whose later bragging rights over The One That Got Away, A Night to Remember and Quatermass and the Pit just by themselves made him more than a journeyman. And for a movie that’s relatively obscure, I’ve run into not a few people who harbor kind of toasty feelings for it and its sympathetic treatment of mental illness (and, of course, Monroe’s mother spent a lot of time I institutions).

This said, the reviews at the time were only fair, and in the capital city that would soon be my home turf, one of the downtown movie palaces bolstered the bill (or tried to) by adding Models, Inc., with Howard Duff (he’s back), Coleen Gray and — deep down in the cast — Joe E. Ross (hey, I think I’d like to see this). To bolster the Blu-ray, Twilight Time has also included the Richard Widmark “Biography” episode that they’ve issued before and another from that same Fox-associated TV series, this time devoted to Monroe. It gets into the actress’s marriages and, of course, her once famous battles with her home studio — though there’s not even a still photo from MGM’s The Asphalt Jungle to mark how important John Huston’s best movie was to the breakthrough part of her career.

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’