Kino Lorber has released director King Vidor's sultry swamp-based drama "Ruby Gentry" on Blu-ray. The film is the kind of steamy, swamp-based drama that could best be described as "God's Little Acre" by way of Tennessee Williams. The 1952 production would seem to derive from some paperback novel but, in fact, was written directly for the screen. Jennifer Jones plays the titular character, a sultry young woman who had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the tracks in the otherwise posh little community of Braddock, North Carolina. Ruby's "career" is working the hard scrabble life of a deckhand on her father's fishing vessel. She's a seasoned hunter and can wield a rifle with precision, necessary ingredients if you grow up on the edge of a swamp. At home, she has to contend with the sexism of low expectations by her blue collar parents and has to endure the psychotic ramblings of her religious fanatic brother, Jewel (James Anderson), who warns her that her pent-up sexual desires will lead her to damnation. When we first see Ruby, those sexual desires are about to be satiated with the return home of her boyfriend Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), who has just come back from living five years in South America studying methods of cultivating land that has been deemed impossible to irrigate. Ruby doesn't waste any time getting down to business with Boake, who she presumes will marry her and get her away from her wretched lifestyle. After all, he is from the right side of the tracks, the son of a prominent judge. However, Boake has some distressing news to break: he is already engaged to a local, prim-and-proper rich girl, the result of an arranged marriage between the two families. It's clear that Boake's heart (and lust) are all devoted to Ruby, however. Ruby makes it clear that she won't serve the rest of her life as Boak's mistress. She ends up in an improbable marriage to a local rich man, Jim Gentry (Karl Malden), despite their significant age difference. Jim is a decent, devoted fellow- and he's also the richest man in town. Before long, he is sweeping Ruby off to exotic ports of call and exposing her to cultural wonders and sophisticated tastes. When they finally return to Braddock, Ruby has transformed from tom girl into a high-fashion, Grace Kelly-type. Her joy is short-lived, however, when Jim dies in a tragic accident while the couple is boating. The local population subjects her to a cruel rumor campaign, insinuating that she murdered Jim to get his money. There is also a suspicion that she was motivated by resuming a sexual relationship with Boak, with whom she openly flirted even after getting married.
Ruby proves to be a strong, powerful woman. Instead of moving away or pleading with people to believe her side of the story, she engages in a detailed study of the businesses she has now inherited. Turns out Jim, as a local rich man, had loans out to some of the very businessmen who have been tormenting her. She utilizes every loophole imaginable in the contracts to call in the loans on short notice, thus causing many prominent businesses to fold and forcing people out of jobs. Among her victims is Boak, who has financed his major irrigation business with a loan from Jim Gentry. Her tactics cause panic among the locals and result in a scenario in which she and Boak are hunted in the swamp like human prey.
The most refreshing thing about "Ruby Gentry" is that, despite working under the restrictions of the old Hollywood production code, Ruby never apologies for her blatant love of sex or her cruel tactics used to wreak vengeance on the people who judged her so badly over the course of her life. She is a sympathetic character, but only to a point. Her willingness to punish the innocent as well as the guilty sets her apart from most major female screen protagonists of the era. Likewise, Boak is less than a knight in shining armor. It's clear he loves Ruby but he doesn't possess the moral fortitude to rebel against social conventions so that he can be with her on anything but a surreptitious basis. Jennifer Jones, already a major star for a decade, ignites the screen with the kind of edgy performance that must have raised eyebrows back in the day. Vidor ensures she is clad in tight-fitting shirts and jeans, thus causing every man around her to openly lust for her. It's a terrific performance. Unfortunately, Charlton Heston, a relative newcomer to leading man status at the time, is encouraged by Vidor to occasionally act in an overly-theatrical style. When he embraces Ruby (which is often), it looks like he's posing for a still life painting. Ultimately, Heston would turn some of these mannerisms into assets but here he seems a bit out of place playing a small town jock. The supporting cast is all very good with Karl Malden and James Anderson particularly impressive. Vidor's assured direction, along with an intelligently-written screenplay, make this a thoroughly entertaining drama, engrossing from beginning to end.
The Blu-ray edition of "Ruby Gentry" looks very good indeed, up to Kino Lorber's usual standards. The disc includes a reissue trailer for the film which is strangely re-titled simply "Ruby", along with other trailers pertaining to films starring Jones and Heston that are available from Kino Lorber.
an awful lot to like about director Robert Altman’s revisionist Western, and conventional
it certainly isn’t. Altman himself once described it as an ‘anti-Western’ film
because the movie ignores or subverts a number of Western conventions. However,
there’s no ignoring its importance, and in 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was
selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the
Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically
central characters are far from the stereotypical Western heroes. John McCabe
(Warren Beatty) is a small-time pimp and would be entrepreneur, who rides into
the small frontier town of Presbyterian Church with a singular aim to get rich.
McCabe sets up a seedy brothel, consisting of three women he purchased for
$200. British cockney Constance Miller (Julie Christie) arrives in town and
convinces him that she could run the brothel more profitably. Unknown to McCabe,
she is also addicted to opium.
scheme starts to become profitable and the small town begins to become richer
because of it. That’s until a pair of ruthless agents Eugene Sears (Michael
Murphy) and Ernest Hollander (Antony Holland) from the Harrison Shaughnessy
mining company begin to take an interest. They make McCabe an offer of $5,500
which he refuses. Miller warns him of Shaughnessy’s reputation and that he is notorious
for his violent actions should they not take the money.
and Miller are undoubtedly flawed characters which is exactly what makes
Altman’s film so engrossing. They are both effectively losers and on a path to
nowhere. Beatty’s charismatic performance is arguably among his very best while
Christie’s performance saw her nominated for the Academy Award for Best
Actress. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is quite beautiful, as is the
use of the three songs composed and performed by Leonard Cohen. ‘I think the
reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so
when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for
them’, Altman later said.
new Blu-ray / DVD combo comes in a beautifully produced package. The print is
as close to pristine as you could expect. It was also great to see the original
Kinney / WB shield in place at the opening. I can’t express enough how
important this is to film purists. Warner’s have made this something of a welcomed
habit, with the original Kinney openings reinstated back to their previous
titles such as Dirty Harry (1971) and The Omega Man (1971).
a lovely depth to the picture quality which reflects the damp and murky
settings perfectly without ever losing it to diluted or milky backgrounds. Zsigmond’s
cinematography captures the green and leafy locations of West Vancouver rather
nicely and works especially well on this high definition presentation. Audio is
also clear throughout, even in scenes where Altman uses his trademark
bonus material consists of an original featurette (approx. 09.30 minutes) which
provides plenty of insight and behind the scenes footage shot during the
production. There is always something charming about these featurettes, often
shot on 16mm, in that they really capture the atmosphere and environment of the
time. Theirs is also the original trailer which acts as more of a show reel for
Leonard Cohen’s music which is overlaid on top of several scenes. The highlight
is the commentary track featuring director Robert Altman and producer David
Foster. I believe this is the same track (dating from 2002) which was used on
the Criterion Collection release and recorded some four years before Altman’s
with all of Warner’s Premium Collection releases, the packaging consists of an
attractive slipcase. Inside is a selection of art cards which feature original
artwork and selected scenes along with a download token. Warner’s new release
marks the debut of McCabe & Mrs. Miller on UK Blu-ray. As a film, it is
often considered as one of Altman’s very best and has been cited as one of the
most important to emerge from the then blossoming New American Cinema.
The Warner Archive is mining its cache of old TV movies to release as burn-to-order DVDs. In general, this is a welcome development as it gives new life to sometimes worthy productions that have been virtually unseen for many years. Some of the fare is rather tepid, however, as evidenced by the release of The Girl in the Empty Grave, a 1977 mystery starring Andy Griffith. I'm second to none in my admiration for Griffith's talents as both a comedic and dramatic actor, but here he seems to be slumming and capitalizing too obviously on his Mayberry sheriff image. He plays another small town lawman, Abel Marsh (Griffith had introduced the character in a previous TV movie), who presides over a sleepy, picturesque mountain hamlet in the California high country. (The film was shot near Big Bear Lake at the San Bernadino National Forest). He's surrounded by a bunch of lovable eccentrics right out of the Mayberry playbook, including a rather goofy deputy (James Cromwell, believe it or not, in an early career role.) Like his Andy Taylor alter ego from his famed sitcom, Abel doesn't feel its necessary to wear a gun while dealing with the humdrum routine matters that go on in town. One day, however, his deputy tells him that a strange thing has occurred concerning a young woman who died years ago in a tragic car accident. Seems the deputy saw her drive through town earlier that morning. Abel dismisses the sighting as absurd- until he catches a glimpse of the same girl speeding through town later in the day. This spawns an investigation that has Abel interview the "dead" girl's parents, both of whom reiterate that she did indeed die in the car accident. Things get murkier, however, when the couple end up murdered. Before long, Abel has to break his gun out of mothballs as he becomes involved in deadly cat and mouse games and a potentially deadly car chase.
The rather lackluster plot seems cobbled together just so everyone could spend a few weeks justifying a stay in some beautiful mountain country. The direction by Lou Antonio is workmanlike but unremarkable and neither he or the screenwriters fully capitalize on Griffith's considerable talents. The film ambles to a confusing and not very satisfying conclusion. The Girl in the Empty Grave reminds us that not ALL old TV movies were as impressive as we remember them being.
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Walter Hill’s “The Long Riders,” (1980) is an account of
the last days of the legendary James-Younger outlaw gang. The film starts with
a botched bank job, in which one of the gang, Ed Miller (Dennis Quaid), gets
nervous and shoots an unarmed customer. There’s more shooting and they manage
to get away but everyone agrees Ed’s got to go. It’s the first indication of
trouble—the first sign that the gang’s best days may be behind them. The rest
of the film follows the trajectory of their decline, as they attract the
attention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and make a disastrous attempt to
rob a bank in Northfield, Minn.
“The Long Riders” is
praiseworthy for trying to be something other than just another shoot-em-up
western. But it’s a movie with a gimmick—a gimmick that results in a film that is
something less than it could have been. The gang in real life consisted of the
two James brothers (Frank and Jesse), the three Younger brothers (Cole, Jim,
and Bob), and the Miller Brothers (Clell and Ed). Director Hill thought it
would be a cool idea to cast real-life brothers in the parts. Stacy and James
Keach play the James boys. David, Keith, and Robert Carradine star as the
Youngers. Randy and Dennis Quaid play the Millers. It was an inspired concept but it had one major drawback. James Keach was
totally miscast as Jesse. His portrayal of the leader of the gang is weak, and
totally lacking in charisma. The Jesse portrayed here couldn’t lead a Boy Scout
troop to a knot-tying Jamboree.
David Carradine, on the other hand, as Cole Younger,
steals the movie. Carradine is not only charismatic in this film, he looks dangerous.
In interviews he often claimed that most of his performances during that era
were fueled by Grey Goose. You can believe it, especially in a knife-fight
scene with James Remar as Sam Starr. Throughout the film his younger siblings
provide him with comfortably familiar support that can only come from real
brothers. However, Stacy Keach as Frank James seems caught between trying to
keep the dull Jesse and the wild Cole Younger from going after each other.
“The Long Riders” focuses on the differences between the
Jameses and the Youngers. Jesse and Frank are family-oriented. The Youngers
just want to be free. When Jesse plans to get married, Cole tells his brother
Jim: “It don’t go with the way he’s livin’.” The differences build until, at
the beginning of the Northfield Minnesota Bank robbery scene, when Jesse says
they’re just going to go into the bank and take the money, Cole wants to do a little planning and
scouting first. Jesse is scornful of the idea. Cole says with some disgust: “I’ve
long since given up trying to talk sense to you.”
“The Long Riders” is essentially plotless. As he did
later in “Wild Bill” (1995), Hill tells the story in separate disconnected
scenes, many of which end simply by fading to black. As a result, the movie
lacks tension and the characters fail to really come alive, even though the
film spends a lot of time showing the gang’s social activities when not on the
job. We see them attending funerals, weddings, hoedowns, and shows, most of
which simply stop the action and rob the story of its momentum. The good thing
about those scenes, however, is that we get a chance to hear Ry Cooder’s great
folk music on the soundtrack, which plays almost constantly throughout the
movie. There are plenty of fiddles, Jews harps, and dulcimers on hand and even
a guy playing spoons. And it’s always a pleasure hearing Cooder doing his best
to sound like Blind Willy Johnson on acoustic slide guitar. But after all the
digressions, when the big final set piece in Northfield takes place (filmed in
imitation Sam Peckinpah slo-mo style), you’re almost caught by surprise and as
a result the violence and bloodshed have little emotional impact. The final
gimmick comes in the Jesse James assassination scene in which two more real
life brothers (Nicholas and Christopher Guest) play Bob and Charlie Ford.
Kino Lorber’s Studio Classic Blu-ray release is quite a
package. There are two discs. Disc one is a brand new 1920x1080p 4k digital
restoration of the film presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Special bonus
features on Disc One include audio commentary by film historian Howard S.
Berger, and two others, as well as trailers for other KL Studio Classic
releases. Disc Two contains enough features to keep you on your sofa for hours,
including: a one-hour featurette on the making of the film and new interviews
with Walter Hill, Keith and Robert Carradine, Stacy and James Keach, Randy
Quaid and Nicholas Guest. There is also an interview with Ry Cooder talking
about the music he used in the movie and a short featurette comparing Walter
Hill’s use of slo-motion compared to the way Sam Peckinpah did it.
If you’re a western fan, and particularly if you dig the
idiosyncratic work of Walter Hill you’re going to enjoy “The Long Riders” even
with its flaws.
Sony has reissued its 2002 special edition of producer William Castle's horror exploitation film Homicidal a burn-to-order DVD, although there is no mention of the extra bonus feature on the packaging or publicity for the film. (Sony seems determined not to capitalize on special features that are especially marketable to collectors.) Castle, of course, was the proud master of exploitation films and relished his reputation as the King of Schlock. He excelled in making low-budget, "quickie" films that often capitalized on major hit movies of the day. Castle seemed to fancy himself as a low-rent version of Alfred Hitchcock, who was also not shy about promoting his own image in connection with marketing his films and TV series. Castle's films were not meant to be taken seriously by critics but he did have high standards for the genre in which he worked and it's rare to find any of his movies that don't at least merit classification as guilty pleasures. Others, such as Homicidal, actually turned out to be effective chillers in their own right. The movie was Castle's answer to the phenomenal success of Hitchcock's 1960 classic Psycho. Indeed, there are camera angles, musical cues and plot scenarios that practically border on plagiarism of the original film. The story opens on a fascinating note as we watch a statuesque young blonde (Jean Arless) check into a hotel in Ventura, California. She's a strange one from frame one- barely engaging in conversation with anyone else. She suddenly makes the hunky bellboy a bizarre proposition: she will pay him $2,000 cash if he agrees to marry her and then almost immediately have the union annulled. She does not give a reason for this weird offer, but in an age where a hotel room rented for $5 a night, the $2,000 offer is more than he can refuse. En route to the justice of the peace, the young woman, whose name is Emily, says little and doesn't even engage in niceties. She seems intent on having a specific justice of the peace (crotchety old James Westerfield in a marvelous role) perform the ceremony. As with all Castle productions, to describe much more would spoil some key scenes. Suffice it to say that the short-lived marriage results in murder that is so shocking and gory that it is amazing it was not watered down by skittish studio executives.
What can be said is that Emily is a Swedish immigrant who was brought to America by an equally strange young man named Warren, who resides in an opulent home. Helga's main duty is to care for an elderly woman named Helga (Eugenie Leontovich), another Swede who had been Warren's nursemaid as a child. Helga has suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to talk or communicate in any meaningful way. Around Warren, Emily plays the doting caregiver, but privately, she delights in tormenting the long-suffering woman, even to the point of making death threats. One of the few outsiders to be allowed into this environment is Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin), Warren's half-sister. The two have a very close relationship but things are fairly frosty between Miriam and Emily, who seems jealous of the close bond between brother and sister. Emily is also jealous of Miriam's relationship with a local pharmacist, Karl Anderson (Glenn Corbett) and begins to find ways to thwart their social outings. After a time, Miriam and Karl begin to suspect that Emily might well be a notorious murderer the police are searching for. This sets in motion many of the standard actions screen heroines must always engage in. These include not staying in a safe environment and being lured to precisely the location where she knows she will be placed in life-threatening danger. When Emily is about to enter the house of horrors, Castle employs one of his trademark gimmicks by freezing the action and putting a clock on screen that gives squeamish audience members 45 seconds to flee to the lobby where they can redeem a coupon to get their money back. To prevent having to actually provide many refunds, Castle has a caveat to the agreement: all such patrons must stand in full view in a "Coward's Corner" he had provided for theater lobbies! Once Miriam does enter the house, the film is genuinely creepy and leads to an ending so shocking I never saw it coming and I doubt most viewers will, either.
You approach Homicidal with the justifiable expectation that it will be filled with laughs, a la Castle's great camp success House on Haunted Hill. However, it proves to be a highly effective thriller with an a rather astonishing performance by Jean Arless as the insane Emily. One minute she's all charm, the next she's running around bug-eyed trying to murder people with knives and poison. There are times she brings to mind Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, but in the aggregate it's a mesmerizing screen debut. Bizarrely, "Jean Arless" was a fake name used by actress Joan Marshall because she feared being typecast in horror films. Sadly, she never went far in her career under either name and died relatively young in 1992 at 61 years of age. She gets solid support from Glenn Corbett (who also died young in 1993 at age 59) and Patricia Breslin, who manages to avoid making the requisite role of damsel in distress unintentionally funny.
The Sony DVD has a top quality transfer and the bonus items are quite interesting. There is a short featurette that presents various horror film authorities extolling the virtues of Castle's work. There is also some wonderfully campy newsreel footage of the world premiere in Youngstown, Ohio that features the omnipresent Castle badgering patrons to tell everyone how great the film is. (One woman says with a straight face that it's better than Psycho.) The cigar-chomping Castle, who comes across as a delightful man, also features in the introductory segment to Homicidal, in an obvious attempt to emulate Hitchcock's penchant for self-promotion. The special edition also features a short TV spot in which the narrator clearly imitates the voice of old Hitch.
Homicidal is a highly entertaining film that demonstrates you don't need big stars or a big budget to make an effective thriller. Highly recommended.
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was age and (bad) timing that prevented me from catching Badlands on its
original theatrical release. I finally caught up with it many years later when
it was shown as part of the BBC’s popular film season ‘Moviedrome’. Introduced
by film director Alex Cox, the yearly summer season consisted of a selection of
cult, exploitation, oddities and forgotten film gems. The inclusion of Badlands
certainly made an impact which would stay with me long after the final credits had
in 1959, Badlands is based (loosely) on the real-life murder spree of Charles
Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. It was written and directed
by Terrence Malick and marked his feature film debut. Often considered as a
recluse, perhaps because of his refusal to take part in interviews, Malick’s
film work has always divided opinion. Malick began working on the screenplay
for Badlands in 1970 at the age of 27 and raised half of the budget himself in
order to get the film into production.
great deal of Badlands is told from the perspective of the impressionable 15-year-old
Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). Holly is a shy, teenage girl living in the South
Dakota town of Fort Dupree. She lives with her sign painter father (Warren
Oates), although their relationship has been somewhat tested since her mother
died of pneumonia. Holly meets the 25-year-old Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a
garbage collector with a troubled past and who quietly relishes in his often
remarked resemblance to actor James Dean. Kit uses his charismatic charms on Holly,
and she begins to fall in love with him. Holly's initial voice over reveals her
innocence and her adventure with Kit as a romantic fairy-tale. But the
fairy-tale soon turns sour with the gradual unfolding of Kit's increasing
antisocial and violent behaviour.
works on just about every level. The film was picked up by Warner Bros after
making an impact at the 1973 New York Film Festival, although previewing the
film on a double bill with the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles (1973) didn’t
really do the film any favours. Thankfully, the film finally found its own
wings and established a credible and respected life of its own. It works as a
great companion piece with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Both are
excellent examples of the American biographical crime film. It’sperhaps no
surprise then that Malick began his career as a protégé of Arthur Penn, who is thanked
in the closing credits.
Warner Bros. special edition release of Badlands looks exceptionally clean and
clear with vivid but natural colours. The dividing line between sandy textured
prairies and the vibrant blue skies of Montana are greatly enriched and
improved, adding new life to the superb cinematography of Takashi Fujimoto.
Audio is also clear throughout with effects such as gunshots providing plenty
of additional punch. It’s also great to see the original red Saul Bass-designed
Warner communication company logo restored to the film’s opening. It not only
sets the tone, but does everything to keep the film in the correct timeline.
reference to bonus material, this is something of a mixed bag. Whist Warner’s
packaging suggests a featurette, which is in the style of the original (and
very good) Blue Underground documentary ‘Absence of Malick’ (24.00), it also
suggests cast and crew member interviews and the trailer. Firstly I think it
should be made clear, that the Blu-ray disc only contains the making of
documentary. There are no additional cast and crew interviews and in fact,
there is no sign of the trailer. I reverted to the DVD edition in the same
package, where again, there is no sign of any additional cast and crew member
interviews, but there is a trailer (of course in standard definition). Why the
trailer does not appear on the Blu-ray, I have no idea. So in order to see the
trailer one would have to switch to the DVD in order to view it, which is
neither a good policy nor practical.
The Premium Collection packaging is again very
attractive with its outer slipcase using the film poster, the download token
and the four art cards consisting of original film artwork and three scenes
from the movie. It’s all very nice, but I remain seriously confused at how
Warner Bros have produced and authorised the content within this edition. The
film, however, remains a classic of the genre and it has never looked better.
Leone’s “Giù La Testa,” later retitled not once but twice for American release,
opened in Italy in October 1971 to great expectations by the director’s
fans.According to the preeminent Leone
expert Sir Christopher Frayling, in an informative audio commentary included in
a new Blu-ray edition of the film from Kino Lorber Studio Classics under its
second U.S. title, “A Fistful of Dynamite,” the Italian phrase meant something
like “keep your head down.”In other
words, in times of social convulsion like the bloody 1913 Mexican revolution
portrayed in the movie, save yourself unnecessary grief and keep as low a
profile as you can.Toshiro Mifune’s
wandering samurai in “Yojimbo” offered similar advice: “A quiet life eating
rice is best.”In Leone’s film, James
Coburn and Rod Steiger starred as mismatched partners -- a fugitive Irish dynamiter
and a volatile Mexican bandit -- who learn that you only bring sorrow and
tragedy upon yourself when you leap into the whirlwind of political
turmoil.When the picture reached the
U.S. through United Artists in July 1972, the title was changed to “Duck, You
Sucker,”a rough translation.In a literal sense, it’s the warning that
Coburn’s character invariably utters just before he detonates his nitro
charges.Leone thought it was a common
colloquialism in America.Maybe he was
thinking of “fire in the hole.”United
Artists gave the release decent publicity, selling it as an action movie in a
shorter (by half an hour) cut than the 157-minute Italian print.I remember seeing the ad art of Coburn and
Steiger prominently displayed on a billboard in downtown Pittsburgh that
summer, just before the picture opened.The ad extolled Leone as “the master of adventure.”Around the same time, United Artists Records
released Ennio Morricone’s eclectic soundtrack on vinyl.The New York Times panned the movie, but Time
Magazine offered a mostly positive review, one of the earliest to take Leone on
his own terms instead of dismissing him as a passing curiosity.
audience turnout was sparse, and when the film reached smaller markets like the
one where I saw it in early fall 1972, the studio had renamed it “A Fistful of
Dynamite,” in an attempt to lure audiences who had flocked to Leone’s “A
Fistful of Dollars” and its sequels starring Clint Eastwood.The strategy gave the picture a second chance
in movie houses in that era before home video and streaming video when movies
had to make money at the box office or not at all. However, it didn’t do much
to boost business.In the meantime,
another violent drama about a fugitive IRA gunman in revolutionary Mexico,
Ralph Nelson’s “The Wrath of God,” had opened in theaters. Nelson’s film had
the added commercial advantage of a “Playboy” pictorial.For the record, it didn’t sell many tickets
either despite the publicity afforded by Hef’s magazine.Later, TV and VHS prints of Leone’s movie
retained “A Fistful of Dynamite” as the title, and their pan-and-scan format
ruined Giuseppe Ruzzolini’s beautifully composed Techniscope photography.The first respectful home-video edition
finally appeared in 1996 from MGM Home Video on laser disc.Remember that technology from the dawn of
home theater, sonny?The 1996 laser disc
retained “A Fistful of Dynamite” as the title, but restored the widescreen
aspect of the image and much of the footage missing from previous U.S. versions.“Duck, You Sucker” ultimately resurfaced as
the chosen title for its premier on U.S. DVD from MGM Home Video in 2007.
the run from the British government during the Irish Rebellion, explosives
expert John Mallory (Coburn) comes to Mexico to work for German mining
interests.There, traveling through the
desert on a vintage motorbike, he crosses paths with Juan Miranda (Steiger), a
sweaty, hot-tempered bandit who leads a gun-toting gang of robbers.The gang consists of Juan’s elderly father and
Juan’s six sons “by different mothers.”Miranda sees Mallory’s proficiency with explosives as the key to
realizing his long-cherished dream of breaking into the fortress-like Bank of
Mesa Verde.The loot will enable him and
his family to leave Mexico and reach the U.S., where -- like the worst
nightmare of a Trump supporter -- he expects to pursue an even grander career
robbing American banks.After Juan
deviously maneuvers Mallory into a partnership, the Irishman eludes him but the
two reunite in Mesa Verde.There,
Mallory has joined a cell of insurrectionists headed by the dapper Dr. Villega
(Romolo Valli).Villega plots a series
of diversions in Mesa Verde to support two imminent onslaughts by the rebel
commanders Villa and Zapata.One
diversion will be an explosion at the bank, dovetailing with Miranda’s own
obsession of pulling his big heist.Once
the building is blasted open, Juan will lead his kids inside and empty the
vault.But things take a turn he doesn’t
expect, and instead of getting rich from the break-in, he becomes an unwitting
hero of the revolution.For the cynical
Juan, who has no use for politics and no loyalties beyond his rough affection
for his aged father and his sons, it’s a dumbfounding development.Moreover, his new-found notoriety puts him in
the crosshairs of a punitive military expedition led by a ruthless officer in
an armored transport, Col. Gunther Ruiz (Antoine Saint-John).
retrospect, it’s easy to see why the film did poorly at the U.S. box office,
first under anopaque title and then
under, arguably, a misleading one.Leone
enjoyed using an elliptical narrative style in which often, as a scene begins
or unfolds, the viewer doesn’t quite know where the characters are or the point
of what they’re doing.Eventually, with
a visual or verbal cue, the meaning becomes clear.Fans enjoy this technique, similar to a
stand-up comic preceding a punchline with an elaborate set-up.Leone trusts that you’re smart enough and
curious enough to stay with him.But the
technique was bound to frustrate 1972 moviegoers who expected a straightforward
shoot-’em-up narrative, based on the poster art of Steiger firing a machine
gun, Coburn displaying a coat lined with dynamite, and a military convoy being
blown up.Some confusion also resulted
from the cuts made for the U.S. release.What happened to the paying job that Mallory was hired for, and if he’s
finished with rebellions as he had implied in one passing comment, why does he
end up collaborating with Dr. Villega’s resistance movement?A scene in the overseas print explained that
Juan had lured John’s employer and a military guard to a remote church, and
then killed them with a blast of Mallory’s dynamite.Mallory, known to be a wanted Irish rebel,
was blamed for the murders; presumably, as the authorities put out their
dragnet, he had only one recourse to slip out of Miranda’s devious grip -- go
underground, seek refuge with the Mexican revolutionaries, and resume his
The consequences of sexual desire in young women is akin to that of contracting the bubonic plague. That seems to be the message of the 1965 film version of A Rage to Live, best on the best-selling novel by John O'Hara. The opening sequences introduce us to Grace Caldwell (Suzanne Pleshette), a gorgeous high school student who lives a seemingly idyllic life in small town America. Grace shares her affluent home with her widowed mother Emily (Carmen Matthews) and her older brother Brock (Linden Chiles), a straight-as-an-arrow type who is attending Yale and who tries to fill the role of father and husband to the best of his ability. Grace is a "good girl" is all respects. She studies hard and looks after her mother, who she clearly adores. However, she does have one disturbing aspect to her personality: she has an active sexual desire in an age where a young woman was supposed to value her virginity above virtually anything else. Grace likes to flirt with her male classmates and there is no shortage of potential lovers. Disturbingly, she realizes that she doesn't have to have any deep emotions for any of them in order to find them sexually attractive. When she gets caught necking with one such boy, Charlie (Mark Goddard), they are discovered by his mother and Grace becomes the center of a local scandal. The notion of such an innocent act leading to such consequences probably seemed over the top even in 1965, but the situation does worsen when Grace does end up bedding several young men, thus living up (or down) to her new-found reputation as a "bad girl". This brings strife to her family and friends and Grace seeks to smooth things over by accompanying her ill mother on a vacation to an island resort. However, temptation rears its ugly head and while Grace sneaks out to have a dalliance with a hunky waiter, mom is stricken by an attack and dies. Consumed by guilt, Grace is convinced that she is nothing more than a slut, destined to live a life of shame. She gets a second chance when she meets Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), a handsome, hard working young man who is instantly attracted to her. Before long, he asks her to marry him, leading Grace to confess that she isn't a virgin. Sidney takes this bit of news with the same gravity he would if she had confessed to being a serial murderer, but he is forgiving of her past and believes her vow to stay loyal. The happy couple soon has a baby and all seems well...until Roger Bannon (Ben Gazzara) enters their lives. Roger had known Grace slightly for years and confesses to her that he has long been obsessed with her. Although devoted to her devout but boring husband, Grace becomes tempted by Roger's gruff, blue collar ways and is turned on by his raw sexuality. Before long, they become lovers-and their relationship sets in motion a series of dire events that lead to a shocking (and ironic) conclusion.
A Rage to Live seems very dated in its early sequences. Yet, it serves as a disturbing time capsule from an era in which women were supposed to know their place and regard sex as nothing more than a wifely duty, similar to doing housework or changing diapers. The notion that a woman may have sexual desires of her own had profound consequences in polite circles. One of the drawbacks of these opening scenes is that Suzanne Pleshette was in her mid-twenties at the time and, although her performance is excellent, she is simply too old to play a high school girl. Thus, when her mother or brother dictate directives to her, it seems rather absurd to see this clearly mature young woman meekly obeying them. This becomes less of an issue as the story progresses and Pleshette is playing a character her own age. Director Walter Grauman plays up the soap opera elements of the story, all to the accompaniment of a fine score by Nelson Riddle and crisp black and white cinematography by Charles Lawton. As soon as Grace resolves one crisis in her troubled life, another takes its place. Yet, these problems are all of her own making. The concept of the film- a likable woman who cannot control her sexual urges and fantasies- was certainly daring for its day, especially since Grace is presented as a sympathetic figure who dotes on her husband and young child. Yet, she repeatedly risks it all for another turn under the covers. The cautionary aspects of the tale are as old as time: if you play with fire, you'll probably end up getting burned. Yet, Grace is not a villain. Her defense of her unfaithful actions to her husband is the time worn excuse: she loves her spouse and her dalliances are only to fulfill her physical needs. (Seeing how boring Dillman's Sidney is, you can hardly blame her.)
The film is engrossing throughout, even during those scenes that approach guilty pleasure status. Peter Graves turns up later in the film in a key role as a would-be lover of Grace's who plays an instrumental role in her fate. Carmen Matthews is especially good as Pleshette's long-suffering mother and reliable character actor James Gregory provides a typically deft turn as the family doctor. Gazzara is especially good as the guy from the other side of tracks whose animal magnetism initially attracts Grace but eventually frightens her.
A Rage to Live is by no means an example of classic movie-making but it is certainly worth a look, if only to observe how cinema was maturing rapidly during this period and exploring subjects that would have been taboo only a few years before.
The Warner Archive has released the film as a burn to order DVD. Quality is excellent, though there are no bonus features. The DVD is region free.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM THE CINEMA RETRO MOVIE STORE
Kino Lorber has released a Blu-ray edition of the little-remembered 1954 "B" movie thriller "Highway Dragnet". Despite it's modest production values, the film is a textbook example of how efficiently films in this genre were made and how much action and plot devices can be worked into a movie with an abbreviated running time (70 minutes, in this case.) Young Roger Corman wrote the story upon which the screenplay was based and also served as one of the producers. That's about the only aspect of the film that one could point out in terms of separating "Highway Dragnet" from countless other crime dramas shot in a similar style. That isn't meant as a criticism. We're rediscovering how cleverly made so many of these micro-budget flicks were and this one is one of the better examples. The film opens with a brief segment in Las Vegas. Richard Conte is Jim Henry, who has just returned from the conflict in Korea and is now looking to enjoy civilian life. He's on his way back to his family home in the Salton Sea area in California when his pit stop at a Vegas casino results in a tense encounter with an abrasive blonde at the bar. The two publicly quarrel and Jim leaves the premises. The next day he is on a desert highway hitchhiking when cops pull up and arrest him. Turns out the sassy dame was found strangled in her bed and Jim is the prime suspect. He has an alibi that he was out with a friend all night but due to some convoluted plot reasons, the tale can't be easily substantiated. Jim resists the arresting officers, steals one of their guns and makes a getaway in the squad car. A full dragnet is in place when he ditches the police car when he comes across two stranded women who are trying to fix their broken-down car. Jim jumps to the rescue and gets the vehicle working, but also insists on traveling with them, as it gives him cover from the police. His new companions are Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett), a fashion photographer and her model Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). The women are en route to photo shoot at a local desert resort hotel. When they arrive there, they learn that Jim is wanted for murder. He takes off with them into the desert where the car breaks down and they are at the mercy of the relentless sun. Mrs. Cummings is determined to kill Jim if she has the opportunity but Susan, who is clearly enamored of the ex-serviceman, argues that she thinks he is innocent. The cat and mouse game continues as Jim desperately tries to make it back to his family home, where the man who can exonerate him is supposed to be waiting.
"Highway Dragnetl" is a fun romp, especially if you like the old style of crime movies in which the hero is nonplussed by events and seems to have Bondian abilities to escape every trap. Richard Conte makes a good, stalwart hero and his female co-stars are equally impressive. The climax of the film, shot on location amid flooded homes in the Salton Sea area, is quite atmospheric and impressive, even if the resolution of the crime is bit thin and far-fetched when it comes to revealing the real murderer. Director Nathan Juran wisely eschews studio-bound shots in favor of capitalizing on the desert locations and they add considerably to the quality of the production. "HighwayDragmetl" isn't a film noir classic but it's well-made and thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended, especially since you'll only need 70 minutes to experience it.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray offers a pristine transfer and a trailer gallery of other "B" crime movies available from the company.
Fritz Lang first made his mark in Germany during the short-lived Wiemar Republic in between the two world wars. Lang had immigrated from his native Austria to Berlin, where he made quite an impression during the silent era, directing such landmark masterpieces as "M" and "Metropolis". However, the rise of National Socialism repulsed him. He spawned an offer to make propaganda films for the Nazis and discreetly left the country before the worst aspects of Hitler's regime became reality. In Hollywood, Lang found he was welcomed by studios and was consistently employed on films for the major studios. However, Lang was working under constraints that early German cinema did not have, namely, the dreaded Hays Code, under which Hollywood engaged in self-censorship in order to prevent government oversight of film content. Consequently, many of the films directed by Lang in Hollywood were largely routine, run-of-the-mill productions although occasionally, he oversaw a true gem that reminded viewers of his genius. One of Lang's last American films before he returned to Germany was "While the City Sleeps", a tightly-wound 1956 urban thriller that was one of the first major productions to deal overtly with a serial killer.
The story opens on a harrowing note with a pre-credits scene in which an attractive young woman has her apartment entered by a delivery man who had previously stopped at her apartment. In short order, he subjects her to a horrific death. The murder quickly becomes big news and Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), the elderly owner of The Sentinel, the city's most influential newspaper, barks orders that the search for the murder has to be played to the hilt in order to increase circulation. However, Kyne soon passes away, leaving control of The Sentinel to his son, Walter (Vincent Price), an inept elitist with a penchant for high living. Walter is well-aware that he is ill-equipped to run a major media organization that also includes a television network. He quickly alienates his most seasoned staffers and devises a Trumpian strategy of dangling a promotion in front of his three top reporters, thus causing the colleagues to turn on each other amid a chaotic environment of backstabbing. Walter has informed the competing journalists that the first man to solve the murder will get the job, then sits back and cruelly enjoys his manipulation of them. The staffers are old hands at getting big stories. Mark Loving (George Sanders) is a snooty newsroom editor who is romancing Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), the office vamp and resident gossip columnist. Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) is a cigar-chomping old time veteran reporter who quickly compromises his pride in the hopes of nailing down the promotion. James Craig is Harry Kritzer, an oily top reporter who is secretly romancing Walter's wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), who enjoys making her husband an unknowing cuckold while at the same time manipulating Harry by threatening to withdraw her sexual favors. The central character in the story, however, is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), The Sentinel's top reporter and their celebrity on-air news anchor. Mobley, a chain-smoking cynic, wants no part of Walter's cruel ploy to win a promotion through sacrificing professional integrity. Edward, too, is involved in the hotbed of interoffice romances, and becomes engaged to Loving's secretary Sally (Nancy Liggett).
The interesting script for "While the City Sleeps" meanders but in a positive way. These are all fascinating enough characters to make the sordid aspects of the serial killer plot take second place. Mobley is an especially interesting character and far from the knight in shining armor found in many films of this era. He smokes and drinks too much and even alienates Nancy by almost succumbing to the sexual advances of Mildred. He loathes working for Walter but is too comfortable in his job and celebrity status to leave. Working with some inside tips from a friendly police detective (Howard Duff), Mobley comes up with a strategy for luring the killer into the open by using Nancy as bait. This kicks the murder plot into overdrive in the final section of the film and adds considerable suspense to the proceedings.
The first thing you note when reading the sleeve notes
for 100 Years of Horror (Mill Creek Entertainment)
is the three-disc set’s staggering running time: ten hours and fifty-five
minutes.It’s a somewhat daunting task
to review such a monumentally staged effort as this, one at least partially
conceived as a labor-of-love.The series
makes a noble effort to trace the history and the development of the horror
film from the silent era through the slasher films of the 1980s and a bit
beyond, not always neatly or logically compartmentalizing sub-genres as
“Dinosaurs,” “Aliens” “Gore,” “Mutants,” Scream Queens” etc. along the way.It’s a bit difficult to precisely date when host
and horror film icon Christopher Lee’s commentaries and introductory segments
were filmed.The set itself carries a
1996 copyright, but Lee makes an off-hand mention of the “new” Dracula film
starring Gary Oldman… which would date the saturnine actor’s participation to
1992 or thereabouts.Later in the set,
Lee references Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,
which then confusingly forward dates the documentary to 1994.
It’s also unclear where this series was originally
destined.With its twenty-five minute
running time per episode, it would appear as if this twenty-six part series was
produced with the intent of television distribution in mind.100
Years of Horror is one of the earliest efforts of executive producer Dante
J. Pugliese who would carve out a career producing a number of these minimal
investment “clip show” style documentaries.This series first appeared as a 5 volume VHS set via Passport
International in the latter days of 1995, and has since enjoyed several DVD
releases; there were both cut-down versions and a
highly-sought-after-by-collectors box set issued in 2006.This new issue by Mill Creek not only brings
the set back into print with new packaging, but does so at a very reasonable
price point:MSRP: $14.98, and even
cheaper from the usual assortment of on-line merchants.
Perhaps acknowledging Christopher Lee’s contribution to
the legacy, the series first episode is fittingly dedicated to Dracula and his Disciples.Lee was, inarguably, one of the two most
iconic figures to essay the role of Count Dracula.Though Bela Lugosi’s halting speaking manner,
grey pallor and widow-peaked hairline remains the more iconic visual portraiture,
Lugosi actually only portrayed Count Dracula in a feature-length film twice: in
the 1931 original and, for the final time, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).Lee, on the other hand, shot no less than seven
Dracula films for Hammer Studios and one for Jess Franco.Though he would log considerably more
cinematic hours on screen as the Prince of Darkness, the gentlemanly Lee
generously allows here that even some forty years following the actor’s death
in 1956, Bela Lugosi was still “inexorably linked” to the public’s persona of
Though he would never work with the actor – as he would on
two occasions with Lugosi’s occasional foil Boris Karloff - Lee recalled his first
attendance at a horror film in a cinema was Lugosi’s Dark Eyes of London (1939).Lugosi would, in some manner of speaking, unwittingly pave the way for
Lee’s future assumption in other similarly cloaked roles. As had his predecessor,
Lee would portray several other vampire characters on film that were Count Dracula
in all but name.Just as Lugosi would exploit
his image as Transylvania’s most famous resident in such films as Return of the Vampire and Mark of the Vampire, so would a fanged
Christopher Lee with such impersonations as Dracula
and Son and Uncle Was a Vampire.
The documentary makes clear that, no matter how celebrated
either man’s portrayal was, neither actor held dominion on the character.The film points out that several other actors
- Francis Lederer and Lon Chaney Jr. among them – have tackled the role to reasonable
degrees of satisfaction.It was also
pleasing to see a brief interview segment with one of my favorite Dracula’s,
the wizened John Carradine, captured in his eighties here.Carradine triumphantly recounts not only did
he appear as Dracula in “three” films for Universal (well, three, if you choose
to count his appearance on a 1977 episode of NBC-TV’s McCloud (“McCloud Meets Dracula”).Carradine was also mysteriously prideful of his appearing as a Count
Dracula-style character in several obscure films shot in Mexico (Las Vampiras) and the Philippines (the
outrageous and exploitative Vampire
Hookers).What the Mexican and
Filipino efforts might lack in comprehensibility and budget, they’re nonetheless
not-to-be-missed totems of low-brow Midnight Movie Madness.For whatever reason, Carradine made no
mention of his top-hatted participation the wild and wooly William (“One Shot”)
Beaudine western Billy the Kid vs.
Dracula (1966), a long-time “guilty pleasure” of mine.
The Warner Archive has released the 1970 counter-culture drama The Strawberry Statement. The film was released in an era of increasing unrest, sandwiched between the 1968 Chicago riots at the Democratic convention, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy and the shooting of student protesters at Kent State University (which, in a nightmarish example of unintended "good timing" occurred one month after the release of this film.) Although the movie was honored at the Cannes Film Festival, the general consensus was that, like Antonioni's more notorious failure Zabriskie Point, the film was an unfocused and unsuccessful attempt to play upon the unrest among young Americans during this era. Looking at the movie today, that criticism still holds up. The story centers on Simon (Bruce Davison), an apolitical student at a San Francisco university (it was actually filmed at Berkeley) who gradually becomes interested in the protest movement. Students are on strike and are occupying the dean's office (a not uncommon practice of the day) to protest the closing of a community playground for inner city children. The university, which owns the property, intends to put in an ROTC office temporarily, and then lease the land to big business. The students have succeeded in virtually closing down the university and Simon becomes more enamored with their cause. Before long he is occupying the dean's office, too, and begins a romantic relationship with a more radical protester, Linda (Kim Darby). The film meanders between their encounters, life on campus and anti-Establishment rallies. However, a clear depiction of the characters or their motivations is never provided. Simon is charismatic, but rather hollow. Linda is never presented in anything but a superficial manner. We know nothing of her background or motivations. There are no other major characters, though reliable supporting actors like Bud Cort, James Coco and Bob Balaban contribute positively.
The film's director, Stuart Hagmann, had a brief and rather undistinguished career, primarily highlighted by this MGM production. He relies on fast cuts, inventive camera angles and a score filled with rock and folk music provided by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Thunderclap Newman to compensate for the weak screenplay that had been based on a recently-published novel. The script by Israel Horovitz does provide some nuance in assessing protest movements. This was filmed during an era in which the military was draft was going full force, even as the Vietnam War was becoming increasingly unpopular. Adding insult to injury, the young people who fought that war weren't allowed to vote at the time because the voting age was 21. (Even today, with a voting age of 18, soldiers who are deemed old enough to drive tanks into combat can't legally enjoy a beer.) Consequently, presidential candidates who had run on a Vietnam withdrawal policy in 1968 (Senators Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy), had enormous support from a base that could not vote for them. The war that had been started by Democrats and escalated by the newly-elected Republican President, Richard Nixon, seemed to be a quagmire that would go on forever. (Curiously, our Afghanistan quagmire was started by a Republican president and escalated by a Democratic president, so not much has changed in terms of the political Establishment.) Where The Strawberry Statement succeeds is in its depiction of the various motives those who comprise a protest movement might have. Some are true believers, some are idealists, some are just weak-willed followers, and others just want to get laid in the name of upholding democracy. Radical protesters complain about a lack of freedom and rights, even as they ironically decorate their dorm rooms with posters of Che Guevara, a man who sacrificed his life in an attempt to tear down dictatorships even as he courted the totalitarian state of Fidel Castro. There are rather pretentious uses of film clips of key political figures of the day including H. Rap Brown and President Nixon, who is seen serenading White House guests while playing Home on the Range on the piano. There must be significance to this somewhere, but it comes across as bizarre. The film does show how even the most sincere political protest movements, from the Tea Party on the right and the Occupy movement on the left, inevitably become defined by the crazy fringe element that often negates the validity of their message. (In this film, protesters assail police officers, using their "Peace Now" signs as instruments of destruction.) The film succeeds in capturing the craziness of the era in the final, harrowing sequence in which an army of policeman brutally assail students at a sit-in, who are peacefully signing "Give Peace a Chance." Here, director Hagmann finds his stride and provides a truly mesmerizing sequence. However, despite the fine performances of the cast, the film falls short of its overall potential.
The cataclysmic prison riot near the end of The
Big House (1930) reaches such a fevered pitch that army tanks are called in to
combat the inmates. The tanks roll into the prison yard like armor-plated
creatures, and then, unexpectedly, start rolling towards
the screen, towards the viewer. What did movie audiences think in 1930 as these
shiny, black, menacing machines moved towards them? By the riot's end, a
single tank crashes through a wall, its main gun slowly swiveling, as sinister anything
in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.It’s
impressive even now, watching on an Acer laptop in 2014. What was it like in
one of the vaunted movie palaces of yesteryear? Did audiences cheer
because the army was going to save the day? Or was there some fear, too, fear
that the machines were coming not just for criminals, but for everybody…
The Big House, now available on DVD as part of the Warner Bros Archive
Collection, was a spectacular success for MGM, and ushered in the prison movie
as a viable genre. Films had been set in prisons before,
but it was The Big House that established the characters and themes that would
mark the genre forever (ie. the scared new guy, the crusty lifers, the
conniving weasel, the kindly old guard, the dour but ineffectual warden, the inevitable
jail break, etc.). The film was also a marked contrast to the slick
films made by MGM at the time, causing Chester B. Bahn of the Syracuse Herald
to write that this "stark tragedy" was "so horrible, so
devastating, that you don't want to think about it, don't want to talk about
Although prison movies weren't churned out the way westerns and horror movies
were during the 1930s, the subject undoubtedly had legs. We still see
prison movies today, as well as TV shows (of both the scripted and “non-scripted”
variety). But every prison movie or show we see now has something of The Big
House in its DNA. The Big House did it first, and I’m not sure if any
modern prison movies have done it any better. More explicit, perhaps, but
For one thing, The Big House was unabashedly artsy. Directed by George Hill
with photography by Harold Wenstrom, the film is framed by rich, deep blacks
that gave the atmosphere a harder edge than most black and white films of the
day. A more accurate description of the film would be “black & grey,” for
there isn’t much white in it. Grey is the color of the prison uniform,
and grey is the color of the detainees’ pasty complexions. The prison is a
murky place, and when a con is being marched into the “dungeon” to serve some
time in solitary, it’s as if he’s being marched into the very wings of
The opening scene follows a truck filled with new prisoners as it approaches
the monolithic, unnamed building. There’s something about the scene that
looks like an illustration come to life, especially when the prisoners step out
of the truck and appear incredibly tiny as they march into the prison. Kent
(Robert Montgomery) is a newbie, sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter after
killing a man in a car accident. He’s thrown into a cramped cell with two
legitimately bad men, Butch (Wallace Beery) and Morgan (Chester Morris).
One of the warden’s aids laments that a young kid doesn’t stand a chance in a
cell with such hard cases, to which the warden agrees that overcrowding and
idleness are the banes of the prison system. Kent’s journey through
prison life, though, is only part of the story. The film's
greatness comes from the interplay between Butch and Morgan, for they are
two hardened criminals who lean on each other to get through their dreary days.
Butch is downright sadistic, the sort of brute who harasses people only to back
off and say, “I was only kidding.” He’s allegedly murdered several people,
including a few of his past girlfriends, but one never knows if he’s serious or
not. He also lets his temperament get the best of him, even turning on his
buddy Morgan more than once during the film. Morgan, meanwhile, falls for
Kent’s sister (Leila Hyams) when he spots her during visiting hours.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVE
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Remember that scene in Mel Brooks' The Producers when the first performance of Springtime for Hitler has just been performed for an opening night crowd on Broadway? The camera pans around the silent audience to show people sitting slack-jawed, mouths agape at the travesty they have just witnessed. I had a similar experience watching Sextette for the first time. Mind you, as a long time retro movie analyst, I was well-aware of the film's reputation as a notorious misfire. However, no criticism can quite prepare anyone for the experience of actually watching this bizarre spectacle unfold before your eyes. Scorpion Video has made that possible with a special edition DVD release of the 1978 musical comedy that was to be Mae West's second attempt to make a big screen comeback. (The first, the notorious 1970 bomb Myra Breckenridge, outraged her when she saw the final cut.) Sextette went into production in 1976, produced by "Briggs and Sullivan", a headed-for-oblivion duo whose pretentious billing perhaps unwittingly brings to mind circus masters Barnum and Bailey. The producers had acquired the rights to West's play Sextet, which apparently resulted in legal and censorship problems for the great screen diva way back when it was first presented. By the time it was dusted off for audiences in the 1970s, we were already living in an era in which Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice could comfortably slip between the sheets together, thus rendering the sexual humor in West's farce seem about as daring as a Disney production.
The film, directed by the generally admirable Ken Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), presents West as Marlo Manners, a legendary diva of the cinema who still causes hearts to flutter whenever she makes a public appearance. When we first see her (a full 8 minutes into the movie), she is checking into a London hotel to enjoy her honeymoon with her latest (and sixth husband), handsome young Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). It isn't long before Barrington realizes that Marlo has a fanatical fan base and a seemingly endless string of former and would-be lovers clamoring for her attention. Among them, some ex-husbands including a crazy movie director (Ringo Starr) and a gangster who was presumed dead (George Hamilton). Then there is a Soviet diplomat (Tony Curtis) who is the central figure in a world peace conference that coincidentally happens to be taking place in the same hotel. Add to the zany mix her hyper-active business manager (Dom DeLuise), a singing waiter (Alice Cooper!) and a fey dress designer (The Who's Keith Moon) and you probably have to admire whoever managed to get this eclectic group of talented people together, even if they all should have known better. West's old pal George Raft even shows up and rides an elevator with her. The razor-thin plots involves Marlo trying to consummate her marriage to Barrington, who is a naive virgin who inadvertently implies to Hollywood gossip guru Rona Barrett that he is gay. In fact, just about the only audience that might derive any visual pleasure from the film are gay males, due to the abundance of scantily-clad muscle men who flex their abs every time Marlo walks by. To make matters even more bizarre, the cast occasionally breaks out into songs as though this was some old Busby Berkeley musical. The nadir of this is reached when an understandably embarrassed Dalton is forced to sing the Captain and Tennille's Love Will Keep Us Together to his on-screen bride. (Presumably, Dalton left this achievement off his credentials or he probably wouldn't have ended up playing James Bond.) In the midst of this madness, Marlo also barges in on the peace conference and convinces all the diplomats (including Walter Pidgeon!) to engage in some kumbaya moments of diplomacy.
West was certainly a screen legend in her time and one of the most liberated women in show business. You have to admire her for promoting women's lib and sexual freedom in an era in which most people were tone deaf to such sentiments. However, knowing when to quit was obviously not one of her attributes. As Marlo brings twenty-something men to states of sexual frenzy in Sextette, you keep waiting for at least one joke regarding the fact that the woman was in her 80s when the film was made. Unfortunately, throughout the entire movie, no such realization is apparent. Men salivate over her, as West creaks stiffly from frame to frame looking like the Marie Antoinette figure from Madame Tussaud's wax museum. West had parlayed her limited schtick of tossing off sexually suggestive one-liners into a full time screen career, not so much acting as merely quipping. It may have worked great in her prime opposite Cary Grant and W.C. Fields, but it's a sad spectacle to see Ringo Starr try to control his urges in her presence. The only cast member to emerge unscathed is DeLuise, who gives an energetic and amusing performance that even sees him jumping atop a piano and engaging in an impressive tap dance.
The Scorpion DVD transfer is excellent and includes an extensive and spellbinding interview with Ian Whitcomb, who served as a music consultant on the film. A good friend of Mae West's, he relates affectionate tales of their relationship and provides some uncomfortable details about the filming. (West would periodically seem to lose her powers of concentration and often had to have her lines read to her through an ear piece.) He also reads entries from his diary that were written during production. There is also a very informative on-screen essay by film critic Dennis Dermody that explores the film's disastrous reception by critics and the public. An original TV spot is also included.
Sextette easily manages to gain that rare status of being so bad it's good. You must add this DVD to your collection.
(Look for an article about the making of the film in Cinema Retro #26)
If you're generally in the mood for light, uplifting movies, chances are you aren't enamored of the boxing genre. To be sure, the wonderful "Rocky" films assured viewers of a happy, upbeat ending, but they were marketed for mass audience appeal. On the other side of the coin, most of the films that explore the ironically nicknamed "Sweet Science" of boxing center on the gritty underbelly of the sport. As far back as Wallace Beery's "The Champ" through "Champion", "Requiem for a Heavyweight", "Fat City" and "Raging Bull", the general theme has been to present the peculiar world of boxing and boxers as one of unrelenting cruelty, exploitation, double-crosses and physical punishment. Small wonder that few such films had viewers emerging from theaters with broad smiles on their faces. Yet, the boxing genre is a reliable staple when it comes to presenting thoroughly engrossing tales and the latest entry, a low-budget British film, "Jawbone" can justifiably take its place among the major achievements in the genre.
You probably never heard of "Jawbone". which had a very limited theatrical release in the UK and is now making its debut in America through a DVD release from Lionsgate. I had no expectations for the movie but decided to give the review screener a try, as I've always had a weakness for boxing films."Jawbone" grabs you from the very first frames. We see the central character, Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) in the depths of depression, sitting night after night in the dock areas of London and under the city's bridges swilling down hard liquor from a bottle. We learn that he is destitute and about to be evicted from his childhood home which he shared with his beloved mother, who passed away some months before. He's offered housing by the local council but he stubbornly refuses. It's a battle he can't win and he ends up homeless. We learn he was once a boxer of some repute and out of desperation, he returns to the gritty gym where he once trained. The owner, Bill Carney (Ray Winstone), was once Jimmy's mentor, a function he still provides for street kids from the neighborhood he continues to train. Jimmy lost Bill's respect when he began his downward spiral, but he implores his old friend to give him one more chance by allowing him to train at the gym and to lodge there as well. Bill has a heart-to-heart talk with Jimmy and informs him that any return to his bad habits will see him permanently banned from the gym. Grateful, Jimmy joins Alcoholics Anonymous but is so ashamed of his transgressions that he can't accept the outpouring of support from the other members. Still, he resists taking to the bottle and begins an intense period of training. Bill and his partner Eddie ((Michael Smiley) recognize that he still has some of his old abilities and support his efforts at redemption. However, Jimmy desperately needs some money so he seeks out an old acquaintance, Joe Padgett (Ian McShane), a superficially friendly fight promoter who specializes in matches that are so brutal they aren't officially recognized.The smarmy Joe treats the starving Jimmy to a fat steak dinner and advances him a couple of hundred quid- then tells him he can arrange for him to make some sure money by participating in grueling off-the-grid match against a particularly vicious, undefeated opponent. He warns that Jimmy will probably be pulverized but the loser is guaranteed a paltry 2500 pounds, of which Joe will take a 50% slice.
"Jawbone" follows some well-worn story elements of the genre. We see Jimmy rally his strength, train to the point of exhaustion and arrive at the big match. He finds it closer to the experience of being a gladiator in ancient Rome. There are the bare bones symbols of civility: a referee and a busty ring girl who holds up a sign announcing each round. but the only rule is not to hit below the waist. Anything and everything else goes. Jimmy finds himself the underdog amidst a roaring crowd of barbarians who are cheering on the vicious champion. The fight that follows is as terrifically exciting and well-filmed as any you've seen in more commercial boxing movies. But "Jawbone" is about much more than this one exciting sequence. It's about the human condition and the ability- or inability- of one man to conquer his personal demons. The film is superbly acted with writer/star Johnny Harris giving the kind of performance that generally gets BAFTA and Oscar recognition. Similarly, the supporting cast is superb with Winstone and Smiley particularly good and McShane riveting in his small but pivotal role. Much credit goes to director Thomas Napper, a highly regarded second-unit director on numerous blockbuster films, who breaks out as a director of great skill with this film. Although "Jawbone" has many elements of the traditional boxing film, it steadfastly avoids the predictable love story. There isn't a love interest for Jimmy because he can barely keep himself alive. Harris's script resonates with great, believable dialogue and the film is complimented by a fine musical score by Paul Weller, excellent cinematography by Tat Radcliffe and editing by David Charap. Everything about "Jawbone" is impressive, especially the fact that Harris and Napper manage to convey a great deal of emotion into the brief 90 minute running time. There isn't a wasted frame and by the film's emotional climax you realize it didn't need to run a second longer. This is economic filmmaking at its best. The movie is an outstanding achievement for all concerned and one can only gripe that it didn't get the theatrical distribution it so richly deserved. However, the Lionsgate DVD offers a very fine transfer and a very interesting "making of" documentary that describes how the bare bones production came together and ended up looking so good. There is also a gallery of trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
"Jawbone" is one of the best indie films I've seen in quite some time. If you'll excuse an unpardonable pun, it's a knockout.