Back in the mid-1970s when the U.S. government established the national speed limit at 55 MPH there was predictable outrage among "The Sky is Falling!" crowd who warned that traffic would slow to a crawl and that the rule was an infringement on individual rights. The fact is that since the day the 55 MPH speed limit was established, virtually everyone has ignored it and law enforcement officials seemed to unofficially tack on another 10 MPH before they got serious about ticketing anyone, the exception being small towns that did nitpick about speed limits and saw their coffers filled regularly. The fear among some Americans that they might have to actually slow the pace of their lives in some manner resulted in the birth of the road race movie. Call it "Revenge of the Lead-Foot Crowd". If would-be speeders couldn't fulfill their fantasies on the highways and byways of America, then, by golly, they would do it on the silver screen. Lost in the debate, however, was the original reason for the 55 MPH, which had less to do with safety and everything to do with conserving gasoline following the gas crisis of 1973 when drivers had to wait for hours to get their cars partially filled. President Richard M. Nixon proposed setting the new speed limit at 50 MPH for passenger cars but compromised at 55 MPH. The plan was a flop, saving far less gasoline than Nixon had envisioned- but the law was kept intact for reasons of safety. Hollywood, however, was not interested in nuances and delved straight into exploiting the situation. Suddenly, seemingly every other movie produced had elaborate car chases. A peculiar sub-genre formed that was dedicated to movies that would not even have existed without car chases. The 1976 release "Cannonball" was a sobering take on the premise with participants suffering gruesome deaths in a coast-to-coast high speed auto race. The very same year saw the release of "The Gumball Rally", a lighthearted spin on the exact same premise that caused critic Roger Ebert to note the similarities between the two films thusly: "Both movies have all the standard ingredients, however:
Two laconic leading men, two all-girl teams, one ethnic driver, one dumb law
enforcement officer, several exploding gas tanks, no end of incompetent highway
patrolmen, a helicopter and a car that breaks in half. The movies are so
similar in content, in fact, that the differences between them are instructive:
"The Gumball Rally" is an easily forgettable entertainment, but at
least it has a certain amount of class. "Cannonball" was straight
exploitation." Ebert also noted that two other similarly-themed films were also released that year: Ron Howard's "Eat My Dust" and Roger Corman's "Death Race 2000".
The Warner Archive has released "The Gumball Rally" on Blu-ray. The film is an amiable but completely predictable action comedy that acknowledges in its trailer that it was inspired by the granddaddy (and still the best) of all road race movies, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World". (Even the poster art seems an homage to Jack Davis's iconic ad campaign for "Mad World".) The movie opens in New York City where we see bored rich executive Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) issue the code word "Gum Ball" to an eclectic group of eccentrics who immediately converge on a meeting he is holding to announce it's time to launch "The Gum Ball Rally" (spelled differently than the actual title of the film, "The Gumball Rally"). Turns out that this is annual race from New York to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. There are no rules for the race except that the winner will be awarded a fully-loaded gumball machine and have the bragging rights. Before long, teams driving an exotic fleet of autos ranging from Corvettes to Jaguars and a Rolls Royce are screeching through Manhattan and New Jersey in a madcap race to the finish line. The film was directed by Chuck Ball, a long-time stuntman and stunt coordinator as well as actor and sometimes director. Thus, it isn't surprising that the bulk of the movie is spent concentrating on spectacular chase scenes and comical crashes, with the characters left largely undeveloped. The most impressive scenes are early in the film in which Ball somehow managed to shoot cars speeding through Times Square during the daytime, amid theaters boasting marquees ranging from "Jaws" to the latest porno flicks. He also got the Lincoln Tunnel closed down for a key scene, as well as the New Jersey Turnpike (try doing that today!). It's all set to a jaunty, sitcom-like 1970s score by Dominic Frontiere.
"The Gumball Rally" was aimed squarely at the drive-in market where it undoubtedly did well. The film's production budget went almost entirely on the expensive chase and crash scenes, some of which feature some creative and amusing aspects amid the cliches. Consequently, there wasn't any money left for star power. Michael Sarrazin, a good and underrated actor who never made it as big as he deserved to, is the most familiar face and young Raul Julia has a flashy role as a perpetually horny racer whose sex drive interferes with his commitment to get to the finish line first. Gary Busey, a couple of years away from his star-making turn in "The Buddy Holly Story", is on board as a goofball and Normann Burton has a good role as the Javert-like policeman who relentlessly pursues the racers every year only to wind up humiliated. Old timers J. Pat O'Malley and Vaughn Taylor are aging sophisticates who are among the contestants. The film is innocent, undemanding fun, even if it's completely predictable. The road race genre continued for a number of years, thanks in large part to Burt Reynolds' massive "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run", the latter being an exact remake of "The Gumball Rally" which was a remake of "Cannonball". The Warner Archive release has a top-notch transfer and includes the original trailer, which doesn't mention a single cast member by name.
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Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007), the playwright, television
mogul, and novelist, reportedly sold well over 300 million books in his
lifetime. This is a pretty impressive number
for a man who only turned to churning out books in his early fifties. If I hedged on the word “writing” when
describing the mogul’s working methods, I’m not being coy and
disrespectful. Perhaps taking a page
from fellow television writer-creator-workaholic Rod Serling’s own playbook, Sheldon
would dictate his stories into a tape recorder and later have secretaries type
out his ramblings. With words committed
to paper, Sheldon would then skillfully revise and edit and buffer the
manuscript until satisfied he had a full-fledged novel on hand. Though a number of literary critics - and resentful
thriller-writing contemporaries - would excoriate the creator/writer of The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie for his work method
and hackneyed storylines, readers worldwide made Sheldon one of the most
successful popular-market paperback novelists of all time.
One fan of Sheldon’s books was Roger Moore, also in the
midst of enjoying a great run of wealth and fame as James Bond. The actor would recall in his memoir My Word is My Bond, “Since first reading
Sidney Sheldon’s book The Naked Face
I had felt it would lend itself to a very good film.” Moore was interested in exploring new
projects; he was certain his sixth and most recent outing as Bond, Octopussy (1983), was likely his last. He was, after all, now fifty-seven years old. He could be forgiven for believing his
successful turn as British secret agent 007 had come to its natural end.
Several years prior to the cinema version of “The Naked
Face,” Moore was cast in “Sunday Lovers” (1980), a dismal romantic-comedy of four
vignettes tethered together as a feature-length film. The Franco-Italian production would be
released in the U.S. in the early winter of 1981. Though the film performed poorly at the
box-office on both sides of the Atlantic, critics agreed the movie’s first
tale, a distinctly British farce titled “An Englishman’s Home,” was clearly the
best of an otherwise bad bunch. The screenplay for this segment had been written
by the British playwright and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, and featured a talented
ensemble: Moore, Denholm Elliot, Lynn
Redgrave, and Priscilla Barnes. The
vignette was helmed with modest flourish by Bryan Forbes, a formidable figure
in the British film industry who had only recently stepped down as managing
director of EMI films. Moore enjoyed
working with the director on “Sunday Lovers” as Forbes, a true Renaissance man,
had been an old colleague. The two had been
friends since their earliest training together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Around this same time a pair of Israeli nationals,
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, became primary shareholders of Cannon Films, a floundering
company teetering on bankruptcy and desperate for well-heeled investors. The savvy cousins would quickly reinvigorate
the company’s fortunes in the 1980s with a profitable string of teen-horrors
and testosterone-fueled low-budget action B-films starring Charles Bronson and
Chuck Norris. In the interim of such
box-office successes as “Death Wish II” and the first of the “Missing in Action”
films, the producers actively courted Moore for a possible collaboration. The interests of both parties converged when a
window of opportunity opened following the actor’s wrap of Octopussy. Moore’s suggestion
of Sidney Sheldon’s 1970 best-selling novel “The Naked Face” as a possible
project for Cannon was met with enthusiasm. The deal was sealed when the filmmakers agreed to green-light Moore’s
friend Bryan Forbes as director for the project. Golan and Globus announced production of “The
Naked Face” with customary Cannon ballyhoo at the Cannes International Film
The premise of both the novel and film was classic
Hitchcock. A contemplative Chicago
psychiatrist, Dr. Judd Stevens (Roger Moore), becomes entangled as primary
suspect for a series of murders of which he is innocent and seems to have no
connection. As “The Naked Face” was clearly
targeted as entertainment for a sophisticated adult demographic, the producers
cast an impressive roster of middle-to-late-age talent. These were faces familiar to seasoned moviegoers: Rod Steiger, Anne Archer, Elliott Gould, and
Art Carney among them. The casting,
sadly, was not terribly profound. The
producers would cast veteran actor Rod Steiger as Moore’s foil, the
frothing-at-the-mouth, bulldog detective Lt. McGreavy. Steiger’s performance was certainly memorable. Unfortunately, it is memorable for all of the
wrong reasons. The most obvious problem with the actor’s
performance was, as Moore would later lament, Steiger did little to mitigate
his well-deserved reputation amongst his peers as a “scene chewer.” There’s plenty of that charge in evidence
here. The actor’s one-note portrayal is,
in turn, amusing and wearying. McGreavy comes off as a highly-caffeinated
Sgt. Joe Friday, ready to assign even the sketchiest shred of circumstantial
evidence as proof of Moore’s culpability in the murders. The detective’s dogged single-mindedness to
implicate the doctor is explained away as a result of the psychiatrist’s
testimony on behalf of a mentally unstable man who murdered his former police-partner
some years earlier. Elliott Gould is
cast as Angeli, McGreavy’s calmer and more reasonable contemporary partner. He is, seemingly, the better angel of this
traditional “good cop/bad cop” pairing. But
Gould is surprisingly unremarkable here, turning in a curiously flat and remote
performance. Art Carney plays Morgens, an
elderly, eccentric private investigator and collector of vintage clocks, who
briefly allies with Moore. Incredibly,
we’re expected to believe that the contemplative Dr. Stevens would engage this
low-rent private investigator through a listing in the Chicago Yellow Pages.
Promoted for its psychedelic aspects (as seemingly all youth-driven films of the late 1960s were), the crime thriller "Cop-Out" also bears a completely meaningless title that was designed to bring the mod crowd into theaters. (Please do not confuse this "Cop-Out" with director Kevin Smith horrendous 2010 sleaze fest "Cop Out".) Yet, despite the emphasis on exploitation, the film is actually a tightly-scripted, highly intelligent drama that boasts an especially impressive performance by the generally impressive James Mason. He plays John Sawyer, a once-esteemed lawyer who has fallen on hard times. His vivacious wife has left him because of his sexual inattention to her, as well as his love affair with booze. With her departure, Sawyer putters around a decaying mansion that, like himself, was once quite impressive. Sawyer's house is also a home to his daughter Angela (Geraldine Chaplin), but the two are barely on speaking terms. She resents his disinterest in her well-being and he resents what he believes is her misspent youth. Angela hangs out with a group of upper crust, spoiled rotten modders who spend their time drinking, smoking and screwing with shameless abandon. The odd man out in the group is Jo (Paul Bertoya), a struggling Greek immigrant who is tolerated in the group of snobs primarily because Angela is his girlfriend. The restless modders end up surreptitiously boarding a docked freighter and wreaking havoc before they are caught out by a crew member, Barney Teale (Bobby Darrin), a fast-talking American hipster who befriends the group and sets about manipulating them. He moves into their motley secret hideaway in an abandoned local theater and begins to make use of the premises to indulge in doing drugs and entertaining strippers and prostitutes. He's got a Jekyll and Hyde-like personality: one minute he's charming and funny, the next he's cruel and violent. When Barney suffers injuries due to an accident, Angela allows him to recuperate in her room, safe in the assumption that her disengaged father would never find out about his presence. However, during the night, a gunshot rings out and Barney turns up dead in Angela's bed. The prime suspect is Jo, who is accused of being jealous of Angela's proximity to the sex-crazed Barney. However, Angela insists he's being framed. The question is: by who? She imposes upon her father to return to his profession and take up Jo's defense. He agrees to do so but his appearance before the court is a disaster, leading to Angela to believe that Jo will inevitably be convicted. However, her father rallies, lays off the bottle and begins to play detective. In Agatha Christie fashion, he confronts the man he suspects of being the real murderer at a posh dinner party where the suspect is being honored on his birthday.
"Cop-Out" is rather striking for its blunt depiction of the open sexuality that was inherent in the youth revolution of the Sixties. There are few noble characters among the sleazebags but Sawyer's rise from the ash heap of humanity serves as a precursor for Paul Newman's character in "The Verdict" in that both men regain meaning in the lives by combating what they feel is a social injustice. The film was directed by Pierre Rouve, and it marks his only turn helming a film. (He major credits were as producer, including Antonioni's "Blow-Up".) Rouve is quite impressive, too, and doesn't allow the sexual and violent aspects of the film to overshadow the intelligent screenplay, which is based on the novel "Strangers in the House" by Georges Simenon. There's a very able supporting cast, with young Ian Ogilvy in what turns out to be a key role. The script deftly makes some biting observations about British class structure and delves into other areas such as sexual harassment, impotence and homosexuality (which was still an imprisonable offence at the time in England!). Chaplin performs well, as does the supporting cast, with Bobby Darin somewhat mesmerizing in an off-the-wall performance. The main recommendation for seeing the movie, however, is Mason's outstanding performance as the world-weary, worn-out shadow of a man who still has the ability to slay his social adversaries with his rapier wit. There's also some good location scenery (it was filmed in Southampton) and retro movie lovers will enjoy Mason glimpsing at some skin magazines including one promoting Molly Peters in "Thunderball". As an added treat, there are occasional vocals by Eric Burden and the Animals.
Kino Lorber has rescued yet another obscure gem of a film and given it a fine presentation on Blu-ray. The original trailer is included as are trailers from other KL releases including "Coming Home", "The Crucible" and others.
In MGM’s 1958 Western “The Law and Jake Wade,” Robert
Taylor rides down from the Sierra Nevada mountains early one morning into a small
town and busts his old partner-in-crime, Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark), out
of the hoosegow. Hollister is a nasty guy. Not satisfied with escaping a
hanging, to Jake’s dismay, he clubs the sheriff and shoots a couple of people
out in the street while he and Jake make their getaway. Jake has to take his
rifle away from him to keep from killing more people.
Back up in the mountains Clint wants to ride on with Jake
but Jake says no. He busted Clint out of jail because he figured he owed him
for doing the same thing for him once. Now they’re even. Clint doesn’t agree.
There’s that matter of the $20,000 they stole on their last job together. He
wants his share. Jake tells him he buried the money and never touched it and
advises Clint to forget about it. “Don’t try to follow me,” he tells him. “I’m
still pretty good with this,” he says, patting his holstered gun. They go their
separate ways and Jake rides down on the other side of the mountain into
another town where he pulls up in front of a marshal’s office. Two men inside
welcome him back. He takes his coat off and surprise! There’s a tin star pinned
to his shirt.
It’s a shocker. He’s a law man, and he just broke a convicted
killer out of jail. It seems while Clint continued his career as an outlaw,
Jake reformed and became a town marshal. He’s an upstanding citizen now and
even has a lovely fiancé named Peggy (Patricia Owens) he’s going to settle down
with. Now you might ask yourself why a guy in Jake’s position would risk
everything to save his old partner from a noose. It would be somewhat
unbelievable if veteran screenwriter William Bowers (The Gunfighter), adapting
a novel by Marvin H. Alpert, didn’t provide some background indicating that Jake
is not only a guy with a conscience, Clint has some psychological hold over him
that he uses to his own advantage.
It helps that “The Law and Jake Wade” is directed by John
Sturges (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven). Sturges sets a
steady, understated, no-nonsense tone to the proceedings that makes everything
credible and authentic. His directorial skill is nowhere more evident than in
the way he handles a cast made up in part by some familiar Hollywood bad asses.
After Jake gets home Clint shows up with some mutual friends—members of the old
gang. The first is Rennie, a young psychopath played by Henry Silva (Manchurian
Candidate). Silva affects a weird way of talking and looking like he’s about to
draw on anyone who looks at him crossways. Next up, Robert Middleton as Ortero,
a hulking, cold-blooded gunman with a big belly and a nasty disposition. And
last but not least, a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelly as Wexler, who would almost
rather kill Jake than try to find the money. (I know it’s hard to think of Dr.
McCoy as a bad ass but actually he played that role in several westerns back in
the fifties). Sturges provides each of the heavies enough screen time and
action to establish their bonafides.
The story heats up when Clint and his Merry Men kidnap
Jake’s fiancé and force him to take them to the hidden loot. Sturges was not
only good at getting great performances from his cast, he was also one of the
best at filming in rugged locations. A lot of “The Law And Jake Wade” was shot
in the Sierra Nevada mountains around Lone Pine and down in Death Valley, an
area of the American landscape so often used in westerns that it has long since
become part of our national dreamscape. Even movie goers who are not
particularly fans of westerns can immediately recognize the mountains and
deserts of this stretch of ruggedly beautiful country. Budd Boetticher was
perhaps the director to make the best use of this scenery in the films he made
with Randolph Scott, but Sturges and his cinematographer Robert Surtees almost
surpass him in this film. The movie not only provides compelling drama, it’s
also gorgeous to look at.
On top of all this, Taylor and Widmark are at the top of
their game. Taylor was 58 at the time he played Marshal Wade, a little long in
the tooth, perhaps, to be paired with the 33-year old Owens, but he was still
in shape, and age had only added a bit of gravitas to his classic good looks.
He spends a lot of time in the film riding along the high passes of the Sierras
with his hands tied behind his back, which must have been difficult. One of the
biggest marvels in the movie is the way his hat stayed on while they rode over
one of those passes where the wind was blowing so hard Widmark and the others
all had to hold on to their lids to keep from losing them. But not Bob Taylor.
When you’re a star, baby, the hat stays on, even if you have to glue it on.
Widmark has one of his best sadistic psycho-killer roles
as Clint Hollister. It’s as though his notorious Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death”
had donned gun belt and spurs and headed
west. Henry Silva was plenty creepy as Rennie, but one twitch of Widmark’s
snarling upper lip quickly resolved any doubt about who was deadlier or meaner.
The Warner Archive Collection has released “The Law and
Jake Wade” on a decent, if somewhat unspectacular, Blu-ray with no bonus
features other than the original theatrical trailer. The film lacks an original soundtrack score because it was made during a musicians’
union strike. Thus, the music heard in the movie was lifted from previous features.
Despite the lack of special features, this
is a solidly entertaining film and this Blu-Ray disc is highly recommended.
John M. Whalen is the author of "This Ray Gun for Hire...and Other Tales." Click here to order from Amazon.
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Not all hit plays and musicals translate into hit films, as evidenced by the 1992 screen adaptation of playwright Michael Frayn's comedy stage hit "Noises Off" which became a sensation on Broadway, the West End and in countless road productions. The premise of the production remains the same in Marty Kaplan's screenplay: a touring production of a British sex farce called "Nothing On" is frantically rehearsing amidst a string of disasters for a pivotal performance in Des Moines on the long road for a hoped-for eventual opening on Broadway. The film version tells the story in flashbacks with the play's director, Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine), a basket case of nerves as he paces about the Broadway theater where the premiere performance is underway. This plot gimmick poses a problem from the outset: the premise of the script is that, as the production lurches from disastrous road engagement to disastrous road engagement, it seems virtually impossible that the cast and crew will ever get their act together sufficiently to merit an opening on Broadway...but since the prologue shows us the play has opened on Broadway, it robs the script of any surprise because we know these inept players will indeed overcome the tidal wave of mishaps. This is yet another British property that has been Americanized, with only old pros Caine and Denholm Elliott representing the Brits. The other key roles are filled by talented American actors, among them Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Christopher Reeve and Mark Linn-Baker. They all perform very well but why have people who have pretend British accents when you can have British actors to begin with? The answer is" boxoffice. The studio obviously felt that there weren't sufficient big names available in the UK film industry to certify the film would be a hit. They missed the boat completely. "Noises Off" was a big flop, though it has developed something of a cult following in the ensuing years.
The film was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, once Hollywood's golden boy. He hadn't had a hit since "Paper Moon" in 1973 and his association on "Noises Off" as a work-for-hire director seems to signify he was more in search of a paycheck than in presenting a film he had a great passion for. Things start off brightly as we see the rehearsal for "Nothing On" fall apart at the seams as director Fellowes reaches for his Valium. Things don't go well on opening night and, indeed, the situation deteriorates to a disastrous level on the road. Part of the problem is the complexity of the farce, which requires actors to bound all over the stage, entering and exiting with precision timing. Critics and audiences loved the theatrical version of "Noises Off" because of these logistical challenges that inevitably face the cast and director. On film, however, we're all too aware that numerous takes and deliberate editing can salvage a scene in a way that a live production can't benefit from. Bogdanovich does a good job of directing the hectic traffic but he's hampered by the fact that we see the same scenes played out under different circumstances until they get to be predictable and boring. By the time the show's most accident-prone performance is depicted, the entire affair has become monotonous, even if the cast members exert themselves admirably and deliver deft comedic performances. Some of the more amusing aspects of the film revolve around the off-stage shenanigans that find secret affairs, jealous lovers and drunken temper tantrums combining to drive the director to the point of insanity. Caine gives the film's most amusing performance and he's in top form. Because of the many cast members, most don't get adequate opportunity to stand out, though Nicollette Sheriden deserves special credit for being able to suffer through the antics while cast in bra and panties. One continuing joke that does work well is Bogdanovich's clever use of a bottle of booze and a bouquet of flowers that ended up being frantically and accidentally passed around backstage and being cleverly used and misused by those who come into possession of them.
The film's epilogue wraps things up with a too abrupt ending that seems overly cheerful considering the mishaps that we have witnessed.
"Noises Off" isn't a bad film but it never rises to the level of classic farce that many feel the stage production succeeded in doing. If you have any background in theater, you will probably find the movie more enjoyable than the average viewer.
The Warner Archive has released a Blu-ray edition of director Richard Rush's 1974 action comedy "Freebie and the Bean". The movie clearly rode the wave of enthusiasm during this period for maverick cop movies, largely because in those bad old days America was awash in crime. Consequently, Hollywood provided us with tough guy lawmen- Harry Callahan, Popeye Doyle, Lon McQ- to name but a few, who decided to toss away the rule book and bring about their own brand of common sense justice. The fact that, in doing so, these protectors of the peace often endangered far more innocent bystanders than the criminals did, was a common theme of these pro-vigilante cop flicks. "Freebie and the Bean" takes this element of rogue lawmen movies to an extreme, perhaps intentionally as a satirical device, or perhaps just to satiate the whims of the audience who, back in the day, would howl with delight every time a constitutional right was violated in order to mete out justice to a villain. The wafer-thin plot presents us with two San Francisco detectives - Freebie (James Caan) and his partner Bean (Alan Arkin)- as wise-cracking nonconformists who are borderline psychopaths. They routinely beat up suspects, deprive them of civil rights and in one "amusing" scene actually murder someone while he is sitting on a public toilet. In between, they terrorize half the population of the city by engaging in high speed chases that cause enormous damage. The only thing that separates them from the criminals they hunt is the fact that they are sanctioned by wearing badges. Freebie and Bean are assigned to protect an organized crime figure (Jack Kruschen), who the D.A. needs to appear as a witness as a high-profile trial. However, there is a contract out on him and the two cops must keep him safe until the trial begins.
Most of the film consists of endless chases on foot and by car, as the vulgarians in badges exchange insults and Bean is inevitably the victim of Freebie's cruel practical jokes. Arkin does his usual slow-burn shtick while Caan goes for his typical wise-ass approach. About the only cliche left out of this cop/buddy scenario is the "one guy is black and the other guy is white" standard. The script by Robert Kaufman is a crude, patchwork affair that resembles something some drunken college students could have churned out during a dorm party. Arkin and Caan do display a good deal of on-screen chemistry but director Richard Rush, who would go on to make the more estimable "The Stunt Man", places most of the emphasis on staging spectacular car chases. It must be said that the stunt work and action scenes are truly impressive and give the film its most redeeming qualities. However, the characters are all cringe-inducing sleazebags- including the good guys. The impressive supporting cast includes Loretta Swit, Alex Rocco, Mike Kellin and Paul Koslo- but their characters are woefully underdeveloped. Only Valerie Harper injects a note of grace and dignity as Bean's long-suffering wife who he accuses, in howling Ralph Kramden style, of having an affair with a gardner. The scene offers some humanity and poignancy but even that slips into vulgarity with a tasteless caveat about feminine hygiene. The movie has one other opportunity to veer into some genuinely emotional territory when, in the climax , one of the key characters is shot point blank and apparently mortally wounded. For a few brief minutes the film develops a sense of human compassion before plunging into the absurd final act when the severely wounded character inexplicably leaps from a hospital gurney to engage in a wrestling match.
Upon its release, "Freebie and the Bean" was greeted with largely awful reviews. Vincent Canby of the New York Times noted the sheer inhumanity of the characters, writing: "It's as sensitive as a doorknob and as witty as a bumper sticker" and also observed that there were so many automobile chases that he suspected the film was actually directed by a car. Alan Arkin dismissed the film as "absolute garbage"- but audiences loved it. The movie became a surprise hit and went on to develop a cult following that thrives even today. Fans of the film will welcome its Blu-ray release. The transfer is up to Warner Archives standards but the only bonus extra is the theatrical trailer. That's good news for "Bean" freaks but scant compensation for those of us who decry the sheer waste of talent in the film.
was released by American International in 1976, just as the blaxploitation
sub-genre was pretty much tailing off and indeed when A.I.’s most prolific
years lay behind them. It was directed by Arthur Marks, best known to me for his
year earlier blaxploitation entry, Friday
Foster (headlining Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto), but also notable as
writer/director on early 70s drive-in fodder such as Bonnie’s Kids and The
opens with a fast-paced prologue set in 1942 New Orleans, during which a heated
argument in a meat-processing plant between Betty Jo Walker (Alice Jubert) and
Theotis Bliss (Fred Pinkard) culminates with him slitting her throat. The body
is discovered by her brother, scar-faced black-marketeer J.D. (David McKnight),
who’s mistaken for the killer by her boyfriend, Theotis’ brother Elija (Louis
Gossett), who promptly shoots J.D. dead. (Keeping up? This is the framework for
everything that follows.) We slingshot forward 34 years to present day and meet
Isaac ‘Ike’ Hendrix (Glynn Turman), cab driver by day, law student by night.
Out at a club with his girlfriend Christella (Joan Pringle) and some friends,
Ike gets up on stage to participate in a hypnosis act, but whilst he’s in a
trance his mind is infiltrated by the vengeful spirit of J.D. With increasing
frequency, the unhinged gangster intermittently seizes control of Ike, using
him as a tool to exact revenge upon Elija and Theotis, who’ve now moved up in
the world and – along with the former’s daughter Roberta (Jubert again) – are shamelessly
using a religious set-up as front for their criminal activities.
by Jaison Starks, J.D.’s Revenge is a
gritty serving of schlock with a supernatural slant, serving up a banquet of
graphic bovine slaughter, un-PC dialogue, scathingly sexist attitude and more
than a splash of Dulux-variety bloodshed. Yet although it’s staged competently
enough, it falls shy of joining the ranks of the more thrilling blaxploitationers,
in fact on a couple of occasions it almost crosses the line into parody; it’s
hard not to smirk when Ike takes to strutting around togged up in unflattering,
ill-fitting 1940s regalia, whilst his frenetic cavorting during the climactic
face-off is truly bizarre. The only thing that rescues it from descending into
silliness is the omnipresent streak of nastiness against which the unfolding
events are juxtaposed. Nowhere is this more prevalent than a scene in which Ike
drastically changes his hairstyle; he looks utterly ridiculous and Christella
tells him so, but any urge on the viewer’s part to laugh is swiftly quelled as
Ike brutally strikes her down and rapes her. It’s one of a handful of unforgivably
misogynistic scenes that hamper producer-director Marks’s movie. To play fair, hard
as it may be for a young 21st century audience to comprehend, in
1976 such material was perfectly acceptable and the makers would simply have been
feeding demand; viewed 40 years on, however, there’s no disputing that it’s archaic
and makes for uncomfortable viewing.
root, of course, Sparkes’s script is riffing on the hackneyed – though seldom
less than fun – Jekyll/Hyde formula, and
Turman does an excellent job of vacillating between the two diverse personas of
Ike and J.D. Nuances such as Ike absentmindedly running a finger across his
cheek where J.D. was scarred subtly add veracity to the notion he’s possessed.
Gossett meanwhile brings bags of energy to the table, particularly in the
scenes when he’s vigorously preaching to his flock, and both Pringle and Jubert
deliver admirable work. As an additional note on the cast, J.D.’s Revengefeatures what
was the second (and final) screen appearance of Ruth Kempf, who’d achieved
global recognition in her fleeting but memorable debut as novice pilot Mrs Bell
in Bond film Live and Let Die; it’s
fair to say, however, she’s left in far worse shape having crossed paths with
the possessed Ike than she was in the wake of her comparatively lightweight
encounter with 007!
The FX work,
when it isn’t bluntly quease-inducing, is nicely effective. Particularly striking
is an optical when Ike is stands before a shattered mirror and sees the
glowering visage of J.D. staring back at him.
José R. Larraz’s 1982 film “Black Candles” -- original title, “Los
Ritos Sexuales del Diablo” -- has been released on Blu-ray by the specialty
label Code Red. Carol (Vanesa Hidalgo)
and her boyfriend Robert (Jeffrey Healey) fly to the U.K., where they accept an
invitation by her widowed sister-in-law Fiona (“Martha Belton,” aka Helga Liné)
to stay at Fiona’s country estate. As
the viewer already knows from a pre-credit sex scene, Fiona and virtually
everyone else on and around the estate are members of a devil-worshipping orgy
cult. But Carol and Robert are clueless,
even after they see satanic lithographs on the wall and Carol experiences bad
dreams. Fiona seduces Robert into the
coven, while the coven’s master, the sinisterly goateed Reverend
Hübner, decides to initiate Carol at the cult’s next satanic ceremony
. . . And that’s probably all anyone
needs or wants to know about the plot, which unabashedly copies “Rosemary’s
Baby” and adds all the nudity and simulated intercourse that Euro-movie fans
would expect from the relaxed censorship of early 1980s, low-budget
sexploitation cinema. Like Larraz’s
marginally more famous “Vampyres” (1974), it’s probably better judged against the
criteria of Joe Bob Briggs, “The Bare Facts Video Guide,” and “Mr. Skin” than
by mainstream critical standards. That
is: How many skin and sex scenes are in
the film? Where do they occur? How long, umm, do they last? And how much skin do they show? By those benchmarks, Larraz delivers the
goods. And for the record, his film at
least is more honest in meeting the viewer’s baser expectations than any of the
terrible sequels and remakes of “Rosemary’s Baby,” not least the now mercifully
forgotten 2014 TV miniseries. The only
actors in the cast likely to be recognized by anyone are Helga Liné, the foxy
leading lady of countless 1960s and ‘70s Eurospy films, spaghetti westerns,
giallo thrillers, and gladiator movies -- yes, she’s frequently nude in “Black
Candles,” and in sleek form at almost 50 -- and Carmen Carrión, a familiar
supporting actress in Jess Franco’s Eurotrash soft-core sex movies.
BCI Eclipse released “Black Candles” on DVD in the U.S. in 2007
as part of a “Welcome to the Grindhouse” double feature. Before that, there was a DVD-R pressing from
Midnight Video under Larraz’s original Spanish title. The Code Red hi-def Blu-ray in anamorphic,
1.78:1 widescreen is far superior to either in sharpness and clarity, and
likely the best home video edition we’ll ever see. The BCI Eclipse DVD lists an 85 minute
running time, and Code Red lists 82 minutes for its Blu-ray. Based on a comparison viewing, however, the
two editions seem to be substantially the same. The opening credits of the Code Red print give the title as “Hot
Fantasies,” once used for late-night cable showings. The only extras are other Code Red
trailers. The Code Red Blu-ray, which
retails for $24.95, is available from Screen Archives Entertainment HERE.
FRED BLOSSER IS THE AUTHOR OF "SAVAGE SCROLLS: VOLUME ONE: SCHOLARSHIP FROM THE HYBORIAN AGE". CLICK HERE TO ORDER ON AMAZON
Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” (1987), high-school student John (Daniel Roebuck)
tells his pals Matt, Layne, Clarissa, and Maggie that he’s killed another
friend, Jamie.The other kids don’t
believe him -- he makes the statement with complete lack of emotion -- until he
takes them down by the river and shows them the body.The revelation stymies the teens.As Hunter observes in his commentary track on
the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray edition of the film, “These are kids who just don’t
have the tools to make the tough choices life has thrown their way. . . . No
one has taught them morals or values.”Their parents are either dead like John’s, absent like Matt’s father, or
helpless like Matt’s divorced, stressed out mother.
(Crispin Glover) argues that there’s nothing they can do for Jamie now, and
they have to be loyal to John. He tries
to cover up the crime by rolling Jamie’s corpse into the river, and advises
John to lay low at the run-down house of their pot dealer, Feck, a crippled
ex-biker (Dennis Hopper), until he can sneak out of town. Maggie (Roxana Zal) and Clarissa (Ione Skye,
billed as Iona Skye Leitch) make a half-hearted attempt to report the murder
before changing their minds. Only Matt
(Keanu Reeves) shows any sustained remorse over Jamie’s death. He goes to the police, setting up a tense
series of events as the cops look for John, Feck and John wander back to the
river, and Layne tries to figure out who snitched. Like the events of two other seminal teen
movies, “American Graffiti” (1973) and “Dazed and Confused” (1993), the action
stretches into nighttime and into the following morning. In the meantime, Matt’s little brother Tim
(Joshua Miller), angry at Matt for hitting him after Tim callously upsets their
younger sister Kim, steals a gun from Feck’s house and determines to use it on
and visually bleak, “River’s Edge” benefits from a strong script by Neal
Jimenez and uniformly fine performances, with Reeves, Glover, and Hopper
notably compelling. Reeves’ pensive,
low-key presence effectively balances Glover’s jumpy, gawky physicality.
“There’s a great method to Crispin’s madness,” Hunter observes in his
commentary track. Glover is particularly
striking in a display of grief near the end of the movie, aligning vocal
reaction and body posture perfectly. To
say more would reveal a spoiler, but you’ll know the scene when you see
it. Skye and Zal have one of the best
moments in the film, providing some subtle macabre humor as Clarissa and Maggie
debate reporting the murder and go to a pay phone:
do I call anyway?”
police, I guess.”
am I supposed to know the number?”
holds the receiver indecisively. “You do
don’t know what to say. Here, I’ll dial,
his commentary track, Hunter compliments Danyi Deats, who plays the murdered
Jamie. Aside from a silent flashback to
the moment of Jamie’s murder, Deats’ scenes call for her to lie still on the
open ground as the dead girl’s corpse, vulnerably and frontally nude. “She had a tough time,” Hunter says
sympathetically, commenting that Deats took the pivotal but static role to get
her SAG card. Jamie’s motionless, waxen
corpse mirrors two other objects in the film: Feck’s inflatable sex doll, which
he calls “Ally,” and little Kim’s doll which Tim vindictively throws off a
bridge into the river in the film’s opening shot. Tim’s action begins the string of events that
lead him to stalk Matt with a gun. It’s
telling that Kim shows more feeling for her lost doll and Feck for his sex toy
than Jamie’s friends display for her.
The 1980s details of
“River’s Edge” look a little quaint today, when the 24/7 media give parents new
reasons to worry about their kids with headlines and top-of-the-hour stories
about teens sexting and swapping explicit selfies by smartphone. Nevertheless, the movie’s story and characters
remain unsettling. The Kino Lorber
Blu-ray’s hi-def, 1920x1080p image is serviceable. Besides the director’s commentary track, the
disc includes a theatrical trailer.
Knott’s suspense play “Wait Until Dark” premiered on Broadway on Feb. 2,
1966. Lee Remick played Susy Hendrix, a
young blind woman who becomes the target of a manipulative scheme orchestrated
by a sinisterly glib psychopath, “Harry Roat Jr. from Scarsdale.” Robert Duvall, in his Broadway debut, had the
pivotal supporting role of Roat. A movie
version opened on Oct. 26, 1967, starring Audrey Hepburn (in an Oscar-nominated
performance) as Susy and Alan Arkin as
Roat, produced by Mel Ferrer (Hepburn’s husband at the time), directed by
Terence Young, and scored by Henry Mancini. A predecessor of today’s popular, trickily plotted suspense movies like
“Gone Girl” (2014) and “The Girl on the Train” (2016), the film was a
commercial and critical success, ranking number sixteen in box-office returns
for the year. Movies
adapted from plays often feel stage-bound, but "Wait Until Dark"
avoids those constraints, thanks in no small part to Young's fine
pacing, sharp eye for detail, and sure grasp of character.
Crowther’s October 27, 1967, film review in the New York Times noted that the
Radio City Music Hall screening of “Wait Until Dark” included a stage show with
a ballet troupe, performing dogs, and the Rockettes. Fifty years later, going out to a movie,
you’re lucky to get a good seat and decently lit projection for the price of
admission. Any live entertainment comes
courtesy of the patrons behind you who can’t put away their smartphones for two
play was confined to one interior set, Susy’s cramped Greenwich Village
apartment, which makes it a perennial favorite for little-theater and
high-school drama productions on limited budgets. The movie adds a new opening scene in which
Susy’s husband Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), a freelance photographer, meets an
attractive young woman, Lisa, as they board a flight from Montreal. When they land at JFK, Lisa hands Sam a
child’s doll and asks him to hold on to it for her temporarily. She says it’s a present for the child of a
friend, she just learned that the friend and the little girl will be meeting
her at the airport, and she doesn’t want to spoil the surprise; she’ll call and
come by for it later. Unknown to the
obliging Sam, it’s a phony story: Lisa is a drug mule, and narcotics are hidden
inside the doll.
had planned to double-cross her accomplice Roat and split the money from the
drug shipment with Mike (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston), her
partners in past criminal schemes. Roat
murders Lisa and enlists Mike and Carlino to help him find the doll in Susy and
Sam’s apartment. He lures Sam away with
a call promising a big photo assignment. In his absence, Mike poses as an old Army friend of Sam’s, and Carlino
impersonates a detective investigating Lisa’s murder. In a bad guy/good guy ploy, the phony
“Detective Sgt. Carlino” insinuates that he suspects Sam of Lisa’s murder. Mike intervenes, offering his support to Susy
to gain her trust. To further disorient
Susy, Roat poses as two men who appear to lend credence to the con. “Harry Roat Sr.,” an aggressive old man,
barges into the apartment, noisily claiming to be in search of evidence that
Lisa, his daughter-in-law, carried on a clandestine affair with Sam. Later, mild-mannered “Harry Roat Jr.” knocks
on the door and apologizes for his “father’s” outburst. It’s a nice gimmick for Alan Arkin, who gets
to impersonate three characters with different costumes and personalities. For audiences who watched the Broadway
production, it might also have provided an effective “Aha!” moment when they
realized that there was only one Roat, not three. But it’s no surprise for the movie audience,
since close-up camera angles make it clear immediately that the other two are
also Arkin in heavy make-up.
new Blu-ray release of “Wait Until Dark” from Warner Archive Collection
presents the movie in a 1080p print for high-def TV. It’s a definite improvement in richness from
previous TV and home-video prints. The
tailor-made audience is likely to be those older viewers who saw the film on
the big screen in 1967, who may wonder if the movie’s “gotcha” climax still
holds up. Suffice to say without
spoiling the scene for new viewers by going into details, it does. The film’s stage origins are obvious in the dialogue-driven
plot set-up and in the constrained setting of one cramped apartment. The measured exposition may be a hurdle for
younger viewers used to a faster pace and visual shorthand, but the
concentration of character interplay in a closed space isn’t necessarily a
problem, even for Millennials who have been conditioned to expect ADHD editing
and splashy FX in movies. It imposes a
sense of claustrophobia that subtly forces the audience to share Susy’s
mounting fear of being hemmed in and trapped.
“Take a Look in the Dark,” an eight-minute special feature ported over to the
Blu-ray from a 2003 Warner Home Video DVD release, Alan Arkin notes that the
psychotic Roat, with his granny-frame sunglasses and urban-hipster patter, was
a break from the usual sneering, buttoned-down movie and TV villains of the
time. “By and large, the public had not
been exposed to that kind of person,” he recalls. “But they began to have people like that live
next to them, or see them in the newspapers or on TV.” Ironically, if Roat was unsettling to 1967
audiences, he and his flick knife may seem insufficiently scary for younger
viewers today, in the endless wake of movies and TV shows about flamboyantly
demented murderers since “The Silence of the Lambs” (1990) -- not to mention
the perpetrators of real-life mass murders that, numbingly, we seem to see
every night on CNN, network, and local news.
Curtiss (Robert Blake) aspires to be a champion stock-car racer.Fired from his job as a mechanic and
dirt-track competitor in small-town Bates, Texas, he abandonshis wife Peggy Jo (Charlotte Rampling) and
their two small children, collects his pal Buddy (Chris Connelly) and heads
east in his 1966 Barracuda.His
destination: NASCAR’s Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he hopes to hook up with
the legendary Richard Petty.Corky met
the great Petty once, fleetingly, and he anticipates that the racing champ will
remember him and offer him a chance at the big time.
but interesting and relentlessly downbeat, “Corky” (1972) veers off into
unexpected turns as Blake’s troubled character pursues his chicken-fried
odyssey from Texas to Georgia. Ben
Johnson and Laurence Luckinbill appear prominently in the credits, but they
have hardly more than bit parts as rural racing impresarios whom Corky briefly
meets as he passes through Louisiana. A
scene with Pamela Payton-Wright as a fading and not-too-bright beauty queen,
and one with Paul Stevens as a sympathetic track manager in Atlanta, don’t go quite
as you might expect them to. Four NASCAR
stars (Cale Yarborough, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and Buddy Baker) appear in a
brief scene. Waiting hopefully to meet
Petty in the NASCAR offices at the Atlanta speedway, Corky spies the four
drivers through a soundproof glass wall in an adjacent room. As Corky waves, Yarborough glances at him,
then turns away, and the other three appear not to notice him at all. The racers’ body language suggests that
they’re preoccupied with planning for an upcoming meet, and not intentionally
dismissive, but one wonders whether, today, NASCAR would insist on a
fan-friendlier scene. Back home, Peggy
Jo goes to Corky’s old boss Randy (Patrick O’Neal) to see if her husband is due
any back pay that she desperately needs. Convention suggests that the older man will put the moves on the pretty,
vulnerable girl. Instead, he’s a decent
guy sympathetic to Peggy Jo’s plight. He
gives her a check for her husband’s back wages and additional “severance pay”
without strings. The biggest surprise
among surprises is Rampling, who is believable and appealing in her atypical
role. She even manages a decent Texas
“Corky” was one of the MGM productions in the early ‘70s that suffered at the
hands of imperious studio chief James Aubrey. One suspects that some of the film’s shortcomings, such as uneven pace
and ragged continuity, and maybe the quick disappearances of Johnson and
Luckinbill, were results of Aubrey’s post-production intrusion. Other lapses, like the miscasting of O’Neal
and Connelly, good actors in wrong roles, probably not. Robert Blake’s performance is all over the
place: abrasively pugnacious one moment, infantile and maudlin the next. Like the downward spiral of the story, which
finally drops Corky as low as he can go, without redemption, Blake’s rawness is
a reminder of the bygone cinema of the early ‘70s, where happy endings were
hardly ever the norm and volatile actors were expected and even encouraged to
get in the viewer’s face. Sometimes,
watching today’s sanitized and exhaustingly upbeat products from Hollywood, I
miss the old days.
is a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R from Warner Archive Collection. The letterboxed, 2.35:1 image is
satisfactory. The film’s theatrical
trailer is the only extra. I wasn’t
familiar with “Corky” before putting the disc in the player, but apparently the
movie has a small but appreciative fan base of viewers who remember it from
long-ago drive-in and TV showings. They
should be particularly pleased that Warner Home Video has released the title.
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Warner Archive Collection has released John Landis’ “Innocent Blood” (1992) in
a new, remastered Blu-ray edition. The
Blu-ray incorporates two minutes of footage that appeared in overseas prints
but were not included in previous U.S. releases. The film opens with a montage of the
Pittsburgh skyline after dark, scored with Jackie Wilson’s lush 1960 ballad,
“Night.” French vampire Marie (Anne
Parillaud, in a lengthy nude scene) sits alone in her hotel room, deliberating
on where to find her next sanguinary meal. She opens a newspaper to an article about a local Mafia crew headed by
Sal “The Shark” Macelli and smiles: “I
thought -- what about Italian?” She
allows herself to be picked up by one of Sal’s henchmen, Tony (Chazz
Palminteri), whose CD player is loaded with Sinatra discs. Just as Tony thinks she’s going to have sex
with him, she chomps into his throat and drinks his blood -- no dainty bites
here, she does a job on his neck -- and then, having satisfied her thirst, she
obliterates his head with a shotgun blast. The massive cranial damage prevents Tony from coming back as a vampire
himself. Marie also thinks that the
blast will cover her tracks by leading police to believe that Tony was murdered
by rival mobsters (but the forensics guy who later examines the scene figures
out that the blood splatter from the shotgun is smaller than it should be --
“this guy was five quarts low.”) Marie
chooses Sal (Robert Loggia) as her next victim, but she’s interrupted and
forced to flee after biting him.
dead and taken to the mortuary, the blood-soaked Sal climbs off the gurney and
searches out his gang, turning them into vampires too. “We got the blood. We got the muscle. We’ll crack this town like a lobster,” he
boasts, energized by the super strength he’s developed as one of the
Undead. One of his victims is his sleazy
lawyer Manny, played by Don Rickles. The
stunt casting doesn’t disappoint, particularly if you’re a fan of late insult
comic. The remorseful Marie enlists wary
undercover cop Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) to help her hunt down the gangsters and
do away with them before they can inflict more damage. Joe has a personal stake, so to speak, in
bringing down Sal, Undead or not, whom he’d been close to busting in an earlier
assignment. Moreover, he’s sexually and
romantically attracted to Marie (this is Anne Parillaud, after all). But, knowing she’s a vampire, he’s worried
that he’ll be her next appetizer.
Blood” opened in theaters on September 25, 1992, and earned a relatively paltry
$4.9 million in its brief theatrical run, far outpaced by another release that
debuted on the same day, Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” In the years since, it’s slipped into
obscurity on cable and home video, probably remembered only by compulsive
horror fans and John Landis completists. The new Warner BRD at the correct 1.78:1 aspect ratio presents the film
in peak condition, looking substantially better than it has on any previous
home video edition. In fact, it’s
probably an upgrade over the way it looked in most theaters on first release,
given the slipshod maintenance of projector bulbs in the average suburban
multiplex, then and now. The impeccable
hi-def visuals are particularly impressive in Mac Ahlberg’s on-location
exterior shots in Pittsburgh, with their electrifyingly vivid nighttime neons. Setting the movie in Pittsburgh doesn’t serve
any particular dramatic purpose story-wise, but it gave Landis and the studio a
tax credit from Pennsylvania’s Hollywood-friendly department of revenue, and
locals will get a kick out of seeing the Liberty Tunnel and other area
chiller-thriller from the pen of Brian Clemens, 1971's See No Evil was a
notably lower-key affair for director Richard Fleischer, former helmer on such
celebrated cinematic epics as The Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Doolittle, Tora!
Tora! Tora! and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Which isn't to imply See No Evil is
inferior. Quite the contrary, in fact.
blind after a horse-riding accident, Sarah (Mia Farrow) moves in with her Aunt
and Uncle, Betty and George Rexton (Dorothy Alison and Robin Bailey) and her
cousin Sandy (Diane Grayson) at their opulent riverside home. Familiar with the
geography of the sprawling house, Sarah is able to confidently go about coping with
her disability. Arriving home after spending the day with an old boyfriend, local
horse breeder Steve (Norman Eshley), Sarah believes the family to be out for
the evening and prepares for bed, unaware that in her absence all three have
been brutally murdered. She eventually stumbles upon the bodies and encounters
the mortally wounded gardener (Brian Robinson) whose dying words warn her that
the killer is certain to return to retrieve a damning piece of evidence he carelessly
legendary Brian Clemens is probably best known as producer-writer on classic TV
show The Avengers, but he was also the mind behind a batch of very fine Brit
movie chillers, among them And Soon the Darkness, Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde and
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, the latter which he also directed. His script
for See No Evil is an efficient little knuckle-whitener, questionable perhaps
only in the motivations of its wrongdoer. Is watching a couple of X-certificate
movies – in the opening scene the killer-to-be, face unseen, leaves a cinema screening
‘The Convent Murders’ and ‘Rapist Cult’ (both fictitious) – and getting one’s gaudy
cowboy boots splashed by a passing car really sufficient impetus for a murder
spree? Of course, no-one expects the bad guy in this type of movie to be sane,
but the heavy-handed message during the opening credits sequence that society’s
glorification of violence is the cause for what follows is pretty tenuous.
any event, See No Evil (which I first saw on late night TV as Blind Terror, its
original UK theatrical release title) is less of a tawdry exploitationer than
it might have been, making up for any perceived deficiency in that regard with
a goodly infusion of nerve-jangling suspense. Indeed, Fleischer and Clemens aim
for burgeoning ill-ease as opposed to gory spectacle and for my money they hit
the target square on. There are occasional moments of nastiness peppered
throughout – the sudden reveal of Sandy’s corpse, a haunting shot of George
immersed in a bathtub of bloody water – but they're fleeting and it’s fair to say
the film works primarily as an exercise in measured pacing and sustained
suspense. Take for example a protracted sequence in which Sarah goes about her daily
routine unaware that she's just feet away from the dead bodies of her family.
Throughout this stretch Fleischer toys mercilessly with the audience and Gerry
Fisher's cinematography really comes into its own as we're treated to a series
of impressive tracking shots, each homing in on a dropped or discarded item,
increasingly telegraphing the sense that something bad has happened, until the
eventual reveal of the Rextons’ corpses. Of course whilst we, the audience,
witness all this – including broken glass on the kitchen floor (which we just know
will be trodden on at some point and, in a wince-inducing moment, it is) –
poor, sightless Sarah sees none of it. Once she finally realises what's
happening the pace quickens and the story mutates into an extended game of cat
and (blind) mouse. There's a beautifully framed instance of tease when our
cowboy-booted killer climbs a flight of stairs; Sarah stands foreground, hidden
from him, and the camera circles so that whilst it remains focused on her it
simultaneously observes the killer's ascent. One can't help but strain to see
the face that remains tantalisingly out of shot! If the suspense loses momentum
a tad when Sarah's plight changes from being pursued by the murderer to an
unexpected ordeal instigated by a latecomer to the party, well, it's only a
UK release poster.
with any murder mystery worth its mettle there's a proliferation of suspects on
hand too – a gypsy encampment just down the lane from the Rexton abode offers
up a whole shoal of red herrings – and it’s not too surprising that one's eye
is frequently drawn to inspect a character’s footwear.
Farrow conveys blindness convincingly and Norman Eshley makes for a suitably
handsome hero, whilst Lila Kaye and a surly Michael Elphick stand out among the
myriad of gypsies. It’s nice to see Paul Nicholas and Christopher Matthews in
small but not insignificant roles. Elmer Bernstein furnishes the proceedings
with a lush score, although rather amusingly he can't help slipping into The
Magnificent Seven territory during a sequence when Sarah and Steve are out
riding on horseback.
Bava’s Gli invasori or The
Invaders (1961) was imported to U.S. theaters in 1963 by American
International Pictures in a dubbed print as Erik
the Conqueror -- not to be confused now with Terry Jones’ 1989 farce, Erik the Viking. It was the sort of genre movie that would
have played on a weekend double-bill at the Kayton, the second-run theater in
my home town. There, it would have been
paired either with another Italian peplum
or sword-and-sandal epic, with a Hammer Films horror show, or with an Audie
Murphy western. The Kayton’s 1960s
double features were eclectic, to say the least. In that buttoned-down Cold War era, the peplums satisfied international box-office demand for movies about brawny
bare-chested heroes, curvaceous scantily-clad women, and exotic settings that
Hollywood productions like Quo Vadis
(1951), Ben-Hur (1959), and Cleopatra (1964) were slow to satisfy
because they were so expensive and time-consuming to produce. The model for Erik the Conqueror was Richard Fleischer’s very popular 1958 epic The Vikings, produced by and starring
Kirk Douglas. The influence must have
been obvious at the time even to undiscriminating audiences who watched the
dubbed import at the Kayton and its counterparts in other small towns. But The
Vikings required an investment of $5 million in 1950s dollars from Douglas’
Bryna Productions and its partners to pay for A-list Hollywood talent and
on-location filming in Norway. Bava
wrapped Erik the Conqueror for a
fraction of that cost using existing studio interiors, exteriors on the Italian
coast, a modest cast, and ingenious camera tricks that obviated the need for
hiring thousands of extras for crowd scenes and constructing new sets.
International’s 1963 movie poster played the film for exploitative value. “He lived only for the flesh and the sword!”
the tag line proclaimed. The British
poster under the title The Invaders
similarly advertised, “He lusted for war and women.” Both ads suggested more sex and skin than the
script, costuming, and actors actually delivered. Like The
Vikings, Erik the Conqueror
centers on two antagonists who don’t realize at the outset that they’re
brothers. Dispatched by English King
Lotar (Franco Ressel) to negotiate peace with the Viking chief Harald, the
treacherous Sir Rutford (Andrea Checchi) instead attacks Harald’s village,
massacres Harald and most of his people, and engineers Lotar’s murder. Harald’s young sons are separated in the
chaos. Eron is rescued and carried to
Norway, while Erik is adopted by the now-widowed English queen, Alice. Twenty years later, colluding with Rutford,
Eron (Cameron Mitchell) leads an invasion of England and sinks an English
warship commanded by Erik, now the Duke of Helford. Kidnapping Queen Alice, Eron installs Rutford
as his regent. In the meantime, Erik
(George Ardisson) is shipwrecked among the Vikings. In a romantic misunderstanding, Erik mistakes
Eron’s bride, the Vestal Virgin Daya (Ellen Kessler), for his own sweetheart,
Daya’s twin sister Rama (Alice Kessler). The Vestal Virgins are an anachronism in the Medieval setting, but the
conceit gave the producers a chance to include dancing girls in diaphanous
gowns to pique the attention of male viewers. Once the misunderstanding with Rama is squared away, Erik rescues the
queen and proceeds to a showdown with Eron and the turncoat Rutford.
Video in the U.K. has released a new, 2K restored print of Erik the Conqueror from the original 35 mm camera negative in a
Blu-ray and DVD combo package. The new
release provides a renewed opportunity to reassess Bava’s movie in a sharp,
letterboxed 2.35:1 Dyaliscope image, with critical context provided by
supplementary materials. Rescued from
the drab, pan-and-scan format to which it was doomed in old TV and VHS
editions, and enhanced even beyond Anchor Bay’s worthy 2007 DVD edition, it
emerges as an acceptable B-movie with respectable costuming and action
scenes. The production values are
notably better than those of most peplums
and easily comparable to those of Hollywood’s second-tier Technicolor epics of
the 1950s, if not to the overall finesse of higher-profile releases like The Vikings and Jack Cardiff’s lively,
underrated Norse epic from 1964, The Long
Ships. Plot, dialogue, and
characterizations are rudimentary, but then, so are those in the joyless,
overstuffed, multi-million-dollar costume epics of recent vintage. At that, some of the sillier lines in Bava’s
movie can be avoided by turning on the Blu-ray’s Italian voice track and
English subtitles instead of the English-language dub with its alternately
wooden and childish voices. The
simple-minded dialogue in Gladiator
(2003), Robin Hood (2010), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
is pretty much inescapable short of turning the volume completely off.
year 1987 saw the release of director Steve De Jarnatt’s debut feature, Cherry
2000, an actioner planted in a dystopian future. A strong headlining
performance from Melanie Griffith aside, it’s not a particularly remarkable
film, but I liked it when I first saw it and still do. However, De Jarnatt’s
second offering, which he also wrote, is a different beast altogether: A unique
and intoxicating cinematic nightmare. Where else but in Miracle Mile can you
see a fledgling romance play out against the countdown to the apocalypse?
strolling around a museum in Los Angeles, Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) and
Julie Peters (Mare Winninghan) cross paths several times. They get talking and
it’s evident there’s a mutual attraction between the two lonely hearts. Having
arranged an after-midnight date with Julie when her waitressing shift at an
all-night diner on L.A.’s Miracle Mile finishes, Harry decides to take a nap.
But his alarm fails to go off and he’s late – almost 4 hours late in fact.
Julie has unsurprisingly given up and gone home. He tries to call her from a
phone booth outside the diner but gets no reply. As he walks away the phone
rings and he returns to answer it. Believing Harry to be someone else, a
distraught man’s voice informs him he’s at a silo in North Dakota from where
nuclear missiles are set to be launched in less than an hour, with reprisals
targeting L.A. expected to follow minutes later...
Mile’s opening scenes introduce its two instantly likeable protagonists and
swiftly lay out enough lightly comic trimmings that anyone going in blind could
easily be primed with expectation for a gentle rom-com. Indeed, we subsequently
follow the couple through a montage of first-date activity and Harry is
introduced to Julie’s beloved grandparents. But hold on, because things are
about to veer off into less comfortable territory. Following the aforementioned
telephone conversation – a couple of minutes during which the film’s tone darkens
quite dramatically – Harry goes into the diner and recounts what he’s just
heard to the motley assembly of patrons. In doing so he plants a seed that
quickly sprouts into a living nightmare. The sense of urgency builds at an
ever-increasing rate as the remainder of the film charts Harry’s race against
time to locate and get Julie to safety, encountering as he goes a succession of
quirky and dubious characters lurking on the night-shrouded streets of L.A.
the escalating tension driven by a hauntingly eloquent Tangerine Dream score, there’s
one burning question that propels the narrative: is what Harry was told during
that phone call for real or was it some sort of twisted hoax? Suffice to say
that as time ticks on and the sun begins to rise all hell breaks loose, with
politesse kicked into the dirt as panic-stricken people behave the way that panic-stricken
people do; cars filled with terrified citizens clog the streets out of the city
and there are glimpses of the animalistic manner in which the less conscionable
choose to spend what they perceive to be their last minutes on Earth. Worse
yet, as potential Armageddon fails to materialise when predicted, Harry begins
to fear that he – rather than any genuine impending threat – may have
inadvertently instigated all the madness, anxiously likening himself to Chicken
Miracle Mile may be touching 30 years old, but for the benefit of those
unfamiliar with the film I shall leave any further discussion about the plot
Edwards and Mare Winningham deliver splendidly endearing performances and
director Steve De Jarnatt invests just enough time establishing the romantic
thread at the outset that, as fate unrelentingly conspires to separate the
pair, the viewer is filled with an overwhelming desire to see them make it out
alive to pastures green. Although almost every other character in the story
appears only briefly, there are memorable turns from Mykelti Williamson as a trader
in knock-off hi-fi gear, John Agar and Lou Hancock as Julie’s grandparents and
Brian Thompson as a fitness freak who just may facilitate Harry and Julie’s salvation.
I wasn’t expecting Citizen
Kane, really I wasn’t. When the
top-billed actor in your already quirky production is the Edward D. Wood
regular the Amazing Criswell, the failed psychic… Well, you know what to expect
on some gut level. The Amazing Criswell,
admittedly an already very minor celebrity psychic in his day, achieved certain
notoriety for his ridiculous and wildly inaccurate predictions. Following his turn in Wood’s seminal cult
classic Plan 9 from Outer Space
(1959) and the (very) belatedly released Night
of The Ghouls (shot in 1959 but only released in 1984), the pale,
blue-eyed, bleached blond Criswell is outfitted in Count Dracula-like garb for Orgy of the Dead (1965). This is, as one might expect, a classic
Criswell performance; it’s both refreshing and strangely comforting to listen
to him put all his dramatic inflection and stresses on the wrong words,
accentuating the coordinating conjunctions rather than the nouns of nearly
In Orgy of the Dead,
directed by A.C. Stephen from a threadbare “script” written by the revered Mr. Wood,
the not always Amazing Criswell portrays the “Emperor of the Night.” The Emperor is holding court at an eerie
cemetery… or as eerie a graveyard as one can set-dress on a shoe-string budget and
an indoor soundstage. The Emperor is soon
joined by his “Empress” (Fawn Silver), a Vampira- meets- Elvira character with
Sapphic tendencies who sports a layer of blue make-up that covers the entirety
of her body. Well, all of her body
except for the deep crease between her two ample breasts. I suppose the production’s make-up artist was
too shy to apply and “go deep.”
If this spooky scenario seems promising in a “so-bad-it’s-good
sort-of-way,” there’s disappointment ahead. Despite its fog-bound horror film trappings, Orgy of the Dead is not remotely a horror film at all. In fact, the only genuine horror to be found on
screen is in the ineptitude demonstrated by this the ensemble of actors,
actresses, and, um, exotic dancers. There is no real narrative here; the film is merely a ninety-minute long
topless peep-show revue with Halloween trimmings. Before the film sputters to a merciful
finale, we’ve been made to witness no fewer than ten interpretative topless
dance routines, all mind-numbing and pretty much non-erotic in their presentation. It’s all freeform and non-stop bumping and
grinding and jiggling in panties and G-strings and bad costumes. Take my word on this; it’s not as good as it
of the Dead is the celluloid equivalent of those 1960’s
nudie magazines that featured buxom, cheesecake cuties on their covers. The sort of “men’s magazines” that were
prudently stashed in the top-tier racks of tobacco shops and stationary stores
as to not offend the readers of Good
Housekeeping or Better Homes and
Gardens. The parade of beauties and
near-beauties tapped to ply their trade before a leering camera are not former
members of the Martha Graham Dance Company. More probably, they took the night off from their regular gig performing
at a local topless gin mill or adult-themed nightclub. Or maybe they were
making some quick afternoon dough by strutting their stuff on this grass mat
and fog shrouded set.
The dancers try their damndest to play to the camera, but
it’s all sort of sad. Almost all of the cast
share one common trait, and not a good one: blank and expressionless eyes. Everyone seems to be looking past the rolling
cameras into some far-off beyond that only they can see, sadly detached from
their own performances-in-progress. I
imagine this type of personal disengagement was honed on stage during their
nightclub exhibitions, perhaps as some sort of protective emotional cocoon.
It’s almost a relief when, some twenty-five minutes or so
into a parade of not-particularly-well-executed interpretative dance routines,
that a muse seeking mystery novelist named Bob (William Bates) and best gal
Shirley (Pat Barrington) are kidnapped by a Mummy and a Wolfman, dragging the bewildered
pair from the bushes. One might expect
things to become a bit livelier with this turn of events but, sadly, it is not
to be. These two masked monsters (referenced
as “The Keepers of the Damned”) simply strap the couple to a pair of stakes in
the cemetery, a punishment for their eavesdropping on the unholy ceremony in
progress. Forcing this bewildered couple
to bear witness to this seemingly endless string of interpretative dance
routines can certainly be considered cruel and unusual punishment. They should have invoked the Geneva
Sync- sound recording is kept to the barest minimum,
confined only to the wince-inducing exchanges of dialogue between Bob and
Shirley and the self-proclaimed Emperor of Empress of the Night. I cannot reasonably include the occasional and
wretched banter between the Wolfman and Mummy as sound synch as both characters
are wearing masks and presumably dubbed throughout.
Even for the most unapologetic Edward. D. Wood devotee,
this endless parade of non-erotic topless dance routines becomes increasingly
tiring, the burlesque showcase more tedious than titillating. Even the Vampira meets Elvira –like “Empress
of the Night” character eventually dismisses the parade of nudie dance routines
as “infinitesimal bits of fluff,” and for once I’m in total agreement. The film starts off promisingly in the
classic Wood Jr. fashion with two bad actors tripping over their tongues as
they attempt to deliver halting sobriquets of Wood’s God-awful dialogue. But it’s all downhill from there.
it comes to good adventure stories, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
will arguably feature among the very best. It is one of those films that
continue to delight audiences both old and new. In terms of elements it seems
to tick all the boxes. At its heart, there is a fine, good natured yet entirely
gripping story. A wondrous subterranean vista provides the viewer with
monsters, vast underground oceans, villains and plenty of cliff-hanger moments
was perhaps a well-timed stroke of luck that some of the stories penned by
Jules Verne were entering a period of public domain status. Two of Verne's
adapted novels were to feature James Mason. Disney's adventure 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea (1954) starred Kirk Douglas as a 19th-century whaler and Mason as Nemo,
captain of the story’s legendary submarine, the Nautilus. Five years later,
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) was made by Twentieth Century Fox an
ambitious project which starred Mason as professor Lindenbrook, who sets about
leading an expedition into an Icelandic volcano along with his group to a
magical, underground world.
Lindenbrook discovers a long-hidden message that reveals the existence of a
passage into the centre of the Earth. He leads a team of unlikely adventurers including
singer Pat Boone (who is actually rather good), Arlene Dahl, and a duck named Gertrude.
The group’s daring expedition will see them come up against exploding
volcanoes, rockslides and even flesh-eating reptiles! The film also features a
classic score by the great composer Bernard Hermann and was lavishly filmed in
stunning Cinemascope. A landmark in both science-fiction and adventure
filmmaking, Eureka Classics presents the movie for the first time on Blu-ray in
the UK and from a very impressive 4K restoration.
keen fan of the movie, I’ve followed closely the numerous home video releases
over several decades – from the humble VHS, Laserdisc and DVD era through today.
Whilst each format provided a natural improvement in terms of quality, it was a
film that never looked entirely satisfactory, with issues around dull colours
and an overall grainy presentation. I did have some initial fears about the new
4K restoration, mainly concerning if it would only enhance the grainy look to
the film. Thankfully, my worst fears were immediately put to rest.
new Blu-ray looks nothing short of stunning; there is a genuine freshness to
the picture quality. The colour retains a wonderful, natural feel, vivid but
never too rich, especially in the opening scenes based around the college and
the Edinburgh street locations. The colour is ramped up a degree for the
subterranean scenes, as of course they should. But these scenes are now nicely rendered,
bursting with shimmering colours and crisp detail. I was also pleasantly
surprised by the lack of grain that had previously hampered so many other home
editions. Instead, the 1080p, 4K restoration (provided by Twilight Time) is
beautifully balanced, extremely clean and as close to perfection as we’re ever
likely to see. It’s been a long, patient journey for fans of the movie. Without
a doubt, Journey to the Center of the Earth should always have looked this
good. Leo Tover’s glorious Cinemascope photography has never been showcased so
well, and I very much doubt if it could ever be improved upon. Twentieth
Century Fox’s Cinemascope features have never fallen short in terms of rich
detail, it’s always been there. However, in respect of Journey to the Center of
the Earth, it’s arguably never received the kind of close attention that it’s so
fully deserved. Eureka’s release also provides a couple of audio options
including a stereo PCM track and a rather impressive DTS 5.1 HD master. Both
tracks are clear, clean and dynamic.
the extras is a very enjoyable audio commentary with actress Diane Baker and
film historians Steven C. Smith and Nick Redman. Diane Baker really emerges as
a wonderful commentator with an incredibly detailed memory and she has no
trouble reciting anecdotes from the production. Steven C. Smith (a Bernard
Herrmann historian) also demonstrates a vast knowledge of cinema and engages
effortlessly even when veering away from Herrmann’s incredibly important
contribution to the film. With two such enthusiastic and knowledgeable guests,
Nick Redman’s role as moderator is made very easy, and the entire duration of
the commentary is both an insightful and absorbing experience.
included is an isolated music and effects audio track.
to this release is a video interview with critic and author Kim Newman. As
always, Newman provides many important insights into the production, a look at
the written works of Jules Verne and the subsequent adaptations of his stories to
the screen. Lasting around 15 minutes, it’s a welcome and enjoyable piece.
is also a previously released featurette on the film’s restoration history
which provides split screen examples of various home editions of the movie.
extras are rounded off with the original theatrical trailer which features
James Mason’s perfectly delivered voice over.
Packaging consists of new artwork, which is ok, but I
would much rather see the original poster artwork put to good use. Inside
contains there is a booklet featuring an original review of the film from 1959;
a poster gallery; and a selection of rare archival imagery.
Overall, it’s a terrific package with a stunning
presentation of an important movie. Fans of the genre and the film, should at
last find a great deal of satisfaction in Eureka’s release. It’s been a long
time coming, but entirely worth the wait.
In Raoul Walsh’s “Gun Fury,” a 1953 Columbia western,
Donna Reed plays genteel southern belle, Jennifer Ballard, who is traveling
west by stage to meet her fiancé, Rock Hudson, who plays a former confederate
soldier by the name of Ben Warren. Warren now owns a ranch in California and
all the two of them want to do is forget the war and settle down near the
ocean. Also on the stage is Phil Carey (you remember him as Asa Buchanan on
“One Life to Live;” and years earlier as Philip Marlowe on an ABC TV series).
Carey plays Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed” Southerner who’s pretty ticked
off on the way the war turned out. He’s immediately attracted to Donna Reed, though.
She represents the kind of southern woman of good breeding he’d always hoped to
settle down with some day. He tries to ingratiate himself with her but she
gives him the cold shoulder.
Also on the coach is the lantern-jawed Leo Gordon, who has
played bad guys in more westerns than you can shake a stick at. He plays Jess
Burgess, Frank’s partner. The stage stop for the night at a relay station with
a hotel and Ben arrives to claim his bride-to-be, much to Slayton’s chagrin. At
dinner we have some character development in which we learn Ben had enough
social interaction during the war and now just wants to mind his own business
and settle down with Jennifer and ignore the rest of the world. After spending
the night in the hotel (in separate rooms, of course) they climb back on the
stage next morning, only to be attacked by an escort of Union troops, who shoot
the driver and shotgun. Turns out Frank and and Jess are stage coach robbers
and the soldiers are really members of Slate’s gang. They killed the real
soldiers and took their uniforms. There’s some gun fury action and Ben is shot
and left for dead. Slayton and his gang
run off with the gold and the girl.
So far, not a bad set up. The first cliché’d plot twist
comes right after that, however, when we see Old Ben isn’t as dead as Slayton thought
he was. It’s the old “merely a nick on the side of the head” routine. He’s
pretty upset, though, when he finds his fiancé has been kidnapped and he takes
out after them. Meantime Slayton and his gang reach a hideout and Slayton and
Jess get into a fight over the girl. Jess wants her left behind, otherwise she’ll
cause trouble. Slayton wins the argument and Jess ends up left behind and hog-tied
to a fence. Ben shows up a bit later and frees Jess and they make a deal to
ride together. Ben wants his girl and Jess wants revenge and his share of the
fortune he helped steal. It’s an unlikely alliance, but given that neither one
of them have any alternative but to work together, it’s more or less
They ride on and stop to the next town and ask the
sheriff there for help. The lawman says it’s none of his concern; the robbery
happened outside his jurisdiction. Rock’s isolationist philosophy of just
minding his own affairs comes back to bite him in the butt. But he’s determined
to get Jennifer back and Jess still wants his money. So they move on and there’s
a lot of riding and some nice views of the Red Rock country around Sedona,
Arizona, where the movie was filmed. Ben
and Jess are soon joined by an Apache who wants revenge on Slayton and his gang
for killing some of his people. The three of them eventually catch up with the
gang, who have also kidnapped a Mexican girl that gang member Blackie (Lee
Marvin) took a shine to. When Slayton realizes he’s being hunted not only by Ben
Warren, (who he thought he had killed), but also by his old buddy Jess (who
he’d left hog-tied to a fence), and an unknown Indian, well, it shakes him up.
Slayton and his gang are only a few miles from the
Mexican border, he’s got to decide what to do fast. He comes up with the idea
that they’ll trade Jennifer for Jess and everyone will go on his merry way.
Whaaaat?? Make a deal with the guy you left hog-tied to a fence, and then
suddenly give up your yen for the genteel southern belle you’ve always dreamed
you’d settle down with, and gone to so much trouble to get? Just like that? And
what about Jess? Does he really think he can get back in the gang and get his
share of the loot, after Phil was so ticked off at him that he left him for
dead, hog-tied to a fence? It’s obvious Slayton only wants to get Jess out in
the open so he can plug him. How stupid is Jess to think it’s possible to make
a deal like that? What kind of crazy deal is this anyway?
“Gun Fury” was not only directed by the legendary Raoul
Walsh, who made many great films, the screenplay was written by two well-known
pros—Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins. Are you telling me that these three
couldn’t have come up with a more believable finish to this sagebrush
potboiler? Couldn’t they see, when they got to shoot the final scenes, that the
story was going off the rails? Couldn’t one of them have come up a more
believable finish than the laughable prisoner exchange at the end? Hard to
believe. But they totally wrecked what could have been a good action western. Was
cocaine already that big a problem in Hollywood in 1953?
First Run Features has released director Lucia Puenzo's acclaimed 2013 film "The German Doctor" on DVD. The movie is the highest profile Argentinian release in years and was honored at numerous international film festivals. Puenzo, who also wrote the screenplay, based on the film on her novel, which- in turn- is said to have been inspired by the real-life experiences of a family who interacted with the infamous Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. During WWII, Mengele was known as "The Angel of Death" at Auschwitz. Here, he utilized his considerable medical skills for evil purposes, selecting who would live and die among the wretched masses who arrived daily at the death camp. Those who were spared were consigned to a living hell of torture and slave labor. The few children who were not put immediately to death were used as human guinea pigs in Mengele's bizarre and cruel medical experiments. He was obsessed with genetics in his goal of helping Hitler fulfill his ambition of creating a "Master Race". Mengele played a key role in attempting to manipulate pregnancies to ensure that only Aryan children would be born in nations under Nazi control. His bizarre theories have long been discredited by the mainstream medical establishment, particularly his obsession with twins. Mengele studied pairs of twin children through inhumane methods, often operating on them without any pain-killers. The few prisoners who interacted with him and managed to survive the war report that, for all his barbaric practices, Mengele had a calm, almost soothing demeanor that would often lull his victims into thinking he was a benign presence in the camp. He would pat children on the head and offer them candy, only to dispose of them like rubbish hours later. In the aftermath of the war and the chaos that ensued in Europe, Mengele managed to escape (along with many other Nazis) to South America. In his case, he found refuge in Argentina, where the corrupt government sheltered him, presumably in return for his "expertise" about how to fine-tune torture tactics.
It is against this backdrop- what we inherently know about Mengele- that Puenzo's story begins. It is 1960 and we see Mengele (Alex Brendemuhl), using the assumed name of Helmut Gregor, lost on a remote country road. He has a chance encounter with a young couple, Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and Enzo (Diego Peretti), who are traveling with their three children. Mengele befriends the family, who consent to having him follow them in his car along the desolate roadways. Along the way, Mengele charms each member of the family and he explains that he is a doctor en route to an institute where he will be working. Coincidentally, the institute is very close to the family's destination, which is a resort hotel that they have inherited. The couple intends to reopen the hotel and hope to make a financial success of it. Enzo, it appears, has not been successful in financially providing for his family. He fancies himself an inventor and his real passion is creating a unique doll that can marketed to little girls. He finds a sympathetic ear from Mengele, who reinforces his bond with the family by becoming their first tenant at the hotel. Eva is immediately smitten by the charming German doctor but he seems more interested in the couple's oldest daughter, Lilith (Florencia Bado). Although twelve years-old, she is very short and slight of build, giving the impression she is much younger. This results in terrible bullying at the local school, where there are children of German ex-pats who are particularly cliquish and cruel to Lilith. Both Eva and Lilith are charmed by Mengele, who professes to help them by offering to inject Lilith with hormone injections that will spur her growth. Enzo is adamantly against the idea, but Eva secretly gives the doctor permission to proceed. Before long, Lilith is experiencing strange medical complications. Simultaneously, Mengele discovers that Eva is pregnant with twins. This smorgasbord of potential medical experiments excites him and before long, he has convinced Eva to also undergo some of his quack medical treatments. He has also ingratiated himself with Enzo by finding a financial backer who will mass produce Enzo's dolls. (A sequence set in a doll factory is brilliantly staged and genuinely eerie, with row after row of hollow-eyed dolls evoking memories of a death camp.) However, when Enzo sees his wife and daughter suffering from mysterious illnesses, he begins to suspect that his new friend is really a villain. He is not alone. A local photographer (Elena Roger) is, in fact, an Israeli intelligence agent who also begins to believe that the seemingly benign and charming man of medicine may actually be one of the most wanted men in the world.
"The German Doctor" plays out at a slow, deliberate pace that is refreshing in a film industry defined by fast-editing and mindless action sequences. The script allows each character to be fully developed and the relationships between the key players becomes fascinating, as Mengele uses psychological methods to manipulate his next victims. The performances are uniformly extraordinary, with Brandemuhl particularly impressive. Although portraying one of the most notorious criminals in history, he deftly manages to make him charming and likable, both necessary ingredients if we are to understand why the family he has befriended can be so easily manipulated by him. The film is engrossing throughout and, even though we know through history how Mengele finally met his fate, it doesn't deprive director Puenzo from milking a considerable amount of suspense from the scenario.
The First Run Pictures DVD offers an excellent transfer but is frustratingly devoid of any bonus materials. It would be a worthwhile ambition for the label to eventually put out a special edition of this excellent film with a commentary track that helps viewers understand the historical context of what they are seeing.
To commemorate the 35th anniversary of Steven Spielberg's masterful "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial", Universal has released a highly impressive edition comprising of Blu-ray, DVD and digital HD versions. The film has lost none of its wonder and timeless appeal and this gorgeous home video release makes it possible to re-live those great memories in appropriate style. (Some of us are old enough to remember being excited about the movie being released on VHS!) This limited edition is out of this world.
Here is a description of the contents:
Combo Pack Includes Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD* Over 3
Hours of Bonus Features! The E.T. Journals: Featuring behind the scenes footage
from the filming of the movie, this featurette gives viewers a unique feeling
of being on-set and living the excitement of what it was like to make E.T. (Blu-ray
Exclusive) Steven Spielberg & E.T.: The director reflects back on the film
and discusses his experience working with children as well as his overall and
current perspective on E.T. Deleted Scenes A Look Back: A special insider’s
look into the making of E.T. featuring interviews with Steven Spielberg, the
cast, and others intimately involved with the film. The Evolution and Creation
of E.T.: From idea to screenplay, through casting and making the film. The E.T.
Reunion: The cast and filmmaker reunite to discuss their thoughts on the impact
of the film. The Music of E.T. A Discussion with John Williams: Interviews and
footage of the long-standing relationship between John Williams and Steven
Spielberg. The 20th Anniversary Premiere: Composer John Williams played the
score of E.T. live at the Shrine Auditorium for the re-release premier of E.T.
This featurette gives us a behind the scenes look at this presentation.
Collectors and enthusiasts of the serials produced by
Republic Pictures Corporation (1936-1955) have reason to rejoice. Save for the too occasional and often spotty
rare film release, proprietary rights to the Republic’s vast back catalog from
that studio’s “Golden Age” have mostly languished in the vaults. Then, with little fanfare, Paramount
Pictures, Inc. - the company who had obtained the rights through a dizzying history
of corporate takeovers and mergers - began to quietly make some of these
moribund but treasured troves of rare films digitally available to fans in late
2015. Though streaming through the Youtube
channel via the company’s Paramount Vault portal was not the platform that many
of us had hoped for, it was a welcome
turn of events and certainly better than nothing.
If nothing else it was a long time coming. Devotees of these decidedly nostalgic vintage
chapter plays have too long been forced to enjoy these treasures via ropey and
gauzy VHS rips from tattered 16mm film elements. Many collectors will recall the old days when
the only conduit for tracking down copies was through the purchase of
bootleg-market videotapes from mysterious and transient P.O. Box address-only sellers
listed provocatively in back page classifieds of genre magazines.
of Captain Marvel, now available on Blu-Ray via Kino/Lorber
Studio Classics, is generally acknowledged as one of the finest and exciting serials. It’s also noteworthy as the titular Captain Marvel
is the first comic book superhero to make it to the big screen with an equally
big splash. The character Captain Marvel first appeared in the second issue of Whiz Comics in February of 1940. He quickly became the best-selling comic book
superhero of the 1940s, his popularity partly due no doubt to the success of
this Republic serial of 1941. On the
printed page, Captain Marvel would face down many enemies, but in real life his
greatest nemesis might have been the creators of Superman. The man from Krypton, of course, made an
earlier debut in Action Comics in
June of 1938.
With his leotards, tall boots, cape, whisk of black hair,
gift of flight and apparent invincibility, there was something about Captain
Marvel that seemed uncomfortably too similar and oddly familiar to Superman’s
copyright holders – and soon the inevitable teams of lawyers were brought in to
sort it all out. The litigation lasted
for years and years, but within a year of the character’s creation Republic
Pictures had already brought The
Adventures of Captain Marvel successfully to the big screen. In contrast, Columbia Picture’s Superman serial (starring Kirk Alyn as
the big screen’s first man from Krypton) would not be released until 1948.
In some small way, you can hold some degree of sympathy
for the litigious maneuverings of Superman’s copyright holders. Much like the fabled “Man of Steel,” Captain
Marvel was similarly styled in appearance and powers and hid behind the
protection of a secretive dual identity. He could also fly, withstand a barrage
of gunfire, and bend steel bars in his bare hands. In some small ways the Fawcett Publications
superhero was different. Though it takes
a good dose of rare Kryptonite to bring down the mighty Superman, in The Adventures of Captain Marvel it seemingly
only takes a good jolt of electricity to – if only temporarily - incapacitate
our hero. In any event, the popularity of The
Adventures of Captain Marvel would cause Republic to return to the
wellspring of their success. Throughout
the 1940s the studio would produce a score of serials featuring pop-culture characters
licensed from the pages of comic books: these iconic films would introduce
young moviegoers to the first celluloid adventures of Dick Tracy, Red Ryder, Spy Smasher, Captain America, The Lone Ranger
years, every studio salivated over Marvel’s profit machine where iconic
characters jump in and out of each other’s films. To get in on the action, Universal
mined their monster vaults by creating the Dark Universe franchise. The first
entry was The Mummy starring Tom
Cruise, Annabelle Wallis and Russell Crowe (as Dr. Henry Jekyll). Directed by
Alex Kurtzman, the film also starred Algerian stunner Sofia Boutella as the
title creature, who is light years away from Karloff’s 1932 creation.
film stirred a pot o fan controversy when it was announced because of, well… Tom Cruise in a horror movie? Not to worry, he dove into the hero role with
his trademark enthusiasm and ageless good looks, doing stunts that would leave
any other mortal in a coma or full body cast. The film is entertaining; it’s a popcorn ride, full of beautiful scenery
and state-of-the art visual effects, and Boutella steals the show as the
sensuous 5,000 year-old Egyptian Princess who is pure evil.
with their $125 million film, Universal packed a sarcophagus full of extras on
the 2-disc, dual format set that also includes a digital download version. Extras in the set include:
The Plane Crash (in Zero G)
others – adding up to over an hour of bonus material. Say what you will about Tom Cruise doing
horror, The Mummy featured
spectacular sets and some of the best action sequences this side of a James
Bond movie. (And the vicious sandstorm taking out London’s financial district is
a show stopper.) Universal’s first
plunge into their Dark Universe is definitely worth your time – and you might
as well get familiar with it because, if the studio has its way, The Mummy is just the tip of the dark
iceberg: The Bride of Frankenstein (with
Javier Bardem as The Monster) is already in the works as is The Invisible Man (with Johnny Depp no
(For Mark Cerulli's review of the film's theatrical release, click here).
When Franco Nero rails at God, you can almost imagine
that God hears him. ("Is that Nero yelling again? What did I do
now?") While watching The Sack of
Rome (1993), an Italian production which features a good amount of Nero’s
skyward beefing, I tried to imagine an American actor playing such a part.I couldn't think of many. Even a pair of
scenery chewers like Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster would seem too urbane. I’d
give Japan’s Toshiro Mifune a shot at reaching God’s ear, but only if Akira Kurosawa
was directing him. Daniel Day Lewis could get God’s attention, but he’s not
American. The problem, of course, is that American actors haven't had many
chances to shout at the heavens. In American movies you can yell at your boss,
or your spouse, and you can shoot people in the head, but you don’t get many
opportunities to yell at God. This is true now more than ever, for contemporary
actors aren't asked to do much beyond work on their pecs and whiten their
teeth. Can you imagine Channing Tatum or Shia LaBeouf railing at God? That's
why Nero's performance in The Sack of
Rome is so impressive. Compared to Nero, American actors seem twitchy and
neurotic, as pampered as a bunch of models at a Victoria’s Secret shoot. Nero? I’m tempted to say it’s just the Italian
language that makes him seem so explosive, but even when Nero's not talking,
he's simmering. He’s an actor not given his due.
The film takes place in 1527 when mercenaries invaded
Rome and began a horrific course of looting and destruction. Nero plays Gabriele da Poppi, an artist who
feels above it all. Gabriele believes artists are immune during times of war.
He lives like a 16th century rock star, buffered from the outside world by a
kind of grand opulence. He saunters about his enormous estate looking as
glittery and well-fed as one of Rembrandt's noblemen. He lives with Gesuina, his lover and model (the
angelic Vittoria Belvedere, a young woman whose perspiration looks like it
would go well over flapjacks) and her little punk of a brother. Gabriele calls this
teen duo his "beasts." They bathe together and play games in what
seems like an indoor Eden. Suddenly, Gabriele’s
idyllic life is upended when the soldiers raid his mansion, destroy his
artwork, and kill Gesuina’s brother.
The head of the mercenaries holds Gabriele and Gesuina captive
in their own home, demanding Gabriele paint a portrait of him. Gabriele,
however, suffers a kind of psychotic meltdown after seeing his beloved city
turned to rubble. All he can paint are bizarre images of salamanders and
flowers. His sleep is troubled by nightmares. He wonders if debauched lives
like his own contributed to Rome's fall. He also feels guilty over not getting Gesuina to safety when he had the
chance. The worst of his fears, though, is that the sacking of Rome may mean
the end of previous concepts of art and beauty.
Sack of Rome is hard to follow at times. Still, there's
an undeniable passion in the film, boiling under every scene. Director Fabio
Bonzi is telling a story about the passing of an age, and he tells it with just
a handful of characters. When Gabriele sees Gesuina in bed with their captor, he
mourns the ending of an epoch, yet, he marvels that the hell they're in has
actually made his muse more beautiful. These scenes are wrenching because Nero
uses only his face and eyes to convey Gabriele's profound regret. Later, as
their abductor lay eviscerated, Gabriele doesn’t celebrate. His life has changed too quickly and
violently. The young girl he once playfully sniffed before her bath has become
hardened. Even the soldiers outside are
bracing for the future like the aging outlaws in The Wild Bunch, exchanging their swords in favor of primitive
firearms. Murder will become abstract, less personal. "The golden
age," Gabriele says, "is over."
Although TheSack of Rome boasts a couple of mildly
erotic scenes, the new DVD from One7Movies is a change from a company that
usually focuses on European erotica. For
those wondering about such things, the only bonus feature is a gallery of
stills, and the movie is presented in full screen rather than widescreen; it
looks scratchy in places, and seems older than a film from ‘93. Still, it's a
beautiful movie with impressive costumes and set decoration. (If you search for the film on the IMDB, use the Italian title, Zoloto.) I can’t vouch for the film’s historical accuracy, but it’s
worth a look, particularly for Nero's performance. When he lets it rip, few can
In the late 1970s producer David V. Picker was persuaded by a friend to see up-and-coming comedian Steve Martin on stage. Picker had never heard of him but was impressed enough by his oddball comic genius that he signed him for a movie deal with the esteemed Carl Reiner directing. The result was "The Jerk", which turned out to be a smash hit upon its release in 1979. Martin seemed set for a meteoric rise in the movie industry but he stumbled badly with his second film, the bizarre, downbeat and ill-advised "Pennies from Heaven". Hoping to recapture his celluloid mojo, Martin soon teamed again with Picker and Reiner for "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", an inspired film noir spoof that, through the technology of the day, allowed Martin to "star" with cinematic legends of bygone eras. Despite favorable reviews, the film was too unconventional for mainstream audiences and under-performed. Undeterred, Martin, Picker and Reiner teamed for a third time in 1983 on what seemed to be a sure-fire spoof of horror films, "The Man with Two Brains", co-written by Martin, Reiner and George Gipe. The film seemed certain to draw in the audiences that had packed theaters a decade before for Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein"- but alas, "Brains" also laid an egg. Martin would soldier on in films until he finally scored some hits, but the fact of the matter is that some of his best work was done in some of his least-seen films, "The Man with Two Brains" among them.
As the title certainly implies, the film is based on a zany premise. Martin plays Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (the name itself is the basis of many hilarious gags in the film), a world-respected brain surgeon who has perfected the "screw-off" method of removing the top of a patient's skull. He's a rich egotist but he's also despondent over the recent death of his beloved wife, with whom he enjoyed the kinky habit of eating lunch off her behind. Meanwhile we meet Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner), a vivacious man-eater who has just finished abusing her elderly millionaire husband to the point that he has a fatal heart attack- only to learn that he had changed his will so that she won't inherit anything. Fleeing the house in anger, Dolores steps in front of Michael's car and suffers a traumatic brain injury. Instantly obsessed by her beauty, he performs a life-saving operation. Upon awakening, Dolores senses that Michael is a trusting, naive soul who she can instantly manipulate. Before long, the two are married - a plot device that sets in motion a running gag about how the perpetually horny Michael has to keep chaste while he waits for his wife to recover from her medical problems (even though she is sleeping with hunky guys at every opportunity.) Her motive is to ultimately manipulate- and presumably kill- her husband without ever having to consummate the marriage- especially when she learns he has just inherited millions from a deceased relative.
Most of the action is set in Vienna, where Michael is attending a brain surgeons conference. Although it's obvious that the closest anyone in the production got to Austria was a Vienna sausage lunch cart in Hollywood, the change in locale opens the story up to more exotic aspects. Michael meets Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner), a fellow nutty professor who has a Universal Monsters-style laboratory constructed in his urban condo. The two men form a friendship- but it's challenged when Michael falls in love with one of his new friend's experiments, the disembodied brain of a lovely lady who he can communicate with by telepathy. In one of the funniest scenes, he takes his new love out for a spin in a rowboat- and puts a hat on the glass jar to prevent "her" from getting sunburned. Meanwhile, a clever subplot is introduced in which Vienna is being terrorized by the mad "Elevator Killer" who offs his victims by injecting them with window cleaner! (The unmasking of the villain's identity is one of the laugh-out-loud moments in the film.) To continue to explain the story line as though it were logical would be an exercise in futility. Suffice it to say, "The Man with Two Brains" is Steve Martin at his best. The film is packed with many hilarious scenarios and sight gags- and Kathleen Turner adds immeasurably to the fun with a spot-on performance as the evil femme fatale. Carl Reiner proved to be the perfect director for Martin and the films they did together hold up well today.
The Warner Blu-ray release is quite welcome and will hopefully allow the uninitiated to enjoy the many pleasures of this film. The only bonus extra is an original trailer which, bizarrely, doesn't mention or credit Kathleen Turner, who had already achieved major stardom from her appearance in "Body Heat".
Director Michael Ritchie seemed to be on the fast track in becoming one of Hollywood's "A" list young filmmakers. His career started in television and hit a speed bump when he was fired from "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." after arguing with a producer about the content of a script. However, he eventually segued into movies. His first big screen feature was "Downhill Racer", the 1969 drama starring Robert Redford that displayed Ritchie's talents behind the cameras. A few years later, his career went into overdrive. He directed the quirky hit crime film "Prime Cut" followed by the prescient political satire "The Candidate" and then the critically-praised satire "Smile". His genial comedy "The Bad News Bears" proved to be a major boxoffice hit. Ritchie never stopped working but the momentum faded by the late 1970s. He had the occasional modest hit ("Semi-Tough", "Fletch") but all too often he was consigned to mediocre films that played to mediocre results. Whether Ritchie was denied bringing innovative visions to reality by short-sighted studio executives or whether he just ran out of steam is not known. However, by the time he died in 2001 at only 62 years of age, those of us who admired his earlier films couldn't help but think that some great, unfilled projects had died with him. One of Ritchie's "work-for-hire" productions, the 1988 comedy "The Couch Trip" has been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The quirky screwball concept falls short of its potential but there is much to recommend about it.
The movie opens at a psychiatric institution in Illinois where John W. Burns Jr. (Dan Aykroyd) is being held against his will. However, if he is a prisoner, it is in the sense that Bob Crane's Colonel Hogan was prisoner: the inmate is literally running the asylum. Burns has it pretty good for an incarcerated man. He's overflowing with confidence, charisma and superficial charm and wins over everyone in his sphere of influence. There seem to be few pleasures that he is denied at the institution and even finds a way to have sex with the secretary (Victoria Jackson) of the chief psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Baird (David Clennon), an uptight, humorless man who doesn't relate to the inmates under his care. The script introduces a separate story line concerning Dr. George Maitlin (Charles Grodin), an esteemed and very popular psychiatrist who dispenses pearls of wisdom to "patients" who call into his popular radio program. When it turns out that Maitlin himself is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he decides to take a sabbatical and attend a professional conference in London with his bubble-headed wife Vera (Mary Gross). He puts out the word that he wants an obscure psychiatrist to fill in for him by hosting his radio program, on the proviso that the substitute host isn't impressive enough to challenge Maitland's stranglehold on his audience. When word reaches the institute that Dr. Baird has been chosen to interview for the hosting gig, Burns intercepts the message, orchestrates a brilliant escape, steals a car and adopts the identity of Baird, even managing to fly to L.A. on his plane ticket (this was 1988, after all, before today's onerous security measures would render such a feat virtually impossible). Once in Hollywood, Burns is met by his "colleague", Dr. Laura Rollins (Aykroyd's real life wife Donna Dixon), who- in addition to being brainy- is also a sexy, leggy blonde. He also meets Harvey Michaels (Richard Romanus), a smarmy, fast-talking agent who is representing Maitland. The faux Dr. Baird quickly intimidates Michaels by making outrageous demands to host the radio program, all of which are met. Burns hits a speed bump when he has a chance encounter with a seemingly crazed con man named Donald Becker (Walter Matthau), who recognizes him as a wanted man and threatens to expose him if he doesn't make him a partner in his schemes. Left with no choice, Burns has Becker move into his lush hotel suite.
When Burns makes his debut in the guise of substitute host Dr. Baird on the radio program, he radicalizes the format by dispensing brutally honest advice to his troubled call-in audience. At times, he indulges in outrageous behavior and tosses out obscenities that shock Michaels and Dr. Rollins. However, all is forgiven when he becomes an overnight sensation and a ratings smash. Before long, "Dr. Baird" is the toast of Hollywood, leading to him making even more outrageous demands. A fly in the ointment comes when the real Dr. Baird meets Dr. Maitland at a convention in London. The two men realize they're being exploited and hurry back to Hollywood where they attempt to thwart Burns as he accepts an award on Maitland's behalf at a black tie dinner.
"The Couch Trip" starts out as an uninspired comedy but improves considerably as it progresses. The script is most effective in satirizing the (then) new populist trend of having troubled people rely on advice of radio show hosts to make life-altering decisions in their lives. The concept was absurd in the 1980s and has grown exponentially today with people using social media platforms as Dollar Store versions of psychiatrists, taking the advice of total strangers in regard to resolving their most intimate problems. Aykroyd is in top form with his cynical con man schtick. Matthau appears only fleetingly but adds his considerable skills to the merriment- and the supporting cast is also very amusing with Charles Grodin and David Clennon particularly funny. Director Michael Ritchie proves to be as adept with comedy as he was with dramas and thrillers and his "hands off" style allows both Aykroyd and Matthau to shine. The film bombed on its theatrical release but it offers enough gentle pleasures that it can recommended for home viewing. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray provides what appears to be segments from the film's original electronic presskit including some interesting behind the scenes footage and interviews with Aykroyd, Dixon and Ritchie (though grumpy old man Matthau's interviews have a total running time of about 20 seconds). The original trailer is also included.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor
(o.t. Morte sospetta di una minorenne)
(1975) is a bit of a queer fish. It's widely regarded as the last – and
arguably the least – of director Sergio Martino's giallos, though in fact it
only barely qualifies as such, spanning as it does several genres. It's a
curious hybrid wherein the giallo element is fairly low-key, playing second
fiddle to poliziotteschi tropes with an ill-judged sprinkling of comedy.
been rudely propositioned by a guy at a dance, a young girl is chased from the
place by an impeccably dressed, unspeaking assassin. He corners her in a room
at an insalubrious Milan hotel where he savagely slays her. The guy whose unwanted
attentions the girl drew prior to her murder is later revealed to be Inspector
Paolo Germi (Claudio Cassinelli), working undercover to expose a drugs and
underage prostitution racket in which she was embroiled. Every time Germi gets
close to the next link in the chain that person dies, each falling victim to
the silent assassin who's keeping one step ahead of him and eradicating anyone
whose evidence could lead to the identification of the top banana and bust the
trafficking operation wide open.
Sergio Martino was the man behind such excellent giallos as Torso, All the Colours of the Dark and the gloriously titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have
the Key, whilst co-scripter Ernesto Gastaldi (as well as collaborating with
Martino on the aforementioned trio) penned such renowned works as The Case of the Bloody Iris and Death Walks on High Heels. And yet,
although purely in terms of its subject matter there's a dark underbelly festering
away in The Suspicious Death of a Minor,
it never quite plumbs the anticipated depths of sleaziness that its title and
credentials might imply. As is standard for Italian films of this period the
female cast is typically gorgeous, notably Patrizia Castaldi (as the story's
first victim), Barbara Magnolfi and Jenny Tamburi. But none of them actually
look like minors, nudity is employed with uncommon restraint for this sort of
movie and, a couple of graphic attacks aside, the production is not nearly as
brutal as it might have been either. None of which is to suggest it's not worth
dipping in to; there's some great stuff going on here.
all odds Claudio Cassinelli is eminently likeable as Germi, the cop who get
suspects to talk at gunpoint, drives like a maniac, recklessly fires off his
weapon in the midst of civilians, sleeps with prostitutes and hooks up with a
petty thief (Gianfranco Barra) as an accomplice. "It was self defence,
right?", Germi’s boss (Mel Ferrer) encouragingly prompts when he’s being
raked across the coals by a superior officer for his aberrant technique;
"No, sir, it was self offence,"
Germi replies bluntly. Indeed, his Dirty Harry-esque modus operandi may be unorthodox but it sure gets results. (As an
aside, Cassinelli was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1985 whilst
working on Martino's sci-fi actioner Hands
photographed by Giancarlo Ferrando, highlights include a chase which begins
with a shootout on a fairground Crazy Mouse ride and ends messily on an
underground rail track, and a tense confrontation atop the retractable roof of
a cinema. The first half of the film unfolds reasonably unpredictably – it's
some time before we learn that Germi is actually one of the good guys – but
once our man has established the identity of the first victim it's not too much
of a strain for the viewer to see where the plot is going and who the brains
behind the prostitution ring is likely to be. That said, there are still a few twists
en route to the slightly abrupt
finale, one of them particularly cruel and involving Barra and Tamburi. All
this is offset, as indicated earlier, by some mostly unwelcome humour. There's
a running gag in which Germi is constantly breaking his spectacles that isn’t
too intrusive. But the front door of his beat up jalopy keeps falling off too, adding
a slapstick dimension to the proceedings; during an extended car chase, which is
played purely for chuckles, his passenger leans out and with much amusement pulls
off the back door too, hurling at the pursuing vehicle.
With a terrific
score from Luciano Michelini – which sandwiches traditional 70s cop movie
sounds between between piano-driven melodies evocative of the Confessions films (no, really!) and
Goblin's superlative work on the Argento classics – The Suspicious Death of a Minor will never be cited as one of the
greats, but it's enjoyable enough and unlikely to leave anyone with an
appreciation for the golden period of Italian filmmaking feeling disappointed.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor
hits DVD and Blu-Ray as a dual format Arrow Video release bearing the on-screen
title Too Young to Die. A brand-new
2K restoration from the original camera negative, the transfer is faultless,
with sound options available in English mono and Italian mono (with English
subtitling). Supplements are sparse, at least by Arrow standards; there's a
feature commentary from author Troy Howarth, a generous 43-minute interview
with Martino (in Italian with English subtitling) and a trailer (again in
Italian with English subs). A collector's booklet and the usual Arrow reversible
sleeve are dropped in to round off the deal.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER (This is a Region 2/Pal format release)
Lisi and Rod Steiger are “The Girl and the General,” available on DVD via the
Warner Archive Collection. The poster art on the DVD cover asks, “What happens
when the roles of man and woman are reversed?” The answer on the cover, “‘The
Girl and the General’ is what happens!”
is an Austrian general captured during WWI by Italian Private Tarasconi
(Umberto Orsini) who is separated from his unit while retreating from the
advancing Austrian Army. Realizing he will receive a reward by his superiors
for capturing and turning in the general, the private attempts to bring the
general to his Italian commanders. He has dreams of using the reward money to
buy a farm and live a quite life in the country. Where do the Italian and
Austrian lines begin and end? Who can be trusted? Outsmarted by the general,
the terrain and the confusing and changing front lines, the private is driven
by his dreams, hunger and safety when he finds an abandoned farm house. There’s
no food, but they have a place to rest for the night. The general escapes and
the private encounters the beautiful Ada (Lisi) who is equally hungry and also
seeking safe haven from the raging battle. Private Tarasconi and Ada agree to
split the reward if she will help him recapture the general and take him to the
Italian army. They find and recapture the general and they continue their trek.
private is drawn as much to Ada’s beauty as he is to the reward, but hunger
becomes the great equalizer for all three. Keeping the general their captive is
no easy task as the trio journey from one problematic location to another,
encountering Austrians and Germans, but no Italians and end up back at the
abandoned farmhouse where they started after traveling in a circle. In spite of
their partnership, Ada is not about to give in to the private’s lust for her, nor
is she about to share a precious egg she has found. The private takes the egg
from a sleeping Ada and returns the empty egg after sucking out the contents.
His hunger partially quenched, he turns to his lust for Ada, but she stops him.
He shares his dream of buying a farm and Ada warms to him with the possibility
continue their journey as the general does everything he can to outsmart them
and escape. Ada outsmarts the private using his attraction and trust of her against
him and locks him in a closet on an Austrian train car. The private soon
returns and they use money found in the farmhouse to buy a donkey and cart so
the private and general can hide in the barrel on the cart as Ada leads them
through enemy occupied territory. In one scene, Ada goes out searching for food
only to pass into an Austrian encampment. She asks for food, which they give to
her, but they have a demand for repayment. Ada endures the humiliation of being
fondled in return for potatoes until the men are ordered to leave when their
superior arrives. Upon returning to the private and the general, she lies and
says there was no food.
each try to one-up each other with their shared needs like food and shelter,
the general’s need to escape and the private’s dream of buying a farm and
marrying Ada. She simply wants to survive and uses the two men for her own ends
as they make their way to the Italian lines, but to get there they must cross a
mine field. All I will say about that is the donkey doesn’t make it and the
movie comes to a satisfying conclusion.
more accurate title for the movie could be “The Private, the Girl and the
General,” but that doesn’t have the same ring or commercial appeal as “The Girl
and the General.” Produced by Carlo Ponti, the movie was directed by Pasquale
Festa Campanile who also contributed as co-writer of the original story and is
credited as a co-screenwriter. He was also co-writer on “The Leopard” in 1963
featuring Burt Lancaster in one of his signature roles. Campanile also directed
“The Girl from Trieste,” in 1982 which featured Ben Gazzara. The movie features
terrific location shooting and a fabulous score by the great Ennio Morricone.
Has he ever delivered a bad score?
Perhaps, but there’s always added value to any movie where Morricone has made a
is not a typical war movie as there is very little in the way of combat. The
soldiers on both sides disappear for most of the movie except when they show up
as road blocks to the trio’s progress. Roles are not reversed so much as
equalized as the trio search for food, safety and shelter in a basic will to
survive. This common struggle trumps everything and brings them together as
danger blocks them at every turn. The movie is also very funny, especially when
Steiger is involved with outsmarting the easily outsmarted private. In an early
scene after being captured, the general convinces the private to take his boots
off and, after setting them aside, the general tosses them over a cliff,
forcing the private to walk in his socks until he finds suitable replacement
in the fall of 1967 by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer in the U.S., the movie is well worth
a viewing. Lisi and Orsini are very good and the incomparable Steiger is very
appealing in his role as the general. The movie looks and sounds terrific and
clocks in at 103 minutes. The DVD is bare bones with no extras.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER FROM THE CINEMA RETRO MOVIE STORE
The stars must have formed a fortuitous
alignment. Somehow, a great wrong has been righted and order has been restored
to the universe. Kino Lorber, under its
KL Classics brand, has just released “Sunset in the West,” the first-ever high
definition Blu-Ray edition of a Roy Rogers Trucolor western. This may not sound
like a big deal to some people, but for the initiated—those who grew up watching
Roy on the big screen at countless Saturday matinees in the 1950s— it is monumental.
Because, until now the only Roy Rogers movies available for home viewing were
dark, faded, and badly edited transfers released first on VHS and later DVD by
Republic Studios. Republic treated Roy’s movies with criminal disrespect. The
studio let the movies fade away with in their vaults, and then sold them to TV
where they were butchered to fit time slots. By the time they got to home video
there were a mess. For Roy’s fans, it seemed a hopeless situation that would
never be corrected. But now, thanks to a first class restoration by Kino
Lorber, you can see what John McClane was talking about in “Die Hard,” when he
told Hans he was kinda partial to Roy Rogers more than John Wayne, because: “I
really like those shirts.”
Color was an essential component of the
Rogers westerns. In addition to the western-style shirts he wore, there was the
bandana around his neck, the silver studs on his holster and gun belt, the hand-tooled
boots with touches of turquoise on them, all of which combined to make Roy
practically a living work of art. Even Trigger, his golden Palomino, billed as
“The Smartest Horse in the Movies” was outfitted with handsomely a burnished
leather saddle festooned with silver doo-dads and a Mexican-style saddle
blanket. But you could hardly see any of that on home video. Part of the
problem was the Trucolor process itself. Republic invented its own cheaper red
and green two-strip color process to save money and still compete with
Technicolor. The absence of the third blue strip resulted in more pastel shades
than Technicolor with the picture emphasizing oranges and blues. The result was
a special look that was immediately identifiable, and put Republic’s, and
especially Roy Rogers, movies sort of in a class by themselves. But the big
drawback was that Trucolor film faded quickly. Kino Lorber has done a
praiseworthy restoration, remastering “Sunset in the West,” from a 4K scan, and
the movie looks just about as good as it must have when it was first released.
It’s a significant event in the history of film restoration.
“Sunset in the West” is a typical Roy Rogers
movie. Certainly not the best he ever made, but a good one.
I would vote for “Bells of San Angelo” as the best, but I suppose it’s all a
matter of opinion. When you’re talking about the King of the Cowboys what can
you say? They’re all great. In this one Roy finds himself involved in a plot
involving gun runners. The script by screenwriting veteran Gerald Geraghty starts
with a train hijacking. (That’s another plus right there. Roy Rogers and
trains! There are several steam locomotives in the story, although it’s likely
there was only one that was used and made over to look different each time.)
The bad guys drive the trains to isolated areas, dump out the freight, and
replace it with guns to be smuggled across the border to a foreign power. The
trains are found later wrecked somewhere along the track. Roy finds out about
it when the train he was expecting to pick up the cattle he had driven to
Bordertown races right on by without even stopping. Not a man to let a thing like
that go by, Roy jumps on Trigger and races after the steaming locomotive. He
overtakes the train, jumps aboard and is immediately punched out by the
engineer and knocked off the speeding locomotive.
And that’s just the first reel of this
action-packed movie. Directed at a frenetic pace by the legendary William Witney
(one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite directors), “Sunset in the West” packs a
slew of galloping horse chases (Roy takes down two baddies riding double in one
scene), numerous fist fights (including a barroom brawl that must have used
half of Republics fabled team of stunt men), several gun fights, four or five
quick musical numbers, and a finale that takes place along the crashing waves
of a deserted beach. And all packed into a dizzying 67 minutes.
The cast includes Penny Edwards, playing the
niece of Sheriff Tad Osborne (Will Wright), an old timer who’s about to chuck
his 30-year career because he can’t solve the mystery of the highjacked trains.
The plot gets moving when Roy, is deputized and helps find out who’s behind it all.
Also on hand for comedy relief is Gordon Jones as “Splinters” a hiccupping
barber/deputy sheriff. Pierre Watkin appears as Gordon McKnight, a leading
citizen of Bordertown who seems kind of shady, and Estelita Rodrigues, who
plays Carmelita a Mexican gal singer who doubles as a spy for Deputy Splinters.
Foy Willing and the Sons of the Purple Sage are on hand to provide some of the
Kino Lorber presents the movie in a
1920X1080p transfer and in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, slightly wider
than the standard 1.33:1. Bonus features
include audio commentary by Western film historian Toby Roan, who provides
interesting info on the cast, the locations, and, just about anything else
you’d want to know about the movie. There are also previews of other westerns
in the KL catalog. There’s no question. This is one Blu-Ray you have to own. Let’s
hope there are more restorations of these classic films to come. Until then, Happy
Trails, partner, and may the Good Lord take a liking to you.
Bava's celebrated 1966 Gothic chiller Kill,
Baby...Kill! – o.t: Operazione Paura
(Operation Fear) – is something of a
masterpiece in terms of stylish tableaux, yet where engaging narrative is
concerned it somewhat fumbles the ball; the plot underpinning what is without
question a beautiful film to look at is so humdrum that I'd suggest it can
really only be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. Whether that's
sufficient grist to warrant a visit (or indeed a revisit) is purely subjective.
the death of a woman impaled on railings in a remote East European village,
Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli) summons an outside coroner, Dr Paul Eswai (Giacomo
Rossi Stuart), to perform an autopsy. It transpires that the woman is the
latest of several villagers to fall prey to the malevolent ghost of a child,
Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri). Aided by local nurse Monica Schuftan (Erika
Blanc), Eswai is compelled to probe the mystery. But the pair are soon drawn
into a hallucinogenic world where familial secrets lurk in the shadows and, as
those around them begin to perish, their own lives come under threat.
admit that the preceding synopsis reads rather intriguingly. However, even at
85-minutes Kill, Baby…Kill!'s story
feels stretched – to call it a slow-burner would be an understatement – and its
distinctly anticlimactic denouement serves only to sprinkle salt on the wound.
Bava himself worked on the screenplay alongside writers Romano Migliorini (La notte dei diavoli) and Roberto Natale
(L’isola delle svedesi), and one
really might have expected something more interesting to emerge from the
focus on the positives, as already asserted Kill,
Baby...Kill! is brimming with Bava's trademark flourishes and so can at
least be dubbed an artistic triumph. Several genuinely startling moments
involving the ghost of the little girl, the gorgeous mist-shrouded graveyard
set and the vast cobweb-strewn crypt bathed in eerie green and magenta lighting
combine to varnish the production with a surreal dreamlike sheen. In some cases,
it adopts a satisfyingly nightmarish quality, for example the dizzying sequence
in which Monica runs from the child down a vertiginous, seemingly bottomless
spiral staircase. And another when Eswai pursues a fleeing man, only to catch
up and find himself face-to-face with...himself!
footnote, I’ve never been too keen on either the original Operation Fear or Kill, Baby…Kill!
titles under which the film is so often widely identified, both of which – if
one knew absolutely nothing about it – seem to hold more the promise of a
frothy 60s spy romp than the early 1900s-set chiller that it is. Far better is
its less employed UK moniker, Curse of
the Dead, which if nothing else more honestly telegraphs its Gothic horror intent.
has been issued by Arrow Video in the UK as a dual format DVD/Blu-Ray combo.
The movie itself is a restored 2K hi-def transfer with mono English and Italian
soundtracks (English subs being provided for the latter). Bonus goodies
comprise a feature introduction and 11-minute interview with Erika Blanc (both
in Italian with English subs); a commentary from Bava expert Tim Lucas; a video
essay on devil children in Gothic horror by critic Kat Ellinger; a 25-minute
interview with Lamberto Bava (son of Mario and assistant director on this film),
in Italian with English subs; a trailer; an alternative German opening sequence
bearing the on-screen title Die Toten
Augen des Dr Dracula (The Dead Eyes
of Dr Dracula) – and I’d wager there were a few disappointed patrons among
those lured in by that outrageous
retitling! – with the credits running over different footage to that in its Kill, Baby...Kill! incarnation; a stills
gallery comprising German lobby cards and poster art; a 7-minute short entitled
Yellow that pays homage to Bava's distinctive
cinematic style; and finally a collectors booklet plus a reversible sleeve
featuring original and newly commissioned artwork.
CLICK HERE TO ORDER (This is a Region 2/PAL format release)
Robert E. Kent’s production
of Invisible Invaders is merely one
of a long string of modestly budgeted 1950’s science-fiction films. As such it’s almost inevitable that at some
interval during the film the healthful actor John Agar will turn up. In this movie
the always dependable Agar – rocking a serious military buzz-cut - is cast in a
leading man role as Major Bruce Jay of the United States Air Force. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, this sinewy,
lantern-jawed actor would star in a number of bona fide sci-fi classics as Revenge
of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955),
and The Mole People (1956). The score of sci-fi and horror movies he
would appear in from 1955 through 1962 weren’t all of such high cinematic or
popular culture caliber to be sure; nonetheless most were enjoyable programmers
if you happened to be a popcorn-munching juvenile or a mostly uncritical adult
with a soft spot for low-budget monster movies. In this latter category you might find apologist fans – and I’m one of
them, truth be told - of Agar’s turns in Daughter
of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain from
Planet Arous (1957) and Attack of the
Puppet People (1958). These films
weren’t bottom-of-barrel offerings, but they could hardly be considered
particularly buoyant either.
I suppose that part of the
reason I love the low-brow end of 1950’s science-fiction is that there’s always
something much worse out there still to be discovered. We already know of the complete calamities,
the cinematic trash that nonetheless never fails to entertain. Maybe the on-screen monster we’re supposed to
fear is little more than a gorilla wearing a deep-sea diving helmet (Robot Monster) or perhaps a rolled-up
carpet with pasted-on eyes (The Creeping
Unknown), or the busty but empty-headed Fire
Maidens of Outer Space. These films,
for all their charms, are simply not good – at least not in any conventional
sense. The true fans, of course, will
generally excuse or explain away a film’s shortcomings and wince-producing missteps. Hey,
the producers did what they could with what they had; the film’s production
schedule was too rushed etc. etc.… This is willful, but empty devotion and I confess that I suffer from it.
If the appearance of John
Agar isn’t enough to sound your preliminary bad-film alarm bell, I suppose the additional
presence of the skeletal Shakespearean actor John Carradine in the cast should alert
one that there might be some cinematic rough-sledding ahead. Of the hundreds of films – and television
shows - Carradine would appear in over a long but sadly only occasionally
distinguished career, only a handful are truly great. Carradine is fifth-billed in the ending
credit roll of Invisible Invaders, and
I guess this placement is fair. The
veteran actor only appears in two scenes of any real consequence (and the first
is so brief that it might be missed in the blinking of an eye). During his too-brief portrayal of military-scientist
Karol Noymann, the lanky Carradine is seemingly incinerated in the film’s
opening montage. But as this is a
borderline horror film, the ill-fated scientist’s fiery demise proves to be
merely temporal. It’s clearly too early in the film to confidently write off the
possibility of a second appearance.
That second coming arrives
soon enough when Carradine – or, at least, something in the personage of
Carradine – comes knocking on the door of his old friend and scientific colleague
Adam Penner (Philip Tonge). Technically,
Penner is not visited by Noymann; instead he’s met by an alien who is temporarily
utilizing the scientist’s corpse as an agent of mobility. The gaunt, expressionless corpse-shell of
Noymann coldly informs Penner (in that peerless Carradine basso tone) that the
earth will be destroyed in twenty-four hours time by a merciless alien
invasion. This has been deemed necessary
since the previously “slow scientific developments” of the earthlings – their
activities having long been monitored by the aliens from their outer space
perch - have recently accelerated… as has their misuse of atomic energy. The aliens are now prepared to invade earth and
set up a “Dictatorship of the Universe.” It seems as though 20,000 years prior – just in case our planet’s
inhabitants started getting too smart for their own good, I suppose – the
aliens proactively established on the moon a conveniently invisible and
“impregnable base for its space ships.” The militarists and scientists on planet earth never picked up on these
moon bases as… well, they’re invisible and we couldn’t see them.
Among devotees of horror and mystery-adventure films,
director Jesús “Jess” Franco remains a divisive character. His earliest, more traditionally constructed
films - say The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962)
and The Diabolical Dr. Z (1966) - are
usually held in some level of regard amongst traditionalists, while more
adventuresome moviegoers wax rhapsodic over his later perplexing, exploitative
and occasionally pornographic art film exercises. Franco’s The
Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The
Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) are more conventional exemplars of traditional movie-making,
not as challenging to audiences as some of his more experimental post 1972
work. Both films are now available on a double-feature special edition Blu-ray
from Blue Underground.
The five Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers from
1965 through 1970 are occasionally referenced – and perhaps dismissed - as weak
James Bond pastiches, but such description is misleading and unsatisfying. The Fu Manchu films as conceived by Towers and
Co. are akin to cinematic comic strips for adults – the two final strips admittedly
marketed to a more leering segment of mature audiences. Jess Franco was something of a
Johnny-Come-Lately to the series, perhaps a budget-minded choice of director. The first two films (The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) were helmed by Australian Don Sharp,
the series’ third entry, The Vengeance of
Fu Manchu (1968) directed by Brit Jeremy Summers. For what would prove to be the final two
entries of the franchise, the producers went to the continent to seek out an
Jess Franco admitted to being surprised at having been
asked to direct the series’ fourth and fifth entries. In many respects the eccentric Spaniard was
worthy of Tower’s consideration as he shared the producer’s lifelong
enchantment with the comic-strip sensibilities of such popular dime store caliber-novelists
as Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace. But
while he manages to bring some sense of old world British Empire derring-do to
the screen, his two Fu Manchu films - with their attendant misfires and lurid
nude sequences – stand apart from the first three films in the series and remain
resolutely Franco in construction.
How so? Well, the
bevy of beautiful, half-naked women hanging sorrowfully in bondage chains is a
continually present and reoccurring Jess Franco fantasy. Christopher Lee’s co-star, Tsai Chin, recalls
the distinguished British actor’s discomfort parading in his Fu Manchu wardrobe
past a gaggle of chained, half-naked actresses. The epitome of gentlemanly British behavior, Lee was visibly distressed by
such staging. In Chin’s estimation,
while the cultured and mannered Lee was most determinedly a renaissance man, he
was certainly “not a womanizer.”
Chin, the Chinese-born British actress then best known
internationally for her small role as agent “Ling” in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, would have had some
insight in this matter. She returns in The Blood of Fu Manchu for her fourth outing
as Lin Tang, the sadistic, malevolent daughter of the mad villain. As in the series’ previous entries, Chin
portrays Tang as completely dispassionate, commanding her minions to torture
and humiliate innocents and enemies alike with merciless Oriental fervor.
In an interview with Tsai Chin years on and included here
as a bonus feature, the informed actress admits to having had to repeatedly
“search her conscience” to justify her participation in the Fu Manchu franchise. She was progressive enough to recognize that
the Sax Rohmer novels were unapologetically racist in their construction. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, the first novel having
been published in 1912, were written as blowback in the decade following the long
simmering anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-Christian, and decidedly anti-British
Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. But Chin was also keenly aware of racism in
the modern film industry; there were, simply, few opportunities for “ethnic” actors
to get work of anytime, so she soldiered on with the series despite her
In truth, the actress was sadly given very little
do. Chin believed, very accurately, that
the character of Lin Tang - as written by one “Peter Welbeck” - was completely
one dimensional. The actress was born a
year following MGM’s own esteemed Boris Karloff/Myrna Loy vehicle, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). In this pre-code film, the sultry Loy brashly
teased Lin Tang as a seductress and nymphomaniac. It’s extremely baffling why – in the swinging
sixties and with such nudity and bondage envelope-pushers as Franco and Towers steering
the enterprise – Chin’s Lin Tang was so wasted, cast as little more than a
remorseless, cruel bitch.
Christopher Lee wouldn’t suffer any moral quandaries as a
Caucasian playing an Asian villain with exaggerated epicanthic
folds – the responsibility of an actor, after all, is to effectively pretend
and make an audience believe that he or she is someone they are not. Regardless, the lanky Lee would admit
disappointment with the series as a whole. It was his opinion that, as had Hammer’s popular Dracula series, the Fu
Manchu franchise ran out of steam very quickly, that the earliest film had been
the finest and that the enterprise should have wrapped immediately following. It’s there, however, that the similarities
end. Lee’s exasperation with the
producing team at Hammer is well documented, but the actor - very interestingly
- seemed to carry little animus for Harry Alan Towers.
heavyweights Columbia and Universal produced as many serials as Republic
Pictures from 1929-1956, the latter studio is generally best known for its
exciting sound-era chapter-plays.
Universal and the less widely known Mascot Pictures were in the game the
earliest; both studios began releasing their sound serials in 1929. Mascot would only last six years or so.
Universal – choosing to concentrate exclusively on the production of feature
films – effectively got out of the serial business in 1946. Republic and Columbia hung on to the production
of chapter-plays the longest; they released their final serials in 1955 and
wasn’t only a serials factory. The
studio was in the low budget feature filmmaking business as well, busily
churning out a dizzying array of westerns, adventure pictures, and mysteries. They would test the box-office potentials of
the horror film market during the 1940s with limited success. As a second-tier “Poverty Row” studio,
Republic would enjoy a less distinguished track record in the horror film realm
than, say, Monogram Pictures. The latter
studio would occasionally tap the talents of such moonlighting film ghouls as
Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, George Zucco, and Lionel Atwill. Dutifully exploiting the popular culture
trends of the day, Republic would soon move into the production sci-fi serials
beginning with King of the Rocket Men
(1949). In the next five years the
studio would knock out a number of similar themed serials with The Invisible Monster (1950), Flying Disc Man from Mars (1951), Radar Men from the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).
Sholem’s Tobor The Great (1954), now
out on Blu Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, was one of Republic’s earliest
non-serial feature films of the “Silver Age” of Sci-Fi. Though more of a timepiece curiosity than a
great film, old-school sci-fi fans – at least those with long memories - will
welcome Tobor The Great as a valuable
addition to their private collection. The year 1954 was, to be sure, a good one for devotees of sci-fi
cinema. Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea managed to garner the studio two
Academy Awards. Universal unleashed The Creature from the Black Lagoon in
glorious 3-D and, not to be outdone, Warner Bros. released a swarm of giant
radioactive ants collectively known as Them!
on the city of Los Angeles. Tobor The Great is not even remotely as
entertaining nor well crafted as the three above mentioned films, but it’s
arguably no better or worse than such other 1954 efforts as Devil Girl from Mars or Roger Corman’s Monster from the Ocean Floor.
obvious that Republic’s target audience for Tobor
The Great was the juvenile market. We’re introduced early on to Brian “Gadge” Roberts (Billy Chapin), a ten
year old whiz kid who is a prodigal student of mathematics and the sciences. We soon learn that young Brian’s proclivities
for the disciplines are at least partly inherited. The boy and his mother Janice (Karen Booth) have
been living comfortably in the home of his maternal grandfather ever since the
boy’s father had been killed while serving in Korea.
grandfather happens to be the kindly Professor Arnold Nordstrom (Taylor
Holmes), a research scientist working for the C.I.F.C., an acronym for the Civil
Interplanetary Flight Commission. The commission’s principal concern is with helping guarantee America’s front-runner
status in space travel, rocketry, and guided missile launches. The professor, an expert in astrophysics and
aerodynamics, studiously labors away in a secreted wine cellar repurposed as a modern
subterranean experimental laboratory.
The Warner Archive has released the 1960 comedy hit "Where the Boys Are" as a special edition Blu-ray. The film looks positively quaint today but I enjoyed it in the manner that an anthropologist would if he were examining etchings on cave walls from a distant era. The film reflects the social values of the time and, not surprisingly, there is nary a minority teenager to be seen. The story concerns a group of coeds (to use a truly quaint term)- Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Connie Francis and Yvette Mimieux- who make a first time pilgrimage from their snowbound college to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Even in 1960, Fort Lauderdale was the "go to" destination for students. However, the film's impact was so significant that it increased the masses of student tourists to Fort Lauderdale exponentially over the years. One must look at the movie in the context of the time period. This was the first generation of females who were able to exert enough independence to make such a trip sans chaperones. The girls are predictably man hungry and in one cringe-inducing sequence, Paula Prentiss' character says her higher education is just a waste of time because she was put on earth to find a guy and have babies!
Still, Where the Boys Are was probably the first beach movie to at least attempt to address sexual desire among the young in a somewhat frank way. While her girlfriends flirt endlessly with hunks like George Hamilton and Jim Hutton, Yvette Mimieux's character lets down her guard and "goes all the way". The resulting sense of guilt and suicidal depression may seem overwrought today but it's genuinely frightening to imagine these were the sensibilities of the time. One doesn't know whether the film is reaffirming the validity of equating virginity with self-worth or whether it is being critical of the philosophy. In any event, the scene adds a poignancy that is lacking from most other movies of this genre. In the beginning of the movie, Dolores Hart's Merritt faces possible expulsion from school for voicing her opinion that premarital sex should not be frowned upon. The next time someone pines away about the good old days, have them watch this cinematic time capsule.
Much was made about the fact that the film was shot on location in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, the on location footage is rather fleeting and judiciously edited among the phony studios shots in order to give the impression that the cast spent much more time in Florida than they actually did. Still, the local color does give the film a leg up over the majority of cheapie beach movies that were to follow in its wake. The main attribute of the movie is the charismatic cast. The female leads are delightful to watch with Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis particularly good. (Francis' crooning of the title song sent it to the top of the charts). Among the males, Hamilton is his usual unruffled, handsome good guy who sports more grease in his hair than Jerry Lewis. Hutton plays a beatnik-type character but the jokes become predictable and weary. Frank Gorshin, in an early screen appearance, is somewhat more amusing as a jazz musician who is blind without his Coke bottle-like eyeglasses.
The Blu-ray extras have been ported over from the previous DVD release from 2002. There is a 2003 featurette with Prentiss and Francis reminiscing about the joys of making the film. The always engaging Prentiss also provides a fun commentary track and there is an original theatrical trailer and brief newsreel footage of the stars arriving in Fort Lauderdale for the world premiere.
Where the Boys Are is by no means cinematic art, but it is a consistently entertaining look at a bygone era.
is 1962. Aggrieved when Algeria is granted independence by President Charles de
Gaulle, the militant underground alliance known as the Organisation Armée Secrète botches an
attempt to assassinate him. Within months many of the conspirators, including
their top man, have been captured and executed. The remaining OAS leaders,
bereft of funds, take refuge in Austria and warily decide to contract an
outside professional to do the job for them. They settle on a British assassin
(Edward Fox), who chooses to be identified as Jackal. The OAS orchestrate
several bank robberies to cover his exorbitant fee of half a million dollars
whilst the mechanics of the plotting are left entirely to Jackal's discretion.
After capturing and interrogating another alliance member, the French authorities
learn of Jackal's existence and, suspecting another attempt on de Gaulle's life
may be imminent, they set their best man – Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel
(Michel Lonsdale) – on his tail. But Jackal is cunning and, as his carefully
formulated scheme to assassinate de Gaulle approaches fruition, he moves around
Europe seamlessly changing his guise and identity in a bid to stay one step
ahead of Lebel.
from Frederick Forsyth's 1971 bestseller of the same name, director Fred
Zinnemann's suspenseful 1973 film The Day
of the Jackal is, in my opinion, one of the finest political thrillers to
be carried over from page to screen. At its core it's an increasingly taut game
of cat and mouse which subtly persuades its audience to champion both sides; as
much as we want to see Jackal thwarted by Lebel, we can't help but admire the
cucumber cool killer as his meticulous and seemingly fool-proof plan comes
together. This ineluctable sharing of loyalties is in no small part down to the
performances of the two lead actors. Edward Fox in his first major big screen
role – arguably his best – phlegmatically dominates the proceedings. Jackal's mien
is that of an urbane, unflappable English gentleman with a winning smile, but
it can all disappear in the blink of an eye as witnessed in a moment early on
when he deals with someone stupid enough to try to cross him; two swift, savage
barehanded blows later the man is dead. Fox's performance is matched ounce for
ounce by Michel Lonsdale as the savvy, resourceful policeman tasked with
tracking him down. Aside from some unfortunate and slightly distracting
continuity oversights relating to the artificial grey in his hair (which frequently
changes in volume), Lonsdale's Lebel is a compelling screen presence and I for
one would have liked to have seen him carry the role on through a series of
the film also benefits immeasurably from a peppering of British stalwarts –
among them Derek Jacobi, Timothy West, Donald Sinden, Barrie Ingham, Eric
Porter, Tony Britten, Ronald Pickup, Anton Rodgers, Maurice Denham and Edward
Hardwicke – and familiar faces from Euro cinema (Vernon Dobtcheff, Howard
Vernon). In a largely male populated narrative the sparse but nonetheless essential
female contingent appears in the shape of Olga Georges-Picot (The Man Who Haunted Himself) and
Delphine Seyrig (Daughters of Darkness).
off with some expository narration and then thrusting the audience headlong
into the bungled attempt on President de Gaulle's life, director Zinnemann
sustains high tension from the outset. Once the collaborative government forces
ascertain that Jackal intends to target de Gaulle in Paris, a palpable sense of
apprehension builds as we dot back and forth between frustrated government
officials – furrowed brows becoming increasingly sweat-sheened as they puff
nervously on their cigarettes – and Jackal going about his preparations
completely unflustered. The climax is located on the Champs-Élysées in the midst of the Liberation Day parade
and, as Lebel pushes through the hundreds of milling spectators futilely trying
to spot his man – whilst, in a nearby building, Jackal is positioning himself
to dispense the death shot – doubt begins to creep in that this will end
happily. Incidentally, these scenes were filmed during a real parade and more
than a few members of the public can be noted looking directly into camera as
Lonsdale moves among them.
RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Vinegar Syndrome (we love the name) is a DVD label that specializes in preserving and restoring vintage cinematic erotica and other cult films. Their most recent coup is the release of a double feature on Blu-ray consisting of Russ Meyer's 1964 adaptation of Fanny Hill along with Albert Zugsmith's bizarre 1967 Western comedy The Phantom Gunslinger. The dual package generously provides both films on DVD as well as their Blu-ray editions. Russ Meyer was already well-known as both a cheesecake photographer for "men's magazines" as well as a director of soft-cover sex films that generally showcased young women who were super-amply endowed. Ever the opportunist, he teamed with producer Zugsmith in 1964 for Fanny Hill, which was based on a notorious 18th century novel that chronicled the sexual escapades of a promiscuous young woman. Such was the book's controversial impact that when it was reprinted in the early 1960s it was banned in some quarters for obscenity. The publisher and civil libertarians contested the ruling and the subsequent court battle put ol' Fanny right in the midst of the contemporary news cycle. Zugsmith, who was a producer of some repute (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil) had by this point concentrated on low-brow exploitation fare. He reasoned that if the country was up in arms over a two hundred year old book, audiences would go wild over a film adaptation of the story. The plot centers on Fanny (Leticia Roman) as a buxom blonde farm girl who arrives in London, naive and clueless about the ways of the world. She is quickly "adopted" by Mrs. Brown (Miriam Hopkins), a seemingly benevolent older woman who is, in fact, a madame who wants to exploit Fanny's innocence by turning her into a prostitute. What she doesn't count on is just how naive Fanny is. Even when residing with numerous other ladies of the night, she fails to catch on to the fact that the place is a bordello. Mrs. Brown tries on several occasions to financially benefit from renting the young virgin to any number of eager patrons, but fate always intervenes before the act can be consummated. When Fanny falls in love with Charles (Ulli Lommel), a dashing and chivalrous young sailor, Mrs. Brown arranges for him to be kidnapped and taken out of the country. Thinking her lover has abandoned her, Fanny becomes despondent and out of grief agrees to marry a loathsome nobleman. As the ceremony begins, Fanny's betrothed manages to escape and make his way to the wedding where the film climaxes in a crazy, slap-stick filled brawl. Viewers may be puzzled by the almost complete absence of eroticism in the film, along with relatively few lingering shots of semi-dressed young women. The whole enterprise is so chaste it could be shown today on the Disney Channel. This was due to the fact that Zugsmith and Meyer clashed over the content of the film, with Zugsmith insisting that comedy should be emphasized over sexual content. Meyer finished the film but justifiably regarded it as a low-grade entry on his list of cinematic achievements. What emerged is a Jerry Lewis-like farce with zany sequences in which people swing from chandeliers, cross dress and engage in various forms of mayhem. In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that the film was deemed controversial even in 1964. Zugsmith filmed the movie in West Germany using local actors for supporting roles. Although the three leads-Roman, Hopkins and Lommel- perform admirable given the circumstances, the supporting cast is encouraged to play even the most minor moments in absurd, over-the-top manner. The result is that the film's primary legacy is as an interesting relic of a bygone era when "naughty" films could still raise eyebrow without delivering much in the way of genuine eroticism.
The second entry on the DVD "double feature" is even more bizarre and makes Fanny Hill look like Last Tango in Paris in comparison. The Phantom Gunslinger was shot in Mexico as a vehicle for Albert Zugsmith to prove he was a triple threat talent, with the erstwhile fellow producing, co-writing and directing the resulting disaster. It's clear that without someone like Russ Meyer to at least try to restrain Zugsmith's instincts for broad slapstick, the project was doomed from the start. The plot, such as it is, finds a small Western town taken over by a gang of notorious outlaws. They cause some mild mayhem but mostly seem content to gorge themselves on sumptuous feasts in between flirting with the local saloon girls. The local sheriff is terrified and runs away, turning his badge over to Bill (Troy Donahue), a hunky dimwit who sets about trying to wrest control of the town from the raucous outlaws. That's about as deep as the story line goes. Zugsmith pads the film with so much slapstick it makes the average Three Stooges skit look like the work of Noel Coward. The film is certainly one of the most bizarre of its era and its hard to know whether it was ever even released theatrically in America. There is a painful element to watching Troy Donahue at this stage in his career. Only a few years earlier, he was deemed a bankable star by major studios. Whatever desperate measures persuaded him to be involved in this enterprise will probably never be known but perhaps he was inspired by the success of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. Eastwood went to Spain and collaborated with a genius named Sergio Leone. Donahue went to Mexico and was saddled with Albert Zugsmith. Such are the cruel ironies of fate. The Phantom Gunslinger is so repetitive in its gags that one is reminded that this is the kind of film they invented the fast forward remote control feature for.
is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock's crowning achievement. Although
I'd suggest there are several other titles that could justifiably vie for that accolade,
there's no disputing that it ranks as a premium couple of hours of suspenseful
drama that still packs a punch 57 years on from its release. I can only begin
to imagine the impact the burgeoning ill-ease and kinky twist reveal had on
unsuspecting audiences back in 1960.
it's practically a given that a box office hit will result in a hastily mounted
sequel, but back then it was almost unheard of, besides which Psycho delivered a self-contained story
with a satisfying conclusion, so there really wasn't any need for augmentation.
(To be fair though, one could say that about fistfuls of superfluous sequels
today.) In any event, as follow-ups go 1983's Psycho II rubs shoulders with the best of them; yes, it's
superfluous, but director Richard Franklin's film wipes out any suspicions of a
cash-raking exercise by delivering a beautifully tailored narrative that
dovetails impeccably with its ancestor. In fact it’s such a well-considered
continuation that one could almost believe it had been planned right from the
start. It isn't just good, it's really
with a slightly pared down replay of that
shower murder from Hitchcock's film, as the camera pans to the window and comes
to rest on the edifice that is the Bates house, the image subtly transitions
from the black & white of the original to colour. And so begins a tale
bristling with devilish twists, one that's almost as thrilling as the first and
that unexpectedly weighs in with a hefty emotional payload.
ago Fairvale motelier Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was arrested following
several brutal knife murders – including that of larcenous Marion Crane – and
the discovery that as a child he'd poisoned his overbearing Mother. Due to his
state of mind he was declared not guilty of murder and incarcerated in an
institution for the criminally insane. Now, much to the ire of Marion's sister,
Lila (Vera Miles), Norman has been pronounced fit for release. He arrives back
at the family owned motel to find that an oily state-appointed manager, Toomey
(Dennis Franz), has allowed it to devolve into a dive patronised by unsavoury
clientele. Norman sacks Toomey and sets about doing the place up, intending to
relaunch it as a respectable establishment. To make ends meet in the interim he
gets a part-time job at a nearby diner where he meets and takes a shine to down-on-her-luck
waitress Mary (Meg Tilly) and he subsequently offers her lodgings. Although
she's aware of Norman's past – there's not a soul in Fairvale who isn't – she's
desperate and so, with some trepidation, accepts. As Norman's affection for
Mary warms, so the first of a series of notes from his dead Mother appears. Next
come the phone calls. And then people around Norman begin to die, each falling
victim to a shadowy, knife-wielding figure. Has the rehabilitation process not
been the success it first appeared? Are the messages from Mother all in
Norman's head? Or is someone messing with him, trying to retrigger his
insanity? Whatever the case, Norman quickly begins to unravel...
previously directed a couple of efficient chillers in his native Australia –
1978's Patrick and 1981's Roadgames – Richard Franklin's decision
to take on a sequel to one of cinema history's most venerated films for his
American debut was a bold and ambitious one. Fortunately, Psycho II proved a decent critical and box office success. It
boasts a sharp, intelligent script by Tom Holland, who would go on to helm some
fine chillers of his own (among them Fright
Night and Child's Play), and who
appears fleetingly here as a police deputy.
Perkins – slipping back into Norman Bates' loafers with such ease that it's
almost as if he never vacated them – gets the cream of the dialogue, including
some splashes of black humour, for example when Norman, former knife murderer,
nervously falters in his enunciation of the word “cutlery”. The script also rather
daringly turns Norman into a figure of sympathy as he tries to fit back
into civilised society, struggling valiantly to quell the re-emergence of
his former homicidal impulses whilst external forces seem to conspire against
him. There's a wonderful scene which finds Mary comforting Norman and he tells
her that she smells like toasted cheese sandwiches, kindling one of the few
happy memories of his mostly bereft childhood; if it sounds a bit corny on
paper, it's actually remarkably poignant.
With a screenplay penned by an
otherwise obscure advertising copywriter named Ceri Jones (adapted from an
original story by director Gary Sherman), the premise of Death Line is rather simple.Late night travelers on London’s famed underground tubes have been
disappearing with alarming regularity from the Russell Square Tube
Station.Two young, unmarried collegians,
Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney), unwittingly get
themselves entangled into the mystery when they find an unconscious, well-dressed
fop lying comatose on the lower steps of the station.They alert a wary and hesitant policeman to
investigate, but the slumped body – whose wallet had earlier identified the
body as Sir James Manfred, O.B.E. - is suddenly nowhere to be found.
We soon learn that Manfred (James
Cossins) is merely the latest delicacy in the supper plans of a gruesome character
billed only as “The Man.” Even putting
his cannibalistic appetite aside, “The Man” (Hugh Armstrong) still cuts a
pretty morbid figure. Filthy, ragged,
and with skin tone that’s both beyond the pale and ravaged with festering sores
(think of the iconic and disheveled – but still healthier appearing - figure that
graces the cover of Jethro Tull’s seminal Aqualung
LP), this mostly mute subterranean has – somewhat reluctantly - become the last
surviving offspring of a band of tunnel dwellers.
There’s a back story here,
of course. It seems that during the
construction of the South London tube in 1892, there was an unfortunate cave-in
that entombed a team of construction workers. The company contracted to build that particular section of this nineteenth
century subway went immediately into bankruptcy, coldheartedly making no
attempt to rescue those (apparently) mixed-sex workers trapped in the dank and
rat infested arc-shaped tunnels.
This was unfortunate as some
of those abandoned not only managed to survive, but to reproduce and flourish
(more or less) by eating the flesh of their less fortunate comrades. It’s never adequately explained why in the
eighty years between the tunnel collapse of 1892 and the film’s current date of
1972, the youngest and last surviving of the mining offspring has lost all of
their language skills aside from a grunting, guttural mimic of the rail line’s oft-repeated
conductor’s phrase “Mind the Doors.” Likewise, it’s never explained why – while searching out potential
future meals on the underground platforms - the “trapped” tunnelers simply didn’t
walk up the stairwells and out into the sunshine. Of course, if they had, there
would be no drama. Certainly romancing University
students Campbell and Wilson wouldn’t have been begrudgingly dragged into the
on-going police investigation – much in the manner of Fred and Daphne from the
old Scooby Doo cartoon series. To some degree it hardly matters. They’re
window dressing. British actor Donald
Pleasence is the true star of this vehicle, bringing more than a dollop of
churlish intensity to his blue collar character, Inspector Calhoun. Pleasence is a decidedly old-school policeman,
a cantankerous, prudish sort who continually badgers his secretary for cups of
tea. He also relishes belittling and
sneering at young Campbell and his generation’s immoral lifestyles, live-in
girlfriends, and hippie mindset. He’s
particularly disdainful of privileged middle-class kids dabbling in the
political protest movements of the day.
To be fair, Calhoun shows
little regard for the more well-heeled citizens of Britain either, tossing more
than a few cynical barbs at the newly deceased snob James Manfred, O.B.E. He also possesses an almost pathological
antipathy toward M.I.5. He views the
organization not as an ally but more as a smug, self-important competitor in his
street level fight against crime.
Though horror film icon
Christopher Lee gets a feature billing in Death
Line, his role is relatively small and the single scene he does appear in does
little to move the narrative forward. Producer Paul Maslansky had previously worked with Lee on a number of
films (including the very atmospheric and spooky black and white chiller Castle of the Living Dead). It was through Maslansky that Lee was cast as
Pleasence’s smirking antagonist, the condescending and derby-topped
Stratton-Villiers of M.I.5.
Though the two actors would
only share a single scene together – oddly, the pair would only share the
briefest of moments seen together on the big screen – Maslansky recalled Lee gladly
accepting the small role if only to work with Pleasence, an actor he much
admired. The young American actor, David
Ladd, was also duly impressed by Pleasence, describing him as the consummate
“actor’s actor.” He found working
alongside him somewhat “intimidating.” Ladd is the younger brother of Oscar-winning producer Alan Ladd, Jr.,
and was certainly no leading man in Britain. He had previously worked mostly in the U.S. as a child actor. Though Ladd’s role of Alex Campbell was
originally purposed for a British actor, the producers thought having an
American in the part might make the film an easier sell in the States.
about troubled cops or ex-cops still have a foothold in movies and TV shows --
almost to the point where you wonder why so these emotionally vulnerable men
and women chose a stressful career in law enforcement in the first place. Private eyes, on the other hand, are almost
an extinct species on the screen, after great media popularity in the 1950s and
intermittent periods of audience demand since then. Maybe, as fantasy figures who embody power,
personal integrity, and social conscience, trenchcoated PIs have been displaced
and replaced by superheroes. The hero of
Hal Ashby’s “8 Million Ways to Die”
(1986), Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges),
begins as a policeman but becomes an unlicensed, free-lance gumshoe in the
course of the story. A detective with
the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, Scudder serves a warrant on a
suspected drug trafficker in the opening scenes of the film. When the suspect attacks another deputy with
a baseball bat, Scudder fatally shoots him in front of his wife and
children. Either out of remorse for
killing the suspect or out of anger for being raked over the coals by Internal
Affairs for using his gun (the movie is a little hazy on this point), Scudder
quits the force and becomes an alcoholic. Deciding to clean up his act after his wife and daughter move out, Scudder
joins Alcoholics Anonymous, where another attendee at a meeting, an attractive
woman, slips him a note with a name and phone number. These developments all take place within the
first few minutes of the picture.
the staging, the audience initially thinks that the woman is flirting with
Scudder and giving him her personal information. (Nowadays, she’d Tweet -- were the 1980s
really that long ago?) But it turns out
that the name and phone number belong to the woman’s friend, Sunny (Alexandra Paul), a prostitute. Sunny offers a job to Scudder as a go-between
with her pimp, Chance (Randy Brooks). Sunny wants out of the life but she’s afraid to approach Chance herself.
Scudder agrees to represent her. Chance tells
him that Sunny is free to go: he doesn’t control her and she can do what she
wants. But then Sunny is abducted off
the street and brutally murdered while Scudder watches helplessly. Scudder goes on a bender, but revenge gives
him a motive for going on the wagon again. He’s convinced that Chance was the murderer, and he wants to bring him
to justice, but as he confronts Chance and gathers other clues, his suspicions
turn to Angel (Andy Garcia), a high-living Colombian cocaine kingpin. Scudder enlists another hooker, Sarah
(Rosanna Arquette) to help him get close to Angel. The previous tragedy of a woman horribly
murdered while under Scudder’s care threatens to repeat itself. Sarah, a shotgun held under her chin, becomes
leverage for Angel as Scudder tries to entrap him by instigating a raid on his
multi-million dollar cache of coke.
story behind “8 Million Ways to Die,” (1986) Ashby’s final, troubled film,
arguably is more interesting than the movie itself. The initial script by Oliver Stone, adapted
from a 1982 novel by Lawrence Block, went through at least two rewrites, one by
an uncredited Robert Towne. As director,
Ashby encouraged the actors to improvise many scenes. Some accounts say that Ashby did so in a
spirit of creative collaboration, others contend that he’d simply lost interest
in the job after ongoing interference by the producers. Many of the scenes stumble around with the
actors improvising dialogue that sounds like what might emerge from
drama-school tryouts where hopefuls are encouraged to “talk about your character’s
feelings.” In a showdown between Scudder
and Angel, Bridges and Garcia set a record for the number of F-bombs shouted in
a given time period. Ashby’s supporters
claim that “8 Million Ways to Die” would have been a good film, rather than an
exasperating but sometimes interesting failure, if he’d been allowed to oversee
post-production, choose the best of multiple takes from certain scenes, and
rearrange the story to better frame it as a journey of redemption as seen
through Scudder’s eyes.
Lorber’s Blu-ray edition of “8 Million Ways to Die” is rich in special
features, including an informative audio commentary by film historians Howard
S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and new interviews with Garcia, Paul,
Arquette, and Block. All three actors
are collegial and engaged, but Garcia, especially, reminisces about the movie
eloquently and warmly; it’s unfortunate that most younger viewers, now,
probably know the handsome actor best for his commercials with George Clooney,
hawking Nespresso. Block talks about
meeting with Stone early on, and wryly notes that the producers had concerns
about the logic of retaining the title of the novel. The book had been set in New York City, and
the title had been a play on the tagline for the classic, NYC-based Naked City TV series (“There are eight
million stories . . .”). But the script
relocated the action to Los Angeles, where the population falls short of eight
million people. The producers decided to
keep the title when they calculated that, if you counted the number of
residents in the entire LA metro area, you’d come up with about eight million.
and Thompson note that the film was a commercial flop in initial release (I
remember seeing it in a nearly empty theater, the first week it played), but
gradually picked up an audience from VHS and pay-cable through the late
‘80s. Is it sexist to wonder whether
many of those home-video watchers were guy teens who sneaked the cassette to
fast-forward and freeze-frame to Alexandra Paul’s brief, full-fontal nude
The Kino Lorber
Blu-ray includes a reversible cover sleeve with alternate poster art on both
sides. The main side reproduces the
poster showing Bridges and Arquette against a pastel-neon sunset and a waving
palm tree. The color scheme, I’m
certain, was designed to entice fans of TV’s “Miami Vice,” the hottest ticket
in pop culture at the time.
The good folks at the esteemed boutique video label First Run Features are generally known for making available films that relate to important and usually sobering social issues. Every now and then, however, they delve into areas that are considerably more light-hearted in nature. First Run has recently overseen the theatrical release of the acclaimed new documentary "Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" by directors Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards. The film has now been released on DVD. Giordano may not be a household name but he's a living legend among jazz purists who are devoted to the music of the 1920s and 1930s- the kind of upbeat, immortal tunes popularized by Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Giordano plays to packed houses at Manhattan venues where he performs with his band, the Nighhawks, which he formed decades ago. Like many creative types, he is eccentric, to be sure. The film's glimpses into his personal life reveals that he lives modestly in two adjoining houses in a middle class neighborhood of Brooklyn. Giordano bought the house next door many years ago to accommodate his ever-increasing collection of sheet music and memorabilia that has obsessed him since childhood. The collection is meticulously cataloged in so many filing cabinets that his house resembles the Library of Congress. Floor-to-ceiling paperwork pertaining to his musical heroes permeates the place. You won't find any evidence in Giordano's abode that indicates the existence of rock 'n roll or even the glory days of crooners like Sinatra and Crosby. He is completely devoted to the golden era of jazz and works tirelessly to keep up with finding gigs that will help him keep his sizable band employed.
The film opens with the band delighting in audiences at their long-time Manhattan home, the nightclub Sofia's which was located in the historic Edison Hotel off of Times Square (the same venue where Luca Brasi made the ominous walk to his doom in "The Godfather".) For many years the Nighthawks performed here in the cozy venue, filling the room with the joy of the big band sound. I had seen them there several years ago and, despite not being a jazz enthusiast myself, I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer exuberance of the band. The film follows Giordano's travails as the leader of the Nighthawks- including informing the band members on camera that Sofia's is being forced out of business by landlords who have raised the rent to $2 million a year. Ever-resourceful, he finds them a new home at a club called Iguana- but there are countless other frustrations involved in moving so many people to so many gigs far and wide. Many band members have been with Giordano for many years, some for decades. They relate how the sheer challenges of keeping on top of all of his responsibilities has sometimes caused him to break up the band, only to reunite them shortly thereafter. Giordano seems to have no other interests in his life than jazz and the Nighthawks. He is like an Evangelist in terms of spreading the word about the music and artists that he so reveres. His efforts are clearly paying off. We see him attract young people at the Newport Jazz Festival and at New York's famed private club for the arts, The Players, where he is one of the headline acts at the New York Hot Summer Jazz Festival. Giordano is part mother hen and part drill instructor to his band members. He refers to himself as "The King of Schlep" in regard to the fact that at age 65 he still loads and unloads the vast amount of equipment necessary for every show, carrying it all around in a rather weather-beaten van. He's like a modern version of Willie Lohman, feeling his age perhaps, but ever-devoted to his profession. He relies on his right arm, Carol Jean Hughes, to help him keep track of the enormous amount of paperwork and logistical support that goes into running the band. Giordano shows a grumpy side when things go wrong: a misplaced mouthpiece or a miscommunication that sees him setting up the entire band at the Players only to be told to dismantle everything because another band is scheduled to go on before him. But he's clearly in his element and delighting when playing in front of appreciative audiences. The band's prominence hit new heights with their Grammy-winning work on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" and the film includes clips from one of the segments in which the Nighthawks appear on camera. There is also extensive footage of David Johansen rehearsing with the band for the series. Giordano also coordinates a triumphant celebration of the 90th anniversary of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and performs it at the same venue in which it premiered on the exact date of the anniversary in front of a cheering audience. The film also mentions that Giordano has worked with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, appearing on camera in musical scenes in their films.
"Vince Giordano: There's a Future in the Past" is a sweet-natured movie that was funded by grants and private donations. Directors Davidson and Edwards wisely allow ample screen time to show the Nighthawks performing- and the interviews with band members are especially interesting, giving a perspective of people who have not gotten rich but clearly enjoy what they do. Vince Giordano comes across as a New York original- the kind of guy you would like to sit down with at a bar for a few hours. However, that seems unlikely since the workaholic musician strikes me as the kind of obsessive who couldn't bring himself to stop studying and playing music long enough to drain down a couple of cold ones. The documentary is terrific on all levels- just like any performance by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.
The DVD boasts an excellent transfer and a trailer gallery of other First Run features available on DVD, though strangely it does not include the trailer for the Giordano film.
In the 1960s European cinema went mad for a style of filmmaking called portmanteau, which is a movie that consists of several short stories united by a common theme. One such film was the 1964 release "Les plus belles escroqueries du monde", released in English language nations as "The World's Most Beautiful Swindlers". The charm of such movies was that they generally gathered diverse, well-known filmmakers who contributed individual segments in their own unique style. The Olive Films Blu-ray edition of "Swindlers" showcases the work of four directors in generally whimsical tales that involve men and women who circumvent the law for their own personal gain. First up is a tale set in Tokyo, directed by Hiromichi Horikawa. Future James Bond girl Mie Hama plays a young woman who is frustrated by her "career" of working as a hostess in a bar where her duties are to keep male customers engaged in conversation. When she meets a middle-aged, wealthy eccentric (Ken Mitsuda), who walks around with a fortune in cash in a black bag, she sees an opportunity to exploit him using her sexual charms. She convinces him to allow her into his apartment where the lonely man is immediately entranced by her. However, he is embarrassed when she discovers he wears false teeth- and he makes the mistake of informing her they are extremely valuable because they are made of precious metals. When he conveniently succumbs to a fatal heart attack, the girl realizes that absconding with his cash would make her the obvious perpetrator of a crime, so she steals his dentures before calling the police to report the death. The "sting in the tail" ending, however, may be about dentures but it lacks sufficient bite when the young woman gets her just desserts in an unexpected way. Hama is a charming screen presence and its nice to see her in an early role. Director Horikawa squanders the opportunity to showcase the visual splendors of Tokyo by largely confining the action to interiors. However, the segment is reasonably entertaining.
Japanese poster that played up the charms of Mie Hama.
The second episode is directed by Ugo Gregoretti and is probably the most satisfying of the lot. Set in Naples, it involves a prostitute (Gabriella Giorgetti) who has been dumped by her lover and who is now homeless and desperate for money. She is befriended by one of her clients, a shy, kindly law student who devises a scheme in which she can legally marry a poor, elderly man who lives in a city-run shelter. This will provide her with the legal protections she needs to ply her trade and no longer be harassed by police. (The segment dwells on the archaic codes of morality that affected every man and woman who lived in Naples at the time). Things seem to go well until she jilts her ancient "groom" and her slavish law student in order to reunite with her cruel ex-boyfriend, who uses the marriage scheme to set up his own business. Before long, it is thriving as he acts as a manager to set up prostitutes in sham marriages to poor old men. The ironic ending in which poetic justice is meted out to both the hooker and her lover is rather clever and amusing. The third segment, directed by Claude Chabrol involves a team of young, good-looking swindlers ( Jean-Pierre Cassel and Catherine Deneuve among them) who have a chance encounter with a rich, obnoxious German (Francis Blanche), who has an obsession with the Eiffel Tower and who maintains a collection of memorabilia relating to the legendary edifice. They convince him to come to Paris, where they have set up an elaborate phony corporate operation under the pretense that they have been solicited by Parisian officials to find someone suitable to sell the Eiffel Tower to. The gullible German is giddy with glee at the prospect of owning the landmark building. There are some funny moments in which he is guided around Paris by his "business partners" and wined and dined by them, even though he ends up paying the tab for everyone. The segment shows a lot of promise but fizzles out with an abrupt and completely unsatisfactory ending that makes one wonder if Chabrol had run out of film or a brisk wind swept away the last few pages of the script. In any event, the bland finale compromises the amusing scenes that precede it. The final segment, set in Marrakesh, Morocco, is directed by the estimable Jean-Luc Godard and features Jean Seberg as an American journalist who comes into possession of counterfeit money. The police inform her that a counterfeiting ring is wreaking havoc on the local economy. Intrigued, she manages to track down the culprit, who agrees to an being interviewed by her (not a very smart move if you're a wanted man). The counterfeiter (Charles Denner) is a local peasant with a somnambulistic personality who justifies his actions by explaining that he uses his ill-gotten gains to help poor people. The segment starts off intriguingly with some exotic shots of Marrakesh but quickly devolves into pretentious, nearly incomprehensible blather. Godard keeps the entire latter half of the story confined to a back alley and presents the counterfeiter in a series of boring closeups. One can only assume that Godard simply wanted a free holiday in Morocco, as the segment is a complete snooze and ends the film on a bland note.
It is only in the
stories others tell about us, the legends they create, that we can achieve any
sort of immortality. And even though the stories may not be completely true, it
is better to keep them alive than to let them die. For when they die, we die
with them. Such seems to be the theme of “Barbarosa” (1982), a sly, subtle film
from director Fred Schepisi and screenwriter William D. Witliff, about two men
on the run in the desert in Old Mexico. One is Karl Westover (Gary Busey), a
young farm boy running from an old man who is determined to shoot him on sight
in revenge for killing one of his sons. Karl insists it was an accident. The
other is a legendary outlaw who has been at war for years with a Mexican family
that gave him the name Barbarosa (Willie Nelson), which means Red Beard in
No sooner do the two
men meet than a Mexican with a gun charges Barbarosa. The grizzled, bearded
outlaw stands calmly as a bullet marks his cheek and puts a hole in the brim of
his sombrero. He coolly shoots and kills his assailant, a member of the Zuvalla
family. Barbarosa explains he’s managed to survive by killing at least half a dozen
male members of the Zuvalla family over the last 15 years. The two men—the farm
boy and the outlaw—are in the same predicament, both hunted men. Barbarosa
reluctantly decides to take the young, inexperienced fugitive under his wing
and teach him the tricks of the outlaw trade.
The pairing of Busey
with Willie is unusual casting to say the least, and watching them play off
each other is quite a treat. The mercurial Busey, even then notorious for
cutting up on the set, manages to keep himself in check long enough to make his
farm boy turned outlaw believable, and Willy is just laid-back Willie,
perfectly suited to play the laconic bandido.
One of the first things Barbarosa teaches him
is how to kill a man with a gun. First, he says, point it like you’re pointing your
finger. Second squeeze the trigger gently “like you’re holding your sore
pecker.” Third: “Always stand still until you’re done shooting,” he explains.
“Nothin’ scares a man more than for you to be standin’ still when you should be
runnin’ like a spotted-assed ape.” Barbarosa is a font of such outlaw wisdom. When Carl tells him
about his trouble back home, he says, “Well, the Mexicans got a saying – ‘What
cannot be remedied must be endured.’”
Meanwhile back at the Zuvalla Rancho, Don Braulio Zuvalla (the great
Gilbert Roland in his last film), after learning of the death of the man
Barbarosa killed, selects another young member of the family to seek out and kill
Barbarosa “Bring me his cojones,” he
says. “Bring them to me on a stick.” Young Eduardo (Danny De La Paz) accepts
the task, vowing not to return until he’s done as the don has asked.
Screenwriter Witliff, whose other work for the screen includes the
“Lonesome Dove” TV series, “The Black Stallion,” and “Legends of the Fall,” slowly
pays out Barbarosa’s backstory in small pieces as the action moves forward. It
isn’t until midway through the film we hear the Don’s version of what happened
between the two men. Barbarosa had been a Texas Ranger who saved the Don’s life
and became a family friend but then married the don’s daughter without his consent.
Barbarosa’s wife, Josephina, is played by Mexican actress Isela Vega, best
known for playing Elita in Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece “Bring Me the Head of
Alfredo Garcia” (1974). Karl and his outlaw partner sneak into the rancho to
give Josephina some money. Karl overhears the Don telling the assembled
children the story, and learns that Barbarosa had cold-bloodedly shot off the
Don’s leg at the knee, and slashed the throats of two of his sons. The Don says
the once honey-colored beard was now red with blood. “Barbarosa!” one of the
children cries. The Don tells them Barbarosa is the devil himself and as long
as they live they must hunt for Barbarosa and one day finally kill him.
When Don Braulio later discovers Barbarosa within his hacienda,
the two men face each other. “Damn you for all the misery, you’ve caused,”
Barbarosa mutters. “All I ever wanted to do is be a part of this family.” Don
Braulio tells him: “And are you not part of this family?” The bitter feud, the
endless killing, has bonded the Don and the outlaw together forever.
The second half of the film deals with Karl’s problems with the
old man who is gunning for him. Karl returns home to find his father and sister
alone and in bad health. There is a confrontation with his pursuer and later
Barbarosa shows up and the two team up once again. But young Eduardo is still
in pursuit and there is a final showdown with Barbarosa. I won’t reveal the
ending, except to say that before the film is over we learn Barbarosa’s version
of what happened with the Zuvalla family and we come to understand the violence
that happened so many years ago. By the end of the film, Karl has grown from
naïve farm boy to experienced outlaw in his own right. The events that transpire
at the story’s conclusion give him no choice but to become part of the legend
of Barbarosa himself.
Scorpion Releasing has done an excellent job presenting the film
in its first-ever wide screen release in the U.S. The 1080 p transfer to
Blu-Ray displays the movie in its original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The
picture is sharp and clear and does justice to director Schepisi’s fondness for
long-distance shots of the Mexican landscape in which the characters sometimes
appear as mere dots on the screen. The disc contains several bonus features,
including interviews with Schepisi, and cast members Alma Martinez and Danny De
La Paz. There is also a trailer and a separate audio track for listening to Bruce
Smeaton’s music score. “Barbarosa” is highly recommended.
The year 1967 marked the high point of Sidney Poitier's screen career. He starred in three highly acclaimed box office hits: "To Sir, With Love", "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night". The fact that Poitier did not score a Best Actor Oscar nomination that year had less to do with societal prejudices (he had already won an Oscar) than the fact that he was competing with himself and split the voter's choices for his best performance. "In the Heat of the Night" did win the Best Picture Oscar and immortalized Poitier's performance as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective who finds himself assigned to assist a redneck sheriff (Rod Steiger, who did win the Oscar that year for his performance in this film) in a town in the deep south that has experienced a grisly unsolved murder. When Steiger's character, resentful for having to work with a black man, refers to Tibbs as "boy" and asks what they call him back in Philadelphia, he replies "They call me Mister Tibbs!", thereby uttering what would become one of the cinema's most iconic lines of dialogue. In the film, Poitier plays Tibbs as a man of mystery. Little is unveiled about his personal life, which adds immeasurably to his mystique. He proves to be highly intelligent, logical and courageous, though refreshingly, not immune from making mistakes and misjudgments. The reaction to the movie was so good that, Hollywood being Hollywood, United Artists became convinced that Tibbs could be brought back to star in a "tentpole" series of crime thrillers. Kino Lorber has released both sequels to "In the Heat of the Night" as Blu-ray editions.
First up is the 1970 release, "The Call me MISTER Tibbs!" Aside from Poitier's commanding presence as the same character, there is virtually no connection between this Virgil Tibbs and the one seen in the previous film. The screenplay by Alan Trustman, who wrote the winners "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Bullitt", softens the Tibbs character to the point that he resembles one of those unthreatening TV gumshoes. When we first see him, he is now in the San Francisco Police Department, though Trustman doesn't provide even a single line of dialogue to explain how he got there. He's apparently been there for some time, too, because Tibbs has suddenly acquired a wife (Barbara McNair) and a young son and daughter. The movie opens with the brutal murder of a call girl who lived in a pricey apartment. Evidence points to Tibbs' old friend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau), a firebrand street preacher and activist who enjoys a wide following and who is galvanizing the community to vote in a politically controversial referendum. Sharpe professes his innocence and Tibbs sets out to acquit him and find the real killer. The trail quickly leads to a confusing mix of motley characters and red herrings, among them Anthony Zerbe and Ed Asner. Poitier is never less than impressive even when playing a watered-down version of a once gritty character. However, his impact is diminished by the sappy screenplay which allocates an abundance of time showing Tibbs dealing with day-to-day family living. He flirts with his wife and offers life lessons to his son that border on the extremes of political incorrectness. When he catches the lad smoking, Tibbs decides to teach the pre-teen a lesson by inviting him to join him in smoking Churchill cigars and drinking some scotch. (Most of our dads would probably have employed methods that were slightly more "conventional".) This domestic gibberish reduces the character of Tibbs to a big screen version of Brian Keith's Uncle Bill from the "Family Affair" TV series. Director Gordon Douglas, normally very underrated, handles the pedantic script in a pedantic manner, tossing in a few impressive action scenes including one in which Poitier chases Zerbe on foot seemingly through half of San Francisco in the movie's best sequence. The scenes between Poitier and Landau bristle with fine acting but they only share a limited amount of screen time. Quincy Jones provides a lively, funky jazz score but the film never rises above the level of mediocrity.
Poitier returned to the screen for the last time as Virgil Tibbs in 1971 in "The Organization". Compared to the previous outing, this one is superior on most levels. The script by James R. Webb is just as confusing but there is a grittiness to the production and the character of Tibbs is toughened up a bit. Thankfully, the scenes of his home life with wife and kids are kept to a minimum. The film, well directed by Don Medford (his final production), begins with an inspired caper in which a group of masked men stage an audacious and elaborate infiltration of an office building owned by some shady mob characters. They abscond with millions in cocaine. Tibbs is assigned to the case and is shocked when the culprits secretly approach him and admit they stole the drugs. Turns out they are community activists who wanted to prevent the cocaine from hitting the streets. However, they want Tibbs to know that they did not commit a murder that occurred on the premises of the office. They claim someone else did the dirty deed and is trying to pin it on them. Tibbs believes their story and goes against department protocols by keeping the information secret from his superiors while he works with the activists to crack the case. At some point the plot became so tangled that I gave up trying to figure out who was who and just sat back to enjoy the mayhem. Tibbs' withholding of information from the police department backfires on him and he ends up being suspended from the force. Predictably, he goes rogue in order to take on organized crime figures who are trying to get the drugs back. "The Organization" is fairly good Seventies cop fare capped off by a lengthy action sequence imaginatively set in a subway tunnel that is under construction. The supporting cast is impressive and includes reliable Sheree North, scruffy Allen Garfield and up-and-comers Raul Julia, Ron O'Neal and a very brief appearances by Max Gail and Damon Wilson. Barbara McNair returns as Mrs. Tibbs but her sole function is to provide attractive window dressing. Gil Melle provides a hip jazz score.
The Kino Lorber Blu-rays look very good indeed. Bonus extras on both releases consist of the original trailers for the three Tibbs films.
(This article has been updated to correct the music credit for "The Organization". The composer was Gil Melle. We appreciate the correction from eagle-eyed reader Naresh Putra).
S'more Entertainment has released two rare 1965 interviews with Jerry Lewis that appeared on David Susskind's "Open End" chat show. The B&W videotaped broadcasts are shown in their entirety sans original commercials. According to the informative liner notes by Susskind biographer Stephen Battaglio, Susskind, a successful TV film producer of "highbrow" content, and Lewis had a previous relationship: Susskind had been the agent for Martin and Lewis in the 1950s. Their relationship soured in later years partly because Susskind was critical of actors in general, especially those who dared to produce and direct their own movies. None of that tension comes across in the interview but it still makes for a rather riveting experience. "Open End" was one of many talk shows during the 1960s that appealed to viewers' intellect. The primary objective wasn't to make news, get laughs or have a guest promote his or her latest venture. This is obvious in the Lewis shows- he isn't asked about what he is currently working on nor does he attempt to insert a plug for anything into the interview. Rather, Lewis- who was never lacking in self-esteem when it came to his career accomplishments as a filmmaker- seems to relish the opportunity to show his serious, personal side. Susskind proves to be the perfect interviewer- he asks intelligent questions then shuts up and gives his guest ample time to answer them, uninterrupted. Notably, the camera is rarely on the host and most often on the guest. Such techniques may seem quaint today but one wishes more of them were being employed.
In the first interview Susskind never questions Lewis about his films and only discusses the Hollywood aspect of Lewis's life in big picture terms. Lewis opines that he isn't part of the Hollywood party scene because he was obsessed with it as a young man. Instead, he says he prefers to simply go home and be with his family after leaving the studio. Lewis does defend Hollywood against its bad reputation, pointing out that the industry is filled with kind and generous people who devote their lives to bringing entertainment to millions of people. It's clear that family was always of paramount importance to Lewis. At the time he had six sons ranging from an infant to 19 year-old Gary, who had recently launched a successful career with Gary Lewis and the Playboys rock band, Jerry stresses in the interview how he and his (then) wife Patty attempt to provide a normal life for them. Susskind challenges him in that regard, pointing out Lewis's penchant for excessive spending and the fact that the family is living in Louis B. Mayer's former home, a 33-room estate that Lewis paid for with a check for $500,000. Lewis grapples with the paradox but admits that it's hard to try to explain why 33 rooms are necessary even for a big family. He says that much of his penchant for big spending is probably a psychological need to rebel against his humble past. Raised in a very modest home in New Jersey, Lewis's mom and dad (both alive at the time of this interview) were hard-working show business people who had a vaudeville act. Lewis remembers the pain of what that lifestyle meant: long hours, constant travel and little money because his father was a poor businessman. Most poignantly, Lewis recalls having attended fifteen schools in his childhood and the on-going pain he still feels from his humiliation at being left back one year in grammar school. (He describes a system that seems intentionally designed to psychologically wound such children.) He confesses to owning hundreds of suits and pairs of shoes but tries to mitigate his compulsion by pointing out he ultimately gives many of his possessions away to charity. At times Lewis comes across as a human paradox. He's humble, he's a bragger, he admits to being an egomaniac but at other times comes across as a sincere, down-to-earth husband and father who ascribes to an old-fashioned ethic of working hard to provide for those who are dependent upon him. Susskind asks him about the challenges of living in an interdenominational marriage (he's Jewish, his wife Catholic). Lewis responds with candor and explains that both he and his wife were patient and understanding with the other's beliefs and try to objectively expose their kids to both religions. (He also makes some comments about his parents' lack of tolerance for the situation which they probably didn't appreciate being broadcast on national television). Given the social mores of the era, it's probably not surprising that Lewis held to a traditional view that the man is the head of the household. He confesses to being insecure about letting his wife be alone for any length of time with another man and prohibiting her from even dancing with anyone but him. "Leave her alone- she belongs to me!" is how he would address any man who dared to inquire about a dance with his wife. Such misogynistic statements would seem outrageous today but in Lewis's defense, they were much more the norm in 1965.
Bronson portrays a veteran secret service agent tasked with protecting the
First Lady in “Assassination,” now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Jill Ireland is
Lara Royce Craig, the First Lady under the protection of Jay “Killy” Killian
(Bronson). His assignment to protect her is a bit of a demotion and
a disappointment for Killian, but he makes the best of it along with his
partner, agent Charlotte Chang (Jan Gan Boyd), who also happens to have a serious
crush on Killian.
believes someone is trying to murder the First Lady, but nobody believes him, including Lara. She takes an instant dislike to “Killy” in spite of his saving
her life on several occasions, one of which results in her suffering a black
eye after a would-be assassin disguised as a motorcycle cop tries to shoot her.
Making matters worse for Killian is Lara’s habit of trying to slip away from
his protection. Veteran TV and movie actor Michael Ansara is on hand as Senator
Bunsen, who may be able to help Killian find the killers.
and Charlotte find time to rendezvous, but their love affair is brief as they continue
their search for those trying to murder the First Lady. Eventually Lara comes
around and starts to trust Killian after it becomes obvious her life is in
jeopardy and the clues may lead all the way to her husband. She departs with
Killian to hide out in the country in order to buy a little time and ferret out
the killers who also happen to be part of a terrorist conspiracy. The mayhem
that ensues includes a motorcycle chase, a helicopter and surface- to- air
missiles. In the end, the head of the conspiracy is revealed and the movie
comes to a satisfying, if predictable conclusion.
may not be one of the classics in Bronson’s long list of movie credits, but it
is typical of the movies that would define the later part of his career in the 1980s.
Bronson is unique among movie actors in that he represented his own genre. It
must be said, however, that prior to being an action movie icon, he distinguished
himself as a supporting actor in prestigious productions such as “The Magnificent Seven,” ,“The Great Escape,” “Battle
of the Bulge,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
Bronson was busy throughout the 70s, 80s and into the 90s making dozens of
action and crime thrillers starting with “Rider on the Rain” (1970) and
continuing through the final movie in the "Death Wish" series, “Death Wish V: The
Face of Death,” in 1994. Many of these movies- “Chato’s Land,” “The Mechanic,” “Mr.
Majestic,” “Death Wish,” “Hard Times” and “Breakout Pass” (to name just a few
highlights)- defined action thrillers and westerns during this period and
continue to do so to this day, while cementing Bronson’s reputation as one of
the actors of the period whose movies garner repeat viewing and discussion.
also worked with several great and often overlooked directors during this
period including Michael Winner, J. Lee Thompson, Peter Hunt, Richard
Fleischer, Walter Hill, Richard Donner and Don Siegel. Bronson and the filmmakers he worked with proved to be the right combination for his fan base during this
prolific period, even if critics rarely saw much merit to these populist productions.
is the final feature film by Peter Hunt, director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret
Service” and “Shout at the Devil,” who also worked with Bronson and Lee Marvin
on “Death Hunt.” This is also the last of 14 movies Jill Ireland co-starred in
with her real life husband, Bronson. Sadly, she died three years later in 1990.
The Kino Blu-ray
looks and sounds very good with an 88 minute running time. The disc features
trailers for this and three other Bronson titles. “Assassination” is comfort
food for Charles Bronson fans and is recommended for fans of 80s action movies.
McDormand and Brian Cox reveal a “Hidden Agenda” in the political thriller
about British brutality in Northern Ireland. The movie opens during a
pro-British parade in Belfast as two men describe the details of their torture
at the hands of local police. Human rights activists Paul Sullivan (Brad
Dourif) and Ingrid Jessner (McDormand) have just completed their investigation and
about to return to America after releasing their report. In the early morning
prior to their departure, Paul returns a call and meets secretly with a
possible IRA terrorist who has evidence of police brutality and a British
cover-up. Paul is murdered by members of a British security team who then cover
up his death and steal the evidence in his possession, a tape containing
details of a conspiracy.
the shooting death of Paul makes the news along with the possibility that
illegal police tactics were used, the British government sends an internal investigative
team from England to investigate the local Belfast police. Kerrigan (Brian Cox)
leads the investigation and is confronted by local police who are everything
but cooperative. He works with Ingrid to unravel the conspiracy which leads
back to the British government and the missing tape recording with confessions
by those involved.
Agenda” was released in 1990 and the viewer is informed that the time and place
is “Belfast: A few years ago.” The movie makes brief references to the “Birmingham
Six” and “Guildford Four,” innocent people who were recipients of brutal police
interrogation techniques in order to obtain what were later revealed as false
confessions in the aftermath of a 1974 London terrorist bombing which killed 21
and injured 182. The “Guildford Four” case was dramatized in the 1993 movie “In
the Name of the Father” featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon. They were
all released just prior to and shortly after the release of “Hidden Agenda”
which may be why “a few years ago” was included in light of recent actual events
in 1990 which unfolded while the movie was in production and prior to its release.
movie has an almost documentary feel by using what appear to be non-actors in
various on-location scenes throughout the film. As the story unfolds, the
action sometimes feels like its part of a live news broadcast. The movie was
directed by Ken Loach, who is known for using a naturalistic style and
encouraging improvisation between his actors to give his films a realistic feel
that I think works to great effect.. Much of his work throughout the 1980s
prior to “Hidden Agenda” was directing documentaries and those techniques are
only when Cox and McDormand appear on-screen that the movie feels less
improvised and more like a standard mainstream film. Maybe that’s partly because
both actors, while relatively unknown back in 1990, are very recognizable to
movie audiences today. “Hidden Agenda” arrived a few years before McDormand’s
breakthrough role as Marge in the 1986 thriller “Fargo.” Brian Cox was well
known to TV audiences in the UK and as the first actor to play Dr. Hannibal Lector
in director Michael Mann’s under-rated 1986 thriller, “Manhunter.” After a
memorable supporting part in 1975s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Dourif
remains one of the great underrated character actors.
24-hour cable news cycle was also relatively new back in 1990 and maybe that
has an effect on the way we view a movie like “Hidden Agenda” today, given that
we have become accustomed to watching events unfold in our living room on a
daily basis. Whether one appreciates Loach’s technique is ultimately for the
viewer to decide.
108 minute thriller looks and sounds very good and features an understated
score by Stewart Copeland. This Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber also includes
may have directed The Paradine Case,
the 1947 adaptation of Robert Smythe Hichens’ 1933 novel, but the film is most clearly
a David O. Selznick production. It was his coveted property, he wrote the
screenplay (with contributions from Alma Reville, James Bridie, and an
uncredited Ben Hecht), and the movie itself discloses far more of its
producer’s temperament than it does its director’s. The Paradine Case was, in fact, the last film made by the
British-born master as part of his seven-year contract with Selznick, and by
most accounts, Hitchcock’s heart just wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, it shows.
But this is no
slipshod motion picture. Selznick spared no expense—the completed film cost
almost as much as Gone with the Wind—and
the entire project is built on quality and class. Set in London, in “the recent
past,” The Paradine Case stars an
always-dashing Gregory Peck as Anthony Keane, a renowned English barrister enlisted
to defend the enigmatic Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, in her Hollywood unveiling).
Accused of poisoning her wealthy husband, Maddalena accepts the indictment with
what Charles Laughton’s sleazy Judge Lord Thomas Horfield calls a “mystic
charm.” Mystic or otherwise, her charm certainly works its magic on Keane. Much
to the uneasy chagrin of his kindly and patient wife Gay (Ann Todd, in a
radiant and undervalued performance), Keane grows obsessed with the case and
inordinately besotted with Maddalena; she is “too fine a woman” to be capable
of murder. He vainly tries to pin the homicide on the family’s servant, André
Latour (Louis Jourdan, also his American debut), but that tactic doesn’t stick.
Eventually, Maddalena comes to the defense of the shadowy André (he is
literally concealed in shadows during his introduction) and the complex
backstory of all involved comes to light.
Starting in a
realm of elegance, wealth, and refined manners (before settling mostly in a flavorless
courtroom), Valli plays Maddalena with an unnervingly unaffected reserve,
suspiciously never losing her composure until the very end. Her inscrutable
face reveals little more than trouble, especially for Keane. She is one of the
finer ambiguous characters to come from a Hitchcock film; referred to as “no
ordinary woman,” Maddalena may not be a classically cool blonde, but she is as icy
as they come. By contrast, Peck descends from jovial and spontaneous to fixated
The Paradine Case is a very talky film, and
subsequently, much of its success depends on the aptitude of its cast. While
Ethel Barrymore received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for her
disturbing/disturbed supporting turn as Lady Sophie Horfield, the actorly
spotlight ultimately falls on Valli and Peck, neither of whom were first
choices. Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo for Maddalena (the actress was also
apparently Hichens’ inspiration), but she declined the offer. As did Laurence
Olivier, first pick for Keane. Other names for each part were bandied about;
Selznick settled on Valli, based on her burgeoning international stardom, and
Hitchcock suggested Peck, based on their achievement two years prior with Spellbound.
Hitchcock felt the
film suffered from miscasting across the board, yet in the end, among The Paradine Case’s strongest points of
praise is the interplay between Valli and Peck. It’s a tragically malicious
one-sided infatuation, but to watch his blind emotional descent and her shrewd
manipulation is astonishing, particularly when one realizes as much as he may
be shaping her testimony, directing her alibi as it were, it is she who holds
the guiding hand. However, because The
Paradine Case is at its best when focusing on this one-on-one interaction,
that there is a murder mystery developing becomes something of an afterthought.
Character behavior, as curious as it sometimes is, often usurps the overriding
crime at the core of the picture.
Given the ample
budget, Hitchcock and cinematographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning DP of the
stunning Shanghai Express, 1932)
fashion a handsomely lit and impeccably framed series of events; close-ups are
luxurious, wider shots are perfectly balanced. But while there are moments of
devious Hitchcockian touches—cunning glances and jarring movements—the film
evokes less filmic tension than his more engaged work. Though he used four
cameras during the court sequences, enabling him to experiment with long single
takes from a variety of angles, his technical inventiveness is largely
restricted, by the scenario and the settings. He wouldn’t let enclosed spaces
hinder him in the future (see Rope
and Rear Window), but here, even when
Keane just goes to visit rural Cumberland, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
The Paradine Case was not a box office hit, and it’s
fairly easy to see why. Any Hitchcock film is worth watching, but there are
only select titles that demand to be seen. Hampered by glaring issues (an overbearing
score by Franz Waxman) and minor annoyances (one character’s needless cross
examination play-by-play), this is not one of them.
Featuring a solid
audio-visual transfer, The Paradine Case
is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The disc also includes a
commentary with film historians Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn, excerpts from
the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, an interview between Hitchcock and
Peter Bogdanovich, a short piece with Peck’s two children, and “The Paradine
Case: Radio Play.”
Explosive Media, the German based boutique video label, has released the 1975 Charles Bronson crime thriller "Breakout" on Blu-ray. Bronson was riding high at the time, coming off the sensational success of "Death Wish". The film was originally supposed to star Kris Kristofferson under the direction of Michael Ritchie but those plans soon fell apart. Bronson took over the lead role with veteran director Tom Gries at the helm. The film finds Bronson well-cast as Nick Colton, a shady businessman/con man/grifter who operates a variety of small time business ventures on the Mexican border with his partner Hawk Hawkins (pre-kooky Randy Quaid.) Nick is living hand-to-mouth when he is approached by Ann Wagner (Jill Ireland) with a proposition to help her husband, Jay (Robert Duvall), escape from a Mexican prison where he has been sentenced after being framed for a murder. Time is of the essence because Jay is in declining health and may well be too weak to help effect his own escape. Colton and Hawk's first attempt to spring him ends disastrously and they barely escape back to America. Colton concocts an audacious plan for a second escape attempt that involves split-second timing. He will arrange for a helicopter to land in the courtyard of the prison and in the inevitable confusion, Jay is to make his way on board and presumably fly away to freedom. In order to pull off the caper, Nick enlists the help of a professional helicopter pilot as well as Myrna (Sheree North), a married ex-call girl who will be used to distract some of the guards when the copter lands inside the prison. When the pilot gets cold feet, Nick is forced to fly the chopper himself despite the fact that he only has minimum experience doing so. Another complication ensues when Jay is confined to the prison hospital and doubts he will be able to be in the courtyard at the precise moment Colton lands.
"Breakout" was inspired by an incredible 1971 real life escape in which an American was indeed rescued by helicopter from a Mexican prison. The screenplay has some other sub-plots that are poorly developed and quite confusing, but some of which are obviously related to the actual escape including some rumored involvement by the CIA. In the film, Jay Wagner's frame-up takes place at the behest of his evil tycoon grandfather, Harris Wagner (John Huston) for reasons that never become clear. Apparently, Harris is concerned that Jay may inherit some control over the company Harris runs with an iron fist, though these plot points remain murky as does the involvement of some CIA characters. Another potential plot device, which finds Nick and Ann obviously attracted to each other, also goes nowhere. The film has a rushed look to it and there are some unsatisfying aspects caused by the movie's rather abrupt ending. The movie studio, Columbia, apparently felt the film was a rather weak production and thus gambled on a massive ad campaign that probably cost more than the film's modest budget. Ads for "Breakout" were everywhere: in newspapers, on TV and on radio. Additionally, the film opened wide in 1,000 American theaters, which was a big number in 1975. The movie was dismissed by critics with Variety calling it a "cheap exploitation pic", and indeed the main poster artwork and graphics looked surprisingly amateurish considering this was a golden age for film poster designs. Nevertheless, Bronson's appeal seemed to override these negative factors. "Breakout" proved to be a major hit and helped cement his status as a top boxoffice attraction though his clout would gradually diminish henceforth.
Like a lot of older movies, "Breakout" probably plays better today than it did at the time of its initial release. Bronson is in top form and gives an unusually energetic performance that allows him to stress his rarely-used talent for light comedy. The only other standout member of the cast is Sheree North, as the epitome of the sexy cougar. She's a fast-talking, tough cookie who parades about in sexy lingerie in an attempt to seduce Bronson. (Surprisingly, Bronson's character does not engage in any sexual action throughout the movie.) Robert Duvall is largely underutilized in a low-key role and performance that could have been credibly played by almost any other competent actor. Huston's presence in the movie is disappointing, also. His role is confined to a few scattered cameo appearances that probably don't last more than two minutes. Some other familiar faces include Paul Mantee, Alejandro Rey, Roy Jenson and the Mexican cinema's favorite bad guy, Emilio Fernandez. As for Bronson teaming for the umpteenth time with real life wife Jill Ireland, the gimmick was wearing thin. Some screen couples could team without wearing out their welcome. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made many films together but they were always playing entirely different characters in entirely different scenarios. Bronson and Ireland, despite being competent actors, were no Liz and Dick. It became clear that their films together were largely made possible by Bronson's clout with the studios. Although Ireland always gave credible performances, she never lit up the screen. After a while the sheer predictability of their on-screen teamings probably undermined Bronson's popularity because it constrained him from interacting with other actresses. It was a trap Clint Eastwood also fell into for a period of time when he cast Sondra Locke in the female lead in six of his movies over a period of only seven years. Despite these gripes, it must be said that director Tom Gries keeps the pace moving briskly and there isn't a dull moment. He also knows how to milk some genuine suspense out of the helicopter escape scene, which is exceptionally well photographed by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Jerry Goldsmith also contributes a typically fine score. The movie was shot in a wide number of locations including California, Mexico, Spain and France, where the impressive edifice that serves as the prison is located.
Scene stealer: Sheree North in posed cheesecake publicity photo for the film.
The Explosive Media Blu-ray looks terrific and contains the original trailer and an impressive stills gallery. The film is presented in either the English or German language versions. The region-free Blu-ray can be ordered through Amazon Germany or through Amazon UK.
The tagline for the 1971 crime movie The Last Run reads "In the tradition of Bogart and Hemingway..." That would probably seem preposterous to assign to an action film with most of today's soft-boiled leading men, but it seemed perfectly appropriate at the time for a movie starring George C. Scott. The script by Alan Sharp, who also wrote such underrated gems as The Hired Hand, Night Moves and Ulzana's Raid, is perfectly tooled to Scott's persona. With facial features that look like they were chiseled out of granite, the actor, who had just won the Oscar for Patton, is well-suited to the tough-as-nails character of Harry Garmes. Harry has forsaken a life in crime for a seemingly idyllic retirement in a small Portugese fishing village. Happiness, however, does not follow him. Shortly after their young son died, Harry's wife left for Switzerland to have her breasts lifted only to run off with another man. In one of the film's most amusing lines, Harry says he thought she was having them lifted as part of a surgical procedure. He finds that old adage "Be careful what you wish for- you just might get it" has special pertinence to his life abroad. He has succeeded in establishing the low-key, no risk lifestyle he so badly desired. However, he is now bored and feels out of place. He has a friendship with a local fisherman (Aldo Sanbrell) and a middle aged hooker who genuinely likes him (Colleen Dewhurst), but he feels he'll die of boredom. Thus, he decides to take on one more simple crime run, a seemingly low-risk job that involves transporting an escaped convict over the border to France.
The escape is cleverly planned and goes well, but Harry immediately gets a bad vibe from his passenger, a smart-mouthed, often manic career criminal named Paul Rickard (Tony Musante in a truly unnerving performance.) Ignorant of what the caper is actually all about, Harry is soon disturbed to learn he has to pick up Rickard's sexy young girlfriend Claudie (Trish Van Devere) to accompany them. Harry is the kind of man who doesn't like unexpected developments and his instincts prove correct. Before long, he finds himself wrapped up in a complex situation defined by double crosses and deathtraps. To say much more would ruin some of the more surprising elements of Sharp's gritty script, which is punctuated by smart dialogue. Director Richard Fleischer and the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist fully capitalize on the exotic scenery (the film was actually shot in Spain) and eschew studios to shoot even the interiors in actual locations. The decision adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the movie, which is tense and engrossing throughout.
The film also benefits from a wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith and fine supporting performances. From a trivia standpoint, the movie afforded Scott to star on-screen with then-present wife Dewhurst and future wife Van Devere.
The Last Run is an atmospheric crime thriller. It may not have looked like a work of art in its day but today it approaches that status, basically because when it comes to stars like George C. Scott, they just don't make 'em like that anymore.
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Kino Lorber has been doing yeoman work by releasing first rate Blu-ray editions of obscure films that have largely been lost to time. Case in point: the little-seen "Wolf Lake", shot in 1979 by veteran director Burt Kennedy, who also wrote the screenplay. The production was an oddity for Kennedy, who was primarily known for working within the western movie genre (among his gems: "Hannie Caulder", "The War Wagon", "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "The Train Robbers".) Apparently, Kennedy had an enthusiasm to make this low-budget ($1 million) contemporary suspense thriller. Through his friendship with aspiring producer Lance Hool, Kennedy was able to get the film off the ground with Rod Steiger as the only "name" actor at the time. The story opens at the titular location, a sleepy benign remote location deep in the Canadian wilderness (filming actually took place in Mexico because of investments made by the Mexican government). A group of old friends led by Charlie (Steiger) arrive by seaplane for their annual hunting trip but for reasons never explained, their guide is not waiting for them. As they are helpless to move about the area without him, the men are confined to the lake area and several log cabin lodges that are built to house hunters. The only other people on hand are the new caretaker David (David Huffman), a long-haired, bearded young man that the ultra conservative Charlie takes an immediate dislike to. He taunts the quiet, intense David with typical anti-hippie wisecracks from the era. The vacationing men also discover that David has a live-in girlfriend, Linda (Robin Mattson), whose job is to cook for the men. The situation becomes increasingly tense when the four older men make overtly insulting and sexist remarks about Linda within earshot of the attractive young woman. A confrontation follows and things go downhill from there. Making matters worse, Charlie learns that David is a deserter from the American military- a fact that gnaws at him because he is still mourning his own son who was killed in Vietnam. Charlie and his friends are all WWII veterans and have little sympathy for David's situation, even when he tries to explain that he did not desert because of cowardice, but rather, because of disillusionment when he participated in a massacre of innocent Vietnamese civilians. The briskly-paced script sees Charlie becoming increasingly incensed at David's presence as he attempts to goad him into a violent confrontation. Initially, the other three men are able to keep Charlie from resorting to violence but after a while, he induces them to follow his lead. After encouraging the men to get extremely drunk, he has them break into David's cabin, knock him unconscious and then violently gang rape Linda. In the aftermath, Charlie correctly assumes that David will want vengeance. A shootout occurs in which one of Charlie's friends is killed by a stray bullet. With the gloves now completely off, Charlie and his two surviving partners-in-crime ruthless try to hunt down their younger prey. The finale of the film finds the couple trapped in a hunting lodge as their stalkers try various ways to gain entrance and kill them.
At first glance "Wolf Lake" is a low-budget rip-off of Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs". The film recreates the Peckinpah movie in many key aspects: the slow-to-anger protagonist, the sexual degradation of his lover and the finale that finds the heroes holed up in an confined space while under relentless siege. However, Burt Kennedy's script does try to introduce an original angle that was very much in the American psyche at the time: the aftermath of the recently-concluded Vietnam War. The character of Charlie is like a combination of Archie Bunker and the title character played by Peter Boyle in the movie "Joe", a hardcore, old-time conservative who laments the changing face of America and increasing tolerance of diversity. Although Charlie is clearly a venomous personality (he's even nasty to his friends), there at least is some legitimate nuance in that one can understand his resentment of David since he has lost his own son in the war. The movie does have some aspects that stretch reality. Would the sight of a single attractive young women turn a group of otherwise "normal" middle-aged men into sex maniacs? Also, while there is no doubt that mixing drunken men and guns can result in dire consequences, it seems hard to believe that Charlie could turn his gullible companions into cold-blooded murderers. Nevertheless, this is a tightly-scripted thriller that generally works. Steiger, who often has a tendency to chew scenery, never goes over-the-top and gives a genuinely chilling performance. David Huffman is very fine as the object of Steiger's rage (tragically, Huffman was killed in real life in 1985 while trying to thwart a minor crime), and the sparse supporting cast is also very good: Mattson and character actors Paul Mantee ("Robinson Crusoe on Mars", "A Man Called Dagger"), Jerry Hardin and Richard Herd (best known for playing George Constanza's boss, Mr. Wilhelm, on the "Seinfeld" TV series). Director Kennedy doesn't provide anything original in terms of concept or execution but he does wring enough suspense out of the tired premise of humans hunting humans to make the film reasonably entertaining.
My earliest introduction to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s
immortal Faust was not through the
original work of the revered German playwright. Perhaps original work is not
the best description of Goethe’s exploratory tragedy. The premise behind its conception – the
selling of one’s soul to the Devil for personal rewards and glorified ambition
- were based firmly in the tradition of austere Germanic folklore and accompanying
Teutonic condemnation. This allegorical fable
has formed the basis of so many subsequent films, books, and television scenarios,
that the concept has now passed into cliché.
My earliest encounter with a Faustian fable was likely Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1936 celebrated
short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. Benét’s tale transported the misguided and
tragic exchange of souls from Goethe’s grim, decaying German village to the
rugged hills and blue skies of New Hampshire. Benét’s short story was simply one more link in a long tradition. His tale was inspired by an earlier (1824) Washington
Irving short story also inarguably Faustian in execution.
One of my favorite films from childhood was RKO’s Academy
Award winning production of The Devil and
Daniel Webster (1941), which featured Walter Huston as the titular demon. If the fresh air setting of The Devil and Daniel Webster was
filtered almost completely through a prism of Americana, F.W. Murnau’s silent
epic Faust: a German Folktale (1926) is
most certainly its grim progenitor, one mirroring the darkest impulses of pre-War
Weimar Republic Germany. Working closely
from the storyboard charcoal sketches and ink and pencil concept drawings of his
imaginative expressionistic set designers Robert Herlth and Walter Röhrig, his
production of Faust Murnau would effectively
create a visually sodden and nightmarish world.
The film begins with a brilliantly choreographed
celestial argument between a gleaming, white-winged Archangel and a series of
Devils (the “Three Scourges of Hell”). The former champions the notion that man is essentially righteous and of
good will. The Devil’s cynically counter
– sadly, perhaps more realistically - that “No man can resist evil.” Choosing to test their argument, the Devil’s
wager they can tempt and transform a good man such as the humble, learned Faust
into a selfish, self-interested individual, motivated only by his personal
Faust (played by Swede Gösta Ekman) is a doctor and a
well-intentioned man of science, frail, elderly, and long-bearded. He is spending his golden years in a humble
garret, warmed by a hearth and surrounded by the piles of books accumulated over
a lifetime. These books, essentially,
signify the collective knowledge of man. Though he is also a dabbling alchemist, there’s no notion he’s
interested in the accumulation of gold in pursuit of riches and comfort. He’s more interested in the exacting exercise
of scientific formula.