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Albert Zugsmith

Videophiled Classic: ‘High School Confidential!’

high-school-confidentialHigh School Confidential! (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Trashy, tawdry, and weirdly energetic, with tough talking high school delinquents played by college grads spouting mock-beat dialogue, this B+ exploitation classic from producer Albert Zugsmith (who went from Written on the Wind and Touch of Evil to such artifacts as Sex Kittens Go to College and Confessions of an Opium Eater) and director Jack Arnold is a terrifically entertaining piece of drug scare cinema. Russ Tamblyn blows into school in a hot rod convertible, all smart aleck attitude and high-rolling hoodlum ambition, and muscles his way into the local drug scene, but this hep-talking cat is actually an undercover agent, the original 21 Jump Street–style baby-faced narc working his way up to the local drug lord known as Mr. A.

It’s a thoroughly bizarro collision of teens-gone-wild hysteria and drug scare edutainment (“If you start on the weed, you graduate to the hard stuff”), with beatnik dialogue (“I’m puttin’ it down” / “Well I’m pickin’ it up!”), clueless parents, and stiff authority figures delivering the “truth” about drugs in the high schools in scenes that grind the movie to a halt for moralizing sermons. It opens with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out the rocking theme song on a piano in the back of a pickup (which then drives off, never to be seen again), co-stars Mamie Van Doren as a sloshed slutty suburban housewife who is supposed to be Tamblyn’s aunt but keeps trying to seduce him, and features John Drew Barrymore (Drew’s dad) as the drawling high school kingpin who delivers the story of Columbus as a piece of beat performance art, which is merely prelude to a full-blown beat poetry recitation. Jan Sterling plays the “cool” teacher determined to really understand youth today that she lets her students get away with utterly disrespectful behavior, button-nose cutie Diane Jergens is Barrymore’s weed-head kitten, Michael Landon the clean-cut big man on campus who isn’t as square as he looks, and Jackie Coogan the coffee-house owner with a sideline in mary-jane and heroine.

Jack Arnold is best known for bringing intelligence to fifties science fiction cinema (It Came From Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man) but actually had quite a range, making everything from westerns to comedies. He has an eye for staging and a great sense of timing, not to mention a way with making overdone performances fit into the same movie universe, and he embraces the outré elements with such energy that they take on a life of their own. It’s camp, to be sure, but great fun as a crazy take on adult fears of high school delinquency and Arnold’s commitment to this ridiculous portrait of teenage life and corruption in suburbia pulls it all together in a crazy warped mirror that has a life all its own. “Tomorrow is a drag, man, tomorrow is a king-size bust.”

This is a CinemaScope production and the only previous legitimate DVD release was non-anamorphic. It’s been remastered in HD for the Blu-ray debut and new DVD release, which alone makes it a necessary upgrade. It’s not perfect, mind you, and there’s a brief rough patch with major scuffs and scratches and damage that sends the picture shaking for a second or two, but it offers a sharp image and a clean soundtrack. No supplements.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

‘Shrinking Man’ reputation grows

It’s always gratifying when a favorite film is discovered—or rediscovered in a way that creates a fresh perspective .

Such is the case with 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, which was enthusiastically received in its time but continues to grow in stature. Last year, it joined the National Film Registry of significant American films. In late August, it will be released by Universal as a single-disc DVD.

The latest reappraisal may have begun in 2005, when Time magazine’s Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel listed it as a top guilty pleasure and proposed that “it is long past time for a cult to form around its director, the late Jack Arnold, an efficient maker of B-pictures.” While similar 1950s films dealt with insects turning into monsters because of nuclear misadventures, Time pointed out that “this radical variation on that theme was (especially if you are a kid, eager to grow up, not down) scarier and more profound than the competitors.” Around the same time, Steven Spielberg, in a Turner Classic Movies special called Watch the Skies, singled out the film’s “message about not outer space but inner space, and about the soul and where does the soul go, and what is infinity? Is infinity out there or is infinity in here?”

Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide had always given three out of four stars to The Incredible Shrinking Man. But recently Maltin added half a star and included a mostly new write-up: “Intelligent, serious approach, exceptional special effects for the period, and a vigorous leading performance (by Grant Williams) result in a genuine sci-fi classic, unsurpassed by later attempts.”

For years, the movie had been carried on DVD by only one chain (Best Buy), which included it in a couple of DVD collections of 1950s sci-fi movies, some of them directed by Arnold. Even the new disc will apparently be a bare bones release. Surely a Criterion release is in order.

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The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of “Touch of Evil”

“(Universal) told me that although they didn’t know who was going to direct (Touch of Evil), Orson Welles was going to play the heavy. ‘You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director,’ I said. ‘Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?’ At the time Orson had not directed a picture in America since Macbeth. They were a bit nonplused, but they got back to me in a couple of days and said ‘Yeah, well that’s a very good idea, a startling idea.’” – Charlton Heston, 1971 interview.

"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya
"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya

Others have taken credit for bringing Orson Welles to the project that would be his last tango with Hollywood and his final American production. Albert Zugsmith, who produced Man in the Shadow with Welles as the heavy, once claimed that Welles offered to direct the worst script in his possession and Zugsmith handed him Badge of Evil ( the original title of novel and Paul Monash’s adaptation). But history has accepted (as has Welles himself) the Heston version. It was a mid-budget, modest crime thriller and Welles took on directing and rewriting duties with no increase in salary, as if Universal was doing Welles the favor. Perhaps they thought they were, as Welles the director had a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult, profligate and uncommercial. Welles himself saw it less a job than an opportunity, a chance to prove himself to the industry with a commercial film at a bargain price.

As on The Lady From Shanghai, Welles was in the position of making a studio picture out of a pulp thriller, a project not of his choosing but one that he remade in his own image. The resulting picture is a mad, gloriously sleazy and grandiosely bravura B movie opera, a study in corruption and racism in the bordertown netherworld straddling the boundary between Mexico and the good old US of A. Welles’ cherubic face becomes the bloated bulldog mask of bullying police detective Hank Quinlan, perhaps his most grotesque figure in a career of power mad manipulators. [See Robert C. Cumbow’s essay for a marvelous reading of the film]. And once again the film was yanked from his hands, re-edited in his absence and released (as part of a double bill) in a truncated version that made a hash of the story and reinforced the old cliché about Welles: his films didn’t make sense and didn’t make money.

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