Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?


Robert Morley is da bombe!

Robert Morley is da bombe!

(1978) Comedy (Warner Brothers) George Segal, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Morley, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Phillippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Luigi Proletti, Stefano Satta Flores, Madge Ryan, Frank Windsor, Peter Sallis, Tim Barlow, John Le Mesurier, Joss Ackland, Jean Gaven, Jacques Marin, Jacques Balutin, Jean Paredes, Michael Chow, Anita Graham  Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Films For Foodies

I think all of us have soft spots for certain movies that may or may not deserve them. It’s not that the movie is particularly bad or good, it’s just that we associate a memory with them, or the movie has for some reason stuck with us for years or even decades after having seen it.

So it is for me with this light and fluffy confection, based on a much darker novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons (although there are plenty of dark moments in the movie as well). The concept is this; Max Vandeveer (Morley), the world’s pre-eminent food critic, has recently released an article for his magazine The Epicurist detailing all the elements of the ultimate meal in the world. The elements of the meal include pigeon en croute, the specialty of Louis Kohner (Cassel); Lobster Thermidor, the specialty of Fausto Zoppi (Satta Flores), pressed duck, the specialty of Moulineu (Noiret) and for desert, Le Bombe Richelieu, the specialty of Natasha O’Brien (Bisset).

Vandeveer is acerbic and sometimes rude, although he has lived the high life long enough to have acquired a certain amount of elegance. He has also acquired a goodly number of health problems from a lifetime of eating the world’s richest foods and the morbidly obese critic has been told by his doctors that if he doesn’t adjust his diet to healthier options, he won’t last long. Vandeveer chooses to ignore the advice, although his devoted assistant Beecham (Ryan) does her level best to keep him on the straight and narrow.

O’Brien is a particular favorite of Vandeveer, and he has not only been a patron for her career but holds a personal affection for her. He is less sanguine about her ex-husband, Robby Ross (Segal), an American fast food entrepreneur known with some derision as the Taco King. He is in the midst of organizing a new fast food chain specializing in omelets to be called “H. Dumpty.” Vandeveer despises him and everything he stands for.

He happens to be in London working on a deal for this new project at the same time his ex-wife is assisting in preparing a state dinner for the Queen, along with Kohner. After she has a one-night stand with him, Kohner turns up murdered – stuffed into a 450 degree oven. Not a pretty sight.

Afterwards, the other chefs on the list of Vandeveer’s world’s most fabulous meal start turning up dead, killed in gruesome fashion that recalls the preparation for their signature dish. With O’Brien on the list with a target on her back – and also under suspicion for being the perpetrator because of her romantic relationships with the first two – the Taco King and the high-end pastry chef must become detectives and figure out who is killing these great chefs before Natasha ends up as the last victim of a twisted murderer.

Kotcheff, whose pedigree includes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was never an innovative director but he was always a solid one; he knows how to keep the pace quick and how to balance between mystery and black comedy without having one overwhelm the other. The adaptation was written by Peter Wilson, who 15 years earlier had written the screenplay for the Aubrey Hepburn classic Charade. The dialogue is clever, urbane and full of witticisms.

Segal is here to play the ugly American and he is so successful that he actually at times is like fingernails on a chalkboard. This isn’t to say that Segal is an annoying actor – his career boasts some really fine performances – but here the character is meant to be somewhat annoying albeit with a heart of gold. However, some modern viewers might find him a little hard to stomach if you’ll forgive the awful pun.

Not so with Robert Morley. He was one of the world’s great character actors and this is the type of part that was perfect for him. Nobody ever played the pompous Brit like he did and he was so good in this role that Heinz recruited him to act as the character in a series of advertisements for their line of soups at the time. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy/Musical but not for an Oscar although Roger Ebert mused he would be in his review of the film.

The movie is definitely a product of the late 70s, and in its day was reasonably popular although box office figures for the film are unavailable; the movie was evidently popular enough to inspire the authors of the original book it was based on to write a sequel.

These days it’s fairly hard to find. It rarely plays on cable or broadcast TV although it does occasionally; it has not yet made it to Blu-Ray although it remains in print on DVD (and you can also find VHS copies of it if you look hard enough). This is the ultimate in disposable entertainment, carrying elements of Murder on the Orient Express along with 70s-era black comedy. While some of the murders are gruesome, the gore is pretty tame by modern standards, or even the standards of its own time.

It hearkens back to an era when great chefs were dignified and considered national treasures, a far cry from this era of celebrity chefs who are more like rock stars. The style of cooking here (the dishes were all provided by the legendary Paul Bocuse) is certainly much heavier than it is in this health-conscious age. They really don’t make meals like this anymore, but watching it may make you wish that they did.

WHY RENT THIS: Irreverent. Morley is delightful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely dated and cheesy. Segal can be grating.
FAMILY VALUES: Comic violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the novel the movie was based on, recipes were given for each specialty dish.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: The movie is not available for streaming at present. However, DVD copies of the movie may be purchased at Amazon or Best Buy in the United States. For readers outside the US, check your local online DVD retailers or local DVD or electronics shops.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Abominable Dr. Phibes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Films for Foodies continues!

Murder on the Orient Express


The moment of truth.

The moment of truth.

(1974) Mystery (Paramount) Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jeremy Lloyd, John Moffatt. Directed by Sidney Lumet

Our Film Library 2015

One of the more delightful movie subgenres is the whodunit, which the more sophisticated tend to call “drawing room mysteries.” They became popular during the 1930s in the midst of the depression thanks in large part to authors like Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen. These murder mysteries usually have a long list of suspects, take place in a swanky environment like an English estate or a seacoast resort.

Few, if any, reached the heights of Murder on the Orient Express, the work that would eventually become Christie’s best-known work and arguably the greatest mystery novel ever written. When master director Sidney Lumet took on this daunting work, it was with the understanding that star power was going to sell it, and he would assemble what could well be the best cast ever put together for a single movie.

And what a movie! Internationally famous detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) has solved a crime in India and is in Istanbul, preparing to return home to Belgium on the Orient Express, then the most luxurious mode of overland travel in the world. Because the train is booked solid, director of the line Signor Bianchi (Balsam), a personal friend of Poirot, gets the famed sleuth a berth on the Calais Coach.

At dinner, Poirot is approached by Ratchett (Widmark), a wealthy American businessman who believes that his life is in danger and who attempts to engage Poirot’s services as a bodyguard but Poirot refuses, uninterested in the case. Later that night, Ratchett is murdered, stabbed to death in his bed.

Bianchi pleads with Poirot to solve the crime, hoping to avoid a scandal. Poirot agrees and begins interrogating the passengers on the Calais coach who are the main suspects; Pierre-Paul Michel (Cassel), the conductor; Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Bacall), a loud brash American housewife; Beddoes (Gielgud), Ratchett’s butler; Greta Ohlsson (Bergman), a Swedish missionary; Count Rudolf Andrenyi (York), a Hungarian aristocrat and diplomat; Elena Grunwald Andrenyi (Bisset), his new bride; Colonel Arbuthnot (Connery), a British Officer in the British Indian army returning to England on leave; Mary Debenham (Redgrave), a British teacher also returning home to England; Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Hiller), an elderly Russian royal; Hildegarde Schmidt (Roberts), the Princess’ personal maid; Hector McQueen (Perkins), Ratchett’s personal secretary; Gino Foscarelli (Quilley), a car salesman of Italian extraction from Chicago, and finally Cyrus Hardman (Blakely), a Pinkerton detective.

To Poirot’s surprise, he discovers that most of the people on the Calais coach aren’t who they appear to be, with the victim himself involved with a particularly heinous crime – the kidnapping and murder of baby Daisy Armstrong, a notorious case (based on the real Lindbergh baby kidnapping) that had ended with the baby murdered leading to her mother giving premature birth to a stillborn child and dying in the process, the father killing himself out of grief, a wrongly accused maid leaping to her death from a window and the maid’s mother dying of grief. Not only that, all of the passengers on the Calais coach had a personal connection with the Armstrong family. This will prove to be the most challenging case of Poirot’s career, not just in terms of solving the mystery but whether or not justice would be served by solving it.

The movie would be nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, for Bergman’s performance in a supporting role. In 1974 it was very much an anachronism, given the bleak anti-hero types of movies that were prevalent at the time. Murder on the Orient Express was very much a throwback to an earlier era in moviemaking and maybe that’s why it resonates so much with audiences then and now. It has a timeless quality that makes it enjoyable to all audiences since it was made, and will likely to delight audiences far into the future.

There’s the cast of course, with some of Hollywood’s elite in the credits. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch and Finney, who endured hours of make-up to make him resemble the fastidious middle-aged Belgian (Finney was 37 when this was filmed) more than he did in real life (Christie herself seemed to have been fine with his portrayal but was disappointed over his moustache). While David Suchet has made quite the career for himself as Poirot on TV, I still prefer the more flamboyant version Finney gave us.

The movie is just pure fun. It nicely recreates the decadence of the era as well as giving us moments of the screaming meemies at times. While the book is much darker than the movie is, the movie remains one of my favorites, a fun ride that I still enjoy even though I’ve seen it dozens of times.

WHY RENT THIS: True movie magic. A cast the likes of which we will never see again. Perhaps Christie’s best mystery. Beautiful period setting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too light and fluffy for true mystery aficionados.
FAMILY VALUES: A scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD contained a biography of Christie hosted by her son. Sadly, the movie has never gotten the home video treatment that a film this beloved should have.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $28.2M on a $2.3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (not available), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (not available), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Chappie

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.