Mel Neuhaus, Movie Critic

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December 17, 2017

When I was growing up (this will tell my age!) I loved the sit com version of Topper … never missed an episode. As an adult, I stumbled across this movie version and was so glad to experience Topper in a whole new light!

topper1 - Mel

SPIRITS ON SPIRITS

MEL NEUHAUS

It was such a pleasant surprise to learn that VCI, in association with Blair and Associates, Ltd., had acquired the Blu-Ray rights to the Hal Roach feature collection. And while, true, the library does NOT contain any Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang or Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts or any of the master comedy producer’s many other terrific iconic funsters, there’s still a veritable gold mine of yuks to be savored and treasured in this stash.

To prove my point, let us examine their first release, 1937’s blockbuster TOPPER (insert sigh of relief that concurrently underlines collector’s gasps of “Finally!” along with, “Oh, yeah, there is a lot of good stuff sans Stan-and-Ollie”).

TOPPER was a topper in 1937, when Roach was winding down his partnership with MGM, and gearing up to move over to UA. The book was a natural for the sight-gag-dedicated director as it told the humorous tale of a couple of swinging swells who turn a staid banker’s life around after they enter the hereafter, due to an automobile accident. The possibilities of ghosts having fun at humans’ expense was just too good a prospect to pass up. Furthermore, George and Marion Kerby, the hot-looking ectoplasmic corpses, could additionally take Roach where he wanted his studio to go: to more mainstream, sophisticated, romantic fare – while remaining in the wacky, visual groove.

As the outwardly humorless “big shot banker from Wall Street” Cosmo Topper, Roach scored a coup by securing the services of Roland Young, who actually made the character sympathetic (and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts). For his flighty, upwardly mobile spouse, Clara, the producer insisted upon Billie Burke. The homerun casting, however, was lassoing a major A-list star for the role of Marion – the screwball, flirtatious eternally partying dead girl – the glamorous Constance Bennett, who although slipping a bit at the box office, was still popular enough to be top-billed. What ultimately gave TOPPER its revival/TV rerun legs for over seventy years was pairing Bennett with Cary Grant, giving the five-year movie veteran at last a chance to do full-blown comedy. For Grant, 1937 would be his breakout year; even TOPPER‘s bravura performance around the free-world globe would pale next to his other ’37 release, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth. It instantly propelled Mae West’s former toyboy to major superstar. From here on in, there was no looking back.

MGM proudly highlighted TOPPER in its 1937 Exhibitor’s Promotion Reel, and gave Grant, on loan from Paramount, a special boost (it was part of his two-picture Metro deal, the other being 1936’s Suzy, opposite Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone). In TOPPER, for the first time, Grant is able to be physically funny (steering the fatal convertible with his feet), as well as verbally proficient in tossing off one-liners.

To be sure, the Kerbys’ deaths comprise the plethora of the movie’s barrage of priceless antics, starting with the pic’s key conundrum; upon realizing that they’re deceased, the couple is doomed to remain eternally Earthbound unless they perform a good deed for once in their essentially up-till-then one-per-center (aka, idle rich) useless lives. In their own way of thinking, that can only mean one thing: to turn their source of amusement, the stodgy Cosmo T, into a party animal. But even being confined to planet Earth isn’t that bad a deal, since their territory is New York City, to say nothing of the fact that torturing mortals is genuinely fun. And you can still drink (both are practically alcoholics, but, not in that spoilsport Ray Milland sense).

Even being horribly killed never fully deters the marrieds from their extravagant lifestyle (Marion’s initial shock response is “I got a run in my stocking!”). Suffice to say, the subsequent transformation of Cosmo from stuffed shirt to whoopee cushion is, as one might suspect, a slow-burn-to-dynamite-stick exercise in hilarity.

There are so many geniuses responsible for the above metamorphosis (aside from those already mentioned) that one barely knows where to begin. I guess a good start would be with the director, comedy ace Norman Z. McLeod (who guided the Marx Bros. through Horse Feathers), followed by the script (cowritten by Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, in collaboration with Roach gagman Jack Jevne, who had just completed work on Way Out West). The Thorne Smith novel sale proved to be a gift-that-kept-on-giving bonanza for Roach, who wisely optioned the author’s other works, resulting in two more Topper movies, as well as the extraordinary 1941 Turnabout, where John Hubbard and Carole Landis exchange bodies and sexuality (how Roach missed out on I Married a Witch is an honest-to-goodness head-scratcher). The groundbreaking Oscar-worthy (but non-nom) special effects (causing mucho hilarity in cars, elevators, hotel lobbies and ballroom dance floors) were orchestrated by Roy Seawright, and superbly photographed by Norbert Brodine. And the music, featuring many legendary Roach riffs and melodies, is by the great Marvin Hatley (as much responsible for the Roach post-silent style as any prime player on the lot). Elmer Raguse’s nifty sound and sound FX (encompassing disembodied objects seemingly taking on a life of their own), like Young, received the second of the picture’s two Oscar noms.

TOPPER’s amazing large-scale cast, handpicked by the producer, is what caps this supernatural misadventure, accurately advertised as “96 Roaring Minutes of Laughter.” Featuring Roach stock company thesps (Dorothy Christy, Anita Garvin), brilliant character actors (Arthur Lake, Eugene Pallette, J. Farrell MacDonald, Si Jenks, Irving Bacon, Doodles Weaver, Clem Bevans, Lionel Belmore, Eddy Chandler, Theodore van Eltz, Syd Saylor, Ward Bond), former silent-screen stars (Claire Windsor, Kenneth Harlan, Jack Mulhall, Betty Blythe) and up-and-coming newbies (Lana Turner), the roster also includes Six Hits and a Miss, Hoagy Carmichael (introducing “Old Man Moon”), and, best of all, as the Topper’s flustered, but steadfast loyal butler, Alan Mowbray (his response to employer Burke’s chide of “After all these years, are you trying to be funny?” is, alone, worth the purchase).

The 35MM transfer of TOPPER is an excellent one. The silky monochrome camerawork looks just groovy, whether gliding across the mammoth MGM sets, or dodging in and around Marion’s runaway panties. The original theatrical trailer is also included in the package.

Can hardly wait to see what’s further down the pike.

TOPPER. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. VCI/Blair and Associates, Ltd./MVD Visual. CAT # VCI9031. SRP: $29.95.

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December 10, 2017

Mel - The Donna Pass

THE DONNA PASS

As the holidays encroach upon us, we 3-D fans have an extra reason to rejoice, via the recent stereoscopic release of Raoul Walsh’s 1953 western classic GUN FURY, now available in a limited-edition Blu-Ray from the galoots at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

What makes GUN FURY a key 3-D item is not only the high-octane cast (of then one-rung-short-of-major-stardom players Rock Hudson and Donna Reed), but the behind-the-scenes frame-composing and depth-defying talents of auteur director Raoul Walsh (in his only 3-D outing).

GUN FURY flat is a serviceable, action-packed oater with some stinging dialog and typical Walsh double-entendre lust (both versions are included). In 3-D, it’s a prime late work – all the more remarkable, as the director (like fellow 3-D master Andre DeToth) had only one eye (losing a peeper during the In Old Arizona shoot in 1928), and could never see the amazing in-your-face effects of his labors. Yet, he gets it right (and left), doing things with objects, foreground and background, that had (at the time) never before been attempted. And boy, does it work! The framing shots of the spooky, arid Arizona landscapes are a given (but even more so with cactus and tumbleweeds doing double duty, creating a visual three-dimensional sandwich tableau); however, Walsh peaks the process with tracking camera shots of stagecoach drivers cracking their whip at the camera – which he then TOPS by doing a reverse angle of the coach team of horses galloping into the lenses (and, seemingly, toward viewers). Later POV shots of a steep incline trail are sure to give you that This is Cinerama rollercoaster feeling. And, for good measure, Walsh tosses furniture, arrows, and rocks (but not Rock) at you as well.

The plot of GUN FURY, as intimated above, is pure Walsh. Scripted by Roy Huggins (later TV icon of Maverick, The Fugitive, Baretta, and The Rockford Files fame) and (of all people) Irving Wallace, (author of The Chapman Report, The Prize, The Word, The Man and scores of other 1960s bestsellers), the narrative is based upon a gritty novel by the Grangers (Kathleen, George and Robert) with the amazing title Ten Against Caesar (in this movie, it’s three, then four, like the dimensions plus one, so I imagine the book was envisioned on a grander scale). Here goes: the Arizona territory is being ravaged by post-Civil War renegades (translation: psychopaths) led by the notorious Confederate officer Frank Slayton (a dashing and dangerously charming Phil Carey). His band of ex-Rebs strongly adhere to a take-no-prisoners policy a la Quantrill, but there’s an additional kink to Slayton’s raids. Frank, you see, is a sexual predator, who can’t complete an offense without raping (and often killing) some poor unfortunate female. On the plus side, he’s an equal opportunity scumbag, and his victims comprise a veritable rainbow coalition of abused women. This is most alarming to his capo, Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon), who increasing tries to curb his leader’s dementia prey-cocks – and eventually is staked in the blistering Sedona heat to die for his trouble.

When (uh-oh) gorgeous Caucasian Jennifer Ballard (Reed) happens upon their stage en route to meet her peacenik rancher fiancé Ben Warren (Hudson), Carey’s chest starts to heave before she even gets a chance to cross her legs. Regardless of the plans for their next and biggest heist, Slayton has already decided to kill Warren and ravage Jennifer.

This seems to work in his favor, except that Ben isn’t killed, and stumbles across a barely-breathing Jess, whom he nurses back to health. They are later joined by Johash (Pat Hogan), a disgruntled Native American, out to likewise terminate Slayton, due to the rapist having defiled and murdered the brave’s sister.

Meanwhile, Frank enters his secret safe haven, where he is greeted by his love slave Estella (the hot and feisty Roberta Haynes); Slayton had previously taken the senorita (in every sense of the word) and was pleasantly shocked to discover that she liked it. Soon, Haynes realizes that she’s now been relegated to pre-Reed warm-up girl appetizer and rebels against the rebel. His solution: exterminate her. In one of the movie’s Walsh-iest scenes, Carey instructs henchman Lee Marvin (with the WTF moniker of “Blinky,” the name usually reserved for characters played by Phil Silvers) to open fire upon the vengeful, sweaty Haynes, who is following the gang on an equally frothing mount. “You want me to shoot her or the horse, or what?” inquires a perplexed Blinky. “Suit yourself,” sneers slimeball Slayton.

Eventually, the outlaws end up at Mel Welles Mexican whorehouse, where the “girls” are instructed to wash down a dust-covered Reed for her initiation, aka the Carey treatment.

Hudson, Gordon and Hogan do track them down, but not before a libidinous Carey has had his way with Rock’s betrothed. The climax is chock full of guts, flying fists, thundering hooves and six-shooter justice. Which is apt, because, like we said, it’s 3-D to die for.

GUN FURY has long been on 3-D collectors’ want lists, and it was well worth the wait. It’s every bit as great as we three dimension fans suspected it was.

The gorgeous new transfer (in the then new widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1) is stunning (popping out Lester White’s Technicolor visuals, in both its clarity and hue-and-tone resolution. The 3-D is pert’ near 100% perfect, with only slight registration problems minutely evident in some background mesas and some portraits hanging in a boarding house way station. In fact, it’s possibly the best-looking vintage 3-D title Twilight Time has ever put out. The extras are sparse, but worth a mention. The usual TT IST is an option, but why one would want to have that Mischa Bakaleinikoff/Arthur Morton Columbia stock music as a separate keepsake is a riddle for the sands (that said, one strain of a guitar theme for the lovers is quite nice, and, I suspect might be the uncredited efforts of George Duning, who was coming into his own as a composer for the Harry Cohn company).

What’s really cool is the original theatrical trailer, also in 3-D, with the hysterical hyperbole narration concerning rising star Reed (“surpassing her role in From Here to Eternity!”). The performances in general are raw and natural. Hudson’s perennially pained expressions are perfect for his character, and, sadly, had little to do with acting. He felt ill during most of the shoot, finally collapsing on the last day of production with acute appendicitis. Carey and Gordon are just swell, as are thug cohorts Marvin (in one of his THREE 3-D appearances) and Neville Brand. Hudson, by the way, had been a Walsh discovery; the director caught sight of the good-looking extra in his 1948 military drama Fighter Squadron. He put the eager 23-year-old under personal contract, an amiable working partnership that lasted into the early 1960s. After GUN FURY (and a stay in the hospital) Hudson returned to his home studio, Universal-International, to begin work on his second and final 3-D movie, the vastly underrated Taza, Son of Cochise, directed by (wait for it) Douglas Sirk!

GUN FURY is one of my favorite Blu-Rays of the year, a claim that, no doubt, will be heartily “HEAR, HEAR!”-ed (or “SEE, SEE”) by any 3-D buffs within your local vicinity (Can DeToth’s Randolph Scott 3-D Columbia hit The Stranger Wore a Gun be in the works? Me hopes so).

GUN FURY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 3-D and regular 2-D versions; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries; CAT# TWILIGHT295-BR. SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000. Available through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com] and Twilight Time [www.twilighttimemovies.com].

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December 3, 2017

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GIVING UP THE GHOST…OF THE “GHOST”
MEL NEUHAUS

If you’re on a Blu-Ray budget (and these days, who isn’t?), take my advice and zoom Warner Archive’s new release of the 1941 Michael Curtiz classic THE SEA WOLF to the top of your list. And for a good reason. Well, actually for MANY good reasons.

First of all, it’s a friggin’ terrific movie, one of Curtiz’s best (and that’s sayin’ plenty!). Then, the cast Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Alexander Knox, Barry Fitzgerald (in his scumbag pre-McCarey days – the way I like him), Gene Lockhart, etc., etc.

But, best of all, because this is the Holy Grail version we thought (or, at least I thought) would never surface from the briny deep of lost movies.

Let me explain before getting to the meat of this superb pic. Back in the late 1940s, that human double-edged sword known as Jack Warner decided to re-release two of his greatest “Sea” successes on a double-bill, The Sea Hawk (also Curtiz) and THE SEA WOLF. Problem was that each tipped the running time scale at over 100 minutes. Warner thought he’d appease the exhibitors, who always wanted to cram in the most shows daily, by cleverly whacking major chunks out of each title. What to do with the excised footage? Toss ‘em in the garbage bin. Before you gasp, remember that this mo-ghoul was also the genius who, in 1957, sold all the pre-’48 Warner product (including cartoons and shorts) to UA for a whopping 2 million smackers (in the early 1980s, a contact I had at Warners told me UA made more than that back annually just on Casablanca retro screenings and home video). Fortunately, Warners has all their pictures back now (something collectors are eternally grateful for), and we constantly look forward to their restorations in the ever-increasing Warner Archive library.

Oh, but wait – back to The Sea Hawk and THE SEA WOLF. In the 1980s, a complete Sea Hawk was finally unearthed in the UK (including the original release tints and tones). So that was forever safe. Not so with THE SEA WOLF. What made it worse (for me) was that in the 1990s, while employed at a photo archive, I would randomly check files of my favorite movies, and in THE SEA HAWK folder came across amazing images from scenes I had never seen. Sigh.

Well, hold on to your hats, folks. The uncut SEA WOLF is here at last, and its resurrection story is almost as exciting (but in a nicer way) a voyage as the characters’ odyssey on the Ghost (death ship of Jack London’s famous novel, which screenwriter Robert Rossen brilliantly adapted).

In a nutshell, here goes: recently, it was learned that an unabbreviated print of the movie resided in John Garfield’s estate’s personal collection. The problem was that Garfield’s library was 16MM, and Warners was reluctant to cobble a complete SEA WOLF between 35MM and the extremely jarring smaller gauge (just think of the restored RKO Howard Hawks renditions of The Thing and The Big Sky, and you’ll understand); this was a key and reasonable artistic decision, as THE SEA WOLF is such a spectacular-looking motion picture, Golden Age black-and-white Hollywood at its atmospheric best. On an offshoot, someone contacted the Museum of Modern Art, and discovered that there were two 35MM prints in their extensive collection, one placed before the Warner re-issue.

The splendid Warner Archive crew then re-mastered the print in a new 4K High Definition transfer, and the gorgeous results are now forever preserved and available for the many lovers of this movie (or any fan of classic cinema).

Not surprisingly, the unabridged SEA WOLF is better-paced and far more layered in the development of its protagonists (thus elevating it from the previous 80-minute “B-plus”-movie streamline).

The movie, as you know, is one of finest cinematic evocations of a Jack London work (the story itself is largely based upon the author’s own experiences at sea). The Rossen script (it was rumored that John Huston also had an uncredited hand in the writing) is pitch perfect, creating an eerie nightmarish early Twentieth-century-world, forever fog-bound and swirling with intrigue, deception and pure evil.

Wolf Larsen, the psychopathic skipper of the Ghost (Robinson, in possibly, his greatest performance – and, again, think of that!), shanghais men to fill out a serviceable crew to labor alongside his band of aberrant criminals, drunks, and human wreckage. Among those are Leach (Garfield), who willingly joins to escape the law, Ruth (Lupino), another felon, accidentally scooped up after a ferry she’s on is demolished in a misty collision with a cargo vessel, and Van Weyden (Knox), a noted author, also a ferry survivor.

Van Weyden is Larsen’s most valued new Ghost member, due to his cultured and well-read mind. You see, aside from being a full-blown maniac, Larsen is a closet intellectual, who can recite and converse on philosophy, poetry, literature, psychology and art. His chiding Van Weyden that the Ghost will make him a better scribe (“You haven’t seen enough to be a good writer”) is a SEA WOLF highlight. Wolf Larsen is one of my cherished types of literary/movie citizenry: the brute erudite scholar. His favorite quote (from Milton’s Paradise Lost): “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”; his personal mantra: “[It’s such a] good feeling to be able to kick a man!”

Van Weyden, who takes Larsen’s advice, concurrently chronicles his personal frightening adventures aboard the Ghost (which Larsen eventually steals and intelligently critiques). The flavor of 1941 wartime naturally sifts into the scenario as Van Weyden accurately compares the violent fascist Larsen to a would-be false “superman.”

How all these richly-mined personalities converge along to a suspenseful conclusion (involving the twisted reason behind the Ghost‘s strange voyage) makes for one of the most entertaining movies Warners ever turned out.

All the aforementioned actors (Garfield and Lupino would be reunited a month later for another sea-set drama, Out of the Fog) are superb, as are the other supporting players, including Howard da Silva, Francis MacDonald, Stanley Ridges, Ralf Harolde, Richard Cramer, Ernie Adams and David Bruce; oy, what punims! Furthermore, the tech credits couldn’t be better: the magnificent cinematography is by Sol Polito, the editing by George Amy, the art direction by Anton Grot, and the fantastic score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is about as good as wonderful gets, and, with the Australian discovery of the 1930 Technicolor Mamba, 2017 is turning out to be a banner year for celluloid lost causes.

Warners has added some enticing extras (as if the full-length SEA WOLF wasn’t enough) to guarantee an instant purchase. Aside from the theatrical trailer, there’s a 1950 Screen Director’s Playhouse radio broadcast, with Robinson repeating his role as Larsen, and with Curtiz, once again, directing. Make no mistake about it, though, this long-awaited return of THE SEA WOLF, intact for the first time in nearly 80 years, is a must-have item for any collector. Book passage today!

THE SEA WOLF. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000691540. SRP: S21.99.

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November 26, 2017

Mel - savageinnocents1

THE CHOSEN FROZEN PEOPLE
NOVEMBER 21, 2017

Never thought I’d live to see it, but Nicholas Ray’s masterful 1959 Arctic classic THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS has at last made it to American Blu-Ray, and, thanks to the wonderful tribe at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, in the best rendition possible!

Based on a book by Hans Ruesch (whose background knowledge admittedly was limited to being awed by W.S. Van Dyke’s 1933 MGM semi-documentary Eskimo), Top of the World was adapted for the screen by the author, Franco Solinas, Baccio Bandini and Ray (who gets solo credit in the American prints). Nick was always enthralled by people surviving in oft treacherous environs (On Dangerous Ground, Bitter Victory, Wind Across the Everglades); this was appended by his fascination with various cultures, having begun his professional career recording folk songs in Appalachia for the WPA. The Eskimos, residing in their primitive, often frightening, regions of the frigid North, were a logical expansion of both of these interests, and thereby, the ideal Nicholas Ray vehicle. The greenlight for this Italian-French-British coproduction seemed to captivate a plethora of outstanding artists, resulting in a number amazing folks in front of and behind the cameras. Key among the crew is cinematographer Aldo Tonti, composer Angelo Lavagnino, and handfuls of technicians whose names have graced some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

The story of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is in its name. I mean, for once, the title of the movie promises what it delivers, in spades. The characters of the Eskimo clans are like schizo grown-up children – playful and loving one minute and violently brutal (usually due to their being insulted) the next. “Eskimo,” we are told by the stolid narrator is roughly translated as “eater of flesh.” They are, he continues, an ancient race living in the era of “the atomic bomb.”

But the “savage innocent” is more than descriptive; it’s a warning. If you’re faint of heart, you probably might want to reconsider watching this paradoxical, gorgeously photographed epic, as it contains scenes of graphic animal slaughter (not for gain, but for food and survival); Ray shot footage of Eskimo hunts that are incorporated into the narrative, so seal, polar bear, sea lion and walrus aficionados beware. It ain’t a pretty sight.

The star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is Anthony Quinn, perhaps his most perfectly cast role alongside Zorba. As Inuk, he is a happy-go-lucky, wide-eyed, passionate person, out to snare a woman of his own when not killing to live.

The roles of women in this society are sickeningly similar to many more “civilized” nations. Females are desirable sex objects, highly regarded as trade items, and to be freely shared. The difference is that they also become total partners to their males, and willingly will cheer up lonely singles by what the movie refers to as “laughing” with them.

Truly, Nick was proud of that, and he told me that he had hoped that he would kick the censors in the ass by having the word “laughing” banned in several countries, as it was so obvious that it meant “fucking.” But the movie was not a huge success in major markets outside of Italy, and, then severely cut (an all-female mating dance is quite daring, as are shots of a nude Eskimo woman snuggling up against her lover – of course, all removed in the U.S. version).

The plight of the Eskimos in the Atomic/Space Age becomes less anachronistic as Quinn/Inuk discovers the joys of firearms. He travels with his new wife, Asiak (Yoko Tani), and mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to the white settlement and barters for modern weaponry – for the first time agreeing to kill for material gain. Of course, Inuk is rooked, as the many wolf skins required for the cherished rifle don’t cover the cost of ammunition. This dangerous theme successfully intertwines Ray’s philosophy regarding corruption of the pure with Sirkian cinematic economics at its most volatile.

The only thing possibly worse than Inuk’s capitalistic downward spiral would be the introduction of western religion. Oops. Before you can utter one “Hail, Mary,” a fanatical priest (Marco Guglielmi), repulsed by Inuk’s offer to cheer him up by laughing with Asiak, goes ballistic (“A wife is the most beautiful possession a man can have!,” the missionary shrieks to the unnerved couple) causing a terrified Inuk and Asiak to respond the only way they know how: by bashing the crazed cleric’s head into pulp against an igloo wall.

Now wanted for murder, Inuk and Asiak retreat to their wilderness sanctuary, protected by the elements from the police officials sent on a perilous and likely futile manhunt.

Concurrent is the birth of Inuk’s and Asiak’s son, another savage scene that nearly ends in tragedy. Noticing the newborn is toothless, the parents ponder the fact that it might be punishment for their deeds. They almost leave the infant out on an ice drift to die, but other events crisscross and change the couple’s plans (they previously did the same to Asiak’s ailing mother, who agreed to be abandoned to certain death rather than be a burden).

Aside from Quinn, the star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is the hauntingly beautiful terrain. In spectacular Technicolor and Technirama, the landscapes are like something out of an alien world, except this isn’t fabricated Hollywood set design – it’s the real deal (the bulk of the movie was filmed in Greenland, Hudson’s Bay, Baffin Island). It’s simultaneously jaw-dropping and, in its vastness, terrifying.

The human costars, comprising, as indicated, an international array of thespians (from the UK, Italy, France, China and Japan), notably include one of my first crushes, Tani, an unscrupulous Francis De Wolff (dubbed with a spaghetti western yank voice, and with his trademark beard dyed red), Anthony Chin, Michael Chow, Anna May Wong (no, not that one) and Peter O’Toole (yes, that one) as one of Inuk’s trackers.

The O’Toole situation with THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is worth discussing at length, as it fully illustrates the movie’s “curse,” which appears to have plagued the title up until the Olive release.

O’Toole, then just coming into his own (he was suggested to Ray by the director’s wife, Betty Utey), was offered the juicy role as the relentless hunter who eventually comes to understand the age-old ideology that rule Inuk and Asiak (in Eskimo terms, stressed out law-enslaved white people are “stupid”).

O’Toole, not surprisingly, is excellent in the part, and happily returned to the UK after the grueling location shooting to begin work on a play in the West End. Ray related to me that several months later, the producers contacted to give him the dates set for dubbing (as you may or may not know, in Italy, all movies, even though shot in synch sound, are post-dubbed). O’Toole noted the time on his calendar. When he failed to show up, the irate suits telephoned him to ask where the hell he was. O’Toole honestly replied that he never received his plane fare to Italy. This set the producers into a greater rage, screaming over the wire that he had been paid up front, and his actor’s salary covered everything. O’Toole told them to politely fuck off, causing the moguls to sneer that they didn’t need him, and that they’ll get some American voice actor to do it. O’Toole countered with, “If you do, you’d better take my name off your damn picture.” The producers readily agreed, adding that “no gives a shit about you anyway!” Famous last words. O’Toole’s name was nowhere in the credits or ads.

Flash forward a year later. O’Toole is now starring in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, arguably the biggest movie in production throughout the world. To quote the actor, it “made me.” He is now an instant international superstar. The skeevy producers sneakily pull a coup: they re-release THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS in Italy with a poster featuring Quinn and O’Toole face to face, under the tagline: “The Stars of Lawrence of Arabia Together Again for the BIGGEST Adventure of Them All!” O’Toole either shrugged it off at this point, or, perhaps was totally unaware of this insidious maneuver. In any event, it just was one of the dark, crazy-ass fates of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS.

For Quinn, Inuk, as far as I’m concerned, is the role he was born to play. The influence of this movie among Boomers and subsequent industry players is infinite. You’ll see bits from THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS surface in almost every movie genre/franchise since its release, from James Bond to Dirty Harry to Star Wars. Perhaps the ultimate homage was by Bob Dylan, who lionized this movie with his immortal tribute The Mighty Quinn. It was the one post-SAVAGE INNOCENTS perk that Ray was extremely proud of.

Here in the states, Paramount cut the movie by over twenty minutes, and dumped it directly into the nabes as an action picture. Nick told me in the mid-1970s that the movie, in Europe, was shown in 70MM. I doubted it at the time (not realizing the versions I’d seen were heavily edited), but ultimately discovered he was correct, and, since Technirama is basically anamorphic VistaVision, Super Technirama 70 blowups allowed for that kind of 35 x 2 wiggle room upgrade without much loss (if any) of quality. In 70MM, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS truly must have been an outstanding experience; the proof’s in the pudding, or rather the Blu-Ray, as this breathtaking Olive Films platter will knock your socks off.

Since 1960, the various editions of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS veered from the aforementioned American cut to hybrid versions of 100-103 minutes. In the early 2000s, the UK Masters of Cinema Series, released an anamorphic DVD that clocked in at 109 minutes, the most complete length ever. It quickly went out of print, as a new scumbag producer claimed he owned the video rights. Insult to injury, he released the U.S. butchered SAVAGE INNOCENTS – in PAN AND SCAN! If ever there was a .99 bin crap special, this was it.

Long story short, cineastes owe Olive a big one, as this stunning Blu-Ray is the absolute uncut 110-minute version, in near-flawless 1080p High Definition 2.35:1 widescreen. When you’re through jumping for joy, migrate to your Blu-Ray dealer and grab a copy (hopefully accepting cash/plastic in lieu of pelts). As indicated earlier, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS may not be for everyone, but (and I can’t help repeating myself) it is a magnificent cultural odyssey, and, for fans of the director, one of Nicholas Ray’s seminal works.

THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT # OF1349. SRP: 29.95.

Mel savageinnocents_cover

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November 19, 2017

Mel - Cliff Hanger

CLIFF-HANGAR
SEPTEMBER 19, 2017

For sheer movie adrenalin rushes and pure 100% fun thrills, nothing beats a classic serial – a staple of kiddie Bijou-pop-eyed wonder from the 1920s-50s (prior to the Jazz Age, the chapter plays were more adult-oriented). The excitement and “holy crap!” factor from the vintage stuff remains unsurpassed, since, before CGI, blue and green screens and even back-plate projection, all that derring-do was breathtakingly real. And sometimes with dire consequences. These folks were truly insane, risking (and, as indicated, occasionally giving) their lives for a couple of reels of celluloid. Seriously, WTF!?

A good amount of this craziness is apparent in a surviving silent serial, 1928’s THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, now on DVD from the picture show addicts at The Sprocket Vault.

Is the above the greatest serial ever made? No. Is it the most exciting? Nuh-uh. Is it relevant in any way to cinema? Actually, yes. Is it fun? HELL, YEAH!

The plot, like most chapter plays, can be described in one sentence (stretched to ten weekly episodes): Ace flyer has revolutionary new equipment that baddie airman and motley crew desire. Of course, the ace flyer and his adversaries can be seamlessly replaced by detective, cowboy, railway engineer, circus performer or orthodox rabbi (well, nix the last one – just wanted to see if you’re paying attention) – you get the idea.

What makes THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN so remarkable is its timing in history – a year after the Lindbergh flight, as well as basking in the smash aftermath of the blockbuster Wings. Aviation always held a fascination for movie buffs, and these aforementioned events simply underlined that jones with a passion.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN also has an amazing take on wing-flapping flappers. Not one, but TWO gorgeous ladies are integral to the plot – not stay-at-home girlfriends of the rock-jaw heroes, but actual aviatrixes, who get in on the action without any male condescending title-card comments, smirking or eye-rolling glances. Pretty cool for 1928 (also the year when the fictional Phryne Fisher took to the air).

In the ten chapters that comprise THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, we learn that Frank Baker (Walter Miller) and his flying mate Shirley Joyce (Eugenia Gilbert), thanks to the latter’s genius pop (C.H. Allen), are privy to a new device that will change the future of aviation. This MacGuffin is called the James Joyce Aerometer (as if writing Ulysses wasn’t enough!), and, of course, the evil Pilot X and his nasty (and revoltingly unhygienic) Air Hawks want to get their grubby mitts on it, so that they can sell it to an unnamed foreign power (who nonetheless have Russian-sounding names). Enter detectives, Secret Service agents, government muckety-mucks and more to help (and even hinder) Frank and Shirley’s fighting the good fight.

Like all solid serials, THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN has its share of red herrings and clichéd characters. There’s a sneaky eavesdropping butler (Arthur Morrison), a good-bad rival air service, headed by Bill Craft and Fawn Nesbitt (Robert Walker and Dorothy Tallcott), a less scrupulous couple than Frank and Shirl (and therefore, far more compelling and interesting). And, natch, there’s Pilot X, who, we all know, is likely to be one of the trusted Baker crew. Note: if you can’t figure out who it is from the first chapter, you need to turn in your Captain Midnight Decoder Ring immediately!

What’s unusual about THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN is the villain’s killing off a main character early in the game. Generally, captured good guys get mussed up, but survive. Here, it’s absolutely insidious. Pilot X takes the poor bastard up to high altitudes knowing he has a coronary condition, thus causing the dude to suffer a fatal heart attack. If I must play Devil’s Advocate, Pilot X, in his favor, does have a monkey accomplice, always a good thing.

Another atypical sidebar of THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN revolves around one of the two women mentioned previously. It’s Fawn, and we’re fawning over her. Looking amazing in leather and silk ascot togs, Fawn is introduced in every chapter as the lass wanting to be the first woman pilot to go “around the world.” Of course, they’re referring to flying, as the lady seems to be more than experienced in another more salacious meaning of that term. Ergo, a mid-serial segment where her squeeze, Bill (and Frank’s rival) suggests she “vamp” Baker to get crucial information and/or the actual aerometer. Fawn shrugs, with about as much shock to being pimped as having to go with vanilla yogurt ‘cause the honey-cinnamon was sold out. Compounding this rather extreme move is the fact that Fawn and Shirley are BFF’s. Indeed, THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN sometimes seems to transcend mere Saturday matinee kiddie filler, aspiring to the loftier heights along the lines of Mabuse for Juniors.

Then, there are the planes – including a 1920s state-of-the-art private passenger cabin cruiser – gorgeous stuff! And the era’s roadsters, which, like their flying counterparts, are frequently involved in chases and pursuits with hair-raising results.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN, was a decently priced serial, released by The Weiss Brothers through their Artclass Pictures Corporation (their motto: “APC, The Sign of a Good Picture”). Its obscurity is infamously heralded by the reams of inaccurate information listed in books and online sites regarding the picture’s credits, narrative and even chapter titles. To keep it clear, the movie was directed by Harry Revier, though “supervised” by George M. Merrick, written by Arthur B. Reeves (from an adaptation by Harry P. Craft), and photographed by William Miller and Bert Longenecker. The chapter titles are as follows: Air Raid, The Girl Who Flew Alone, Flaming Wings, The Flying Torpedo, The Air Pirate, The Hawk’s Nest, A Leap for Life, The Winged Avenger, The Warning from the Sky, and The Air Battle.

Only one 35MM nitrate print is known to exist, and this was the source material that The Sprocket Vault was able to obtain from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Archive. For the most part, the quality of the surviving film is in outstanding shape. Slight surface wear aside, the clarity, contrast and physical condition is terrific. Having just recently watched a double-bill of Hands Up! and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, I bemoaned the sad truth that these “A” Paramount titles don’t look one-fiftieth as good. AIRMAN even contains some of the original tints and tones; that said, decomposition has taken its toll on Chapter 9, giving up Reel One (which is explained via inter-titles and stills/lobbycards).

The Sprocket Vault has gone the distance to include a specially prepared serviceable score by Andrew Earle Simpson, audio commentary by film historian Richard M. Roberts, publicity materials, the 1928 New York Board of Censor recommendations, and a suitable short subject (also from 1928), Flying Cadets.

Aviation fans make up a large sector of the DVD/Blu-Ray collector base, so I’m sure they’ll be champing at the bit to add this rarity to their libraries. Serial junkies will want it, too – to say nothing of silent movie aficionados.

Serials, of course, should never be watched in one sitting, a lesson I learned all too well many moons ago. A chapter prior to the main feature – be it a selection from the serial’s vintage or Get Out!, is the way to go. It was with great remorse that I saw the final two reels spin on my DVD player. For the next couple of weeks I missed many of those clueless, cloud-hugging knuckleheads. But mostly, I yearned for the further adventures of Fawn – sincerely hoping that she insatiably at last made it around the world.

THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN. Black and white w/tints and tones. Full frame [1.33:1]; silent w/2.0 stereo score. The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Holdings, LLC. CAT # 35059. SRP: $24.99.

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November 12, 2017

THE GLEN-JONES LAW

Mel - Glen-Jones

Apparently there’s an unwritten rule on the BBC and other British television networks that no production can ever again go into production unless Iain Glen or Toby Jones are involved. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Au contraire, I believe this is a damn good mandate, since I personally cannot get enough of these fine actors. Case in point is the release of two new DVDs, DELICIOUS, SERIES 1 and CAPITAL, now available via the fine folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

The third recent British series (by my counting) to take place among the splendid scenery of Cornwall (the others being Doc Martin and Poldark), 2016’s DELICIOUS seamlessly intertwines the two greatest pleasures of the human condition: sex and food.

Leo Vincent (Glen) is a mega-successful gourmet chef with a fantastic five-star restaurant/inn; Sam, a trophy wife of twenty years (Emilia Fox); Michael a grown son (Ruairi O’Connor); and more secrets than MI6.

For one thing, his revered recipes were “borrowed” from his ex, Gina, a brilliant chef (the beyond-great Dawn French), and, for another, his thriving business ain’t all that thriving. Oh, yeah, and he’s cheating on his wife with the aforementioned first Mrs. Vincent, whom he cheated on with the current Mrs. V. to begin with.

Still, Leo has it all, and lives life to the fullest. Until he drops dead. But that doesn’t stop him. From his netherworld vantage point, Leo becomes a caustic commentator on the land of the living, populated by those he loves a la the narrator in Our Town, albeit, as indicated, a snarky, and occasionally rude one.

To call DELICIOUS original is an understatement; it’s quite likely my favorite Acorn release of the year – and that says plenty. I should mention that ever since first seeing Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, I’ve been a sucker for dead-people comedies.

But there’s a lot more to DELICIOUS than that scrumptious set-up.

Teresa (Tanya Reynolds), Leo’s daughter with Gina, the most fascinating character in the series, is a beautiful, witty, free spirit who just happens to suffer from a horrible, rare disease. The unfortunate female is allergic to…water. Not an ideal ailment for one living on an island, and one often plagued by rain showers. Seriously, aquagenic urticaria is a real thing. What about her hygiene, you ask (well, if you didn’t, I’m asking for you)? It can all be kept in check as long as she takes potent medication.

But it doesn’t end here. Teresa finds herself falling for her half-brother – and the feeling is mutual. In fact, it seems that one half of the entire island is screwing the other half, when they’re not gorging themselves on the tasty dishes served up by Gina, who has been left the business via Leo’s will. This, of course, causes friction between the two wives, who obviously never were besties to begin with. As the financial truth of the enterprises rears its ugly head, plus an upcoming lesbian wedding in jeopardy, the arrival of old lovers, and, oh, yeah, that incest thing, life becomes a 24/7 tsunami of sex and food…and sex…and food. Even Teresa’s way-out suicide attempt is droll. Met by Leo in the death waiting room, the young woman’s father sternly demands WTF she’s doing here. He admonishes her (in a loving way) and sends the lass back to the living. This isn’t for her; as for himself, death is giving him the time of his life.

Then there’s granny Mimi (Sheila Hancock), who has a few tricks up her wily sleeve, and isn’t afraid to use them (as Leo tells us, “Mama was in the Bletchley Circle…Hitler never stood a chance”), and a reconciliation (of sorts) that may bring the two exes together in both business and friendship.

DELICIOUS is the kind of show you fantasize about existing, but rarely ever makes it past the sponsor’s head-scratching queries. Except this one snuck through.

As one might expect, the performances are top-notch. It’s a no-brainer that Glen and French can do no wrong, but thespian-wise, there isn’t a false note in the piece, with Reynolds stealing the honors for first place. The writing by the show’s creator Dan Sefton is deft, hilarious, wicked and, for all the unbelievable events, astonishingly real. The photography (Jamie Cairney) is magnificent (can one EVER shoot a lousy-looking show on Cornwall?), and a lovely score by Rob Lane accentuates the proceedings, nicely recorded in 5.1 surround. Naturally, all this would be bupkes without decent direction, and, in this area, the work of Clare Kilner and John Hardwick is aces. It’s all been handsomely packaged by Acorn in a single widescreen platter DVD that includes all four SERIES 1 episodes, in addition to a featurette and photo gallery.

I can’t recommend DELICIOUS highly enough. I’ve already watched this disc several times (and will continue to do so), as I anxiously await the arrival of Series 2.

2015’s CAPITAL, based on the acclaimed novel by John Lanchester, is less of a hoot than a riveting contemporary drama. Exactly what one would expect from the makers of Broadchurch.

Pepys Road is an upscale London community, populated by old school residents and new money dotcom bourgeoise. All become unnerved by the simultaneous arrival of postcards with the cryptic message, “We want what you have.” The “what you have” is property, skyrocketing seemingly by the minute.

The effected nabe’s paranoia is personified by four families/individuals. The post-Millenium rich Roger and Arabella Yount (Jones and Rachael Stirling) live large…on the surface. Behind closed doors, they are a bickering couple, devoted to and obsessed with the materialistic world. Thanks to the clever writing of Peter Bowker, who adapted Lanchester’s work, the sympathy vote consistently volleys between husband and wife. The artistry of the two performers in these roles is astounding. The sweet 2014 series Detectorists had a Jones and Stirling so far removed from these schmucks that it’s hard to grasp that these are the same actors. The fact that the initially risible Roger ultimately becomes a mensch is truly a remarkable transformation.

The Kamals (Adeel Aktar, Danny Ashok, Mona Goodwin, Kaiya Bakrania, Hamza Jeetooa) are an enterprising Muslim family, whose success is constantly at odds with the growing xenophobic environment. The threat of terrorism being a Damoclean sword doesn’t help the situation any, even with the arrival of the head of the household’s wise, no-bullshit mater (Shabana Amzi).

Quentina (Wunmi Musako) is an African refugee, now excelling in her role as a police traffic warden. The deluge of the hate mail (now escalated to individual personal packets, with attached invasive photographs) is surpassed by her being detained as an “illegal,” destined to be shipped back to her violent homeland, where her death (or any educated woman’s death) is a given.

Petunia is an aging survivor from the late 1950s, widowed and living in a massive flat, bought when the real estate was dirt cheap. As essayed by the marvelous Gemma Jones, Petunia lives only for Smitty, her grown artist grandson (Robert Emms), the offspring of a hateful, mercenary daughter (Lesley Sharp), determined to get mum out and sell the dwelling for personal gain.

As the terrorism deepens, now with videos, a harried detective (Bryan Dick) must contend with the scared and angry citizens, who are out for blood – if necessary, his.

Complicating the stressful environ is Bogdan, a womanizing Polish contractor (Rad Kaim), who has pegged Matya (Zrinka Cvitesic) the gorgeous fellow eastern European babysitter, as his next belt notch. It becomes a fortuitous connection, although a saddened Roger (who, in addition to the home life turmoil, is now the target of a vicious underling employee, who is stealing secrets from his firm), enamored with the woman himself, tries to put the kibosh on their dating.

The shocking revelation of who is responsible for these crimes is indeed a climax with a twist on a twist that no one can see coming. The resulting loose-end tie-ups aren’t all euphoric either. Each victim undergoes a journey, some literally geographical, others figuratively, and still others, fatally.

The upshot is that CAPITAL is an engrossing four-episode suspense-drama that will not disappoint. Aside from the fine acting and writing, the series is superbly directed by Euros Lyn and photographed by Zac Nicholson (Dru Master’s music likewise rates a mention).

As one might correctly surmise, the Acorn DVD is a terrific widescreen transfer (with excellent 5.1 surround audio). A final note of warning: it’s quite possible after screening CAPITAL for your viewers they may counter with a “we want what you have” response. Hide your copy well!

DELICIOUS, SERIES 1. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 surround audio. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Sky1. CAT # AMP-2596. SRP: $34.99.

CAPITAL. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 surround audio. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media International. CAT # AMP-2528. SRP: $34.99.

MEL glenjones_delicious_cover                    Mel glenjones_capital_cover

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November 6, 2017

jericho1 - Mel

GOLD-PLATED COPPER

Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment, in conjunction with ITV Studios, has once again delivered big-time with the American DVD release of the obscure 2005 police drama JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD.

The series, comprising four feature-length movies on two discs, is what our friends across the pond refer to as “a corker.” Imagine a progressive detective in 1950s London. Add to the fact that he’s brilliant at his job as a cop, but leaves much to be desired as a private citizen (or human being, if you want to go all biological). Not that he’s a bad person. Au contraire, he’s a thoughtful, caring dude, but has so much personal baggage (a haunted past, his Jewish heritage in an anti-Semitic environ), plus the overt jealousy of his coworkers, due to the fact that he’s their most honored and celebrated shamus (heralded in the press and grainy B&W newsreels for his amazing sleuthing success rate).

That’s just the multi-layered background of JERICHO, the man and the show. Suffice to say, the quartet of cases he’s saddled with and cerebrally solves are just as intriguing as the top cop himself.

JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD represents a tough-loving homage to film noir by a creative team, consisting of writer Stewart Harcourt and three extremely inventive directors (Nicholas Renton, Diarmuid Lawrence, Tom Shankland). It’s also a triumph of set design (Rob Harris), art direction (Phil Harvey) and photography (Alan Almond, Cinders Forshaw and Sue Gibson), faithfully and lavishly capturing the look and feel of late 1950s Britain (to me, it’s reminiscent of the visuals in Ford’s 1957 underrated Gideon of Scotland Yard, which it, no doubt, tips its cap to, and Roy Ward Baker’s shamefully overlooked 1961 racial drama A Flame in the Streets).

But in order to ignite a dynamite keg of action and suspense, ya need a cast up to the task. JERICHO more than accomplishes this with its marvelous lead, Robert Lindsay, the great supporting regulars (more on that later) and an array of spectacular guest stars, including Francesca Annis, Laurence Fox, Claire Bloom, Jane Horrocks and James Wilby.

The aforementioned emotional minefields D.I. Michael Jericho must deal with include his father’s possibly turning rogue cop (was his death suicide or murder?), his determination to assimilate into a society that is less than gracious (the condescending treatment his aged mother gets is cringe-worthy), and his failure to engage in a satisfying romantic relationship. As a buffer, he becomes the adopted family member of his chief assistant Sergeant Clive Harvey, a splendid portrayal by David Troughton.

The casting of Troughton is probably the most inspired in the show, as his look and demeanor perfectly apes 1950s actor Jack Warner, who often played the exact same kind of roles. Harvey and his wife (Eve Matheson) and daughter (Zoe Colton) take Jericho into their lives with fervor and joy (that almost comes apart in a controversial case). Jericho wishes he could have the life his underlings have, not only Harvey but his whippersnapper newbie DC John Caldicott (Ciaran McMenamin), just married, to the increasingly impatient Lydia Leonard, and champing at the bit to have a proper honeymoon. This third link is the weakest in the series, reminding one of Frank McHugh’s similar plight in All Through the Night; that’s not to say that Caldicott and his bride are washouts. That they are likeable in their own way mercifully avoids the treacle possibilities. In true noir fashion, Jericho has a favorite dodgy informant (Lee Ross), who ultimately, too, gets caught up in the danger that surrounds the heralded DI.

But naturally, there’s evil afoot in the Jericho universe, and one doesn’t have to search the underworld to find it. It’s right down the hall, brutally personified in sociopathic rival Inspector Christie. This thug-with-a-badge is none other than Downtown Abbey‘s sympathetic Mr. Bates, Brendan Coyle, here a loathsome, violent villain more at home on the streets than on the force.

When Jericho at last finds love with a beautiful French escort who lives in his building (a touching performance by (Aurelie Bargeme), Christie makes a point to become one of her clients. Jericho, already ill at ease by the relationship (he worships her, but is fearful of what others might think, an aspect of British assimilation he has mastered perfectly), treads softly – a misstep that goes woefully wrong. Personally, Jericho’s home life, particularly the look of his flat, reminds me of the equally troubled Robert Ryan character’s in Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (mercifully, Lindsay’s Jericho is a much nicer guy).

The cases themselves (A Pair of Ragged Claws, The Killing of Johnny Swan, To Murder and Create and The Hollow Men) take on a variety of 1950s topics and taboos, including S&M sex/torture, private knocking shops, Cold War Russian espionage, the nuclear arms race, interracial coupling, bisexual coupling, post-war trauma, plus those old reliable standbys: kidnapping, blackmailing, corporate theft, and serial killing.

It’s the final point that makes up the narrative of my favorite in the series, a string of horrific Ripper-like murders that recall a long-forgotten 1920s killer known as the Butcher. Is he back in action after a thirty-plus year hiatus? Or is there a copycat picking up where the original fiend left off? The added spice of making the then-UK (and worldwide) smash hit The Bridge on the River Kwai an integral part of the mystery (and solution) underlines why this movie fanatic is nuts for this show (and, Hammer fans, check out the coming attraction posters in the theater manager’s office).

Sadly, there were only four JERICHO movies made, as, apparently after the first favorably received installment, ratings fell off drastically (that said, the series racked up a number of OFTA award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Ensemble Cast, Best Direction and Best Writing). Now there’s a real crime worth investigating!

In any event, the entire collection has been beautifully packaged by Acorn for your pleasure (the anamorphic widescreen transfers and 2.0 stereo-surround audio are terrific). And for armchair crime-adoring devotees, there are many pleasures indeed!

JERICHO OF SCOTLAND YARD. Color. Widescreen [1.75:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 stereo-surround. Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/ITV Studios. CAT # AMP-2540. SRP: $49.99.

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October 29, 2017

Halloween - Mel

HALLOWEEN BLITZ ’17: TIME WOUNDS ALL HEELS

What a thrill for these Baby Boomer fingers to be anxiously typing on a laptop keyboard about the Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment Blu-Ray release of 1959’s THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, one of my all-time favorite Terence Fisher Hammer Films.

Released during the studio’s Golden Age, when they apparently could do no wrong, MWCCD was an eagerly anticipated entry into the American Hammer stakes by Paramount, a company not known for their plethora of horror pics. By 1959, every U.S. major was bidding for a Hammer title, dangling the exclusive remake rights in front of the Bray-based concern.

Paramount’s closest bid to out-and-out horror was their 1944 release The Man in Half-Moon Street, a pedestrian supernatural pic starring former silent screen heart-throb Nils Asther.

Early news of the production featured the three stars from the1957 Warner smash pick-up Curse of Frankenstein: Peter Cushing, Hazel Court and Christopher Lee. Relatively quickly, Cushing’s name ceased to appear in connection to the movie (for a more detailed account, check out Christopher Gullo’s terrific 2004 biography, In All Sincerity…Peter Cushing), with Anton Diffring serving as a replacement, and a more suitable choice couldn’t be asked for. Diffring was always a bizarre presence on-screen, generally playing Nazi officers in at least ten million post-WWII pics (just like I’m convinced Deborah Kerr had her own custom-made nun’s habit, I’m reasonably sure Diffring had a tailor-made German high command uniform ready to go at the first cry of “Sieg heil.”).

Diffring’s ability to instantly switch from cold to manic made him a shoo-in for horror pics, and, indeed, it is this movie and the outrageous 1960 Sidney Hayers opus Circus of Horrors that highlight his screen legacy.

In THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, adapting Barre Lyndon’s original play, moves the proceedings to 1890 Paris, where several strange and gruesome murders are taking place. The victims are missing a vital digestive/circulatory gland, which is driving the local surete (headed by the bellowing Francis de Wolff) bonkers.

In contrast to these monstrous goings-on is the utopian lifestyle of Dr. Georges Bonnet (guess who). A renowned surgeon, the doc is also a revered sculptor, whose specialty is capturing beautiful women. Bonnet’s latest muse is Margot (Delphi Lawrence), soon to be replaced by the arrival of Janine Du Bois (Court), an ex-lover whom he has never forgotten, and who is now the partner of rising specialist Pierre Gerrard (a dignified Christopher Lee, superb in what would otherwise be a throwaway role).

When a jealous Margot returns for a showdown with Bonnet, you can almost see the bullseye on her back. Her revealing that “nobody knows I’m here” is all Bonnet has to hear, and we see the beginning of a nightmarish transformation so grotesque that it drives the woman insane.

Soon, a now-unattached Bonnet starts courting Court anew, a move she fully encourages, and the amorous pair pick up where they had left off. She even resumes her position as his favorite nude model (a tantalizing judiciously cropped image of her nakedness was transcended by an uncut French edition, which featured shots of the actress’s bare breasts, sadly not in this Blu-Ray).

With the arrival of the doctor’s aged mentor Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marle), Georges’ future appears bright indeed. But the medical team’s reunion is not a euphoric one. The doctor has suffered a stroke, hindering the reason behind the visit: to perform a glandular operation on Bonnet required every ten years. Dr. Georges Bonnet, you see, is a 104-year-old alchemist, who had discovered the secret to prolonged life decades ago, when Weiss was his young assistant!

Using Court as a sexual bargaining chip, Bonnet blackmails Gerrard into performing the operation. A series of sinister twists and turns on both sides of the good and evil coin pave the way for a truly frightening climax.

I know THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH has been criticized for being a bit slow in leading up to the final act, but I freaking love this movie. It’s peak Hammer, everything a goth should be, and more. Fisher’s exquisite direction, Bernard Robinson’s production design, and the studied performances are brilliantly captured by the outstanding Technicolor cinematography by my favorite Hammer d.p., Jack Asher; plus, there’s an excellent score by Richard Rodney Bennett.

The Kino Blu-Ray of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is an admirable replacement for the old 2008 Legend Films DVD. While the transfer occasionally displays some grain, the color resolution and clarity often comes mighty close to an actual 35MM IB print (Asher’s fiery red lighting in a mini-cellar dungeon is gasp-worthy). Extras of note include interviews with writers Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby, plus a Kino Horror Trailer Gallery.

I once asked Hazel Court what it was like working with Diffring. She rolled her eyes, paused and emphatically replied, “WEIRD!” And that pretty much says it all.

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definiton]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# K21122. SRP: $29.95.

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October 22, 2017

Mel - Week 4

HALLOWEEN BLITZ ’17: KILLER COMEDIES…THAT KILL

Since the squeaky sound of hand-cranked cameras and projectors, embryonic movie-makers discovered flicker gold by mixing funny with scary.  Melies, Edison and others delved into the horror-comedy genre; hell – they invented it.  And it just grew more elaborate and sophisticated as the industry progressed.

By the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond, it was almost a rite of passage for successful screen comedians to do a spooky turn, and many of their efforts (from Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis…on) became some of the comics’ most beloved classics.

By the 1980s, the horror comedy had evolved to the point where buckets of gore/the gross-out factor became a prerequisite.  Who wasn’t laughing at being slimed in Ghostbusters?  Well, just a couple of years before that, Carl Reiner and Steve Martin, the director and star of The Jerk and Dead Men Wear No Plaid, teamed up again for what many consider their finest collaboration, 1983’s THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.

Nine years later, John Landis took black comedy one step further, melding the sexiness of the Anne Rice vampire phenomenon with Animal House hijinks, plus a dash of Goodfellas, for the underrated 1992 undead-romp INNOCENT BLOOD (a misleading title, since no one is innocent in this splat-for-all).

Both titles proved extremely popular past their sell-by dates, garnering big ratings on TV and impressive sales on home video.  Yet, they were never given the presentation they deserved.  Each 1.85:1 entry was released in full-frame 1.33.  Until now.

Just in time for Halloween, the Warner Archive Collection has gone the distance, finally getting it right with new spectacular widescreen transfers rendered onto 1080p High Definition Blu-Ray.  And they’re sicker and wackier (or whackier, in the case of BLOOD) than ever.

“Get that cat out of here!” commands genius head specialist Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (it’s pronounced like you say it), whose operating room is always in attendance of curious felines.

Conceited widower Hfuhruhurr is revered throughout the medical profession for his time-saving invention of zip-lock brain surgery.  His life is brains, he’s devoted to brains (his favorite movie:  Donovan’s Brain)…and now he LOVES brains.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is often embarrassing.

Across town from Hfuhruhurr is Dolores Benedict, a spectacularly anatomically arranged black widow (Kathleen Turner in a sizzling outrageous parody of her Body Heat character).  She hooks up with sick or elderly mega-rich men and, literally, fucks them to death (or almost, as she frequently merely has to taunt them with coitus).

Escaping from her latest victim (the great George Furth), she and the doc have a meet-cute moment when he runs her over with his car.  Fortunately, he’s the zip-lock go-to guy.  He saves her life, she has her new mark, and the rest is a swirlie of marital diss (Hfuhruhurr’s asking dead wife Rebecca for her opinion sends his home into paranormal shambles, “Just give me any sign of disapproval,” he beseeches as the walls come tumbling down – the irony of the brain man thinking with somethin’ else).

The honeymoon is a nightmare, as Dolores denies horny Dr. H carnal knowledge, resulting in a French windows dilemma that is one of the funniest sound effect moments since the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.

When the near-sexually deranged cuckold catches Dolores with a strange perv, who has paid 15K to touch her ass, wifey plays the misogyny card “You don’t want me to work!”  That’s the last straw, the brief coupling has been unspliced.

Meanwhile, across the country and Europe, a serial murderer known as the Elevator Killer is on the loose. Victims are rendered comatose by an injection of window cleaner in their buttocks (including Estelle “I’ll have what she’s having” Reiner).  Then, their brains go missing.

How the determined but certifiably mad doctor discovers the connection between the slayings and fellow looney scientist Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner in a riotous role, living in papier mache Frankenstein castle co-op) paves the way for medicine’s Zip-Lock-invar’s finding true love again…unfortunately in the form of a disembodied medulla oblongata, floating in a jar of formaldehyde (it’s Sissy Spacek – well, her voice).  A victim of the EK maniac, Anne Uumellmahaye (also pronounced like you spell it), converses telepathically with Michael, and while there are some obvious complications (“I CANT FUCK A GORILLA!,” bellows Hfuhruhurr in response to Necessiter’s suggestion of a female-simian transplant), cherished romance ensues (a montage featuring a rowboat is especially hilarious, and a bit poignant).

It all intertwines in a crazed climax that is in its own way kinda sweet; it also contains one of the greatest celebrity guest appearances in cinema as the Elevator Killer is revealed to be…

THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS doesn’t scrimp on anything even remotely connected to screwball.  It’s pure Steve Martin (who cowrote the script with Reiner and George Gipe), and contains a plethora of comedic lines (“Into the mud, scum-queen!”) that have become movie-quote standards.  Michael Chapman’s pop-color photography never looked better, while Joel Goldsmith’s score perfectly captures the hilarity and genre spooky spoofery.  Adding this to your comedy/horror/Eighties collection is…well, a no-brainer.

As gorgeous transplanted (to 1992 Philadephia of all places!) French vampire Marie (c’est magnifique Anne Parillaud) tells us in her alluring narration, the undead live for one thing:  the comfort of the sexes, that is the meeting (or meating) where food and sex merge.  This is tres difficile for Marie, since she doesn’t like to mix business with pleasure (“Eeets not nice to play wiz za food”).

That said, her blood supply is low, and needs to be replenished.  Picky eater that she is, the svelte predator ponders her options; after all, what’s a ghoul to do?  Then she reads about the latest Mafia mob war that left an array of bodies strewn across every Rocky location imaginable.  Problem solved:  “I’ll eat Italian.”

And so she does.  But there’s a caveat; her chosen victim Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia), actually an undercover detective, has “zee sad eyes,” an attribute the bloodsucker’s a sucker for.  So off to another hitman, the very amenable Tony (Chazz Palminteri in a standout early role).

Aside from the award-winning international sensation Parillaud appearing in John Landis’ INNOCENT BLOOD, and frequently in full-frontal gloire, this movie had me hooked from the nocturnal aerial opening, featuring Jackie Wilson’s awesome rendition of Night.

And, indeed, while Parillaud is outstanding, as is the supporting cast (Angela Bassett, Tony Sirico, Kim Coates, Luiz Guzman and, in a standout role as a mob lawyer-turned-hockey-puck vampire, Don Rickles), the true star of this horror-com is Robert Loggia as Sal “The Shark” Macelli, grotesque head of the local goombas.  In his Leslie Nielsen bid for comedic stardom, Loggia seems to be having a blast.  Vulgar, disgusting, psychopathic BEFORE Parillaud “turns” him, Loggia becomes the ultimate gooddeadfella, gnashing pointy incisors, eating the competition, and uproariously coming to terms with a new aversion to garlic.

Landis, along with screenwriter Michael Wolk, pays visual fang service to a variety of genre faves, via some groovy clips from Horror of Dracula, Phantom of the Rue Morgue and even Strangers on a Train; there are also some wonderful cameos by the likes of Frank Oz, Michael Ritchie, Sam Raimi, Tom Savini, Forrest J. Ackerman, and, last but not least, Dario Argento.

The Blu-Ray of INNOCENT BLOOD is everything we freaks could hope for.  Razor-sharp 1080p imagery in the proper 1.78:1 dimensions (doing justice at last to Mac Ahlberg’s cool, clean compositions), plus a great surround track (featuring Ira Newborn’s jazzy score) in 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Best of all, this is the uncensored, complete international version.

I must note that Parillaud and LaPaglia’s sex scene is hot as hell (where it is likely to be repeated eternally), and the lady’s tough choice on whether to eat or eat her lover certainly comprises a vampire conundrum.  The resolution is (sort of) left up in the air, but, she’s French, so I assume it’s toujour, l’amour, toujour.  A warm, fuzzy sendoff, to be sure, but, for me, nothing is more heartrending than a misty-eyed Palmanteri eyeing a TV broadcast of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and tenderly remarking, upon Ray Harryhausen’s beloved Rhedosaurus devouring a cop, “I love that.”

Mel - week 4 - Black SundayMel - week 4 The Long Hair of Death

THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.  CAT # 1000648351.  SRP: $21.99.

INNOCENT BLOOD.  Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA.  The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.  CAT# 1000652649.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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October 15, 2017

believers1 - Mel

HALLOWEEN BLITZ ’17: VOO-DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART

“Weird fuckin’ city ya moved into,” says police detective Robert Loggia to transplanted Manhattan shrink Dr. Cal Jamison in the 1987 horror chiller THE BELIEVERS, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/MGM/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. And whether you believe it or not – that’s an understatement.

Based on the unnerving novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, THE BELIEVERS, as scripted by Mark Frost, paints New York City a garish hell-on-Earth red, as it methodically unfolds the freaky trappings that comprise the dark world of Santa Sangre.

Apparently, along with butt-ugly graffiti-vandalized walls/subway cars/monuments, offensive boom boxes, annoying Woody Allen types, spell-casting Hispanic help, and dead sacrificial animal carcasses on every street corner, 1980s New York was indeed the flip side of Club Med. Jamison himself could probably use some psychiatric aid, since he’s still recovering from having accidentally electrocuted his wife – certainly the worst kitchen-and-milk death since John Larch’s in Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose. Honestly, after initially viewing this movie, I could never think of Mr. Coffee in the same way again.

Jamison’s rather unpleasant above faux pas was witnessed by the doc’s already-strange son, who then goes even further off the deep end. Soon the urchin (Harley Cross) is obsessing on violent drawings of disemboweled beings, exhibiting particularly nasty tendencies toward females, cursing, throwing tantrums, running helter-skelter into traffic – in short, exactly the sick, perverted behavior one would expect from the son of Martin Sheen (who perfectly enacts the role of the sad-sack therapist).

Fortunately, not ten seconds after moving into their new Big Apple digs, Jamison is canoodling with his super-hot Patricia Neal-ish landlady Helen Shaver. So much for the grief process.

Sadly, for Sheen, the movie doesn’t end here – it spirals downward, as the plethora of chicken sacrifices escalate from fowl play to foul play – with children being substituted for Perdue fodder or, in culinary terms, tater-tottery.

Loggia’s participation is accentuated due to the fact that their lead suspect is one of their own – a previously revered top cop (Jimmy Smits), now reduced to a writhing, dementia-plagued screwball, shrieking about how “they get right inside your body.” While this didn’t seem to bother Shaver, it does torment Smits, just a human paraphrase of that real-estate standard: location, location, location.

But who are “they?” “They” are an insidious cult of black magic fanatics, who use first-born kiddies as gateways to fame and fortune. It all comes under the auspices of a phony organization called ACHE (perhaps a more suitable moniker would have been OUCH), run by a slimy Koch/Trump-ian figurehead (realized via an especially high-octane brand of oiliness Harris Yulin). Their satanic key to power is the extremely creepy black leader Palo, brought to America from his mysterious primitive foreign homeland. Now, before you can say “Kenyan socialist,” let me stop you cold. This dude is coming from an entirely different direction, and, by that I mean he’s got Michele Bachmann crazy eyes.

Palo’s force is not only lethal, but excruciatingly painful. To be possessed (as Smits, Loggia and others graphically display) is not a pleasant experience. You twist and turn and sweat profusely, grabbing your stomach in screaming agony. I don’t know how else to describe it except by relegating the curse to desperately requiring a rest room whilst on the subway (sneakily adding a touch of realism to this accurate and not uncommon New York phenomenon).

There are many other cultural and scientific overlaps in this movie – the fatal price one pays for being a diss-believer; perhaps the one that comes immediately to mind is ably demonstrated by Shaver, who, in a brilliant show of powder-puffery, draws the fine line between cosmetology and entomology (and far be it for me to give away the gooseflesh-raising climax, which leaves its outcome up to audience – the options being bad or worse).

It also comes as no surprise to me that this prejudiced, frightening depiction of my hometown was orchestrated by none other than John Schlesinger. Ever since Midnight Cowboy, I pretty much suspected that the director was less than keen on Fun City, but THE BELIEVERS takes this metropolis of festering evil idea to a new level (this flick is so nasty that lawyers are presented as good guys!); concisely put, it’s his scariest movie since Darling.

I have to admit though that I enjoy this pic a lot more now than I did back in ’87. Back then, we were inundated with devil-approved contemporary malevolent fare, including Angel Heart, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Sect and the Reagan Administration. More than a quarter of a century later, THE BELIEVERS is a squeamish cinematic roller-coaster ride with much to offer. Aside from the aforementioned cast, there’s also excellent support from Elizabeth Wilson, Richard Masur, Lee Richardson and Raul Davila. There’s also some spectacular camerawork by the great Robby Muller – and, to this point, I must take umbrage with THE BELIEVERS’ original distributor, Orion Pictures. Back in 1987, the print I saw was grainy, washed-out and tinged with a barbecue pallor that I surmised was the director and d.p.’s conceptual intention. This was further deceptively foisted upon me by the subsequent laserdisc, which, for some bizarre reason, was time-compressed (which shouldn’t have been necessary for a 114-minute movie), full-frame (from a period in LV’s history when letterboxing was becoming the norm), and looking every bit as awful as its theatrical presentation.

Naturally, one would expect a 2010s Blu-Ray to be substantially better than a 1988 laserdisc, but this Twilight Time platter reveals a visual tapestry that transcends the first-run release. Yeah, it’s a not exactly the Manhattan of The Eddy Duchin Story, but it’s not that mess I saw way-back-when, either. Muller’s images are crisp, clear and even ebullient in its sinister palette of contrasting colors and ominous spooky lighting. The 2.0 stereo-surround audio nicely showcases J. Peter Robinson’s score, the gotcha sound effects and background music from the likes of Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades. Please also remember that this is a limited edition, and that movies in this genre tend to sell out rather fast.

Personally, I have to admit that what creeped me out about THE BELIEVERS in 1987 was the fact that while living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, I used to regularly see the burnt-out candle (and other) remnants of Santa Sangre mishegos in the underpass leading to Emmons Avenue (a justification I chalked up to extreme ballyhoo from Orion’s publicity department, even though I knew better).

Giving a whole new meaning to the term “small fry,” THE BELIEVERS offers one the ideal Eighties Night opportunity to thoroughly confuse your friends by pairing it with the undeniably lesser (and cornier) Children of the Corn. After all, there are two sides to everything.

THE BELIEVERS. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 903RJMGM0189. UPC# 811956020147. SRP: $29.95.

Limited edition of 3000 available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].

believers_cover - Mel

Also follow Mel on FaceBook and Twitter @acehanna54

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October 8, 2017

SILENT SOUNDS - MEL

SOUND SILENTS

Silent-movie fans (a group which I’m proud to be part of) are experiencing a much-appreciated Blu-Ray renaissance of the pre-talkers.

The diverse range 2017’s output spans the mass appeal selection to the hen’s-tooth sanctum of the aficionado, and includes works from major directors and stars that have rarely seen the light of day since their release, often more than one hundred years ago. Best of all, these titles are being showcased on the High Definition format in lovingly restored reconstructions, making viewers wonder where the hell these spectacular elements have been ensconced for all these decades.

Olive Films marches into the silent celebration forefront with the unveiling of two borderline obscure entries, produced before the 1920s, that nevertheless have stood the ravages of time extremely well. The first showcases one of cinema’s iconic directors, the other a once household name, now sadly forgotten (save his admiring fan base). These rather unusual and amazingly offbeat takes on relationships and human behavior in general are well worth discovering and, even better, adding to one’s library.

When one thinks of Cecil B. DeMille, it isn’t exactly in the innovative genius universe. It’s those royally entertaining (albeit frequently clunky) biblical extravaganzas; indeed, when clocking back to his silent days, novices are apt to be barraged by scenes of Gloria Swanson either in the jaws of a lion, or in the suds of an Olympic-pool-sized bath tub.

This is a fallacy that must be changed.

DeMille didn’t become DeMille for nothing. His considerable rep preceded him. No one gave him millions of 1920s dollars to part the Red Sea or retell the Christ story just because he asked for it.

Cecil B. DeMille was the guy who pretty much discovered Hollywood as the idea climate spot to make the flickers. He also made the first feature-length western (1913’s The Squaw Man, so successful he remade it TWICE, once as a talkie). DeMille had vision (as did his brother William and niece Agnes). A failed theatrical impresario/playwright, Cecil grabbed the movies by the throat and shook vigorously until the creative juices started flowing. He beat Griffith to many of the devices D.W. is credited with; in other areas, he was neck-to-neck with the Biograph kingpin, often besting him when it came to emotion (the close-up), pageantry (epic scenes of battle) and intimacy (sexual situations that only von Stroheim would consider mundane).

He was also audacious. DeMille decided, in 1915, to film the opera Carmen, and with its beauteous star Geraldine Farrar. And so he did. Remember, this was way before sound, so here was a weisenheimer filming an operatic masterpiece with its diva…as a silent. I gotta say, the picture is a triumph of passion, opulence and superb cinema. It was understandably a smash then, and made Farrar one of the first movie superstars.

1915’s THE CAPTIVE goes one better. Again pushing the intimate epic card, DeMille magnificently tells a grand story (based on his play, cowritten with his oft collaborator Jeannie MacPherson, who also appears in the drama) that unfolds against a backdrop of (then) contemporary history. It’s the Balkan War conflict. And it’s an ideal op for the women of Turkey (left stranded by their fighting men) to take over, work the land and battle for sexual oneup(wo)manship.

Prime for this task is peasant Sonia (Blanche Sweet) and her kid brother Milos (Gerald Ward). As the conflicts (some brief, but terrific, preambles to the army clashes the director would become famous for) with the Turkish adversaries take hold, many officers and soldiers from the opposition are returned to the Montenegro villages dotting the landscape.

To relieve the overcrowded jails, captured officers are relegated to the women’s slave-labor force, working the farms (a hilarious establishing sequence has the village women cherry-picking for the best-looking specimens). Interesting that even this early, DeMille logic rears its improbable head, indicating that every peasant hut had its own cavernous dungeon under the thatched floor). Mahmud Hassan (House Peters), the key officer in charge, is assigned to Sweet’s land; by day, a hard worker, by night a captive in her underground stone-walled jail cell.

But rumblings of attraction soon rattle the hormones of both parties, making it unclear who is the servant and who is the master. It’s slavery with benefits. Their transcending politics for flesh reveals that he’s not only a top officer, but heir to Balkan royalty. A doomed union from the start, as the war won’t last forever. His eventual post-war return is a whole other movie in and of itself. Hassan’s corrupt minions have ousted him from his position, via a revolution. The dethroned monarch shrugs it off and wanders penniless throughout the countryside, knowing damn well where he’s headed. The line between nobleman and peasant has been mercifully blurred.

At 51 minutes (still a lengthy night at the Bijou in 1915), THE CAPTIVE covers a lot of ground, and does so with style, grace, humor and panache. If you were to see this movie minus the credits, I venture to say you might suspect it’s the work of Griffith, early Walsh, perhaps even von Stroheim…but certainly NEVER DeMille. Yet, it’s pretty much indicative of C.B.’s embryonic silent output. It’s a wonderfully thrilling and romantic movie adventure.

Best of all is the material available to Olive Films for this presentation. It’s simply sensational, mastered from a near-perfect 35MM print that hailed from DeMille’s personal library. The luminous photography is by one of the icons of pre-1920s Hollywood, Alvin Wyckoff (a DeMille favorite, and later the d.p. of Blood and Sand, Manslaughter, and It’s the Old Army Game). And it’s all topped off by an excellent stereo score by Lucy Duke.

As much as you may love Sign of the Cross, The Plainsman, Northwest Mounted Police, Reap the Wild Wind and The Ten Commandments (for the right or wrong reasons), you’ll never look at them the same after you’re captivated by THE CAPTIVE.

My love for the cinema of William S. Hart (once he started his own production company) is like a fine wine. It improves with age. The rough, realistic no-nonsense gritty westerns he turned out are unlike anything the competition was doing. I can’t think of any other way to describe a key Hart epic, save asking readers to imagine Budd Boetticher directing his Randolph Scott classics during the silent era. 1919’s WAGON TRACKS is a perfect example. Coproduced by Thomas Ince and helmed by Hart’s favorite director Lambert Hillyer (sadly, mostly renowned today for one picture, the admittedly entertaining 1936 Karloff-Lugosi sci-fi/horror pic The Invisible Ray), WAGON TRACKS continues the unglorified (but nevertheless engrossing) saga of the American West through the eyes of its main protagonist Buckskin Hamilton (Hart).

Hamilton’s essentially a mountain man, wary of anything human. His one link to civilization is his college-educated kid brother Billy (Leo Pierson), now a doctor, who vows to return to the West to practice. On board a riverboat, Billy falls prey to a pair sociopathic gamblers (one of whom uses his beautiful sister as a wedge to respectability). The gamblers are played by Robert McKim and Lloyd Bacon (yep, later the famed director of pre-Code flicks at Warners). The sister is silent-screen goddess Jane Novak.

When the younger Hamilton realizes he’s been played for a fool, he’s brutally murdered by the unscrupulous plungers, who, with the unwitting help of Novak (they convince her she’s the killer), implicate the dead man as the true culprit, and successfully plead for the woman’s self-defense (citing her as victim of sexual assault).

Hart arrives to meet the ship, and, in a wonderful sequence, is told that there’s been a killing on-board. He shrugs at the inconvenience, proudly offering up his brother’s services as a physician before learning the horrifying truth.

He immediately figures out what happened, but can’t act upon the culprits’ fake in unity is strength alibi. But Hart gets his chance to vindicate his shamed sibling soon afterward when he discovers that the wagon train he earlier elected to lead to New Mexico has the trio signed up as passengers, ostensibly to visit Sweet and McKim’s uncle, but, in reality, to seek out new ways to ply their trade.

Revenge is sweet, and Hart takes almost sadistic pleasure in waiting for the right moment, and then lets nature take its course, by sadistically hand-hobbling the pair out into the blistering sun until one rats on the other. The unbridled 1919 racism (Hart’s refusal to believe that his brother is a rapist because he’s white), later causing the death of a Native American, spins the wheels toward perverse justice and a bang-up finale.

Hamilton’s mission complete, the wagon train on course, the remaining pioneers arrive in Santa Fe, where Novak all but gushes her new love for Hart, a personification of authentic “manhood.” In what would normally be a B-western climax is drastically smashed when Hart blandly suggests that he might come back someday, but don’t frigging count on it. In short, Jane, while peripherally interested, he’s just not that into you.

WAGON TRACKS is unrelenting in its grim depiction of the times, and plethora of unsavory characters. It’s one of Hart’s best efforts (although I tend to like The Toll Gate a bit more).

Again, best of all is the almost pristine 35mm tinted and toned print from the Library of Congress (there is some waving imagery near the end, but nothing serious). Damn, if only all silents survived in this condition today! The sensational photography by the great Joseph August is crystal-clear in this marvelous Blu-Ray, with every crevice in Hart’s face visible (and they’re a lot of those). An effective newly-composed piano score by Andrew Earle Simpson appends the package. WAGON TRACKS is an ideal title to introduce newbies to silent movies, as well as to the shamefully neglected Hart.

In closing, I’d like to relate a terrific anecdote told to me one evening in 2003 by Harry Carey, Jr. It shows that Hart tended to not practice what he preached, choosing to go instead with the hyperbole.

“I was around four or five, but I was very cognizant of who William S. Hart was. He had just had a big hit – the first one in a while – called Tumbleweeds, and accepted an invitation to dine with at our ranch.

“He sat stoically as we served up a traditional Mexican lunch, wonderfully prepared by the staff/friends, who lived on the property with us.

“There was a bowl of peppers, more for show, in the center of the table, beautifully resplendent in its rainbow of green, red and yellow colors. My dad took one, and cut a tiny piece off the corner to season his food. Hart scoffed.

“‘Harry, why aren’t you using the whole pepper?’”

“My dad immediately issued a warning response. ‘No, no, Bill, you never want to use too many of these. They’ll land ya in the hospital. Just a pinch of one is enough, and that’s only if you’re into hot and spicy food.’

“Well, Bill Hart would have none of that. He sneered, replied something like, ‘There isn’t a pepper that can fell William S. Hart,’ and with that popped an entire one into his mouth, biting off the stem. I froze in shock, my dad put his hands to his mouth. One of the cooks dropped a metal tray and another of the Mexican women working on the ranch crossed herself.

“Within seconds you could see a change, Hart’s face turning cherry red. Then sweat, like two water faucets turned on full-blast, spewed out of his forehead and brow. My dad immediately told one of our staff to keep bringing pitchers of cold water. Hart gasped, trying to breathe. He attempted to pour a glass of water from the pitcher.

“‘Bill, forget protocol,’” yelled my dad, at which point Hart tossed the glass on the floor, and proceeded to gulp water directly out of the pitcher. It was at this time that I excused myself – not because I couldn’t stand the horror of it all, but because I had to run outside to stop myself from laughing.”

THE CAPTIVE. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround music score. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. CAT# OF1270. SRP: $24.95.

WAGON TRACKS. Black and white w/color tints. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround music score. Olive Films/The Library of Congress. CAT# OF1316. SRP: $29.95.

THE CAPTIVE - MEL

WAGON TRACKS - MEL

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October 1, 2017 –

Just in time for Halloween … I love classic vintage horror movies … Mel gives us the skinny on HOUSE OF WAX

houseofwax1 -Mel

HALLOWEEN BLITZ ’17: WAXIMUM EXPOSURE

Often incorrectly cited as the picture that ignited the 3-D craze in the 1950s, 1953’s HOUSE OF WAX should nevertheless cause a wildfire reaction amongst classic movie collectors with its Special 3-D Blu-Ray release from Warner Home Video.

The pic that actually begat America’s brief but first potent fascination with third-dimension cinema was Bwana Devil, a B-movie from UA, released a year earlier. The brainchild of Arch Oboler, Bwana Devil, with no real name cast or budget, caused the best visual effect the process could bestow upon Hollywood: money comin’ at ya from all directions.

It didn’t take a still TV-fearful gaggle o’moguls to grasp the possibilities. Soon the majors (Universal-International, Columbia, RKO) and the minors (Monogram/Allied Artists) were scrambling like frenzied monkeys, angling to throw their celluloid feces into the eager faces of their patrons. Even the lofty likes of MGM, Paramount and Fox got into the act, but it was Warner Bros. that pulled out all the stops with the announcement of “the first 3-D movie from a major motion picture studio”: HOUSE OF WAX.

Still a bit wary, however, most of the cautious producers chose projects already owned by the studios (often scripts rejected as “unshootable”) or remakes of long-forgotten gems. HOUSE OF WAX was a refurbishing of the great 1933 Michael Curtiz horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum.

“Everything’s been thrown at the camera except a good story,” boldly stated RKO producer Edmund Grainger whilst on-location in Mexico for his 3-D thriller Second Chance, costarring Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell and Jack Palance. The overall quality of the choices made to promote the process are likely a prime reason for its demise, and not that old chestnut that audiences tired of the headache-inducing joyride (in fact, very few customers ever complained about the Excedrin effects of stereoscopic flickers; likewise, the advent of the glasses-free widescreen splendors of CinemaScope and VistaVision no doubt also played a large part in the en masse exodus abandonment of the process).

HOUSE OF WAX turned out to be an inspired choice on many levels – way more pertinent than Jack Warner’s proud boast of “we already own it.”

The Grand Guignol chiller offered a plethora of ways to use the process for jolting, shocking and even cajoling audiences into uncomfortable laughter, all of which it did admirably. It gave star Vincent Price one of his signature roles, and unquestionably steered him into his remaining career path of horror icon. It’s also the movie most identifiable with director Andre de Toth (although he was an expert in a variety of genres, specifically film noir and westerns).

De Toth was truly a strange pick for director, as he was blind in one eye, and therefore couldn’t physically experience the 3-D effects. Yet, he was a great filmmaker and dived into the project with relish (and ketchup on the side; in fact a lot of ketchup…in fact Max Factor Stage Blood # 5). De Toth worked laboriously with the Milton Gunzberg and Dr. Julian Gunzberg from the Natural Vision company, visual consultant Lothrop B. Worth, as well as with the three wonderful veteran d.p.s assigned to the picture, Bert Glennon, J. Peverell Marley and Robert Burks. De Toth was determined to get every ounce of gotcha out of the technology – and then some. Not content with exploiting a gimmick, De Toth strived (and succeeded) in cinematically utilizing the process to its best potential. This is most notable in a spine-tingling sequence where the cloaked killer stalks the heroine through the deserted, nighttime fog-bound streets. The angles and tracking shots are downright creepy and magnificently showcase in-your-face photography. But the high point comes when the woman (nicely played by Phyllis Kirk) turns a corner and a building seems to jut out at her (and does into the audience). Have to admit, I jumped, recoiled and then chuckled while I thought: “De Toth, you sonofabitch!,” a thought many folks in Hollywood often mouthed out loud).

The idea of a 3-D movie set in a wax museum is in and of itself a brilliant one. 3-D effects are best realized when shot with an abundance of high-key lighting (a necessary artificial technique for museum tableaux). The lousy WarnerColor (here restored to near-perfection) rendered dull images unless it was doubly-flooded with lights. Long story short, HOUSE OF WAX must have been one hot shoot!

The pic’s narrative, now legendary, is a keeper. Genius wax sculptor Henry Jarrod prides himself on his flawless depictions of great figures in history. Matthew Burke, his scumbag partner/financier, is anxious for a return investment and when Jarrod refuses to go the Jack the Ripper exhibit route, decides to torch the joint for the insurance, even though a kindly millionaire (yeah, right!) has indicated that he will buy him out upon his return from abroad. Killing Jarrod’s “children” isn’t the only tragedy. Burke (a thoroughly despicable Roy Roberts) has also left the unconscious artist to burn with his creations. Jarrod survives, horribly disfigured physically – and even worse mentally. He’s now a raving psychopath, intent upon seeking revenge on all who wronged him. His hands useless, Jarrod uses underworld dregs to fashion his new models, covering human bodies with layers of wax. Sounds fair to me.

Eyeing Kirk (a virtual replica of his beloved Marie Antoinette) finally sets him into total WTF mode and he can think of nothing else but pouring hot molten wax over her nude living body.

While this may sound a bit severe, it’s like Henry Jarrod on Abilify compared to the antics of de Toth. Costar Paul Picerni told me (still with terror) about how de Toth almost killed him during the production – and this was nearly fifty years later!

De Toth loved danger, and had no qualms exposing himself to rather unorthodox (and generally unnecessary) ways and means of making movies. If he could do the same (or worse) to cast and crew – even better. He, himself, recounted the delights of working as an A.D. on 1942’s Jungle Book, willingly volunteering to tempt fate by practically sleeping with the many wild (non-SAG) members of the animal kingdom recruited for the production. Nothing pleased him more, he recalled with rose-colored euphoria, than those early morning arrivals when the aroma of the soundstage was filled with the intoxicating “…sweet smell of urine.” Okie-dokey.

De Toth thought nothing of plunging Price into perilously burning sets (that frequently ain’t a double, folks). The idea of roasted, melting flesh sent the director into swoon gear; while this wasn’t CGI possible in 1953, De Toth more than compensated by having lengthy montages of realistic looking wax heads tumbling off their torsos, eyeballs lovingly rolling out of their sockets as cheeks and chins peel, leaving only skeletal grimaces. Ah, ars gratia artis!

The script to HOUSE OF WAX is by former silent-screen star Crane Wilbur (who also coproduced). While it naturally is censored from many of the sexual innuendoes that permeated the pre-Code Curtiz version (which took place in modern New York City; the ’53 edition is a period piece played out in Big Apple, ca. 1905), there is a sprinkling of risqué/amusing lines. When evil Roberts flashes his ill-gotten gains in the face of giggly (and equally mercenary) mistress Carolyn Jones, he offers her a trip to anywhere she wants. Right away we’re thinking Paris, London, Rome, but no. In addition to being a murderous slimeball, Roberts is also a cheap bastard, suggesting Atlantic City. Jones counters with Niagara Falls. Roberts, simultaneously ogling his trophy GF while contemplating the concept of legal tender, replies with the hilarious capitulation: “Who knows, might be fun.”

When two morgue attendants wheel in a new arrival, they macabrely discuss the advancing lethal qualities of the horseless carriage. When one remarks that he didn’t think they went fast enough to hurt anybody, his buddy gleefully counters with, “They’re getting better all the time.”

Other departures from the earlier version comprise the hybrid combination of the two lead female characters. Kirk is both Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell; one of the perks of the ’33 version was that fast-talking news reporter Farrell was actually the hero of the piece, a role now delegated to Frank Lovejoy as the detective assigned to the case. Like its time period, another step backwards.

Finally, the derelict artist working for Price (Lionel Atwill in the original) was a cocaine fiend in Mystery. In HOUSE, the addiction is alcoholism.

The jaw-dropping cast member in HOUSE OF WAX is Igor, the snarling mute lunkhead played by Charles Bronson (still billed as Buchinsky). His realistic portrayal of a grunting and groaning dummy was an ideal run-through for his later work for Golan-Globus.

Some grainy shots aside, HOUSE OF WAX looks spectacular. Even in its standard 2-D version (also included in this set), it’s a lot of fun. The sets, the lighting, everything works like a charm.

But let’s face it – it’s the 3-D that makes this picture the classic it is. Every shot in HOUSE OF WAX is geared for three dimension – and at least 95-98% of it works. Again, the lion’s share of credit must go to de Toth, who correctly mastered the format by sandwiching his prime action between foreground and background planes (not as obvious as it sounds, as evidenced by his many failed contemporaries and even current 3-D schlock-meister efforts).

Probably the most famous sequence is the opening of psycho Jarrod’s new museum wherein paddleball meistro Reggie Rymal bounces rubber balls into the audience. 3-D-wise, that never worked for me. Even in the good 3-D prints I’ve seen, it was an effect that my eyes couldn’t adjust to. But it does in this Blu-Ray! I mean, not all the time, but midway through his demonstration, I did find myself ducking. Honestly, one can never have enough balls in their lives (although, admittedly, perhaps not in one’s face).

A later sequence is much more amusing. Picerni takes Kirk out on a date to a local beer hall/nitery. For entertainment, a lineup of Warners cuties perform the can-can. Ads for the movie showed some curvy female gams kicking out into the audience. While this indeed does happen, like the initial paddleball FX, it didn’t really work. Ironically, the tail end of the segment, wherein some arguably method-trained starlet shoves her posterior into the camera does indeed deliver the goods. I have to bluntly say it: her ass was in my face; it was like I could reach out and touch it. Truly, it is cinema’s greatest booty shot ever! A variation on this image is achieved during the exciting climax. As Igor and Picerni’s character battle it out, Buchinsky lets loose with a haymaker that beautifully pops right out of the screen.

The audio on HOUSE OF WAX is as good as it gets. Warners was always known for their great sound department, and this movie underlines it with thumping bass dynamics. Originally recorded in WarnerPhonic Stereo, the multi-tracks were long-thought lost. Well, either they found them or replicated the tracks from existing cue sheets, ’cause the stereo on this Blu-Ray, like its lead, is a killer. And, like its visuals, it comes at ya from all sides.

While Warner was confident that they had a winner, he was also concerned that the competition would beat him to the punch. Columbia, going neck-and-neck with their first 3-D outing, the noirish Man in the Dark (shot quickly in eleven days), rushed the modestly budgeted B-plus pic into theaters just prior to HOUSE OF WAX‘s premiere. Suffice to say, it cleaned up – but did nothing compared to the business HOUSE OF WAX generated. WAX is still on many All-Time Box Office Champs lists, some calculating that, in 2017 terms, it has amassed close to a billion dollars in ticket/TV/home video sales. If there was any doubt as to whether this fad was big-studio worthy, HOUSE OF WAX squelched it, opening the floodgates for 3-D movies helmed by A-list directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, George Sidney) and stars (Rita Hayworth, John Wayne, Mitchum, Martin & Lewis, Kathryn Grayson).

Cyclopian de Toth himself would helm another pair of 3-D pics, both excellent Westerns starring Randolph Scott: The Stranger Wore a Gun and Bounty Hunter (the latter being an interesting historical footnote, as it was produced by Judy Garland and Sid Luft via their Transcona company, part of the package deal with Warners for A Star is Born).

Warners stacked the deck by having the WAX premiere presided over by Bela Lugosi and a guy in a gorilla suit, which, for me, is the psychotronic equivalent of Lunt-Fontanne. In classic blooper fashion, Lugosi’s cue cards got mixed up and he ended up talking gibberish to his simian pal, occasionally announcing punchlines followed by their jokes.

Lugosi had nothing on the biggest and worst joke: a re-issue of HOUSE OF WAX in 1972 by the thoroughly disreputable Sherpix Corporation. Sherpix ditched the two-projector Polarized system for a cheap single strip, bogus widescreen mess (the movie was shot in standard 1.37:1) that resulted in soft, bleeding images with virtually no 3-D effectively discernable. This actually did cause headaches and basically ruined the beautiful cinematography, as the smeary color looked like a faded snapshot exposed to the sun. Worse, the deceptive posters and promotions copped the ads from Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, which featured a naked Jane Asher (as a nose) caressing Vincent Price’s face. Insult to injury was the billing – listing Charles Bronson third above the title with Price and Kirk. It’s as if this travesty had been orchestrated by the Roy Roberts character. I vividly recall hearing a couple exiting in disgust, grumbling, “No wonder this process died. What a piece of s#$t!”

Trust me, this isn’t the case by a long shot with the Warners Blu-Ray. Again, I can’t commend this disc enough. HOUSE OF WAX is what 3-D is all about (the packaging, in a lenticular 3-D slipcover, adds to the hoot factor). Like the earlier standard DVD, this B-D also includes the original two-strip Technicolor Mystery of the Wax Museum (never looking better), premiere newsreel footage, audio commentary by David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr, the 1953 3-D promo trailer and a documentary House of Wax: Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before! They ain’t kidding!

HOUSE OF WAX. Color. Full screen [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HA MA. CAT # 1000413340. SRP: $35.99.

houseowax_cover -Mel

 

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