Tag Archive for Jack Kelly

Remembering Jack Kelly

Promotional Photo for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)

Jack Kelly was born on this date in 1927 to a family already deeply involved in “show business.” Jack’s mother was an actress and model while his father was a theater ticket broker. His older sister, Nancy, would go on to win a Tony Award and an Academy Award nomination.

Jack’s own career began at the age of two, modeling for soap ads, and he made his stage debut at the age of nine. He moved to California with his family in 1938 and went on to attend St. John’s Military Academy and UCLA. His film debut was a very minor role in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). In 1945, Jack joined the Army and flew on the first B-29 to cross the Arctic Circle.

By 1955, Jack Kelly was already a veteran of radio, stage, and screen, primarily in military or cowboy roles. His Army background made him ideal for the former while the latter led to his most well-known role, but more on that later. Today, we’re going to look at one of those military roles, that of Cpl. Carl Turner in the Universal Studios monster movie Cult of the Cobra.

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Movie Poster for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)

Movie Poster for Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Bolstered by the success of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the Universal Monsters had nearly recovered from being made laughable alongside Abbott and Costello. Cult stands as an outlier in a shift for Universal away from supernatural menaces to threats born of science such as the Gill-man and the monsters in It Came from Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and Tarantula (1955). While Cult makes a token reference to the speculative science behind the principle of “metamorphosis,” the transformation of woman into cobra is presented as traditional Near East Mysticism rather than a disease (lycanthropy) or a genetic trait. Indeed, the final images of the film only make sense in the context of magic, but that’s perhaps looking at things a little too closely in what is, essentially, a goofy cautionary tale about “Ugly Americans” and the dangers of fraternizing with foreign women.

As Air Force Cpl. Carl Turner, Jack Kelly is perhaps the most ruggedly handsome of the aforementioned “Ugly Americans” and is depicted as quite the ladies man, in both dialogue and in action. He is joined by five others, but the airmen are largely interchangeable in the early proceedings. About to be discharged from service, they’re up for some “wholesome” fun, mostly obsessed with the prospect of female companionship either in their exotic surroundings or back home.

Slender hangs illusion,
fragile the thread to reality.
Always the question: Is it true?
Truth is in the mind and the mind
of man varies with time and place.
The time is 1945.
The place is Asia.

Looking to get a photo op with a snake charmer, “Professor” Paul Able (Richard Long) takes the conversation in a strange direction when he asks “Hey, have you guys ever heard of snakes being changed into people?” The staff sergeant then proceeds to lecture the group on the cult of the lamians and principles of metamorphosis. Paul is a definite buzzkill, but the ham-fisted expository dialogue delivered by Richard Long (House on Haunted Hill) in this scene and the next sets the plot in motion less than three minutes in. The snake charmer, a lamian himself and member of the eponymous “Cult of the Cobra,” is more than happy to sneak the westerners into a cult ceremony for a hundred crisp American dollars.

Lobby Cards for
Cult of the Cobra (1955)
(click to enlarge)

Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)
Lobby Card for "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)

Despite multiple dire warnings, Cpl. Nick Hommel (James Dobson) can’t resist the temptation for a little flash photography. He is instantly caught and the Americans are forced to fight their way out of the temple. The whole sequence, drum-heavy orchestral score and eventual discovery included, is similar to the portrayal of Thulsa Doom’s Cult of Set in pulp classic Conan the Barbarian (1982).

The high priest curses them, proclaiming “One by one, you will die!” The snake charmer also tries to warn them of their unavoidable doom, but his admonishments are cut short by a tulwar to the gut as punishment for his transgressions. I guess he won’t be spending that dirty Benjamin any time soon.

The guys catch up to Nick on the street, finding him unconscious and snake-bit, but still alive. When he awakens in the hospital, he is quick to blame his poor judgment on being rip-roaring drunk, something firmly established in the earlier bar scene. Instead of leaving with his mates the next morning, Nick receives a late night visitor. An unmistakable shadow and point-of-view cobra-cam make his attacker obvious.

Once back in the States, we are reintroduced to the love triangle of Paul Able, his roommate Sgt. Tom Markel (Marshall Thompson), and Julia (Kathleen Hughes). Having made up her mind, Julia breaks it off with Tom at the bowling alley of Cpl. Rico Nardi (David Janssen). Tom takes the news well enough, but the love triangle turns into a love rhombus later that night when he rushes in to “rescue” a shrieking neighbor from an unseen intruder.

After some light flirting, Tom manages to convince his neighbor (Faith Domergue) to allow him to show her more hospitality than the city has thus far in her first week as a New Yorker. She introduces herself as Lisa Moya, but when she accidentally calls him Mr. Markel, she plays it off as having seen it on his mailbox. Serious red flag?

Tom takes Lisa out for her first hot dog and shows her the sights. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or kiss, and seems to rankle every animal they encounter, from cats to Tom and Paul’s dog, to carriage horses on the street. More red flags, but Tom is enchanted by this exotic mystery woman from across the hall.

After their day on the town, Tom insists on introducing Lisa to his roommate Paul. Lisa picks up a framed photograph of the six uniformed soldiers and inquires about each of them in turn.

If the relationship between roommates Tom and Paul is awkward and tense, that’s nothing compared to horndog Carl just openly hitting on his supposed buddy’s new girl shortly after meeting her. Jack Kelly manages to ooze oily swagger as he lays on the charm. His unwelcome attention earns him a crack across the jaw from a jealous Tom.

Soon, Tom’s Air Force buddies start getting eliminated in a series of cobra-cam sequences, one by one, just as the priest had promised. There’s a surprisingly solid stunt with a car flipping over during one of the attacks. Can “Professor” Paul Able and his remaining fellows uncover the truth behind these sudden deaths before it is too late?

Promotional Photo of Faith Domergue as Lisa Moya and her cobra alter ego from "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)

Promotional Photo of Faith Domergue as
Lisa Moya and her cobra alter ego from
Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Cult of the Cobra was the first of four genre films for Domergue released over four consecutive months in 1955 (along with This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and The Atomic Man).

As Lisa Moya, Domergue is cleverly lit in an almost noirish style. Her large, dark eyes are framed by light, leaving the rest of her head and shoulders shrouded in deep shadow, suggesting the hood of a cobra. It proves very effective and helps rescue the film from the noticeable absence of a signature transformation sequence as seen in such earlier Universal Monsters films as The Wolf Man (1941) and even Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953).

Later the same year, Universal reunited Jack Kelly with Marshall Thompson and David Janssen as soldiers for the epic Audie Murphy bio pic To Hell and Back. The war film set a box office record for Universal that stood for nearly two decades. This record was eventually beaten by a low budget monster movie plagued with production troubles known as Jaws (1975).

Promotional Photo of Kathleen Hughes as Julia Thompson from "Cult of the Cobra" (1955)

Promotional Photo of Kathleen Hughes as
Julia Thompson from Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Jack Kelly continued to play soldiers and cowboys for much of his career, including the role of Captain Valli in one of my favorite macaroni combat films, Commandos (1968). His most iconic role is undoubtedly that of cowboy gambler Bart Maverick (brother to James Garner’s Bret). Beloved Bart would also be Jack’s final role, appearing in the NBC television movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991) just a year before his death from a stroke.

With appearances in such diverse genre fare as the classic Forbidden Planet (1956), Kurt Neumann’s She Devil (1957), and The Human Tornado (1976), this is surely not the last time we’ll discuss Jack’s career. We hope you’ll return as well the next time we remember the work of Jack Kelly.

“From halfway around the world she had come… to make friends with five unsuspecting young men, and when she walked in the night, death followed, swift and violent.”

Macaroni Combat… “It’s a Hot Smell”

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Okay, I’m going to confess something that may undermine what little credibility I might have as a film blogger. I don’t like John Wayne. I like his movies even less. This iconoclastic opinion has threatened to end friendships. I’m usually forced to steer the conversation back towards classic film icons I do appreciate and adore, like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart.

For largely this reason alone, I spent most of my youth under the mistaken impression that I didn’t like war movies or westerns, since John Wayne was all over both, especially in anything that ran on a Turner cable network. Long before I had ever heard the term “spaghetti western,” I discovered Clint Eastwood and his “Man with No Name.” Now, here was a western anti-hero I could wrap my mind around.

Banner for the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

Click above for more of the Italian Film Culture Blogathon 2013 hosted by The Nitrate Diva

The Duke’s movies always felt trite and condescending to me. It was like a grown man telling me that if I didn’t eat my peas then Santa Claus wouldn’t bring me presents. I wanted to shove him into a muddy ditch with flag in hand. Sergio Leone’s western characters didn’t wear white hats or black; their morality was colored in shades of grey. Imagine my surprise and joy to find this same ethic applied to the Italian war films of the same era, “macaroni combat” if you will.

In honor of “2013: Anno della Cultura Italiana, Year of Italian Culture” and the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon hosted by the Nitrate Diva, let’s take a look at one of my favorite entries in the genre. Commandos (1968) stars spaghetti western icon Lee Van Cleef as MSgt. Sullivan, a soldier haunted by the war that threatens to break his mind, body, and soul. If the dreaded Afrika Korps doesn’t kill him, there’s a good chance Captain Valli (Jack Kelly) might, either by malicious intent or sheer incompetence.

WARNING! The screen shots in this post are press photos and not actual screencaps from the film. They are a suggestion of scenes rather than a genuine representation of what was filmed. Most prints are so murky that you’ll never see the film remotely this clear. Mine looks like it was filmed through a fish tank.

Commandos (1968)

Commandos is based on a short story by Israeli Roger Corman understudy Menahem Golan. Golan had cut his teeth as a production manager/assistant director/production assistant on Corman’s The Young Racers (1963) alongside a little upcoming director named Francis Ford Coppola. For Commandos, Golan’s story got some spit and polish from screenwriter Dario Argento just before his big break, director Armando Crispino, and Stefano Strucchi. Director Crispino had only two directing credits under his belt before helming Commandos, the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Pleasant Nights (1966) and the spaghetti western John the Bastard (1967).

October 1942

On the eve of the American landings in North Africa,
A secret American commando base,
Somewhere in the Mediterranean.

MSgt. Sullivan begins by briefing his commandos on their cover identities, that of Italian fascists from Brescia in the shadow of the Alps. This provides ample excuse for an opening credits sequence largely composed of stock footage being viewed by the titular commandos. They are also shown footage of their new “allies”, Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps.

The arrival of untested Captain Valli doesn’t exactly fill Sullivan with confidence. “There’s a machine in the brass department. It’s designed to screw Sullivan.” He greets Valli with a mocking Nazi salute, then tries to play it off as part of his cover while only reluctantly taking the offered handshake. Sullivan has good reason to be wary. Valli replaces Lt. Freeman, a man Sullivan and his pal Dino grew close to during the grueling Battle of Bataan in the Pacific Theater, with the three of them being the only survivors from their unit.

Lobby Cards for
Commandos (1968)
(click to enlarge)

Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)
Lobby Card for "Commandos" (1968)

Jack Kelly (Forbidden Planet, Maverick) plays Valli as straight as an arrow, all smiles, sunglasses, and starch, stiff as a flagpole. He’s clearly educated and bright, but also has no battle experience, and is unused to leading men of action. This becomes apparent as Sullivan awkwardly introduces Valli to the team and vice-versa. These men were chosen because of their Italian heritage and special training, but Valli is surprised to find some are actually Italian-born with an oblique reference made to Chicago mob ties.

Afterwards, Valli tries to allay some of Sullivan’s fears in private. To say it goes poorly is a grand understatement. Sullivan puts down his drink and tries to hear the captain out, but the booze has already done its damage and he’s beyond surly. Valli may know his plan “exactly, right down to the last detail,” but Sarge knows firsthand how worthless plans are in the face of the enemy.

“Exactly? What the hell do you know about ‘exactly’? You got a lot of bright ideas, Captain, but do you know what killin’ is? Exactly? With these? (jazz commando hands) Or with this? (draws a commando knife) You stick the knife in his throat or gut and twist, and you’ve got to hug him tight because if he gets loose he might get away before the job’s done. Do you know what blood smells like, Captain? It’s a hot smell. And you can get things messed up, too, Captain, because most men die hard. But how the hell would you know? Exactly.”

Lee Van Cleef’s aggressive body language and post-production dubbing go far beyond mere chewing up the scenery into full on over-the-top awesome that leaves nothing standing in its wake. It’s like an F-5 of testosterone-driven machismo. Wait until his character meets the enemy!

The next day, Valli gives our mission briefing in front of a ludicrously large map. Sullivan and Valli take a moment to clarify that they will take no prisoners and that they will have to preserve their cover identities at all costs. Their German “allies” will be just a short distance away.

On the night flight to the oasis, Sullivan spots a commando with a picture of his sweetheart. He takes it away, examines it, then rips it into pieces in what seems, at first, to be a moment of pure churlishness. When Valli and others get upset, Sullivan points out the trademark for Empire State Photographers, a dead giveaway that they’re Americans.

Parachuting in and approaching the target oasis goes surprisingly well. There’s some classic commando cliché from burying their parachutes to snipping barbed wire to silenced pistols.

One enemy soldier takes a moonlit stroll for a cigarette, unable to sleep on account of the oppressive heat, and avoids the carnage. This will become important later.

Valli and Sullivan personally secure the radio room to prevent any calls for assistance. During the raid, we get our first glimpse that all is not well with MSgt. Sullivan. He goes all thousand-yard stare, and we see a flash of fire from his perspective. When asked what’s wrong, a guilty “nothing” is all he can muster as he pulls on his gloves for the dirty work of killing men in their sleep.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

They’re briefly interrupted by a watchman rousing some men for shift change. Sullivan and Dino take care of that with some thrown commando knives to the back. Clearly, this ain’t their first rodeo.

Meanwhile, our cigarette-smoking insomniac stumbles upon one of the murdered sentries and instead of raising the alarm, heads to the garage for a rendezvous. He and his comrades try to roll out, but are spotted, identified as visiting Germans, and gunned down. So much for silence and stealth. An all-out firefight ensues in which Valli grows a conscience and stops Sullivan from executing unarmed prisoners out of hand. Valli even “shoots down” Sullivan’s very practical suggestion of using the Italian prisoners as cover to take a couple of machine gun nests. Instead, they’re forced to waste a precious bazooka shell.

They soon find out what the machine guns were so desperately defending when they kick in a door and find the deliciously scandalous Marilù Tolo clutching a pillow. By 1968, Tolo was already a veteran of many peplum and Eurospy films, with a few spaghetti westerns thrown in for spice. Here, she’s the last working girl standing and didn’t leave with her erstwhile business partners, choosing to corner the market instead. Square jaw that he is, Captain Valli immediately puts her on lock down.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Marilù Tolo and Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Marilù Tolo and Lee Van Cleef

Valli has questions for his prisoners, most notably Lt. Tomassini (Marino Masé). Question # 1 is “What were those three Germans doing here?”, and one of the other prisoners can’t help but point out that there were four, and one of them must have gotten away. This drives Sullivan crazy which, in turn, makes Tomassini clam up. Valli plays his trump card. If Tomassini won’t cooperate, then all of his men will be summarily executed. Conscience only goes so far.

Marino Masé is almost slumming here as the captured officer, having previously appeared in Luchino Visconti’s costume period epic The Leopard and Jean-Luc Godard’s The Carabineers, both in 1963, with the lead role in the latter. Still, he was no stranger to genre fare, having appeared in the peplum Goliath at the Conquest of Damascus and Nightmare Castle, both in 1965 and both alongside the incomparable Helga Liné. He even got some commando experience in the short-lived CBS television series Jericho (1966), in which he played a French weapons expert on the side of the Allies.

With the lives of his men in jeopardy, Lt. Tomassini has no choice but to answer the question. The Germans were mining the well and they were expected to leave this morning. That puts a definite time limit on Valli’s little take and hold operation.

Movie Poster for "Commandos" (1968)

Movie Poster for Commandos (1968)

As if to hammer home the danger, we immediately cut across the desert, where the Afrika Korps are rolling around in their Panzers (actually Italian and American tanks, but I’m not going to take them too much to task for that; Crispino’s no Spielberg). Here, we’re introduced to Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen, “The Professor”, (Joachim Fuchsberger). Agen is fatigued by being in the rear with the gear, and his men jokingly compare him to the “Desert Fox” himself, Erwin Rommel. There’s clearly some tension between the aristocratic “Professor” and his working class troops, “the field promotion type” as he disparagingly refers to one.

The story of Joachim “Blacky” Fuchsberger is almost more interesting than the film itself. Billed here as Akim Berg, he was an honest-to-goodness(?) Hitler Youth, recruited as an elite paratrooper and shipped off to the Eastern Front at 16. Joachim was wounded and captured by the Red Army and spent time as a prisoner of the Soviets, British, and Americans.

After the war, he worked as a coal miner and an engineer, as well as in advertising and radio. He tried a bit of acting, but really hit his stride in Krimis, German adaptations of mystery stories written by Edgar Wallace. Joachim appeared in the first, Face of the Frog (1959), and would go on to make a dozen more through 1972.

In the early 1960s, he talked producer Horst Wendlandt out of accepting film rights from Ian Fleming, thinking it too expensive to transition from black-and-white Krimis to a full color exotic spy film. Joachim had been Wendlandt’s pick to play Fleming’s spy character “James Bond”. For his part, Fuchsberger isn’t bitter and is still acting as of this writing.

Meanwhile at the oasis… The Italian water trucks show up, and it’s time for charades. Everyone act natural.

End Act I, right at about the 30-minute mark.

Complications predictably ensue. A kicked soccer ball keeps Lt. Tomassini from turning an invoice into a rescue note, a commando intercepts a horny Italian with his heart and wallet set on visiting Adriana, and the missing fourth German is too wounded from his cigarette break slash firefight to raise much of an alarm.

In the radio room, they find out the Germans are on their way for dinner. Adriana is “encouraged” to drink herself unconscious. To keep him from losing his cool, Sullivan is put in the attic to observe through a knothole in the floor.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

“Professor” Agen meets Captain Valli for the first time and seems pleased to make his acquaintance, happy to break bread with a fellow officer. Oberleutnant Rudi immediately wants to know where his engineers are. Lt. Tomassini tries to convince them that they have already left, and Valli even jokes that they may have gotten lost or deserted. This only serves to infuriate their commander, who trained them himself, and Agen has to calm Rudi down.

During their dinner conversation, we learn that “The Professor” was an entomologist before the war, and he seems wistful about those bygone scholarly pursuits. Captain Valli and Agen bond over quoting Goethe. Sullivan, rattled about Germans wandering around unchecked, interrupts and almost blows their cover.

This whole sequence reminded me of the “Twenty Questions” scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, especially the brief cut to Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz gritting his teeth to keep from choking the Nazi officer to death while haunted by his own personal flashback hell just like Sullivan. Given his pedigree, it’s hard to imagine Tarantino was not influenced by Commandos.

Sullivan goes out alone for some air and to clear his head of Bataan flashbacks when he runs afoul of our missing engineer. He dispatches him with a gunshot, but that draws everyone out from their spaghetti dinner. After an awkward pause, someone takes credit for shooting at a jackal. “Professor” Agen jokes that he hoped it was commandos. The Germans depart, happy and none-the-wiser, taking us to…

End Act II, right at about the 60-minute mark.

Lt. Tomassini returns to his men, and we can see some distinct juxtaposition here as they are loyal to each other, unlike either Valli’s or Agen’s relationship with their respective troops. It’s escape time, and the ever popular “This guy’s sick” routine works like a charm. Soon, they’ve got guns and head out under cover of darkness. They steal a truck and sabotage the others with a little sand in the ol’ gas tank.

The transition here’s a little rough as morning comes in the blink of an eye. Tomassini and his boys find themselves pursued across the dunes by Valli, Sullivan, and the commandos in a salvaged truck. Sullivan warns that if they reach the Germans, it’s all over but the shooting.

The Italians get reckless and get themselves stuck in the sand. As they’re pushing with the commandos coming over the horizon, we get a great exploitation shot of one man getting caught under the wheels. Still, it gives them the traction they need to get out of their rut.

Close enough to shoot at each other, the chase is now in full gear. Even Valli loses his patience and executes a surrendering Italian with his sidearm. Dino takes a bullet just as the Italians drive into a mine field, and Valli calls for a halt. As Sullivan struggles to bandage his friend, an explosion in the distance indicates the final fate of Tomassini and the escapees. We get a glimpse of the truth, however, and see a critically wounded Lt. Tomassini crawl to his feet.

Even though the engineers have yeat to be found, the Afrika Korps is moving out to engage the Americans. Oberleutnant Heitzel Agen asks for permission to go fill up the water trucks at the oasis and bid farewell to his newfound friend, Captain Valli, over a bottle of cognac. After he leaves, Tomassini stumbles into the camp a bloody mess.

Just as Sullivan is burying Dino, a plane flies over, dropping a parcel. The note orders Valli and the commandos to move out as their mission has been scratched. Taking and holding the oasis was for naught. The commandos, used to this sort of behavior from the high command, take it all in stride, but Valli refuses to abandon his meticulous plans without confirmation via radio. Sullivan, enraged, takes charge with pistol in hand, insubordination be damned. “The Professor” and company arrive in time to prevent Sullivan from ending Valli’s commission with a bullet.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef, Joachim Fuchsberger, and Jack Kelly

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef, Joachim Fuchsberger, and Jack Kelly

Agen inquires about the missing Lt. Tomassini, but is called to the radio room before getting even an improvised answer. With the headset on, “The Professor” is warned that Tomassini escaped from a team of American commandos and that he should hold tight until they can arrive with their tanks.

Now, it is Agen’s turn to bluff. He breaks into the cognac and shares a toast with Valli, thanking him for their pleasant dinner and camaraderie. Agen presses his luck by ordering Sullivan to drink with him, and Sullivan disobeys by dropping the bottle to draw his pistol, predictably causing all hell to break loose for our explosive finale.

Press Photo for "Commandos" (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Press Photo for Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef

Bazookas, tanks, dynamite, and even an anti-aircraft gun all come into play as the commandos fight for their lives and not much else. Agen finds he cannot kill his friend Valli, but Sullivan sure has no qualms about killing “The Professor”. The carnage is nearly absolute, and one has to assume that even Adriana buys the farm as the whole oasis compound gets destroyed.

In the end, with only a single unnamed soldier to a side left, they lay down their arms and set about burying their dead… together.


War sucks. How delightfully Italian.

Check out some of the other contributions to the 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Here at WeirdFlix, I’m sure we’ll be cooking up some more “macaroni combat” real soon. Just be warned, “It’s a hot smell.”