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Blake Edwards

Blu-ray: ‘Out of the Past,’ ‘Possessed,” and other Warner Archive releases

With sales of movies on disc falling with the rise of streaming video and digital movies, many studios have licensed their catalogs of classic movies to other labels. But not Warner Brothers. They started the Warner Archive in 2009 for manufacture-on-demand releases of films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release, and a few years later they started releasing Blu-rays through the same service. The difference between the formats, however, is that the Blu-ray releases from this line are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.

Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months.

OutPastBlurayOut of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – In a genre full of desperate characters scrambling and plotting to grab their slice of the American dream, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a hard-boiled tale of betrayal with an unusually haunting quality. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the classic doomed not-so-innocent of the American cinema, a former private detective whose life is forever changed when he falls in love with the wrong woman: Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the runaway mistress of a gangster (Kirk Douglas, all shark-like smiles). He’s been hired to get both her and the small fortune she stole back. She has other ideas and immediately seduces him, sending him on a long road to a fatal dead end.

Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece has been called the greatest film noir of all time and I wouldn’t argue the claim. It’s certainly one of the quintessential expressions of the genre, a hard-boiled story of betrayal and revenge with its compromised PI, vindictive gangster, coldly conniving femme fatale, and flashback structure narrated by the wounded hero. It opens in an idealized rural Eden, flashes back to the corrupt city and an exotic escape south of the border, and crawls into a snake-in-Eden thriller of deception, regret, and scarred-over emotional wounds, and it’s beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s resident expert in shadowy atmosphere and clear-eyed perceptions.

The photography alone is reason enough to get the Blu-ray; in a genre of hard shadows and stark graphic imagery, this film contrasts the dark scenes of murder and treachery with the rural escape and the wooded retreats, an ideal that is slowly corrupted when the city crooks arrive. But this is one of the noir essentials and features perhaps Mitchum’s greatest role. He delivers more than merely a performance: his sleepy-eyed sneer and laconic delivery create the quintessential bad boy with a good soul and resigned acceptance of his fate. And Greer is blithely seductive as the alluring but hollow object of his obsession. “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

It’s a beautifully-mastered disc from an excellent source print, with no visible scratches or damage. The image is crisp and sharp and the contrasts are excellent, pulling out the details in the light and in the shadows. It features the commentary track by film noir expert James Ursini recorded for the 2004 DVD release.

PossessedBDPossessed (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – As Joan Crawford aged out of glamorous roles and glossy romantic dramas she remade herself in the 1940s as a tough, driven woman in a series of melodramas that gave the actress an opportunity to play big, emotional scenes. This 1947 drama stars Crawford as a woman who appears to be the very model of self-possessed strength and confidence except for her obsessive love for Van Heflin, a cad of a bachelor who is happy to play around with her but resists any commitment. She moves on and eventually marries the rich and kind Raymond Massey, but when Heflin re-enters her life and falls for another, younger woman, she spirals into jealousy, paranoia, and emotional instability.

Crawford gets to play both the proud, strong, glamorous woman and the flamboyantly crazy woman, sinking her teeth into jittery madness and exaggerating her trademark make-up (dark lips and slashes of eyeliner standing out from a powdered face) to something like a kabuki mask. This was made during the post-war fascination with psychiatry and analysis and plays out in flashback, framed by blandly authoritarian doctors providing elaborate diagnoses for the hysterical Crawford after she is found wandering the streets in a stage of shock in the opening scenes. The psychological explanations are simplistic and arrogant and the wonder drug that instantly makes her lucid is a movie gimmick, but that’s not unusual for the period. German-born director Curtis Bernhardt balances the portrait of high society affluence and fashionable lifestyle with the shadowy atmosphere of film noir as Crawford slips into madness.

It’s a handsome film and it looks great on Blu-ray, which shows just how rich and nuanced black-and-white photography can be. Features commentary by film historian Drew Capser and the featurette Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir. Not to be contrary, but this this is less quintessential noir than a prime example of how the noir sensibility seeped into so many other films in the late forties and early fifties.

YankeeDoodleBDYankee Doodle Dandy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – James Cagney won his only Academy Award playing George M. Cohan in the rousing Michael Curtiz bio-pic. Cagney was a song-and-dance man before he found fame as a movie tough guy and he returns to his roots with a passion, dancing his way through the role with straight-backed, stiff legged formality while his body is coiled like a loaded spring about to leap. The story of his spunky rise in the showbiz world pure Hollywood hogwash, but it is delightful hogwash invigorated by Cagney’s cocksure drive. Walter Huston and Rosemary De Camp play his vaudevillian parents and Joan Leslie is the love of his life (for whom he writes the song “Mary” – “plain as any name can be”). It’s a real flag-waver of a show-biz tale, a Fourth of July celebration with Cagney setting off the fireworks.

Warner released the film as a two-disc special edition on DVD a decade ago. The Blu-ray presents and excellent HD edition of the film. Not all of the extras from that set have made it to this single-disc Blu-ray, but I’d say that the most essential supplements are there. That includes commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer (an expert on Warner Bros. studio history), the 45-minute documentary Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1943 propaganda film You, John Jones with Cagney, the 1943 cartoon Yankee Doodle Daffy, an “Audio Vault” of archival audio-only extras, the trailer, and the “Warner Night At the Movie 1942” collection of ephemera hosted by Leonard Maltin (with the cartoon Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, short subject Beyond the Line of Duty, a newsreel, a Casablancatrailer).

PeteKellyPete Kelly’s Blues (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Jack Webb is best remembered for his most iconic creation: Sgt. Joe Friday, the no-nonsense hero of the police drama Dragnet on radio and TV. But he played a number of other characters on radio and TV and in the movies, and one of his favorites was jazz coronet player Pete Kelly, first on the radio in 1951 and then in this 1955 movie. Webb directs and stars as Pete, the leader of a Dixieland jazz band in 1927 Kansas City, when speakeasies sold bootleg liquor practically in plain sight and the mob ran the streets.

It’s a mix of musical melodrama, with Pete as a struggling musician trying to keep a band together during the depression and Janet Leigh as a rich flapper who falls for the reluctant Pete, and gangster drama, with Edmond O’Brien as the mob boss running the protection rackets, produced in bright, vibrant Technicolor and CinemaScope. Webb was a big fan of Dixieland jazz and fills the film with club performances by his band (performed by Matty Matlock’s Dixielanders) and vocal numbers by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee (who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as an alcoholic torch singer). Webb’s performance mixes the terse, unemotional delivery of Friday with an edge of uneasiness and dialogue filled with period slang and colorful dialogue and his direction is clean and straightforward, light on atmosphere but full of vivid characters and telling detail. His casting is also interesting, with Lee Marvin playing nicely against his usual tough guy roles as an easy-going clarinet player and Andy Devine, who usually get comic relief roles, playing it tough as a cop who wants to shut down O’Brien’s mob boss. It’s a solid old-fashioned drama with great music, memorable dialogue, and lots of period color. The new Blu-ray looks great, with color that pops, and it includes two vintage shorts.

GreatRaceThe Great Race (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Blake Edwards made this epic comedy, a tribute to silent movie serials and thrill comedies, a few years after It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which helps explain the unusual length and scope of the film. Tony Curtis stars as the clean-living, chivalrous, and chauvinistic hero The Great Leslie, always clad in gleaming white outfits, while Jack Lemmon is in black and sports a flamboyant mustache as his dastardly nemesis Professor Fate, a rival daredevil who, with the help of his loyal but dim henchman (Peter Falk), tries to sabotage Leslie at every turn. Like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, every scheme ends up backfiring on them.

The rivals engage in a car race from New York to Paris (they float across from Alaska to Russia on an ice floe) while a suffragette newspaperwoman (played by Natalie Wood) joins them, first as a racing competitor and then as a traveling companion. Blake Edwards has always been a fan of physical comedy and elaborate visual gags and this film, which he dedicates to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” plays the slapstick for self-aware nostalgia, taking cartoonish delight in the lavish recreations (from barnstorming biplanes to an old west saloon and a Russian castle), Rube Goldberg schemes with early 20th century technology, and comic brawls, the last of which is a massive cream pie fight in a Russian castle. While it doesn’t have the star-studded cast of Mad World, it has an epic running time of two hours and forty minutes, so long that it requires an intermission. It is, in fact, a little too long for the whimsical nature of the story, and it stalls long before the end, but there’s just enough gas to get it across the finish line.

The Blu-ray, beautifully transferred from a restored Technicolor master of the complete Road Show version, also includes the original Overture, Entr’acte and Exit sequences and an archival behind-the-scenes featurette.

KismetKismet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is one of the stranger exotic musicals from MGM’s Technicolor prime (though to be accurate, this was shot in Eastman Color). Howard Keel, who plays a beggar-poet with a lovely daughter (Ann Blyth), carries the slim tale with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Directed by Vincent Minnelli, it is a pure studio fantasy of Arabian exotica starring Howard Keel, who carries the slim fantasy of wizards and princes curses and treasures with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Blyth and Vic Damone are admittedly weak, but the score is marvelous, including “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles, Bright Shiny Beads,” though the best moment is Dolores Gray’s number “Not Since Ninevah,” as she tries to woo three Princesses into staying in Bagdad with a great song and dance performance in a huge, lavish set. The glorious production design and fantastic Eastman Color storybook colors never allows reality to intrude upon the make believe.

This disc features a superb HD transfer of the CinemaScope film with a DTS-HD 5.1 treatment of the original soundtrack. Supplements include an alternate version of the song “Rahadlakum” (in B&W) from the archives, an audio-only deleted song, two excerpts from the TV series MGM Parade about the film, the 1955 short The Battle of Gettysburg and Tex Avery cartoon The First Bad Men, and trailers from the film and the earlier 1944 version of the musical.

Co-published on Cinephiled

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Review: The Return of the Pink Panther

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

MGM whacks some of the most splendid moments out of The Wild Rovers, your lovely first Western ever, then has at The Carey Treatment so badly with the shears that you’d prefer your name weren’t on it; so you find other backers and make one of the best movies of the ’74 season, The Tamarind Seed, and the intelligent audience it deserves won’t go near it because your wife’s the star and her name’s a joke in all the cleverest households. There’s no blaming Blake Edwards for covering his bets by hieing back to proven ground with Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and The Return of the Pink Panther. Return is a hit commercially and—to the extent that non–Woody Allen and non–Mel Brooks comedies are taken note of—critically, and that must feel good to Edwards. It feels good to me, too, as long as I don’t dwell on the lurking injustice of it all. (It’s hard not to graft an auteurist allegory onto the credit titles, wittily animated by the Richard Williams Studio. The cartoon Pink Panther returns to attend the gala première of the film version of his return, capers about in such serially secure guises as a Mickey Mouseketeer and the Frankenstein Monster, and ends the film by donning director’s garb and turning his crank camera on the audience, winking through a final iris-shot to leave a pink haze of elegantly blown cigarette smoke: an evanescent image appropriate to the assured whimsy both Edwards’s mise-en-scène and—another “return”—Henry Mancini’s Edwards scores effortlessly sustain.)

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Videophiled Classic: Blake Edwards’ ‘The Party’ on Blu-ray

The Party (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) reunited Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers after a falling out during the second Pink Panther movie for a difference kind of comedy: a modern sound version of a silent movie comedy. They don’t pretend it’s a silent film, mind you, but rather build a series of visual gags on a basic premise—Peter Sellers as an accident-prone East Indian actor accidentally invited to dinner party by an A-list Hollywood producer—and then let the comedy bits sequences evolve, build on one another, and guide the story, like a feature version of a Chaplin short.

It opens with Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi, an imported actor wreaking havoc on the set of an American adventure picture (the phony “Son of Gunga Din”), and then watches him slowly bring chaos to a party in a magnificent modern Hollywood home. This place is complete with indoor ponds and an electronic control panel that operates retractable bars and floors throughout the home, like a modern version of Keaton’s The Electric House. Though Edwards started with a script, he largely gave the film over to improvisation, developing gags into sequences and letting them escalate and evolve with a skewed kind of logic.

This is an era when Caucasians still routinely played ethnic roles but despite the “brownface” make-up and accent, Sellers is less an ethnic caricature than a benevolent, well-meaning outsides to American culture in general and the Hollywood business world specifically. Almost upstaging Sellers is Steve Franken as a waiter who keeps knocking back drinks he’s supposed to be passing out guests and ends up stumbling through the party in a drunken daze. Claudine Longet co-stars as a sweet-natured young actress who sings a song at the party and connects with Sellers and Gavin McLeod stands out as a crude Hollywood producer. This isn’t as fall-down-funny as the best Pink Panther movies but it has a kind of purity and comic grace to it all, like an elaborately choreographed dance of physical comedy, and Edwards executes it with colorful design and sets it to superb Henri Mancini music. It’s the closest American answer to a Jacques Tati film I’ve seen.

It debuts on Blu-ray and gets a new DVD release from an excellent new HD transfer. The film has dynamic set design and a bright color scheme and the colors pop in this edition. Both discs carry over the featurettes and interviews from the earlier 2004 DVD release. The 24-minute “Inside The Party” covers the inspiration and production of the film and the 16-minute “The Party Revolution” looks as the pioneering video playback technology that Edwards used for the film and both feature interviews with Edwards, producer Walter Mirisch, associate producer and actor Ken Wales (who are also interviewed in separate profile pieces), and some of the supporting actors.

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Blake Edwards And The Hobgoblin Of Inconsistency

The death of Blake Edwards at the end of 2010, more than fifteen years after his last film work, was a reminder of a gaudy and maddening career which had been in a state of collapse for over a decade before it finished; and also of an undoubted auteur who needed to be rescued from his admirers. Edwards was never a great director; there is far too much mediocrity in his filmography (and from its earliest days) for him to be regarded as the major figure of his devotees’ wild claims. But he was occasionally such a good one that one can’t but wonder quite why he floundered so often, especially as his failures are mostly quite as clearly signed as his successes.

Blake Edwards

This consistency of authorship, coupled with such baffling inconsistency of quality, led to a most curious situation, whereby Edwards’s defenders showed a marked tendency to praise him for his defects as much as his virtues, even saying they were the same thing, and not merely to praise quite minor films in extravagant terms, but even to suggest that the reasons why so many of his films were trivial were the very reasons why we should admire them the more. At the same time, his best films were often undervalued. It was a preposterous situation. Perhaps now it can be challenged.

Why should we admire Edwards? Well, according to Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, it’s because of the inherent nastiness of his flamboyance (Edwards “has got some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films”) and because “the world he celebrates is cold, heartless and inhuman, but the people in it manage to preserve a marginal integrity and individuality.” Hmm… But why should any artist celebrate cold, heartless inhumanity? Sarris is quoted by perhaps the most vociferous of Edwards’s champions, William Luhr and Peter Lehman, not only in a lengthy article in The Velvet Light Trap in 1974, but later in a full-length book. They also define Edwards’s worldview, as they see it: “Concepts of justice simply have no relevance. Those with charm and skill succeed; those without do not, and frequently suffer grossly. ”

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A Community of Two: Blake Edwards’s ‘The Tamarind Seed’

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
—Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach

More than one person, myself included, was not too terrifically turned on by the prospect of The Tamarind Seed. Despite Blake Edwards’s modest rep as a quirkily competent director, and memories of his refreshingly adult Peter Gunn television series in the late Fifties, the notion of Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif let loose in an environment “where love grows and passion flowers” (to quote the early ads) did not set my critical—or indeed, any other—pulses racing in anticipation. Mary Poppins and Dr. Zhivago, as one Movietone News writer aptly dubbed them, might make magical music for Middle America, but they aren’t the couple that comes most readily to mind in the context of passionate, grownup love. In fact, I fear I had come to cast the two as top-of-the-line Barbie and Kenny doll stars: handsomely groomed and coiffured, offending no one (and even enchanting some) with their unrelieved attractiveness, and wholesomely bereft of bothersome genitalia.

Even when I got the word that the love story was set within the spy-thriller framework, I wasn’t much more sanguine about The Tamarind Seed. I’ve about had my fill of the institutionalized world-weariness of this venerable genre. Like the cop flick, the international spy drama has come to wallow in unearned cynicism, automatic angst. Current events haven’t helped this drift towards self-congratulatory recognition of corruption here, there, and everywhere. Having been conditioned to accept it as our native element, we are all too easily and undiscriminatingly immersed in a cinematic environment in which every landmark is subject to change without notice, depending upon the ebb and flow of political and/or ideological expediency. With poleaxed complacency, we watch individuals, relationships, ethics suffer such swift sea-changes that nothing is certain, save the expectation that the ground under one’s feet will be shifting again at any moment.

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Blake Edwards (1922-2010)

Blake Edwards

Blake Edwards died Dec. 15. This cine-bio entry, written in 1996 for an abortive project, has not been updated or revised. -RTJ

One of Hollywood’s longest-running hyphenates – writer-producer-director – Blake Edwards has had an extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily uneven career. His best pictures are conceived and realized with a subtlety, elegance, and precision matched by few American film artists of his generation; his worst are godawful, what-could-he-have-been-thinking-of atrocities. The Pink Panther series was arguably the classiest in motion picture history, until he took it over a cliff – several times. Before becoming a major filmmaker, he created a landmark television series, and in his 70s Edwards took his first fling at being a Broadway producer.

His grandfather was the silent-era director J. Gordon Edwards (The Queen of Sheba, 1922). Strikingly handsome, if rather stiff, as a young actor, Blake debuted in 1942’s Ten Gentlemen from West Point and stayed in uniform – onscreen – for the duration of WWII. He began writing for Dick Powell’s radio private-eye series Richard Diamond in 1946, and turned writer-producer on two low-budget Westerns, Panhandle (1948) and Stampede (1949), while also acting in them; they marked his last times in front of the camera. In the early Fifties he signed on at Columbia as a writer of lightweight comedy-romances, many of them directed by Richard Quine. Their best collaborations were Operation Mad Ball (1957, an early teaming with Jack Lemmon) and The Notorious Landlady (1962). But by that time Edwards had turned director himself, starting in 1955 and scoring an early success, at Universal-International, with the solid Tony Curtis vehicle Mister Cory (1957).

Around this same time Edwards was also becoming a power in television, starting in 1958 with the hit private-eye series Peter Gunn. Wittily written, and drolly acted in a deadpan style by Craig Stevens et al., Peter Gunn was a breakthrough for TV and in terms of Edwards’s own emerging personal style. The camerawork was artful, in emulation of what people would later learn to call film noir, and the whole thing was energized – and sanctified as “cool” – by the jazz scoring of Henry Mancini. Mancini would become an indispensable collaborator for many a year. Meanwhile, the very adult romance between Stevens’s detective and Lola Albright’s mournful chanteuse anticipated the complex sexual dynamics of Edwards films to come.

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Review: 10

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Blake Edwards’s new film is really the oldest story in the world, done up with refreshing wit and literacy and the slightest touch of softcore porn. 10 is a balanced and honest look at romantic love and the sexual world of the artist as a prematurely middle-aged man. As he turns 42, two crucial events befall song composer George Webber: the sweating-out of a brilliant new song, and the torturous collision between youthful sexual fantasy and a more settled midlife adulthood, into which George does not go gentle. George’s sweetheart, Samantha Taylor, is the still point of the film, to which he is continually drawn despite his efforts to pull away toward the self-indulgent freedom of his fantasies. As Samantha, Julie Andrews is at her most controlled and engaging—looking, in fact, pretty and sexy enough for one to resent the film’s reputation as a vehicle for Bo Derek. It’s a tribute, among other things, to Edwards’s wife, and a richly deserved one. And appropriately, there is more than a little Blake Edwards in George Webber. Dudley Moore plays him something like the type of bungling would-be romancer that Peter Sellers used to play in films like Only Two Can Play before he became a permanent Clouseau: a basically intelligent, stylish, graceful sort whose smallest action seems capable of setting off a chain reaction of disasters, mounting to catastrophic proportions. Whether dribbling coffee through a novocaine-frozen jaw, tumbling down a bluff behind his house, driving head-on into a police car, or knocking himself headlong into his own swimming pool, Moore is always up to the task, and his George Webber is sensitively drawn as the constant victim of a comedy of pain.

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