‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956): No Sleep for the Weary

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Becky (Dana Wynter), Jack (King Donovan), Teddy (Carolyn Jones) & Miles (Kevin McCarthy) are speechless in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.

Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.

The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.

In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.

Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.

From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.

But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?

This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.

The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) meets up with former lost love, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), early on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.

The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.

After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.

A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…

While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.

Becky & Miles enjoy a rare moment of repose on the dance floor

Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.

There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.

More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.

Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.

Nurse Sally (Jean Willes) holds on to little Jimmy Grimaldi, who takes his medicine from Dr. Bennell

At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).

And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:

“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.

“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”

“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.

“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”

“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Not yet she hasn’t.

That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.

Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.

“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.

One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.

The “developing” seedpod turns into Dr. Miles Bennell

Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.

A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.

We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?

Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.

The walls start to close in on the romantic couple as Miles & Becky leave his office

Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.

Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.

Miles tells his story to two disbelieving doctors (Richard Deacon & Whit Bissell)

Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.

The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.

While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.

Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.

More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!

Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.

Miles’ look of shock and awe in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”

This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Six): ‘The Empire Strikes Back, Episode V’ — Finding Your Roots

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Poster art for Star Wars — Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Stuck in a Rut

Inside the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon and its passengers appear to be safe from the Galactic Empire’s battle cruisers and search vessels. Still experiencing problems with the hyperdrive, Han Solo tells Chewbacca to take the garrulous C-3PO, whom he flippantly calls “professor,” out back to uncover what the problem is with their spacecraft.

Rocked by violent shudders, Princess Leia falls into Solo’s lap. He seems to be enjoying the ride. On the other hand, Leia continues to toss curt comments at him.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Han remarks (in a lighthearted, Humphrey Bogart moment). “We haven’t got time for anything else.” As if all that’s on Leia’s mind is to sit and chat with the “space scoundrel.”

A few scenes later, the Princess is in the midst of repairing one of the valves on the vessel, when she strains her hand trying to turn a lever. Luckily for her, big strong Solo is there to give her aid and comfort. Taking her dainty palm in his, Han makes his move. He plants a kiss on her mouth and the two are locked in a passionate exchange. The space pirate and the Princess, together and alone at last! Or are they?

A kiss in time saves nine: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is wooed by Han Solo (Harrison Ford)

“Sir, sir!” cries 3PO. “I’ve isolated the reverse power coupling!” Great news indeed, but not to Han: “Thank you. Thank you very much …” He shows the “professor” the door, but keeps his eye on Leia as she retreats.

In the next scene, we are on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Admiral Piett enters to inform Darth Vader they are receiving a transmission from the Emperor himself. And Vader’s presence has been requested. Vader orders the Admiral to pull out of the asteroid field for a clear transmission.

Lord Vader (Voice by James Earl Jones, body by Dave Prowse) receives a message from the Emperor

In the revised “Special Edition” of The Empire Strikes Back, the scene with Lord Vader and the Emperor is different from that of the original 1980 screening. For one, the actor who embodied the Evil Emperor in the earlier version (Elaine Baker, with the voice of British-born Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played the bug-eyed, pock-marked Emperor in Return of the Jedi and in the three subsequent prequels. For another, the dialogue has been extended to include the lines, “Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You will know it to be true,” which, depending on your point of view, either foreshadows Vader’s entreaties to Young Skywalker as he dangles for dear life from one of the destroyer’s walkways, or gives the game away entirely.

Some may feel (as this author does) that echoing those lines at this stage of the drama destroys the power of Vader’s speech later on. The original encounter was more cryptic, more subtle, and less overt, while this bit of dialogue is way too specific. Searching for continuity, perhaps executive producer George Lucas (who assigned the directing duties of Episode V to Irvin Kershner) decided to substitute McDiarmid after the fact. There’s another reason that I can think of, namely his obsessive compulsion to tinker with the product. He just can’t leave well enough alone.

Lord Vader (Voiced by James Earl Jones, body by Dave Prowse) plots with the Galactic Emperor (Ian McDiarmid)

Verily, I tell you, there is indeed “a great disturbance in the Force.”

Bring Out the Welcome Mat

There is a screen wipe to the next scene of the interior of the little creature Yoda’s house. (Luke does not yet realize who this tiny figure is). Puttering about his living room, the wrinkly green alien with the fuzzy exterior and wizened expression tries to distract Luke’s mind from his quest by plying him with chow. But Luke keeps insisting that he take him to meet Yoda. And how does this little fellow know so much about him, anyway?

In exasperation, Yoda lets it escape that because of his lack of patience he cannot teach the boy the ways of the Force. A portentous voice now makes its presence felt. It is Obi-Wan Kenobi, back from the dead. His disembodied tone reverberates inside Yoda’s hut.

“He will learn patience.”

“Much anger in him,” is Yoda’s reply. With every thrust that Obi-Wan makes, Yoda counters with a riposte of his own. “He is not ready. He is too old,” et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. Luke, of course, will have none of this. Why, the very reason he’s on the bog planet Dagobah is to learn all about the Jedi. But after Yoda’s tirade, he appears to soften his stance against Luke.

Luke thinks he can sway the Jedi Master into accepting him as an apprentice.  “I won’t fail you,” Luke persists. Then he adds, “I’m not afraid.” To this Yoda narrows his squinty little eyes before he responds with, “Oh, you will be …. You will be …..”  His voice trails off.

Fear is the ultimate teacher of the young and the naïve.

Luke (Mark Hamill) learns the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz)

Back at the asteroid, the Millennium Falcon’s crew is perturbed by a mynock invasion — large bat-like creatures that chew on the power cables. Exploring the crater’s surface, Han and Leia realize they are on unstable ground and without delay flee the asteroid. Just in time, too! For lo, this is no cave, folks, but a gigantic space slug or worm beast! Shades of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, which Lucas must surely have paid belated homage to in this brief FX sequence.

On Dagobah, Yoda has Luke going through his Jedi training routine — mostly, the physical aspects of same: running, jumping, dodging. You know, a makeshift obstacle course in the bog. In between flips, Yoda fires off a series of sagacious observations about the dark side being quicker, easier, and more seductive. “Anger … fear … aggression.” All that negative “bad” stuff. Luke pesters him with queries, which Yoda brushes off, telling him to clear his mind of questions.

Suddenly, a strange feeling overcomes Luke. The bog grows cold. Death is in the air. Phantoms from the past begin to gnaw at both Master and student. Yoda warns his pupil about this place, which is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is,” in that reverse cadence of his. He also cautions Luke to go in and explore it.

“What’s in there?” Luke inquires.

“Only what you take with you.”

In this extraordinary sequence George Lucas, along with screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, have successfully recreated that mythological moment where the hero’s journey begins. He must leave the safety of his abode and face up to his greatest fears. It’s Mime telling the young Siegfried to go slay the dragon Fafner. It’s St. George riding to the rescue on his white charger (well, not exactly). The forest is the symbol of the unknown, which is the precise place where Luke must confront his demons — his inner self, to be exact — before his training can continue.

The atmosphere is thick with a primeval mystery. Jungian archetypes prevail and abound. There are huge slithering snakes on branches. A monitor lizard flicks its forked tongue at us. In the episode that follows, Luke enters a dark cave and beheads the formidable figure of Lord Vader. As the smoke clears, it is HIS face that we see, not that of the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith. What does this say about where the saga is going? And what does it reveal about Luke himself?

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) confronts his other self in the cave on Dagobah

A quick cut to Jedi Master Yoda, a solitary figure, alone with his thoughts. What must he be thinking? Yoda sighs audibly.

Money for Your Troubles

In a flash, we are back on board the Imperial Star Destroyer. Vader gives a pep talk to a gathering of bounty hunters, including the inexorable Boba Fett. A “substantial reward” awaits the person who can find the Millennium Falcon. You will note that Boba Fett (originally portrayed by Jeremy Bulloch, with vocals by Jason Wingreen) is now voiced by New Zealand actor Temuera Morrison, the same fellow who physically embodied Boba’s poppa, Jango Fett, in Episode II: Attack of the Clones (and the model for all those clones), as well as Commander Cody in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Emerging unscathed from the asteroid field, Han, Leia, Chewie and 3PO find that their ship still lacks light-speed maneuverability (what gives with that darn hyperdrive?). Still, through some clever tactics Han is able to avoid detection by hiding the Millennium Falcon behind one of the huge Star Destroyers.

Chewie (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Leia (Carrie Fisher) & Han Solo (Harrison Ford) aboard the Millennium Falcon

Alas, the skipper of the Star Destroyer, Captain Needa, has to “apologize” to Lord Vader for losing track of the craft. He meets the same sorry fate as Admiral Ozzel did. Oh, and Vader has “accepted” his apology. What a sweet guy!

Switching back to Dagobah, Luke has resumed his Jedi training, to include levitating the surrounding rocks and other objects (R2 among them). When he attempts to float his downed X-wing fighter out of the muddy lake, Luke loses his concentration and the fighter sinks ever deeper into the slime.

Yoda berates Luke for his defeatist attitude. “Try not. Do. Or not do. There is no try.” The Master’s words are lost on young Skywalker. There’s only one thing to do, and that’s for Yoda to show the boy how it’s done. He brings the fighter out of the swamp and onto dry land (or as dry as this mud-hole can get). The Force is strong with this one! Yoda’s characteristic musical theme resounds prominently on the soundtrack.

Luke cannot believe his eyes. “That is why you fail,” answers Master Yoda, after taking a long, drawn-out breath. “Judge me not by my size,” Yoda scolded him prior to achieving this nearly impossible feat. The jig is up, as it were. Luke now recognizes, from here on end, that he must put up or shut up. If this puny pint-sized runt can do what he just did, then there is hope for this disbelieving whippersnapper. There had better be, or the saga will end before it has begun.

Master Yoda (Voiced and handled by Frank Oz) shows Luke the power of the Force

As the Imperial Fleet begins to break apart, Han and Leia calculate their next move, which is to accompany the discarded trash and float away into deep space. They are unaware of Boba Fett’s craft, which follows the Millennium Falcon as it whisks off to the Bespin mining colony. Han is (or was) friendly with the administrator of the colony, one Lando Calrissian, a fellow scoundrel and shifty space pirate who may provide them with safe haven.

“Can you trust him?” asks Leia pointedly.

“No,” claims Solo. “But he has no love for the Empire, I can tell you that.” Satisfied with himself, Han leans back in his command chair. Leia plants a kiss on the side of his face, sealing the bargain.

Is there true honor among thieves? We’ll soon find out ….

(End of Part Six… To be continued….)

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes        

‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) — Can You See Me Now?

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Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) explains his worldview to Flora (Gloria Stuart) in James Whales’ The Invisible Man (1933)

A solitary figure toting a large suitcase is seen braving the English countryside’s wintry weather. He hesitates for a moment before entering the Lion’s Head Inn in the village of Ipping. Upon opening the door, he startles a group of patrons inside with his peculiar looks and detached deportment. They recoil from him as he slowly approaches the bar.

Sporting dark goggles, a false nose, and a thoroughly bandaged head, the visitor insists to the innkeeper, Mr. Hall, on renting a room. “I want to be left alone, and undisturbed,” he later intones. If curiosity killed the cat, it certainly had a similar effect on the villagers, who gossip among themselves about the visitor’s secretive ways.

Bursting in unexpectedly on the stranger as he’s having his supper, the proprietress of the inn, Jenny Hall, makes note of an unusual facial feature: there’s nothing there expect empty space! “He must’ve been in some horrible accident,” she mutters.

A week goes by and the stranger continues to hole up in his room. In fact, he’s transformed the space into a chemist’s laboratory! Some humorous asides ensue between Mr. and Mrs. Hall. She insists that her husband take up the overdue bill, but he hesitates. “Let him cool off first,” he suggests. Nothing doing! She gives her husband an ultimatum: either the stranger goes or she goes.

The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) makes a dramatic entrance

Mr. Hall rudely interrupts the stranger and tells him to pack up his belongings and get out. Pleading with the man that he’s the victim of an unfortunate accident, Griffin begs to be left alone. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately for Mr. Hall, the stranger throws the poor man down a flight of stairs. This drives the proprietress Mrs. Hall to a fit of hysterics as the other patrons go in search of a policeman.

It soon becomes apparent that the stranger, whose name is Dr. Jack Griffin, has a deeper affliction: a chemist by profession, Griffin has been searching in vain for a way back from his invisibility.

Although Boris Karloff was originally touted to star (he turned down the part of Griffin due to salary issues and the lack of “screen presence”), the 44-year-old British actor Claude Rains made a successful first impression on audiences in his American motion picture “debut” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction novella.

The Invisible Man is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalomaniacal dialogue (“Power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet!” and “We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of big men, murders of little men — just to show we make no distinction!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May on a cold and frosty morning!”) to satisfy any sci-fi addict.

What made this feature so memorable, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period (the work of FX specialist John P. Fulton, along with John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams), painstakingly done with plaster models, mattes, process photography, and double exposures. There were times when the lead actor had to dress from head to toe in thick, black velvet, as well as endure being smothered in plaster casts, in order for the invisibility effect to register on film. When Rains, as Dr. Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head and face, he reveals … absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic!

The Invisible Man – Hands over his head

There are innumerable feats of legerdemain throughout the production, but none of them could stand a ghost of a chance at sci-fi posterity were it not for Rains’ unequalled vocal performance. By voice and body alone, Rains managed to do the impossible by investing the character of the ambitious scientist, on the verge of an earth-shattering discovery, with a huge measure of sympathy for his plight. Some may complain that his acting is over the top, that it’s theatrical and overly melodramatic. But I ask, how else would one play a delusional megalomaniac if not to the crowd?

Griffin is our modern-day Dr. Frankenstein (and part Mummy), with one major difference: he’s experimented on himself instead of a test subject. His inability to undo what he has wrought brings about his transformation into a homicidal, power-hungry fiend, obsessed with wielding his dictatorial rule over mankind to the detriment of those he holds most dear.

So pitifully poor in wealth and background, Griffin had nothing to offer his sweetheart, Flora Cranley. That is, until he stumbled upon the formula that would forever alter his universe: a powerful mind-altering drug called monocaine (a possible pseudonym for morphine), which renders its subject invisible while leaving behind a warped personality.

His scenes with the desperate Flora are pitiable in their futility: she realizes he has gone completely insane, but is helpless to dissuade him from his murderous path; while he, like an impatient child, can only rock back and forth in his chair, seeking solace and relief where none can be had. Grasping at his forehead, Griffin mouths his contempt for humanity and its weaknesses. He is incapable of accepting the truth of what Flora has to reveal, that the drug has altered his soul and his being. Won’t he let her father help him? Not a chance!

Griffin goes on a murder spree, first throttling a policeman to death, next sabotaging a speedy train, and then sending his former assistant, Dr. Kemp, over the side of a cliff for betraying him to the police. In the end, alone and doomed by his lust for power, Griffin is shot and captured by his pursuers. On his deathbed, the invisibility begins to fade, revealing the real man behind the bandages: calm, serene, and finally at peace.

The Ultimate Reveal: The Invisible Man (Rains) on his deathbed

Directed by James Whale, who also worked on the previous Universal hit Frankenstein (1931), the film was another of the studio’s highpoints in the expanding list of classic monster movies. Whale pointed his camera high above the ceiling for the scene where the British bobby (E.E. Clive) and townspeople climb the stairs to Griffin’s room. For others, he kept the focus low and to the ground which made Griffin loom physically larger and more menacing (Rains was famously short of stature), as well as rail from on high about conquering the world. Less dependent on the techniques of German Expressionism than either Frankenstein (1931) or its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Invisible Man spawned numerous sequels and imitators, none of which scaled the heights of the original.

Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., the picture co-starred the lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in James Cameron’s Titanic) as Griffin’s fiancée Flora, William Harrigan as his treacherous assistant Dr.Kemp, and Henry Travers (the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Flora’s father and Griffin’s employer, Dr. Cranley, along with the excitable Una O’Connor as Jenny Hall, Forrester Harvey as Herbert Hall, Dudley Diggs as the Chief Detective, and E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Others in the cast include the dependable Dwight Frye as a reporter, John Carradine (under the pseudonym Peter Richmond), and Walter Brennan.

The screenplay is credited to R.C. Sheriff, who wrote the play Journey’s End, which kicked off Whale’s stage career in 1928 and that also took him to New York. Whale later directed the screen version of the play.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: ‘Casting’ an Ever-Wider Net While Singing the Broadcast Blues (Part Three)

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The Met Opera’s staging of The Death of Klinghoffer, with Paulo Szot (left) as the Captain, and Sean Pannikar (right) as the Terrorist (Photo: Met Opera)

The Time of the Season, Such as It Was

No matter what the classical music press may say or the company’s management might do to convince us otherwise, this was not the most impressive Metropolitan Opera radio lineup in many a season. But it did have its moments. And it has certainly been a most assorted if not exactly varied one.

There’s always loose talk among those purportedly in the know of how staid and stale the repertoire has gotten. Perusing the contents of the Met’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide for the 2016-2017 Season, one can spot such obscure novelties as Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin (“Love from Afar”), a newly commissioned work; a modern-esque production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (in the original French!); and Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, an unearthed verismo gem from the 1930s.

Old favorites — for example, the perennial Zeffirelli production of La Bohème, and Sonja Frisell’s lavishly embroidered Aida — continue to hog the limelight, giving way to a plethora of more current re-workings of Don Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Hansel and Gretel, The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Carmen, Werther, La Traviata, Fidelio, Eugene Onegin, The Flying Dutchman, and Der Rosenkavalier. Hey, is it intermission time yet?

But seriously, unless these standard-issue items are laced with top-of-the-line models, there would be no motivation on Earth to attempt to resurrect them — except, of course, to attract paying audiences to fill the company’s seats. Our nation’s opera companies have undergone such financial upheavals in the past few decades that anything smacking of the “adventurous” is immediately looked upon with misgiving.

Taking a slice out of operatic life, a few years back, in November 2014, the Metropolitan tried its hand at presenting a controversial staging of John Adams and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Although it is more in the tradition of an oratorio, the story concerns the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists and the murder of a retired Jewish-American passenger, the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer. Not to make light of a serious situation, this is what used to be known in the industry as “CNN Operas” or, in the good old days of Hollywood, a subject “ripped from today’s headlines.”

Because of the inflammatory nature of the plot, protesters and pro-Zionist organizations (to include New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani) decided to come together and demonstrate vehemently in front of Lincoln Center Plaza, decrying the Met and its general manager, Peter Gelb (himself of Jewish origin), for putting on such a despicable program. To avoid further controversy, Gelb cancelled both the Live in HD transmission and the planned radio broadcast of the work. That’s telling them, Pete — NOT!

Demonstrators outside the Met Opera, protesting The Death of Klinghoffer

As it developed, the majority of protesters had never seen the production when it initially premiered much less heard any of the music. To quote from music critic Alex Ross’ excellent New Yorker review, all they knew about Klinghoffer was that it “glorified terrorism” (which it did not), that it was “anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist, anti-American, anti-British, anti-gay and anti-western world.” Phew, did they leave anything out of their diatribe?

Such excessively politicized over-reactions to an operatic treatment of a highly publicized atrocity from the recent past may not have been entirely unexpected. While they were within this nation’s capacity to express opposing viewpoints (to be defended at all costs, by the way), there was no reason to attribute the above sentiments to a work that tried to look at all aspects of the event, no matter how horrible the ultimate outcome.

Artistic license allows for some leeway in depicting thorny and hard-to-swallow subject matter. Verdi was one of those individuals who knew how to juxtapose the past with present concerns, and still make them stick in the listener’s mind. In fact, the Met’s staging of his early triumph Nabucco (read my review of their production: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/met-opera-round-up-singing-the-broadcast-blues-part-two-nabucco-la-boheme-and-romeo-et-juliette/) followed this basic blueprint.

We must not neglect the fact that what Verdi was dealing with was a musical and lyrical representation of so-called “history.” In the case of Nabucco, it was the Hebrew enslavement by King Nebuchadnezzar — known as the Babylonian Captivity — and the slaves’ yearning for freedom from bondage, a familiar Biblical theme.

During the time of Nabucco’s premiere, parts of Italy were ruled by the Austrian Empire. And during Verdi’s youth, the town of Le Roncole, in the northern province of Parma, was governed by French forces (trivia note: the name on his birth certificate was Joseph, not Giuseppe). Therefore, it was easy for Italian audiences to relate themselves to Verdi’s viewpoint, hence their identification with the oppressed and the opera’s immediate popularity.

One could say as much for Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila, a similar depiction of the Old Testament strongman from the Book of Judges where Samson battles the evil-minded Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Its familiar seduction scene — you know, the bit about Samson getting a haircut from the temptress Delilah, which deprived him of his strength — is one of those eye-rolling episodes that tend to give opera a bad name.

Still, the mighty Samson was never as contentious as, say, Verdi’s Rigoletto in which the censors objected to the licentious nature of Francis I, which compelled the composer to transform the royal personage into the lowly Duke of Mantua as well as change the setting from France to medieval Italy; or his later Un Ballo in Maschera, wherein the Maestro attempted to portray the onstage assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which earned the antagonism of overly nervous censors, thus forcing Verdi to move the location of his opera to Colonial Boston(!) of all places.

This brings up the obvious question: Should the Met have approached Adams and Goodman with a similar suggestion? Let’s say, change the locale of Klinghoffer from an ocean liner to a starship? Why not make the opera an outer space, science-fiction adventure tale of repression? How about calling it Revenge of the PLO Sith?

Anything is possible for the sake of preservation of the art form. You think I’m joking? To take just one example, there have been plenty of “modernized” realizations of Wagner’s Ring cycle where the participants are costumed in space-age garb. And where would the Forest Murmurs episode in Siegfried occur? On Endor, of course!

Now, I know I’ve been waxing and waning toward the ridiculous, but as long as there is someone, somewhere willing to squeeze every last ounce of topicality out of contemporary productions (in a good way, to be certain), one can be assured of opera’s continued relevance and existence in the twenty-first century.

And Now, for Something Completely Different

Meanwhile, the list of works to be reviewed grows long. Suffice it say that those Met Opera broadcasts meriting inclusion into this blog have whittled themselves down to a precious few: a revival of Vincenzo Bellini’s final masterpiece I Puritani, Massenet’s romantic Werther, Rossini’s stirring Guillaume Tell, Wagner’s ghostly Der Fliegende Holländer (or “The Flying Dutchman,” with corresponding allusions to filmmaker Gore Verbinksi’s Pirates of the Caribbean series), and finally Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a work unfamiliar even to me.

Let’s begin with the Bellini opus, the full title of which is I Puritani di Scozia (“The Puritans of Scotland”). When this Sandro Sequi-Ming Cho Lee production first premiered back in 1976, the big-name cast boasted the likes of Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and James Morris in the principal roles. The conductor was musicologist and bel canto expert Richard Bonynge, Ms. Sutherland’s husband.

Bellini’s I Puritani, with Alexey Markov, Javier Camarena, Diana Damrau and Luca Pisaroni (Photo: Julieta Cervantes, New York Times)

Though the version heard was far from complete, it at least gave listeners a reasonable facsimile of how these voices would sound in what was generally accepted as a field day for singers. There was a palpable excitement in the air and a feeling of anticipation, especially when Luciano joined Dame Joan in their hair-raising last act duet, “Vieni, fra queste braccia.” We were also treated to the justifiably famous Act II scene for baritone and bass, “Suoni la tromba,” splendidly executed by Milnes and Morris. The shouts and bravos that greeted all these artists went on and on, such was the reception they garnered at the time.

Critics had to reach all the way back into the previous century for comparisons. To be fair, though, the Metropolitan did not have as glorious a performance history with Puritani as it had with Bellini’s Norma or La Sonnambula, since these works did not necessarily depend on first-rate casting in every part. But Puritani needs the best that an opera company can hire. Caruso never sang Arturo, but Giacomo Lauri-Volpi had an early success with the role, with high Cs and Ds intact. Elsewhere, tenors Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda lent class and distinction to their live performances, along with melting lyricism.

However, if memory serves me, I seem to recall that the New York City Opera under its conductor-director Julius Rudel had revived I Puritani a few years before the Met. There was a time when the NYCO was tops in its class for heralding new and unfamiliar works. My family and I were privy to a matinee performance of Puritani featuring the effervescent Beverly Sills, with Enrico DiGiuseppe, Pablo Elvira and Robert Hale. Unlike the Met’s fuller version, the City Opera’s Tito Capobianco production was riddled with cuts, especially in Act III; it also struck me as being needlessly rushed, as if Rudel were in a hurry to get it over with and go on to something else.

Beverly Sills as Elvira in I Puritani, in a performance from San Francisco

While La Sills had not yet made her Met Opera debut, she was no doubt Manhattan’s reigning bel canto queen. On that occasion, though, she seemed lacking in spark and vigor, quite unlike her bouncy old self (her nickname happened to be “Bubbles”). The other singers somewhat made up for the lack of fireworks, with Elvira and Hale delivering a rousing close to Act II. Tenor DiGiuseppe put on a brave front in the punishing part of Arturo. He navigated the wide-ranging tessitura well enough, but discomfort was evident as he moved higher and higher up the scale.

Now, when Diana Damrau teamed up with Javier Camarena at the Met, the SRO (standing-room-only) crowd knew these more than capable artists were going to give it their best shot as Elvira Walton and Lord Arturo Talbot, especially at the February 18, 2017 radio broadcast.

Damrau’s entry in Act I was accompanied by a mellow, though far from mellifluous Luca Pisaroni as her uncle Giorgio Walton. Earlier, Russian baritone Alexey Markov struggled with the coloratura aspects of Riccardo Forth’s opening aria, “Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei.” Sounding much like the Italian baritone Ugo Savarese (a second-rate singer at best, who may be familiar to record owners as Count di Luna on the old London/Decca LP of Il Trovatore with Tebaldi and Del Monaco), Markov’s timbre and rather modest means was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.

In contrast, the ovation that greeted Javier Camarena’s entrance song, “Ah, te o cara,” nearly stopped the show from moving forward. What beauty of tone, what lovely soft singing! If this wasn’t a throwback to the Golden Age, I don’t know what is. The Mexican tenor soothed and lulled the audience to frenzies of enchantment. When he joined soprano Damrau for the number’s closing stretches, there was no holding back. Taking nothing away from my admiration for tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s abilities (see my earlier review of Puritani: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/11/28/a-bel-canto-bonanza-the-met-presents-bellinis-la-sonnambula-and-i-puritani-rossinis-la-cenerentola-and-donizetti/), Camarena either matched or exceeded that noteworthy performance — not the easiest thing to do, I’ll have you know! Both artists merit praise in their own individual way, of course.

Damrau showed her determination as well, in the long Act II Mad Scene, “Qui la voce,” a standard with bel canto works of this nature. In this one, Elvira goes in and out of madness and despondency over Lord Arturo’s alleged betrayal and impending condemnation for allowing Queen Henrietta to escape (never mind the plot, just enjoy the singing). Here, the soprano’s superior acting skills outshone all previous attempts, with the possible exception of Maria Callas. Now there’s a standard to live up to!

Diana Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani.
(Photo: Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera)

But the obvious star of the afternoon was Camarena. There has never been a better sung nor more gorgeously inflected reading of this part in my fifty years of listening. High notes held no terrors for the tenor. Although he skipped the high F in “Credeasi misera” (for which a fan, at the first performance, expressed his indignation), Camarena kept his focus on a classical line throughout. He never shied away from caressing the notes and resisted the temptation to belt out his high Cs and Ds. Everything flowed in an orderly, smooth fashion. He even lavished care for the text, a critical part of the whole in these fragile pieces.

Less is More, More or Less  

Before I delve into the specifics of the other radio performances, a word about the premier broadcast of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which kicked off the season on December 3, 2016. It happened to be Russian diva Anna Netrebko’s role debut. Acquitting herself well in the part, the estimable Netrebko broke no new ground as far as insight and virtues were concerned. She was partnered by the able Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Des Grieux and by British baritone Christopher Maltman as Lescaut. The conductor was Marco Armiliato.

Álvarez is one of those artists who believe in the “less is more” school of singing. Continuously preserving his sound and husbanding his resources, Marcelo took on the Chevalier des Grieux, a most challenging assignment for any singer, with gusto and full-throated abandon. He surprised listeners (including yours truly) with a convincingly committed portrayal of the lovesick young student. The highlight was his Third Act oration, “Guardate, pazzo son,” sung with refinement as well as bronze-toned refulgence. His nonetheless valid interpretation, while smoother and less obviously strained than that of French tenor Roberto Alagna’s emotionally explosive version (see my review of his performance: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/manon-lescaut-madama-butterfly-and-the-mets-latest-love-couple-part-one/), was a major triumph.

Marcelo Alvarez as Des Grieux (center) in Act III of Manon Lescaut (Photo: Met Opera)

The most frustrating aspect of that performance, to my dismay, was the lackluster conducting of the usually competent Marco Armiliato. Perhaps I’m unfairly comparing his duties to the achievements of his predecessor in this regard, Fabio Luisi. Maestro Luisi was passed over for promotion by an unappreciative Met Opera management for his assignments in the French and German wing — in particular, to Berlioz’s classically structured Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring, for which he added unexpected pleasures. Moreover, the knowledge and understanding he has brought to the Italian repertoire —i.e., the double bill of Cavalleria and Pagliacci, and the marvelously telling string section of Manon Lescaut — made those hoary works soar as they never had before.

The tricky key changes and give-and-takes in the third act trio between Manon, Des Grieux and her brother Lescaut; that stop-and-go aspect indicative of the couple’s desperation in their attempt to flee Geronte’s wrath before the police arrive, completely fell apart without Luisi’s firm hand at the helm. Accuracy and timing are essential, as is an almost metronomic precision. Don’t misunderstand me: I have the greatest respect and admiration for Maestro Armiliato. So the only possible explanation I can fathom for his failure to ignite this scene was insufficient rehearsal time.

The New and the Old

I’m all for new works, especially when they offer variety and another point of view. But the December 10 broadcast of Kaija Saariho’s L’Amour de Loin suffered from a sameness of sound throughout its presentation. With only three roles to contend with, the opera felt stagnant and unrelievedly boring.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, normally an attention-grabbing, solidly opulent singer, was dull and stiff on stage. He’s supposed to be a troubadour-prince. Now, if there’s something that Owens is NOT is a romantic figure, especially a troubadour-prince. Consequently, there was little chemistry between him and his lady fair, soprano Susanna Phillips. One could blame it on miscasting, but this was a tedious affair from start to finish. True, the opera might be better off with different artists (as some critics have saliently suggested), but I’m not sure that would help its survival in the long run. It failed to stir these old bones.

Susanna Phillips & Eric Owens in L’Amour de Loin at the Met

Moving on to the December 31, 2016 broadcast of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, I felt the opera deserved more bounce and flair, and several shades more of flamboyance and panache than it got. It also required a major bass-baritone with the requisite bel canto proficiency. Such was not to be found in the otherwise adequate hands of Ildar Abdrazakov as the pompous Mustafà.

To a similar degree, the squishy diction and shaky tones of Russian basso Mikhail Petrenko nearly sunk The Barber of Seville broadcast of January 28, 2017. Fortunately, that opera can survive just about anything that is thrown at it. And what was thrown included a fine, young Rosina in Pretty Yende (now THERE’S an attention-grabbing moniker!), the practiced Figaro of Peter Mattei, and the superlative vocal skills of Javier Camarena’s Count Almaviva. But a close shave is a close shave!

I did not hear either the February 4th Rigoletto or the February 11th Carmen broadcasts. But I am told that tenor Stephen Costello as the Sinatra-inspired Duke of Mantua managed to cut a trim figure on stage. He did over-extend his pleasingly lyric voice to the breaking point, however, in trying to outdo his predecessors. Not a wise move, Stephen! Besides, Polish tenor Piotr Beczała and the American Matthew Polenzani are hard acts to follow. Do yourself a favor and follow Frankie’s example: do it your way.

On the other hand, Massenet’s Werther from March 4 was graced with Vittorio Grigolo’s passionately dedicated, romantically justified interpretation of the title character, with fine support from David Bizic as Albert and Maurizio Muraro as the Bailiff. The opera was conducted by Edward Gardner.

The only letdown, if one could be honest, was in mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s blandly conceived Charlotte. With such an outgoing protagonist as Signor Grigolo by your side, many reviewers noticed that Leonard was inhibited in her actions. I can’t judge her performance from that angle, but what I can say is that vocally she was about as effective as her predecessor Sophie Koch had been. Of course, Ms. Koch had to contend with the darkly handsome, and compellingly delivered Werther of a certain Jonas Kaufmann — an unfair matchup even in the best of times.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man Behind the Glasses (Part Two): Top of the Sports World

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Cosmos soccer star Pele at the Meadowlands in New Jersey (Photo: Alamy Stock Footage)

The Search for Order in the Soccer Universe

According to Clive Toye (in the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos), only one man could break through the antipathy toward the game of soccer in the U.S. And that man was Pelé, the hero of Brazil’s third World Cup victory. But how could they entice him?

Toye and Phil Woosnam, the North American Soccer League’s commissioner and investor in the team, claimed to have approached Pelé as far back as 1970 with an informal proposal to play in America. Their boss, Steve Ross, eventually saw the soccer icon as a marketing brand, a natural fit for their expanding organization; that television would be a huge moneymaker for the star and for the parent company, Warner Communications. We cut to a shot of Pelé in sunglasses, seated at a bench, with Professor Mazzei alongside wearing a white cap, a brown jacket, matching brown slacks, and aviator shades (26:47 to 26:53).

Jay Emmett, another investor in the franchise and later a Warner Communications executive, dispatched Cosmos lawyer Norman Samnick to São Paulo, Brazil, to see if he could sign the superstar to a contract. The problem with that move was that Pelé had been designated a national treasure by the Brazilian government, who refused to let him leave the country for any foreign offers. This was circumvented, somewhat, when Pelé decided to retire from the game by calling it a career in his home country.

Sensing a possible opening in their favor, the men proposed a US$2 million deal, but Pelé wanted more; to be exact, US$5 million for two years of play. Curiously, the reasons for his asking over and above the initial offering price are never explored. But there was a very good motive for his holding out for a higher amount: contrary to his prowess on the playing field, Pelé was not the most astute individual when it came to business acumen or money matters.

In Brazil, he had cosigned for a loan that had gone sour. The bank that was owed the money pressed him for payment, which numbered in the millions of dollars. Desperate to get out of the mess he had found himself in, Pelé turned to his closest advisers (thirty-two in number, according to a wisecracking Jay Emmett), one of whom was Professor Mazzei. The Professor, along with Pelé’s wife Rosemeire, his brother Zoca, and a financier named Xisto, met over the course of several months to discuss the alternatives. After much needling and cajoling, and through their joint efforts, they convinced Pelé that his best (and only) option would be to work out a mutually advantageous pact with the “gringos” in return for a three-year commitment to the team and a longer one to the Warner Communications group.

In a black-and-white photograph from the period, Professor Mazzei can be spotted, wearing a checkered jacket and looking over the contracts with former Cosmos executive Rafael de la Sierra (28:55 to 28:57). The shot shows de la Sierra in the middle right, with Mazzei, his right hand raised in a pontiff-like blessing over the documents, at center left, and Toye seated at far left; a table cluttered with paper, accompanied by ashtrays filled to overflowing, can also be observed. (The prevailing mood was one of having pulled an excess of all-nighters!)

From the looks and stances of the various participants, it was obvious that money had been the main stumbling block. As far as high-flying salaries went, baseball’s home-run king, Hank Aaron, had made US$200,000 that year — and he was the highest paid player in sports. Many years have passed since these events took place, yet there are still differences of opinion about how much Pelé was paid for his services: a five-part contract, at one million per year; a ten-year public relations contract; a million-dollar record deal; and one million for three years of actual play. In the final analysis, the figure was somewhere between $2.7 and $7 million, at 1974 rates — any way you slice it, this was an unimaginable sum at the time that, unfortunately, went mostly toward paying back the loan Pelé had unwittingly cosigned for.

The 1975 New York Cosmos, with Professor Mazzei (far left) and Pele (top row, fourth from the right)

Once again, we are shown a photo of a dazed Professor Mazzei (at 29:28 and 29:30) with a mass of cigarette butts on the table; and faded footage of Mazzei (at 30:31 to 30:33) looking over and/or behind Pelé’s shoulder, with Jay Emmett directly behind him. Pelé embraces his new boss, Steve Ross, and then pats Emmett on the back to officially “seal the deal.” Significantly, Pink Floyd’s song “Money” plays on the soundtrack, which sets the proper tone.

We learn, too, that Henry Kissinger was also involved in bringing Pelé to the U.S. (Brazil did not want to let him go, so they continued to play hard to get). Through some behind-the-scenes politicking and arm-twisting, Kissinger, who was still highly influential as U.S. Secretary of State, along with others in the Brazilian government, were able to make the miracle happen “for the good of the relationship of Brazil and the United States.”

The contract was officially announced at the 21 Club in Manhattan, in what Daily News columnist David Hirshey claimed was held “in a room aptly named the Hunt Room, as if Pelé [were] the prize catch.” Pelé was two hours late (the quip was that he was on “Pelé time,” not New York time). When he finally did arrive, guess who was standing behind him? Professor Mazzei, his trainer and mentor at Santos Soccer Club, dressed in a blue business suit, white shirt, and natty striped tie (33:39 to 33:42). He is seen directing traffic at or near the podium, as Pelé waves to the press corps and shakes hands all around. Veteran sportswriter and severe soccer critic Dick Young can be heard heckling the participants from the back of the room. Nevertheless, Pelé’s charm and charisma energized those present, especially the reporters who likewise became instant fans. This positive show of support resulted in record attendance at the Cosmos games, though Young remained a powerful skeptic.

After the contract was signed (and with Pelé’s wife by his side), Mazzei turned to the expectant crowd. Translating for the “King” while inadvertently echoing Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” the Professor issued the following proclamation to a warm round of applause: “You can spread out the news to all the world that the soccer arrived finally in USA” (34:50 to 34:58).

Intermission: Rise & Shine

Meanwhile, at Randall’s Island, Pelé is seen patting two small boys on the head, while the ever-watchful, ever-present Professor Mazzei, in jacket and tie (36:30 to 36:34), looks on in the near distance. A bit earlier, Mazzei, dressed in an orange-colored, long-sleeved jersey (35:29 to 35:35), is caught observing the superstar going through his training routine. Next, Pelé enters the stadium for his first match as a Cosmos player. And who do we see trailing behind him, in dark glasses, wide-open collar, and plaid jacket? You guessed it: good ole Professor Mazzei (36:39 to 36:40). Thus began the North American leg of Pelé’s career at the age of thirty-four.

The first game took place at Downing Stadium, on June 15, 1975, against the Dallas Tornado. The score was tied at 2-2. Pelé had done well for himself, with an assist and a header in the process. When it was over, Pelé went down to the showers. The locker room was packed to the rafters with wall-to-wall reporters. Out of the blue, he called Rafael de la Sierra to come over and shouted, over the din of competing voices, that this would be the first and last game he would play for the team. “Look at my feet,” he cried. “I have a fungus that I contracted here!”

De la Sierra was stunned by the accusation, but it turned out the alleged “fungus” was nothing more than green spray-paint used to brighten up and prettify the substandard field. Crouching down at Pelé’s hallowed feet, which were covered in filthy, mud-drenched socks, was the unmistakable form of Professor Mazzei (38:51 to 38:55), in the same green baseball cap and Cosmos sweatpants he sported at the beginning of the documentary. When Pelé realized the ridiculousness of his claim, he broke out into an amused grin. We can  sense a collective sigh of relief.

“I come to play in America,” Pelé later announced before the camera, “because I believe in soccer in America. Kids here love the sport, the American people’s sport naturally. I come to play here because I know, in a few years we’ll have a good team in America.”

How right he was — and how prophetic as well. His presence continued to shatter attendance records, the voiceover makes known, although that first season ended with the Cosmos missing the playoffs. Soon after, Pelé was invited to the White House, where he put on a brief demonstration for then-President Gerald Ford, with Professor Mazzei (42:38 to 42:49) interpreting as the need arose.

Pele (center right) shows President Gerald Ford (center left) how to head the ball. Professor Mazzei (extreme left, in dark glasses) and Clive Toye look on

Things got better as the Cosmos moved to Yankee Stadium. As a matter of fact, many people have taken credit for bringing Pelé to the U.S. and to the Cosmos. However, it remains a mystery that the one man who became his most trusted companion — his trainer, his mentor, and his English language translator as well as his frequent travel partner — goes unmentioned.

From then on, things picked up for professional soccer in America. At Franz Beckenbauer’s signing, there was the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, standing at extreme left and flanking Ahmet Ertegun, Werner Roth (captain of the Cosmos), Pelé, Mr. Ross, the Kaiser, and Chinaglia. But Pelé, it can be stated, was without a doubt the player who started the literal ball rolling, the one who could lay claim to the mantle of having given soccer the propriety it lacked in North America. As a result, the likes of Gordon Banks, Rodney Marsh, Geoff Hurst, and George Best were all attracted to the States.

Steve Ross wanted a winner above all else. This is why he recruited the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who is variously described as a “backstabbing individual,” a person “who scored a lot of goals,” but who was generally disliked; “a very disagreeable fellow at times,” but one who “was extremely passionate about soccer” (according to Ross’ son, Mark). He was also the “man to put the ball in the back of the net,” exactly what Ross required. And maybe what the Cosmos needed at that point. Ego and temperament were what drove Chinaglia to become the league’s highest scorer; whereas aptitude and ability made Pelé the leader in assists.

Despite Chinaglia’s reputation as a playboy, he and Ross got along well together, former Cosmos goalie Shep Messing insisted. “Giorgio had won a soft side in the heart of Steve Ross.” Obviously, this led to friction between the two prima donnas of the team, Pelé and Chinaglia. Not that Pelé was the “diva” type, the kind to throw temper tantrums at the drop of a hat; it was that Giorgio craved being the rock star, the idol of millions — he certainly had the dark, smarmy looks and the requisite brooding mien. He also needed the adulation (both the boos and the cheers), the attention, and the hangers-on. This was not the case with Pelé, who had enough self-possession and assurance not to require those things. He had been in the spotlight for half his life, ever since his 1958 World Cup debut in Sweden, ergo he was used to being at the center of the soccer world.

They clashed in the locker room, where emotions ran high, exploding in a torrent of recriminations and four-letter words. Egos inevitably took over, especially Chinaglia’s. David Hirshey, sports columnist and author who wrote a biography of Pelé, talked about the women, “a blonde on each arm,” as he recalled the soccer star having at one point. In that, Pelé and Giorgio saw eye-to-eye.

This helped to explain how the Cosmos lost the 1976 Championship to their rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, by a score of 3-1. Wine, women, and song were to blame — in this instance, two bottles of Chivas Regal, according to Tampa Bay’s star player, Rodney Marsh. The boss, Mr. Ross, was not at all pleased. To escape the inevitable fallout, the Cosmos were sent on a tour of Europe, where they became literal “goodwill ambassadors,” in the words of Rafael de la Sierra.

Rodney Marsh, often hailed as “the white Pelé,” then relates the story of how he corrected a reporter who had interviewed him by insisting that Pelé [was] the black Rodney Marsh. “This did not go over well,” he confessed. With that, there is a shot of the team leaving their plane as it lands in London. Professor Mazzei is there, looking dapper in a gray-blue sports shirt and trademark dark glasses (53:16 to 53:18).

In the decade between the 1960s and the mid-70s, soccer in America had been transformed into its own type of sport, tailored specifically to U.S. audiences: that meant halftime shows, tailgate parties, leggy cheerleaders, a colorful mascot, and the piece de résistance — no tied games.

“You needed a winner,” Rodney Marsh would say. So teams would go first into a mini-game, then O.T., and finally the dreaded penalty shootout — only, this wasn’t the standard shootout it would become today; it was a one-on-one rush at the goalie! Some of the players despised the idea, while others loved it; either way, it brought additional excitement to the game. The players stood thirty-five yards from the goal mouth, and were given only five seconds to get off a shot before time would be called. The crowds ate it up.

Take the Credit, but Spread the Blame

New York Cosmos Cheerleaders (Photo: Alamy Stock Footage)

The Cosmos had been playing at Yankee Stadium until the final year, 1977, when they moved across the river to the newly built Meadowlands in New Jersey. They even added the Cosmos Cheerleaders (one of whom, a young woman named Marjorie, was Professor Mazzei’s daughter!). Also, a guy in a Bugs Bunny outfit, on loan from Jungle Habitat in New Jersey, would become their unofficial mascot in the stands and on the field. They were Americanizing the sport, at the same time that Steve Ross was continuing his efforts toward “internationalizing” the team (a contradiction in terms).

“It was like Noah’s Ark,” described Rose Ganguzza, Pelé’s manager from 1975-77. That year, there were fourteen new players from seven countries, among which was the twice-named European Player of the Year, the “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer. As mentioned earlier, at the signing, to the far left of the Ertegun brothers, Pelé, Ross, Beckenbauer, and Chinaglia, was Professor Mazzei, standing ramrod straight with his hands at his side and glancing down at his cuticles (57:18 to 57:20).

Chinaglia went berserk at the news of the signing, openly questioning why they, the Cosmos, needed another star player when they already had him! One reason was that the Cosmos were losing more games than winning them; another was that they were only drawing twenty or so thousand fans to their home games, in a stadium with a capacity for three times that much. So they were losing money with every game. And, as we learned, Ross did not like to lose anything — especially money.

In response to the crisis, Ross brought the heavy artillery out to the stadium, i.e., all the singers and actors under contract to Warner Communications. They were enlisted for their drawing power: Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, Henry Kissinger — you name ‘em, they had ‘em. Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, the list was endless. In Clive Toye’s words, “The bloody locker room was littered with people. It was becoming a joke.” Once, Mick Jagger was mistaken by Gordon Bradley for a drug addict, he looked so abysmally bad. Mick and Kissinger visited regularly, as did many other celebrities, which took attention away from the game and those playing it.

Henry Kissinger & Pele embrace in the Cosmos locker room. Jay Emmett is behind them, with Ahmet Ertegun slightly to the left of Kissinger

After a while, Toye resigned his post and Bradley was summarily fired. It seemed that Bradley had wanted to bounce Chinaglia from the team, but upon Bradley’s firing, Giorgio recommended that Eddie Firmani be hired to take his place. Firmani had led Tampa Bay to victory in 1976. Toye insisted that Giorgio “had a malign influence over Ross,” and therefore over the Cosmos. Giorgio was the “suck-up”: whenever he’d score a goal, he would run up to the boss’ box and wave and gesticulate in Steve’s direction, paying homage to the kingmaker, as it were. This was a smart move on Giorgio’s part since he too had been dropped by Coach Bradley. He needed to get back into Ross’ good graces, and this was one sure way to do it. In the end, the striker would win out over his adversaries.

Even with Chinaglia’s goal-scoring facility, the team lost five of their subsequent matches. So the search was on for new blood: Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team, was brought in from São Paulo. Carlos Alberto revealed that the day he arrived in New York, July 13, 1977, was the day of the big blackout. Crime, looting, arson, robberies … The Son of Sam serial killer was still on the loose, and the impending bankruptcy of New York City was in the air, along with gun shots, fire alarms, police sirens, and billows of black smoke— the place was in turmoil. I lived through those rough times, with the blackout doing the most damage to the city’s reputation. These were exceedingly difficult days to overcome. Having a winning, championship team to rally behind helped to pull the city from the brink.

Meanwhile, the Cosmos players were living it up at Studio 54 (equivalent to Nero fiddling while Rome burned), with stretch limos escorting them to and fro after each game, and to a huge section reserved for the team.  The rock-star milieu had finally come to U.S. soccer in that they held a party there every Monday night.

There is a snapshot of Pelé at a table, with his then-wife Rosemeire to his left; to Pelé’s right is Nelsi Morais, one of the first Brazilians to be signed by the Cosmos, and his wife; to Rosemeire’s left is the ubiquitous Professor Mazzei, and at the extreme right side is Mazzei’s wife, Maria Helena (1:04:32 to 1:04:35). They are raising their glasses in a toast to fun and frolic — the Brazilian contingency at play.

Nelsi Morais, Pele, Rosemeire & Professor Mazzei at Studio 54 in 1977

On August 14, 1977, a sold out audience of 77,691 screaming fans at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands saw the Cosmos seize the playoff bench from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The team went on to win the 1977 Soccer Bowl against Portland, thanks to a squeaked-through goal by Steve Hunt and a tremendous header by Chinaglia. And they did it for Pelé; they wanted him to end his career on top as a winner. Act II came to a climax. It was the arc of triumph, the pinnacle of field performance for the New York Cosmos.

It would all come crashing down in the years to come.

(End of Part Two – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Four): ‘JFK’ and the Acts of His Apostles

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Liz (Cissy Spacek) & Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in their living room, in JFK (1991)

“Quo Vadis, Domine?”

Liz Garrison (Cissy Spacek), District Attorney Jim Garrison’s devoted and long-suffering spouse, begins to feel the negative effects of the adverse publicity heaped on her husband’s investigation into Kennedy’s death.

“You care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she tearfully confides. With good reason, Liz knows that as the wife of a fact-finding D.A., she will be in for a grueling endurance test of missed family gatherings and empty chairs at Easter Sunday luncheons.

As a counter to Garrison’s accusations, Clay Shaw mounts a campaign against the ensuing investigation into his alleged involvement in JFK’s death. Almost immediately, scandal erupts over Garrison’s use of public funds to pay for his office’s inquiries.

In the meantime, David Ferrie (the fellow with the painted-on eyebrows and ill-fitting blond wig) freaks out in a paranoid screed, lashing out at the U.S. Government, the Mob, the Cubans, anybody and everybody he can think of.

“I’m a dead man!” Ferrie blurts out, in a steady, X-rated stream-of-consciousness rant directed at the D.A. and his two assistants Bill and Lou, in relation to Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, among others — none of which make a bit of sense. It’s the ravings of a lunatic.

David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) wigs out big time in JFK

The attorneys meet again, behind closed doors of course, where they size up Ferrie’s actions and “arguments” as untenable to their cause. Office assistant Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight) bursts in on the meeting to notify Garrison that they’ve been bugged. This explains how the press is always aware of their every move, what they say, where they go, and who they plan to use to mount their case. In a dramatic moment, the fatal phone call comes in that Ferrie is dead.

In a search of the deceased’s ransacked apartment, evidence of thyroid medication is found (too much of it, in fact, indicating foul play); and then, just as dramatically, Assistant D.A. Susie Cox enters to announce that Ferrie’s Cuban associate, Eladio del Valle, has also met with foul play: he’s been hacked to death. Suspicious deaths begin to pile up, more than you can shake a fist at. Outside the office, someone (perchance an FBI informant?) approaches another assistant, Bill Broussard, to get him to switch his allegiance to the other side. Bill is the previously mentioned Judas Iscariot figure, and he’s about to get plucked.

Amid all the turmoil, Garrison decides to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with “X” (Donald Sutherland), who tells him somewhat surreptitiously a lot more than the District Attorney (or anyone else, for that matter) should “know” about Oswald, Kennedy, and a whole host of other names; about “X” being reassigned to the North Pole to get him out of the way, while two weeks later the president was shot to death. Right on cue, we are shown a snippet of Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film, along with obviously fake archival footage.

The enigmatic “X” (Donald Sutherland) tells all to a disbelieving Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, left) during his trip to D.C.

“X” makes his case, and then summarizes his findings by posing the following questions: Ruby, Oswald, Cuba and such were nothing more than red herrings, dupes and pawns of a much bigger, much more insidious plot. He counts them off one by one: “Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”

He answers his own queries: The generals, the so-called military-industrial complex that Eisenhower, in the beginning of the film and at the end of his two terms as president, warned against. “The call is made, the contract is put out. No one said, ‘He must die.’ No vote. Nothing’s on paper. There’s no one to blame. It’s as old as the crucifixion. Or the military firing squad …”

After JFK’s death, LBJ signs a document, National Security Action Memorandum No. 273. “Just get me elected,” comments an actor made up to look like President Johnson, “I’ll give you your damn war.” Crisis, betrayal, murder, retribution. Listening to this, Garrison is in shock and disbelief at these revelations. How can he find the will to go on? He’s St. Peter leaving Rome to the Romans (remember, he’s in D.C. at the moment, our modern-day Roma). “X” urges him on, and coaxes Garrison to do what’s right. He charges the D.A. to “Stir the shit storm.” The hope is to start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government will crack.

“The truth is on your side, bubba. I just hope you get a break.” With the Washington Monument and the symbolic dome of the Capitol Building in the background (a nice analogy to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), the mysterious “X” walks off into the distance and in the direction of those very monuments.

At this crucial juncture, “X” becomes Christ returning to Rome. In one of the excluded books of the Apocrypha, known as the Acts of Peter, tradition dictates that Saint Peter had seen a vision of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, walking in the direction of the Eternal City, back to where Peter had just left to escape possible torture and death.

“Quo vadis, Domine?” Christ appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way by Annibale Carracci (1601-2) Photo: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

“Quo vadis, Domine?” — “Whither thou goest, Lord?” Peter asked of Christ. And Christ answered him: “I am going to Rome to be crucified all over again.” At that, Peter turned swiftly around and, with his life in jeopardy, took up Christ’s challenge and returned to the city en route to becoming a martyr to the cause.

Garrison remains seated. He is alone on the bench. We next see him at President Kennedy’s gravesite, with the eternal flame burning in the foreground. He is deep in thought, pondering what his next move will be.

As he gazes wistfully at the flame, an older African American gentleman appears alongside him, with his young grandson in hand. All of a sudden, Garrison’s downcast expression changes into a newfound determination to arrest Clay Shaw for conspiracy and acting with others to commit the murder of President John F. Kennedy.

Dramatic music is cued up.

Logic is the Beginning of Wisdom

Switching gears, we find Chief Justice Earl Warren (shot from below so as to give his immense height its full quotient) as he speaks to a reporter. Warren dismisses the charge against Shaw as spurious, claiming it is not credible.

Back in “Big Easy” New Orleans (and back down to Earth), Garrison responds to journalists’ queries about Justice Warren’s comment. Garrison mounts the steps and overlooks the mob of newshounds. He has taken up Christ’s cause and, by default, His cross. And who should be by his side? Why, his Judas, of course, in the person of discredited Assistant D.A. Bill Broussard. He will betray Garrison and his team, just as Christ was, for their seeking out of the truth.

“And what is truth?” Garrison poses, as Pilate had done to Jesus — a more or less rhetorical query to which no answer is proffered or expected. “It’s become a dangerous country,” he continues, “when you cannot trust anyone, anymore; when you cannot tell the truth. I say let justice be done, though the heavens fall!”

Broussard (Michael Rooker), Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) & Numa Bertel (Wayne Knight, far right) in the press conference scene

He might as well have spoken Julius Caesar’s famous aside, “Let the die be cast,” as he crossed the Rubicon River with his army into Rome. For both men, there was no turning back.

There are angry recriminations from Garrison’s wife Liz. Domestic problems continue to resurface and intrude on matters going forward. The attorneys meet yet again to discuss the avenues they need to take with regard to Oswald. After throwing theories and suppositions hither and yon — in particular, one about the “missing” FBI telex, warning their office of a possible assassination attempt on November 22 — Judas rises to his feet in the FBI’s defense. This leads to the other assistant D.A., Lou, to resign on the spot.

Using unmistakable language that clearly identifies the group as Apostles, Broussard tosses out his personal credo: “How the hell you gonna keep a conspiracy going on between the Mob, CIA, FBI, Army Intelligence and who the hell knows what …. When you know for a fact [that] you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people? We got leaks everywhere!” The deadly germ of David Ferrie’s paranoia has infected one of their own.

Broussard can’t believe the government (or Church, or other established institution) can be responsible for such a heinous act. He’d rather believe the Mob is capable of carrying out the crime, but not our government. Garrison proceeds to tear his theory apart, even bringing up the idea of LBJ as a conspirator. As critic Gerardo Valero aptly put it, in a June 2012 article “Should JFK Have Even Been Made?” on the Roger Ebert website, “Perhaps it was hard for a man like [journalist and anchorman Walter] Cronkite [and, by implication, the average viewer] to consider the possibility that such nefarious acts (and their cover up) came from respectable sources.”

Garrison (Costner) presiding over the Kennedy “Apostles” late in JFK

“All it takes is one Judas. People on the inside.” The analogies are apparent. From here on, the Apostles will be faced with an insurmountable brick wall of a flimsy case. In history, Garrison’s theories collapsed like a house of cards. Much of what was presented in court turned out to be half-baked, crackpot theories that led nowhere. Basically, Garrison had his people running down bogus leads which made them run in ever-widening circles.

The remainder of the film tries to come together, to tie all of these disparate elements into a coherent bow — or as coherent as possible in a kangaroo court-like atmosphere.

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Skipping the Groove: The Long-Lost Art of the Complete Opera Album (Part Two) — Living the Life Operatic

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Sophia Loren (Aida) & Afro Poli (Amonasro) in the film version of Verdi’s Aida (1953)

Lights! Camera! Opera!

From Puccini to his illustrious predecessor, Verdi, came my first full-fledged exposure to the Bear of Busseto’s grandest of grand operas, Aida.

Originally conceived to inaugurate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt, Aida made its debut a few years later (in 1871) at the Cairo Opera House. Besides being one of Master Verdi’s most sonorous stage spectacles, there are moments of unanticipated intimacy and orchestral lightness — for example, the famous double scene of Act IV where Aida and her lover, Radames, are locked in each other’s arms while sealed alive in the tomb.

As many of this blog’s readers know, my first experience with a live radio transmission of a Metropolitan Opera production was the four-act Aida. The cast, as far as I can remember, was headed by the legendary Leontyne Price in her signature role of the Princess Aida, with James McCracken as Egyptian general Radames, and Robert Merrill as Aida’s father, Amonasro. The year must have been around 1967 or ’68 (maybe even earlier).

It also marked the moment I first started recording reel-to-reel tapes of Saturday matinee performances. This practice went on for decades thereafter (with portable cassettes supplanting tapes), but at the start I only recorded arias and highlights, or the most memorable portions of acts and scenes (memorable to ME, that is) instead of the whole darn thing. This was the case with Aida: I got as far as Act II, the noisiest and most lavish of the four, before I ran out of tape.

As was the norm for me back then, Aida quickly became my most listened-to showpiece. It remains a favorite of mine, though slightly down from that imaginary “best of” list. Right now, I would rank it in the top ten. It’s an opera I know well, one I have grown to admire for its well-developed story line (Verdi himself had a major hand in shaping the drama and dialogue) and musical ambition (Act IV, Scene One, also known as the Judgment Scene, stands as one the composer’s finest and most forcefully structured sequences for mezzos).

With all young people, curiosity manages to bring out the best in them. Not only was I not satisfied with just learning the words and melodies to the most popular airs, but I began to realize there were actual stories behind these great works. This led me to the next series of events in my burgeoning operatic life: a subscription to the Met’s weekly magazine, Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

At that time, a dollar would buy you a month’s worth of material about the radio broadcast, the cast of performers, the goings-on in the opera world and other opera-related matters — a dream come true for initiates. This jump-started me into a nonstop chain of reading and writing about opera from a multiplicity of reference books and library resources, in addition to listening to every opera broadcast I could adjust my radio dial to, along with independent study that, to this day, continues to thrill and delight me as it always has.

I mention independent study as a key component of getting to know what opera was all about — and how my juvenile (at times, practically obsessive) interest in Aida paid off handsomely both on television and in the movie theater.

One summer, my father informed me that a downtown cinema was advertising an old Sophia Loren picture: Verdi’s Aida — billed, as a double-feature, with a matinee showing of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Off we went to see my first opera movie. Heck, I didn’t know Sophia Loren could sing opera! Neither did she — how naïve was that?

Unbeknownst to moi, Sophia’s singing voice was dubbed by Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, whose own full figure was, (ahem) shall we say, more “ample” than La Loren’s. As I watched the screen, it quickly dawned on me that none of the other artists appearing in this color production had done their own singing as well.

Lois Maxwell (Amneris), who played Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series, with Sophia Loren (Aida)

What startled me the most was the overpowering stereophonic sound reproduction and the ampleness of the voices with full orchestral accompaniment. Wow! What a thrill it was to hear opera at full blast! At that point, my only exposure to music of this nature was consigned to a crude portable record player (with constricted monophonic output, at that) and to a 13-inch black-and-white TV set, where shows such as the Bell Telephone Hour broadcast kinescope images of old-time opera stars in their sunset years.

If I wanted to live the life operatic, I had to dispose of those elementary pieces of equipment and graduate to more sophisticated listening methods.

Along those lines, I vowed to expand my classical horizons by kicking things off with the purchase of a complete opera album of Aida. No longer would I be limited by arias and highlights. I wanted — and needed — to hear and learn about the entire work, from beginning to end, top to bottom, no more lame excuses.

Impressed as I was by the voices onscreen, I was a little thrown by the baritone who performed the part of Amonasro. To me, the voice had to belong to the great Tito Gobbi. Surely, that snarling tone and snappy delivery could have come from no other singer. In fact, I had recently heard Gobbi in the opera’s Nile Scene with Maria Callas on music critic George Jellinek’s program, The Vocal Scene, on radio station WQXR-FM.

By way of research, I learned that the actor who embodied Amonasro on film was Afro Poli, a decent enough singer in his own right, but even he had been dubbed by another artist, the late Gino Bechi. Bechi, I came to realize later, turned out to be one of the singers that had inspired the young Gobbi when he was starting out in the opera field.

Gobbi wrote about Bechi in his autobiography, My Life, and in his book Tito Gobbi and His World of Italian Opera. Here is what Gobbi had to say about his great colleague and rival: “Gino Bechi and I had a sort of competition between us as to who could sing [Baldassare’s aria from Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana] better, and even to this day I have the stupendous voice of Bechi in my ears.” Gobbi was a most generous soul.

Tito Gobbi and His World of Italian Opera

I knew, too, from prior investigation, that Bechi had sung Amonasro on an old 78-rpm recording, with Gigli as Radames and Maria Caniglia in the title role. Heck, I had about as much chance of finding that album as I would have in purchasing an old-fashioned gramophone to play it. Maybe I could settle for Gobbi’s masterful interpretation with Callas and Richard Tucker, an EMI/Angel release of more recent vintage and (it was my hope) availability. It wasn’t in stereo, mind you, but was the next best thing.

Armed with money my mom gave me, I went down to E.J. Korvette’s, a popular department-store chain at the time, in search of Signor Gobbi. No such luck! However, I did find a complete RCA Victrola recording with Zinka Milanov as Aida, Jussi Bjoerling as Radames, Leonard Warren as Amonasro, Fedora Barbieri as Amneris, and Boris Christoff as the High Priest Ramfis. This was a re-release of the original RCA Victor outing which, if memory serves me, didn’t always carry a libretto — something I desperately needed if I was going to accompany along.

Faced with either this purchase or nothing, I decided to go for it. Returning home, I eagerly played the album from start to finish (with libretto intact) and was not dismayed at the result. This was a splendid production, with excellent acoustics (albeit sonically restricted in one instance towards the end of the Nile Scene) and immaculately refined singing from all the participants. Whoever said that Aida was nothing more than a pretentious excuse for camels and circus elephants was dead wrong!

The recording venue was the Rome Opera House. Consequently, one could feel the surrounding ambience’s sway, which had a positive effect on the individual performances and interpretations. But don’t take my word for it. Read this section from Volume One of Opera on Record, edited by Alan Blyth, published by Hutchinson & Co., and written by contributor John Steane:

“Milanov’s voice has something in common with [Montserrat] Caballé’s, excelling in the soft, high notes which were at best pure velvet. In other, more turbulent passages, she could be less pleasing, losing focus and displaying a beat. Some most lovely singing by her and Jussi Bjoerling in duet, however, should be preserved if ever a really adequate archive comes into existence. ‘La tra foreste vergine’ (Bjoerling also observing that rare dolce marking) and ‘O terra addio’ haunt the memory long afterwards with their loveliness.

Jussi Bjoerling (top left) & Leonard Warren (middle) listening to a playback of Aida

“This set, too, is probably the most striking of all in the way it opens (once the curtain is up): Bjoerling is in his best voice, fullest voice, but the first voice of all that we hear is Boris Christoff’s, so impressive that it bids fair to refocus the whole opera on the High Priest.”

What was that about Gobbi and Amonasro? Live and learn.

A Resounding Ring

My other life-altering discovery came with Sir Georg Solti’s compelling rendition of the first note-complete, stereophonic realization of Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelung. This massive cycle is comprised of four evening-length works, starting with the shortest, Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), and continuing on (in ever-increasing lengths) with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and the longest of the lot, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”).

Supplied with lavish librettos and copious program notes and background information, I threw myself into Wagner’s mythological setting — the operatic equivalent of a pre-Lord of the Rings saga — with the daring of a Spanish explorer visiting the New World for the first time.

With the additional aid of the Rheingold booklet, which set forth and illustrated the complicated leitmotif (“leading motives”) system that Wagner employed throughout the telling of his story (along with a three-disc album of appropriate musical excerpts annotated by British music critic Deryck Cooke), I was aurally and visually able to follow the complicated plot’s many meanderings with the ease of a specialist. I finally began to understand what motivated the characters to do what they did — and uncovered for myself the raison d’être for Wotan’s deplorable (nay, inexcusable) behavior with respect to his minions. And he’s supposed to be the head god, the one those lesser gods and mortals looked up to? Why, he’s no better than his counterpart, Alberich.

One of the mysteries that was cleared up was why Alberich, the loathsome Nibelung of the saga’s title, is called Schwarz (“Dark”) Alberich, while at other times Wotan is mentioned as Licht or “Light” Alberich. They are, in fact, mirror images of each other, with both good and bad traits abounding. Wotan wanders the world, looking for love away from home and hearth. He fathers various siblings along the way, all of them out of wedlock, while still married to Fricka, his lawful wife. In addition, he condones the incestuous pairing of his children, Siegmund and Sieglinde — an uncomfortable set of circumstances that brings about their downfall.

Similarly, Alberich is searching for an amorous tryst with the voluptuous Rhine Maidens, who spurn him for his ugliness. Thus Alberich renounces love, places a curse on the titular Ring, and pays another woman, Grimhilde (huh, “Grim” is right!), to bear his only son, Hagen, the personification of hatred and evil incarnate. Can you blame him?

With understanding comes an appreciation for what the singers have to do in order to convey these various implications in their respective characters. Does the singer portraying Wotan express power and will when called for, but can he also be wimpy and weak when confronted with Fricka’s arguments? Can the artist assuming Siegfried represent youthful exuberance in forging the sword Nothung, and can he later do justice to the telling of his life story to the Vassals, which comes after a long, eventful night of full-throated warbling?

John Culshaw’s Ring Resounding (published 1967) about the making of the first stereo Ring cycle recording

These are some of the myriad aspects to look for when listening to a performance of the Ring. It’s one thing to find them in a live performance, but on records? The odds are doubled at every turn you won’t encounter them. But you would never know it if you didn’t read up on the story ahead of time. Plunging head-long into the River Rhine is not everyone’s preferred method of discovery. But in my case, it became a revelatory experience — that, and my reading of Robert Donington’s fascinating tome, Wagner’s Ring and Its Symbols, a rather Jungian interpretation of the events in the drama. I can also recommend (if you’re interested) Father M. Owen Lee’s Turning the Sky Around, a much shorter but equally incisive analysis of the work by way of Father Lee’s intensive study of classical literature.

Interpretation. That’s a much abused word in the world of opera, especially when the conversation turns to Regietheater, or “director driven theater.” Should the director be the driving force behind most of the world’s productions? Or should he or she be constrained by past performance practice? It’s fair to view a work with fresh eyes, but too often directors want to push the outside of the envelope for no other reason than to push it as far as it goes. Is this a valid, reasoned approach or plain old, self-indulgent willfulness?

On records, one need not worry about such contrivances. In this specific environment, “interpretation” is relayed by words and sounds alone. There is no visual component to throw viewers into a quandary. Only the sonic elements suffice, which can either lead to a more positive experience with the recording at hand or a negative one.

Returning to Solti’s Ring, I’d like to answer an age-old question that’s been posed by countless critics and record buffs for well on 60 years, at least since this archetypal edition first appeared on the shelves: was this the best-ever “interpretation” of Wagner’s magnum opus? Hmm, that’s a tough one. Considered a landmark in the history of recorded opera, the first stereophonic Das Rheingold was released back in 1958, followed a few years later by Siegfried in 1962, Götterdämmerung in 1964, and finally Die Walküre in 1965.

Lauded for its sonic splendor and superb sound reproduction and effects, producer John Culshaw earned kudos for his team’s efforts in capturing for all time such iconic performers as Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Hotter, Set Svanholm, Gottlob Frick, Paul Kuen, and Gustav Neidlinger, along with a younger generation of Wagnerians headed by Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Regine Crespin, Christa Ludwig, James King, George London and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The enterprise was unique in that entire episodes were recorded in extremely long takes, some sessions by as much as 45 minutes or longer. This was not a common practice at the time. In truth, most opera albums were recorded piecemeal and, in the manner of the majority of motion pictures, totally out of sequence.

So what made this venture so unique? My own view of this issue lay in the casting. In his book on the recording, entitled The Ring Resounding, Culshaw described the difficulties the company had with the artist scheduled to undertake the part of Siegfried, a key role. You will notice that there is a four-year gap between the release of Rheingold and Siegfried (why they did not record the next opera in the series, Die Walküre, remains a mystery).

Georg Solti (left) & producer John Culshaw recording Wagner’s Ring

One of the reasons for the long delay was caused by Ernst Kozub, the unmentioned tenor assigned to sing Siegfried and who had captured everyone’s attention with his stirring voice. Culshaw insisted that Kozub had the raw equipment that would turn him into a star of the first magnitude, if only he had more in-depth study and dug into the text with added insight. But no matter how they tried to coach him, Kozub resisted; worse, he became incapable of delivering the goods needed to bring the character to life. Not known at the time were issues concerning Kozub’s health, which were never revealed until much later.

Reluctantly and with so much time and money invested in the project, Culshaw was forced to look elsewhere for his Siegfried. He was fortunate to secure the services of the leading Wagner tenor of his day, the French-born German singer Wolfgang Windgassen. Without mincing words, it was clear to everyone involved that this was a world-class interpreter. The only problem was securing his services, for which contract negotiations were long and drawn out.

Business was finally settled, mostly due to Windgassen’s personal efforts on the project’s behalf. Culshaw confessed that much dial-twiddling and sound recalibration was called for in overcoming the size differential between Windgassen’s more modest tone and Kozub’s more refulgent one. What Decca/London gave up in impact and immediacy they gained in a decidedly enhanced, artistically viable interpretation (there’s that term again) where the artist in question outshone all previous attempts. Windgassen gave it his all so that both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung could be completed.

To underscore the point Culshaw made above, there are several moments in these two works where Siegfried reveals an innermost depth and nuance not native to his abrasive character. One of them is the delightful Forest Murmurs Scene from Act II, at the spot where the young brute longs for his dead mother, whom he never knew in life. Windgassen is so effective and affecting here, with a real tenderness and awareness for the words and text, that all thought of another singer doing justice to the part is swept aside. His forceful yet exuberant Forging Scene is spot-on terrific, too, aided and abetted by Gerhard Stolze’s cacophonous Mime and those marvelous poundings of the anvil.

In Act III, things turn deadly serious with Siegfried’s dramatic encounter with the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise). Having disposed of this meddlesome pest, Siegfried approaches the fiery rock where Brünnhilde lies asleep, surrounded by Magic Fire (the Sleeping Beauty story taken to the extreme). As Siegfried muses on the figure before him, he cautiously removes her breastplate. Then, in a violent outburst pregnant with comedic potential, he cries out: “This is no man!” But it’s the WAY that Windgassen handles this moment, how he shapes this phrase that betrays not humor but terror at the thought of befriending such an extraordinary creature as this.

Wolfgang Windgassen (Siegfried) embraces Birgit Nilsson (Brunnhilde) in Siegfried (Photo: Bayreuth)

Finally, with a long, all-enveloping kiss on her mouth, Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde to the simultaneous rising of the dawn. The theme of the rising sun resounds in the massive Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (recorded in Vienna’s acoustically ideal Sofiensaal), as it accompanies Birgit Nilsson’s mighty voice in her bid to welcome the morning light: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” She takes the phrase in one long, astounding breath.

It’s just one of the many spectacular sequences from this epic undertaking that provide all the proof one needs to confer its premier status as a high-water mark for recorded opera.

Ripe for Re-Disc-covery

The advent and promise of the compact disc, or CD, and the expectations it engendered as a viable “new” medium for preserving opera eventually sealed their fate more that it revived a by-now waning format. Anything and everything worth recording had already been done, or so the prevailing thought. Besides, where were the present-day artists who could replace the likes of a Pavarotti or a Domingo? The newest Caballé or the latest Price? Where was Milnes’ successor, or Ghiaurov’s or Ramey’s, for that matter? You get my drift.

Without an alternative replacement of the magnitude and resilience of the above-named artists, what purpose was there in re-recording something that had already been recorded a dozen or more times before — and better performed at that? Just to hear an opera in another medium, that is, in the digital realm, is that reason enough? How many inferior versions of Tosca or La Bohème can we handle? How many opera albums can pop idols and wannabe opera stars such as Andrea Bocelli or Josh Groban headline, to the inevitable damage of the very product they are attempting to sell?

Maybe I’m letting my inner “grumpy old man” get the better of me. But let’s be honest, here: when has anyone been bowled over by the current batch of complete opera recordings? What I have seen revived of late (and fairly successfully, too) is a welcome return to the single artist set-up — that is to say, the concept album: recitals and concerts of scenes and extracts from well-known or rarely performed operas and songs, recorded and sung to near perfection in a controlled atmosphere.

For an illustration of what I mean, we have Roberto Alagna’s Malèna, Jonas Kaufmann’s An Evening with Puccini, Dmitri Hvorostovsky Sings of War, Peace, Love and Sorrow, Pretty Yende’s A Journey, Anna Prohaska’s Serpent and Fire, Lawrence Brownlee’s Allegro Io Son, Anna Netrebko’s Verismo, Elīna Garanča’s Revive, and Jamie Barton’s All Who Wander. Each of these fine artists, in his or her own way (and in his or her own voice), has contributed to a better understanding of their respective country’s art.

Choice items and representative highlights from their concert programs, be they from North America, Italy, France, Spain, Mexico, Germany, Latvia, Russia, South Africa, or wherever, stress the diversity and depth of music and song in this big old world of ours. To coin a well-worn phrase, they each have offered audiences “something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue.” Something “blue” in this context would refer to something sad, but no matter.

My own feelings about this direction that opera recordings have taken, despite the diffuse nature of today’s constantly evolving technology, is one of joy and hopefulness. Joy that this newest crop of singers and artists, from sopranos to tenors, mezzos to basses, baritones to countertenors, are finally able to penetrate the storm clouds of uncertainty; and hopeful that tomorrow, they will bring forth the light of understanding as to what the operatic art truly involves: dedication, perseverance, suffering for one’s art, and, above all, a love for the form.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes