Monday, January 16, 2012

Clyde's Movie Palace: The Moon-spinners (1964)


Written by Michael Dyne
Based on a novel by Mary Stewart
Cinematography by Paul Beeson
Directed by James Neilson

A few weeks back I was lamenting about the fact that the producers of 2007’s Nancy Drew film had found it necessary to do the usual dumbing down of the script because they fell into the studio group think that the only film a tweener or teenagers, particularly female tweener types, will watch these days is when said film is targeted at an audience that has recently undergone a lobotomy.

Now I'll admit that I don't know a whole lot of teenagers but of the ones I do know, most of them are no different than the teens of any other era. They can be just as obnoxious as we were, they do a lot of things their parents loathe, they listen to music we don't get, but they also know when they are being sold a bill of goods. So when you have thrown the likes of tweener favorites such as Hilary Duff into any old crappy vehicle, they stay away in droves.

The everlasting film monument of Ms. Duff will be the likes of such waste products as Raise Your Voice, A Cinderella Story, The Perfect Man and Material Girls, box-office bombs one and all. I'm not sure how much talent Duff actually has as an actress if she has any at all, because I've only watched a smidgeon of Material Girls and The Perfect Man. But I hear she can play the hell out of Lizzie McGuire.

I did see her in a plug-in supporting role in Cheaper by the Dozen but it was a part any young girl from central casting could have handled. But it did get her name on the credits so at least that was something, not to mention the fact that it was about the only vehicle she has been in that actually turned a profit.

If they had starred Duff in something that was at least passable or better yet, something that could be watched by all ages without inducing extreme mental anguish, I might be writing a different story here. Given the opportunity to redeem herself and show the world her true acting skills by taking on the role of Bonnie Parker in The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, she opted for marriage and pregnancy instead.

Back in the early and mid sixties Disney had the right idea. It's one thing to be graced with a talented young actress, but it's quite another accomplishment when you manage to put her into films that people actually want to invest time in at the best, or at least not totally embarrass the young actor or actress at the worst.

In films like Tiger Bay (non Disney), Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and In Search of the Castaways, Mill's star shone brightly as a child actress. But by the mid sixties, and 1964 in particular, when The Moon-spinners was made, she had hit her teen years and would have to find the right vehicles if she was going to make the transition from childhood favorite to adult icon. Besides Moon-spinners, Mills was in two other films that same year including The Chalk Garden and The Truth About Spring both good films which I suppose can also be considered as her first real adult roles. I guess you could call 1964 her coming out year.

The Moon-spinners is very loosely based on the romantic mystery novel of the same name by Mary Stewart. In other words the name's the same but the game has a different set of rules. The key ingredient, and probably the most important one that made it intact to the screen version of the novel besides the title, was the Greek Island of Crete. I don't think Uncle Walt made it a habit of taking his films off of the studio lot to be made, but he did for this one and a wise move it was which is why he was always smarter than the rest of us. Think of Greece as being an uncredited co-star of this film.

Nikky Ferris (Hayley Mills) and her Aunt Fran (Joan Greenwood) travel to the town of Aghios Georgios (I think its pronounced ayos yoyus but don't hold me to that) on the Greek Island of Crete. Auntie Fran is a musicologist and a collector of folk songs. I guess it's nice respectable work if you can get it especially if it pays for a working vacation in Greece. So what does one do with collected folk songs? It doesn't matter really because it's only an excuse to get our two intrepid females to Crete.

Based on a tip Fran had received from another hotel in Heraklion, she is especially interested in a song called The Moon-spinners, which coincidentally is also the name of the hotel that she and Nikky plan to take up residency in for a few days.

They arrive in Aghios Georgios just in time for a not so big fat Greek wedding that is taking place in the village. Before they arrive at the hotel though, the film cuts away to quickly introduce us to Sophia (Irene Pappas) and Stratos (Eli Wallach) who own and run The Moon-spinners Inn. It doesn't take us long to find out two important things about Stratos. First he's very superstitious, and studies astrology to guide his path.

The second thing that we find out from his crappy demeanor is that he is somebody we would not care to associate with under any circumstances. And although it isn't spelled out to us in so many words, we know that there is something very sinister about him. In other words, if you're going to make a suspenseful mystery film, then Wallach should be your go to guy because criminality oozes out of his DNA.

When Fran and Nikky arrive at the Inn they are told by Sophia that there are no rooms and that she had not received the telegram Nikky had sent to reserve them. Her answer in regards to the rooms is a lie but the part about not having received the telegram is not as she exchanges an angry glance with Stratos' cohort, Lambis (Paul Strassino).

When her son Alexis (Michael Davis) blurts out that indeed there are rooms, Sophia relents and rents a room to our travelers. Alexis explains that the reason Sophia didn't want to rent them the rooms is because of his Uncle Stratos.
Alexis: It's Uncle Stratos. Since he come back from London, he don't like no one. But I like you both so everything okay!

You'll quickly learn to like Alexis. He's actually quite a refreshing change from the usual kids sent down from Hollywood casting to play in these films and a lot better than if Uncle Walt had plugged in one of the Mousketeers.

They barely have time to set their suitcases down when Uncle Badass comes barging into their room. He quickly lets them and us know four important things:
1. They are not welcome at the hotel
2. There is no bath and they can bathe in the sink
3. They can stay the night but had better be on the first bus leaving in the morning
4. You don't want to hire Stratos and put him in charge of promoting Greece as a vacation spot. He has this way of putting a damper on tourism.

As she is overlooking the bay from her Hotel room balcony, Nikky sees a small motorboat being pull up to the dock guided by an English Guy (Peter McEnery). As he docks, he is aided by Stratos cohort Lambis. No, it's not that Lambis is a helpful kind of fellow. It's just that he has a few questions for English dude.

Lambis: You went to the Bay of Dolphins?
English Guy: Yeah
Lambis: Skin diving?
English Guy: Yes, the water's so clear. You can see everything. And how much do you see? Hmm? (Cue suspenseful dramatic musical notes as Lambis turns back to face English Guy). It was you, wasn't it? Out there in that boat watching me. Don't be so shy next time, I'll give you a diving lesson.(Cue Cheshire cat type grin on English Guy. Pan camera back up to the drooling Nikki on the balcony.)

Yep, English Guy is one cool cat. And Nikky, who has been watching from the balcony (but is too far away to hear) decides that English Guy is just the dude for her after having been camped up with Aunt Fran for the whole trip. Hell, if I had to spend a whole trip with fussy Aunt Fran I'd think he was hot too.

Later in the evening when Nikky and Fran go down to join the wedding party English Dude wastes no time in introducing himself as Mark Camford, English Dude.

As he watches them from a distance, Stratos seems none too pleased about this particular turn of events and decides to serve the threesome at their table himself. It is then that we finally find out exactly what or should I say who the Moon-spinners are:

Stratos: It is a legend.
Nikky: Who are the Moon-spinners?
Stratos: Three sisters who spin the full moon.
Mark: Doesn't the legend have to do with the Bay of Dolphins. Alexis told me there was suppose to be a sunken ship laden with treasure.
Fran: Really?
Stratos: In Greece, there are many old tales.
Mark: I understand that when the moon is full you are supposed to be able to see the treasure at the bottom of the bay. (turning to look directly at Stratos) Do you think there is any treasure in the Bay of Dolphins? Stratos: There are sharks, and many dangerous Octopus along the rocks.
Nikky: Sharks?
Stratos: Yes. (Pointing at Mark) I warned you before not to go swimming there.
Mark: I see you quite often out there in your boat.
Stratos: Let us hope that I do not fish you out one day without an arm and a leg.

I only have one thing to say about this brief scene: Well played. It tells us just enough to move the story along without telling us too much too soon making everything else anticlimactic. We know that there may or may not be something in the Bay of Dolphins that both Mark and Stratos wish to possess. And we also learn that both of them are well aware of what the other one is up to as this cat and mouse game between the two of them continues to play itself out.

After making a date with Nikky to go for a swim the next morning, Mark follows Stratos, who says he is going night fishing out to the Bay of Dolphins. Unbeknownst to Mark, he is followed there by Lambis, who along with Stratos is planning a trap for Mark to walk into. When Mark arrives at the Bay....

Well, I better not tell you about that. Let's move on. The very next morning after being stood up by Mark, Nikky decides to take a walk in the hills. It is here that she comes across an old church and goes inside to explore it when suddenly....

Well, I'd better not tell you about that either. Later, when Nikky is heading into the village she is confronted by Stratos who doesn't believe her when she says she was out mingling with some shepherd boy. Not taking any chances of letting Nikky return to the village and ruin his plan Stratos....

Oh well, forget it. You'll have to watch the movie to find out what's what and who is really whom and who is doing what to whom and if there really is a sunken treasure in the Bay of Dolphins. If so, exactly what kind of treasure are we talking about and whom does it really belong to? And is Mark Camford more than just English Dude, Treasure Hunter? And most of all, will we finally get to hear the town people sing for Aunt Fran?

Let's just say that there are enough surprises, plot twists, adventure, and some really good edge of your seat moments that make this film what Alexis might call a "really good show." It is the kind of family type mystery adventure film that we probably should have gotten out of Nancy Drew last summer but got the usual by the numbers crapfest that hit the big screen.

For instance, one extremely well crafted, suspenseful and photographed scene in Moon-spinners that takes place at a windmill is worth more than every single plot contrivance that inherited the Drew film. And if you've seen Moon-spinners you know which scene I'm talking about because it’s the one everybody remembers the most.

Once again Hayley Mills shows us how to get it right. Mills gives another strong performance as Nikky. While the script sometimes caters to a certain fifties and early sixties view of women, there are enough moments here where she is allowed to show that she does have a mind of her own and can take matters into her own hands when necessary. She won't be pushed around if she can help it and she let's Mark know this in no uncertain terms.

Make no mistake about it, it is Nikky's mettle that carries this film, even more so once she is finally clued into what is actually going on. She may not have chosen to be dropped unsuspectingly into all of the mystery and intrigue, but once there she more than makes the best of it.  (Interesting side bit:  I had originally put this clip on youtube myself just for this review.  After a couple of years, Disney blocked it….then put up the very exact same clip themselves to promote instant viewing.  Still isn’t the wide screen edition though, is it Disney?)

In one of the film’s more suspenseful moments, Nikky tries to escape from a locked windmill.

Peter McEnery is the big discovery here and as Mark, there are almost times as if he is playing a young and dashing James Bond type. His best scenes are those with Stratos, but the romance between him and Nikky often reminded me of the kind of relationship one would expect in a film where the participants are more at odds through much of the film. Of course, this being sixties Disney, the romance is kept to an absolute bare minimum but Mills does get her first screen smooch planted squarely on the lips. Hey, you got to take it anyway you can get it in the early world of Disney.

And then there is Alexis, who seems to show up at just the right moments when he is needed for the plot to turn a corner or just to help out, sometimes more than just a little bit. But unlike many films when we find such characters annoying and distracting, we welcome his presence in this film because he is just so darn likable.

Eli Wallach is cast as the villain for a reason. He has made a whole career just out of the playing the heavy in many films, and does it as well if not better than anybody else. Five years ago I saw him in the film The Holiday and even at the age of 92 he was still chugging along. In 2010, he made an appearance in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Joan Greenwood plays Aunt Fran as if she is the Aunt that you love but would probably find a bit annoying if you had to spend too much time with her. Irene Pappas though is given little to do except to look worried on occasion and to admonish Stratos the rest of the time.

Later in the film silent screen actress Pola Negri shows up as Madame Habeeb and you'll get a kick out of her and that's all that I can tell you because of plot points. And John Le Mesurier and Sheila Hancock show up to introduce another plot twist late in the film as an "ambassador" and his alcoholic wife.

It doesn't matter whether you are a tweener, teen-ager, adult or elderly, The Moon-spinners is a film that any age group can follow along and enjoy even if the film was squarely aimed at the younger set. Nowadays, studios crank out generic films such as those I mentioned at the beginning of the article, and in the end they end up appealing to almost no one except extremely rabid hardcore do or die fans of the actor or actress mentioned above.

Take Lindsay Lohan before she dove into a bottle of gin and lost herself for a couple of years. Put her in quality well written films such as Parent Trap, Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, then you make money. Throw her into crappy movies such as Lohan's Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen with a crappy generic script and its snake eyes, you lose bub.

Although The Moon-spinners may not have helped Haley Mills segue into a consistent and successful adult career, it still stands on its own merits. It's the kind of film that doesn't play down to or insult the intelligence of its core audience. And in all the times that I have viewed this film I have never ever felt insulted but I am always entertained. And if I am always entertained I have no choice but to give you my grade which is a B+.

Your best chance of catching The Moon-spinners is by either purchasing or renting the DVD. Unlike the great job Disney did with the double disc DVD’s of Pollyanna and The Parent Trap, this DVD is bare bones. Although the picture quality is adequate, the film is shown in what appears to be a cropped 1.33:1 film ratio which is how it would have ran when it played on The Wonderful World of Disney about three years after it's theatrical run.
How was the film originally shot? Nobody seems to know for certain. It's really incredible when Disney can do such great work on some releases and can't even bother to put at least a decent film transfer on a disc at other times. We aren't begging for a full fledged extras laden disc here, but there is no reason other than trying to get by on the extreme cheap to not at least digitally clean a film up and show it in it's theatrical film ratio. But it's not the most egregious example of poor quality Disney DVD. That would belong to another film which I hope to review at a later date.