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Jack Arnold

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

DVD/Blu-ray Cult Classic: Jack Arnold’s ‘The Space Children’

The Space Children (Olive) is one of the most intriguing science fiction films of the cold war, part alien invasion thriller and part anti-nuclear message movie, with the children of Earth essentially conscripted by a throbbing disembodied brain from outer space to sabotage a nuclear test.

Director Jack Arnold and William Alland collaborated on some of the best science fiction films and most distinctive atomic monster movies of the 1950s, among them It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Tarantula, all made for Universal. The Space Children was made for Paramount, who gave them more freedom but less money. It shows. Arnold is saddled with a script that is both ambitious and confused, a cast that is credible at best, and a tight budget that doesn’t even allow him to match his terrific location shooting (he uses the beaches and rocks of the California coast as well as he does the southwest desert of Tarantula) with the studio-built cave where the kids find the glowing brain creature. For the missile pad itself, the target of the third-act plot, the production forgoes miniatures or trick shots and simply relies on a single matte painting.

Given all that, Arnold creates a cold war movie where the fear of nuclear war is, for many of the civilians of the base, greater than the fear of the enemy. The film is set on a high security missile base on the California coast, where civilian experts have been brought together to work on a top secret project: a missile mounted on an orbiting satellite targeted on the enemy for instant attack. The community of scientists and their families living out of trailer homes on the missile base beach as a microcosm for American society. It’s part campground camaraderie and part working-class deprivation, with entire families crammed into tiny trailers and forced to step out to the communal picnic space for a little elbow room.

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‘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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