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Film Noir

Videophiled Classic: ‘Hollow Triumph’ and more from Film Chest

HollowTriumphWhen Film Chest began releasing their “restored” editions of public domain films a few years ago under the label HD Cinema Classics, they promised superior editions of film previously available in poor copies. After a launch fraught with mishandled restorations, they have finally delivered on the promise with three recent releases on DVD: Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD), The Bigamist (Film Chest, DVD) and their latest release The Strange Woman (Film Chest, DVD), which became available just this week.

Actor Paul Henreid (most famous for playing resistance hero Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) produced the crime thriller Hollow Triumph (1948) as a vehicle for himself and he take two roles in it: as criminal mastermind John Muller, a medical school drop-out who comes out of prison with a scheme to rob a casino owned by a vindictive mob boss, and as a chilly psychiatrist who is his exact double but for a jagged scar running down his cheek. When the heist inevitably goes bad and Muller goes into hiding, he hatches a plan to kill the doctor and put his medical training to use by taking over the doc’s identity, complete with a scar carved into his cheek.

This low-budget film noir has a couple of clever twists that a few sharp viewers will likely see coming, some marvelous nocturnal Los Angeles locations shot by the great noir stylist John Alton, and a confident Joan Bennett in a supporting role as a single woman who has no illusions about dating the seductive but shady Muller. The film has been readily available on poor quality editions. This edition, which is branded “HD restoration from 35mm film elements,” is not exactly restored—there is visible wear on the print and crackle on the soundtrack—but it is a noticeable leap in quality from previous releases. It’s an enjoyable but minor film noir but it did spawn one of the greatest lines in film noir: “It’s a bitter little world.” DVD with no supplements.

Continue reading at Cinephiled

Videophiled Essential: ‘Touch of Evil’ on Blu-ray

TouchEvilBDTouch of Evil (Universal, Blu-ray) – Orson Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, a sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. It’s considered the last great film noir and the bookend to the true noir era. It was also Welles’s last attempt at a career in Hollywood before he packed up to make movies in Europe.

Charlton Heston is a stiff, straight-arrow Mexican government agent Mike Vargas whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder and police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner who has a habit of creating evidence to speed the process of justice. It features Akin Tamiroff as a Mexican border town Little Caesar with a cheap toupee and a wise-guy patter, Dennis Weaver as a sex-obsessed motel clerk on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a guest appearance by Marlene Dietrich and cameos by Welles regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten.

After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957, the film was taken from Welles and recut into a 109-minute version that was previewed for audiences. Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut and wrote a detailed 58 page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Some of those suggestions were incorporated in the final cut, most were not, and it was subsequently edited down to the 96-minute version that was released in 1958. The “preview version” was discovered in 1976 and supplanted the release version, but while it feature more footage directed by Welles, it was not his cut of the film.

Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered Welles’ memo in the files of Universal Studios and published it in the 1990s and in 1998 he became an advisor to producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch as they took on an unprecedented project: reconstructing the version that Welles described. Though referred to as the “restored version,” it’s in fact an entirely new version: “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how Schmidlin described it.

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston

The differences in this revision are apparent in the first seconds of the film. The studio threw credits over the famous opening crane shot and set it to a brassy theme song from composer Henry Mancini but Welles (ever the pioneer) meant the scene to open the film as a dramatic sequence. By removing the credits and revealing Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the music, we find a riveting scene with a completely different sensibility and dynamic. Anyone who grew up on the earlier versions still feel a gang of loss; that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple (Heston and Leigh) as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion, Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic—looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing—and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Tamiroff) in Mexico. It creates a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension, but it also weaves their stories together more insistently. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut) but this cut also restores another, less obvious element to the original intentions.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan

For decades Touch of Evil was shown in theaters and on home video in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the boxy format of old Hollywood and old TV, but it was shot and framed to be screened at 1:85:1, the standard format by the late 1950s. The 1998 theatrical release and subsequent disc editions restored the film to its correct ratio (rounded down to 16×9 for disc). Compositions became more dramatic, framed more tightly around Welles’ groupings. The long-takes in Sanchez’s apartment feel more claustrophobic, without so much of the expanse of the blank ceiling open above their heads. The characters dominate the frame with more presence. Despite the documentation in the production records and the film elements itself that verify this change, it’s become a controversy among fans and historians, perhaps because of years of familiarity with the old format, perhaps because they prefer the open-frame roominess, a la Citizen Kane. I’m on the widescreen camp: the framing serves this film better and the visual schemes were taken up in Welles’ next widescreen film, The Trial. In Britain, both the Academy and widescreen versions were include on the DVD and Blu-ray editions. Here it’s just the widescreen.

Universal releases all three existing cuts of the film in a special edition for its Blu-ray debut, just like it did for the DVD special edition. It is a package worthy of Criterion. It’s been remastered from original 35mm elements for Blu-ray and looks amazing, and it features the four commentary tracks spread over the three versions recorded for the DVD set. Project producer Rick Schmidlin hosts a track with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin commenting on the changes in the “restored version” and drawing production stories and experiences from the stars, and he also contributes a solo track, both for the reconstructed version. Welles historian / project consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum and fellow Welles historian James Naremore discuss the “preview version” with a mix of production details and interpretations, and film critic F.X. Feeney offers a solo track on the shorter theatrical release. Also includes the featurettes “Bringing Evil to Life” (one on the making of the film) and “Evil Lost and Found” (on the history of the various versions and the process of reconstructing the new cut) and a reproduction of the original 58-page memo that inspired the entire project. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

For more, see my essay “The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of Touch of Evil.

Universal debuts another film noir masterpiece on Blu-ray: Double Indemnity (Universal, Blu-ray), the 1944 classic that codified the moral depravity and sexual charge of film noir at its most cynical. Billy Wilder shocked audiences and tweaked the morality watchdogs with this ruthless adaptation of James M. Cain’s notorious novel, creating one of the touchstone films noir in process.

Barbara Stanwyck is perfectly heartless as the icy adulteress who plants the seeds of murder in the mind of Fred MacMurray’s conniving insurance agent. He plots the cold-blooded murder of her rich husband, only to discover that sharing a murder does not necessarily bring lovers closer together. Edward G. Robinson’s persistent investigator Keys brings the only real warmth to this chilly film noir; his relationship to MacMurray is the closest this film comes to real love. The rest is simply fatal attraction. The masterpiece of film noir double dealing was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (co-written by Wilder with Raymond Chandler), Best Actress (Stanwyck), and Best Cinematography (for John Seitz’s cool, crisp, shadowy imagery), but it was just a little too cynical and sour to win anything in that era.

This is also newly remastered and includes the supplements from the earlier DVD special edition: two commentary tracks (on by film historian Richard Schickel, one by film historian / screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman), the featurette “Shadows of Suspense,” an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and the 1973 TV-movie remake starring Richard Crenna in the MacMurray role, Samantha Eggar as the seductive Phyllis, and Lee J. Cobb as the insurance boss Keys. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

Videophiled Classic: ‘Cry Danger’ Restored and ‘Used Cars’ Revived on Blu-ray

CryDangerYou can thank The Film Noir Foundation for the rediscovery of Cry Danger (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the independently-produced 1951 film noir developed by star Dick Powell as a follow-up to Pitfall (1948). Like a lot of films made outside of the studio system, it fell through the cracks and was only recently restored by UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation, who searched for the best materials available and created a new negative and 35mm prints for screening. That restoration is the basis of this disc debut.

Dick Powell is in fine sardonic form as Rocky, a guy released from prison after serving five years for a bank heist he didn’t commit, thanks to a witness who verifies his alibi, and goes in search of the real criminal to spring his buddy, who is still serving time. Richard Erdman is the witness Delong, a Navy vet just off his last tour of duty, and he hitches himself to Rocky to see if he’ll find the loot. Rhonda Fleming is the buddy’s wife, but before that she was Rocky’s girl. Her affections are rekindled but there is more rapport between the low-key, unflappable Powell and Erdman, whose injured vet is a drunk and makes no bones about it. Erdman is even funnier and drier than Powell and has an inspired courtship with a blonde pickpocket in the trailer park, a young cutie who keeps robbing him as if theft was a form of flirtation.

Robert Parrish made his directorial debut with this film and it is terrific: efficient, tight, well-paced and full of attitude and dry humor. He shoots most of it on location in Los Angeles and the key location, a dumpy little trailer park on a hill that looks down upon the city, gives the film a great sense of character and location: they can see the dream below them as they mark time in their cramped trailers. There’s a dark heart under the snappy surface like the best low-budget noirs. William Conrad co-stars as the signature heavy, a gang leader by the name of Louis Castro that Rocky believes is the real mastermind behind the heist, and Regis Toomey is the tough cop with a wary respect for Rocky.

Olive doesn’t go in for supplements—they offer well-mastered discs at low prices—but this is one disc I’d love to see get the special edition treatment. Co-star Richard Erdman is still alive and well and sharp as a tack (he’s the world’s oldest college student in the TV sitcom Community) and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller has provided a lot of commentary tracks and interviews for other film noir releases on disc. A little background on the film and its production would have been very nice, but when it comes down to it, it is all about the film and the quality of presentation and this is top notch given the rescue job performed by UCLA.

UsedCarsUsed Cars (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Robert Zemeckis made some of the most famous blasts of American pop culture cinema—Back to the Future and Forrest Gump among them—but none has his films root about the cynical underside of the American dream with the gleeful anarchic pleasure of this satirical cult classic from 1980. Kurt Russell is the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises, aided ably by his superstitious buddy Gerrit Graham. The outrageous stunts (such as illegally jamming the Superbowl with a guerrilla commercial and hiring strippers to bump and grind on the cars like a Vegas sideshow) are more than simply high concept gags: Zemeckis and Bob Gale squeeze the limits of bad taste out of these lemons for a deliciously tart cinematic lemonade. The R rating is for foul mouthed tirades and nudity that would be at home in a risqué burlesque farce. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is none other than Alfonso Arau, the ubiquitous character actor and director of Like Water for Chocolate.

The Blu-ray debut includes the commentary recorded for the earlier DVD release and the talk from director Zemeckis, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell is almost as much fun as the film itself. “We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, except he’s totally corrupt,” is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of the story. Kurt Russell laughs back: “So you cast me!” These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Also features four minutes of outtakes and along with Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score is a bonus score track with the unused score. Also includes an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More classic releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

MOD Movies: ‘The Big House,’ ‘5 Fingers,’ ‘Roadblock

BigHouseTripleThe Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.

The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.

The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.

Chester Morris and Wallace Beery in ‘The Big House’

The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.

Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.

5Fingers5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.

The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”

The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.

RoadblockRoadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.

The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.

More crooks, cops, and spies on MOD from Warner and Fox at Cinephiled

Blu-ray: ‘Man in the Dark’

Man in the Dark (1953) could be the working title of many a film noir, a genre that routinely casts shadows (literal and figurative) over its characters. In this case, the title is something of a pun, as criminal Steve Rawley (stolid, sturdy noir regular Edmond O’Brien) volunteers to undergo experimental brain surgery to curb his criminal tendencies and emerges with his personality softened and his memory gone. But it’s not quite a clean slate. Rawley’s past comes back in the form of an insurance investigator (Dan Riss) suspicious of the wonder cure and his former partners, who know nothing of his treatment. Rawley masterminded a payroll heist and hid the haul right before he was nabbed, money which was never recovered. When his old partners stumble onto his new situation, they bundle him off to their hideout to get their share. They aren’t taking “I don’t remember” for an answer, but when working him over doesn’t get any results, his former girlfriend Peg (Audrey Totter) tries to seduce it out of him. When it becomes clear to them that he’s telling the truth, they keep him captive to help sleuth out the location.

A remake of the 1936 crime melodrama The Man Who Lived Twice, this version takes the story of amnesia into urban noir territory. O’Brien spouts tough-guy wisecracks until he emerges a kinder, gentler soul (he turns to painting flowers during his recovery), Ted de Corsia does thug duty as the gang’s heavy (Horace McMahon and Nick Dennis, the va-va-voom mechanic of Kiss Me Deadly, fill out the crew), and the investigator turns out to be a mercenary soul in his own right.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Videophiled MOD Movies: ‘Cry of the City,’ ‘The Beast with Five Fingers,’ ‘Young America’ and Lee Tracy

CryCityIt’s been a few months since I’ve surveyed the MOD market – that’s the manufacture-on-demand line that Warner, Fox, and Sony currently present as a way to release films that the sales market no longer supports – and there have been a lot of releases in that time. Not all are ‘classic” in the essential sense, mind you, but why should that be? The deluge of New Releases in any given month is filled with titles you’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. What’s so much fun in the stream of MOD releases is the ongoing conversation with old Hollywood movies and vintage TV shows, and the continued connection with favorite stars through their less familiar films. There are always films and filmmakers and stars waiting to be discovered.

Cry of the City (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is one that should be known better. It’s one of Robert Siodmak’s darkest film noirs, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature as an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Richard Conte personally. Siodmak shoots much of it on location in New York but still manages to get those studio shadows and rain-slicked streets into shot after shot, creating a nocturnal underworld within the urban jungle of the city.

Conte gets the showboating role of the glib, smart-talking hood whose grinning charm and sardonic wit never flag, not even in custody, until that smarmy confidence gives way to panic and predatory self-interest under pressure. Mature’s stoic stillness gives a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role: the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Conte. This is the classic noir world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. It’s a good-looking disc, too, mastered from a good print with minor scuffing, with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image.

MossRoseMoss Rose (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is in the British Gothic mystery tradition of Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Gaslight, set in turn-of-the-century Britain and starring Victor Mature as a prodigal son returned from Canada to his now-widowed mother (Ethel Barrymore) and their country manor. He’s the prime suspect in the murder of a London showgirl and Peggy Cummins blackmails him into passing her off as a fellow moneyed aristocrat. British-born ingénue Cummins, curiously enough, gets top billing over Mature (who was by far the bigger star in 1947) and Vincent Price is the wily detective who knows how to play upon the arrogance of the upper class as he builds his case against Mature. Gregory Ratoff directs with an understated sense of shadowy threat—he does love those hard shadows and partially obscured faces and stormy nights—and makes great use of the Victorian-era backlot street scenes and set. It’s a solid B&W transfer.

BeastFiveThe 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive) sounds like a twist on The Hands of Orlac—it does, after all, have a famed musician and a killer hand—but is actually more of an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives have been gathered for the reading of a will. They, of course, start turning up dead. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of a crippled piano virtuoso. Robert Alda enters as an American con man and leaves a hero and J. Carroll Naish puts on his meatball Italian accent to play the village Commissario, but Peter Lorre makes the biggest impression as the personal secretary of the dead man, a scholar obsessed with the secrets of ancient magic. Robert Florey does just fine with the atmosphere and even better with the superb optical effects. While you can sometimes see the seams in this well-mastered edition, transferred from a preserved print, Florey makes the imagery of the disembodied hand skittering around like a spider so wonderfully weird that you hardly care. There’s a marvelous madness to it at its best and, true to the time, a little twist of humor in the epilogue, complete with ethnic flourish.

YoungAmericaSpencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 Young America (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) but the film is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon) who is called “the worst kid in town” but is really a good boy with bad judgment, loyal to his friends and uncompromising with bullies. Art is a hard-luck saint among kids, ready to sacrifice all to steal medicine for a dying friend or take on gangsters in the middle of a high-speed car chase. Tracy is a drug store owner with a streetwise attitude and a high society lifestyle. It’s amazing how many of the most widely parodied clichés of Hollywood melodrama are crammed into this one film (adapted from a stage play), and how enjoyable it is nonetheless thanks to Tracy’s lively personality and up-from-the-streets manner and to Borzage’s verging-on-sentimental-overkill affection for his working class characters. Seriously, at the risk of a spoiler, a dying child moans about flying through the air before croaking out “It’s getting dark…” Ralph Bellamy co-stars as a compassionate judge.

More reviews at Cinephiled

DVD: ‘Cry of the City’

Robert Siodmak made more film noirs than any other director. It’s not like he set out to do so–they were considered crime thrillers and murder dramas by the studios and the term film noir was given to the shadowy subset long after Siodmak stopped making them–but he helped define the genre (or the style and attitude, if you prefer) in its glory days.

Cry of the City is not as well known as Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949), and The Film on Thelma Jordan (1950), all of which star some of Hollywood’s most famous (and noir’s most iconic) performers, or his early, shadowy low-budget mystery Phantom Lady (1944), but it should be. It’s a gangster film seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, starring Victor Mature as Lt. Candella, an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Martin Rome (Richard Conte) personally. They grew up together in Little Italy and Candella doesn’t buy Martin’s excuses of poverty and culture for turning to a life of crime, not with such salt-of-the-Earth parents who treat Candella almost like family. More to the point, he hates how he’s become an outlaw hero to the kids in the neighborhood and especially Martin’s adoring kid brother, Tony (Tommy Cook). When Candella goes knocking on doors for witnesses, he gets them slammed in his face. In a slum where no one trusts the cops, Martin’s brazen defiance makes him a Robin Hood, even if he fails to share any of his ill-gotten gains with the poor.

The film opens with Martin unconscious in a hospital, wounded in a shoot-out that left a policeman dead. When he’s awake he’s a glib, smart-talking guy, working his grinning charm and sardonic wit on the police (who have his ward under guard) and the hospital staff alike, and he has no illusions about his fate.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

MOD Movies: Watching the detectives – Philo Vance, The Falcon, and more

Created by author S.S. Van Dine in 1926, Philo Vance was a gentleman detective, a man of culture and high society manners, and he became one of the most popular screen sleuths of the thirties, before the invasion of the tough guy private eyes and hard boiled cops of novels and film noir. There were a dozen Philo Vance films made between 1929 and 1940, produced by three different studios with eight different actors in the role, the first and most memorable being William Powell, who inaugurated the character in the 1929 The Canary Murder Case.

Philo Vance Murder Case Collection (Warner Archive) collects the six “Philo Vance” films (and as many different actors in the role) made by MGM and Warner Bros. (the other half-dozen, including the initial three films, were Paramount pictures) on a three-disc set. The set highlight is The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell’s fourth and final performance as Vance and Michael Curtiz directing in that rapid-fire pace of Warner Bros. in the early thirties. For a locked room murder mystery that plays out largely at a society dog show and a millionaire’s manor, this film charges along with bantering dialogue, montage sequences, split screens, and whip pans that give simple cuts an energized urgency. Powell is all debonair charm, not really a man of action or tart wit like Nick Charles of the “Thin Man” movies, but quite the host for an evening of murder, and Mary Astor, Eugene Palette, and Jack LaRue provide colorful support.

Warren William took over the role in The Dragon Murder Case” an outdoor variation on the locked room mystery involving a cursed swimming hole on a millionaire’s property, with Eugene Palette back as the gravel-voiced police detective and Etienne Girardot as Dr. Doremus, the cranky pathologist who is constantly roused from meals and sleep whenever Vance is on a case. William left the series to become the screen’s first Perry Mason and then take over the “Lone Wolf” series.

The role call of Philo Vances in this set is filled out with Basil Rathbone in The Bishop Murder Case (1930), Paul Lukas in The Casino Murder Case (1935), Edmund Lowe in The Garden Murder Case (1936), and James Stephenson in Calling Philo Vance (1940). For more on the films and the series, read Lou Lumenick’s DVD Extra at The New York Post.

The Falcon Mystery Movie Collection Volume 2 (Warner Archive) completes the run of the Falcon movies with the final six films in the series, all starring Tom Conway in the role of Tom Lawrence, brother of the original Falcon Gay Lawrence (played, fittingly enough by Conway’s more famous brother, George Sanders). Conway doesn’t have the presence or command of Sanders and he’s a little too sedate to be really dashing, but he’s perfectly at ease on screen and his voice is just as smooth and distinctive, which gives Tom a cultured bearing and confidence as he tangles with street thugs and society crooks. None of the films run longer than 70 minutes and they get by very nicely on B-movie budgets and modest scripts.

Cult director Joseph H. Lewis (of Gun Crazy fame) directs The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), where he romances Rita Corday, and film noir icons Jane Greer and Elisha Cook Jr. co-star in The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). The set is filled out with The Falcon Out West (1944), The Falcon in Mexico (1944), The Falcon in Hollywood (1944), and the final film in the series, The Falcon’s Adventure (1946). The first seven “Falcon” films came out in a set in 2011, reviewed on Videodrone here.

Scene of the Crime (Warner Archive) is a 1949 film noir cop drama with an interesting collision of sensibilities. Scripted and played in the then-new police procedural mode, which shows the gears of police work between the shoot-outs and criminal mayhem, it’s like a mix of Naked City and pulp detective drama, shot in the studio rather than on location and filled with stock types and familiar conflicts. Van Johnson, who generally radiates as much hard-boiled grit as a bowl of oatmeal, works hard at playing the tough police detective and married man who always puts the job first, much to the consternation of his former fashion model wife (Arlene Dahl), who wants him to quit and take a safe job in corporate security. Meanwhile Johnson is assigned (no kidding!) to romance a brassy showgirl (Gloria De Haven) as part of his investigation of a cop killing. While his wife becomes increasingly anxious, this showgirl shows a soft, vulnerable side under her cynical front, setting up romantic complications that the film never quite commits to.

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MOD Movies: Brahm’s Quartet

John Brahm was part of the grand flight from Germany during Hitler’s reign. Born Hans Brahm, he trained on the stage and shifted to cinema, making his directorial debut in 1936 (a British remake of “Broken Blossoms”) and his Hollywood debut a year later. His legacy rests on a pair of early gothic film noirs, his handsome 1944 remake/revision of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” and the 1945 follow-up “Hangover Square,” both starring the great character actor Laird Cregar, a longtime heavy that Brahm promoted to dark, troubled leading man status. Both of those are on DVD from Fox (in a box set with his earlier B-movie production “The Undying Monster”), but until recently that was almost all that was available of his film work. Thanks to the proliferation of manufacture-on-demand releases, his available features on disc have about doubled.

At his best, John Brahm had a handsome sense of design, a strong feeling for interesting women characters, and a Gothic sense of the shadows hanging over life, just threatening to move in and swallow us.

That’s right up front of Let Us Live (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), a 1939 proto-noir with Henry Fonda as a taxi driver arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit (Fonda’s second time, after “You Only Live Twice”). It anticipates Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” in a low key, but with an emphasis on heroine Maureen O’Sullivan, the tirelessly supportive girlfriend turned plucky investigator who teams up with a maverick police detective (Ralph Bellamy).

What Brahm brings to the film is a terror born of official indifference — neither the District Attorney’s department nor the police will look into possibly exonerating evidence after Fonda and his equally innocent buddy have been handed the death penalty — and he turns the race to stop the execution into a battle with bureaucracy. It’s not a matter of corruption, merely the banality of power and privilege over compassion, and the distinction is not lost on Brahm. In place of a happy ending, he leaves a man broken by his ordeal and a film without any faith in the system or the gatekeepers who are supposed to be more interested in justice than job security. Sony has a great track record with their MOD releases and this is no exception. It’s a solid, well-mastered B&W print.

The Locket (Warner Archive) is prime film noir from 1946, a dark romance that stirs darkness into melodrama with the story of a kleptomaniac (Laraine Day) on her wedding day, an event interrupted with a circuitous flashback (and then a flashback within a flashback within the flashback, which I think is a record, at least for an American film) that reveals her shadowy history. Not that she’s a killer, merely a compulsive thief and a woman in the shadows of denial.

Robert Mitchum (still a rising young star at the time) brings his easy intensity to the role of her first husband and Brian Aherne is the film’s authority figure, a psychiatrist who explains all in the labyrinthine layers of flashback, while cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (RKO’s house specialist for mood) layers the screen with smothering shadows and a claustrophobic atmosphere. The darkness of this noir world isn’t a matter of violent crime or fatal betrayal, but the shadows of memory and guilt and obsession in the damaged psyche of a beautiful woman. It provides all the doom and darkness you could want. The Warner Archive print is excellent.

The Brasher Doubloon (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), made the very next year in 1947, is something of a B+ movie, a low-budget treatment of Raymond Chandler’s “The High Window” made with ambition and style, at least in key scenes. George Montgomery makes for a light, easy-going Philip Marlowe, a snappy, streetsmart guy with more confidence than command. He’s hired to retrieve a valuable coin and uncovers a blackmail scheme that his employer would rather keep buried. Nancy Guild co-stars as Merle, an emotionally-icy young secretary fiercely devoted to her matron (Florence Bates), a millionaire widow who treats Merle with a callousness verging on contempt. Brahm reserves his contempt for her spoiled son Leslie (Conrad Janis), a juvenile delinquent with an expense account.

Brahm seems rushed through much of the production, dutifully pushing through interrogations and exposition. But when Marlowe stumbles across a murder victim, the film takes on a sudden urgency: the camera takes to startling angles and distorted compositions and the screen becomes criss-crossed with shadows and frames closing in on Marlowe. Cinematographer Lloyd Ahern has his moments of inspiration, surely pushed by Brahm in those instances, but is merely functional for the balance of the film. The Fox disc is somewhat washed out and scuffed up, but it’s perfectly watchable.

The Mad Magician (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), made in 1954, is clearly cashing in on the success of “House of Wax.” It’s got Vincent Price as another artist turned killer, a screenplay by Crane Wilbur, a period setting, and grisly murders and visual stunts in 3D (the disc is standard, but when you see a stream of water shot into the lens, there’s no question of its origins). Price plays an inventor of magic-act props and tricks who is betrayed by his controlling boss when he tries to strike out on his own. The mild-mannered inventor turns murderer and turns to an elaborate cover-up to continue his reign.

Overly complicated and under-developed, this stock horror has its moments of invention, and Brahm even quotes from his own glory days of Gothic noir: the rented garret hideaway of the 1944 “The Lodger” and the bonfire piled high with sticks and furniture, the perfect place to get rid of a corpse, from “Hangover Square.” The rest is just another knock-off rushed through on the cheap by a director who gives his best in trying circumstances, but it could be the template for the kind of films Price would go on to make for William Castle. The disc is nicely mastered.

MOD Movies: The Dark Side of Jean Negulesco

Jean Negulesco is not the first name that comes up when discussing the great directors of film noir. In fact, it rarely comes up at all. The studio photographer turned director is still best remembered for glossy studio films like How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and Daddy Long Legs (1955). Even the recently released book “Film Noir: The Directors” from editors Alain Silver and James Ursini skips him completely. And I confess, his absence only registered with me recently, in light of three recent releases from the Warner Archive. The Conspirators (1944), Three Strangers (1946), and Nobody Lives Forever (1946), three of the four features that elevated Jean Negulesco from studio contract man cranking out theatrical shorts to A-list Warner director, are the first films from the Warner Archive to carry the brand “Film Noir.” And they earn the brand.

The Conspirators is less film noir than cloak-and-dagger espionage thriller set in exotic locales of World War II resistance. In many ways it is an unimaginative Casablanca knock-off relocated to Portugal, with half the cast carried along with it. Paul Henried is once again the resistance hero on the run from the Nazis, this one from the Netherlands (he’s nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman”) and hiding out in the technically neutral Lisbon while awaiting passage to London, and Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as members of the Portuguese resistance. Hedy Lamarr takes the Bergman role here as an elegant spy and Joseph Calleia is wonderfully ambiguous in the Claude Rains roles as the Portuguese cop who works with the Nazis out of necessity but not conviction. There’s even a variation on the romantic triangle of “Casablanca” at the center of the romantic tension between Henreid and Lamarr.

Unlike its inspiration, this is very much standard studio fare, with overwrought dialogue and romantic overkill (Hedy Lamarr isn’t much for showing emotion so she has to verbalize it all), and the resistance cell is more social club than fighting force. Negulesco doesn’t necessarily overcome the material but he, along with a cast of character actors having fun with their roles, delivers an entertaining Hollywood espionage melodrama. Negulesco shows a flair for this kind of material, opening the film with great energy and swiftly carrying us from the action of the Dutch resistance to the shadowy underworld of Lisbon. Henreid’s entrance into the city’s nightclub of note (not quite the film’s answer to Rick’s) is a terrific web glances and nods, an atmosphere of surveillance where everyone is watching everyone else, dropping loaded comments and slipping out of the clubs and into the shadows. While I wouldn’t exactly describe it as classic film noir, it could certainly be included in the conversation.

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MOD Movies: ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ and other Hollywood Lessons

“Once again, as the MGM crime reporter, it is my privilege to present to you another episode in our Crime Does Not Pay series.”

MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay (Warner Archive) series numbered 50 dramatic short films between from 1935 to 1947, all running about 20 minutes, most serving as a training ground for up and coming directors, and all of them proving that, just as the title promises, crime does not pay. The debut episode, “Buried Loot” (1935), makes the case in spades. Robert Taylor takes an uncredited lead as an embezzler with a long-term scheme and a morbid end, thanks to a twitchy case of obsession and an ill-advised use of acid on his own face.

Not all shorts featured performers of Taylor’s stature but minor players from the MGM studio were shuffled through these films, along with the occasional A-list supporting player or future lead. Like Marc Lawrence and Laraine Day in the shoplifting drama “Think First” (1939), where nice girls lured into a ring of thieves suffer dearly for their mistakes, or Dwight Frye (Renfield in “Dracula”) as an arsonist killed by his own firebug actions in “Think It Over” (1938), the latter an early film by future auteur Jacques Tourneur. He’s one of the most notable filmmakers who got his start in this series, along with future Oscar winner Fred Zinneman (whose “While America Sleeps” is a terrific industrial espionage thriller and “Help Wanted” stars Tom Neal as a working class Joe who helps the government take on the crooks in the employment rackets, both from 1939) and Joseph Losey (“A Gun in His Hand,” 1945),

Other directors include George B. Seitz (who directed most of the Andy Hardy films), Felix Feist (of “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” fame), Harold S. Bucquet (he went on to direct the “Dr. Kindare” series), Joseph H. Newman, and Roy Rowland, and future film noir screenwriter John C. Higgins apprenticed on half a dozen scripts.

This series is a mix of procedural, with detectives doing proto-CSI work to solve the crimes, and morality tale with terrible ends for the criminals. And while they are clearly low budget, they feature better production values than a lot of B movies and generally move at a driving pace, at least once we get past the stiff, documentary-eque opening, most featuring real-life officials but a few with real actors in the role of authority (such as Leon Ames or Al Bridge). There are no lost masterpieces in this collection, but many are lively and engaging and they often carry an unexpected punch to the action or the dramatic twist, which is better than most of the feature-length B-movies of the era.

The Big Heat

[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Fritz Lang in America”]

The Lang city of night: Alexander Scourby as another Master of Metropolis

With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of FuryThe Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom LadyThe Killers), Billy Wilder (Double IndemnitySunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (LauraFallen AngelWhere the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.

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MOD Movies: ‘Screaming Mimi’ and outliers of film noir

Screaming Mimi (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), directed by Gerd Oswald from a novel by Fredric Brown, is a real cult item in the film noir filmography, weird and lurid and kitschy, but fascinating all the same. Anita Ekberg stars as Yolanda, an exotic nightclub dancer who survives an attack from a serial killer and becomes much more than a story to “night beat” reporter Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey), a combination crime reporter and nightlife columnist who accepts free drinks from the clubs he plugs. Carey comes off as an oily Richard Carlson, a B-movie version of a second-tier performer, while Ekberg is pure sexual fantasy: voluptuous, scantily clad, dancing as if in a trance, and inviting the reporter’s advances with every glance. Or at least it seems to Sweeney, who clashes with Yolanda’s possessive manager (Harry Townes) as he traces the killer back to the Screaming Mimi of the title, a statue of hysterical woman.

A hothouse atmosphere of sex and obsession pervades this picture, as much due to the low-rent environs of the low budget sets as to the nightlife culture itself. Her manager is also her doctor (from when she was the best dressed patient in the asylum) and, we can assume, her lover, while the nightclub matron (Gypsy Rose Lee) shows an equally possessive interest in the petite cigarette girl (Linda Cherney), who she keeps around like a pet. I don’t know if “tea for two” was a cultural euphemism for female couples, but when Sweeney says it, it sure sounds like it. And when Yolanda runs out on the reporters and spends the night at Sweeney’s home, the two cigarettes burned to butts side by side in the ash tray says all you need to know about the sleeping arrangements, regardless of the fact that she emerges from a separate bedroom. Oswald knows how to cue the details of this dime novel world behind the restrictions of the production code. Even the deficiencies of the performances, from Ekberg’s breathy vacancy to Carey’s smugness to Gypsy Rose Lee’s overworked folksiness and sass to Red Norvo’s smart-aleck jazzbo comments, add to the weirdly off-key tone. The screenplay is largely faithful to Brown’s novel, except that it irons out his storytelling twists, dropping the detective story discoveries into the prologue. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the mystery much, it merely establishes the sordid attitude much earlier.

The disc is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, approximating the original release aspect ratio just fine, and the image is solid, from a clean, well-kept black-and-white print.

The Big Night (MGM Limited Edition Collection), the final American film made by Joseph Losey before he fled Hollywood and the blacklist for Europe, has a title just generic enough to suggest anything from a musical extravaganza to a teen sex comedy. But vagueness aside, it’s really quite a provocative youth noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), a modest barkeep, by a bullying sports reporter with the marvelously ironic name of Al Judge (Howard St. John). Neither juvenile delinquent drama or a wild youth thriller, this is a portrait in rage and shame and disappointment in fathers and father figures. On this big night, as he arms himself with a handgun and hunts down the newsman, he is let down by one authority figure after another, from his father to a friendly but cowardly professor who takes him under his wing to a corrupt, predatory cop in the pocket of Judge. This is some coming of age as he discovers over this long night that his heroes and the authority figures he’s been taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable.

Losey made this for an independent producer on a small budget but his direction is commanding, making his odyssey through the city at night into a journey through the heart of darkness. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore, Jr.) never really established himself as much of an actor (though I’ll always love him for his beat poetry history lesson in High School Confidential), but Losey pulls a vivid, tormented character out of him here, almost dizzy with hurt and fury and confusion as he pushes himself to follow through on his vengeance. There is a powerful undercurrent to this modest production.

The Black Book (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is another kind of cult noir: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. It’s been available in some truly wretched PD editions, until VCI released a decent copy a couple of years ago. While it was fine, this edition is far superior, really providing an appropriate showcase to Anthony Mann’s shadowy scenes of death and double crosses in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets. This is, in a word, formidable!

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The Missing Juror (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), one of the very first features helmed by westerns master Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Boetticher, Jr. early in his career), is a typical B-movie mystery about a glib newspaperman (Jim Bannon) chasing a story about members of a high-profile jury turning up dead. What should be an ominous thriller is knocked off-balance by outsized personalities and comic by-play, like a film trying to split the difference between crime movie, screwball romance, and snappy newspaper film, all played out on cheap backlot sets. Boetticher doesn’t bring much to the film beyond energy: this film moves along with a momentum that almost fools you into thinking there’s something going on.

Vice Raid (MGM Limited Edition Collection) gives top billing to Mamie Van Doren, playing a brassy working girl hired by mobster Brad Dexter (in smirking sleaze mode) to frame incorruptible cop Richard Coogan (a charisma-free stiff), who gets kicked off the force and goes rogue to take down the syndicate. Mamie is actually the classiest thing in this cheap little crime 1959 knock-off from Imperial Pictures, which isn’t really noir as much a noir by product. It never creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere to match the culture of corruption, just a general generic sleaziness. The disc is presented in the square 1.33:1 format (what was once called full frame, a term that has become rather confusing in the era of widescreen monitors), but was shot to be seen wider and is better watched zoomed to fill the 16×9 screen.

Sony Pictures Choice Collection:
Screaming Mimi
The Black Book
The Missing Juror

Available by order only from Sony Pictures Choice Collection, from Amazon, Critics Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MGM Limited Edition Collection:
The Big Night
Vice Raid

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Critics’ Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MOD stands for “Manufacture on Demand” and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.

DVD/Blu-ray: Tokyo Drifter

Seijun Suzuki isn’t necessarily a familiar name to many fans of foreign cinema — he was practically unknown outside of Japan for decades — but in the early 1990s, his “rediscovery” stateside made him an instant cult hero to fans of genre cinema with maverick visions. Suzuki was nothing if not a maverick, a prolific filmmaker who cranked out one assignment after another in the low-budget end of Nikkatsu Studios in the 1960s — war movies, youth dramas, roman porno and especially yakuza thrillers — on tight shooting schedules, and managed to inject them with madcap energy, inventive style and wicked wit.

Tokyo Drifter (1966) is one of Suzuki’s greatest, and by that I mean one of his wildest, weirdest and most unpredictable. Ostensibly a gangster thriller about a rival mobs locked in a war over a business venture after one outfit tries to go legit, it plays like a mix of spaghetti western and samurai melodrama relocated to the pop-art splendor of 1960s Japan, a world of swinging discotheques and sleekly austere nightclubs on the one hand, and grimy waterfronts and seedy hideouts on the other. Suzuki opens the film on the latter: a gangland beating on the docks in overexposed black and white.

It’s a rough and ready introduction. As a trumpet brays a tune that sounds like a nightclub version of a Morricone theme from a lost Sergio Leone film, the object of the abuse refuses to lift a finger while. But as the thugs leave he looks down at a toy gun, jumping out of the image as single drop of red into the monochrome landscape, and mutters “Don’t get me mad.” Suddenly Suzuki blasts the screen with comic book color and pop-art hues. The grit just turned groovy.

Matinee idol Tetsuya Watari is the Tetsu, aka Phoenix, the Tokyo drifter of the title. Looking like the young, Japanese pop-star incarnation of Alain Delon in his dark glasses and sporty suits, Tetsu is the unfailingly loyal right hand to Kurata (Ryûji Kita), a one-time yakuza godfather gone straight. Thus his refusal to fight, proof of the honor of his vow to steer clear of the rackets. It only encourages ambitious rival Otsuko (Eimei Esumi), a fast-rising thug headquartered in back of a discotheque perpetually filled with gyrating kids, to move in on Kurata.

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Available on Amazon:
Tokyo Drifter (DVD)
Tokyo Drifter (Blu-ray)

The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

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