Vintage Cable Box: “The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956”

“Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank!”

The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

In what may have been (for the time) the boldest examination of American exceptionalism and “xenophobia” (though I hate to bandy that term in the wake of overuse), The Man Who Knew Too Much provides thrills and agonizing suspense. Indiana tourists in Marrakesh witness the murder of an new acquaintance. Before the man expires, he imparts information about a planned assassination of a statesman in London to wide-eyed patriarch James Stewart. In order to keep this revelation a secret, double agents disguised as a British husband and wife abduct Stewart’s (and wife Doris Day’s) young son, Hank.

Fearing reprisal, Jimmy and Doris take it upon themselves to rescue their son without the aid of local authorities. They keep mum on the assassination plot, travel to London (where former singer Day is given a hero’s welcome), and follow up on clues given to Stewart by the dead man. In an amusing twist, Ambrose Chapel is revealed not to be a person, but a place. Stewart causes havoc on the namesake taxidermist, and it takes a while before he can clear up that misunderstanding. Notice how briskly this plot unfolds? We’re in Marrakesh for a little while, and then we’re in England. Stewart and Day next meet up at the chapel where Hank is being held.

The assassination will occur at the clash of symbols during the allegro agitato’s climax of Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata at the Royal Albert Hall during a performance for the visiting Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is to be the target. Doris Day lets out a blood-curdling scream that distracts the would-be killer and alerts the audience to the situation. Later, she uses her showcase song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” (introduced in this movie), to let Hank know she and his father are nearby. Jimmy and Doris find themselves to be reluctant heroes in a story of political intrigue, and that’s what makes The Man Who Knew Too Much an incredibly fun movie to watch.

What is most intriguing about The Man Who Knew Too Much are the unusual character motivations at play. Even before the thrills begin, Doris Day’s character is revealed to be paranoid (she’s always commenting on curious onlookers) and somewhat insecure in her decision to marry a doctor, though she does want to have another baby. Jimmy Stewart’s character seems to have little patience or respect for cultures and practices outside of his perceived friendly and familiar American traditions (his adventure in a Marrakesh restaurant is particular cringe-worthy). British and Moroccan law enforcement is portrayed as downright lackadaisical, inefficient, and incompetent.

Between the years 1954 and 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made two movies per year; an incredible body of work from Dial M for Murder to The Wrong Man. After this highly energetic, creative period, he would begin to slow, averaging one movie every year until 1960’s Psycho (his most commercially-successful film) and the resulting cloud of notoriety that would dog his steps until his death in 1980. Because of Psycho, Hitchcock’s name would become synonymous with psychological horror and shock. He attempted to revise his legacy with an old-fashioned monster movie in The Birds (1963), and another case study of neurosis with Marnie (1964) before returning to political intrigue and espionage with Torn Curtain and Topaz, but none of these films would equal the financial and critical success of Psycho. In a way, he was consumed by his own success.

That about does it for Alfred Hitchcock month. The five “missing Hitchcocks” were re-released to theaters starting in October of 1983. The next year, the movies made their premieres on cable television as part of a Hitchcock retrospective on The Movie Channel. This was my Hitchcock education for a time until home media increased his popularity even more. For more fun stuff about Hitchcock, check out the “Missing Hitchcocks” episode of my podcast, Two Davids Walk Into A Bar, as well as David & David and Gene & Roger: A Siskel & Ebert Podcast.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “Rope, 1948”

“By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed??!! Did you think you were GOD, Brandon!!?? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him??!! Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave!!?? Well I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done!!! You’ve murdered!!! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as YOU never could and never will again!!!” 

Rope, 1948 (James Stewart), Warner Bros.

Rope is an insane film, and it’s made on the presumption of a gag, a practical joke, perpetrated by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock on his unsuspecting audience. This fits into Hitchcock’s theory of suspense. When questioned about the ideas of suspense, Hitchcock offered a simple scenario: two men sitting at a table talking while a bomb (that the audience can see) ticks away underneath. The audience wants to tell the men at the table to get out of there because a bomb is about to go off. That is suspense to Alfred Hitchcock. In Rope, it is not a bomb, but a dead body. I wouldn’t know how to begin describing what unfolds unless I did it from the false beginning, the anonymous entry of our two leads; these young men, Brandon and Phillip, college pals and roomies in a beautiful New York apartment, who decide, for no other reason than lazy curiosity and “moral superiority,” to strangle their friend, David, to death.

While Brandon (John Dall) is enthralled, amused, and satisfied by the act, his partner-in-crime, Phillip (Farley Granger) is horrified and disgusted, so we get two sides of a strange yet symmetrical coin. These are two “privileged” kids. They get everything (all the basic necessities and more) they want in life, and we, as the audience, are supposed to hate them. They (mostly Brandon, the obvious leader) decide to keep the body in a trunk with the rope that was used to strangle David, and then to use that trunk as the centerpiece for a dinner party they are throwing at which they have invited all of David’s closest friends as well as his mother and father, and their school housemaster (James Stewart). Phillip is unhinged, mainly because, I believe, he is worried about being caught. We never do get into Phillip’s head, while we, perversely, understand Brandon’s motivations, and his curious vanities.

The guests file in and the “fun begins,” to quote Brandon. He wants to make this a mad experiment. Perhaps he wants clinicians and psychologists to analyze this moment until the end of time, even as he rots away in a jail cell or a padded room. He wants to know why his victim, David, was so important to all of the invited guests: a young lady engaged to David, a former suitor to David’s betrothed, the victim’s parents, and the victim’s teacher. This creates a drama in Brandon’s head, and he enjoys it. This is like a dry-run of American Psycho, wherein we see these respected, wealthy socialites conferring with one another as despicable acts are committed. Strangely enough, the tone of the movie suggests black comedy, while the abbreviated sets and long takes suggest theater, at it’s broadest. It makes you wonder what other horrid acts Brandon and Phillip are capable of.

Jimmy Stewart acts as the anger and the conscience of the audience. Since the remainder of the guests are blissfully ignorant, Stewart’s character (who had previously speculated with the young killers on the nature of evil and the imposed eugenics of murder in a socialized structure) easily comes to the conclusion. He suspects Brandon and Phillip have done something terrible, unforgivable. He chastises his young charges, repudiates their callous indifference, and sentences them to death in his eyes for their misdeeds, and you’re damned if you’re not with him as he destroys them with his words. He has such power in his words that he owns the movie for as long as he’s in it. Stewart plays games with the attendees, questions them, and makes dubious statements, but what it all comes down to is watching Brandon and Phillip collapse under his interrogations. Rope is a powerful statement.

I received a very nice message from the administrator at the Vintage HBO Guides Facebook group, and I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of my readers.  I’m forever grateful my work is being enjoyed.  Thanks!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “The Trouble With Harry, 1955”

“He’s asleep. He’s in a deep sleep. A deep, wonderful sleep.”

The Trouble with Harry, 1955 (John Forsythe), Paramount Pictures

Young Jerry Mathers hears gunshots and arguing in the idyllic Vermont countryside. He stumbles across a dead body. It’s a body everybody seems to know, with the exception of the strange artist Sam Marlow (John Forsythe). Along the way, he picks up various tid-bits, little nuggets of information with regard to the owner of the dead body, a disreputable sleaze from Boston named Harry. Introducing the cuddly, fiercely intellectual Edmund Gwenn, hunting for rabbits, mistakenly believes he has shot Harry dead when he comes across him. Along the way, he makes a date with neighbor Mildred Natwick for some blueberry muffins and elderberry wine.

Jerry runs home to tell his mom (cute Shirley MacLaine), and before Edmund can dispose of the body, they’re up to see Harry. Shirley seems awfully happy Harry has bitten the dust, as it were. Edmund can’t seem to get any work done, because the entire town trapses through; among them, an absent-minded doctor who trips over him, and a drifter who steals the dead man’s shoes. Enter the handsome Sam, who barters his art for supplies and food at the general store. Nosy sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano) aims to level a fine at whomever he catches shooting off guns on his “posted” land. You get the feeling this is a small town, because everybody knows everybody.

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual film, even for Alfred Hitchcock. He (and his writer John Michael Hayes) make sure not to make enemies of his leads, even the shifty Wiggs. It’s almost a slice-of-life about small-town folk who get to know each other in a more intimate way as a result of a body being dropped in their collective lap. Out sketching later, Forsythe comes across the body. Being an annoying artist-type, he sketches the body. Edmund confesses to the crime he possibly couldn’t commit, whereas Forsythe speculates Harry was destined to die at this particular place, at this particular time, and that Edmund did the Universe a favor. When we’re having discussions about existentialism, we’re not especially interested in a murder-mystery. The Trouble with Harry is a black comedy.

Forsythe makes an agreement with Edmund that they’ll dispose of the body if they can prove Shirley’s innocence in the matter. To that end, Forsythe gets chummy with her. They have a mutual attraction for one another, as much as she tries to dissuade his interest. She’s not good with men. That won’t stop Sam. He loves her and he loves her son. They have a strange, flirtatious first encounter. I wonder if this movie would be a good companion piece with Rope; wherein we have characters debating treacherous action under the guise of intellectualism. Where Rope was more in the vein of melodrama, this movie is played strictly for uncomfortable laughter.

Negotiating Shirley’s scatter-brained take on her relationship with Harry, Forsythe (probably against his better judgement) courts her, and bands together Natwick and Edmund to create a more appropriate death scenario for Harry so that no one will face criminal repercussion. It complicates matters when each character takes it upon themselves to conceal Harry’s body without telling anyone else their plans. Along the way, love stories develop; one young and one old, and these are very charming entanglements. If a less experienced, perhaps younger filmmaker were to tackle The Trouble with Harry, he would, almost certainly, be accused of not understanding the value of tone in storytelling. In the hands of a grand experimenter, The Trouble with Harry is great fun and makes perfect sense.

Two Davids Walk Into A Bar presents a very special episode devoted to the five “missing” Alfred Hitchcock films re-released to theaters in 1983, and on home media in 1984 and 1985: Rear Window, Vertigo, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “Vertigo, 1958”

“She’ll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She’s somewhere else, away from me, someone I don’t know. I call her, she doesn’t even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she’s back. Looks at me brightly, doesn’t even know she’s been away, can’t tell me where or when.”

Vertigo, 1958 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

There’s a story about writer Pierre Boileau, watching a newsreel in a packed movie-house some time post-war in Paris, and swearing he sees an old friend (whom he believed long dead) in the newsreel. His “logic brain” tells him this can’t be his dead friend, but the more irrational brain conjures images of ghosts and beseeches him to do some digging and find his friend. He must be alive! This is the seed of D’entre les morts, the source material for what could, arguably, be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Vertigo. Personally, I think Hitch was drawn to the more perverse aspects of the story, but knew a top-notch mystery had to catalyze his effort at unraveling his romanticized fantasy world of San Francisco. Jimmy Stewart is his muse (and alter-ego) in this adventure.

After enduring a personal (and highly publicized) tragedy involving the death of a fellow policeman from a fall, Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson suffers vertigo, a loss of balance and coordination as a result of his fear of heights. His best friend (and former lover obviously still in love with him), “Midge” (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him in his recovery. He has retired from being a cop. He gets a call from an old school chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to keep tabs on his neurotic wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who goes off by herself on long journeys, but seems to suffer a selective amnesia about where she goes each time. Sometimes she goes to a museum and stares at a painting of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her. Stewart diligently follows her and takes notes.

Stewart becomes attracted to her, and being that he has no real job anymore, he obsesses over her, to “Midge’s” annoyance. “Midge” doesn’t want to hear about the pretty little rich girl with mental problems, and I can say I hardly blame her, but she is kind-of barking up the wrong tree here, and she can’t get a clue. Stewart follows her to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay (ostensibly a suicide attempt). He rescues her, takes her back to his swingin’ bachelor pad, undresses her, and puts her in front of a roaring fire. She wakes, claiming to have no memory of the incident, quickly dresses, and gets the Hell out of there, yet she keeps leaving him a trail of crumbs to continue their developing relationship. As wounded (emotionally and physically) a person as Stewart is, what happens next is not only devastating but cruel.

Madeleine lures him to a Mission, jumps from a bell tower, and this time (we’re led to believe) successfully kills herself. This sends “Scottie” into a spiral of deep depression, catatonia, and self-hatred. He blames himself for Madeleine’s death. With “Midge’s” help, he slowly recovers, but then he begins to notice a woman with fiery red hair who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine. Her name is Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak), who’s more of a “common-sense” girl; smart and sarcastic. He tries to pick her up, but she sees right through it, so he takes the more “gentlemanly” approach by courting her. In a scene that nearly derails the movie, “Judy” comes clean to the audience (but not to “Scottie”) by writing him a note, confessing that she truly is Madeleine, and that she was paid off by Elster to pretend to be Madeleine, as Elster concocted a plan to kill his real wife and take her money. After writing the note, she thinks about it and rips it up.

Maybe “Judy” thinks she and “Scottie” can have a life together. Maybe she thinks he’ll overlook the whole murder thing and be her man for all time, but then as convicted assassin Arthur Bremer once said, “How many things go right in this crazy world?” This is where “Scottie” goes nuts, or so we assume. He makes “Judy” over. He has her wardrobe changed. He changes her makeup. He has her hair bleached and dyed blonde, and puts her in those expensive outfits Madeleine wore. When the effect is complete, it’s hideously staggering. “Judy” just wants his love, and he abuses her with his compulsion. All that’s needed to complete the effect is the necklace “Judy” brandishes. It appears to be the same necklace worn by the woman in the painting.

This seals the deal for Stewart so he drives “Judy” to the Mission where he leads her to the bell tower. “Judy” confesses to her crimes, and just when you think these crazy kids could make it work, a nun startles her and she falls to her death. This is the textbook definition of a “downer” ending; a powerful statement in the burgeoning modern film industry, but depressing as all Hell. Defeated by the failure of The Wrong Man, he had many projects in development, but he chose Vertigo, his darkest, most romantic movie (surpassing Rebecca). He was a brave filmmaker. North by Northwest would be his next trick on audiences. Stewart is sympathetic, despite some of his character’s more grotesque choices – he’s unusual here, not the strong voice of moral authority and compassion, but a flawed human. This would be his and Hitchcock’s last collaboration as Hitch had blamed Vertigo’s poor box-office performance on Stewart’s age as a romantic leading man against the much younger Novak (though Novak and Stewart would subsequently appear in the much more successful Bell, Book & Candle). Vertigo is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “Rear Window, 1954”

“Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”

Rear Window, 1954 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

Freshman year of high school, we had a cocky, smarmy English teacher who enjoyed watching us fumble through Shakespeare, and apparently lived to correct our pronunciations of various phrases and outdated language. In the middle of the semester, he directed our school play, It Had To Be Murder!, based on the Cornell Woolrich story, which would also be adapted as Rear Window. I read for the part of “Jeff”, but was given the part of Doyle, “Jeff”s” cop buddy, who ignores him and lectures him on the U.S. Constitution. Our teacher had an interesting take on how to tell the story. He wanted us to pretend there was an enormous window at the edge of the stage, and when the principal characters are looking at what they think is a murder, we’re actually looking out into the audience. Where “Jeff” is supposed to fall from his window into the courtyard, he simply falls off the stage. The actor playing him, ironically, shattered his coccyx, but luckily he didn’t have to do an encore.

James Stewart is our “Jeff” for this movie. He plays adventurous photographer, Lionel “Jeff” Jeffries who, when he isn’t convalescing (with a broken leg set in a heavy cast) in his tiny one-room apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, or dodging his gorgeous girlfriend’s demands for a more serious relationship, enjoys peeping on his neighbors across the courtyard. He even has nicknames for them: Ms. “Lonely Hearts,” Ms. “Torso,” etc. Traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) seems doomed to care for his sick wife forever until one night, as “Jeff” drifts off into sleep, he hears (or thinks he hears) the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s scream. The next day, Mrs. Thorwald is nowhere to be seen, so he starts putting pieces together. At first, his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) doesn’t believe him, but then she starts putting her own pieces together. His Nurse, Stella (hilarious Thelma Ritter), is all in and begins to speculate about what Lars did to conceal the body.

Lisa’s big pitch is Mrs. Thorwald’s purse. There’s no way she would leave her purse behind if she were going on a trip (this is Thorwald’s alibi to Doyle). My wife always disagrees with her line of reasoning. Maybe she just doesn’t like being pigeon-holed, but it is a woman doing the pigeon-holing, for what it’s worth. Try as he might, “Jeff” can’t convince Doyle to launch an investigation. Doyle tries to tell him about the difficulties of obtaining a search warrant, so “Jeff” puts the two women in his life in danger by sending them out to dig up the garden where they suspect Thorwald has buried his wife’s body parts. Lisa takes it one step further by breaking into Thorwald’s apartment, where she finds his wife’s wedding ring! This is very exciting and suspenseful, especially when Thorwald realizes somebody is watching him from an apartment directly opposite his across the courtyard! You’re seriously on the edge of your seat watching this as it unfolds.

There are beautiful character moments in Rear Window. Lisa (and Thelma’s) bravery in the face of “Jeff’s” obvious impotence in the situation; constricted by a wheelchair and a broken leg. The sarcasm and quick humor of everyday New Yorkers. Lisa and “Jeff’s” near-constant arguments and debates about their relationship and “rear window ethics.” “Jeff” is somewhat turned on by his girlfriend’s courage. What’s even more staggering is that all of this occurs within the confines of a tiny New York apartment. This is a fantastic movie and goes in my top five of Hitchcock movies. Speaking of five Hitchcock movies, August marks Alfred Hitchcock Month on Vintage Cable Box, wherein I will review the five movies (the “missing Hitchcocks” or the “forbidden five”) that were re-released in 1984, and then shown on cable the next year. These were the movies that introduced me to Hitchcock.

Special thanks to Bronwyn Knox for supplying the artwork.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

A Year of Vintage Cable Box!

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“Our technology forces us to live mythically”

Marshall McLuhan

alyssa-milano
Alyssa! My first crush.

Cable television is a beautiful woman (or man, I suppose) who gets into your brain and relaxes you.  She wants you to sit back and unwind.  Just imagine slender fingers rubbing and squeezing against your tense shoulders, then forming a fist to dig into the middle of your spine, and then you hear a satisfying crack and the ease of your joints.  I love her.  She is, as Homer Simpson would say, my “secret lover.”  This is me as an 11-year-old, unlocking the treasure trove, finding the honey pot, and witnessing boobies and enthusiasm, and strong language; the use of the “f” word.  I remember gasping when I first heard it.  I didn’t gasp anymore after I saw Scarface for the first time.  Cable television is different these days; the Pandora’s Box – she offers too much and gives nothing in return.  I looked at my guide the other day – a little over eleven hundred channels, crystal-clear HD, on-demand – anything I want, I can have.  In 1984, we had thirty channels, and if there was something I wanted that wasn’t on cable, I went to the video store.  Bear with me.  I’m not going to start up a diatribe about how things were better when I was a young’in.

Vintage Cable Box is something I always wanted to do.  I wanted to go back to that time when I was a young man, with burgeoning puberty pounding down the door, and Alyssa Milano’s gorgeous face, and Jacqueline Bisset’s tanned body and wet t-shirt, beckoning me.  I tune into Porky’s and come to the realization that there is a whole other world out there: the world of the coaxial cable and the heavy metal box on top of my 25″ Magnavox color console.  From there, innocence becomes a degree of intelligence (not much, but I was eleven, mind you) where cable television becomes my peculiar form of film school.  I can’t tell you how much I learned about movies, about making movies, about filmmakers, watching cable television at this time.  This is my life.  My life is movies.  I eat them up like popcorn.  The Man with Two Brains was the first; turning it on just as the cable guy was leaving the premises – it was exotic.  On the screen, a buxom blonde with a ridiculous accent flashes her bare breasts at Steve Martin.  The cable guy acted like it was no big deal, but we never had cable.  We seriously didn’t.  No cable television in Philadelphia.  My mother had a great job opportunity in Lebanon, Tennessee.  She had family down there, so we moved.  It was a higher quality of life (in theory, but not really).

the-deep

As the old saying goes, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” We got the premium (or deluxe) package. HBO and Cinemax (which would alternate premiere movies; sometimes HBO would get it first, sometimes Cinemax would get it first. Either way, and in lieu of a videocassette recorder, movies were repeatedly shown. Sometimes they would even be broadcast simultaneously, perhaps a couple of seconds out of sync, and with slightly different color gradients and schemes – HBO always seemed a tad bit brighter than Cinemax. We had The Movie Channel for a time as well, until my mother started assessing the bill. The Movie Channel was interesting. You would find unusual, even obscure films often programmed as retrospectives, and this is how I learned about filmmakers. You would see a handful of Brian De Palma films like Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Get to Know Your Rabbit programmed alongside Scarface to coincide with that film’s premiere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry were programmed to coincide with the 1984 re-release of those movies. This is why I can never get behind arguments (usually from older people) that TV rots your brain. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Film, in and of itself, is an education, and television was the vehicle (or the medium – per McLuhan) for this delivery system. Me not dumb! Good, write, good!

rope

I had always wanted share my specific views and history of cable television in the early 1980s.  For a more in-depth analysis into the history of Pay TV and cable television, I suggest Ben Minotte’s fabulous Oddity Archive.  I had the opportunity to interview (with Mark Jeacoma) Mr. Minotte for the VHS Rewind podcast.  He’s an exceptional (and curious) fellow.  The other channels I remember from those times were CNN, Nickelodeon (and Nick at Nite), MTV, TNN (aka The Nashville Network), and WTBS (not just TBS – it was considered a “superstation”, like Chicago’s WGN), the local affiliates, and a couple of bizarre public access stations.  I remember flipping to one of those stations and seeing our landlord at the time, an old Baptist pulpit-punding minister, broadcasting his own show!  He seemed like a nice man, but he wouldn’t allow us to keep any pets.  Nick at Nite was an astonishing find.  I discovered The Bob Cummings Show, Bachelor Father, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  What I remember, in the days before cable television, the UHF stations in Philadelphia: channels 17, 29, and 48.  Channel 17 WPHL would run Star Trek and The Outer Limits.  Channel 29 (WTAF, later to become a FOX affiliate with terrible reception) would run Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.  Channel 48 WKBS (which went out of business in 1983) would show Creature Double Feature on Saturday mornings and afternoons.  Sometimes, if your antenna was in a good position, you could get the Vineland, New Jersey UHF channel.

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When I launched Vintage Cable Box on August 31 last year, I fully expected to begin the odyssey with Porky’s, but Wes Craven’s passing away over that weekend prompted me to change up my schedule, so I put out three reviews: Swamp Thing, Porky’s, and Rodney Dangerfield’s Easy Money. Looking at the reviews now, they seem more like perfunctory write-ups, descriptions of plots more than any true evaluation. I don’t think I really kicked it into gear until The Osterman Weekend (September 23, 2016). My Big Chill review the following week I rate as one of my best. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion was a sobering reminder that many of the movies I enjoyed as an eleven-year-old I could not stomach today. Some (very few) of these movies are absolutely horrible to watch. Class Reunion kicked off my first Halloween retrospective. I reviewed horror movies for the entire month and got my first big hit with my review of Amityville II: The Possession. Horror movies get great numbers for me. What really sells today is nostalgia, and you could even look back on a failed movie, a terrible movie, and express some level of nostalgia or affection for it, but if you can’t drum up that enthusiasm in yourself, it’s not going to work for your readers or your listening audience.  I know I have this problem on occasion.

Which brings me to those reviews I might have phoned in, because I couldn’t get into it while loving it as a child, and then considering it some form of exquisite torture in my later years.  November brought me The Rosebud Beach Hotel and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.  December’s Christmas cheer brought me The Man Who Wasn’t There, but it also brought me my biggest hit, A Christmas Story (to be rivaled only by Midnight Madness).  I think the elements of popularity and nostalgia (not to mention affection) combine to bring about a newfound interest; it’s not necessarily about how well you think you write.  If you are writing about something a reader has in the back of his or her head, that they remember, that they adore, you’ll get a lot of readers.  Get Crazy, a movie that barely had a release yet exploded on cable television, made me think about some hidden gems; the over-budgeted movies that scam-artist financers would sell to investors from which they would pocket the difference and laugh all the way to the bank.  It’s sort of like the plot to Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  Other examples include Somebody Killed Her Husband and (perhaps) The House of God.

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It’s amazing to me how some movies hold up, while others are terribly dated and get worse with age.  I remember adoring Breathless, They Call Me Bruce?, and Jekyll and Hyde – Together Again.  Now I hate them.  I can’t stand them.  In December, I launched a bit of a mini-series in that in appeared to me that several movies were being made at the time with writers as their central characters:  Deathtrap, Author! Author!, Romancing the Stone, Best Friends, and Romantic Comedy.  Nobody would ever dare make a movie about a writer these days.  Romantic Comedy would find it’s way into my series about Dudley Moore.  Moore was all over cable television at that time.  Dudley Moore’s particular skills revolved around his man-child characters, always unsatisfied, depressed, and yearning (or lusting) after women while negotiating his advanced years.  Sometimes, he would take a dramatic detour (Six Weeks), but those digressions were infrequent.  Mel Brooks’ 90th birthday was coming up, and I remembered seeing several of his movies (in another wonderful Movie Channel retrospective tied to the premiere of his To Be or Not to Be remake) so I put together the four that received endless play.

Stacey Nelkin in Get Crazy

There are also the unexpected deaths that changed my schedule (as with my very first review).  I mentioned in my (very quickly cobbled together) review of The Woman in Red that Gene Wilder’s passing forced me to rush that write-up.  I had originally planned to continue my articles up to the point we got the HBO satellite service in Philadelphia, and The Woman in Red would be featured.  The same situation forced me to publish a review for Garry Marshall’s Young Doctors in Love.  After the death of David Bowie, I wrote up the review for The Hunger.  I have a schedule in place, and I tend to write reviews well in advance of publication for this very reason.  So what are we up to?  At last count, 74 reviews have been published.  I had initially expected to put out an article once a week.  I figure I have about another year’s worth of material.  We’ll see what happens, but this has been a wonderful trip back to my past, and I hope you (the readers) will continue this journey with me.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “Psycho II”, 1983

New VCB Logo

“It’s starting again.”

“Psycho II”, 1983 (Anthony Perkins), MCA/Universal

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On occasion, you would have dual premieres of movies. HBO and Cinemax, at the time, aired new releases on the same night, usually a Saturday. One such summer Saturday, HBO debuted “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and Cinemax aired “Psycho II”. We couldn’t decide what we wanted to watch, and back in those days, you couldn’t Tivo your troubles away, so we went with “Psycho II”. I had not seen the original “Psycho” but was well aware of the famous shower scene. It would be a couple of weeks later that I finally watched the original “Psycho”, and to this day, nothing scares me more than Mrs. Bates. That goes for Michael Meyers, Charles Manson, and Donald Trump. I repeat: nothing scares me more than Mrs. Bates!

I remember a few years ago, somebody made the point (maybe it was me) that Norman Bates never truly existed; that whatever Norman was, only appeared to be an extension of his mother, the famous Mrs. Bates. When you look at Norman, even in advanced years, played by the extraordinary Anthony Perkins, he’s nothing more than a “man-child”, consumed in fear of disappointing his mother and telegraphing an all-consuming shyness around women he deems attractive, women he is driven to be attracted to – starting in 1960’s “Psycho” with Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane.

Norman’s mother had gained a peculiar form of immortality by being so endemic an image in her son’s mind that she devoured him whole and implanted her own personality. It has taken 22 years for Norman to become his own man, and sadly, there are those who still wish to destroy him. Once released from the custody of the State, Norman tries to pick up the shattered remains of his life and run his motel. He fires sleazy manager Mr. Toomey (a hilarious Dennis Franz) and makes a new friend in Meg Tilly.

Of course, all of this is a veneer; a curious effort to drive Bates mad so that he will be taken away again. Meg Tilly is the niece of Marion Crane and she and Crane’s sister (a shrill Vera Miles) take turns phoning Norman and dressing up as his mother to make him crazy. Meanwhile, very real murders are being conducted by a mysterious third party, who is revealed at film’s conclusion. As with the original “Psycho”, you can’t help but feel for Norman as his mask of sanity slips away gradually.

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Meg Tilly (at first) sides with her mother in discrediting Norman, but as she sees the struggles he tries to cope with, she develops an affection and attraction to him, ultimately protecting him from her mother’s cruel scheming. Anthony Perkins’ promising career was destroyed by “Psycho”. He was forever type-cast, as either yet another psychotic personality, or a borderline “heavy” in most movies after “Psycho”. Like Leonard Nimoy before him, he decided to wholeheartedly embrace his legacy by directing 1986’s “Psycho III” and appearing in the promising, but ultimately illogical “Psycho IV”.

Richard Franklin does an admirable job directing this first sequel to the horror classic, and having to weather the storms of vicious film critics, who bemoaned a lack of originality in Hollywood they perceived had to rely more and more on sequels to make easy money. As we know, this was only the beginning, but “Psycho II” is a well-crafted, labyrinthian thriller with elements of mystery and suspense worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. Tom Holland’s script is intelligent, sympathetic, and thought-provoking.

Next up: “Amityville II: The Possession”

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.